One criticism progressive Christians often receive is that we “don’t take the Bible seriously.” Even as a young Southern Baptist, I would often hear this cited as the problem with mainline churches like the Methodists. However, it seems that my critics and I have a different understanding of what it would mean to take the Bible seriously.

Often, in conversations with those from conserving traditions, they will present a barrage of Scripture quotations as arguments. I’ve never been good at memorizing Scripture, and my memory gets worse as I get older, but I’m also a little skeptical of its purpose. Ostensibly, it is an argument from authority: “The Bible says it. I believe it. ’Nuff said.” However, when these verses are lifted piece-by-piece out of any context, it is difficult to say what they mean. And so the authority upon which they might rest is thin.

The authority on which they ought to rest is thousands of years of contemplation of the meaning of the divine and of human existence and what we are to do in light of that. To sustain that authority would mean matching the seriousness of that contemplation. It would mean taking seriously what the Bible actually is and what it is not.

To start, the Bible is a library, not a book. To ask, “what the Bible says” on any given topic is likely to yield a multitude of answers.

The Bible is not “life’s instruction manual.” Yes, it contains thousands of years of wisdom. We should care what it says. As the author of the Second Letter to Timothy says, it “is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” But that is not unbound from our own reason and experience. It is useful in these ways, not through bumper-sticker phrases, but through deep reflection on the narratives it presents and through a thorough evaluation of the many witnesses that come together in its pages.

The Bible is not inerrant. I’m honestly not even sure what that would mean. It has internal contradictions. Many of those who care the most about “what the Bible says” don’t read the languages in which it was written. If they did, they would be forced to wrestle with the issues of transmission, translation and interpretation that have yielded more than 600 versions. Simply put, to call the Bible inerrant sets forth a standard for truth and consistency that no text could meet – certainly not one that is thousands of years old and passed through the hands of so many people.

I’m never interested in an argument about such things. Those who believe the Bible can be used in these ways do so, not because of reason and evidence, but because it fills emotional needs for certainty and community. I’m okay with that until it’s used as a weapon to lift themselves up and tear others down. When their certainty is only the certainty that they matter and you don’t, when the Bible is used to wall off those who belong from those who don’t, I think they have betrayed the promise of the Word of God.

Because that’s what the Bible really is: a promise. Taking it seriously means wrestling with all its problems and still understanding it as sacred. It has been set apart by our tradition to give hope. It contains within its pages images of what a saved world looks like. It gives us stories that instruct us and inspire us toward that salvation. Our task is to make the promise come true.

Scott Shirley is the pastor of Church in the Cliff. The Worship section is underwritten by Advocate Publishing and the neighborhood businesses and churches listed here. For information about helping support the Worship section, call 214.560.4202.