Interpreting the Bible Today

Kenneth Cauthen

Copyright © 1990 and 1997. All rights reserved. This article was originally given as an address to the Alumni Convocation of Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, Rochester, NY, in the Spring of 1989. It was published in Encounter, Autumn, 1990), 377-88, and was published as Chapter Four in my book Toward a New Modernism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1997).
Robert Nozick says that a philosopher hopes to present arguments so powerful that they set up reverberations in your brain. If you reject the arguments, you die. Let me assure you that my aims are more modest and harmless. As we professionals say technically, I want to "share" with you some convictions about what being liberal might mean in the current generation. Already I have used the dreaded "L" word favorably. That appreciative mode will be sustained throughout.

I had hoped to got some help from John Cage, the composer and philosopher. In preparing for his recent Norton Lectures at Harvard, Cage compiled a list of 487 quotations from the great thinkers and from leading newspapers. He put them all into a computer and had them split up and put back together randomly using a program based on the I Ching. Then he took out the words he didn't like, and that was his lecture. This procedure resulted in sayings like, "If there isn't any dust, why are you always taking baths?"

I decided to try this method. So I put together 487 quotations from the great theologians with some excerpts from The New York Times. I put them all in a computer and had them mixed up and recombined using a program designed to summarize the first 100, 000 pages of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics in a paragraph. Then I took out all the words I didn't like. And I thought I had my lecture. However, when I examined it, I found sentences like this:

"If there is no God, why is there so much suffering in the world?"
"If miracles really happen, could Jonah have swallowed the whale?"
"If Mary remained a virgin, why is Joseph smiling?"
At that point, I decided this method was not going to work! So I went back to my computer and started over.


After considering a variety of topics that might go into a credo for liberals, I decided to restrict my attention to the first part of the creed that begins, "I believe." In particular, in what way is the Bible a source and norm of belief? Everything else we teach and preach depends on how we deal with the authority question. When I was in college I came across a book by Harry Emerson Fosdick that was immensely helpful to me when I was undergoing my first theological conversion. I use the title of that book for my topic: The Modern Use of the Bible. Fosdick was a Baptist reared in a religious environment similar to mine. He was dealing with questions I was asking as I learned about science, evolution, higher criticism of the Bible, and a whole range of post-Enlightenment developments. I became a liberal before I learned much about neo-orthodoxy. A few years I wrote on theological liberalism for my doctoral thesis. Surprisingly, no volume on the subject was then in print. That dissertation became my first book. After a quarter of a century of first speaking the language of neo-orthodoxy and later taking up with a renegade band of process theologians, I have more recently become interested in the Chicago modernists of the 1920's and 30's, especially Shailer Mathews. So I come by my liberal credentials honestly.


What is liberalism? Harry Emerson Fosdick always had the right phrase for the occasion. He said once that he wanted to be "a serious Christian and an intelligent modern." One could hardly express the aim of liberal Christians any better. A liberal is a serious Christian who believes that the inherited faith has to be thoroughly reconstructed to be credible to intelligent moderns. Fosdick described the liberals of his generation as standing between the fundamentalists on the right and the humanists on the left. The fundamentalists, he said, thought that if you changed astronomies, the stars would be lost. The humanists had concluded that there were no stars and never had been. Liberals believed that the stars were still there, just as they always were, but astronomies must change as knowledge advances. Abiding stars, changing astronomies. In religion that meant for Fosdick abiding experiences of God understood in changing categories of human thought.

Behind the liberal movement in theology was the discovery of the historical nature of reality, perhaps the most important intellectual legacy of the 19th century. The universe has come to its present state through a long process of development, passing through many stages along the way. Nature evolves, said Darwin. Human societies and human thought unfold over time, said Marx and Hegel. Even God has a history, said Whitehead. The consequences of thinking of reality in historical terms are enormous. History produces a variety of specific patterns of thought that come to be and pass away. Two fundamental assumptions follow that are crucial for theology. (1) All social and conceptual systems are human constructions that are historically relative and culturally conditioned. (2) A wide gap exists between the world view of the Bible and that of the modern world. This poses a difficult problem for theology. How can a Bible written in historically relative language provide an absolute revelation of God?

