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 Parameters of Pentecostal Aesthetics


By Dr. Matthew Del Nevo



In this article I am going to sketch the aesthetic horizons of Pentecostal world view. This is part of an ongoing project of Pentecostal philosophy.  Just to recap some of my premises.[i]  Firstly, it is necessary to recognise the epochal (or inescapably historical) nature of theology and Christian living.[ii] Secondly, theology is no better than the philosophy that underpins it or that is presupposed by it. Medieval scholasticism presupposed Platonist metaphysics and Aristotelian epistemology.  Evangelical (Reformed) theology presupposes a Cartesian metaphysics (individualism) and a rationalist epistemology. Catholicism is essentially medieval; Protestantism is a modernism and therefore tends towards totalising ideological theology. Pentecostalism presupposes a post-Nietzschean metaphysics and a hermeneutical epistemology, which are post-modern.[iii]

In this article I use “aesthetic” in the broad hermeneutical sense of the “way of seeing things”, and “the art of truth”.[iv]  In this sense, the aesthetic is integral to the world view.  In what follows I will start my study with that formidable philosopher and theologian Franz Rosenzweig.  I will briefly describe his threefold horizon of truth, which I will apply as also a threefold horizon of Pentecostal aesthetics. In this setting, I will then present four short narratives and comment on each, because each brings to view something important for Pentecostal self-understanding and is constitutive of the Pentecostal “aesthetic”. 

What essentially I am assuming by this article is that Pentecostal theology is not a systematics as it is in Protestantism, and nor does Pentecostal theology aspire to systematics, for this is a rational aspiration, while Pentecostalism works from spiritual aspiration which constellates a spiritual theology, not a systematic theology. Spiriutal theology is an aesthetics and that is as it should be. For aesthetics aspires to God’s glory (kabod), which is irreducible to rational systematisations.  This article aims to provide the philosophical parameters of such an aesthetics and therefore to form a prologemena of any future Pentecostal theology. 


The Threefold Horizon


In The Star of Redemption (1920)[v] the author Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) has his reader imagine a Star of David in which God, world and man form three points of one triangle.[vi] The other triangle of the star is made up by the threefold horizon we want to discuss here: Creation, Revelation and Redemption.  In The Star these are the horizons of truth and understanding within terms of which Jewish and Christian theology and philosophy are carried out and these religions exist.  Two things to note. Firstly, these horizons or parameters are of course not neutral (I refer to the neutrality so necessary to methodologists). They are unashamedly Jewish and Christian.  Secondly, Creation, Revelation and Redemption do not refer to the doctrines – or to the metaphysical systems out of which doctrines grow.   What then do they mean?

Creation means that the world is always already a given. By naming Creation, like Adam did, we say what is. Creation means that we have ontology (thought of being) and a source of ontology.  The ontology and its source are one and the same: Creation.  But in Rosenzweig, this is not some abstract postulate, Creation means, to put it in summary fashion, the ‘already-lived-being-there of God and world.’[vii]  Rosenzweig does not regard this as metaphysical in the classic sense, but as a given of all and any metaphysics, for instance the Platonic or Christian theism. Such givens tend to lie unquestioned, unspoken, within or behind metaphysics.[viii]  Creation in The Star is the ground of lived experience.

The other two points of the star are Revelation and Redemption.  Revelation means the lived experience of a present that walks in the light of the divine countenance.[ix]  Redemption is the coming of the Kingdom.[x]





In Part Two of Star of Redemption where Rosenzweig discusses Creation, Revelation and Redemption, at the heart of each book is a Scriptural text, from which he takes his authority.  These biblical texts are not just central and authoritative in terms of what Rosenzweig is saying in his text, but more importantly pertain to the things themselves.  It is not Rosenzweig’s finger that concerns us here, but that to which it points: Creation, Revelation and Redemption articulated in terms of God, world and humankind.  These biblical texts belong to each aspect of the Star of Redemption.  The biblical texts are of importance in terms of the rest of the Bible.  These texts are the parameters of a theological aesthetics which is Judaic and Christian.  Prior to Rosenzweig’s discussion of each of these biblical texts, he provides a theory of art, which itself is significant and interesting, but here we will limit ourselves to the biblical texts themselves, specifically as parameters of Pentecostal aesthetics. 


