Home Up Yeung Welch Clark Archer Folarin




 The Spirit and Theological Interpretation: A Pentecostal Strategy



by Dr. Kenneth J. Archer






The Bible’s meaning for today cannot result automatically from the correct use of a set of hermeneutical principles.[i]                                                                          Richard Bauckham


Pentecostals … would want to approach interpretation as a matter of the text, the community, and also the ongoing voice of the Holy Spirit.[ii]                                                            Rickie Moore


The theological interpretive strategy being presented embraces a dialogical interdependent relationship between the Holy Spirit, Christianity’s sacred Scriptures, and an actual ecclesiastical narrative tradition in the hermeneutical process of the making of meaning.[iii]    The readers in community, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are interdependent dialogical partners participating in a tridactic negotiation for theological meaning.  The theological interpretive strategy being proposed emerged from Pentecostal praxis and theological engagement with Scripture and the Spirit. Thus the strategy is a product of an ecclesiastical narrative tradition—a Pentecostal community. However, as a strategy for theological interpretation it may not be unique to Pentecostalism; furthermore, I believe that as a strategy for theological interpretation it could be beneficial to other Christian traditions.

The theological strategy affirms the important contributions that the Holy Spirit and Pentecostal community bring to the interpretive process.[iv] As a result, there will be a shift from the more modernistic emphasis on the individual hermeneut and his commitment to an acceptable and correctly applied scientific method of biblical interpretation to a primary emphasis upon the Christian community as the context through which interpretation takes place.[v]  The community’s story is the primary filter through which interpretation takes place.[vi]   

The strategy does not pretend to be a full-blown theory of interpretation, nor will it desire to become a static methodological procedure.  Nevertheless, the strategy is a product of a Christian community and based upon the biblical model of Acts 15, The Jerusalem council.[vii]  The hermeneutic is conversational in nature and embraces a tridactic negotiation for theological meaning.  The Bible, the Holy Spirit and the Pentecostal community are actively engaging each other in the conversation.  Meaning, then, is arrived at through a dialectical process based upon an interdependent dialogical relationship between Scripture, Spirit and community.

This tridactic conversational approach to ‘meaning’ is necessary because all forms of communication are underdeterminate; that is, a listener or reader is needed to complete the communicative event, hence participating in the production of meaning.[viii]  This does not imply that the biblical passage can mean whatever a community wants or desires it to mean.  The written passage does offer guidance and resistance to the readers. There is a dialectical interdependent relationship between the written text and the community of readers.  Thus, there exists an actual communication event that takes place, as the text is read/heard.  The text, which in this case is a biblical passage, desires to be understood by the readers in a Christian community.[ix] 

The biblical passage is at the mercy of the community.  However, a Christian community should give the biblical passage the opportunity to interact with the readers in such a way that the passage fulfills its dialogical role in the communicative event.  This would be the case for the Pentecostal community because she recognizes the Bible as the penultimate authoritative written testimony of Divine revelation - the inspired word of God.  Furthermore, the community believes that the Spirit’s inspirational relation with Scripture can cause it to speak clearly and creatively as word of God to the contemporary Pentecostal community’s situations and needs.  Hence the Pentecostal community will read the Bible as sacred Scripture that speaks to the community’s current needs, thus enabling the community to live faithfully before and with the living God.

The theological strategy is self-consciously a narrative approach to the understanding and the making of theological meaning.  I am referring to narrative in two ways: (1) as an overarching theological category, and (2) as a method for biblical interpretation. Narrative as a theological category is a way of grasping and making sense of the whole of God’s inspired authoritative witness—Scripture.[x] By this I mean to highlight the importance of understanding Scripture as a grand meta-narrative with the Gospels and Acts as the heart of the Christian story.  The Social Trinity is the central figure of Christianity, with Jesus Christ being the very heart of the story; therefore a narrative theology will emphasize the priority of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its significance for the Christian community and the world.[xi] 

The Pentecostal narrative reading strategy is a “text centered” and “reader oriented” interpretive method.[xii]  Knowledge as meaningful understanding will be rooted in and related to human life because ‘the only sort of (theological and theoretical) knowledge that really counts is knowledge grounded in life.’[xiii]  ‘Meaning, therefore, is no longer seen in terms of an original “cause” or ultimate “effect” but in terms of relationship.’[xiv] This meaning is arrived at through a dialectical process based upon an interdependent dialogical relationship between Scripture, Spirit and community. 

The possibility of humans misunderstanding texts and resisting the Spirit further complicates the interpretive process. Hence, John Goldingay’s warning should be heeded—‘those who pretend to be objective and critical and then find their own concerns in the texts they study need to take a dose of self-suspicion.’[xv]  Interpreters must practice a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ and a ‘hermeneutic of retrieval’[xvi] as they negotiate creative and constructive meaningful readings of Scripture grounded in the Pentecostal community’s desire to live faithfully with God. In the remainder of this paper I will outline this theological interpretive strategy that embraces a tridactic negotiation for meaning between the biblical text, the Holy Spirit and a Pentecostal (or Christian) community.[xvii] 


The Contribution of the Biblical Text

            In order for a communicative event to take place there must be space between a text, a stable but underdeterminate entity, and a reader in community.  The reader in community interprets the written text in an attempt to understand the text, thereby completing the communicative act.  Semiotics is a theory that emphasizes both the space between the reader and a text and the necessary dialectical link between the reader and the text in the production of meaning.



