How does New Testament teaching progress from Jesus to Paul? (Part 2)

Q. I’m teaching a Bible overview course on the Old and New Testaments. Please help me understand the progression of the teachings from Jesus and the apostles to Paul. How do they complement each other, and how do they differ? Thank you.

In my first post in response to this question, I suggested that Jesus’ teaching represented a “transformed dualism.” He redefined the “kingdom” as something that included people of all backgrounds, that was based on faith rather than law-keeping, and that was a present reality as well as a future one.

In this post I’d like to show that the apostles are portrayed in the book of Acts as affirming the understanding that Jesus taught of the “kingdom.” I will include Paul among the apostles here, since Acts shows how he worked alongside the ones whom Jesus chose and appointed during his earthly ministry. But I’ll discuss Paul’s writings separately, in my next post, and show how he transformed a further dualism. At the end of this post I’ll also look briefly at the general epistles and show how the letters of some of the other apostles confirm the impression we get from the book of Acts. (I’ll treat the letters of John, however, in my discussion of the Gospel of John in my final post.)

Acts suggests that even after Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples were still expecting a kingdom that would belong to the Jewish people. They asked him just before he ascended to heaven, “Is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus responded that it wasn’t for them to know such dates or times, but that instead they should be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Already that discouraged a Jewish-only understanding of the kingdom. And as the disciples fanned out to be witnesses as Jesus commanded, they found that first Greek-speaking Jews, and then Samaritans, and then even Gentiles were receptive to the faith they were proclaiming. Peter, to whom Jesus had given a leading position among the apostles, expressed the discovery this way: “Now I truly understand that God doesn’t show favoritism, but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

But even after the apostles and the whole Christian community accepted that non-Jews could be part of the “kingdom,” many still thought that everyone’s participation needed to be based on the law. This issue created such a controversy that a great meeting was ultimately held in Jerusalem to settle the matter. At this meeting there was much debate, in which many argued that the Gentiles did need to keep the law. But Peter finally stood up and insisted, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

By the time of this meeting, Paul, who had previously opposed the church violently, had been converted and sent out to bring the good news to the Gentiles. He came with his co-worker Barnabas, and the whole meeting listened in rapt attention as they told about “the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.” Finally James, the brother of Jesus and a respected elder of the church in Jerusalem, suggested that the Gentiles be welcomed into the community on the basis of faith, but that they also be asked to observe a few specific provisions of the law. His reason was that “the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” In other words, the Gentiles were being asked this in order not to scandalize people who knew about the law and would have expected followers of Jesus, who was still seen then as a Jewish teacher, not to do things like eating blood or eating food that had been offered to idols.

So the apostles ultimately upheld the ideas of a kingdom that was open to everyone on earth and that was based on faith. They also proclaimed the kingdom as a present reality, not just a future one. For example, at the end of his first missionary journey (into the Roman province of Asia), after nearly being killed himself by a hostile mob, Paul told the new believers in Jesus, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Paul didn’t mean they had to suffer hardships now in order to enter the kingdom in the future; he meant that they were entering the kingdom now, and suffering for it.

We see this same understanding of a present kingdom in the general epistles, even though they also envision a future kingdom. James, for example, says that the commandment to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” is a “royal law.” That is, it’s the law of a kingdom, or a law made by a king, or perhaps even the law on which this kingdom is based. So life in this present community is actually life in a kingdom—and it’s a kingdom of mutual love, not one governed by a code of laws that must be meticulously observed.

For his part, when Peter writes his first letter to believers throughout the western part of the Roman Empire, he tells them that they are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” This is language that was applied specifically to the Israelites in the Old Testament. Here Peter applies it to a community that consists of both Jews and Gentiles, and like James he invokes the “kingdom” concept inherent in the term “royal.” But Peter also tells these same believers, in his second letter, “Make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” So the kingdom is future as well as present.

