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Synoptic Theology: An Essay on Pentecostal Hermeneutics

Editor's Note: On August 5, 2011, William W. Menzies entered into the presence of the Lord. Bill was a longtime Assemblies of God educator. He taught at Central Bible College (1958-1970), Evangel University (1970-1980), and the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (1980-1983). After serving as interim president at the Far East Advanced School of Theology in Manila (1984-1985) and vice president for academic affairs at California Theological Seminary in Fresno, Calif. (1985-1987), he served as president of Asia Pacific Theological Seminary in Baguio City, Philippines (1989-1996). From 1996 until his death he served as president emeritus and chancellor of APTS. He was also one of the cofounders of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. In Bill’s death, the Pentecostal world lost one of its greatest historians and theologians. Among Bill’s many books, he authored Anointed To Serve, a history of the Assemblies of God. The following article was first published in Paraclete when Bill was chair of the biblical studies and philosophy department at Evangel College.

By William W. Menzies

I am indebted to Bernard Ramm1 for the basic idea of this essay. Ramm has employed the term synoptic vision for his approach to apologetics. I would like to adopt this concept in discussing Pentecostal theology.

Ramm means by his term the ability to “see the whole,” as opposed to merely looking at parts of the picture in isolated pieces. I would like to suggest that Pentecostal theology is well served by bearing in mind a whole range of elements as part of the methodology, rather than limiting the theological enterprise to “bits and pieces.” It is my conviction that much of the current reluctance of good and earnest people to embrace Pentecostalism lies in a species of “reductionism” which fails to permit essential elements necessary to a holistic theology.

To begin with, is there a Pentecostal theology? In one sense, the answer is “no!” The great contribution of the modern Pentecostal movement has been to demonstrate that orthodox theology and a large place for the ministry of the Spirit in the life of the church go well together.

In this sense, one may say that the Pentecostal movement has simply underscored the historic creedal statements that announced, howbeit briefly, belief in the Holy Spirit. In fact, the unique contribution of the modern Pentecostal movement lies in its strong identification with mainstream theology, together with its survival long enough to gain the respect and attention of the larger church world. So one may say that nothing new has been added; the church has been recalled to historic belief.

Yet in another sense there is a uniqueness to Pentecostal theology. There is a precision and definiteness about Pentecostal theology — a doctrine to be proclaimed and an experience to be expected.

Pentecostal people are not alone in asserting the deity of Christ, the authority of the Bible, the reality of the new birth, nor for that matter the doctrines of divine healing and the second coming of Jesus Christ. In fact, Pentecostals are not alone in championing belief in a subsequent work of the Spirit in the life of the believer, an experience described as “baptism in the Holy Spirit.”

A strong case can be made for a wide range of evangelicals reaching back to the late 19th century, including such names as Finney, Moody, Gordon, and Torrey, who stoutly proclaimed belief in a subsequent experience of baptism in the Spirit. Wesleyans and non-Wesleyans in that age spoke freely of an expectation of a deeper work in the Spirit.2

That the Spirit would baptize believers was not a unique belief for Pentecostals. Further, episodes of tongues have been documented in sporadic and episodic fashion throughout the late 19th century. No, speaking in tongues was not unique.

What was special, what gave cohesiveness to the great revival which really began as a connected movement in Topeka, Kansas, in the ministry of Charles Parham, was the theological understanding of these events: the connection between“ baptism in the Spirit” and speaking in other tongues. It does not seem to have been so understood prior to this time. And, after the birth of the modern Pentecostal revival, it was chiefly this theological affirmation that gave identity and continuity to the new movement.

The Assemblies of God, earliest gathering of disparate and isolated Pentecostal preachers who had been excised by offended parent bodies, adopted terminology to describe this understanding. Speaking in other tongues was described as “the initial physical evidence” of the baptism in the Spirit. Hence, a precise terminology passed in to the vocabulary of a large segment of the American Pentecostal movement and thence around the world. Here it is, then: a strong belief in a subsequent crisis experience for the believer following regeneration, this second crisis marked by the sign of speaking in unknown tongues.

The last two decades have been marked by a veritable explosion of Pentecostal-type phenomena throughout the church world. The charismatic renewal has touched an amazing variety of Christian groups, embracing an immense spectrum of theological expressions. Proceeding from this renewal have been scores of theological explanations and biblical studies on pertinent passages and topics. Much that has been written is stimulating, provocative, and instructive. Some has been disappointing.

To attempt to furnish for students a useful guide to some of the theologies of the Spirit that are now current, the writer has developed a taxonomy in which about two dozen perspectives are ranged from “positive” through “mediating” positions to “negativists.”