 Semiotics is concerned with the study of signs as conveyers of meaning.[xviii]  Signs are not limited to a written language but include a great diversity of human (and animal) activities.[xix]  The focus here, however, is with written communication.   Semiotics as it relates to linguistics[xx] is concerned with both the ‘speech-act’, whether written or spoken, and the ‘language’ in which the speech act functions.  Abrams writes that the aim of semiotics ‘is to regard the parole (a single verbal utterance, or particular use of a sign or set of signs) as only a manifestation of the langue (that is, the general system implicit differentiations and rules of combination which underlie and make possible a particular use of signs).’[xxi]  In other words the language (langue) ‘is a system of signs and laws regulating grammar and syntax--a sort of “canon” establishing guidelines for meaning.’[xxii]  Meaning in the sense of what a ‘speech-act’ is saying grammatically is not viewed as a referential sign about what it is referring to historically.[xxiii]  Speech (parole) ‘is the act executing the given possibilities residing within a system of signs.’[xxiv]  In order for communication to transpire, both the writer/speaker and the reader/listener must have some competency in the language (langue).  Therefore, Semiotics emphasizes the transaction of meaning between texts and readers, thus involving the reader in the production of meaning in order to complete the communication event.

   The Bible is a collection of written speech acts.  Semiotics, therefore, can provide helpful insights and guidance for a theological hermeneutical strategy which appreciates the formational potential of texts. I do not want to confuse Semiotics with theological or even biblical hermeneutics. Instead I desire to approach a Pentecostal hermeneutical strategy through Semiotics[xxv] because Semiotics recognizes the necessary distance between the reader and the text by emphasizing the important contributions of both the text and reader in the making of meaning. This space between the reader and text creates a real conversation. Therefore a Semiotic interpretive strategy will be the most conducive for Pentecostals (and I would suggest Christians) because it allows for an open interdependent dialectic interaction between the text and the reading community in the making of meaning.  However, the Holy Scripture in its final canonical form provides the primary arena in which the Pentecostal community desires to understand God.[xxvi]

 From a Semiotic viewpoint the text contains latent but nonetheless potent cues as to how it desires to be understood.  The way to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ these cues is through a close (formalistic) analysis of the text illuminated by the social cultural context in which it was written.  The Pentecostal hermeneutic would affirm the importance of the genre of the passage along with the grammatical rules of the language to which the specific speech-act belongs.  The text would be analyzed however from a more formalistic perspective while affirming the importance of the social cultural context in which the text came into existence.  Meaning is negotiated through the conversation between the text, community, and the Spirit.  The world behind the text informs but does not control the conversation.[xxvii]

In short, Semiotics affirms that a dialectical interdependent link exists between the text and the readers.  Semiotics also views the text as an underdeterminate yet stable entity that affirms the reader as a necessary component in the communicative event and the making of meaning. The text is to be respected as a dialogical partner in the communicative event. Thus semiotics is a helpful critical aspect of theological interpretation.


The Contribution of a Pentecostal (Ecclesiastical) Community

 Moral reasoning is always rooted in a particular narrative tradition.[xxviii] Interpretative methods and readings are dependent upon a hermeneutical community.  In the negotiating of meaning, one’s community is an important and necessary component of the hermeneutic.[xxix]  In order to produce a “Pentecostal” reading of Scripture, ones identity must be shaped by the Pentecostal community.

I recognize that all interpretive readings are culturally dependent and inherently contain the ideological perspective(s) of the community.  Furthermore both the interpretive method and the community readings are anchored into particular socio-cultural modes of existence. Hermeneutical approaches reflect the socio-theological perspectives of those using them.  This ecclesiastical strategy affirms this reality, thus the importance of practicing a hermeneutic of suspicion and retrieval.[xxx] Also this strategy affirms a praxis-oriented hermeneutical stance because the interpretive activity is generated in the present concrete experience of living in the Pentecostal community that is animated by the Holy Spirit.  The community moves towards the biblical text with specific concerns and needs.  The community expects the Scripture(s) to speak to its present situation. The community also listens for the voice of the Spirit and looks for the signs of the Spirit as it engages conversationally with Scripture.


An Ecclesiastical Hermeneutical Community: A Pentecostal Community

The Pentecostal theologian must be entrenched within a Pentecostal community and in tune with the concrete needs and aspirations of the Pentecostal community.[xxxi]  This strategy affirms the necessity of the hermeneut living among the Pentecostal community.   Therefore, the hermeneutical emphasis will fall upon a Semiotic and Narrative approach with the context of the reader in community providing the hermeneutical filter and foil for understanding and completing the communicative event.[xxxii]

The Pentecostal hermeneut who is educated by the academy must also be a participant within the Pentecostal community; that is, she should understand her Christian identity to be Pentecostal. In order to be included as part of the Pentecostal community, she must embrace the central narrative convictions of Pentecostalism.  The Pentecostal story must be interwoven into her personal story.  This does not imply that one cannot be concerned about the larger Christian community or attempt to understand the Scripture from a different perspective or interpretive strategy, but it does mean that one’s identity is shaped and formed by participating in a Pentecostal community.