Liberals believe that the only way you can be a Christian is to make some sort of distinction between stars in the heavens (the everlasting Gospel) and the astronomies on earth that describe them (particular culture-bound theologies). The cosmology of Genesis, the ritual procedures of Leviticus, and the code of household duties in Ephesians do not belong to the universal Gospel. The effort to identify the abiding elements in Scripture took many forms. Some sought for the vital core or essence that transcends all cultures, enabling it to speak to every historical situation when translated into the appropriate thought forms. Some looked for the existential meaning found in biblical mythology. Others looked for the major motifs of the Bible as a whole and so on.

This procedure made it possible to have historical relativity and a Gospel for all times and places. The essential content remains the same although expressed in a variety of languages and conceptual schemes. What would otherwise be incredible or morally embarrassing could now be relegated to the historically conditioned vessel that contains the everlasting Gospel. Much effort during the last 150 years has gone into the search for this universal something that constitutes the abiding stars as distinct from changing astronomies. Endless unresolved arguments were predictably forthcoming. Unfortunately, while there was agreement that something is of permanent significance, no one was able to say what it was that commanded universal assent.

Nevertheless, this way of retrieving the Gospel made it possible for liberals to be "serious Christians and intelligent moderns." I use liberal in this connection in a broad sense to mean non-conservative or non-orthodox. Included are the evangelical liberals earlier in the century, a wide range of neo-orthodox thinkers, and a variety of feminist, black, liberation, and process theologians on the current scene. In this usage Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, James Cone, and Rosemary Ruether are all liberals. For all of them, something contained in the Bible is the clue to the universal Gospel. Everything else in Scripture is measured by that. The older liberals typically found this vital core in the synoptic Jesus as a particular historical figure. Neo-orthodox theologians referred to the Christ-event as the normative Word of God. For Fosdick himself, the heart of Christianity is "reverence for personality." For Reinhold Niebuhr, it is a set of themes he called "biblical faith." For John Cobb, it is "the principle and process of creative transformation disclosed in Jesus as the Logos." For Ruether, it is the "prophetic-liberating tradition" that speaks of justice for the oppressed and of equality for male and female.


I believe that the reconstruction of theology today must take a different approach. Systematic theologians like to make distinctions, and I must make one now. We can distinguish two ways of retrieving from Scripture what is authoritative for today. 1. One strategy is to locate something that defines the Bible's own religious vision that can be restated in categories appropriate for a given cultural situation. This I will call liberalism or the moderate way. It is the outlook of Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, James Cone, and George Lindbeck, to mention a few. 2. The other method is to claim for today only what is most excellent in the original Christian witness as judged by contemporary Christians. This I will call modernism or the radical way. It is the path followed by Shailer Mathews, Henry Nelson Wieman, Gordon Kaufman, Sallie McFague, and others. John Cobb, Rosemary Ruether, and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza operate much like modernists, but they claim to be discovering the one and only true Gospel. Theologians like to classify, but they do not like to be classified. Some will claim that they rise above my puny little taxonomy. How dare I categorize them anyway? They are just telling the truth! Let us grant that the line between the two ways is unclear in some theological writings.

I propose to take the more radical stance of the modernists. Let us give up the notion of an identifiable something that specifies what the one and only Gospel really and truly is. The appeal should be to the highest and best in Scripture given our particular standpoint as modern people informed both by Christian tradition and secular culture.

Two clarifying comments are necessary at once. (1) The highest and best of Scripture is authoritative because it is compelling as a way of believing and living -- and only for that reason. It is the most persuasive vision of life available to us in the world's inventory of religious possibilities. That is why we are committed to it. That is what makes us Christians. (2) We must take responsibility for deciding what in Scripture is worthy of belief today. All such judgments are relative to our own social location, interests, needs, life-history, and general outlook on things.

