LIBERAL CHRISTIANITY AND THE BIBLE
Liberalism within Christianity is not a political alignment, but a theological distinction. It refers to the increasingly prevalent view that the Bible is not completely inspired and inerrant, and that its precepts are not timelessly applicable. While it has always been fashionable for sceptics and atheists to ring this particular bell, the gradual osmosis of this philosophy into popular Christian thinking is a relatively recent and disturbing trend.
Liberalism allows conflicted Christians to modify or discard inconvenient biblical morals and teachings that contradict the latest “sophisticated” values promulgated by our postmodern society. These biblical backflips are predicated upon the view that the Bible is deeply flawed; that its inspiration is limited, at best, and its transmission is plagued with error and interpolations. (I have dealt with these objections in my post, “Holy Bible, Wholly True”.)
The underlying assumption behind liberalism is, of course, that whenever the Bible and society are in conflict, it is the Bible that is wrong or outdated, and must be reinterpreted or ignored at that point. The classic current example of this disturbing philosophy is the increasing acceptance of homosexuality within mainstream Christian churches. In fact, the issue of homosexuality provides us with a fascinating insight into the three main arguments embraced by liberals in order to modify or discard inconvenient biblical ethics.
- REINTERPRETING SCRIPTURE
When a passage of scripture stands opposed to a desired contemporary moral, one way of dealing with it is to reinterpret that passage to mean something completely different.
Romans 1:18-32 is one of the key biblical passages that condemns homosexuality. It describes homosexuality as an act of “wickedness” (v.18) resulting in “the degrading of their bodies” (v.24). Furthermore, it refers to “women (who) exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men” (very.26-27).
On the surface this passage seems very clear; homosexuality is wicked, shameful and unnatural. In short, it is a sin. How, then, do liberal Christians deal with this passage? By reinterpreting it. They propose that Paul is not condemning all homosexual love in this passage, only transitory, uncommitted homosexual encounters. On the basis of this interpretation, they suggest that God is actually delighted with homosexuality, provided it occurs within the context of a committed, loving relationship.
The problem with this reinterpretation is that it is not supported by the text at all! The language of Romans 1 is universal in its condemnation of homosexuality, and does not provide us with even the hint of an exemption clause. The Liberal re-imagining of this and many other biblical texts is a classic example of eisegesis (reading one’s own desired meaning into the text) rather than exegesis (letting the text dictate the meaning).
This type of creative re-interpretation is typical of liberalism, and owes more to imaginative, wishful thinking, than to serious literary criticism. The mental gymnastics required to completely reverse the clear meaning of a text such as this is breathtaking! It also illustrates the postmodern philosophy that truth is not absolute, but is completely malleable, and can be massaged and molded to suit any preconception or occasion.
- RELEGATING SCRIPTURE AS OBSOLETE
On those occasions when a biblical passage is too clear and unequivocal in its inconvenient denunciation of a desired practice or belief, one can simply claim that it is no longer relevant for today. According to this argument, it may once have been God’s decree, given at a specific time, to a specific people, in a specific circumstance, but we must not consider it to be a timeless truth to be applied universally. The Old Testament denunciations of homosexuality (such as Leviticus 18 and 20) are, thus, dismissed because they belong to the old covenant, which is now obsolete.
It is certainly true that the old covenant is now obsolete (Hebrews 8:13), and I have written extensively about this in several papers. But to dismiss, unilaterally, all moral precepts of the old covenant is to misunderstand the nature of God’s progressive revelation to mankind. The old covenant was an important, yet temporary, stepping stone towards the final institution of the new covenant. It is true that it contained many ordinances and procedural instructions that passed into obsolescence with the arrival of the new covenant. But it also contained many moral commandments of a permanent and binding nature that were clearly reiterated in the new covenant. God’s condemnation of homosexuality is one such example. The biblical classification of homosexuality as a sin is an absolute moral standard, timeless in its relevance, transcending both covenants and enunciated unequivocally in both Testaments. God’s standard on this issue has not changed or become obsolete, and I find it helpful to point people to the Old Testament antecedents of the New Testament’s moral teachings in this and many other instances, in order to underline its timeless nature.
