Hermeneutics Dialog


[This email conversation took place with John Gardner, a Wesleyan from Wisconsin who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, a deeply spiritual Christian, and a voracious reader.]


You: I found your view of Scripture (or at least my perception of it) disturbing. What is your view of the inerrancy of Scripture, the inspired writers of the Bible, and the authority of Scripture? What would you eliminate in the Bible to make it more palatable to the modern or postmodern world? I do not mean to be disrespectful (and could not be a member of the Wesleyan church if I did not accept women in ministry), but I have seen the  destructive results of a minimal view of Scripture upon young people.


Me: Like you, I affirm the inerrancy of Scripture as a Wesleyan.  I don't want to bore you with all my thoughts on the subject, but I think when you get into the details, inerrancy becomes a very complex idea.  I think for most Christians it is a much more basic affirmation that God doesn't get things wrong and that God inspired the whole Bible. 


What makes things complicated are things like the fact that Christians disagree widely on what the meaning of the books of the Bible is (and thus what we are saying is inerrant in the first place), including scholars who are supposed to be experts on the matter.  Then there is the fact that the new covenant differs on some subjects from the old covenant, so we have to say that the words are inerrant in relation to their place in salvation history.  Then there is the fact that many instructions address specific situations or issues that have everything to do with ancient culture (head coverings for women, greeting with kisses, etc...), so we have to say they are inerrant in relation to what they were meant to address.  


Every part of Scripture accomplished what God wanted it to accomplish, but it would seem that God's purposes varied from book to book.  Of course most Christians don't read the books of the Bible for what they originally meant.  They read it as if its words were written directly to them.  I believe God certainly speaks in this way (inerrantly of course when He does).  But since the books themselves say their original audiences were Romans, Corinthians, Thessalonians, Israelites, etc, reading the words as if we are the immediate audience is not to read them literally.  It is not to read the words as Jesus, Paul, Isaiah, etc. first gave them meaning.  It is to invest the words with meanings that extend beyond or even contrary to the way they were originally intended.  All the Bible is for us, but its books were not originally written to us.  So discerning their application to today is a spiritual matter rather than a matter of straightforwardly applying the literal meaning to a quite different context.  I just don't see how it could be any other way than this.


So I affirm inerrancy while believing that the more we read the Bible in context, the more complicated an affirmation it becomes.  As far as individual passages, I really try to go with the most likely meaning as the evidence seems to me.  I don't have a conscious agenda to make the message more palatable or modern. 


I could of course be mistaken on so many things.  We all do our best to walk with the Lord as we know how, including in our thoughts...



You: the Wesleyan Articles of Religion state in part that Scripture (both Testaments) "are the inspired and infallibly written Word of God, fully inerrant in their original manuscripts and superior to all human authority, and have been transmitted to the present without corruption of any essential doctrine." The Articles of course contain the doctrinal positions of the Wesleyan church. You, in contrast, seem to say that the Scripture text is only inerrant in its original setting. But the Articles also state unequivocally that the Bible is "inspired and infallibly written Word of God..."

Me: I suspect that you and I are discussing an issue that this statement was not really addressing.  I would argue that various positions the Wesleyan Church takes on some issues acknowledges that there can be a difference between how things played out in Bible times and how they play out today.  For example, while I don't know of any official statement, Wesleyans would be comfortable saying that 1 Corinthians 11's comments on women's hair have to do with first century culture and do not relate directly to today.  We've already mentioned the holy kiss.

On the other hand, the assumption of this statement is probably, as I think you are suggesting, that the instructions to them are generally the same as the instructions to us.  We thus find an inconsistency in the way Wesleyans use Scripture.  Without rationale, Wesleyans sometimes treat the Bible as if its injunctions apply directly to today and at other times do not. 

In my opinion, what this all amounts to is that there is ambiguity in exactly what our position is on the issue I am raising.  There is no explicit statement that directly addresses what we are talking about. I would say that the reason for the ambiguity is because the drafters of these statements, while individuals of Spirit, did not fully understand how to read the Bible in context.  In other words, you cannot address the matter I am raising unless you understand in depth what it means to say that these words were first written to them.  Failing to understand that fully, the official statement may blur that time with this time.

You're right that the statement assumes the inerrancy of the original meaning, as I am.  When it talks about being transmitted to the present without corruption of doctrine, however, it is talking textual criticism, that is, that the manuscripts of the New Testament we currently have are not so different from the original ones that we have lost or seen the perversion of some essential doctrine.


