More Discussion

on the Authoritative Meaning

of Scripture

[Continued email conversations with John Gardner]


You: I downloaded a piece you wrote entitled Inerrancy, Wesleyan Style. It appears to me to be consistent with the allegorical sense of Scripture that really became fully developed with Origen (although I do recognize that there are passages from Paul which do use an allegorical framework to reinterpret the Old Testament in light of Christ). Antiochans stuck with a literal(i.e. the plain meaning of Scripture which they took to be historical) which set the boundaries for an allegorical  or what Augustine would perhaps call a spiritual view of  Scripture which became dominant during the Middle Ages. You seemingly are trying to develop a way to reinterpret inerrancy without tying it to history. It seems to me that the boundaries of Scripture were set by the fact that both the Old  Testament and the New Testaments purport to be tied to history(thus unlike Hindus who do not require that their writings apply to actual historical events history matters). It would thus seem that the original meaning would set boundaries for the inerrant revelation from God. Certainly, God might allow us collectively to gain additional insights into his original revelation by His Holy Spirit. But, the original meaning (as best we can determine it through scholarship, prayer and the discernment of the church universal) would establish the parameters for acceptable meaning. You refer to both the original meaning and the Wesleyan “spiritual meaning” (again that sounds like allegory or one of the medieval hermeneutical frameworks to this Wesleyan). You refer as follows to the spiritual meaning:


Me: Given the associated baggage and “smoke and mirrors” often involved in these discussions, I think this distinction between literal-allegorical is inadequate not only to describe what I am saying, but even to describe what the “Antiocheansdid with Scripture.  I suspect that their “literal” interpretations were often out of context readings only less obvious or blatant than Origen’s.  I am claiming this also of many fundamentalist readings of the Bible today.  What is often purveyed as the “literal” interpretation of Genesis is really a modern scientific “allegory” fundamentalists construct out of the words.


To create more adequate categories, I would suggest more helpful is the distinction between contextual and non-contextual.  I would suggest that the contextual meaning of each writing (the “plain meaning” properly understood) is often not the meaning that fundamentalists think it is. 


Further, what I am calling a “spiritual” meaning can be allegorical, but could also be literal or “figural” (a more generalized application of what was originally more limited in scope). It is simply whatever meaning God chooses to reveal to someone, literal, figurative, or whatever.


But I am more and more thinking that what I should emphasize is something like a “canonical” meaning to the text: the meaning of the text taken as a whole and read by the “church.”  When we read the Bible this way, we read Genesis-Malachi as the Old Testament, not in their original meaning as books of the Jewish Bible.  When we read the New Testament this way, we see it not as it was originally (a collection of writings that on some issues had not yet reached a “final answer”), but in the light of the final answers God worked out in the church. 


Thus Hebrews trumps on issues of Christ’s atonement (versus the impression Acts gives that sacrifices can still be offered in the temple).  Matthew and Luke win on the virgin birth (not that there is debate in the NT; it just isn’t significant enough to the others for them to mention).  John wins on the incarnation and eternal identity of Jesus (ambiguous in many other places).  And the Trinity wins despite Colossians 1:15, 1 Corinthians 15:28 etc…


In the end, this approach allows us to continue reading the Bible the way we have all along without realizing it.



YOU about me:  “If we are talking of the spiritual meanings God brings to the Bible, these meanings are of course immediately and directly without error. Anything that God has authentically revealed to the Church, to a specific church group or specific individuals, these meanings are of course without error.”

 JG How do we discern any correspondence view of Truth (theological or moral) under your hermeneutical framework which would seem to allow for a number of truths rather than one Truth? This appears to me to be relativism run amuck (you have your theological and moral truth and I have mine)-as opposed to one Truth (i.e. Christ) as presented in an inerrant Scripture. It also is incoherent if one believes that there is a Truth presented in what NT Wright sees as the five acts of Scripture rather than a series of small t truths that various individuals, churches and Para church groups have. I recognize that it is a sociological fact that various Christian groups have different views of doctrine, Biblical history and the sacraments.  Would God allow us to have more than one moral truth or true theological perception about the basics of our faith and our relationship with Christ?


Me: My first thought is—God knows.  Just because we may not always know doesn’t mean that God doesn’t know the truth and what it is.  I am not denying truth.  And I am not arguing that ultimate truth is relative to each believer.  In addition to ultimate truth, I am describing what happens with individuals and words and suggesting that God is okay with it.