The first text is Genesis 1, the account of the beginning.  Of it Rosenzweig writes:


One sentence runs through the whole chapter which relates the work in the beginning.  A sentence that occurs six times and consists in a single word preceded only by a colon. The sentence is: Good!: it was and it is and it will be – “good”.  Creation resides in this divine Yes to existence of the creature. This “good” is the word of the end pronounced aloud for each day of Creation, because it is nothing other than the silent original word of their beginning.[xi]


We could have a long discussion of all that Rosenzweig has to say in his exegesis on Genesis 1.  The point I should wish to make here is that the goodness of Creation, despite all that is wrong, is the basic starting point, parameter, horizon.  Pentecostal world view is different from the world view of the Pauline era on this.  The Pentecostal aesthetic starts with this “good”.  The Pauline era starts with a sense of sin, and how, given that, we can be saved.  Luther agonised personally over this problem and found his salvation in a belief in “justification by faith alone”.  Salvation in the Pauline era is always in terms of belief and always over and against the Petrine Church which had always seen itself as the gateway to salvation.  No, Luther said (the Pauline centuries begin with a nay-saying), salvation is not through the Church of Rome, but through faith, which came to be understood as roughly synonymous with belief.   The Johannine Church is different in this regard[xii]. Its way of seeing things is based on the priority of God the fundamental goodness of the world and of fundamental glory of the human person created in the image of God.  In man, as Rosenzweig points out, the good of Creation is “raised to the superlative”, or as the Bible has it, the creation of humankind is “Very good!”[xiii]

            The Pentecostal Christian aesthetic starts not with the sinfulness of man, nor with the fallenness, but the goodness. The emphasis, therefore, is not so much on how man is saved, but on the “very good!” Creation which man is, and the thought of man’s transfiguration, as the glory of the world, and God’s glory.  The God-man Jesus Christ is an ‘incarnation’ of this truth, and a pre-figuration.  Rosenzweig says of this biblical proclamation of God about man: “Very good!” that while it is heard within Creation (i.e. within the world), it announces a beyond of the world. There is a life in each person that transcends the life of the simple creature, whose end is marked by death, a death that comes from beyond it.  By death, Rosenzweig says, we are marked in our “thingliness”, but as mankind, made in His image, a person is marked by “a silent and permanent prediction of the miracle of its renewal.”[xiv]  The element of transfiguration and renewal beyond death and creatureliness, is love.  Love is revelatory.  For only by love, only “here and now” are we able to walk in the light of the divine countenance and live the revelation. 



The second text is the text of Revelation par excellence.  In line with ancient authority of Rabbi Akiba, Rosenzweig presents The Song of Songs as the essential book of Revelation.  Immediately, this widens the difference between Protestant doctrinal theology which leads to rational collation and systematics and Pentecostal aesthetical theology, which leads to worship and the eruption of spirit.  For the Protestant, classically, chapter eight of Paul’s letter to the  Romans was the window through which to see and understand the whole Bible.  For the Pentecostal, The Song of Songs is the backdrop for deepening understanding the whole New Testament.  We should recall that the Song belongs to the larger context of Solomon’s wisdom. Also that the biblical Wisdom literature plays a part for Pentecostals that it never did in Protestantism, which tries to overcome wisdom with belief.

            In treating of these biblical texts we are at the heart of Rosenzweig’s thought in The Star.  His text streams off in all directions from these three biblical texts (the third of which we shall come to shortly). Here though, we must limit our remarks to only one or two simple points. 

            Revelation puts creation into the present time, with you and I.  God loves. “This is the purest present,” Rosenzweig says.[xv]


So love is not an attribute, but event, and there is no place in it for an attribute. “God loves” does not mean that love belongs to him like an attribute, like the power to create for instance; love is not the fundamental form, the solid, immovable form of his countenance…but the evanescent, never exhausted change of expressions, the always new light that shines on the divine features.[xvi]