As one attempts to thread his way through the theological maze occasioned by the current interest in the Holy Spirit, something important emerges. It has to do with the nature of theology itself. Theology, after all, is the attempt of men to arrange the resources of God’s revelation in such fashion as to respond to questions urgent in a given age. Theology, therefore, is an ongoing enterprise. If a “perfect” theology were contrived, one could dispense with the Bible!

Wise stewards humbly acknowledge that their theological assertions stand under the judgment of God’s Word. Further, they acknowledge that they are only dealing with questions that are currently being asked. The assumption is that in another age, other questions may surface which will require other theologians to seek further insight from God’s revelation to bring light to bear on the new issues.

A clear example of this is found in the “Statement of Fundamental Truths,” a doctrinal expression brought into being in 1916 to meet the urgent questions of that era in the Assemblies of God. That the statement on “The Adorable Godhead” is longer than the rest of the 15 points put together does not imply that this was the cardinal doctrine of the fledgling Fellowship, but that this was the burning issue of that time! You will recall that this was the direct result of the “Jesus Only” controversy that had threatened to destroy the young movement.

So it is that the theological target has shifted in our day. At the outset of the Pentecostal movement, an important task was to give biblical support to the concept that the gifts of the Spirit, including such phenomena as tongues, could be expected in the modern church age. Today there are a host of charismatics and noncharismatics who will readily admit the possibility, yea the desirability of such phenomena as tongues for the contemporary church. But the issue focuses more precisely on the connection between such phenomena and the baptism in the Spirit. Pentecostalists make this connection; many others are reluctant to do so. This is the current charismatic theological issue.

And there are noncharismatics who still continue an earlier argument: that of subsequence. Serious, sophisticated biblical scholars centering on the Book of Acts continue to debate this question which was being raised at the beginning of the Pentecostal revival. Perhaps the most cogent contemporary attempt to argue against subsequence is James Dunn in Baptism in the Holy Spirit.3

However, the heart of the theological battle today lies below the level of theological issues, as such. It is really the fundamental issue of hermeneutics. Inevitably, the real crux is that of methodology. The presuppositions that govern the theological task will in large measure determine the kind of product that emerges. Although identifying a useful Pentecostal hermeneutic will not in itself insure a solution to all theological problems, it may serve as a useful grid through which to sift the Biblical data. I wish to propose a framework for a methodology in what follows.

I. THE INDUCTIVE LEVEL (The Inner Circle)

Picture three concentric circles. Focus attention on the inner circle. Let us call this “The Inductive Level.” Here is the enterprise of “listening to” Scripture; of doing careful exegesis. One can usefully employ the tools and skills of scientific interpretation to ferret out the meanings and intention of the writers of Scripture. Basic rules commonly accepted for Biblical interpretation are not here to be overlooked.4 However, the writer wishes to contend for the propriety of three kinds of inductive listening.

The first may be called the declarative. In the Bible are passages that are unambiguous, transparent assertions, the meaning of which is virtually unmistakable. Such is John 3:16. “For God so loved the world. …” Here is a propositional declaration. One would have to engage in clever theological gymnastics to avoid the plain meaning of that verse. But all Scripture is not written in that vein. All truth expressed in Scripture is not of the “declarative” order.

So let us move to the second kind. We shall call this the implicational. To insist on proof texts for all things is misleading. It is a species of reductionism. Some important truths are implied in Scripture, although not stated categorically. One such implication is the Trinity. It is difficult to put this theological “product” through the same strictures appropriate to some other elements of theology. Does that make the doctrine of the Trinity less important? Certainly not. But it does illustrate a point. Theology does not all come out of the plain, declarative level.

Consider, for example, Ephesians 5:18. This passage contains an exhortation, an imperative: “Be filled with the Spirit.” This is not a declaration. Yet does it not suggest that an appropriate and normal condition for the Christian is the experience of the fullness of the Spirit? This possibility is implied. And if one takes seriously the concept of apostolic inspiration, one may therefore infer that the Holy Spirit intended for us to get that message. It is not of the same order as the declarative type of presentation, but the implicational level is valid, nonetheless.

Now we move to the real battleground. There is a third kind yet to be explored. Let us call this the descriptive. Much of the Bible is written in narrative style. Consider much of the Old Testament, the Gospels, portions of the Epistles, but focus particular attention on the Book of Acts.

The Book of Acts is the burning issue in the entire debate. Is it purely historical? Is it theological? In what sense is it theological? What did the Holy Spirit through Luke intend to convey? It is this author’s contention that Luke intended to teach theology by what he described. Acts is both history and theology. Without that possibility, there is no basis for a Pentecostal theology at all!

