Shared Belief: Scripture, Fact, Truth, and Authority

Part of Shared Belief, a series responding to Alisa Childers’ article on progressive Christianity and atheism.

#1: “They May Adopt a Belief That the Bible is Unreliable”

Here we come already to the first instance demanding nuance. What does Childers mean by “unreliable”?

She cites to authors like Rob Bell (former megachurch pastor) and Rachel Held Evans (Episcopalian lay person and author) and their writings addressing discrepancies between the historical record and Scripture. In these instances, “unreliable” means “not always 100% historically factual.” (I’ve addressed this topic before — see here.) Rob Bell, at least in his early days, compared biblical historicity to springs and bricks. He writes:

Each of the core doctrines [for a fundamentalist] is like an individual brick that stacks on top of others. If you pull one out, the whole wall starts to crumble. It appears quite strong and rigid, but if you begin to rethink or discuss even one brick, the whole thing is in danger.

Bell’s point isn’t that the Bible is untrue but that it doesn’t have to be entirely factual for the Christian faith to be true.

For non-fundamentalist Christians, Scripture does not have to be completely historically accurate to bear true witness to God’s salvific work in the world. It may be “unreliable” on points of history or as a science textbook without being completely false. The Bible may employ metaphorical language to describe Creation and the Flood, hyperbole to describe Goliath’s size, and still speak divine truth about those things. The Bible may get points of history wrong and still testify to the facts of Christ’s ministry and Resurrection.

As previously noted on this blog, Saint Augustine of Hippo rejected the idea that God created the cosmos in six twenty-four hour days. But Augustine, like many progressive Christians in the twenty-first century, was capable of holding two ideas in tension: the Bible does not always have to be a statement of historical fact to be the source and norm of the Christian life.

Childers, however, makes the staggering leap that, in rejecting Scripture’s complete historical inerrancy, progressive Christians also reject its authority. She compares Bell, Evans, and biblical scholar Peter Enns to “atheists bent on destroying Christianity.” For Childers, if the Bible is unreliable on certain points of historicity or scientific fact, then it must be rejected entirely; any attempt at historical-critical engagement, then, risks “destroying Christianity.” For her, historical unreliability on minor points equals a complete lack of authority.

In this way, Childers makes a common mistake: conflating progressive Christianity with nineteenth century Liberal theologies. In the modern political realm, “progressive” and “liberal” are used interchangeably. (I know that many political theorists take issue with this usage; I’ll leave those conversations to people more qualified than me.) In theology, though, the term “Liberal” pertains to a very specific trend within European theology. Beginning with the Enlightenment and coming into its own in the early 19th century, Liberal theology applies post-Enlightenment scientific rationalism and empiricism to Christian theology. Liberal theology adopts historical criticism, and many Liberal biblical scholars advanced the field; however, that is not the sole definition of Liberal theology. Much like “progressive” and “Liberal,” historical criticism is not necessarily Liberal.

Historical criticism is one interpretive tool used by scholars to study Scripture; using that tool does not put a scholar firmly into one camp or the other. Consider an analogy: carpenters and lumberjacks both use saws to cut wood, but they use them in very different ways and for different ends. Simply because a carpenter uses a saw does not mean they are also a lumberjack. Just so, a scholar may examine the Bible through the lens of historical criticism; that does not automatically make them a Liberal — or a progressive.

(As an aside, Liberal theologians also pushed forward the Social Gospel, the idea that our faith in Christ spurs us on to do good works in this world. But again, that is not the sole defining characteristic of theological Liberalism. One can affirm the social implications of the Gospel without being a Liberal theologian.)

Liberal theologians also rejected divine intervention and all that it implies: the Virgin Birth, Christ’s miracles, and the Resurrection. These ideas pre-date Thomas Jefferson and were brought into the modern mainstream by Rudolf Bultmann and John Shelby Spong. Such Jeffersonian scholars reject the supernatural elements found in Scripture; any authority, they claim, is in the Bible’s moral teachings.

Progressive Christians are a diverse lot, and I dare not speak for all of them. Certainly there are some who would self-identify as progressive Christians and also reject the supernatural.

However, Rachel Held Evans, Tony Campolo, and the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber all affirm Christ’s miracles and divine intervention. James Cone, the late founder of black liberation theology, wrote profoundly on the centrality of the Resurrection for Christian belief. (Cone would have undoubtedly rejected the progressive label, but his writings are influential among progressive Christians.) Christians of the progressive persuasion, whether or not they would claim that title, have written books affirming the supernatural, from The Word Before the Powers to Reviving Old Scratch (both of which address what may be described as spiritual warfare). Finally, we must also consider the rise of progressive liturgical Christians who embrace the ancient sacramental theology of the Church, for whom Christ is miraculously present in the Eucharist as promised in Scripture. While the details of Jonah may be up for debate in these circles, the mystical and supernatural elements of Scripture are undoubtedly true.

Even among academics who utilize historical-critical methodology, faith in Scripture can withstand such scrutiny. As one who has studied under biblical scholars at three different universities at both the undergraduate and graduate level, with professors from a variety of backgrounds and who employ a diverse array of interpretive lenses, I can personally attest to the faith of my professors. My teachers held degrees from Harvard, Cambridge, Princeton, and Yale — those fabled places of intellectual elitism bent on destroying the Christian faith — and yet each of my professors maintained their religious identity. Each of them remained active in congregational life within their respective traditions.

So where does this leave us?

Childers does have a valid point: Christians must affirm that Scripture is true. The Christian faith is not a free-for-all. Where I take issue, though, is how narrowly she defines biblical truth. Instead of insisting that every last verse must be completely and totally factual, a biblical theology doomed to collapse in upon itself under the weight of its own contradiction, I would suggest that the ecumenical creeds provide a better guide for how Christians should interpret our sacred texts.

As we’ll soon discuss, there is a pervasive and pernicious lie that critical engagement with Scripture inherently leads to doubt and disbelief. Childers has clearly bought into that lie, and is trying to spread it far and wide.

Progressive Christians and atheists may use similar approaches to biblical studies, but we arrive at very different conclusions.

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