The apostles, therefore, came to share and proclaim Jesus’ own transformed vision of the kingdom. As I said in my first post, your question deserves a much more extensive treatment; I’ve offered only a very brief sketch here. But I hope I’m tracing out an outline for you, and that you’ll be able to see where you can plug in your own insights and those of others.

In my next post I’ll show how Paul transformed a further dualism to arrive at an identical vision of what God was doing in the world.

How does New Testament teaching progress from Jesus to Paul? (Part 1)

Q. I’m teaching a Bible overview course on the Old and New Testaments. Please help me understand the progression of the teachings from Jesus and the apostles to Paul. How do they complement each other, and how do they differ? Thank you.

You’re asking a gigantic question about New Testament theology, and it really deserves to be treated by an entire volume in that field, rather than in a blog post or series of posts. However, your question is so delightfully inviting that I can’t resist sharing some of my own personal reflections in response to it, simply as a reader and student of the Bible. I would refer you to longer works on New Testament theology by writers such as Thomas R. Schreiner, George Eldon Ladd, I. Howard Marshall, and especially N.T. Wright for a more detailed answer to your question.

To summarize my whole response in advance, I would say that the teaching of Jesus represents a transformed dualism. (I’ll explain shortly what I mean by that.) The teaching of the apostles confirms Jesus’ teaching in that regard. Paul is among these apostles, and his teaching, since he addressed Greeks as well as Jews, also constitutes the transformation of a further dualism. There are some other New Testament books that seem to represent slightly divergent theological streams, but they ultimately contribute to a harmonious overall teaching.

In the rest of this first post, I’ll discuss the teaching of Jesus as presented in the synoptic gospels. In my next post, I’ll discuss the teaching of the apostles as presented in the book of Acts and, briefly, the general epistles.In the post after that, I’ll talk about Paul’s teaching. In a fourth and final post, I’ll look at the gospel and letters of John, Hebrews, and Revelation.


The synoptic evangelists (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) agree that the concept of the “kingdom of God” (often called the “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew) is the central element in the teaching of Jesus. Matthew and Mark summarize Jesus’ teaching by quoting his statement, “The kingdom of God has come near.” Luke reports that Jesus went about “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.”

However, Jesus used the term “kingdom” to mean something different than it had previously meant to the Jewish people of his time. It was therefore a term that he transformed. It was also a term that described a dualism. Jesus’ listeners understood the world in dualistic terms. As they saw it, there were only two kinds of people: those who were in the kingdom, and those who weren’t. The essence of the teaching of Jesus was to convey a new understanding of who was in and who was out by presenting a new vision of what the kingdom was.

The Jewish people understood the kingdom to be the kingdom of David. That is, it was a hereditary monarchy that would be re-established when a new ruler came from the line of David and restored their fortunes—their independence, prosperity, and influence. The crowds on Palm Sunday thought this was happening as Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph, and so they shouted, “Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” (That is, that is coming now, with this event.)

The people did express this same dualism with some other terms. Since the kingdom itself was hereditary, that is, it belonged to those who were descended from twelve tribes, they also spoke of a distinction between “Israel” and “the nations,” or between “Jew” and “Gentile,” when they were describing who was in and who was out. They also expressed a distinction between those who had the law (and were at least supposed to follow it) and people who were “sinners” and didn’t follow the law because they didn’t have it. Jesus used this kind of language himself in the Garden of Gethsemane when he said, “The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” He meant “Gentiles”—he was being turned over to the Romans for trial and execution. Paul reports in Galatians that he used the expression “Gentile sinners” when speaking to Peter, who was a fellow Jew (although Paul’s theology deals largely with a different dualism, as we’ll see in a later post).

However, even though there were these other ways of expressing the distinction between those who were “in” and “out,” the kingdom remains the primary term in the teaching of Jesus. And it’s the term he specifically employed to transform the dualism that he encountered.