We do not often put it this way, but notice that the moderate way has a point of identity with fundamentalism. The fundamentalists appeal to an infallible, absolute Bible located in the original manuscripts. The older evangelical liberals gave that up but found a religious absolute in the historical Jesus. The neo-orthodox theologians also abandoned the infallible Bible but replaced it with a universal Christ-event. What will a contemporary modernist say to this? The difficulty with identifying something absolute, universal, and culture-transcending is that once we try to say exactly what it is, we reintroduce the very relativity, particularity, and culture-boundedness we were trying to escape. Neither the historical Jesus nor the Christ-event is accessible to us as an uninterpreted reality in itself. It is well and good to point to the historical Jesus or to the incarnation of God in Christ and say, "There, right there, teaching and healing by the Sea of Galilee or there on the cross, that's what I mean; there is the Word of God in flesh and deed." Nevertheless, to interpret what that Word means, says, and requires of us can only be done using human words that reflect some background theological theory.

Nevertheless, the search for something objective and reliable beyond the feeble, shifting opinions of theologians tossed to and fro by many winds of doctrine is extremely important. Undergirding this quest are two fundamental convictions: (1) The Christian Gospel is something definite that appeared in human history. It is what it is. It has its own identity. (2) Whatever the Christian message it, it is specified by the biblical witness to Jesus as the Christ. If you want to find the Gospel, look in the Bible. Pointing to Jesus rather than to Socrates or Buddha or Marx identifies us as Christians. Unfortunately, the human predicament is such that once we get specific about what it is that is real, concretely defined, and located right there in Scripture, we can only provide a particular, historically relative account that is one among many. That the Christian vision is a historical reality objective to us and located in Scripture is true enough. Nevertheless, every attempt to say in human language what it normatively is introduces somebody's theological theory for which only relative validity can be claimed.

We deal here with a subtle but crucial point. Many liberals acknowledge relativity and plurality in all the ways I am contending for. Yet when they construct their own versions of the Gospel, they often appear to be claiming that their version is not just better for some purposes as they see it but better as an interpretation of the Gospel, truer to the original one and only real thing, the genuine article objectively considered. Now maybe what seems to be theological hubris, thinking of a theology more highly than one ought to think, is just outward exuberance that obscures inward humility. Their books often give a different impression. Often both things are being said: "My theology is just one more feeble attempt, destined to pass away." And, "I have seen more deeply into the one and only true Gospel than those who disagree." The result is a subtle ambiguity that needs to be exposed. The modernist is determined to say one thing: "My theology expresses the best vision of life, its predicament, and its possibilities that I have been able to find so far, and its roots are in Scripture."

Today we should acknowledge pluralism and relativism more radically than have most liberals. We must take our own finiteness and historical particularity with full seriousness. It is hard to resist the temptation to play "at last, we've got it." Now we know what that elusive essence is. Now we have discovered what the real Gospel is, maybe for the very first time since Jesus left the earth. It is, of course, defined in my theology better than it is in yours. My Gospel is identical with the Gospel or at least closer to it than yours -- that appears to be the message. Haven't we learned by now that any attempt to state what the Gospel uniquely and objectively is tells us as much about the interpreter as it does about the Gospel? The only alternative I know to the pluralism and relativism I advocate is to claim a privileged status for some contemporary way of believing that, despite all, is the real truth, the Gospel that Jesus himself taught and lived, or at least better than the alternatives.


So far the moderates might agree, although made a bit nervous by the direction things are going. The modernist, however, draws a further implication that may mark the parting of the ways more clearly. The pragmatic, relativist, pluralist modernist goes on to say that functionally we become the authorities when we get down to specific cases of doctrines and morals. The Bible says a lot of things, but it means little for what we are to believe and do today until somebody interprets it. Once that happens, we have one more particular, historically relative theology. We should acknowledge that and quit claiming some identity between our outlook and biblical truth as such. I suggest that everyone obeys the following hermeneutical rule: No one allows the Bible to teach as the authoritative Word of God for today what is strongly believed (for whatever reasons) to be either untrue or immoral. Hence, the modernist abandons the attempt to define in particular terms what the essence of the Gospel is, what true biblical faith is. It is not at all clear that there is any such thing as an objectively existing vital core of Scripture that is like a human face supposedly inside in a huge chunk of granite waiting to be chiseled out. At any rate, recovering it is conceptually impossible for history-bound creatures. Since we cannot agree on what it is, it is not much help to us merely to know that it is really there.