All three ages of the Church speak of God’s love and stand in it. But the love of the Petrine Church is that of a Mother, extended on behalf of God, as it were, gathering the lost children home to roost.  In the Pauline era love is not motherly or mothering, but clothed as doctrine.  In the Church of the Pauline era it is the doctrine of love that is important and faith in that doctrine.  But doctrine is a cold thing, and quite incapable of love.  In the third era of the Church, love is “completely active, completely personal, completely alive, completely – speaking language” to quote Rosenzweig again.[xvii] Love is held in creative nexus between lover and beloved, as in the Song

            The love of the two lovers, is in the fact that He calls the betrothed sister and she whispers “Oh, if only you were a brother to me!”  They cannot fulfil their longing in the present, because love’s longing cannot be fulfilled in the immediate present of lived experience.[xviii]


The sob of the beloved sobs toward a beyond of love, toward a future of its present revelation; it sighs toward an eternal love, a love such that it will never be able to spring from the eternal presentness of feelings; a becoming external of the love that no longer grows in the I and You, but demands to be grounded in view of the entire earth.[xix]


This is the love that calls for Redemption, which means for love and good will toward all people. 





This brings us to our third text, which is in the Book of Psalms.  We find this in Book Three of Part Two of The Star.  Revelation, it is written, must find its concrete form in Redemption.  This is written in the Psalms which, says Rosenzweig, “is the form of the communal form of the community.”[xx]  This community is not yet everyone. It is a community on-the-way, a pilgrim community. The Psalms is its songbook.  Traditionally in Christianity, the Psalms have been the prayerbook of the Church. 

Rosenzweig, in this section of The Star, explains that in the Psalms the “I and You” of Revelation becomes “We”. 


In Revelation, the soul becomes silent; it sacrifices its particularity in order to be forgiven; the one who is chosen by God’s love loses his own will, his friends, his house and his homeland, when he hears God’s order, by taking upon his shoulders the yoke of the mission and by leaving to go toward that land that He will show to him.  But in this way he leaves the magic circle of Revelation and enters into the Kingdom of Redemption, and he broadens his I renounced under the rule of Revelation to the “We all”. [xxi]


In the Book of Psalms this is written in a group in which the deepest meaning of the whole Book is to be found, from Psalm 111 to Psalm 118.  In this group of Psalms the central song, according to Rosenzweig, is Psalm 115.  “This is the only one of all the Psalms”, says Rosenzweig, “that begins and ends with a powerfully underscored  We.”[xxii] 

            In this Psalm the coming of the Kingdom is being prayed for.  This is the messianic time of peace and good will to all humankind.  The love of God’s people will fill the earth. Rosenzweig gives a close reading of this Psalm as the eternal song in praise of Redemption. 

            All three ages of the Church speak of praise and worship.  Praise and worship is always indicative of its cultural context. In the Petrine Church we have the notion of the “divine liturgy” which in the West became characterised as the Mass.  In the Pauline centuries we have a stripping back of custom and ritual and a quieter, sober, privatised version introduced, deliberately in contrast to the splendour of the Petrine worship. In the Johannine age, praise and worship is in terms of the goodness of Creation and of ourselves in the image and likeness of God, thereby restoring horizons that existed in the ancient Church. Also praise and worship is not mournful in terms of sin and salvation, but raised on the basis of the freedom and love between lovers.  This different aesthetic basis allows Pentecostalism to manifest praise and worship which is neither ritualistic nor puritanical and uneffusive. 

            These three texts, Genesis 1; the Song of Songs and Psalms 111-118, especially Psalm 115 (in their shared meaning) inscribe the basic philosophical horizons of Pentecostal aesthetics.  Rosenzweig’s commentary on them is profound and we could draw further from it.   The difficulty is that the Star of Redemption as a whole can be said to be an interpretation of these three texts as they reflect God, the world and man.  Their shared meaning reaches into every corner of Rosenzweig’s work.  Let us just say to conclude this section that these texts, as horizonal for Pentecostal aesthetics, can be said to enframe our exegetical and hemeneutical approach to the Bible and to Christ, who Augustine says (and the Church has long followed him in believing) can be found on every page of the Bible. 



Four Stories


Our four short narratives work in terms of the threefold horizon of Pentecostal aesthetics: Creation, Revelation and Redemption and the Biblical authorisation of these horizons.  Within these horizons our four short stories will allow us to narrate the parameters of Pentecostal aesthetics.




