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The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit Series


Pentecostal Hermeneutics Part 1

Wed, 14 Apr 2010 - 11:08 AM CST

By Gordon L. Anderson

All Christians do hermeneutics in one way or another. Certain indispensable concerns must be addressed in every method of interpretation. What differs among the various methods is (1) the elements included in the hermeneutic, (2) the way each of those elements is constructed, and (3) the different emphases that may be placed on one part with respect to others.

In the past few years Pentecostals have been analyzing the way they do hermeneutics. From this analysis and discussion, the definition and articulation of a Pentecostal hermeneutic is emerging. Having followed this discussion for some time, I believe the process can be advanced by outlining the common hermeneutical structure all interpreters use and clarifying how the new Pentecostal hermeneutic addresses each point.

I argue that in a healthy expression of this emerging hermeneutic Pentecostals are coming to understand that they define and use the constituent elements in the hermeneutical structure different from others, and that they emphasize the various parts in unique ways. I contend that this method is both unique and legitimate. While the method is not strictly unique to Pentecostals themselves (its basic outline, orientation, and emphases are shared to a great extent by the newer Third Wave thinkers and some groups with a holiness tradition), I call this a Pentecostal hermeneutic. It is a method of interpreting Scripture which addresses the same basic issues common to evangelical hermeneutics, but in which the constituent elements and various emphases are unique.1

Briefly, what Pentecostals seem to be achieving is a merger of (1) the concerns of traditional, conservative hermeneutics (and its commitment to the truth and authority of the Bible), with (2) the concerns of postmodern literary criticism (the new hermeneutic and reader-centered approaches) and the role of the reader in the interpretation process. This is accomplished by admitting that Pentecostals uniquely use the various genre in the Bible (the historical narratives, in particular), and that they incorporate church history, personal experiences, theological biases, and other elements in their hermeneutic. The advances they are making are achieved by articulating just how these elements influence them and how they treat them when they interpret the Bible.

What follows is a list of the necessary elements in every hermeneutic. That is, in all systems of interpretation each of the following points is addressed in a certain way. What distinguishes one method from another is the way each point is constructed, and the priority or emphasis one point may have with respect to others. This approach is prescriptive, methodological, and sequential. This may give the impression that I think that each step can be handled with complete objectivity in complete isolation from the others. This is, of course, impossible. I do not contend for a pristine objectivity at each point. I do, however, contend that while working on one step the others may be pushed into the background sufficiently to allow for concentrated and effective attention to be given to the task at hand. Reader-centered literary critics seem to deny that this is possible. I argue that they so emphasize the problems in doing hermeneutics that they turn it into a fruitless effort to escape personal biases that never succeeds in getting at the meaning of a text.

1. Historical/grammatical exegesis and philosophy of language: Pentecostals use the same methods as other evangelicals.

2. Role of the Holy Spirit (pneumatic): The Pentecostal view of the role of the Holy Spirit is not unique and falls within the range of views held by other evangelicals.

3. Role of the various genre: Pentecostals see the historical narratives as having greater didactic value than do most evangelicals, and they use them much more in constructing doctrine.

4. Personal experience: All interpreters intentionally or inadvertently incorporate personal experience in their hermeneutics, but Pentecostals do so consciously, intentionally, and critically.

5. Historical experience: Again, as with personal experience, all interpreters use history, but Pentecostals do so consciously, intentionally, and critically.

6. Theological presuppositions: Pentecostals bring different theological assumptions to the task of interpretation. The most important of these for its hermeneutic is a nondispensational ecclesiology that sees a uniform continuity of God’s relation to the church along with a strong sense of identity with the experiences and practices of the first century.

The Problem: Is There a Pentecostal Hermeneutic?

