Douglas Todd, the Religion Reporter for the Vancouver Sun, recently wrote an article entitled, Liberal Christianity – 10 things to know about this ‘middle way.’ In the article he claims that Liberal Christianity is the faith practiced by most mainline Protestant and even many Roman Catholic Christians in North America. He outlines 10 points of Liberal Christian belief on topics ranging as widely as Jesus, sex, social justice and death. This current series, Classical Christianity – 10 things to know about this ‘ancient way,’ is our response to his article. Although there are some things that Classical Christianity can affirm in each of Todd’s 10 points, there is also much that must be added to, or rejected completely.
Today, we will continue with the second point of Liberal Christianity: The Bible as history and metaphor. Douglas Todd writes:
“We take the Bible seriously, but not literally.” That’s a phrase heard often among liberal Christians. They follow Bible scholars like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and David Lull in viewing the Bible as a mix of history, myth, metaphor and poetry. They have long supported independent, critical study of the Bible. They recognize scripture was written by God-inspired humans, limited by time and context. Liberal Christians accept the Bible may include mistakes.
I’ll be upfront. Of the 10 points we’re engaging, this one is probably the most at odds with Classical Christianity, which presents The Bible as revelation through history and metaphor.
Like Liberal Christianity, Classical Christianity also takes the Bible seriously. The Bible should be rigorously studied, but it is taken seriously because such study will uncover that it’s revelation from God. The Bible is God’s self-disclosure through various genres, such as history, metaphor, prayers and poetry. The nuance of it’s many genres needs to be respected. We read handwritten letters from a friend differently than how we read opinion columns. In the same way the Bible is sometimes read figuratively or literally based on the genre at hand. But, regardless of the genre, the message is always taken seriously.
Take, for example, when the prophet Amos says “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan.” He is not literally speaking to the cows of Bashan (despite how consistent that may be with prophetic quirks). However, when the genre and the context are respected, Amos is clearly employing a metaphor to condemn an elite group of oppressive women. When Amos’ address is taken metaphorically, as it is meant to be, and the message is read seriously, it continues to carry implications for us because God spoke through him and continues to speak through him.
Classical Christianity recognizes a deficiency, however, in saying, “We take the Bible seriously, but not literally,” because other assumptions are often at play. The “not literally” clause sometimes jeopardizes taking the Bible seriously. A great example is the issue of miracles. Many Liberal Christian scholars assume miracles do not happen, and see their presence in the various genres of Scripture as a pre-modern gullibility. This assumption — “miracles can’t happen because they aren’t possible” — then becomes the interpretative lens which leads to the conclusion, “this couldn’t have literally happened.” What’s taken seriously in this instance are the modern and/or post-modern assumptions of Western culture, which then determines what can and cannot be literal. As a result, the genres of the Bible are not seriously read on their own terms, instead they are read seriously on the interpreter’s terms. This Bible ends up looking like Thomas Jefferson’s Bible which had large pieces of text cut out in an attempt to separate “the diamond from the dunghill.”
Viewing the Bible as infallible revelation isn’t just a modern Evangelical perspective, but a truly Catholic and Classical position.
Is this an appropriate way to read this book? Especially when both Classical and Liberal Christians assert it was written by God-inspired people? Liberal Christianity would say “Yes!” because the authors may have distorted God’s message because of their limited historical and cultural contexts. It’s undeniable that the books of the Bible are bound by time and context, but Classical Christianity does not believe that this limits their relevance and applicability for today.
At the heart of Classical Christianity is the understanding that the Bible is infallible because it is revelation. Two quick examples among many others include Clement of Rome (150 A.D. – 250 A.D.) who wrote “The holy Scriptures which are given through the Holy Spirit … nothing iniquitous or falsified is written” and St. Augustine (354 A.D. – 430 A.D.) who also wrote “Let them know that everything, both in the Old as well as the New Testament was written by the Holy Spirit.” Viewing the Bible as infallible revelation isn’t just a modern Evangelical perspective, but a truly Catholic and Classical position.
When the Bible is seen solely as history and metaphor it can become just another book among books. If the Bible is not revelation, then what is true and what is not is determined by the assumptions and whims of the reader. Sure, the Bible can still be approached seriously, but its authority is seriously compromised when any troublesome passages can simply be labeled irrelevant and removed. If, however, we take the Bible seriously, reading each genre on its own terms, we begin to see that God has used his word to disclose himself to us. God’s revelation of himself to the world, across many times and contexts, culminates in Jesus Christ. As a result, Classical Christianity has followed the historical Jesus of Nazareth as the risen Lord for the past 2000 years. This has happened, in part, because of the great gift of the Scriptures. For this reason, we are indebted to the church for transmitting and canonizing the inspired collection of God’s revelation to the world.
In our next post, Roger will respond to the third point of Liberal Christianity: Jesus’ transformative values.