Beyond conservative, liberal or progressive bible reading
This represents perhaps my own journey more than I care to admit, but I would be interested to know how the following scheme resonates with others. I tend to see three ways – at the popular level at least – which express Christian engagement with the bible. Of course, I will have to oversimplify in the following to keep this blog-length, but let’s press ahead with all of the inevitable and unfair overgeneralisations and misrepresentations intact:
1) The conservative reads the bible in varying ways, but much of the time straightforward exegesis of the text is seen to function as the foundation for all other beliefs. This may correlate with biblicist approaches (e.g. Grudem) which think theology boils down to gathering relevant bible verses on a given topic and summarising so one knows what to believe, i.e. what the biblical belief is. Most often this must entail commitment to the inerrancy of the bible (God inspired the text + God never lies = text is inerrant). Historical-critical approaches may be endorsed, but only if they demonstrate the veracity of “the bible”.
2) The liberal reads the bible with a variety of concerns, but tends to feel free from the “restraint” to be “biblical”. So if something seems problematic in the bible, or does not correspond with a (liberal) reader’s agenda, the bible is to be ignored, distrusted or otherwise relegated to a interesting relic of the faith of former generations. Wrestling with the bible is not seen as a necessary or even helpful activity and indeed, it may be seen as a text of no more spiritual importance than others outside the Christian traditions. If one does wrestle with the text, the supposed certitudes of radical historical-critical conclusions are assumed to be “innocent unless (this being unlikely) proven guilty”.
3) The progressive Christian wants to avoid the various (demonstrable) problems associated with biblicism and has a fairer appreciation for liberalism without wanting / being able to go the way of Spong / Borg etc. It wants to engage scripture more faithfully than liberals. These readers often revel in modern philosophy’s linguistic turn, and bolster claims relating to theological humility via appeal to late-modern or post-modern concerns. Much is made of narrative theology or “in front of text” hermeneutical concerns and of stages of faith in which the progressive sees themselves as having attained a more mature level of faith that can better embrace ambiguity and unresolved questions. This happens all the while endorsing a variety of liturgical forms and spiritual practices.
Without wanting to offer a complete critique of all of these positions, the conservative’s biblicism often masks desperately poor theological modes of reasoning, which lead some, in dire circumstances, into methodological heresy and extremely unhealthy and anti-gospel expressions of faith. Plus some of their central commitments are demonstrably false. The liberal completely underestimates the way Christ comes to the church “clothed in scripture”, and thereby elevates merely a vacuous idea of “Christ”, stripped of its scriptural (and therefore ecclesial) context. This means that the central theological axiom can be filled with whatever popular notions of “right” abound. Christ, for some, will therefore become a polite English Gentleman, or an undefined notion of “tolerance as the highest good”. The progressive Christian, though conversant with the dangers and errors in the conservative and liberal camps, tends to have lost confidence in the power of the Gospel, and ambiguity is exalted in fevered attempts to “disturb foundations”. But in so doing the church’s voice looses its clarity and boldness beyond diffuse (though valid and important) references to social action and such like.
My own suggestion is that a fourth way exists, one which I would describe as Trinitarian. More on this in the following post.