Is there a Pentecostal hermeneutic? Or rather, could or should there be? A number of Pentecostal scholars, including William Menzies, Howard Ervin, Gordon Fee, F.L. Arrington, and Roger Stronstad, have attempted to answer this question. Different ones have suggested different models, but of particular note is the work of Roger Stronstad. Much of what I offer in this paper is a response to Stronstad in an effort to clarify and define a more expanded model of Pentecostal hermeneutics.2

The very notion of a “Pentecostal” hermeneutic can be a problem as Richard Israel noted at the Society of Pentecostal Studies in 1990. He says, “Calls for a Pentecostal hermeneutic seem to me to be misguided. They would be motivated either by an ideology (as some Marxist and Feminist hermeneutics are) or an epistemology of the Spirit. A Pentecostal ideology is no hermeneutic at all; it is the obliteration of the horizon of the text by the interpreter.”3 Israel makes an important point. Ideology can govern interpretation. For example, the feminist author, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, goes beyond even liberation theology to make her case for a feminist hermeneutic.

Her starting point is the oppression of women today, which she traces in part to oppressive and destructive biblical traditions. The Bible is not only a source of truth and revelation, but also a source of violence and domination. Biblical interpreters must unmask the oppressive patriarchal structures … and make other scholars and church people admit the existence of oppressive features in the Bible.”4

Fiorenza no doubt feels she knows how to separate truth and revelation from the violence and domination she contends are in the Bible. The problem with this cast of mind, imposing a foreign ideology on the text of Scripture, is that it changes the meaning. It is characteristic of those who, because they are uncomfortable with what the texts says, change it to fit their own views.

On the other hand, however, it must be recognized that biases are unavoidable. As Rudolph Bultmann and many others have pointed out, there is no such thing as presuppositionless hermeneutics. This would amount to an “empty headed” (tabula rasa) interpretation.5 This creates a difficult problem. All interpreters have preconceptions and beliefs, yet these should not govern interpretation to the extent that they counter the intended meaning of the text. As I have pointed out elsewhere, this can reduce interpretation to the conviction that the Bible means exactly what I think it says.” In this respect, all hermeneutics have the potential of subordinating the text to ideology.

With this in view, can there be a Pentecostal hermeneutic? Can it be both unique and legitimate, not making the text a slave to ideology? If so, what is it like? How is it unique? I believe there is an identifiable, unique, and legitimate Pentecostal hermeneutic.

Six Primary Questions

In addressing the six primary elements in every hermeneutical system identified earlier, we need to pose a number of questions that any good hermeneutic must answer.

First, what exegetical and hermeneutical methods should be used? Are there different yet legitimate ways of doing hermeneutics? Is the historical-grammatical method the only sound method, or should something like the Alexandrian/Antiochene alternatives be maintained? Was such a distinction a mistake from the beginning? What is the proper philosophy of language that should be used? How should one view the role of logic and language when interpreting the Bible? How fixed or amorphous are the structures of language and logic in a Pentecostal hermeneutic? Is it possible that there are different kinds of logic, or that words can mean different things when viewed through a unique kind of hermeneutical lens?

Second, what is the role and influence of the Holy Spirit? What does the Holy Spirit do in hermeneutics? Much? Little? Does the Pentecostal emphasis on the Holy Spirit lead to a view that Pentecostals have special insight and understanding unavailable to others? How do Pentecostals view the noetic influence of sin? Do they follow Van Til and the presuppositionalists in the Reformed tradition? Do they claim that an experience with God, and perhaps the baptism of the Holy Spirit, must precede interpretation and understanding?

Third, what is the proper role and influence of the different literary genre in the Bible? What is the proper relationship and emphasis? Should one or another have priority? For example, what is the relationship between the propositional/didactic literature and the historical/narrative passages? What about the problem of the author’s intentions? What is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments?

Fourth, what about personal experiences? Do they have an effect on interpretation? Should they? Could a Pentecostal hermeneutic with its possible emphasis on personal experience imply following Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and others into existential subjectivism? Could a Pentecostal hermeneutic be just another kind of new hermeneutic?

Fifth, what about historical experience? Should the reports of various kinds of spiritual activity have any effect on our understanding of the Bible? Can we avoid having our understanding of history affect our hermeneutics? If we do incorporate historical accounts and experience, what should we use, and how do we know the difference between actual events and fabrications generated by sincere (or insincere) believers?