At this point, the modernist goes one step further that may leave the moderate brothers and sisters in shock. The modernist has a self-conscious identity as a contemporary person in search of truth about life and the way to salvation. It is only because the Gospel presents itself as the best available candidate for the role of truth-telling about human existence and its possibilities that it is of existential interest anyway. Put most pointedly, the modernist is not primarily interested in the truth or essence of Christianity but in the truth about life. The Christian tradition is of concern because of its power to illuminate the meaning of this human pilgrimage as that can be judged by our own reason and experience here and now. The modernist is a Christian because the highest and best that can be found in the biblical witness is the most compelling vision of the reality of God, the meaning of life, and the way of salvation available. In Scripture is found the way, the truth, and the life. However, we appropriate from the Christian past only what is true and relevant to the increase of value in human and non-human life as we are able to judge that. What is crucial for us today is whatever it is, wherever it can be found, that can lead us to truth and to fullness of life. Modernist Christians find exactly that in the highest and best of Scripture. The vision of God and salvation found in the Bible is not only supremely excellent, but it appears to be unsurpassably good.

I believe this is the position to which a candid recognition of the relativity of knowledge leads us. We see through a glass darkly as creatures shaped by the time, place, and circumstances of our lives. Does this not leave us without a firm foundation on which to stand as we contend against the principalities and powers of darkness? No, I think not. Seeing through a glass darkly does not mean that we cannot see at all. It does mean that we need to move back and forth between two modes of life that should not be confused with each other. In one moment we will be passionately committed to what we presently believe to be true, right, and good. We will fight for it in all appropriate ways. In the other moment we will engage in disinterested reflection in which we will genuinely open ourselves to the possibility that a greater and deeper truth waits to be found. We will subject all our beliefs to questioning and earnestly seek to find the better way. When the time comes to do something, however, we will act in the sincere conviction that the best we know up to now is the truth that will make us free. When the time to testify comes, we will give witness to what we are compelled to believe and argue for what we cannot deny with all our might, cross my heart and hope to die. I call this alternation between passionate commitment and detached reflection living by the warm heart and the cool head. We need to avoid the religion of the cold heart and the baked brain.


It may help if I summarize this entangled argument. Then I want to illustrate the thesis. In order to deal with their recognition of historical relativity, liberals found it necessary to identify something universal in Scripture that could be distinguished from the particular world view in which it was expressed. The intent was to locate a Gospel that transcended all cultures that could speak to every culture. However, every attempt to express the unique faith once delivered to the saints turns out to be particular and relative, one interpretation among many. Each version differs from and sometimes conflicts with the others. Hence, plurality and relativity seem to undercut the original project of preserving the one and only true Gospel. Here enters the modernist, who makes a bold move. The modernist is a relativist and a pragmatist who centers on the importance of the interpreter. Every interpretation of biblical religion reflects the interests, needs, intellectual outlook, and cultural particularity of the interpreter. Relativism is not total, but it cannot be totally escaped either. In this situation, let us acknowledge pragmatically the priority of the interpreter and make the best of it. The most daring and dangerous move of the modernist is to insist that what is crucial is not the preservation of some ancient tradition but the achievement of salvation here and now. We must decide in the light of the best understanding we can come up with from any source what is most likely to save us if we act on it. The modernist Christian finds that saving truth in the Bible. The theological aim, however, is not to make a futile attempt to discover some universal, absolute definition of the one and only Gospel but to find some local and presently compelling interpretation that provides us with our best hope for now. That, however, is enough. It must be, since the alternative is fruitless. The modernist refuses to play, "at last, we've got it" -- always the most popular sport in Theology City.