For one thing, Jesus presented a vision of the kingdom of God as not exclusively hereditary, but rather open to anyone, Jew or Gentile. He said, for example, that “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom [i.e. people of Jewish descent] will be thrown into the outer darkness.” Jesus said this right after commending the faith of a Roman centurion who asked him to heal his servant (“I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith“). So the implication is that the kingdom belongs to all those who have faith in God, not just to those who can claim a certain ethnic pedigree. Faith means not so much belief about God as an implicit trust in God. Jesus encouraged people to have this same kind of implicit trust in himself.

Another transformation Jesus introduced was to envision the kingdom as something that was already present, not something that would only arrive in the future when the monarchy was re-established. That’s part of the tantalizing ambiguity of Jesus’ thematic statement, “The kingdom of God has come near.” It can mean either that the kingdom is nearby (in place), or that the time of the kingdom is just about to begin or has already begun. In Mark, the statement is prefaced with, “The time is fulfilled,” emphasizing the temporal aspect. According to Luke, Jesus stated even more explicitly that the kingdom was not a future reality but a present one: “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst.'” That is, “It’s already here, in my person and in the community that I’m creating.”

To expand on that a bit, let me say that I personally believe that Jesus gave his most concise definition of the kingdom of God in the Lord’s Prayer. He taught his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I don’t think that’s two separate requests; it’s saying the same thing in two different ways. The implication is that the kingdom of God is present on earth wherever and whenever God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, that is, without resistance. This holds true most of all in the area of relationships. When people relate to one another unconditionally in the way God wants them to, then God’s kingdom appears among them on earth in its “already” form. (Jesus didn’t teach that the kingdom was exclusively present; he also spoke often of when he would return in power to establish his kingdom. That’s the “not yet” form, which we are still anticipating.)

So the dualism that Jesus was engaging envisioned a world in which people were either in or out of a kingdom that was the possession of a particular ethnic group, that was based on law-keeping, and that was expected in the future. He replaced that vision with one in which people were either in or out of a kingdom that was open to everyone on earth, that was based on faith, and that was already present, in addition to being expected in the future.

I’ll discuss in my next post how the apostles confirmed the understanding of the kingdom that’s found in the teaching of Jesus.

Rembrandt, “Christ Preaching.” The synoptic gospels say that the core of Jesus’ preaching was his message about the kingdom of God.

Why does the book of Kings give so much more attention to Solomon’s palace than to the temple?

Q. Is it strange that in the book of Kings, Solomon took seven years to build God’s temple (in essence, Yahweh’s house, a place where heaven and earth met) but spent thirteen years building his own house? Logically I would expect him to spend more time building God’s temple, but the book offers more description, detail, and attention to his house compared to the temple. Is this strange, or we are learning of how God actually truly blessed him abundantly, or this is bringing our attention more to the human condition?

Actually, the book of Kings devotes far more attention to the temple than to Solomon’s palace. But I can understand how you got a different impression. The book first describes how Solomon took seven years to build the temple. Then, relatively quite briefly, it relates how Solomon built his own palace, taking thirteen years to complete it. (He may have been working on both projects at the same time; in other words, the thirteen years for the palace didn’t necessarily begin only after the seven years for the temple were over.)

The book of Kings then returns to the temple, describing its furnishings at great length, in a passage that parallels the description of the earlier construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness. (You may have gotten the impression that these were the furnishings of Solomon’s palace instead, because the book introduces the palace but then returns to describe the temple.)

In one representative English translation, the description of the temple’s construction and furnishings takes over 1,800 words, while Solomon’s palace is described in less than 300 words. Just a bit later in the book, as Solomon’s reign is being summarized, there’s a further description of his throne and some of the furnishings of his palace, but that takes less than 200 more words.

The temple gets even more attention if we count the description of how it  was dedicated when the ark of the covenant was brought into it. That involves nearly another 2,000 words. So the focus is really very much on the temple as a dwelling place for God and as a center for worship that will draw in people from all nations. And I think that reflects the priorities of the biblical authors.

An artist’s interpretation of Solomon’s temple. (Image courtesy Wikipedia.)

 

Why did John the Baptist later question whether Jesus was the Messiah?