The precedents described for the reception of the fullness of the Spirit are in the Book of Acts. The description of those events furnished by Luke is the nerve-center of Pentecostal theology. If one can demonstrate that Luke did not intend to convey a theological message by his narratives, he has at that point effectively undercut the possibility of a true Pentecostal theology. Pentecostal theology rests squarely on this level of hermeneutics. The arguments for expectation of tongues to accompany the baptism in the Spirit are all here. The present theological struggle zeroes in on this issue.

Considerable controversy has raged over the past 150 years regarding the genre of literature to which Acts rightfully belongs. One stream tended to downplay the historicity of Acts in favor of the author having a “creative,” that is, a “theological” purpose for writing. A conservative reaction sought to demonstrate the primacy of the historical purpose, virtually to the denial of serious theological intent. Today, a considerable mixture of opinion reigns regarding the relative significance of the historical and the theological (or didactic) purposes in Acts.5 Of particular concern is the role given to those critical passages which describe the coming of the Spirit within Acts, such as the Jerusalem Pentecost (Acts 2); the Samaritan Pentecost (Acts 8); the Damascus Pentecost (Acts 9); the Caesarean Pentecost (Acts 10); and the Ephesian Pentecost (Acts 19).

Gordon Fee has listed an agenda for the consideration of Pentecostals with respect to this hermeneutical problem.6 Many of his points are well-taken. He is to be commended for addressing what in fact is the very core of the current issue, the problem of Pentecostal hermeneutics, However, it appears to this writer that Fee has unnecessarily restricted the theological opportunity by his agenda. There is not space in this essay to consider Fee’s position in depth, but the essence of the issue can be stated briefly.

Fee contends, and rightly so, that proper biblical interpretation requires an appreciation of the genre of literature with which one is dealing. Fee rejects the idea that a narrative passage can be employed to teach theology, unless a clear intentionality to do so can be demonstrated.7 Quite so. However, Fee goes on to give reasons why he rules out the Pentecostal narratives in Acts as having this intentionality. He does not acknowledge that these critical passages can be used to establish normative patterns on the sheer basis of precedent alone. He insists that a historical precedent, in order to have didactic value, must be taught elsewhere in Scripture in a passage which is clearly didactic.8

The net result of this severe reductionism is a willingness to permit repeatability of patterns, but not normativity. Hence, speaking in tongues associated with Spirit baptism may be normal but is certainly not normative.9 Hence, one is sorely pressed on exegetical grounds, if this be true, to establish a clear doctrine either of subsequence or tongues as the accompanying signs of Spirit baptism. Agreeing clearly with Fee are some earnest evangelicals sympathetic to Pentecostals, but who are unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a clear cut Pentecostal theology.10

The author’s preliminary response can be stated in the following propositions.

1. The genre of Acts is not merely historical, but also intentionally theological. This position is supported by a fair number of competent scholars, both historical and contemporary.

2. The hermeneutical “rules” laid out by Fee appear overly restrictive and somewhat subjectively derived. For example, there are indications in the New Testament of historical precedent being the basis for apostolic teaching.

To require that a primarily didactic passage bear witness to a given truth before it can be authentic is a stricture that does not seem to have objective biblical warrant. Hence, if a clear pattern pertaining to Spirit baptism can be ascertained from a series of incidents in the Book of Acts, and if it can be shown that this pattern was intentionally furnished by Luke for a theological purpose, what reason is there to deny this as a valid theological resource? To do so sounds very much like the kind of reductionism associated with the “proof text” approach.

3. Reluctance to employ the concept of normative with respect to the charismatic phenomena associated with Spirit baptism in the Acts accounts leaves one at best with an impoverished Pentecostal theology. The use of normal in this connection is indeed compatible with the views of some contemporary evangelicals, but it is too weak to be made into a doctrine. Repeatability is hardly a preachable item.

II. THE DEDUCTIVE LEVEL (The Middle Circle)

Having listed the basic components of the Inductive Level, let us move now to another dimension of the theological process. At the inductive level, one has been gathering data from variegated passages of Scripture. Certainly theological motifs emerge. The unique contribution of a given biblical author surfaces. The problem at this stage is how to integrate disparate and sometimes disconnected passages and ideas into a meaningful whole, particularly if there are some ambiguities. What is called “the analogy of faith” furnishes in its broadest dimensions a context for any particular passage of Scripture.11

Common sense dictates that a given verse in the Scripture must be seen in its natural setting-what comes before and after. This principle must be extended ultimately to the whole of Scripture. Thus, the process of Biblical interpretation is a two-way street. One inductively investigates the meaning of particular passages and that becomes the grist for a biblical theology. At the same time, the broad themes and the general teaching of all Scripture come to bear on how any particular passage is interpreted, particularly if it is not altogether lucid. Deduction and induction are interrelated; neither can be seen in total isolation.