The first story is well known and therefore appears in various scholarly works. It is a Jewish hasidic tale.  The hasids are a Jewish charismatic movement that started in the eighteenth century through a spiritual master known as the Baal Shem Tov (meaning the Master of the Good Name). His real name was Rabbi Israel ben Eleazer (1700-1760).  He was born, lived and travelled about in the region of the Carpathian mountains then settled in Miedzyboz on the Russian side of the mountains, in what was then southern Poland.  He lived in relative obscurity, but the charismatic movement he founded is vigorous and world-wide within Judaism today.[xxiii] 


As Scholem tells it, the master [Baal Shem Tov] used to go to a certain place in the woods and light a fire and pray when he was faced with an especially difficult task – and it was done.  His successor, the so-called great Maggid, followed his example and went to the same place but said: ‘The fire we can no longer light, but we can still say the prayer’ – and what he asked was done, too.  Another generation passed, and Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov went into the woods and said: ‘The fire we can no longer light, the prayer we no longer know; all we know is the place in the woods, and that will have to be enough.’  And it was enough.  In the fourth generation, Rabbi Israel of Rishin stayed at home and said: ‘The fire we can no longer light, the prayer we no longer know, nor do we know the place. All we can do is tell the story.’  And it was enough.[xxiv] 



Many things may be said of this edifying spiritual story.  I shall limit myself to three inter-related remarks that bear on the parameters of Pentecostal aesthetics. 

First of all this is a story of what theology calls ‘kenosis’.  Paul writes of this in his letter to the Philippians:


Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation (ekenwse), taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself (etapeinwsen eauton) and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore, God has exalted Him (autonuperuywse) and given Him the name which is above every name. (Phil. 2: 5-11)


This is a key passage of Pauline theology by which traditionally the Church has understood kenosis. Kenos simply means empty.  The word Paul uses for making Himself “of no reputation” (ekenose) is translated “he poured himself out” (NRSV). There are various legitimate ways of translating it.  However it relates to the process (genomenos) of “humbling” in 2:8.  The other side of the coin is the exaltation or plerosis (fullness of being in God) that this humbling will bring about. 

There are two aspects to this kenosis and plerosis. The first aspect of kenosis is spiritual.  Paul starts by saying, “let this mind be in you”.  In other words, he is not reiterating the Prologue to John’s Gospel, where Christ is in the beginning with God and is God, then “became flesh and dwelt among us”.  Paul is describing a mind-set, which we need to get, in order to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12: 2).  The spiritual tradition of the Church down the ages has had much to say about this.  But there is a second aspect which we see if we read this passage with the Prologue of John, and more broadly with the biblical narrative.    This kenosis and plerosis are not just personal and spiritual, like a mindset to be in us; they are temporal, they perform a movement that is acting itself out in history.  God comes down, He humbles himself, to raise creation up and to transfigure it through his  people. 

The story about the Baal Shem Tov reiterates this temporal kenosis.  From a sacred start where all things were together, the place, the fire, the prayer, in other words from a pristine beginning, there is a falling away, a humbling. Across time there is a loss, but not a forgetting.  The story sustains the beginning.  Just like the story about Jesus, the records of the Gospels, sustain that pristine time when He walked the earth and interacted with men, women and children, and laughed and wept. The place, the fire and the prayer were altogether then, but now we have the story, and it is enough.

We need to distinguish degeneration here from desacralisation. Pentecostal aesthetics are not a degeneration, but they do mark a desacralisation,.  I shall briefly explain this distinction I am making. A degeneration means that from a pure or pristine or perfect beginning things go downhill, the rot sets in, things are not what they used to be, and so on.  A desacralisation is when something is taken for God-ordained, but is found out to not be. As a historical process, desacralisation is really secularisation. An example if the divine right of Pope’s and Kings to rule.  In that example a sacred order was desacralised or debunked.  Scholasticism is another example, as “sacred theology” it was debunked by nominalism and scientific study. 

