Dr. Joerg Rieger, Wendland-Cook Professor of Constructive Theology at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX
Progressive Christians often find themselves confronted with questions about the authority of Scripture, especially those of us who live in the regions that have become known as the “Bible Belt.” Dealing with this issue can be quite tedious and frustrating, especially since it is often unclear what the alternatives are.Perhaps the most wearisome question in this context is how much authority the Bible should have. For fundamentalists the answer would probably be “as close to 100 percent as possible,” while liberals tend to differ, with some giving rather low percentage figures. In reality, though, such proclamations do not amount to much. Even many fundamentalists do not appear to take the authority of the Bible as seriously as they claim, especially when it comes to the large number of biblical teachings about poverty and justice (the Poverty and Justice Bible highlights more than 2000 passages, many of them in prominent places), or to the many biblical challenges to top-down power and control.
Rather than asking how much authority the Bible should have in an ideal world, a better question would be what role the Bible actually plays in people’s lives. What difference does the Bible really make? What is the actual difference that conservative and liberal readings of the Bible are making in the world? When the question is posed in this way, the discussion begins to shift, sometimes in surprising ways.In many liberal approaches, the role of the Bible has been toned down intentionally. Fed up with conservative claims about the absolute authority of the Bible, as an authority that does not allow for any sort of reflection, many liberal Christians reject authority-talk. As a result, liberals often focus on how the Bible endorses and supports us in our particular ways of life, rather than on what its challenges might be.
Theologians in this tradition tend to emphasize the symbolical nature of the Bible, and the need to “demythologize” ancient texts so as to make them more palatable to modern readers. The problem with this sort of approach, of course, is that a Bible that lacks challenges tends to function mostly in support of the status quo and of a certain set of dominant power structures.Nevertheless, conservatives who make very strong claims about the authority of the Bible have demonstrated little ability to challenge the status quo either: Conservative notions of family values, for instance, oddly overlook Jesus’ prominent critiques of the traditional family and endorse the family values of the bourgeois family instead. Conservative images of women as stay-at-home housewives, to give another example, do not really emerge from the Bible but from the historical conditions of the nineteenth century. In both cases the Bible is merely used to sanctify an existing status quo and to uphold dominant power structures. The same is true for matters as trivial as dress codes and as momentous as the absolute ownership of private property, the latter being endorsed by conservative Christianity but challenged in many biblical traditions (see Rieger, No Rising Tide).
These examples might make us wonder whether it is even possible for the Bible to make any real difference in the world. Are we not, in the final account, all condemned to pursue the status quo and to perpetuate the powers that be? The honest answer to this question appears to be “yes.” This is especially true when we fail to understand how we are shaped by the status quo and the powers that be in the first place. But perhaps we tend to assume too quickly that the way things are is the way things always have been—or the way they always need to be.A first step towards creating a situation in which the Bible might make a difference would be to take another look at the powers that be and to consider the possibility that these powers are not the way the world has to be. If we realize, for instance, that the sort of status-quo power that is built on the self-centeredness of the empires of the world does not need to have the last word, alternative biblical visions might finally have a chance to transform us, from the visions of liberation promoted in the Jubilee Year in Leviticus 25, to Jesus’ community where the last were the first and the first were the last. If we realize, to mention another example, that the status quo of individual wealth, privilege, and power does not need to have the last word, alternative biblical visions of the Earth as belonging to God—and of power that organizes itself in adverse situations (even on a cross)—might make a real difference.In conclusion, we can only come to a truly progressive position if we develop both a deeper awareness of the powers that be and a more astute sense for possible alternatives. To be sure, in these progressive efforts we need all the help we can get.
There is little hope that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and so the ancient wisdom of the Bible might be a most welcome guide, especially where it was honed in similar conflicts with the status quo. To be sure: this is not just wishful thinking or a pious dream. Despite much misuse, the Bible has demonstrated its ability to make a difference in movements of liberation through the ages. As Latin American Liberation Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez once put it: “We indeed read the Bible, but we can also say that the Bible ‘reads us.’” Copyright, 2010, The Progressive Christian Publishing Inc. Used by Permission.