The liberal says, "I seek the true essence of the objective Gospel, its real inmost meaning." The modernist says, "Don't worry about essence and universal truth. You can't capture it anyway. Just look for what is worth believing today. Besides, you liberals frequently reject no less and affirm no more than we do. When you come across something in the Bible you don't like, you just deny that it belongs to the essence. We modernists don't play that game anymore. The crucial question is whether something is worthy of belief, not whether there are biblical texts that either support it or reject it. It happens that the highest and best we modernists know, we trace to Scripture. It is either there explicitly, or it is suggested by something that is. We modernists take full responsibility for what we believe. Most of all, we do not try to overcome our relativity by claiming that our Gospel is the Gospel. Liberals sometimes sound as if they do make that identity. If you liberals say you don't, maybe you are one of us and need to come out in the open."

When we fight with one another over doctrines and morals, let us, then, candidly abandon the notion that the controversy is about who has correctly grasped the eternal verities found in Jesus or in Scripture. Let us simply bring the deepest insight we can find to bear on every challenge that arises. Our confession as Christians is that the vision we live by comes from the Bible as we interpret it.


Let me give some examples of what this might mean on the con- temporary scene. Some feminists insist that the vital heart and center of the biblical Gospel is equalitarian, despite all the texts in the Bible to the contrary. Some liberation theologians teach that the true Gospel is that God will emancipate the poor and oppressed on earth in some future yet to come, despite the fact that the New Testament is pervaded by an otherworldly apocalypticism that expected the world to end long before Rome fell. Moreover, slavery is accepted without condemnation, and slaves are urged to serve their masters in humble submission with gladness of heart. Process thinkers contend that God only persuades the world into greater harmony, while in the Bible God coerces nature and people from Genesis 1 to Revelation 21.

Let us look at those claims. To maintain that a critical feminist consciousness calling for full equality of the sexes in every aspect of secular and church life is a valid modernizing of the thought and practice of Jesus and of some early Christian communities is one thing. To maintain that this contemporary outlook defines the one and only true Gospel while at the same time insisting that the Bible is predominantly patriarchal is another thing. To urge that the emancipation of the oppressed from all forms of bondage is the supreme human task in response to divine love is a legitimate development of biblical themes is one thing. To claim that this is the essence of all genuine biblical religion is going too far. To claim that persuasive divine love is an appropriate contemporary rendering of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is one thing. Even to suspect that the Whiteheadian God is identical with the Almighty Creator/King of Scripture is another.

Hence, would it not be better simply to say that we construct forms of religious life from the materials of the Christian past that are relevant for our time? Let us not claim that in so doing we have at last discovered or rediscovered its one and only vital core. The only way we can establish that against competing versions of the Gospel is to pound the desk and stomp the foot. Let us not say that our interpretation is the heart and center of biblical religion. Let us say it is the heart and center of our biblical religion. Scripture is our inspiration and guide. Let us not worry about some elusive essence that can only be defined by somebody in ways that will never claim universal assent.

Martin Luther found the heart of the Gospel to be salvation by grace through faith. James Cone finds it in the theme of God's liberating action on behalf of the oppressed. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza finds it in the discipleship of equals in women's equalitarian church. Billy Graham finds it in the forgiveness of sins and the hope of heaven. All of that and more can be found in the Bible. Whether either of these it is the real heart of the objective Gospel is not resolvable. As interpreters, we become the functional authorities, no matter what we profess to be our objective norm. The relativist, pluralist, pragmatic modernist accepts that and lives with it. Jeffrey Stout says that being a pragmatist means never having to say you're certain. The modernist is at least relieved of that burden.

Homosexuality is being hotly debated today. Some liberal interpreters make a valiant effort to make it appear that, if properly understood, the Bible does not condemn responsible sexual relations between persons of the same sex, even in those very passages that seem to teach otherwise. One gets the impression that it is important to have textual biblical support for homosexual love or at least to render innocuous the offending verses. Exegetes who have, on some basis or another, come to believe that homosexuality is not wrong when practiced responsibly (using the same standards as apply to heterosexuals) work hard to find ways of softening or eliminating the biblical injunctions that appear to condemn homosexual activity. Maybe the words don't mean what they seem to mean. Maybe if we look at the text, the context, the translation of terms, and the like, we can take the offense out of the texts, while still accepting some validity to the injunction. This strategy may or may not be successful. Such exegesis may be correct. Why resort to it on theological or ethical grounds?

