Charismatic/Pentecostal Hermeneutic Principle
The Role of the Spirit
It has been almost a year since my last posting. As you can discern, I am more concern with articulating my theological development than simply writing a devotional blog. I have received great encouragement from many of you and good advice. One of your suggestion was to lose the footnotes and references. I guess they can appear to be overwhelming. My purpose in using them was to let the reader know from where my thoughts have come. In this posting I have eliminated them for a, hopefully, smoother read. If you are interested in the references in my posting, I will gladly send them to you. With that said, let’s turn to the role of the Holy Spirit in the hermeneutical process.
The evangelical community tends to concentrate on explicating the biblical text by focusing upon the original intent of the author. However, they say almost nothing about the Spirit’s role in the interpretative process. Liberal scholars are not much better. However, they can be counted upon to take the contemporary horizon more seriously. These findings underscore how our Western culture understands the hermeneutical question concerning their epistemology. Namely, the two main ways of knowing and understanding is sensory experience and reason. Traditional hermeneutics with its commitment to a critical-historical exegesis embraces a hermeneutical epistemology that either abdicates faith for reason or validates faith epistemologically by a ranking of special pledging in the interests of a propositional theology. As Howard Ervin points out “the consequence for hermeneutics has been in some quarters a destructive rationalism, in others a dogmatic intransigence, and in yet others a non-rational mysticism.” What is needed is a pneumatic knowledge based in a hermeneutic that is not insensitive to the numinous from the ethos mediated by the biblical text. More pointedly, Pentecostals advocate a hermeneutical epistemology rooted in the Biblical faith with a phenomenology that is verified by sensory experience. If the Word of God is fundamentally an ontological reality (i.e. the incarnation), then the biblical precondition for understanding his Word is man’s ontological re-creation by the Holy Spirit. For the Pentecostal, the Holy Spirit becomes paramount to biblical hermeneutics.
Pentecostal scholars do not necessarily reject the higher critical methods for studying the Scriptures. But the parish pastors do emphasize the more immediacy of the text. Both of them are concern with the fear of rationalism---human reasoning taking the place of the Spirit. Pentecostals place a greater emphasis upon pneumatic inspiration and supernatural manifestations, than on reason, for determining the limits and validity of religious knowledge. They are reacting to the philosophical principles behind the higher critical methods of study rather than the methods themselves. For them the question for interpretation is not only, “What did it mean?” but “What does it mean?” What is needed is not more ‘experts’ in sound exegesis, but transformed hearts and mind. Grammatical analysis has significance for preparing the mind and heart, but God is the one who opens the eyes of faith and illuminates his Word to the human heart. They argue for a “Spirit-Word” hermeneutic where there is a dynamic interaction of the written text and the Holy Spirit. They boldly place the authority of the Spirit equally with of the authority of the Scripture. This is why many Pentecostals have not felt it necessary to sharply distinguish between the inspiration of the text and the illumination of the read text.
Pentecostals have challenged the Evangelical community apparent negligent on the Spirit’s role in illumination. The illumination of the Holy Spirit is regularly mentioned in theological literature; yet detailed discussion of this subject is rare. Over the years, however, this has been changing. Many would say that illumination properly belongs in devotional writing and not in hermeneutics so that theology makes a distinction between the Spirit inspiring and the Spirit illuminating Scripture. Aiming at preserving the unique product of the original inspiration, many theologians prefer to name the Spirit’s contemporary breathing ‘illumination,’ even though the two operations are breathings performed by the same Spirit. It seems natural, for Pentecostals, to speak of an original and a contemporary inspiration by the Spirit, of his breathing in relation to writing of Scripture (see 2 Tim. 3.16) and his breathing in relation to its readers (see Eph. 1.17). While holding to the inspiration of Scripture, they advance that the Spirit also guides the community as it walks with God in the light of his Word toward the fulfillment of its mission and the consummation of the age. In fact, earlier Christian theologians were less nervous about separating illumination and inspiration and did not feel the need to differentiate the two kinds of inspiration so sharply. John Wesley’s notes on 2 Timothy 3.16 describes, “The Spirit of God not only once inspired those who wrote the Bible but continually inspires those who read it with earnest prayer.” Hence, Wesley understood inspiration within the larger process as encompassing both original and present day illumination. Pentecostals, with their heritage in the Wesleyan tradition, believe that they should be closely attuned to the Spirit who is deeply involved in their reading. Consequently, God’s breathing ought to be recognized both in the formation and in the appropriation of the text. The transformation process aims at conforming the reader to the image of Christ. Contemporary inspiration is needed because original inspiration has the goal of transforming readers and fails without it.