Sixth, what should be done with methodological and theological presuppositions? How accurate is the contention that a hermeneutical circle operates in all interpretation and that methodological and theological biases are a necessary part of that circle? How do or how should Pentecostals approach this? What is the Pentecostal response to the various models that have been suggested? Schleiermacher, for example, said that within a text there is reciprocal interaction between the part and the whole. This leads to the problem of harmonization. How much does the whole interpret each part? Does this process compromise biblical theology (allowing each passage to speak for itself without modifying its meaning by subordinating it to other passages or some theological system)? Is there a canonical theology?

Rene Padilla suggests four parts to the hermeneutical circle: (1) the interpreter’s historical situation, (2) the interpreter’s world and life views, (3) Scripture, and (4) theology. Roger Stronstad, a Pentecostal, offers these elements: (1) charismatic experiential presuppositions, (2) the pneumatic, (3) genre, (4) exegesis, and (5) experiential verification. For each of these structures it is possible that a theological bias can govern the interpretation of any single passage, or that the entire system can represent the dominance of one key interpretative idea. How should Pentecostals respond?

What a Pentecostal Hermeneutic Is Not

With the many problems involved in hermeneutics it is possible for interpreters to go astray in many different ways. The charge that a Pentecostal hermeneutic is some kind of errant process needs to be addressed. A number of charges could be laid against Pentecostals. Some of these charges are answered here. Each answer corresponds to the six points outlined earlier.

First, a Pentecostal hermeneutic is not a new exegetical method. Exegesis is a method of getting at the original intended meaning of the text. To do so one must study language, culture, history, word history, etc. This is the standard method of studying texts, and at this level conservatives agree on the approaches that should be used. Biblical exegetes try to avoid importing foreign meanings, preconceived notions, or theological structures at this basic level of study. Later, as the effort is made to unravel the meaning, other factors, including presuppositions and theological commitments, come into play; but at the level of exegetical method, conservative Bible scholars are in general agreement.

Careful Pentecostal interpreters agree with other mainline evangelicals that the best way to interpret the Bible is to work to uncover the intended meaning of the text through the use of historical-grammatical methods. Pentecostals argue against Alexandrian styled interpretations that allegorize the text. They also reject anything like the multiple meanings schemes characteristic of the Middle Ages. It should be noted that what some Pentecostals do is not an accurate gauge of what the trained Pentecostal believes should be done. Some Pentecostals have demonstrated a flair for fanciful interpretation, but these methods and conclusions are not taught at Pentecostal colleges and seminaries, and they do not represent a legitimate Pentecostal hermeneutic.

Second, with respect to the pneumatic or the role of the Holy Spirit in the process of interpretation, a Pentecostal hermeneutic is not a claim for special insight unavailable to non-Pentecostals. In his article on hermeneutics in the Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, F.L. Arrington makes a number of problematic claims that look suspiciously like Pentecostal elitism. He says, “Because Pentecostals possess a unique perception of the nature and function of the Holy Scriptures, they use equally unique approaches to the interpretation of Scripture.

“The Pentecostal method of interpretation is essentially pneumatic, or charismatic. This is to say that the interpreter relies on illumination by the Holy Spirit in order to come to the fullest comprehension of the significance of the text.

“The Pentecostal … contends that there is a deeper significance to the biblical text that can only be perceived though the eyes of faith. As Howard Ervin posits, ‘It is not possible to penetrate to the heart of its message apart from the Holy Spirit,’

“Deeper insight into Scripture afforded the believer is a function of the Pentecostal or pneumatic epistemology. Pentecostals see knowledge not as a cognitive recognition of a set of precepts but as a relationship with the One who has established the precepts by which we live.”7

These statements raise a number of questions. What can Arrington mean that the Pentecostal perception of the nature and function of Scripture is unique? How does it differ from other evangelicals? How is the Pentecostal reliance on illumination unique? All evangelicals claim the Holy Spirit plays a vital role in interpretation. What is the “deeper significance” of the text that can only be gotten through a pneumatic or charismatic epistemology? Deeper than what? Deeper than that which a Baptist or Nazarene can receive? Further, what is a pneumatic epistemology, and how is it unique? These claims, while made by a Pentecostal, do not represent a genuine Pentecostal hermeneutic. Until these questions are clearly answered, Arrington’s description of a Pentecostal hermeneutic will create more problems than it solves. Arrington needs to address these issues and answer these questions.

