Three different views of the Bible, and three different ways to read it

Differences among christians


We all know there are many, many matters on which christians hold different views. Many of them are merely matters of opinion and taste (though you would sometimes think they were highly important), but they include many important doctrines too.

For many matters, there are a range of views, though often times two opposing views paint themselves as the only alternative to the slippery slope leading to the opposing view.

Over the next few posts I want to look at some of these divergent ideas and doctrines, and see if there are “middle roads” between the extremes. I hope you may wish to constructively join the conversation.

I start with the Bible, a topic on which I have written many times before, but which merits another look.

Three different views of the Bible

The “liberal”/historical view

This view is based on what neutral (i.e. not necessarily christian) experts say about the Bible – its historical and cultural background, whether it can be historically verified and what the original authors meant. Historians don’t generally approach the Bible as a holy book, but as another document of its times.

When they do this, they find parts that are confirmed by external documents and artefacts, and other parts that are not confirmed, or are contradicted. This throws many parts of the Bible into doubt, and can lead to treating the Bible as a very human document recording people’s search for God, and which may have no more authority or insight than any other document.

This can lead the reader into either:

  • total disbelief, because they think that only a book which comes directly from God and is perfect can possibly communicate truth about God, or
  • a fairly “liberal” form of christianity which is quite comfortable with uncertainty and a human search for God without clear direct revelation.

A historical approach can be a good starting point for a person coming to the Bible for the first time. But accepting a naturalistic assumption about the Bible and its contents seems to beg the question a little. It isn’t really possible to tell the story of Jesus without the supernatural elements and the idea that he was a revelation of God. So it seems that we should be at least considering the possibility that God may have had a part in the writing of the Bible.

The evangelical view

Evangelical christians believe the Bible is a clear revelation given to us by God. The words they use may vary a little, but they generally believe the Bible is the “Word of God”, inerrant or at least close to it, inspired and authoritative. Of course there are different views about the creation story in Genesis, but overall they believe the Bible gives us reliable history, an authoritative revelation of God’s character, and something close to a manual of faith and living.

This view is very reassuring and appears to give certainty to christian belief – until we realise that there are so many different interpretations of so many teachings that certainty is a long way off.

Furthermore, this view cannot accept that there are any errors of any consequence in the Bible, and so every apparent discrepancy has to be explained in some way, which requires amazing ingenuity and faith in some cases.

As a consequence, many people brought up with this view of the Bible quit believing if they come to the conclusion that the historical and literary evidence shows that the Bible is not the perfect revelation they were taught it was.

A middle way?

Proponents of each of these views can suggest that these are really the only two options. But there is a middle view that accepts that some of the Bible is legend rather than history, and that some teachings in the early parts of the Old Testament are modified in the later parts of the OT (the prophets), and both are significantly modified and developed in the New Testament. But this view also accepts the claims, found in many books of the Bible, to be inspired vehicles of God’s truth and a formative record of God’s dealings with people.

Thus this view is true to the historical facts that are the basis of the liberal/historical view, and doesn’t require every minor discrepancy to be explained, but it also recognises that the Bible is a revelation of God, just of a different nature to how the evangelical view sees it. Some would call this view “progressive christianity”.

Three different ways to read the Bible

These different views are not just theoretical, but lead to different ways to read and apply the Bible.

The “liberal”/historical view

If you hold a liberal view of the Bible, you tend to see it as a source of ideas rather than truth. The different books reflect the times and values when they were finalised, which will be interesting from a historical, literary and cultural perspective, but we must develop our understanding of God from our whole life experience. The stories in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, may be the sacred stories of our religion, but they are still just stories, not binding dogma.

Thus reading the Bible is only one of many ways a liberal christian may develop their beliefs and behaviour, and will have more limited importance and value than for those who hold other views. A liberal christian may feel inspired when they read these sacred stories, but the stories won’t be authoritative.

There are some real advantages in this of course. The Old Testament can be read as largely legendary or biased history, and all those difficult and terrible Old Testament stories about Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, the invading children of Israel being ordered to wipe out the Amalekites, or the strange laws about stoning and dealing with mould, can all be seen as belonging to their day and not to ours, and therefore don’t require an explanation.

Liberal christians can accept more of the New Testament because it has a strong historical basis. But many liberal christians will feel uncomfortable with the supernatural, whether it be healing, exorcisms, the devil or the resurrection. Those parts can be seen as legendary also, along with the Messianic and divine claims of Jesus, while his ethical teachings can be embraced.

The evangelical view

An evangelical will tend to view the Bible as their highest authority on all matters of belief and behaviour, and will read the Bible to learn what God expects of them, what they should believe is true, and how they should live. They will therefore believe they should be reading the words of God to them every day (and feeling guilty that so often they don’t), and even memorise sections that they find most useful.

It’s a simple view and quite attractive, especially to those who crave certainty. But it can be difficult to maintain.

