A Progressive view of the Bible and Science

Saturday, June 21, 2014

There was a good discussion on my article over at Red Letter Christians. I wanted to respond to a couple of the comments here in order to hopefully clarify things in more detail than I could on a comment board.

Johnboy asks,
Don't you use scripture itself to formulate your ideas of who Jesus is and what He's about? Doesn't that make your viewpoint self-defeating?

Yes, the New Testament is where we read about Jesus. That makes it a unique and central source, but the goal is not simply to have information about Jesus, or even (contra what some liberal Christians would say) to simply follow the teachings of Jesus (which we should of course do!). Far more central is to connect with the living Jesus, to connect with God in Christ, to connect with the one John calls "the Word." In other words: Christianity is not just about information, but about relationship. It's about reading the Bible as a sacrament that leads us to a living life-transforming connection with the Spirit of Christ, and having that relationship of being loved and shaped by the Spirit lead us into a life of loving others as we love ourselves, being transformed by the renewing of our minds to have the mind of Christ. The Bible plays a key role in this as the vehicle that leads us to Christ, the window through which we see Christ with the help and vivification (fancy word meaning "breathing life into") of the Spirit.

Scripture (and in particular the NT) is unique in that it is the record of the disciple's encounter with Jesus the logos of God, the "image of the invisible God" as Paul says. The idea is that we would not simply read about that, but that we would likewise come to know, personally, this same Jesus through the Spirit. As John writes, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete." (1 John 1:1-3). In other words, "We met this guy Jesus who is Life, and we want you to meet him too, and have that same living connection to God! That would make us so happy!" They are writing what we now call the New Testament in order to have us come into a relationship with God in Christ. That's what it's all about. Their inspired written words serve to lead us to the living Word. 

The next comment comes from Digger who writes,
It is essential that the Bible be incorrect in order for the beliefs and practices of progressive christians to ok with God. If the Bible is correct as written, then the doctrine of progressive christians, which is based on the world's idea of correctness rather than scripture, is disobedience to, and likely outright rejection of the God of scripture. (If the Bible is incorrect, the God that the Bible describes is not the true God.) If the Bible IS incorrect, then it is I who worship a false God.

I certainly cannot speak for all progressive Christians, but a lot of us would see it this way:

The issue is not so much that the Bible has contradictions. The issue is that the Old Testament is multi-vocal. That is, it contains multiple conflicting perspectives on things. It contains a record of dispute. An example of this is the contrasting perspectives of the book of Ezra and the book of Ruth and the opposite ways that they see foreign wives (one presents them as good and says to welcome and shelter them, the other says they are immoral and to send them and your kids away into the night).

So since we have multiple perspectives in the Bible, making conflicting points, we need to decide which we accept. On what basis do we choose? Here the key is to look at what Jesus chose and learn what led him to make the choices he did and learn to think with that same priority.

A second issue is recognizing that there is movement in the Bible. It is not a record of a static view, but a record of a developing view. A key point is slavery. The OT affirms slavery. The NT just says to treat slaves well. Based on a plain reading people in the past saw this as justifying the American slave trade. So why have we today abolished slavery? Is it going against the Bible to not own a slave? Are we putting our own cultural view (to abolish slavery) over the Bible?

Some conservative Christians argue that OT slavery was different from American slavery. But does this mean that we should continue the practice of slavery modeled after the OT, rather than abolishing slavery all together? Should we do the same with the OT policy of executing adulterers and continue that practice today as well? When we do not, are we going against the Bible?

If we can instead recognize a trajectory begun in the NT we can see that it leads us to go beyond where the NT did at the time and move towards abolishing slavery. Not because we are moving away from what Jesus wanted, but because we are continuing to move further towards what he wanted. Slavery is just one example, but there are many others where the question is: how can we be more faithful to Jesus and the things he cared about? How can we move to change ourselves and our world to be more Jesus-shaped?

So to be clear, what we are objecting to are things like slavery, torture, and child abuse -- all of which have been promoted in the past by the church as being "just" and "good" and "God's will" according to (their reading of) the Bible. Progressive Christianity says "no" to these and other things that hurt people in the name of religion. 

I have a hard time seeing how being against these things can be described as "the world's idea of correctness." I would instead say that they are going against the stream of worldly thinking (what Walter Wink called the domination system) and instead moving in the direction of Jesus. Again, the question is: Is it going against the Bible to be opposed to child abuse? Is it going against the Bible to be opposed to the state's use of torture? Or is it just the opposite: If we do not move forward away from these practices that we can objectively see are deeply hurtful, we cannot claim to truly follow Jesus.

This brings up the question: How can we know what is loving? If it appears that a biblical author (for example the author of Proverbs) has the view that beating children is loving, "Beatings and wounds cleanse away evil, and floggings cleanse the innermost being" (Proverbs 20:30) how can we say that it is wrong to hit children with a whip so as to leave wounds as this verse endorses doing? Are we saying we know better than the Bible when we say that this is wrong, and indeed make it a crime?