Q. I have recently been applying the technique of reading the Bible without thinking much about the chapters. Something struck me when I saw that John the Baptist, who was there at Jesus’s baptism and not only saw the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus but also heard the voice of God proclaiming that Jesus was indeed God’s Son, later on sent his disciples, when he was in prison, to ask if Jesus was the one or whether they should continue looking for another. What caused John, who in the beginning seemed fully persuaded, after a few pages seemingly to question his belief concerning Jesus’s identity. As I got to thinking about this question, I asked myself could it be that the disciples found themselves in the same circumstance after living and experiencing supernatural experiences with the Messiah, since we see them going into hiding after Jesus is arrested. Could you please help clarify what could be going on here, what could be the author be trying to communicate to us.

First, I commend you for reading the books of the Bible as whole literary works, rather than treating their chapters as discrete units to be considered individually and separately. As you’re already discovering, the purposes of the biblical authors extend throughout their entire works, and to appreciate those purposes, we need to catch the flow and development of plot, characterization, and themes as these unfold over the course of a whole book. So good for you for noticing the change in John the Baptist’s position toward Jesus—that is indeed something the author wants to use to convey a message to us. (Keep up the good work in your reading of and reflection on the Bible!)

I’ll approach your question through the Gospel of Matthew, because it’s the one that makes the most use of these episodes in John the Baptist’s life. To state the matter simply, John definitely knew, when Jesus came to him for baptism, that Jesus was the Messiah. The Spirit descending and the voice from heaven made that clear. But John didn’t yet understand what kind of Messiah Jesus was.

John said of the Messiah, His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. In other words, John expected the Messiah to come in judgment, rewarding the faithful and punishing the wicked. He didn’t yet realize that Jesus came the first time to teach, heal, and finally suffer and die on our behalf. Only when Jesus returns a second time will he execute the kind of judgment that John expected in his own lifetime.

Because John didn’t realize this, he didn’t expect that he would be put in prison by King Herod when he challenged him to become a more godly ruler. John probably expected that either Herod would repent, as so many thousands of people had already done in response to his preaching, or else God would start at the top and judge and punish Herod for his defiance. Instead, Herod threw John in prison and he languished there. A fine place for the herald of the one who was supposed to come with his winnowing fork in his hand!

So John sent messengers to Jesus to ask, Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” In other words, “Was I wrong to say that you were the Messiah?” Jesus responds, in effect, “You were right that I am the Messiah, but you were wrong about what kind of Messiah I am.” This is what he means when he tells John’s messengers, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” These were all signs of how God’s kingdom was breaking into the world through Jesus’ teaching and his acts of healing and compassion. John, on the other hand, was expecting Jesus to seize power and trounce the enemies of God, so he missed the significance of what was going on in Jesus’ ministry.

There are at least two things that the author would like us to understand from this. The episode is placed within the section of Matthew’s gospel dedicated to the “mystery of the kingdom.” In this section, we discover that the kingdom of God doesn’t look like what we expect. The episodes in this section lead up to the collection of parables, which talk about the kingdom beginning in small, nearly imperceptible ways, but then growing to have a great impact. For example: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” So one thing we’re supposed to learn is to look for the kingdom in the right places, and to use the right means to promote its growth and extension.

But Matthew also records that Jesus said to John’s disciples, after calling their attention to his teaching and healing, Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” This can also be translated, “Blessed is the person who is not offended by me,” or, “Blessed is the one who is not  scandalized by me.” It means that we should continue to trust Jesus, believe in him, and follow him, even when things aren’t turning out for us the way we expect. It’s likely that none of us really appreciates exactly what kind of Savior Jesus is, for us and for our world, and so we need to keep trusting him even when things happen that we don’t understand and weren’t expecting.

If we doubt him instead, then we “stumble,” that is, we are “offended” or “scandalized.” In the parables that follow shortly after this episode, Matthew repeats the specific Greek term that’s translated those various ways in English. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus warns about “people who hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away” (that is, they stumble or are offended). This parable generalizes the message from the episode of John the Baptist, warning all readers to apply it to themselves.

