Saturday, December 18, 2010

God's Breathings 2

The previous post is here.
One clear feature that we see throughout the Wesleyan tradition is a greater openness to the experiential dimension of Christian thought and life than some other branches of Christianity.  In his own day, Wesley was accused of being an "enthusiast" (which he denied) for his emphasis on spiritual experiences that purified and empowered believers.  In the early twentieth century, you would have seen people "running the aisles," shouting praises, and even experiencing "holy laughter" in countless holiness churches and camp meetings.  Indeed, apart from speaking in tongues and being slain in the Spirit, the experiential practices of holiness and Pentecostal churches were quite similar, a similarity all the more ironic given that these holiness churches generally demonized tongues-speaking and forbade it in worship.

It is not hard to see why more mainstream Christian traditions might have looked somewhat askance at these revivalist movements, indeed, why these holiness denominations themselves eventually moved toward more orderly worship.  When every individual claims to have a direct revelation from God, you inevitably end up with a lot of "revelations" that are nothing but random nonsense.  Such movements are the stuff of false prophets and megalomaniacs, who lead off sincere but naive believers to isolated camps in Guyana or Waco.  Your sense of Christian faith and action becomes hyper-subjective and the most convincing demagogue wins.

Yet in an age where the limits of human reason have become painfully obvious, Wesley's balance between reason and experience seems a powerful voice in a new generation.  Wesley experts have often summarized his way of interpreting God's will as a "quadrilateral" between Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  To be sure, Wesley saw Scripture as the determinative voice in the interplay between these potential paths for hearing God's voice.  Yet, as with Luther and Calvin, common Christian tradition appears throughout his writings.  As someone who lived at a time when the Enlightenment was moving toward Romanticism, it is no surprise that reason and experience also played distinctive roles in his thinking.

But it would be foolish to try to imitate the finer points of Wesley's hermeneutic today.  After all, the discussion has moved on and, arguably, we have a much fuller perspective on language and meaning today by far than Wesley or indeed any Christian prior to the twentieth century did.  The key contribution from Wesley is his sense of balance, with all the valid sources of truth playing a role.

The revivalist wing of the Wesleyan tradition largely passed through the increasingly turbulent waters of biblical criticism unscathed, not because of its intellectual response to historical criticism, but because of its detachment from it.  To be sure, some Wesleyan scholars engaged the developments of the day and participated in the rise of neo-evangelicalism in the forties and fifties.  Terms like "inerrancy" and "infallible" still appear in the doctrinal articles of these churches as a fossil of those debates.

But most of the heirs of revivalism were blissfully unaware of these movements.  They were more concerned about hair or skirt length than fighting the intellectual battles of the age.  This proved to be both a strength and a weakness.  It was a weakness in that they were not engaged and were prone to legalism and unproductive introspection.  It was a strength because they were less tainted by the categories of the debate.  Even when they adopted the language of fundamentalism or evangelicalism, that language scarcely had the significance for them that it had for other groups that were on the front lines.

For example, the holiness movement of the late 1800s had a penchant for "figural" interpretations in which they took various elements of the biblical text as symbols of other theological truths.  Perhaps the red cord that Rahab puts outside a window in Joshua 2:18 is a hidden symbol of the blood of Christ whereby we are saved.  Holiness churches were far more prone to waves of dispensationalism than to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.  Prophecy teachers found contemporary events and nations hidden in the words of Scripture.  Individuals might hear God calling them to be missionaries or to move their families in a particular turn of phrase here and there.

Again, this orientation around symbolic and hidden meanings was both a strength and a weakness.  It was a weakness because holiness preachers had little or no sense of how to read the Bible in context, for what it actually meant when its books were written.  Mainstream evangelicalism may have fought with certain aspects of biblical criticism, but the soundness of the historical method was all too clear to them.  In a sense, many of them were ruined of any chance to hear God's voice in such "pneumatic," spiritual ways when it was painfully obvious to them that none of these meanings had anything to do with the original meaning of the Bible's books.

The mid-twentieth century move of evangelicalism to come to grips with historical criticism was to go half way.  Evangelical scholars adopted the historical method, but set boundaries as to how far you could go with it.  If historical evidence seemed to be leading past one of these boundaries, your method shifted from finding the most likely conclusion to finding a way to spin the evidence in a more acceptable direction.

The strength of holiness figurative interpretation is that it allowed its participants to hear the direct voice of God in the words of Scripture without having to know anything about the complicated interpretive method that evangelical intellectuals had to develop.  Even to this day, mainstream evangelical institutions spend massive amounts of time teaching students the finer points of biblical languages and historical method, treating God's will as a mechanical and scientific formula.  The postmodern challenge has presented these traditions with a major crisis that threatens to undermine them to their very hermeneutical foundations because in responding to modernism, they adopted its hermeneutical values.

Once again, these developments place Wesleyan and Pentecostal traditions in a unique position to make a hermeneutical contribution in the days ahead...

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