Howard Ervin also argues for the uniqueness of a Pentecostal hermeneutic. He says: “The Scriptures affirm, however, that the word of God is the ultimate word. It is the transcendent word. It is the word beyond all human words, for it is spoken by God (revelation). It is indeed the word that contradicts all human words. … It is a word for which there are no categories endemic to human understanding. … It is a word for which, in fact, there is no hermeneutic unless and until the divine hermeneutics (the Holy Spirit) mediates an understanding.

“Thus … the hearing and understanding of the word … is communication in its deepest ontological context, i.e., the incarnational. The incarnation makes truth personal. … It is being apprehended by Jesus Christ, not simply in the letter-word but the divine-human word. Herein lies the ground for a pneumatic hermeneutic.

“The contribution to hermeneutics of the present charismatic, or Pentecostal, renewal of the Church is its insistence upon the experiential immediacy of the Holy Spirit. There are direct contacts with nonmaterial reality that inform a Pentecostal epistemology, hence, its hermeneutics. This must not be construed as a plea for a spiritualizing (allegorical) interpretation. Rather, it is a truly existential and phenomenological response to the Holy Spirit’s initiative in historical continuity with the life of the Spirit in the Church.”8

What does all this mean? These comments, like those of Arrington, cloud the issue of a Pentecostal hermeneutic. What does it mean that the Word of tied is “transcendent … beyond all human words … that it contradicts all human words … that it is a word for which there are no categories endemic to human understanding … for which there is no hermeneutic unless and until the divine hermeneutics (the Holy Spirit) mediates an understanding”? Does this render the text unintelligible until the Holy Spirit illuminates it? If so, how does this Pentecostal illumination differ from that gotten by non-Pentecostals?

How closely do the meanings mediated by the Holy Spirit approximate those found in dictionaries? If they are the same, what does the Holy Spirit do to make Pentecostals understand them in a special way? And if they are different, how do we know what they mean, and how can we discuss their meanings if a few of us disagree? Is my interpretation better than yours because I am older, more spiritual, or something else? Or are both of our interpretations of equal value?

What does it mean that “theological communication is communication at the deepest ontological level, i.e. the incarnational,” and that this is the ground for a pneumatic hermeneutic? Just how do “direct contacts with nonmaterial reality inform a Pentecostal epistemology, hence its hermeneutics”? Is this a new form of gnostic/Pentecostal illumination? Does it redefine words?

Ervin’s language is impressive, but it is difficult to understand. It reminds me of Louis Berkof’s systematic theology, where he has a section on the “Incommunicable Attributes” of God. Is this chapter made up of blank pages? If these attributes are truly incommunicable, then how can they be put into words? Maybe the text is made up of random symbols bearing no resemblance to human words (a la Ervin). An important point is raised by these reflections. The approach given by Arrington and Ervin is quite confusing. Despite all protests to the contrary, much of it sounds elitist, and that impression will not dissolve until these authors are able to identify just how a Pentecostal hermeneutic gives meanings that are “deeper,” etc., without at the same time claiming some kind of mystical insight unavailable to other evangelicals. These authors have much to explain.

Sometimes efforts to describe the spiritual and transcendent result in mysto-babble — the unintelligible that masquerades as wisdom, deep insight, or an encounter with the “other.” In some religions a pseudoencounter with the transcendent can be gained by contemplating an inconceivable idea, like the “sound of one hand clapping.” There is a false sense of transcendence or awe that one feels when doing this. Trying to hold a logical contradiction in one’s mind can induce a sense of mystery, but this is not at all the same thing as encountering the transcendent God or being awestruck by a profound thought. All the questions posed above are directed toward this problem.

