Pre-modern interpretation might find coherence between diverse portions of the Bible in several ways. For example, Origen (ca. 185-254) believed that at times it would be “absurd and impossible” to take the biblical text literally.[i] To be sure, he believed that far more of the biblical text was meant literally than the portion “with a purely spiritual signification.” But at points where the literal meaning did not coincide with Origen’s overall understanding, he interpreted the text allegorically.[ii]
Augustine (ca. 354-430) similarly set down the rule:
"Whatever exists in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or sound doctrine, you may set down as figurative. Purity of life has reference to the love of God and one’s neighbor; sound doctrine to the knowledge of God and one’s neighbor."[iii]
Both Origen and Augustine thus used allegory and non-literal interpretation as tools to affirm the truthfulness of Scripture. They could interpret allegorically when the text said something that did not fit with their understanding—for Augustine especially when something did not fit with the rule of faith or the law of love. But they could also use it as a tool of coherence, to fit diverse parts of Scripture together that seemed to conflict in some way with each other.
The Protestant emphasis on the literal—or more accurately, the plain meaning of Scripture—thus removed a handy tool for affirming the truthfulness and coherence of the Bible in the face of apparent contradiction. In good evangelical fashion, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart give as one of their foundational hermeneutical principles the notion that “a text cannot mean [today] what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers.”[iv] If we apply this dictum to Genesis 1:27 (which Fee and Stuart do not), we cannot understand the “us” in the statement, “Let us make humanity in our own image,” as a reference to the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity was not hammered out until the fourth century AD and thus Genesis would hardly have had this meaning to anyone in the second millennium before Christ. Unlike Wesley, the modernist evangelical hermeneutic gives priority to the probable historical meaning of the text over a theological significance such as Wesley himself drew from it.
Kevin Vanhoozer similarly writes, “The Spirit may blow where, but not what, he wills.”[v] Such language is striking in its restrictive tone, but it is a reflection of Vanhoozer’s theological sense of the Spirit as one who bears witness to the Son, the Word (e.g., John 16:13), rather than being the word itself or the one who generates truth. For Vanhoozer, the function of the Spirit is as “the one who leads the community into the single correct interpretation: the literal sense.”[vi]
It is at this point that we might point out that the Wesleyan tradition for which this book is written has John Wesley himself more for a grandparent than as a parent, namely, the Wesleyan traditions that formed their identities in the holiness revivals of the late 1800’s: Wesleyans, Nazarenes, Free Methodists, and so forth. For those in these traditions, a “Wesleyan” hermeneutic cannot simply turn to John Wesley for precedent, but must look at the hermeneutic of its revivalist parents—even if to dismiss it. Mark Noll would call our forebears “fundamentalists,” but his use of this label skews the historical phenomenon—conspicuously in a way that exonerates his own theological sympathies of the label.[vii]
Rather than apply the term to individuals like J. Gresham Machen, who actually took the “fundamentalist” side in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy within the Presbyterian Church, he applies it to “Pentecostals, holiness revivalists, and dispensationalists.”[viii] In other words, he applies the term to those whose reaction to the challenges of modernism were emotional, experiential, and who tended to remove themselves from the discussion rather than those who reacted intellectually and actively. This is a one-sided perspective on history at best. It also obscures the nature of the fundamentalist hermeneutic as a mechanism for finding coherence in the biblical text.[ix]
We have classified Wesley’s hermeneutic as “pre-modern” because of his relative inattention to historical-cultural and literary context. Nevertheless, he was quite forthright about the “analogy of faith” as key to the coherence of his interpretations. By contrast, the holiness-Pentecostal movements of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were more “pneumatic” in their use of Scripture.[x] The Spirit might reveal directly to you what He wanted a specific passage of Scripture to mean for you.
At the same time, these movements had interpretations they held in common, such as Acts 2 as a reference to entire sanctification. Unlike Wesley, however, who looked more to the common tradition of Christianity for the coherence of Scripture, these groups found the coherence more in the theology of their particular group. They mirrored American culture in its democratic form, where everyone gets to vote and everyone’s vote counts the same.[xi] Distinctive theologies were often set from the beginning of such movements by charismatic founders whose stamps continue to this day.
Needless to say, the pre-modern hermeneutic of both Wesley and the holiness revivalists stands in significant tension with the contemporary evangelical hermeneutic we saw in Gordon Fee and Kevin Vanhoozer. Contemporary evangelicalism grew out of the fundamentalism of the early twentieth century as an attempt to read the books of the Bible in context while also affirming the coherence and truthfulness of Scripture in its historical meaning. It was, however, more sophisticated in its understanding of context and in its method of integrating diversity in the Bible than those groups that would become the fundamentalists of the late twentieth century. Many holiness groups joined the evangelical movement mid-century either unaware of the difference with the pneumatic interpretations of their past or, perhaps, to distance themselves from them.
We might thus speak of two Wesleyan hermeneutics in the late twentieth century, with many hybrids. Wesleyan scholars and academics largely absorbed the evangelical, contextual hermeneutic. For this group, we can hardly speak of a distinct Wesleyan strategy for finding the coherent meaning of Scripture, other than the fact that they looked at the biblical text with Wesleyan interests in mind. At the same time, perhaps the bulk of Wesleyans continued to interpret and integrate Scripture by defining the words and integrating them “as it seemed right in their own eyes,” eyes forged by Wesleyan sociology, using the inherent flexibility of words to make them take on meanings that could fit together and cohere with Wesleyan tradition.
[i] “On First Principles,” 18.
[ii] “On First Principles,” 19. When it comes to the law of Moses, Origen speaks of the “irrationality” and “impossibility” of observing many of the laws literally (“On First Principals,” 17).
[iii] “On Christian Doctrine,” 3.10.14.
[iv] How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 74.
[v] Is There a Meaning in This Text? 429.
[vi] Meaning, 415.
[vii] The Rise of the Evangelicals. The Scandal of the American Mind