            In order for one to be a Pentecostal hermeneut (whether lay, clergy, educated or non-educated), one needs to be recognized as a Pentecostal.  The hermeneut must share her story (testimony) and receive the important ‘amen’ of affirmation from the community.  Thus, one will need to have a clear and convincing testimony concerning his/her experiential relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.  The ‘Full Gospel’ serves as the central narrative convictions of the Pentecostal community.  The Full Gospel or Five-Fold Gospel is a relational doxological articulation of the redemptive work of Jesus.  Jesus is Savior, Sanctifier, Spirit Baptizer, Healer and Soon Coming King. This does not mean a Pentecostal hermeneut must have experienced every dimension of the Full Gospel, but she must be willing to participate in the Pentecostal story.[xxxiii]  In this way, the theologian is an extension and participant of the community not an isolated individual reader.

 The sharing of testimonies always involves and requires discernment from within the community.  Therefore, one is not a Pentecostal hermeneut because one uses a Pentecostal method because there is no such thing as a Pentecostal method; rather, one is a Pentecostal hermeneut because one is recognized as being a part of the community.  The community, along with its concerns and needs, is the primary arena in which a Pentecostal hermeneut participates.  The community actively participates in the Pentecostal hermeneutic not passively but actively through discussion, testimony, and charismatic gifts.[xxxiv] 

Generally, academically trained biblical and theological hermeneuts will have an active leadership role in the Pentecostal community, whether it is as a pastor, teacher or lay leader.  One needs to appreciate that most Pentecostals who are a part of academic educational communities are credential-holding ministers of Pentecostal denominations. 

            The Pentecostal hermeneutic argues that the place to hear the present Word of God is the current context in which one lives.  The past words of God (Scripture) then speak a present Word of God, which is to be believed and obeyed.  The point of view of the reader/interpreter is not to be dismissed but embraced.  This does not mean that Scripture cannot resist the reader’s point of view.  It does mean that the readers’ community plays a significant role in what is found in Scripture and then what will become theologically normative for the community.

Pentecostals recognize that Scripture is authoritative voice in the community and able to transform lives as it is inspired anew by the Holy Spirit.  Pentecostals, like Christians in general, would want to hear the Scripture on its own terms, first and foremost.  Yet, the hearing of Scripture is filtered through the Pentecostal narrative tradition.  As a result of this, there is an interdependent dialogical and dialectical link between the community and the Scripture with the goal being communal and societal transformation.


Narrative Criticism: The Overarching Method

The readers (hermeneuts) in community select certain methods which they use in order to interpret texts.  One of the important contributions of the hermeneut is the interpretive method.  The method is not isolated from the person but becomes a tool that the hermeneut uses in the creative negotiation of theological meaning.  

A narrative approach allows for the dialectic interaction of the text and reader in the negotiation of meaning.  Pentecostals by their very nature are inherently storytellers.  They primarily transmit their theology through oral means.[xxxv]  They have been conditioned to engage Scripture as story.  The Bible is understood as a grand story—a metanarrative.[xxxvi] Thus a narrative theological approach with a bent towards reader response would enable the Pentecostal community not only to critically interpret Scripture but also to let Scripture critically interpret them.

Narrative Criticism’s concern is similar to the semiotic concern to keep a dialectic link between the reader and the text.   This dialectic link between the narrative text and the reader insists on the reader responding to the text in ways that are signaled by the text for the production of meaning.  Therefore, the empirical contemporary reader in community is an active participant in the production of meaning.  The meaning(s) of the text is not simply found in the text, nor is it simply found in the reader but comes into existence in the dialectic interaction of the reader with the text.[xxxvii]

This dialectic interpretive tension is not simply a linear move of meaning from text to reader, as if in the classical literary interpretive sense that meaning is inherently and entirely found in the text.  Nor is the reader given freedom to construe meaning in the way that meets her creative concerns, which from that perspective allows the reader to stand over and against the text.[xxxviii]  Once again, meaning is produced through the on-going interdependent dialectical interaction of the text and reader, both of which are necessary for a creative negotiation of meaning.  Hence, neither the reader nor the text is to dominate the negotiation of meaning.  The reader and text must work together in actualizing the potential meaning(s) of the text through the process of reading.[xxxix]  The reader in community and the text make different kinds of contributions to the production of meaning, which allows the communicative event to succeed.  This interdependent dialectical and dialogical interactive process is reinforced by Narrative Criticism’s concern to follow the unfolding plot and its interaction with characters, settings and events in the story world of the narrative.  This also allows for Narrative criticism to spill over into Reader Response Criticism.[xl]

In sum, Narrative Criticism offers a text centered interpretive approach that allows for the socio-cultural context in which the text was generated to inform the contemporary reader, but in no way does it allow for it to dominate or control the interpretation of the text.  Instead, the text is appreciated for what it is–a narrative; thus, the interpreter is concerned with the poetic features and structure of the story as a world in itself.  The text invites the reader to negotiate meaning through a dialectical process of reading.  Narrative critics are concerned to follow the responsive clues of the narrative from the perspective of its implied reader.  Yet, the implied reader (whether a hypothetical construct of the text or a hypothetical construct in the mind of the empirical reader) necessitates the involvement of the empirical reader in the production of meaning.  This affirms the importance of Reader Response Criticism.  A Narrative-Reader Response approach would allow the text to give formative guidance without determining the actual response of the readers. 