Do we know what various biblical writers or communities would have said about faithful, monogamous relationships among persons of the same sex? The more important point, however, is that any theological method that will allow particular moral issues like this to be settled by biblical exegesis alone is faulty. No question can be raised as to whether particular passages in the Bible advocate killing disobedient children (Deut. 21:18-21), or take slavery for granted, or forbid women to be teachers of men or to have authority over them (I Tim. 2:11-12). Do we regard these passages as authoritative for us? No, of course not. Then why should the morality of homosexual love be settled by reference to specific verses rather than by appeal to the highest ethical norms we know, having learned them from Scripture?

Only what in Scripture is irresistibly convincing to our own Christian reason in the light of what we cannot otherwise deny as modern human beings can be regarded as the authoritative Word of God for us. The modernist who takes this position can at least use the Bible with integrity and consistency. It will make it unnecessary to depend on texts that conform to what we already know or believe to be true, right, and good. Let us take responsibility for our convictions and not insist that we are merely reporting what the Bible teaches on the subject. The Bible is filled with various doctrines and perspectives. It is we who decide what among its many not always harmonious teachings is God's message for today.

Bernard Loomer once illustrated the point humorously. He was reading a scholarly paper at a conference. I don't recall what the point was he was emphasizing. Anyway, after reading a particular sentence, he stopped, looked out at the audience, and said, "As the Bible plainly teaches." He looked down, paused, looked out again, and said, "I don't know where, but it does." He looked back at his paper another time, waited a moment, looked up once more, and concluded, "Well, if it doesn't, it ought to!." Now there's a modernist after my own heart!


Kaleidoscope comes from two Greek words meaning "beautiful form." The same pieces of glass produce a multitude of pretty patterns depending on how the instrument is turned. Does it make any sense to say that one of them is more right than the others? Doing theology is like playing with a kaleidoscope. We all read the same Bible and refer to the same classical texts from Tertullian to Barth. Many beautiful forms have been produced from Nicea to Trent and from Calvin and Luther to Tillich and Tracy, Cone and Cobb, Ruether and Suchocki. Which of these delightfully colored arrays of brilliant arrangements is the right one? The Bible is a kaleidoscope. Which beautiful form is seen depends on how it is turned. It is the same Bible, but we produce a bewildering variety of images, alike in many respects, different in many others. All have common colors. The arrangements are often only slightly at variance from others. We are Christians because it is the biblical kaleidoscope that we play with rather than the Buddhist or humanist one.


To conclude, we can claim to be Christians if what we believe is most conducive to human fulfillment is identical with what we take to be most excellent in the biblical witness. Moreover, the Bible is authoritative only because it is unsurpassed by anything else we know from any source. We are Christian because it is to the tradition of ancient Israel and the early church that we continue to look for a saving Word for the world of the late 20th century. We continue to look there because looking elsewhere has not yielded so rich a harvest of wisdom about life. We confess Jesus as the Christ because he is and has disclosed the Word that is nothing other than saving truth for us. We are Christians because it is to that tradition we turn, are compelled to turn, have no choice but to turn and return to, to argue with, to revise, to doubt and to reject, to transform and reinterpret, to be judged and transformed by. We read the Bible as Holy Scripture because of its unexcelled power to provide wisdom and a way of living that promises to make real the beauty and the goodness that life -- the gift of that Ultimate Mystery -- offers.

I invite comments, criticisms, evaluations, and other responses.
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This is one of a series of theological essays. The best place to begin is to go to the homepage:
Theological Essays
Presently, the following essays are available:
About the Author
A List of my Books
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
Natural Law and Relativism
A Doctrine of God
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
The Many Faces of Evil
Christ and Christians
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
Christian Ethics
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch

Created: Wednesday, August 27, 1997, 3:00 PM Last Updated: Saturday, July 25, 1998, 3:15 PM