"In Evangelical Bible study, we started with the text - which we all agreed was verbally, plenarily, infallibly inspired. We'd read it, and then we'd have to start deconstructing it. You can't just read the English translation of the account of Ruth, or of Lot in Sodom, or even the Sermon on the Mount, and go drawing applications for life.
No, first you need to look at the audience of the original utterance or writing, the culture and language used, the literary form, the archaeological data that tell us how these people thought, and of course the grammatical analysis of the text in the original language. Now you can begin to reconstruct *what the speaker or writer meant*.
The underlying assumption is that you don't *know* what the biblical writer meant. You have to apply modern science, archaeology, antropology, sociology, and knowledge of ancient languages to build a substitute for the mindset and culture of the original audience. Then, you hope, you're ready to hear the words and *get* the message the writer meant.
Fundamentalists and Liberals in the Protestant world are really twins separated at birth, who can't see their own resemblance. Both are trying to do the same thing: To read Scripture as though nobody had ever read it before. Distrust all received tradition and go back to an agreed minimum canon of Scripture (The 1610 edition of the KJV or the Jesus Seminar's small set of trustworthy logia of Jesus, whatever) and then rebuild What Christianity Was.
What depressed me as an Evangelical was the fact that we had no reliable body of interpretive and cultural and linguistic data from the early Christians. We were adrift in a sea of data, trying to preserve some faithfulness to historical Christian faith by picking and choosing our authorities. Every assumption had its backers. Each pastor had to choose for
himself what he would accept and preach. 'In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.'
Imagine my delight and relief in discovering the earliest Christian writers - Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin, and all the rest. To me they were like a life-preserver thrown to a drowning man. I began to chuck doctrines and practices the Assemblies of God had taught me were normal to the early Church, as I read the firsthand accounts of how the disciples of St Paul and St John *really* interpreted Scripture.
I was not at the mercy of my own scholarship any more; in conforming my Christianity to what I found in the earliest Christianity, I was discovering something with some demonstrable *authenticity*.
There was still a ways to go before I encountered Orthodoxy and became convinced I should convert. But just discovering that there *are* external, objective boundaries to Biblical interpretation and worship and Church
government, was a welcome revelation."