The imagination of the real reader shaped in community is vital to the reader’s ability to comprehend the text.  In this way, a Pentecostal would read the Bible as she would any other text or experience, namely, through the utilization of her imagination[xli] shaped and formed in the Pentecostal community by means of its narrative tradition and with her ears open to the Spirit.

  The community, along with Scriptures’ potential polyvarient understandings, becomes the necessary participant in the ongoing interpretive process.   The community engages the biblical text and so produces meaningful readings in ways that attempt to maintain the interdependent interactive dialogical relationship between the text and the community. The community, not an isolated reader, will negotiate the meaning through discussion and discernment as a direct address to the community.  In doing so, the community will remain more faithful to the interpretive process of the first century Christian community then the isolated individual of the Modern age.[xlii]  As Richard Hays demonstrates through examining the Apostle Paul’s writings,

Our account of Paul’s interpretive activity has discovered no systematic exegetical procedures at work in his reading of Scripture. … his [Paul’s] comments characteristically emphasize the immediacy of the text’s word to the community rather then providing specific rules of reading. … Paul reads the text as bearing direct reference to his own circumstances… [and] that Scripture is rightly read as a word of address to the [present] eschatological community of God’s people.[xliii]  


In short, this Pentecostal hermeneutical strategy will embrace a narrative critical methodology while simultaneously affirming the Pentecostal community as the arena for the making of meaning.  Interpretation is the result of a creative negotiation of meaning, and this meaning is always done from the particular context of an actual ‘reader in community.’   Croatto argues that the Bible is a present living word for the believing community.  ‘As a result, what is genuinely relevant is not the “behind” of a text, but its “ahead,” its “forward”- what it suggests as a pertinent message for the life of the one who seeks it out.’[xliv]  Hence, it is the reading of the Scripture from a new praxis and in community that opens up valid yet multiple meanings of biblical texts.[xlv]  Therefore, a Pentecostal reading would not only pay attention to the poetic features and the structure of the text, but would also fully affirm the importance of the contemporary Christian community’s participation in the making of meaning.  The Pentecostal model would desire to keep the making of meaning in creative interdependent dialectic tension between the text and the community, which is always moving into new and different contexts.  In this manner, the making of meaning is a constructive ongoing cooperation between the text and community of faith.  The Pentecostal community’s theological conviction that the word of God speaks to the present eschatological community collapses the distance between the past and present allowing for creative freedom in the community’s acts of interpretation.

The primary constraint that contemporary Pentecostals employ in order to limit their interpretive freedom is their tradition.  This constraint is theological more so than methodological. Pentecostals would shout a hearty amen to Hays’ argument that all of Scripture must be interpreted in light of and as a witness to the Gospel of Jesus.  ‘Scripture must be read as a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  No reading of Scripture can be legitimate if it fails to acknowledge the death and resurrection of Jesus as the climatic manifestation of God’s righteousness.’[xlvi] Therefore a theological constraint provided by the reading of Scared Scripture as God’s story with an emphasis upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ provides a stability for the community in the making of meaning.


The Contribution of the Holy Spirit

            The theological interpretive strategy, I am proposing is a tridactic negotiation for meaning.  I have described the contributions of the biblical text and community. Now I will address the contributions of the Holy Spirit to the hermeneutical process.

            Explaining the contribution of the Holy Spirit is more difficult due to the realization that the Holy Spirit, although affirmed as being a present and active personal participant in the interpretive process, is nonetheless dependent upon the community’s sensitivity and Scripture’s perspicuity.  The Holy Spirit’s voice is heard in and through the individuals in community as well as in and through Scripture (which may be words of correction, reproof or even a word of resistance to a certain biblical statement).[xlvii]  The Spirit’s voice is not reduced to or simply equated with the Biblical text or the community, but is connected to and interdependent upon these as a necessary means for expressing the past-present-future concerns of the Social Trinity. The Holy Spirit has more to say than Scripture yet it will be scripturally based. The community must read and discern the signs and the sounds of the Spirit amongst the community in dialogical relationship with the Scriptures.

