Sunday, August 19, 2012

2b Revelation cont (bibl. theol)

... continued from yesterday
What did the New Testament authors now understand these Scriptures to be?  2 Timothy 3:16 of course is the classic verse on the topic: "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."  However, there is usually not a little assumption involved with the way this verse is understood, indeed an incredible lack of self-awareness.

For example, since the Protestant Reformation, there has been the unjustified assumption that this verse only refers to the literal or plain sense of an Old Testament text. [4]  But even the barest look at the New Testament reveals that the "God-breathed" or "inspired" meaning of Scripture for the New Testament authors was often something more than literal. [5] So Paul in Galatians 4:24 hears an inspired allegorical truth in the story of Hagar and Sarah in Genesis.  The inspired truth he argues for is based on a highly figurative meaning.

This verse thus cannot be used to argue for the form of inerrancy that was promoted in mid-twentieth century neo-evangelicalism.  Responding to the modernist challenges of its day, the fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism of that period was highly literal and historical in orientation, even scientific. But the New Testament authors themselves were just as likely to hear an inspired meaning that was figurative or out of context (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:9-10).

So Hosea was not predicting an event in the life of Jesus when he spoke of how God called his son Israel out of Egypt (Hos. 11:1).  In fact, Hosea talks about how God's son then went on to serve other gods (11:2), absolutely not a reference to Jesus. The inspired meaning that Matthew 2:15 hears in this text is thus not the historical meaning of the verse but a more than literal one.

In this case, we need to speak of two moments of inspiration.  The inspired meaning many New Testament authors heard in the text of the Old Testament was an inspired meaning the Spirit was giving to them.  This second inspiration need not contradict the first, but it was often distinct from the first. This is a practical issue even today.  The inspiration of the biblical texts is only as effective to me as my understanding.  If God does not illuminate me, then God's voice in the text falls on deaf ears.  Similarly, the Spirit can speak to me in an inspired way even when I am misunderstanding the biblical text.

We will move forward in our understanding of revelation if we recognize the fundamental polyvalence of language, the fact that the same words are susceptible to multiple potential meanings.  It is only in specific contexts that we can know which meaning is intended. Context is everything.  Hosea 11:1 had one meaning when Hosea originally prophesied it. It took on another when Matthew 2:15 related it to Jesus' exit from Egypt. I feel quite confident that at some point since the Civil War some African-American preacher has preached from Hosea 11:1 in relation to the post-slavery period, urging his or her congregation not to be like Israel after its liberation from slavery. We believe the first two were definitely inspired, and I have no problem believing the third one was as well.

This flexibility of language means that we have to think of inspiration as something the Holy Spirit is actively engaged in even today.  The individual books of the Bible reflect moments of inspiration as God walked with his people in the focal part of human history, the time immediately preceding and following the coming of Christ. The New Testament books reflect inspiration in the reading of the Old Testament books, often in ways that were distinct from the original meanings of those texts. But if that inspiration is only a thing of the past, then how can I be sure I know what God wants me to do today?

The books were first written to them, not to me. That means that their first meaning was a function of their ancient contexts.  How should I then connect them to my world?  Shall I follow a complicated system of finding points of continuity between that time and this time, looking for the fulcrum points in Scripture from which I can integrate the rest?  I hope to do some of that work in this project. It seems completely legitimate.

But the Spirit surely has also inspired individuals and communities of faith to hear God's authoritative direction directly from the words of Scripture. The problem is certainty.  How can I know for sure when I have heard God?  How can I know for sure when my church or denomination has heard God?  How can I know for sure that I have applied the biblical text correctly, even if I have done my exegesis very carefully and accurately?

I think we inevitably end up with a more robust sense of how God has spoken to us through the church, especially in its formative years.  Despite the incredible diversity within Christianity, we share a lot of beliefs and practices in common.  For example, while there is a good deal of disagreement on baptism, it is clear that groups that do not baptize at all are out of sync with most of historic Christianity. Similarly, Christians have commonly believed since the early 300s that Jesus was fully divine in the same way that God the Father is divine.  An individual or group might try to use a passage or verse in Scripture to try to argue for something different, but it is surely significant that most Christians throughout history have held these sorts of understandings in common.

Another key insight is to recognize that this entire way of talking about revelation focuses on the head, on understanding... [continued next weekend, perhaps]

[4] 2 Timothy is only referring to what we call the Old Testament since the New Testament was not fully written or collected at the time.

[5] I may from time to time use the notes of this project to distinguish the Wesleyan holiness tradition that is my own heritage from mainstream neo-evangelicalism and other Protestant groups.  Along with its sister Pentecostal tradition, holiness preaching often was typological and "spiritual" in its early days in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Thus while mainstream Protestantism and evangelicalism has historically fixated on the literal or plain sense of Scripture, the methods of applying Scripture often used by holiness and Pentecostal preachers were by contrast much more like those of the New Testament authors themselves.

1 comment:

John C. Gardner said...

These two postings on revelation are well written, cogent and worthy of reflection. Thank you for sharing them.