What do Arrington and Ervin really mean when examined closely? With all due respect, their claims are confusing, and they convey a spiritual elitism that cannot be supported. A Pentecostal hermeneutic is not special insight unavailable to others.

Connected to the problem of special insight is that of senses plenior, or fuller meaning. Some schools of thought among evangelicals use this idea in a highly problematic way. It is the claim that a text can have a fuller meaning, unknown to its author, that only becomes known later, Douglas Oss, a Pentecostal scholar who follows William Sanford LaSor and Brevard Childs, argues that the whole canon of Scripture acts as a context within which individual verses can be interpreted, with the result that these verses come to have meanings that the authors did not know or intend, and that the original audience could not grasp.

Since the canon of Scripture is a unified literary work, the sensus plenior of a given text is simply that which emerges when the text is subjected to the light of all of biblical revelation. … That fuller understanding involves strata of meaning, all of which the author expressed, whether or not he intended to express them.

Thus a biblically based sensus plenior considers a given text in the light of the fullness of revelation. Any deeper meaning for a text comes only from other biblical texts. … The meaning is there by virtue of the organic relationship of the parts of Scriptures to the whole of Scripture.‘

Oss, recognizing the dangers inherent in this approach, is careful to assert that this is not some sort of “mystical or supernatural revelation acquired apart from the fruits of exegesis,” and that this “does not consist of reading Scripture through a previously constructed grid of systematic theology or church tradition” which results in a “confirmation of what one already believes,” and that “this method is by no means to be separated from the grammatical-historical method and the human author’s expressed meaning.” These warnings point out that if care is not taken with this method, it can, in fact, degenerate into a simple allegorizing of the Bible, which, while giving lip service to the historical-grammatical method, does not explain how this fuller meaning can be gotten, aside from reading back onto these texts the overall theology received from the whole of Scripture. In this form this method is exactly what it purports not to be. It is using a theological grid to interpret individual verses.

At first glance this approach can appear to be sound and spiritual, but closer examination reveals serious problems. First, how is the governing canonical theology constructed? This can only be accomplished by synthesizing the meanings of various passages in the Bible, and this can only be done if those passages have objectively discreet meanings. At some point texts have to mean something, not everything or something else. Otherwise there could be no starting point. Once, however, a body of objective meanings is established, then a systematic theology can be constructed.

With this theology in mind, an interpreter may then be reminded of that theology when reading passages in the Bible, but that does not mean those passages carry that meaning or that theology. The obvious and dangerous circularity of this approach can be seen by considering the hermeneutics and theology of a radically biased methodology, a radical feminist or homosexual interpretation, for example.

The proper criticism of such a method is to assert that the interpreter never got a sound theology in place to begin with, resulting in a constant rereading of theological biases back onto the text. But how can such a criticism be maintained if the texts of the Bible have no fixed objective meanings from which a correct systematic theology is fashioned? Some conservative interpreters naively assume a conservative theology some how automatically emerges from the Bible without recognizing that this only happens when fixed and objective meanings, rather than allegorical or sensus plenior meanings, form the basis for theological conclusions.

The correct view is to recognize that the work of theology is to systematize the objective meanings of individual verses into a coherent whole. In this method the original meanings are obtained through the historical-grammatical method, grounded in the assumption that they have fixed and objective meanings. The system is constructed by the theologian, but without claiming that any particular verse means what is revealed as a composite from a synthesis of the whole of Scripture. One must first do biblical theology and then systematic. To the extent possible, biblical theology should avoid incorporating systematic theology into the interpretation process. A headlong rush toward harmonizing the texts can result in reducing interpretation to the continual rearticulation of theological biases, all the while contending for the plain and intended meaning of the Bible.

Having said all this, three legitimate uses of sensus plenior must be noted.

1. A fuller meaning may be inherent in some passages, such as in a double-meaning text like the prediction of the Messiah given in Isaiah 7:14, the fuller meaning of which is given later in Matthew 1:23. This is appropriate when the Bible itself gives the fuller meaning.