            The role of the Holy Spirit in the hermeneutical process is to lead and guide the community in understanding the present meaningfulness of Scripture as the community theologically understands its relationship with the Social Trinity.[xlviii]  This ministry of the Holy Spirit is an extension of the ministry of the incarnate, crucified, ascended, and glorified Christ.[xlix]  Therefore human societies in general and the Christian community in particular have not been abandoned by the living presence of God as a result of the ascension of Christ Jesus.  The Holy Spirit, believed to be a real personal participant in the life of the Christian, enables the Christian in community to live faithfully with the living God as the community continues the mission of Jesus in the world.[l]  Hence the Spirit does speak and has more to say than just Scripture.[li]  This requires the community to discern the Spirit in the process of negotiating the meaning of the biblical texts as the community faithfully carries on the mission of Jesus into new, different and future contexts.  ‘The Spirit’s intervention and interpretive work is crucial if the followers of Jesus are faithfully to carry on the mission Jesus gives them.’[lii]  For this reason, the voice of the Spirit cannot be reduced to simple recitation of Scripture; nonetheless, it will be connected to and concerned with Scripture because Scripture is God’s story for all creation—especially humanity. Furthermore, this implies that previous theological understandings (in the form of official ecclesiastical doctrines) may need to be revised in the ongoing light revealed by the Spirit to the ecclesiastical community(s).


The Spirit’s Voice Heard In and Through A Pentecostal Community

            Pentecostals desire the Holy Spirit to speak, lead and empower them in fulfilling the missionary task Jesus mandated to his followers.  Pentecostals seek the Spirit’s guidance in understanding Scripture and life experience in order to live obediently with God. The Spirit’s voice is most actively discerned through the various gifts manifested in the community.  


The Spirit’s Voice In the Community.

The worshipping community provides the primary context in which the Spirit’s manifestation takes place.  Personal testimonies, charismatic gifts, preaching, teaching, witnessing, serving the poor and praying are all acts of ministry that provide opportunities for the tangible manifestation of the Holy Spirit.  The community is involved in discerning the authenticity of these manifestations and activities.  The activities of the Pentecostal community’s participants are ‘assessed and accepted or rejected.’[liii] Many times a belief and/or activity will be tolerated until more witness from the Spirit by means of Scripture and/or personal testimony can be given.  The community provides the context for the manifestation/voice of the Spirit to be seen/heard and discerned.

            Pentecostals will invite the Holy Spirit to manifest in various ways in the community.  The purpose of these manifestations and community activities is to empower, guide, and transform the individuals in community so that the Pentecostal community can faithfully follow the Lord Jesus Christ.  This requires the community to discern the Holy Spirit in the midst of the community’s activities and manifestations and follow the Spirit’s guidance.  The individual’s claim of being led by or speaking in behalf of the Spirit will be weighed in light of Scripture, community’s theological convictions and other individual testimonies.  Thus the community must interpret the manifestations of the Spirit.[liv]  ‘Experience of the Spirit shapes the reading of scripture, but scripture most often provides the lens through which the Spirit’s work is perceived and acted upon.’[lv]   The Christian community provides the dynamic context in which the Spirit is actively invited to participate in the theological negotiation of meaning.   


Discerning The Spirit’s Voice Coming From Outside the Community. 

The Pentecostal story has placed missionary outreach as the very heartbeat of God’s dramatic story and thus the primary purpose of the Pentecostal community’s existence.[lvi] Pentecostals have and continue to embrace with great vigor the missionary task of reaching all people with the Gospel.  They proclaim the ‘Full Gospel’ to all who will listen in prayerful hope that non-Christians will respond to God’s gracious salvific invitation to embrace Jesus and join the Pentecostal community.  This passion for missional activity has encouraged Pentecostals to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth and thereby spreading the ‘Full Gospel’ into regions outside of their cultural context and geographical locations.  Pentecostals (especially those discerned to have the ‘missionary call’ but also, in a limited sense the local layperson) evangelistically engage and confront other individuals in community.  Pentecostals do not stand from a distance but get involved with other people while retaining their allegiance to their Pentecostal community.  The engagement with other communal stories allows for openness to the voice of the Spirit to come to them from outside the Pentecostal community.

            Pentecostals will not limit the work of the Spirit to their community but recognize that God’s prevenient grace has been bestowed upon all of humanity.  Furthermore they fully expect the Holy Spirit to be actively working upon and speaking into the lives of all people, Christians and non-Christians.   This underscores the importance of the Holy Spirit being active upon people before the Pentecostal missionaries arrive.   Pentecostals, through their hospitable missionary outreach, have developed relationships with people outside their community and have ‘discerned’ the presence of the Spirit in these ‘foreign’ communities.[lvii]  As a result, the Pentecostals will discern what the Spirit is saying to them from outside their community, which may be both typical and yet surprising for the Pentecostal community.  In this way the Spirit may speak from outside the Pentecostal community by means of speaking through Pentecostal missionaries, evangelists, recent converts and those of us who engage in theological discussions with others outside of our tradition.  Once again the community, Scripture and Spirit are all necessary participants in the making of theological meaning with the community energized by the Spirit being the arena in which the Scripture and the Spirit converge.

The Spirit’s Voice Comes In and Through the Scripture

            Generally, Pentecostals hold to a “high view” of Scripture.  The Bible is understood to be an authoritative and trustworthy testimony about the Living God produced by humans that were inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Scripture is affirmed as the sacred narrative of the Living God’s revelation to humanity and specifically to the covenant community.  Because of this belief, ‘Pentecostals regard the Scripture as normative and seek to live their lives in light of its teaching.’[lviii]  Pentecostals read Scripture for more then just information; they read with a desire to relationally know the living God and do the will of God.  Reading Scripture then is a means of grace for experiencing redemptive transformation.  Therefore Pentecostals, both laity and academicians, actively invite the Holy Spirit to inspire the community and reveal meaningful understanding of Scripture.