How does this apply to the issue at hand? If one understands that the crucial, distinguishing uniqueness of the New Testament church was the presence of the Spirit, this understanding will have a decided impact on how he will interpret particular passages in Acts.12 How does one get the sign of the New Age? The Spirit comes in mighty power. Repentance and faith — the “new birth” — are necessary antecedents to this, but the focus is on the mighty presence of God upon His people. On some occasions, this mighty enduement of the Spirit is virtually synonymous with conversion to Christ; at other times it is subsequent.

This implies that there is a logical distinction, if not always a temporal distinction, between new birth and baptism in the Spirit. Further, the characteristic sign of the New Age is a charismatic phenomenon utterance by the Spirit. Put into this context, the theology of the Book of Acts makes the concepts of subsequence and a normative, accompanying sign meaningful.

III. THE VERIFICATIONAL LEVEL (The Outer Circle)

Fee chides the Pentecostals for first experiencing something, then looking into Scripture to see a rationale for what has happened to them.13 This is without doubt frequently true. It would be manifestly out of order if the priority were given to personal experience as a basis for theology — this is precisely what the 19th century “modernist” theology of the Schleiermacher species was guilty of! However, it should not be thought improper to include personal experience and historical accounts at some point in the process of doing theology.

Theology that has no relevance for life is not worth a great deal — this is a common assertion. Another way to phrase this might be to say, “If it does not work, then it may not be real.” Pragmatism would say that “if it works, that is what makes it true.” Here, what is being asked for is verification, not origination.

If a biblical truth is promulgated, then it ought to be demonstrable in life. This is precisely what the modern Pentecostal revival has been reporting to the larger church world. The inductive study of the Bible led the students at Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas, to expect a baptism in the Spirit and the accompanying sign of tongues. When they in fact experienced precisely what they thought the Bible was teaching, they arrived at a synoptic theology! It was true at the inductive level, at the deductive level, and at the verificational level.

Luke, in furnishing a description of the early Spirit-energized church, takes considerable pains to picture how the first community of faith came to understand the New Era that had dawned upon them. The apostles, led of the Spirit, instructed the disciples in the connection between revelation and experience. “This is that” announced Peter (Acts 2:13). “This” was the testimony of what was being experienced. “That” was the prophecy of Joel. Exposition and testimony flow together throughout the speeches of Acts. There is a happy verification of the prophetic word. Thus in the very fabric of Acts itself is the precedent for a holistic theology. Truth and experience are harmonized.

Here then is a proposal-a proposal for a synoptic theology. This is an invitation to a holistic theology, a theology that makes the fullest possible entrance for the ministry of the Spirit.

Notes
1. Bernard Ramm, The God Who Makes A Difference (Waco, Texas: Word, Incorporated, 1972).
2. See Vinson Synan, ed., Aspects of Pentecostal-Charismatic Origins (Plainfield, New Jersey: Logos International, 1975). The articles by Synan and Menzies are particularly pertinent.
3. James D. G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (London: SCM, 1973).
4. See, for example, Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd revised ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970).
5. A useful guide to the critical literature on the Book of Acts is W. Ward Gasque, A History of the Criticism of the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1975). Of special interest is Chapter X, “Luke the Historian and Theologian in Recent Research,” pp. 251–305. A series of essays, edited by W. Ward Gasque and Ralph P. Martin, Apostolic History and the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970), contains some helpful insights, as well. Charles H. Talbert’s monograph, published by Scholars Press, Missoula, Montana, titled “Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts,” is of interest, particularly for showing parallels to extra-biblical literature of a similar sort as Luke-Acts. An older classic, the conservative commentary on Acts by R.B. Rackham, The Acts of the Apostles (London: Methuen and Co., 1901), discloses a willingness to see a theological intent in Luke’s writing. This is also true of F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954). Henry J. Cadbury, The Making of Luke-Acts (London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 1927), and Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), virtually lose the historicity of Acts in an exaggerated emphasis on the theological intent of Luke.
6. Gordon Fee, “Hermeneutics and Historical Precedent” Perspectives on the New Pentecostalism, edited by Russell P. Spittler (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976).
7. Ibid, pp. 124–126.
8. Ibid. pp. 128,129.
9. Ibid; pp. 129–132.
10. See, for example, Clark Pinnock, “The New Pentecostalism: Reflections of an Evangelical Observer,” Perspectives on the New Pentecostalism, pp. 182–192.
11. The “analogy of faith” principle is defined well in Robert C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove. Illinois: InterVarsitv Press, 1977), pp. 46-48.
12. George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974). See especially, “The Church,” pp. 342–356.
13. Fee, Perspectives, p. 122.

 

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