Liberal claims of obsolescence, however, are not limited to old covenantal teachings. Many New Testament ethics and teachings are similarly dismissed as being outdated. Upon what bases are these editorial decisions made? They most certainly do not arise from exegetical study of the text itself, for the texts, and their contexts, do not give any indication of obsolescence. No, these editorial decisions are reached purely on the basis that the Bible contradicts the latest societal mores. If the Bible’s teaching on a particular subject is offensive to modern society, then to the scrap heap it must go!
- REDACTING SCRIPTURE
A third, handy tool for liberals wishing to negate the authoritative nature of scripture is redaction. This refers to the proclivity for dismissing whole portions of scripture as never having been inspired by God in the first place, usually because of alleged tainted or spurious authorship.This is often the fall-back position in dealing with an inconvenient passage if it can’t reasonably be reinterpreted and can’t be relegated as obsolete. This approach basically maintains that the writer was not inspired by God in the first place, was not writing with God’s authority, and, therefore, the text is not inspired scripture. This is the approach some liberals take with Paul’s strong prohibitions against homosexuality, as well as his condemnation of other practices such as pre-marital sex.
I briefly pastored a church with a strong, vocal, liberal minority. After putting up with several weeks of my biblically based sermons, some of these dear liberal brethren had had enough. One Sunday, after my morning sermon, I was told, by one of the liberal spokespersons, that “Paul was a bloody idiot and nothing that he wrote was scripture.” I was shocked that someone could so arbitrarily dismiss 13 whole books of the New Testament with such off-handed disdain! Not all liberals are quite that extreme. Many liberals concede that some of Paul’s proclamations were, indeed, inspired. But most liberals would take the view that at least some of Paul’s teachings were uninspired expressions of his narrow-minded prejudice and bigotry, and, therefore, must be discarded. The same kind of liberal redaction occurs regarding the Old Testament, particularly the Pentateuch, with several theories overturning the traditional Mosaic authorship and attributing portions of the biblical narrative to various authors of questionable, and even dubious, reliability.
There are two glaring, closely related problems with this type of redaction:
(i) Inconsistency: No two liberals can completely agree about which bits of the Bible are inspired and which bits aren’t!
(ii) Subjectivism: In the end, deciding which parts of the Bible are inspired and which parts aren’t, simply becomes a matter of personal preference, because there is no objective, unequivocal means of determining this.
As with claims of obsolescence, liberal redaction of the Bible is not driven by textually based exegesis, or even by rigorous textual criticism (although textual criticism is the smoke screen that is often used). No, the primary driver of Biblical redaction is the inconvenience of the text to one’s preferred beliefs and practices.
A LESSER GOD
The great tragedy of liberalism, however, is not their spurious reinterpretations, their ill-informed claims of obsolescence or their arbitrary redactive treatment of the scriptures, as appalling as all this is. What is even more disturbing is the view of God that undergirds these hermeneutical practices. The god in whom liberals supposedly believe, is, apparently, unable to preserve and protect the writing of his message to mankind. He is such an impotent god that he cannot even guarantee that what he wishes to communicate is what is ultimately recorded in the Bible. According to liberalism, the Bible is full of errors and misguided teaching, and, apparently, their god was unable to stop this from happening! It begs the question: “What sort of god do liberals believe in?” Surely, it is not the omnipotent God of the Bible! Whatever, or whomever, they call “god” is obviously not really God at all!
Is your God clever enough to publish a book without mistakes?
MY GOD IS ABLE
I have been a Christian for 42 years, and I am more convinced now, than ever before, that the Bible is God’s inerrant, inspired Word. I have read more liberal discourses on Biblical literary criticism than I care to remember, and I have found them all to be ill-founded, highly speculative and utterly unconvincing. My God is the all-powerful God of Creation, who spoke the universe into existence and for whom nothing is impossible. He is more than able to ensure that the Bible I hold in my hands today contains the message that he wants me to hear.
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).