            How does the Spirit speak in and through the Scripture?  The community must discern the Holy Spirit’s voice, and the Holy Spirit must be granted an opportunity to be actively involved in the hermeneutical process.  As Thomas argues, the Holy Spirit’s involvement in the interpretive process as narrated in Acts 15, ‘heavily influenced the choice and use of Scripture’ in resolving the thorny issues concerning the Gentiles’ inclusion into the early Jewish Christian community.[lix]  This indicates that the Holy Spirit’s presence was not passive but active in guiding and directing the community’s engagement with Scripture.  The participants in the ‘Jerusalem Council’ could offer much Scriptural support concerning God’s rejection of Gentiles, but not all of the Old Testament supports such a notion.  Hence when Scripture (both Old and New Testaments) offer diverse and even contradictory information concerning a particular practice or concern, the Spirit can direct the congregation through experience, visions, gifts, and testimonies to a new theological understanding.  This new understanding is rooted in Scripture yet moves beyond it.  The community, then, must discern the Holy Spirit’s involvement in the present context of the Christian community.

                        Pentecostals affirm that the primary context for the interpretation of Scripture is the believing community.  Scripture as a grand metanarrative is celebrated as a gift of God’s grace to the community.  Personal faith in Jesus Christ as messiah is affirmed as a necessary aspect of the entire interpretative process. The interpretive concern of the community is to come to an understanding of what the Spirit is saying to the community in and through the biblical text(s).  The Spirit has more to say than Scripture but it is understood to be scripturally sound.  Furthermore the reading of Scripture (both personal and communal) offers a sacramental opportunity for the Spirit to work redemptively in the life of the readers.[lx]



The Pentecostal theological hermeneutic being advocated encourages a tridactic dialectical and dialogical interdependent relationship between Scripture, Spirit and Community. The Holy Spirit is the most significant person in the conversation.   The model finds biblical support in Acts 15 and is a hermeneutical strategy that is a product of the Pentecostal identity.  The particular method will be a Narrative-Reader Response approach from a semiotic understanding of language.  The method, however, is not as important as the conversation that transpires among the community as it engages the Scripture and as it discerns the Spirit. The theological hermeneutic will be practiced by Pentecostal hermeneuts in community seeking the creative guidance and input of the Holy Spirit. The readers in community, the text, and the Holy Spirit are conversational participants in the tridactic negotiation for theological meaning. Therefore, this is a pneumatically grounded ecclesiastical community that opens itself up to other communities (both Christian and non-Christian) who are willing to dialogue with us as we seek to hear what the Spirit is saying. 


[i] The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), p. 19.

[ii] ‘Canon and Charisma in the Book of Deuteronomy’ in Journal of Pentecostal Theology 1 (1992), pp. 75-92.

[iii] This paper is a condensed summarization with some additional information of the sixth chapter of my recently published monograph, A Pentecostal Hermeneutic for the Twenty First Century: Spirit, Scripture and Community (London and New York; T&T Clark International 2004), pp. 156-191.

[iv] See Archer, A Pentecostal Hermeneutic for the Twenty First Century, chapters 3-5 for an analysis of Pentecostal hermeneutical concerns.

[v] ‘His’ is purposefully used to reiterate the male dominance of Enlightenment interpretation that has argued for a scientific neutral and objective method of interpretation.

[vi]  See Alasdair Macintyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, second edition). Also see MacIntyre’s sequel, Whose Justice? Which Rationality (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).  MacIntyre’s primary concern has been to demonstrate that ‘dramatic narrative is the crucial form for an understanding of human action’ and moral reasoning.  Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science’ in Stanley Hauerwas and L. Gregory Jones (eds.), Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), p. 150.

[vii] See John Christopher Thomas, ‘Women, Pentecostals and the Bible: An Experiment in Pentecostal Hermeneutics’ in Journal of Pentecostal Theology 5 (1994), pp.17-40. This hermeneutic is based upon Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council, which is comprised of three primary components in the theological discerning process.  These components are the believing community, the activity of the Holy Spirit and Scripture

[viii] For the concept of ‘underdeterminate’ see Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), p. 10. See also J. Severino Croatto, Biblical Hermeneutics: Toward a Theory of Reading as the Production of Meaning (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987), for the notion of the ‘production of meaning.’

[ix] Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading In Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p. 8.

[x] For an informative explanation of the significance of Narrative as a theological category for the understanding of Scripture see Joel B. Green, “The (Re-) Turn To Narrative” in Joel B. Green and Michael Pasquarello (editors), Narrative Reading, Narrative Preaching: Reuniting New Testament Interpretation and Proclamation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), pp.1-36.

[xi] Gerard Loughlin, Telling God’s Story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), preface. See also his essay, “The Basis and Authority of Doctrine” in Colin E. Gunton (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 41-64, especially pp. 52-54.

