1. A Little History
2. The Authority of God
3. Different Kinds of Speaking
4. What God Intended 1
For some, the words of the Bible more or less have a single meaning for all time. Such individuals normally take its words more or less propositionally and thus see all of those meanings as without error. For them, the meaning of the Bible for its first audiences is the same as its meaning for us today no matter where we might live in the world. For this person, the Bible's inerrancy is rather straightforward.
For other Wesleyans, the more you read the Bible in its historical context, the more complicated the meaning of the Bible becomes. In the last section, we saw that different words "do" different things. They express emotion. They command things. They promise things. They make assertions. A proper definition of inerrancy relates primarily to assertions of truths.
Other descriptive terms seem more appropriate for promises--that they are unfailing. Commands are authoritative. Expressions of emotions can be cathartic. In the last section we hinted that different parts of Scripture might do different things and that to flatten out all these purposes into assertions is probably to miss out on the richness of the Bible's meaning.
Now we want to look at another element in the equation. The meaning of words is a function of how they are used in a particular time and place. That is why the words of the King James Version and Shakespeare are hard for most of us to understand. That is why languages come in and out of existence. Every year, new words--and new meanings to old words--are added to the dictionary, while other words and meanings are removed.
The first meaning of the Bible's words--the meaning their original, first audiences understood--was a function of what words meant at the time. This claim seems beyond dispute. To understand 1 Corinthians as it was first understood, we would need a Webster's AD50 Corinthian dictionary (which of course does not exist). In the next section we will ask whether God might have intended more than this first meaning. But if the books of the Bible were really written to the people the books say they are, then the first meaning was surely a meaning they largely understood.
This is a significant point. The books of the Bible do not say they are written to us. They say they were written to them. For all the fighting that has taken place over the "literal" meaning of the Bible, the books of the Bible literally say they were written to someone else. On this point there is not the slightest debate.
What I am getting at is that the first sense of the Bible's inerrancy, infallibility, authority, and expressive dimension was a matter of what God was intending for its first audiences. In other words, it was a contextual inerrancy, infallibility, authority, and expression. Again, we will look at how these dimensions relate to us in the next section. In this section we want to talk about the first meaning, to them.
Surely all Wesleyans would accept at least some differences between how God related to ancient Israel and how he related to the New Testament Christians. For example, every Wesleyan would surely accept that God's command to Israel to offer animal sacrifices no longer applies literally to us today. God did mean it literally to ancient Israel and they sacrificed lots of animals. But the literal command is no longer God's command to us today.
We would encounter more disagreement on how, say, the Sabbath commandment applies to today. Some Wesleyans would argue that the New Testament says nothing that retains the Sabbath commandment in the new covenant at all (Rom. 14:5; Col. 2:16). Other Wesleyans believe the command not to work is still literally in force, only that it now applies to Sunday instead of Saturday. But no Wesleyans observe the Sabbath law on Saturday--the original meaning of the command. Accordingly, all Wesleyans acknowledge that the Sabbath law applies differently to us today than it did to ancient Israel.
My point is that, at least on some level, all Wesleyans would accept that some of the commands of Scripture related to a particular context that no longer applies to us today, that the meaning and implication of Scripture can play out differently for us than it did for them. Some would broaden this principle to say that it is God's normal mode of operation to meet people where they are. This is the principle of incarnation, where God "takes on the flesh" of those to whom he speaks. Otherwise, how would they understand?
From this point of view, every moment of revelation in Scripture was a moment of God meeting his people where they were at. He met them within their categories of understanding. His revelation of truth was revelation within their framework of understanding. His commands had to do with the significance of actions in their historical-cultural context.
If God revealed himself in Swahili to me, I would not understand. Similarly, we would expect God to meet ancient Israel in the categories of an agrarian, farming world, rather than in the terms of a modern monetary economy. This implies a potential gap in application. Commands to ancient Israel on lending have to be understood, in the first place, within the matrix of the economy of ancient Israel. To apply them directly to today would be to rip them from their world and change their meaning.
All these considerations have a direct bearing on what we might mean when we say that the original meaning of the books of the Bible was inerrant or infallible or authoritative or expressive. In the first place, it was without error within their frames of reference. It was unfailing to them within the parameters God set for the original purpose. It was authoritative to them in their particular circumstances. And it was expressive for them.
The inerrancy, infallibility, authority, and expressiveness of Scripture is not limited to these original parameters. But the original contexts provide us with the first meanings of the Bible, the original ones. Whatever the inerrancy, infallibility, authority, and expressiveness of the Bible is, it first expressed itself then. It started with what God intended for them, in their worlds...