If we apply this way of thinking to the Incarnation of God we could say that the sacred unknowability of God is secularised in Jesus. The Incarnation of God is not a degeneration, but it is a desacralisation.  Even now the Jews can’t believe it.  Desacralised, the Creator of the universe becomes visible in His Son, a man who everyone can see and to whom writing and tradition can bear witness.  It follows from this that the sacred Temple in Jerusalem, the most sacred place imaginable, is made redundant; for it is no longer sacred when it is secularised in Jesus.[xxv]  The movement toward desacralisation should not be moralised as a bad thing. Desacralisation is a secularising movement, but it starts in heaven, as Paul’s hymn in Philippians describes for us as kenosis

What our story about the Baal Shem Tov and his followers illustrates is a process of secularisation. What starts as a pristine place, a fire and a holy prayer, becomes a story of these things.  We can moralise this and say it is a ‘bad’ thing to happen, because we are left with a memory rather than a reality.  Or we can interpret the movement as one of secularisation, in which the memory shows that the value of the place and the fire and the prayer, instead of being ‘reserved’ like the Holy of Holies in the Temple, has now become common property, a story that can be shared and a memory that can belong to everyone, rather than a reality that advantaged one person alone.  If we take the second option above, we will understand this secularisation in Christian terms as ‘incarnation’.  The place, the fire and the prayer are incarnated in the common mind as memory to enrich us all.  The memory is embodied and builds the community where it is incarnated (become embodied).  

Our story is a parable. It affirms secularisation as incarnational and as the integral historical movement of our religion.  For Christians, distinct from Jews, secularisation has to do with the whole idea of Incarnation; that is, with what was once absolutely Other, absolutely holy, taking on body that is subject to death.  Christian values, Christian truths, Christian hopes and Christian vision and so on, all need to be incarnated, to take body.  That is what we mean when we say “we are God’s hands and feet.”  Something primal and spiritual becomes solid and enters into a story that can be told and that everyone knows and is remembered across time and place.  Therefore, no longer is the Holy of Holies a place where one man goes once a year, it has become a place within every man, woman and child where they can go whenever they will.  Something known to one man and his God, becomes common property and part of the social fabric – this is a process of desacralisation and secularisation, that the old theology called incarnation. 

            Desacralisation is central to the biblical narrative.  With the Bible, and with Moses in particular something new and unprecedented is introduced to the history of religions and religious ideas, something that is going to be immensely deconstructive for them.  It is the distinction between true and false in the religious sphere.  Prior to Moses, the distinction was between sacred and profane, totem and taboo. But Moses’s teaching said not just that some gods were false, but that they all were.  In biblical language this is the ban on idolatry, which is fundamental to getting any idea of God in the biblical sense.  Moses desacralised the world of gods, the sacral sphere.  Moses brought the sacral sphere down to earth, imposing God’s Law upon His people.  God’s presence was measured by Law and if anything was sacred it was this Law, which was left open for interpretation by those who were holy, held apart by love of God and by God’s love.  It is into this world that Jesus came, and only in terms of it that Jesus can be placed and understood. 

Jesus himself desacralised the letter of the law, emphasising its spirit.  “You have heard it said… but I say to you.”  Jesus always says it is the spirit which the Law brings out that is important and that God wants to see.  Slave-like obedience to a Law you don’t really like is not godliness nor does it lead to holiness. God wants you to have the spirit of the Law in your heart, and the Law is to enable this.  However, it is man’s tendency in culture to idolatry, which in contemporary terms, means to objectivise and sacralise truth, and thereby turn religion into cult. God’s tendency is to bring the truth back to dignifying people and right relationships. God will break open our sacred structures for the sake of Redemption, this is what it means to know that the veil of the temple is torn from top to bottom (Mt. 27: 51).[xxvi] Modernity is not a degeneration from a Middle Ages, or from the times of the early Church, it is a kenosis.  Put more plainly, secularisation is the child of Christianity and the authentic destiny of Christian spirituality.

We can see the same drift, the same secularisation in Christian history that is in our story.  For example, the superb liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, in Latin, candlelit and shrouded in incense, hieratic words, gestures and priestcraft becomes over time something lost; instead, God is worshipped in whitewashed chapels in a language everyone can understand without either pomp or ceremony; and it is enough. My point is that this is not a degeneration, it is a desacralisation and that God’s Holy Spirit acts through this process of desacralisation.  Desacralisation is really a form of unveiling.  To unveil is to reveal (apokalypsis).  Christ’s death on the Cross tears the veil of the temple from top to bottom; it reveals that Holy of Holies for all to see, for all time.  The desacralisation of the temple is a revelation.  If we interpret desacralisation as degeneration, we can be prevented from seeing what God is doing, connecting with it, and getting involved.  

Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo in a series of works over the last several decades has been characterising the kenotic nature of history, understood from a Christian perspective, as what he calls pensiero debole, or weak thought.  He wants to show by this key term that strong metaphysical structures that ground ages, like the “Middle Ages” or the “Byzantine age”, have a tendency to break open and for their ideas to ‘trickle down’, for their old ‘high’ ‘sacred’ meanings to ‘empty out’ and become popular, well-known, and taken for granted.  The hieratic becomes the common property, just as the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament becomes the true spiritual priesthood of every Christian, man and woman, in the New Testament.  Modernity, by Vattimo is characterised, along these lines, as a ‘weakening’ of the strong structures that governed and grounded previous ages. Before Vattimo, philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger had famously called this historical movement ‘nihilism’. Vattimo sees this so-called nihilism as a kenotic movement, and as in fact belonging to the proper Christian movement of desacralisation.

            If we see secularisation as the path of Christianity’s positive development, then we can legitimately see Pentecostalism - the Christianity of our time - as a spiritual movement within secularisation, which is Spiritual because of this. Pentecostalism popularises, it levels people to their equality in the eyes of God, and their equal dignity with the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Implicitly it deconstructs all absolutism, whether political or religious (even ostensibly Christian), and all violence and authoritarianism in the name of religion, (even in the name of Christ). Pentecostal evangelisation is not belief led, like Protestant evangelisation, it is spirit-led, and so it leads not the establishment of a new republic of belief but to a new spirituality of the human. And I shall elaborate this below.

            The next story overlaps and extends our considerations with our first short narrative about the Baal Shem Tov.  Provisionally, we can conclude from the discussion  the Pentecostal aesthetics is unabashedly secular and caught up with the universalising movement of secularity, that is in fact part and parcel with Christianity and the salvation history that is its inner essence.  Just as Judaism gave rise to Christianity, Christianity gives rise to secularity.  While the Jew must perennially resist assimilation, for it is their job to bear witness to the Torah, the Christian is supposed to assimilate and secularism is the primary sign in our times of the assimilation of Christian humanism into the world. To secularise is to Christianise.  Just as Christianity rests on Judaism, the way the New Testament rests on the Old, and the Old Testament, most fundamentally on the Torah (first five books of divine instruction), so secularity rest on the Church and a secularity disconnected from the Church is like a memory disconnected from the place, the fire and the prayer which it remembers.  The Church is the stable basis and source of secularity just as the Jewish Scriptures are the stable basis and source of the Christian New Testament.  Pentecostal aesthetics lies against the horizon of the secular world and confirms the process of secularisation.





The second story was told by Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.  Reb Nahman is one of the most revered tellers of spiritually illuminating stories. This is his story of the tainted grain:


A king once told his prime minister, who was also his good friend, “I see in the stars that whoever eats any grain that grows this year will go mad. What is your advice?’ 

   The prime minister replied, ‘We must put aside enough grain so that we will not have to eat from this year’s harvest.’

   The king objected, ‘But then we will be the only ones who will be sane. Everyone else will be mad.  Therefore, they will think that we are the mad ones.  It is impossible to put aside enough grain for everyone. Therefore, we too must eat this year’s grain.  But we will make a mark on our foreheads, so that at least we will know that we are mad.  I will look at your forehead, and you will look at mine, and when we see the sign, we will know that we are both mad.’[xxvii]


The parable probably speaks to all times, but it certainly speaks into ours. What if the world is enframed by a way of thinking, a mindset, and it cannot see beyond that?  What if the secularisation of Revelation means the total forgetfulness of its original sacred otherness? What if redemption is not effected – as used to be thought in more ‘sacred’ Christian times - ‘from above’ it is effected ‘from among’?  And consequently, what if salvation is not for the few, the religious elite, or the ‘only ones’? 

