1. A Little History
2. The Authority of God
3. Different Kinds of Speaking
4. What God Intended 1
5. What God Intended 2
6. What God Intends
The default reading of Scripture is probably not to focus on what it meant, past tense, but on what it means, present tense. Probably, most Christians would not see a distinction. What it meant is what it means in all tenses--one meaning for all time.
As the last section explored, others will conclude that language usually does not work this way. In fact, you could argue that the more general an audience language has, the less immediately relevant it normally is to any one audience. By contrast, evangelical Bible scholars generally see the New Testament letters as "occasional" in nature, meaning that in general they were not written as theological treatises but to address the needs of real communities at specific times and places. Even in the case of Romans, few if any experts would consider this magnificent letter to be a "compendium of Christian doctrine." It also addressed a real community at a particular time and place.
These dynamics bring us to the question of how to apply Scripture to today. Sometimes the text will reach out to us over time and apply directly to our situation today. Sometimes it will not. Sometimes it will apply in a more general sense but with different specifics. Our Wesleyan heritage would also allow that the Spirit can sometimes reapply the text to us in ways completely new and different from anything originally meant.
Whatever God intends the text to do today, it will unfailingly do. Whatever God wants to assert to us today through the text will be inerrant. Whatever God wants to command us to do today through the biblical text will be authoritative. And these may be the same, similar, related in some way, or completely different from what he originally intended in the past through those Scriptures.
For example, if we look at biblical commands, we would all agree that some biblical commands obviously apply to all time. "Love your neighbor as yourself" is one (e.g., Matt. 22:39). This command is present both in the Jewish Law and throughout the New Testament. The New Testament itself repeatedly affirms the love command as an encapsulation of the Law. Christians since have found this command to ring true. It is one of the unquestionable absolutes of Christian ethics and just as authoritative over us today as ever.
What about the instruction for Thessalonian men to greet each other with a kiss (1 Thess. 5:26)? What about the commands to offer animal sacrifices or to put tassels on the edges of garments? In the first case, the meaning of greeting with a kiss today probably would not be the same at least in North America as it was in ancient Thessalonica. Here God's intention is surely that the church view itself as a family and in warm fellowship. Perhaps a holy handshake will do the trick. We can thus play out the instruction in a similar way while not doing exactly the same thing.
But I do not know of any Christians that believe God intends for us to offer animal sacrifices today, and I do not know any Christians who stay up at night worrying about having clothing with tassels. In the first case, the New Testament book of Hebrews puts Leviticus into Christian perspective. In the second case, most Christians would consider tassels as something specific to Israel and not required of believers in the new covenant, following the lead of the apostle Paul.
When you get into the details, the old, "God said it, I believe it" approach simply does not settle it in many cases because we are not the original audience. We are not the ones God was talking to. A lot of spiritual common sense is involved in applying Scripture, not to mention a whole lot of inherited Christian tradition about applying the text. And chances are, we are not even fully aware these processes are going on.
How do we know what God intends for a text, especially when it is not exactly the same as what he intended originally? There is a historical method for determining what the text meant. But to determine what God means today for the text goes beyond what it meant and requires input from outside the text in question itself.
In the case of the Old Testament, the New Testament (if you are a Christian) gives us a clear sense of what God intended for the church beyond what he might have intended for Israel. Those who read the Bible as a single book may not even realize the extent to which they already read the Old Testament through New Testament eyes. They may not even be fully aware of the originally intended meaning for Israel.
For example, ancient Israel arguably did not read Genesis 2-3 as the reason there is sin in the world. They probably did not see the serpent in Genesis 3 as Satan. They may not even have read it as the reason there is death in the world. We are so used to reading Genesis through the eyes of Paul (Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15) as Christian tradition has interpreted him (e.g., through Augustine), that we automatically read these chapters with Christian eyes, as we believe God intends for us to read them.
But Genesis 2-3 do not mention Satan. We have no evidence of a Jew interpreting the snake as Satan until around the time of Jesus. The word "sin" is nowhere in this passage. Indeed, in the story, Adam and Eve were expected to die from the very beginning--the tree of life would have added life. If we listen to the original story, death is a consequence in the sense that Adam's disobedience (also a word not used in Genesis) prevented life. It did not directly cause death.