The fact is, we can objectively observe the severe trauma and damage caused by what we now call physical abuse. We know this because of social science, which at the time of the Bible did not exist (nor did any science). They did not understand what we do now. Let me also stress that this is not simply an opinion, it is science. Because of this we can say that physical abuse (for example flogging someone and leaving wounds) is objectively not "cleansing," but deeply harmful. We are so convinced of this today that we have passed laws making this a crime.

Now at the time they did not know this. If we simply take the view of "This is what Scripture says we cannot question it" then we would need to go against what we do know. Thankfully most of us don't. Thankfully even people who claim to read the Bible this way actually do not in practice. However the problem is that they promote a way of reading the Bible in an unquestioning way that results in turning off one's conscience and sense of compassion, and as a result when people say "Hey this way of reading the Bible is really hurting me!" -- as for example blacks and women and  LGBT people are saying -- this is dismissed. In other words, with the things that our culture has agreed are wrong (child abuse, slavery) we do not practice, but with other things (like how we treat LGBT people) we stick to the same "the Bible says it so there is no room to question this at all" approach. As if we never questioned those other things. That is a really messed up way to read the Bible that results in our perpetuating societal views that oppress and hurt people. Indeed conservative evangelicals are some of the most outspoken advocates for the state's use of torture, for the use of state violence, for corporal punishment, and so on. I object to this because I see that it hurts people.

We need to have a way to recognize when our reading of the Bible is hurting people, and we need to care about that. We need to listen to those people. The Pharisees did not listen. Jesus did listen to these people who were rejected and condemned as the "sinners" in his time. He was known as the friend of these people (being called "friend of sinners" was not a compliment). The people who were called "the least" valuable, Jesus said we should care for the most. 

Adopting the heart and priorities of Jesus goes hand in hand with a scientific approach. When we take what we know from science about what hurts people and what allows them to flourish this is not in conflict with the way of Jesus. On the contrary, it helps us to more faithfully follow Jesus because it helps us to grow and to move towards human flourishing. Science -- and in particular the parts of science that deal with us as humans in relationship -- enriches and deepens our faith.  What it is in conflict with is a static status quo view of the world, a view that says everything should stay as it is. That it's good that way.

Does science get things wrong? Yes it does. So we learn and grow. That's how science works. Does the Bible (think Proverbs 20:30 here) get things wrong? Yes it does. It is a record of a people learning and growing in their understanding of God. The fact that we have these conflicting views together in the canon of the Old Testament demonstrates an understanding of Scripture as a record of this growing developing search for love and truth and God. To read it as a locked static thing is to read it for something that it is not.  The Bible is not one single static view, but multiple developing views, cataloging how these views developed and changed up to the NT. As followers of Jesus we continue to develop and change in our understanding -- to move in the direction that Jesus pointed us towards.  We need to do that with humility, and we need to do that together. That entails a faith that is characterized by being open, seeking, and communal. It entails a faith that listens to our consciences, and listens to others, that cares about others--even those who disagree with us.



At 1:06 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Let it be so.

At 1:06 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6:59 AM, Blogger sfierbaugh said...


I agree with your basic premise of progressive revelation. Many authority figures in the past have misapplied Proverbs 20:30 by viewing it only through their eyes instead of asking what the author actually meant when he wrote in his own cultural context. However, I also am concerned that we commit the same error by assuming that this passage is referring to children.

Our criminal "justice" system has eschewed corporal punishment in favor of massive incarceration, so we naturally assume this is about beating children. The verse is unclear, but a more natural assumption in the context of the time is that it is talking about whipping criminals. Incarceration was a much rarer punishment typically reserved for political crimes.

The only reason it is even worth pointing this out is that many of the problems in Scripture vanish or at least shrink substantially when viewed in the cultural context from which they were written. The Bible does contain contradictions, but not nearly as many as many people believe.

We should look for other reasonable explanations first when exegeting Scriptures which conflict, and only grapple with real contradictions after eliminating other options. No need to go looking for trouble.

For example, many people call Paul misogynistic. However, within the Roman context of one of the most paternalistic society that has ever existed (& boy, is that saying something!), Paul's view of women was left-wing liberal. We only view it otherwise because we have embraced his progressiveness and moved even further along toward a godly acceptance of our sisters as equals.

I'm still working through all the implications of progressive revelation, but this studying and accepting of received wisdom while moving even further toward Christ seems key.

At 10:37 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I appreciate the desire to read the text sympathetically. many times understanding the cultural context we can see that, in relation to the time, the perspective stands out as being comparatively compassionate. The example you cite of Paul here is a good one. Of course what was progressive at that time may be regressive in our time. Just like a computer from 1985 was much better than one from 1981, but would be really slow today. So we need to identify the redemptive movement and continue in the same direction.