Pentecostals scholars understand that if we stress past and ignore contemporary inspiration, we risk dead orthodoxy. But if we stress contemporary and ignore past inspiration, we risk heresy. Notwithstanding, there is a subjective dimension in Pentecostal interpretation which requires a living relationship with God and the operation of his Spirit. It is this dynamic of the Spirit that rationalism does not favor. How, therefore, does this effective hermeneutic work?
Pentecostals understand that the goal of the Spirit as he works within their lives shedding light on the Word is to deepen their friendship with God. The object of reading the Bible is that one should proceed from a discovery of what the text says to where one seize and is arrested by its truth and its consequences for life and ministry. The Spirit must be at work for this to happen. Pentecostals understand that the goal of reading the Bible is for a meaningful engagement between reader and the text to take place, and as such for the reader’s perspective to be enlarged. This is at the heart of their view of illumination (or inspiration as Wesley would call it). Pentecostal hermeneutics relies on the Spirit to fuse the two horizons of the Biblical text and the reader’s interpretation. Pentecostals understand that the Spirit serves as the common context where the reader and the author meet to bridge the historical and cultural gulf and provides both the existential and presuppositional continuum between written word of the past and same word in the present. Scripture informs the Pentecostal experience; just as experience informs the Pentecostal hermeneutical process. This method allows a historical exegesis to interact with a prophetic openness to the Spirit. Pentecostals believe that there is more to textuality than meets the eye. Clark Pinnock rightly advances that
Texts do not just sit passively by while readers plunder their meanings. They project a world into which we may enter, a world which may impact upon us. Interpretation is about more than retrieving information---it is also about the effects on readers that texts can set in motion.
The Scriptural authors use this hermeneutical openness in their own views. Isaiah makes quite a different point of the promise given to Abraham (compare Gen. 12.1-3 with Isa. 51.1-3). Peter reads the Old Testament with a Christological meaning (compare Acts 15 with Amos 9.11-12). The Spirit revealed a different meaning than the grammatical-historical understanding of the text. The original text is a dynamic one and capable of being used in new ways by subsequent interpreters in the Spirit. This model takes us beyond a dead continuity with the past yet leaves us within the paradigm of the Word of God. Nothing new is added to the Gospel, but Pentecostals understand that there is a progressive unfolding of God’s salvation history to the consciousness of his people over time. Hence, Pentecostal hermeneutics understands illumination as a Spirit endeavor where the reader is draw deeper into the world of the text and closer to the heart of God. Illumination happens where the reader, who is in dialogue with the text and in which the Spirit is helping, undergoes transformation. The horizon of the reader is fused with the horizon of the Bible as one surrenders to it. Hence it is possible, to the Pentecostal, for the text to have several meanings. Why? Because the Scriptures are the product of an experience with the Holy Spirit which the biblical writers describes in phenomenological language---a language that relates to living one’s life. So interpretation is much more than an exercise in descriptive linguistics. On the contrary, there is a deepening respect for the witness of the Scriptures. Pentecostals read it from within, accepting its own idiom and categories. However, this raises the question of a real danger of radical subjectivism. It is to this concern that we will turn to in our next posting.