John Drury gave a wonderful comparison of John Wesley and Karl Barth's interpretation of Matthew 5:48 at our weekly Theological Seminar (3:30 every week in the CM building if you're interested). It highlighted to me again the contrasting use Christian interpreters of the centuries have put to Scripture versus the original meaning. Three quick examples come to mind of late.
1. Barth has a rather sophisticated understanding of Matthew 5:48--perfect means brought to its appropriate goal, which would of course differ in specifics between God and humanity. For Wesley, of course, this verse hinted at Christian perfection. Both are wrong in terms of the original meaning. Perfection in Matthew 5:48 simply means to be complete, to go the whole way. Love your enemies and your neighbor. Be complete. The completion is exactly the same for God and for humanity in this case.
2. A student email asked of the distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. Apparently, this is a well worked out distinction among Christian interpreters. In Matthew, however, they are synonymous, with the phrase "kingdom of heaven" being a matter of Matthew's style.
3. Salvation for Paul is future oriented (with the possible exception of Ephesians). It is to escape God's coming wrath on the Day of Judgment. Theologians of the centuries, I think however, have focused more on salvation in the present.
Because of the flexibility of language, I accept the validity of both types of interpretation, the original, contextual one, and the truths Christian theologians have heard in the words over the centuries. The truths they see do not necessarily contradict the original meaning. They are just interpreting the words differently.
But I'm never quite sure what to do with the difference. If you want theological enrichment, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Wesley are wonderful. But don't go to any of these if you want the original meaning. They were not oriented or equipped to read in context and their interpretations regularly fall far wide of the mark from an inductive standpoint.
My problem is that I find it distracting. Barth is incredibly profound, as are so many theologians. I feel like I should be able to listen to him or Wesley for the truth God gave to them on their own terms. But I am left wondering what to do with the fact that they sometimes do their dance based on misunderstanding. Perhaps this is my problem and one that shouldn't be.