But along with this warning there is some wonderful encouragement. The Gospel of Matthew alternates between collections of narrative episodes and collections of Jesus’ teachings. The first large collection of teachings is the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with the Beatitudes, that is, a series of statements in which Jesus says that certain kinds of people will be blessed for certain reasons. (For example, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”) There are nine beatitudes. We’re supposed to wonder, “Why not ten?” Many characteristics of the Sermon on the Mount clearly portray Jesus as a new Moses, delivering a new understanding of what the kingdom of God means. The teaching that Moses brought down from the mountain began with the Ten Commandments; why doesn’t Jesus teaching on the mount begin with ten beatitudes?

If we read the Gospel of Matthew as a literary whole, we realize when we come to the episode about John the Baptist that we’ve finally found the tenth beatitude: Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” If we’re going to be the kind of people through whose lives the kingdom of God can break steadily into this world—meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and so forth—then we also need to be prepared to suffer for taking such a counter-cultural stance without trying also to seize power to protect ourselves. The kingdom of God will advance through this very suffering. But we need to trust in Jesus all the way through it.

Detail from a stained glass window depicting John the Baptist, Church of Saint Paul, Yellow Springs, Ohio. The Latin banner reads, “Behold the Lamb of God.” However, in this image, as in the Scriptural account, John seems to be expecting the Messiah to come more as a “lion” than as a “lamb”!

Is Jesus insulting the Canaanite woman by calling her a “dog”?

Q. I read the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman the other day and I have no idea what Jesus is talking about in the parable when he references crumbs and dogs eating the crumbs. Can you shed some light on this passage?

“The Woman of Canaan” by Michael Angelo Immenraet, 1670s

This story is confusing and sometimes upsetting to readers of the gospels because it appears that Jesus is not only rebuffing someone who comes to him for help, he’s actually insulting her in the process.

A Canaanite woman asks Jesus to deliver her daughter, who’s suffering at the hands of a demon, but he won’t even speak to her. When his disciples urge him to help, he replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (The woman is a non-Israelite.) And when she appeals to Jesus personally, he responds, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

So Jesus seems to have a very callous and insulting attitude. However, I think something different is actually going on here.

This was an oral culture whose ways were embodied in popular sayings. These were often cited in support of a particular course of action. When two people had different courses in mind, they would pit different sayings against each other until one person had to admit, “Okay, you’ve got me there.”

This kind of thing can happen in our own culture. For example, two friends might visit a new part of town on a weekend, looking for a restaurant where they can have dinner. The first place they consider says it can seat them immediately. One of them might say, “Maybe we should eat here. After all, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.'” But if the other thinks there could be a better restaurant down the street that would be worth the wait, he might reply, “Yes, but ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.'”

Similarly, I think Jesus is actually quoting a popular saying to the woman: “It’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” This saying probably had a general application meaning something like, “Don’t use something expensive or valuable for a common purpose.” Jesus is applying it to the mandate he has, during his limited time on earth, to concentrate his efforts on ministry to the people of Israel, as their Messiah. (After his resurrection, his message will spread to all the people of the world from that starting point.)

The woman, however, comes up with what I think is an original saying of her own in response: “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus responds, in effect, “You’ve got me there,” and he heals her daughter.

But this was not merely a battle of wits that the woman won by her cleverness and quick thinking. Rather, I believe Jesus evaluated every situation he encountered in order to discern how God might be at work in it. In the gospel of John he’s quoted as saying, “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” So Jesus was always on the lookout for when his Father might be doing something that he could join in with.

I believe, for example, that when his mother Mary came to him at the wedding in Cana and told him that the hosts had run out of wine, while Jesus thought initially that the time hadn’t come yet for him to do “signs” in public, he ultimately recognized that Mary’s persistent and trusting faith was an indication that God was at work in the situation. And so he did his first miracle there, turning water into wine.

