Archive for Saturday, October 21, 2006

Faith forum: What do ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ mean for interpreting Scripture?

October 21, 2006


Polarizing terms prove unhelpful, even damaging

Joanna Harader, pastor, Peace Mennonite Church, 1204 Oread Ave.:

It seems that the primary understanding of "liberal" and "conservative" today is a political one - even when we're talking about matters of faith.

We could oversimplify the matter and say that a conservative biblical interpreter applies "thou shalt not kill" to unborn babies while a liberal interpreter applies the same verse to convicted criminals.

The problem with both of these approaches is that we basically pick a position and then dive into the Bible. We take what we like and try to ignore or rationalize what doesn't fit.

And thus we get pro-lifers and pro-choicers, those for and against homosexual rights, yelling Scriptures at each other. (There is a reason some churches refer to Scripture-citing competitions as "sword drills.")

Beyond the political and ideological end games, one can understand the terms "liberal" and "conservative" in reference to interpretive approaches.

I suppose a conservative biblical interpreter would be someone who takes the Bible literally. Except that this is impossible.

A liberal interpreter would be someone who approaches the text with an open mind. Except that nobody really does.

We all have passages that we take literally and those we do not. We all have areas of openness and areas of disbelief. And so we come right back around to the liberal and conservative ideologies that we held before we even looked at the text.

"Liberal" and "conservative" are ultimately unhelpful, even damaging, distinctions. I would prefer to ask a different question as we seek to interpret Scripture: Are we forming the text, or are we allowing the text to form us?

The first approach is the easy one. The second is the faithful.

- Send e-mail to Joanna Harader at

Love bridges divergent interpretations of Bible

The Rev. Randy Beeman, pastor, First Christian Church, 1000 Ky.:

Conservative "literalists" think the Bible is literally "the word of God" or at least inspired by God and is, therefore, inerrant and internally consistent. There can be no real contradictions. Conservatives typically believe that the word of God is clear and unambiguous and that biblical criticism or analysis must be a secondary consideration.

Religious conservatives' belief that the Bible is the word of God is taken on faith, and their grounds for belief is the religious authority of the text itself, while not denying intellect is a part of understanding the Bible.

The other end of the spectrum includes liberal Christians who are non-literalists. They will agree, for example, that Genesis is not literally true, but they may split over the extent to which God may have played a role. Many biblical scholars are believers in this group because scholarship is essential for biblical interpretation.

Some scholars suggest that there are two ways of reading the Bible: One is reading the Bible as the "word of God." The second is the "historical-metaphorical approach," in which questions such as these are raised: What did the Bible mean to the authors in their ancient setting? Is the verse or chapter true in a deeper sense even though not literally true? Is Genesis 1 a historical account about a week of divine creation, or is it poetry about God's relation to the universe?

I would suggest we start biblical interpretation issues with, "Love God and love other people." When we begin with loving God and loving other people, we still might disagree on many biblical issues that are important to each of us. Yet our trust in the authenticity and Christian commitment of people on both sides is essential for there to be unity among Christian believers as we explore the Bible.

- Send e-mail to Randy Beeman at


Tychoman 11 years, 6 months ago

It shouldn't mean anything, what with the separation of church and state thing.

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