What God intended for this story in ancient Israel arguably had to do with expressing the problem of hard labor in farming, pain in childbearing, and why snakes and humans do not get along together (Gen. 3:17-19). After all, this is what the text actually says. But through the eyes of the New Testament, we believe that God intends for us to see much more in the story, namely, the sinful human condition that needs the atonement of Christ. God did not fail in his original purposes for the text and he does not fail today in the text.
God did not fail in the New Testament when he inspired Paul to see a more cosmic meaning to the story, even though it was a relatively new meaning as far as Israel was concerned. And the Spirit will not fail you if the Spirit speaks authentically to you through some new meaning of the text he gives you. God did not fail in the first meaning he intended, the original meaning. God did not fail in the New Testament or Christian meaning he established for biblical texts, the God meaning. And God will not fail in any extended meaning he might make come alive for you, a Spirit meaning.
The problem with extended meanings is knowing for certain that they are from God. An individual can be completely wrong about what the Spirit is saying. But any word from God is as authoritative as any other, because the authority behind any of God's authentic words is God. The problem of knowing which is which is our problem, not a problem with the word itself.
Many people do not realize how flexible the meaning of words is. This is why there are tens of thousands of Christian groups, so many of which think they are simply reading the Bible and doing what it says. Even the New Testament authors themselves, although God spoke through them, perhaps did not fully realize this flexibility of language. They were good charismatics, who heard what God intended for them in the words without always realizing how it might have been different from what God originally intended for Israel.
They did not err when they saw spiritual meanings in Old Testament texts. I was once quite troubled about the way Matthew uses Hosea in Matthew 2:15. In Matthew, Joseph and Mary have taken toddler Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod. They stay there till Herod dies. Then they return to Israel, which Matthew says fulfills the Old Testament verse, "Out of Egypt I called my son" in Hosea 11:1.
I had never looked, but I fully expected that if I were to look this verse in Hosea 11 up, I would find a fairly straightforward prediction saying that the future Messiah at some point would travel out of Egypt. But that is not what Hosea 11 says. Hosea 11 is not a prediction about the future. It is a comment about something that was already past for Hosea for some 500 years, the exodus from Egypt.
And not only was it not originally about the Messiah or Jesus, it was about sinful Israel. Hosea 11:2 goes on to say that although God had brought Israel, his son, out of Egypt, Israel had served other gods. The passage in Hosea goes on to say how God was going to judge the Israel of Hosea's day for its faithlessness, which God did when he brought Assyria against them and destroyed the northern kingdom in 722BC.
I was horrified by this issue when it first really came home. Given the fundamentalist way I had understood inerrancy, Matthew seemed to be in error. He seemed to have misunderstood the passage in Hosea. After all, there is no ambiguity whatsoever about what Hosea meant, and Hosea certainly wasn't predicting anything about the Messiah, let alone about his travel plans.
This is why some Wesleyans will want to take a broader understanding of inerrancy, one that allows for God's intentions for a text to be broader than even what a biblical author originally understood. Now Matthew may very well have known he was taking Hosea in an extended sense. We cannot even say his understanding of the text was in error. I would now certainly want to say that the fundamentalist expectations I had of the text were in error.
But none of that is the point. The point is that God did not fail in what he wanted to do originally through this biblical text in Hosea's day. And God also did not fail in what he wanted to do in the New Testament through an Old Testament text in Matthew's day. And the Spirit will not fail in something he may want to do today through this biblical text.
When 2 Timothy 3:16 says that all Scripture is God-breathed and that it is profitable for teaching, correcting, and training, it is important to realize that no New Testament author treated this instruction as if it only applied to the literal or original meaning of a text. Paul shows this quite clearly in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10, where he applies a verse in Deuteronomy 25:4 that says not to muzzle and ox when it is harvesting grain. He sees the key meaning of this verse not in its literal meaning, but in an extended sense. Paul practically dismisses its literal reading. The spiritual meaning he legitimately sees is that ministers should be supported by those whom they serve. 2 Timothy 3:16 thus cannot be used to enforce a narrow view of inerrancy.
So some Wesleyans function with a more or less fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy, one that sees each text more or less having one meaning for all time. They would see those meanings as largely assertive and apply inerrancy to all or almost all aspects of that single meaning. This is an acceptable perspective for a Wesleyan to have.
Other Wesleyans will factor in the kinds of complexity we have been discussing throughout this booklet. This is also a legitimate perspective for a Wesleyan to have. Both groups should respect each other because both are, in their own way, doing their best to listen to the text and to submit to God's authority as mediated by the text.
Tomorrow: the conclusion (dv)