With words, they are capable of countless different interpretations.  With individuals, they are capable of seeing the same words in countless different ways. I am suggesting that part of the equation is that God goes with this.  He meets individuals where they are in accordance with this flexibility in language and individual.


However, I am not saying that this is the whole picture.  There are fixed truths of God and Christianity.  The comment you quote above was in some sense an aside.  I went on to talk of how the original meaning might be inspired inerrantly.  And I wish to emphasize now a somewhat fixed sense for the Bible’s meaning in terms of how the church reads it: what I am calling the canonical meaning (see above).  



YOU: But, there is a real truth out there which can be discovered by establishing two main parameters:

  1. Scripture can’t mean other that what it means in its original setting. A spiritual meaning consistent with the original meaning(that has developed over the past two millennium) and held as St. Vincent of Lerins by everyone in all places at all times(cf the work of Tom Oden) would seem to have the most likelihood of being true.


ME: Practically speaking, Christians in all times and all places have consistently read the Bible differently from its original audiences.  I am fine with the suggestion that ideally there will be continuity between spiritual meanings and original meanings. 


However, if we are looking to the Bible as our model, it doesn’t always listen to Oden.  Matthew consistently reads OT Scripture with virtually no regard to the original meaning (compare Matthew 2:23 with its possible referents, Isaiah 11:1, 53:3; Judges 13:5).  Paul in fact discounts the original meaning of Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthians 9:9 for an “allegorical” one.  Confer also Galatians 4:24, where Paul actually uses the word allegoreo and Hebrews 9:9 where the author constructs an allegory out of the two part tabernacle.


I would submit that modernists like Oden have far more of a problem with allegorical interpretation than any of the biblical authors themselves.  And I would suggest that the more we understand about how to read the Bible for what it originally meant, the greater the distinctions we will see between the things Christians have believed in all times and places.


By the way, I’ve never been quite sure what to do with Larins’ comment.  I know he didn’t mean that there can’t be development.  I would further suggest that there are misguided periods of church history as well.  I’m not sure Larins can accommodate such.  But without such a possibility, we are left with something like the Roman Catholic church’s inability to reel Vatican 1 back in.



YOU: I do not deny that a spiritual, or even allegorical meaning is possible, but that we must look to the consensus of the church universal over the past 2000 years to validate these practices. Thus, I would not take a more individualistic approach that you propose whereby each Para church, church or even group of individuals can apply their meaning to Scripture which may result in some communions(witness the Presbyterian Church  USA or the United Church of Christ) taking moral or theological stands on homosexuality or heterosexual fornication that are inconsistent with the consensual interpretation of Scripture. I would let the original meaning correct this consensus if we can demonstrate that the consensus was false. I myself, as a business ethicist and historian, hold that God Himself entered history (e.g. through His prophets in the Old Testament and finally through His  Son).  It was no accident(and certainly not one that we can ignore) that  the Word became flesh as a male Jew in a backwater of the  Roman world. I would thus use history, prayer, and a consensual view of history and theology to establish the boundaries of our understanding of Scripture rather that various idiosyncratic interpretations(including those by this sinner from Wisconsin).


ME: I don’t think I disagree with you here.  I am not denying a fixed Christian meaning for much of Scripture—appropriate, true meanings Christians see in the words.  My allowance for individual meanings is not meant to deny or trump the more important meaning you suggest.  What I am denying is that this fixed Christian meaning is the same meaning as the original meaning.  I think this fixed Christian meaning is something Christians pretty much agree with—the consensus of the church that you suggest.  However, I am denying that most really understand the nature of the original meaning, including scholars like Oden, Witherington, etc. on many issues where they find ways to make it mean something that fits with the consensual meaning by a bit of twisting. I think we would have more integrity if we let it say what it says and then appropriated it in the light of orthodoxy.



YOU: Third, there are views, practices derived from Scripture which God may allow us to be indifferent about(e.g. the form of worship(e.g. more liturgical or open) for each church or individual. These  practices(to which we are allowed to be indifferent) which are derived from both Scripture and culture are particular to the context in which one worships and lives. They, however, do not touch either the moral or theological foundations of what CS Lewis called Mere Christianity.


ME: I agree.



YOU: Blessings to you in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.


ME: Amen!