Here what is really important for me to stress is that our goal should not primarily be (A) to interpret Scripture in the sense of justifying why it was okay for them back then. Rather, our primary goal with Scripture is (B) to ask how it can apply today for our lives, and how we can better apply the way of Jesus in our lives and world.

So while it may be true to say (A) "The NT in what it says about slavery is really progressive for the time because it affirms their value and humanity (progressive at the time)" even though it does not say Christians should not own slaves or that the institution of slavery should be abolished (regressive today). It would be tragic to stop there and because of that continue the practice of slavery today (or to take the same attitude with other contemporary issues). We instead need to recognize that redemptive trajectory (A) and continue from there to how it can be taken further today in our changed situation (B). Many people in interpreting Scripture stop at just doing A. Lots of apologetic based Bible commentaries do this, thinking that the job is done. However what is most important, if we actaully wish to read Scripture as scripture, is that we learn to do B.

At 8:28 AM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Here's a related post from an Orthodox perspective in which the issue of St. Paul's teaching about slavery in its own context is also discussed. I would be interested in your thoughts on this post, Derek, too, if you get the chance to read it:


At 11:05 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


As an aside, I'm pretty familiar with EO perspectives, and honestly this sounds more like a typical conservative evangelical perspective, and not very much like a EO one. Not that this makes it any better or worse, I'm just sayin'...

It seems to me that the concern of the author is to argue that there was nothing lacking in Paul's view of slavery. I think instead our focus should be on asking how we can be more moral now.

At the time, the church was a persecuted minority in a brutal dictatorship under Nero. So to say "keep your head down, submit to authority, to the king (read: to the brutal dictator) and to your master" as Paul and Peter do was a survival strategy that made sense at the time. At the time to say that these non-people slaves were in fact equal to masters in God's eyes as Paul and Peter also do was really radical.

Today we find ourselves in a very different circumstance, where we may have political power and influence, where we may be able to shape our society, our laws, and so on. So today if we were to stop where they did with slavery or with their view of the state sword this would be morally regressive.

If we see the Bible as being the final word, then we have a problem because that final word is "be nice to your slaves." However if we instead see it as the first word, as the floor rather than the ceiling, as the starting point we begin at, then we can see Paul and Peter's perspective sympathetically without needing to stop where they did.

At 2:08 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I don't think you have answered Johnboy's challenge, which is that your approach to the Bible relies on the reliability of those parts of the Bible that talk about Jesus. You reject some narrative voices as wrong because they don't match up with what you know of Jesus - but what you know of Jesus is derived (mostly) from the Bible. How do you know the Gospel writers recorded Jesus' words and deeds accurately enough? Mightn't they have had their own agendas and pre-conceptions which distorted what they said?

At 11:44 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Jill,

I disagree that my approach to the Bible relies on the reliability of those parts of the Bible that talk about Jesus. I would instead say that it relies on the validity of the message of Jesus. So the issue is not whether the reports are reliable as if this were a matter of facts and accurate reporting, rather the issue is whether the moral vision of Jesus, the way of Jesus, the kingdom of Jesus, is something I want to place myself under. Will I call Jesus Lord? Do I let his way become my way? It is a question of discipleship.

So whether or not the Gospel writers recorded Jesus' words and deeds accurately, what I can do is read the Gospels and ask: Will I allow the moral vision presented here to shape my life? Do I find the way of Jesus presented in Gospels to be compelling? My answer is yes, I do find it compelling, yes I do want to make Jesus Lord of my life.

Again, the question is not "is this accurate?" the question is "is this good?" and thus what we need to understand is how to evaluate this. Thus when you ask "Mightn't [the writers of the Gospels] have had their own agendas and pre-conceptions which distorted what they said?" this is a valid and important question. I would say, yes they very likely did have cultural limitations and blind-spots, just as we all do. So again we need to know how to make moral evaluations.

Now in the above post my focus was on a lived faith, a lived encounter with the living Jesus. That is what the writers of the NT want to bring us into. Where this ties together with what I am saying here is that we can only truly understand the way of Jesus when we actively live it out, when we follow. If you have walked with Jesus for a while, you will be able to ask WWJD and recognize when people say things that don't line up with Jesus. You can recognize that in your daily life, and you can recognize that in a book.

As a Christian I make Jesus Lord. That means consequently that his way has priority over all others. That means that all of the Bible, and indeed all of life, is read through the lens of Jesus. When something in my life is incongruent with the way of Jesus, I do not want to seek to justify it, I want to change it. In the same way, when I find something in the multivocal Old Testament that seems to clearly be incongruent with the way of Jesus, I also do not want to justify it. I want to shine light on it, and bring it to be in line with Jesus.


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