Once again, these developments place Wesleyan and Pentecostal traditions in a unique position to make a hermeneutical contribution in the days ahead. The problem with mainstream evangelical hermeneutics is that it has over-emphasized the literal meaning of the Bible. This trajectory was set back in the days of the Protestant Reformation itself, where the Reformers rejected allegorical and other interpretive methods used in the medieval catholic church in deference to the Bible's "plain sense." Ironically, it was this focus that in large part led to the liberalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Chiefly, the trajectory of historical interpretation is to see each book of the Bible in its full particularity. As the study of language and culture has advanced, biblical experts have more and more been able to appreciate how well the language of the Bible's books fit in their original contexts. And they have more and more seen how different those contexts are from ours.
For example, a modern reader might assume that she can simply apply what the Bible says about lending and money directly to today. But did money work the same way two thousand years ago as it does today? Did people think about money the same way we think about money? After all, the "literal" meaning of the Bible is not how the words strike me. The literal meaning of the Bible is how it would have struck the people it says it was actually written to. The study of culture and human anthropology has raised instance after instance where words that seem to have obvious meaning to us would have meant something quite different originally.
Our point is that it was inevitable that a divide would arise between the study of the Bible and Christian theology once the Protestant Reformation restricted meaning to the literal. Liberalism is thus as much a child of the Reformation as evangelicalism. Indeed, mainstream evangelical hermeneutics itself deconstructs on this very point. It insists that only the contextual meaning of Scripture is the authoritative one, but when we listen to the New Testament in context, we find that it regularly finds authority in non-contextual meanings. The New Testament itself often finds inspired meaning in the Old Testament in "more than literal" interpretations. If we are to take seriously the Bible as the starting place for Christian thinking and action, then surely we must take seriously the fact that the Bible models a Spirit-mode of interpretation far more than a historical-contextual one.
For example, when Paul reads Deuteronomy 25:4's prohibition of muzzling an ox while it is treading grain, he finds it unlikely that the main point of this verse is about oxen: "Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake" (1 Cor. 9:9-10, NRSV). In other words, Paul sees the main spiritual point of this passage on an allegorical rather than a literal level. The New Testament thus bridges the gap between the historical and the theological by loosening the biblical text from its contextual moorings.
This is a point of immense significance. When 2 Timothy 3:16 says that "all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness," it does not in any way restrict such instruction to the literal meaning. Given the New Testament's own consistent interpretative method, we must acknowledge that the Spirit is free to interpret and apply Scriptures in ways you could never get from a masterful sentence diagram or Hebrew word study. Revivalist and Pentecostal hermeneutics thus stand in far greater continuity with biblical interpretive methods than mainstream evangelical hermeneutics do.
The solution to the "ditch" between the original, historical meanings of the Bible and the theological meanings Christians have seen in the words since the very beginning, is a careful allowance for more than literal meanings to the text. In truth, we who see the Bible as one book do this broadening of meaning whether we are willing to admit it to ourselves or not. Since the very beginning, Christians have brought Christian tradition with them to the text. Those who have not have more often formed cults or splinter groups.
The last five hundred years--especially in America--have witnessed the rise of tens of thousands of small Christian denominations who think they are just reading the Bible and doing what it says. But what they are really doing is finding unity in the Bible by reading it against their own social context, bringing their own non-historical definitions to the Bible's words. Here is the tension. Reading the Bible as Christian Scripture, as more than particular historical texts, will require us to bring some organizing principles from outside the text. But without something to ground the meaning of the text, we are each prone to "read what is right in our own eyes," resulting in the over twenty thousand different Christian denominations we have today.
The soundest way forward is not a quadrilateral, but a "trilateral" of Scripture, common Christian tradition, and Spiritual experience. We can continue to accept that each of the biblical writings were inspired historically for their own times and places, but the more we understand what this dynamic truly means, the more complicated it becomes to apply them to today, to bridge the distance between "that time" and "this time." But it is through common Christian tradition that the Spirit has set the boundaries for how to apply them, giving us a "Spiritual common sense" we all bring to the texts, whether we realize it or not. Common tradition provides the most stable rules for how to read and apply these diverse books as a single text with a common story. It is what the Christians of the first few centuries called the "rule of faith."
Behind all inspired meaning is the Spirit. It is the Spirit who makes the Bible be Scripture for us, a sacrament of revelation. He is constantly at work in us as individual readers, as Christian groups and denominations, and as the church universal.
The Wesleyan revivalist tradition, along with the Pentecostal tradition, is thus in an excellent position to be among those leading hermeneutics forward in the twenty-first century. We have always been a Scripture-centered tradition, but we have also been a pneumatic tradition. While it is perhaps not a great boast to say that we have produced few scholars of the historical-contextual meaning of the Bible, it has left us well situated to take the lead in a more balanced approach going forward. We can acknowledge the soundness of historical interpretation as providing insight into God's workings in the history of salvation, of God meeting the audiences of the Old and New Testaments where they were at in their particularity.
But we can also acknowledge that the Spirit brought a unity to these diverse texts in the hearts and minds of formative Christianity in the first centuries of this era. The Spirit led Christians to hear a common story, a common faith, and a common ethic in these texts, transforming them from individual books to a unified Scripture. The Spirit has provided correctives throughout history when tradition has arguably gone astray, chiefly in the Protestant Reformation. Yet the Spirit also can speak to individuals and small groups today, making the text come alive with meanings and direction just for them.