You: Can we apply the literal meaning of the Biblical text (e.g. condemnation of homosexuality or adultery) to our situation today without discerning another or different spiritual meaning?  Do you then hold to a literal meaning of Scripture(perhaps like the Antiochians in the ancient church) that would be applicable for the original setting accompanied with a more spiritual interpretation(analogous  perhaps to typology or an allegorical perspective that was also prevalent in the ancient church) when interpreting Scripture today as it applies to our lives as Wesleyans? Are the moral precepts of the New Testament (e.g., fidelity in marriage, classification of homosexuality as sin) only applicable to the ancient church to which they were written? Or, since they are the "the inspired and infallibly written Word of God" do we take these standards as applicable trans-cultural moral standards?

Me: We do not apply the injunctions of the Bible directly to today without knowing why God commanded it to them.  Doing the same things today that they did back then is not doing what they did back then unless it means the same thing.  When orthodox Jews today don't eat dairy products with meat, they are not doing the same thing that the OT commanded when it said not to cook the kid in the mother's milk.  Failing to know the Ancient Near Eastern reason for this command, they just do something silly.

While I respect Mennonites who wear prayer bonnets and my family members who have Wesleyan buns, what they are doing has nothing to do with what Paul was telling the Corinthians about head coverings.  No offence to them if it is something they feel God wants them to do.  It just is totally unnecessary.

With adultery there are actually some differences in connotation, but I would suggest that if anything God would be stricter on this one than he was in Bible times, because we have no excuse today not to consider the woman just as significant as the man.

Perhaps with homosexual practice it is a rare moment where the reason is simply obedience or symbolic or self-destructive.  But it is both the unanimous voice of both testaments and the almost unanimous voice of the church of the ages against it as an acceptable practice.

This is the way I go about connecting that time with this time on these kinds of issues.    


You: Do you see doctrine developed solely outside the Bible despite the fact that the Trinity (for example) was based on a Triadic structure found in various parts of the New Testament? How do we keep current interpretations from being little more than idiosyncratic readings of Scripture (either by an individual or as part of a community) if a literal reading of Scripture only applies to the particular ancient church? The church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, discerned which ancient Christian writings were infallible, inerrant and inspired. Presumably, they saw these writings as providing details about the life of Christ, a Christological reading on the Old Testament, and moral as well as theological precepts that were not contradictory or merely left to the whims of a modern community(what Tom Oden calls chronological chauvinism, that is the belief that modern perspectives are better than ancient ones).

Me: I hope you see from my preceding comments that the important thing is to see where the points of continuity and discontinuity are between our time and that time.  I am not meaning to lock up the meaning in that time, only to show the distinction between meaning then and meaning now so that we can connect the dots. 

Again, I could be wrong but I think the original meaning of the New Testament is not as close to the Trinity as we read it to be.  I am not thereby condemning the way we read it.  I'm just saying that Christians regularly read the words of the Bible through the conclusions of the church in ways that are actually different from exactly what the original authors were often saying. This may be the way it's supposed to be done.

I don't mean to be a chronological chauvinist.  I am quite willing to believe that there are historical backwaters and phases that are less right than others.  My Protestant biases view the days of celibate priests as one of those.  I have to view the bulk of church history that way on women.  There may be ways in which we are currently less "heavenly" than we will be.

On the other hand, because I believe in the Trinity, because I believe in women in ministry, because I believe in a resurrection, I have to position myself as graced by knowledge that various biblical authors and church periods didn't really have all worked out.


You: Is the Bible history(albeit shaped by the authors for their communities as Tom Wright states) or do you hold to a more  Bultmannian view that we can't know much about Christ and his life(which can only be interpreted existentially)?

Me: I would be very sympathetic to Wright.  Indeed, I think that he would agree with most of my position.  He could perhaps assent to being an inerrantist of my sort.

You: I myself do not want to move too far from a historical reading (perhaps a consensual reading that includes the best from evangelical scholars and ministers) under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament, at least as I understand it, has provided a Christological lens for interpreting the Old Testament. Second, are there really contradictions in Scripture (certainly there are cultural artifacts such as the Holy Kiss but these appear trivial to me)? I was taught that Scripture studied on an overall basis provided the hermeneutical key for interpreting specifics of particular books. That salvation by faith in Christ was not contradicted by the position on works in James. Too many questions I presume but at least you have gotten me to think.

 Me: I'm sure I give off strange impressions.  I really value working toward the original meaning.  I would agree with you that a Christological reading of the OT is most Christian.  I would say that we weigh Scripture against Scripture, but that we have to interpret individual books in terms of the way their authors used words to address specific contexts.  I don't think Paul and James contradict each other either, although they may have thought they did :>)

Whew.  Hard to work it all out, I think.  I'm doing my best...