2. In some cases later biblical authors themselves give a fuller interpretation that seems to go beyond what the original author intended or could have known. This can appear to be allegorizing when, for example, Paul gives an expanded interpretation of the meaning of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:24-31, or of the meaning of the new covenant in 2 Corinthians 3:6-18. Again, the governing principle for the validity of such an approach is where the Bible itself specifically reveals the fuller meaning.

3. Prophecy can be a case where an understanding of future events could not be known to the author or hearer, and where that future understanding can constitute a fuller meaning than that known by the original author. Sometimes the Bible, and sometimes history, reveals this fuller sense.

These three exceptions constitute the only proper understanding of fuller meaning and are not a defense of the broader notion of sensus plenior used by some interpreters. If this is not the case, then the fuller meaning of Rahab’s red cord is redemption (it is red like blood, and it saved the spies), and no one can argue effectively to the contrary, With this we are back to allegorizing.

Third, a Pentecostal hermeneutic is not a simple-minded model building based on the historical narratives. Gordon Fee correctly points out that “most sectors of evangelical Protestantism have a ‘restoration movement’ mentality.’ ”10 This, however, is dangerous. A good Pentecostal hermeneutic takes note of this problem. Pentecostals use the narratives more than do other evangelicals, but they do so carefully, using both the narrative and didactic passages, rather than simply taking biblical descriptions to be prescriptions in every case, ignoring the proper impact of the rest of the Bible.

Fourth, Pentecostals use personal experience in interpretation. Such an approach, however, is not simply a Pentecostal version of the new hermeneutic with its existential, man-centered subjectivism where the meaning of the Bible is governed strictly by human reason and personal experience. A legitimate Pentecostal hermeneutic contends that the text has objective meaning and that this meaning is absolute, and not that the meaning is “what it comes to mean to me” where human subjectivism governs the interpretation. This, too, is a large and complex problem.

The proponents and theoreticians of the new hermeneutic properly point out that there is a gulf between the text and the interpreter. Time, culture, changes in language, different values, and many other issues create a chasm that must be crossed before we can understand what a text means. In some real sense we can never totally penetrate the mind of the original author. But the new hermeneutic can so emphasize this problem that it ends up arguing that the text has no original meaning we can apprehend, and that if it is to have any meaning at all it will be what it means “to us,” not what it objectively means.

Pentecostals reject this idea because it overemphasizes the problem of historical distance and the need to understand the Bible based on personal experience and subjectivity. The task of hermeneutics is to find the meaning of the text, and Pentecostals believe this meaning can be found. With other evangelicals, they contend that the essential original meaning can be found and that it speaks powerfully to the modern world, despite the problems that may exist in interpretation. Because of this a good Pentecostal hermeneutic does not impose human subjectivity on the text, No matter how a person may feel, or what he might take the text to mean, the text has objective meaning, and the proper response is to subordinate human judgments and responses to the authority of the objective meanings inherent in the text itself.

Fifth, while Pentecostals do look to history and culture for guidance in how to interpret the Bible, a good Pentecostal hermeneutic tries to discriminate carefully between unsubstantiated testimony and verifiable fact, and does not subordinate the Bible to supposed historical testimony when the Bible itself provides clear guidance. When, however, the Bible is not abundantly clear, Pentecostals do appropriate understandings from historical events.

Sixth, a Pentecostal hermeneutic is not the importation of in appropriate and foreign presuppositions. Exegesis and hermeneutics must not be made the slave of an ideology where the meaning of the text is obliterated by the presuppositions of the interpreter. This is a difficult problem to address because all interpreters bring biases, presuppositions, and theological constructs to the text. This cannot be avoided. But there is a vast difference between bringing these biases to the work of interpretation with an awareness that they exist and a willingness to subordinate them to the text, and the opposite approach of uncritically allowing them to dominate the interpretation process.

Pentecostals, like all interpreters, have biases, but they recognize them and do their interpretive work in such a way as to allow the text to change those theological assumptions when necessary. To be sure, all interpreters struggle with doing this effectively, but any proper hermeneutic must incorporate this principle into its system, and a legitimate Pentecostal

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