[xii] Edgar V. McKnight, Post-Modern Use of the Bible: The Emergence of Reader-Oriented Criticism (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1988).  According to McKnight, ‘The postmodern perspective which allows readers to use the Bible today is that of a radical reader-oriented literary criticism, a criticism which views literature in terms of readers and their values, attitudes, and responses. … A radical reader-oriented criticism is postmodern in that it challenges the critical assumption that a disinterested reader can approach a text objectively and obtain verifiable knowledge by applying certain scientific strategies.  A radical reader-oriented approach sees the strategies, the criteria for criticism and verification, the “information” obtained by the process, and the use of such “information” in light of the reader’, pp. 14-5. 

[xiii] McKnight, Post-Modern Use of the Bible, p. 19, parenthetical added.

[xiv] McKnight, Post-Modern Use of the Bible, pp. 22-3.

[xv] John Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), p. 45.  

[xvi] Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretations (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970).  Ricoeur argues that ‘Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience’, p.27.

[xvii] Current articles dealing with Pentecostal hermeneutics with additional bibliographical resources are Kenneth J. Archer, ‘Pentecostal Hermeneutics: Retrospect and Prospect’ in Journal of Pentecostal Theology (April 1996); Veli-Matti Karkkainen, ’Pentecostal Hermeneutics in the Making: On the Way from Fundamentalism to Postmodernism’ in The Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association 28 (1998); see also The Spirit and Church 2:1 (May 2000) which is dedicated to the topic Pentecostal Hermeneutics and Chapter 5 of my A Pentecostal Hermeneutic.   

[xviii] Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1977), p. 124.  Hawkes points out that Europeans prefer semiology in regards to Saussure’s coinage of the term whereas English speakers prefer semiotics because of Peirce.

[xix] See Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics chapter 4 for an introduction, explanation and the diversity of Semiotics.

[xx] M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms: Seventh Edition (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999), p. 280

[xxi] Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, p. 280

[xxii] Croatto, Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 13.

[xxiii] Paul Ricoeur, ‘Biblical Hermeneutics’, in Semeia 4 (1975), p. 81.

[xxiv] Croatto, Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 14.  See also Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, p. 141.  The distinction between language (a system of signs) and speech was introduced by Saussure.

[xxv]I am following J. Severino Croatto argument in Biblical Hermeneutics, p.10.

[xxvi] See J. Barton, Reading the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984) which argues that Brevard Childs’ ‘Canonical Criticism’ resembles the principles of New Criticism, pp. 140-57.  For a helpful explanation and critique of Brevard Childs’ canonical approach see Charles J. Scalise, Hermeneutics As Theological Prolegomena: A Canonical Approach  (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1994).  Scalise modifies Childs’ approach by addressing Childs’ inadequate account of tradition and canonical intentionality, and the need to include within a canonical approach newer sociological and literary approach.

[xxvii] W. Randolph Tate, Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., rev. ed. 1997), p. xxv.

[xxviii] See footnote 6 above.

[xxix] See Harry S. Stout, ‘Theological Commitment and American Religious History‘ in Theological Education (Spring 1989), who demonstrates that there is an inescapable relationship between the community of which one belongs and the explanation of past history.  His argument can be extended to include biblical meaning.

[xxx] See Sandra M. Schneiders, ‘Feminist Hermeneutics’ in Joel Green (ed.), Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995). Schneiders writes, ‘Those who continue to hope that the biblical text is susceptibly of a liberating hermeneutic must pass by the way of suspicion to retrieval.  Suspicion leads to ideology criticism.  But ideology criticism is then in the service of advocacy and reconstruction’, p. 352.

[xxxi] See John Christopher Thomas, ‘Reading the Bible from within our Traditions: A Pentecostal Hermeneutic as Test Case’ in Joel B. Green and Max Turner (eds.), Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, United Kingdom: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), pp. 120-2.

[xxxii] See Kenneth J. Archer, ‘Pentecostal Story: The Hermeneutical Filter for the Making of Meaning’ in PNEUMA 26:1 (Spring 2004), pp. 36-59, for an explanation of the Pentecostal story.

[xxxiii] I am saying that the community requires the hermeneut to embrace the ‘Full Gospel’ which encourages one to anticipate and participate in salvation, sanctification, healing, Spirit baptism while eagerly awaiting the soon return of Jesus.  The point is that one has a particular relationship with Jesus and the community that is experiential and is defined by the ‘Full Gospel’ message. The hermeneut is never alone in the interpretive process. 

[xxxiv] See Mark J. Cartledge, Practical Theology: Charismatic and Empirical Perspectives (Paternoster Press, 2003), pp. 52-60, for an important epistemological discussion concerning the function of testimony in Pentecostal and Charismatic communities.

[xxxv] W. J. Hollenweger, ‘The Pentecostal Elites and the Pentecostal Poor: A Missed Dialogue?’ in Karla Poewe (ed.), Charismatic Christianity as a Global Culture (Columbia: South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1994), p. 201.

[xxxvi]  By metanarrative, I am referring to a grand story by which human societies and their individual members live and organize their lives in meaningful ways.  The Christian metanarrative refers to the general Christian story about the meaning of the world and the God who created it and humanity’s place in it.  The Christian metanarrative is primarily dependent on the Bible for this general narrative. For a basic outline of the ‘Storyline’ of the Christian metanarrative, see Gabriel Fackre, The Christian Story: A Narrative of Basic Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996, third edition volume one).  Fackre writes that ‘Creation, Fall, Covenant, Jesus Christ, Church, Salvation, Consummation, … are acts in the Christian drama’ with the understanding ‘That there is a God who creates, reconciles, and redeems the word’ as ‘the “Storyline”’, pp. 8-9.  See also Graig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004).