For a start, some parts of the Bible appear to contradict others, but this cannot be the case. So reading the Bible can be dangerous to faith and peace of mind, unless it is expounded in sermons, podcasts and books by experts who are able to explain what each passage really means.

This means evangelical Bible reading tends to become somewhat selective, as some parts are read or relied on hardly at all while other parts become favourites and the basis of spirituality and life. These parts therefore reinforce evangelical doctrine so that a doctrine that was developed by a theologian can be held with great strength, as if it were actually contained in the Bible itself.

Disagreements among different “tribes” of evangelicals can be very robust, as each one tries to press their point via the passages and interpretations they hold to, while trying to explain their opponents’ passages and interpretations in another way. Discussions between Calvinists and Arminians, charismatics and evangelicals, those who affirm homosexuality and those who don’t, often take this form of proof texts at ten paces, with little common ground to allow much possibility of agreement.

A middle way?

The middle way takes both God’s inspiration and historical realities seriously, and doesn’t try to impose doctrine on a text or explain a text away. Different teachings in different parts of the Bible are accepted as either progressive revelation or different ideas that may be applicable in different situations.

This doesn’t mean a “progressive” christian will be laissez faire about the Bible’s teaching. They will take the historical context very seriously and allow it to illuminate their understanding and provide a basis for the Spirit’s interpretation to be received by faith.

Clear teachings in the New Testament, particularly those of Jesus, are seen as guidelines but not rules, and the Holy Spirit is allowed a much greater role in interpreting the Bible to us in any given situation. Progressive christians will therefore be more likely to read the Bible prayerfully, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal the truths he wants them to know today. They should also be less likely to argue over doctrines, especially over fine points of meaning in the original Greek, preferring to allow freedom for each person to be guided by the Spirit.

I feel that many who call themselves “progressive christians” today (because they are indeed progressive on matters like homosexuality and gender roles) unfortunately miss this point. I don’t always see the evidence of prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit (though that might be my blindness), seeing instead progressive christians arguing progressive causes via finely-argued Biblical exegesis as if they had an evangelical view of the Bible.

Choose your own adventure!

It will be obvious, I suppose, that I believe the “middle way” is truest to the Bible’s own teaching and to the revelation of the Spirit today. It makes more sense of the information we have in the Bible and about it. It seems to be closer to the way Jesus the New Testament writers saw their scriptures.

I have presented some of these views in more depth elsewhere on this website, and I hope you might want to check them out.

How do you see these matters?

Photo Credit: pamhule via Compfight cc

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  1. Thanks for this post. You seem to be assuming that race and culture and economic status are not part of this discussion. For example, my students in Ghana understand the Bible as a tool for accessing spiritual power (among other ways).

  2. HI Wes, I’m interested in what you say here.
    I didn’t write about “race and culture and economic status” but I don’t think I assume they are not important. I would imagine there are many factors, including those, that come into how we respond to the Bible.
    I would think your students are holding a view not all that different to mine – i.e. they are not either liberal or strict evangelical, for they don’t only interpret the Bible literally and historically, but look to it for other meanings as well. Would that be right?
    My further guess would be that they tend more towards Pentecostalism than the average evangelical, a view I have some sympathy and experience with, which might lead them to build on that similar view of the Bible in a very different way than I would.
    I would be interested if you amplified a little on your comment. Thanks.

  3. One question that needs more examination is What is the Bible for? Do we read it to find truth? or correct belief? or what?
    In Ghana, the book itself was often viewed as holy, even when not read. So the object itself was important, both as a book and as symbol, much like the way Americans view their flag.
    Another way the Bible is read is as a way to access power. In many parts of the world, knowing the correct words allows humans to influence the spiritual world that is all around us. So the name of Jesus, or certain verses in the Psalms, are used to cure disease or bring blessings.
    Christians of all kinds also use scripture as prayer/meditation, an activity that is understood in many different ways. So the Psalms are not interpreted but prayed. They shape us not through acquisition of knowledge but through transformation of character and spirit. This moves us into a completely different area that potentially transcends the conservative/liberal divide, and even the Christian/nonChristian divide.
    People are also shaped by the Bible through stories, through the power of the ideas found in the prophets (not true/false, but goals and ideals), through horror (Judges 19-21), and in other ways.
    In these many ways, the question of interpretation of scripture takes on quite different qualities. Too often we get trapped into thinking that the end should be “theology,” an abstract series of ideas. That’s one place to start, but only one, and probably not the best one (imho).

  4. Hi Wes, thanks for that. I’m sure you are right that there are many ways to read and use the Bible, and some of them don’t require any particular view. I guess I was just discussing how people view its historical and doctrinal accuracy. Some of the people you mention (e.g. scripture as prayer and meditation) don’t in themselves require any particular view, though most people who use it that way probably still fall into one of my three categories. Thanks.

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