Conservatives & Progressives on Biblical Interpretation: Why the Disagreement?

I’ve noticed an interesting pattern emerging in some theological discussions I’ve had recently in public forums: Most of my progressive Christian friends recognize that they (and everyone else) are espousing a particular interpretation of the Bible which gives rise to their theological commitments, while most of my more conservative friends insist that they are not interpreting at all, but simply reading the text as it is. I’ve been thinking a bit about why this would be the case, because it’s not obvious. It could just as easily be the progressives saying “that’s what the Bible says, and I just believe the Bible.” Most of my progressive Christian friends do in fact believe this. And the progressive reading does seem to some the straightforward reading, especially folks who have been formed by more progressive traditions. But the progressives I know simply aren’t talking this way. Why not?

Here’s my theory: many progressives I know converted to that position later in life, while most conservatives I know were formed by conservative traditions from childhood. (I grew up in Southern West Virginia). That kind of shift constitutes an epistemic crisis after which one must espouse a new belief which both (1) incorporates her new position and (2) explains how she could have held her old position in error.[1] It seems to me that in debates where a particular text, like the Bible, is the key piece of evidence (as it is in theological debates for both the conservatives and progressives to which I’m referring), a deep hermeneutical awareness is just that kind of belief. Understanding that a text necessarily has multiple interpretations, and that there is no objective way (that stands outside any particular interpretation) to adjudicate between them, explains both one’s current view and how it would have been possible previously for her to have wrongly had some other view.

Of course the sociological picture that I have drawn—where people are converting to progressivism but not to conservatism—isn’t universal. Many people are reared in more progressive traditions and some convert to more conservative positions. But I think it is the case often enough that social pressure would pick up most of the outliers.

What do you think? Any other theories?

[1] That’s the argument Alasdair MacIntyre makes is “Epistemological crises, dramatic narrative, and the philosophy of science,” pp. 3-23 in The Tasks of Philosophy: Selected Essays, Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).



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2 responses to “Conservatives & Progressives on Biblical Interpretation: Why the Disagreement?

  1. I really think you nailed it.

  2. David

    To be truly progressive one must be open to an interpretation of the Bible. So much of the text can only lend itself to interpretation unless we are to leave our heads at the door of the church that we enter. However, to be this open to interpretation and question what we read you may be placing yourself on the edge (or outside) that group which you wish to remain a member. Members of a group are usually held together by shared beliefs and rules and if you don’t fit in with these beliefs you may have to find another group. There would be, therefore, a tendency to look for a narrow interpretation that does not rock the boat.

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