Scriptural liberty is generally understood to mean, every person has the right and the responsibility of reading and interpreting scripture. As a young child, I yearned to know what was in the Bible. Instead of sleeping some nights, I would take a flashlight to bed and read the Bible under the covers. Somehow I knew if I read the scriptures, I would know more about God and what God wanted for my life. I had the right, even as a child, to read scripture and innocently try to discern God’s word.
I grew up in a Black evangelical Baptist church where every true believer was expected to know the Bible and bring their Bible to church with them. Memorizing scripture was routine along with knowing all the stories in the gospels and most of the stories in the Hebrew Bible. The Bible was seen as our most important tool for better living.
Having a child’s knowledge of scripture is acceptable when one is a child, but as we mature in our faith, it is important to use scholarly biblical tools to research the scriptures and get a more complete understanding. That is where the responsibility of interpreting God’s word becomes real. It is not enough just to open the “book” and then tell others what to think and do. There are Hebrew and Greek language resources, scholarly research, and commentaries, that can help us understand the historical and literary context, and purpose of biblical texts.
Progressive Christians have frequently rebelled against evangelical or conservative Christians’ interpretation of scripture. Often those traditional interpretations have not allowed for a fresh breath of God’s revelation through the sacred texts. While we may rebel against an interpretation not of our liking, we must be willing to engage the scriptures and interpret the texts for ourselves.
I, along with my progressive sisters and brothers, cringe when we hear someone say they believe every word of the Bible. No one follows every word of the Bible. If scores of people were following every jot and tittle of holy scripture, then bacon wouldn’t be nearly as popular as it is today and shrimp cocktail would rarely be on a menu.
Even my ancestors knew some biblical texts were suspect in their literal interpretation. My ancestors questioned how a loving God who freed God’s chosen people when enslaved in Egypt in Hebrew scriptures could condone chattel slavery when scriptures like Titus 2:9 slaves be obedient to your masters were quoted to them. Even biblical novices who were legally not allowed to learn to read, knew enough to engage in a hermeneutic of suspicion when it came to biblical interpretation.
I was first challenged to interpret scripture for myself while struggling with my call to ministry. Church leaders against women in ministry would quote me, I Corinthians 14:34, women are to be silent in the church. But I knew God was tugging at my heartstrings and leading me to fulltime Christian service. I trusted God’s voice more than I trusted narrow-minded church leaders. As a young adult I knew the Bible could no longer be my final authority on all things. I would have to interpret biblical writings in light of scholarly research and God’s contemporary revelation.
We may not agree with everything in scripture, but it is important to know what is there and why we believe as we do. Soul damage has been done to many by the misuse and abuse of scripture. Yet, life, hope, grace, forgiveness, belonging, and salvation, have also come from knowing and trusting the scriptures.