I believe that Jesus similarly recognized the Canaanite woman’s bold request and audacious persistence as indications that God was giving her the faith to believe her daughter could be delivered if she sought help from Jesus. It was in response to that recognition, inspired by the woman’s reply to his challenge, that Jesus acted to heal the daughter, giving an advance glimpse of how his influence would soon extend beyond the borders of Israel.

 

Why does Peter call Jesus a “living stone” and his followers “living stones”?

Q. Peter writes in his first letter, “As you come to him [Jesus], the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” What is a “living stone”? What does that mean?

The references to Jesus as a living stone, and to us his followers as living stones, actually look forward to the quotation from Isaiah that Peter offers shortly afterwards. In the original context in Isaiah, the “cornerstone” is a figure for justice. The correct lines for a stone building (i.e. the placement of all the other blocks) were all derived from a perfectly squared-off cornerstone that was laid down first. In the same way, God says, He will establish justice so that all of the Judeans can know whether their actions are “within the lines” or not. (“I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line.”)

As often happens when New Testament authors see a Messianic meaning in an Old Testament prophecy, Peter is “escalating” the language so that the cornerstone (justice) becomes personified in Jesus. That’s what “living” means: An abstraction, justice, is now embodied in a person, Jesus the Messiah. He is, in effect, the “first block laid down,” and we who are “being built into a spiritual house” (that is, into a new kind of temple, as other New Testament writers also say) need to take our bearings and find our placement from Jesus. Not in a physical sense, but in the sense of moral purpose: “How can my life and actions fit in with what God has already started doing in the world through Jesus?”

We today probably aren’t very familiar with the approach to construction that involves first laying down a cornerstone. So let me offer a modern analogy. When a baseball field is laid out, the first thing put down is home plate. The foul lines are drawn out from the back of it. And those foul lines tell you whether a batted ball is “in” or “out.” The life, teachings, and example of Jesus establish the lines in our lives of what’s “in” and “out,” not just morally, but also in keeping with God’s expanding purposes in the world. He is, in effect, a “living home plate,” and we are a “living infield” and a “living outfield.”

Should the Bible be interpreted based on methods that apply to any text generally?

Q. It seems that one could end up with any number of Biblical interpretations depending on the prior choice of which hermeneutics (the interpretive axioms from which everything else is derived) to follow. So how does one decide which hermeneutical method to use when interpreting the Bible?  Are biblical hermeneutics largely based upon what the Bible says of itself?  Or are they chosen based on broadly accepted methods of textual criticism? If they are based on methods that apply to any text generally, how does one account for the unique status of the Bible in its interpretation and not essentially reduce it to merely human literature?

You’re absolutely right that the message we get out of the Bible is dependent on the method we use to understand it and apply it to our lives.  And nowhere in the Bible is there a specific set of instructions for what method we should use.  Nevertheless, people who believe that the Bible is divinely inspired generally agree about what the appropriate method is.

The character of the Bible is understood by such people according to a Christological analogy.  That is, just as Jesus was fully human and fully divine, so the Bible is the word of God coming to us through the writings of human authors.  The books of the Bible need to be fully human literature, or the Christological analogy does not hold.  This means that, as Rudolph Bultmann aptly put it in his essay on “The Problem of Hermeneutics,” “The interpretation of biblical writings is not subject to conditions different from those applying to all other kinds of literature.”  (Bultmann’s theory of inspiration was different from the one familiar to many of us today, but he still considered the Bible to be divinely inspired.)

And this view corresponds to the character of the biblical writings themselves.  They are composed in ordinary languages and follow the conventions of recognizable literary genres.  It is only by faith, strengthened by the testimony of the Christian community throughout the ages and our own experience of the Bible as “living and active” in our own lives, that we recognize it to be the word of God.

But if someone does accept the Bible as God’s word to us, coming through human words that are spoken about and even to God, then they can be confident in responsibly interpreting it “based on methods that apply to any text generally,” as you put it.  This is actually very freeing, because it means that we don’t have to worry about finding some secret code or esoteric method that will really disclose the Bible’s message to us.

If we learn how to read well, we will read the Bible well.