[xxxvii] Mark Allen Powell, What is Narrative Criticism? (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1990), pp. 17-18

[xxxviii] Powell, What is Narrative Criticism?, pp. 16-21.  Powell places Reader Response Criticism into three categories: the reader over the text, the reader with the text and, the reader in the text.  He argues that Narrative Criticism falls into the third category, hence a more ‘objective’ interpretive theory. I am arguing that there is much more overlap between Reader Response and Narrative Criticism.

[xxxix] Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic-Response (London, England: Routledge, 1978), pp. 34-35.

[xl] Stephen D. Moore, Literary Criticism and the Gospels: The Theoretical Challenge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 73.  Moore correctly points out that Reader Response Criticism is not ‘a conceptually unified criticism; rather it is a spectrum of contrasting and conflicting positions’, p.72.   Also Powell, What is Narrative Criticism?, p. 21, who writes, ‘narrative criticism and dialectic modes (‘with the text’) of reader response are most similar and they may eventually become indistinguishable.’

[xli] I recognize that the Bible contains many forms of genre with narrative being the most prevalent.  However, a few Bible critics recognize the value of narrative, as it is a necessary backdrop to the non-narrative portions of Scripture.  See for example Norman R. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative World (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985) and Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Narrative Thought World: The Tapestry of Tragedy and Triumph (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994). Narrative as a theological overarching category of all Scripture necessitates one to locate a passage of a biblical text into the Scripture’s dramatic story.

[xlii] See Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), pp.161, 183-5.  Hays argues that ‘if we learned from Paul how to read Scripture, we would read it primarily as a narrative of promise and election … ecclesiocentrically… in the service of proclamation … as participants in the eschatological drama of redemption.’  As this writer has demonstrated the Pentecostal community has always read the Scripture ‘as the people of the end time,’ from a narrative perspective of promise and from within the community as a word for the present which requires the interaction of the Holy Spirit.   

[xliii] Echoes of Scripture, pp. 160, 166.  See also McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, p. 56.

[xliv] Croatto, Biblical Hermeneutics, pp. 50ff.

[xlv] For Croatto the new context of praxis is the fight against oppression.

[xlvi] See Hays, Echoes of Scripture, p. 191.

[xlvii] For example, Pentecostals who affirm the importance of women in pastoral leadership look to other Scriptures as they resist certain texts of terror—specifically 2 Timothy 2:11-12. Women who feel called to be in leadership “testify” that the Spirit has called them and cite certain Scriptures to support this claim. My point is that Scripture does not call people into leadership ministry but the Spirit does and the Spirit uses Scripture and Community in the process.  

[xlviii] I agree with Trevor Hart’s statement in his ‘Tradition, Authority, and a Christian Approach to the Bible as Scripture’ in Joel B. Green and Max Turner, eds., Between Two Horizons, p. 203, that the Holy Spirit is not simply “an aid at getting at the meaning of Scripture” but instead ‘the Spirit is God’s relatedness to us in the event of meaning through which he addresses us.”

[xlix] See the Gospel of John chapters 13-17, in Jesus’ farewell discourse, he speaks of the importance of the Holy Spirit's ministry to the Christian community and human society.

[l] Fowl, Engaging Scripture, p. 99.

[li] See Rickie D. Moore, ‘A Letter to Frank Macchia’ and Frank D. Macchia, ‘A Reply to Rickie Moore’ in Journal of Pentecostal Theology 17 (October 2000), pp. 12-19 and James K. A. Smith, ‘The Closing of the Book: Pentecostals, Evangelicals and Sacred Writings’ in Journal of Pentecostal Theology 11 (October 1997), pp. 49-71.

[lii] Fowl, Engaging Scripture, p. 98.

[liii] Thomas, ‘Reading the Bible from within our Traditions’, p. 119.

[liv] Fowl, Engaging Scripture, correctly points out that ‘it is important to recognize that the presence of miraculous signs is not a straightforward event’, p. 104.  The community must discern if the miraculous sign is of the Holy Spirit and what the sign is signifying to the community.

[lv] Fowl, Engaging Scripture, p. 114.  This writer agrees with Fowl who argues that it is impossible in practice ‘to separate and determine clearly whether a community’s scriptural interpretation is prior to or dependent upon a community’s experience of the Spirit’, p. 114.

[lvi] See Steven J. Land, Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993).

[lvii] This would include officially recognized missionaries and local communities made up of both laity and clergy.  Every Pentecostal is to be a witness for Jesus Christ.

[lviii] Thomas, ‘Reading the Bible from within our Traditions’, p. 110. 

[lix] Thomas, ‘Reading the Bible from within our Traditions’, p. 118.

[lx] See M. Robert Mulholland Jr., Shaped By The Word: The Power Of Scripture in Spiritual Formation, revised edition (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2000)


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