This parable is also about kenosis.  The king and the prime minister have to completely lose their lives if they are going to find them, and if there is any hope that anyone else will find their lives too.  The essential Christologic of John 12:24 is speaking here, that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it produces much fruit.”  This parable has an implicit kenotic Christology.  As the word becomes flesh, so the king must become mad like his subjects. The parable teaches that the world will not be saved ‘from above’ by our ministering, we have to get alongside; walk with, reach up with, rather than reach down and talk down.  We have to be-with, be ‘one of’, as Christ was one of us.  But this can be done at all kinds of level.  It does not just mean poverty.   Some will walk alongside the rich.  Pretence is impossible.  We have to enculturate and embody, as God did when through His kenosis He took human form through his mother Mary.[xxviii]  Colonisation won’t work for mission, nor will a neo-Christendom.  In the real mission there will be no difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (the saved and the unsaved) in terms of level; the only difference will be that we will carry the mark that we are saved and by this mark the redemption of all will come, as a plantation crop can originate from a single wild seed.  A remnant will survive – but not apart from the rest, in solidarity with them, who are mad – and from this remnant, the redemption will come, the Kingdom.

            We may link this parable of the tainted grain with our first story about the Baal Shem Tov.  In Walter Kaufmann’s re-telling of this first story, he extends the end of the traditional recounting of it that I quoted with a modern twist of his own. 


They [the modern philosophers who tell the parable] fail to add what the next generation said: ‘The fire we cannot light, the prayer we do not know, and the place we do not know.  We can still tell the story, but we do not believe it.  Indeed, a little research might recover the prayer and determine the place, but we do not think that knowing both would help.  We do not think it ever did help.  It is a beautiful story, full of significance, but it is only a story.’[xxix] 


Kaufmann makes this story of the Baal Shem Tov our story, and particularly the story of modern theology.    But this is also the situation of the King and the Prime Minister if we interpret them as believers in the story in a world that has long ceased to believe it, perhaps a sceptical and cynical world.  Kaufmann goes on:


And a yet later generation might add for good measure that the story illustrates the nature of Jewish piety as opposed to Christian piety.[xxx]


Ironically, nothing is felt as having been lost, rather progress is felt as having been made.  Now, they say, we can ‘rightly understand’ this old religious story in sociological terms. 

If this is our situation, and I think it is, then there are two sides to it. First of all, we cannot return to a pre-critical mentality. To do so is to fail our time, and perhaps to end up in a time-warp. However, if we only participate in our time, if we are only modern or postmodern, then we fail the past and the Christian experience of millions of men and women who have known Christ in the Spirit before us.  We need to be both traditional, consciously bound to the past, and ourselves, that is modern and postmodern.  This is precisely the hermeneutical stance, rather than some ‘objective’ stance.

If you follow this argument you will see that Christians in the secular world are somewhat like the King and the Prime Minister in the story of the tainted grain.  In the world but not of it, as Christians used to say. On the one hand, what this means is that a modern educated person cannot in all honesty read the likes of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Wittgenstein and then accept certain ideas, beliefs or assume certain practical or theoretical attitudes.[xxxi]    On the other hand, our literacy does not diminish our faith in any sense, any more than if the King and the Prime Minister are diminished by what they have to do.

Do we then assume what Kaufmann calls “an infidel piety”? [xxxii]   By this he means a Jewish or Christian stance that throws off the burden of sacralisation, of religiosity, of spiritualism or pietism. “Paul experienced the Christian faith as an overwhelming liberation from Jewish piety,” he explains.[xxxiii]  Do we need to experience a similar liberation from metaphysical forms of the old Christian ages?  If Christianity is a movement that tears the veil between the old sacred and the space of the people, that defrocks ritual, which says the law is made for man, not man for the law then it may be so.  But ours is a God who says all idols are false, who institutes Law, but who cries:  “Woe to you experts in the law because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.” (Lk. 11:52).  The eschewal of all Pharisaism is a kenotic movement that humbles the law-keeper and at the same time, restores the Law.  This kenosis disallows the objectivisation of Law, its reification, it keeps it subjective, personal and true to life and justice. This is a God that descends, a God whose piety is somewhat ‘impious’ – “When Jesus left there the Pharisees and teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say.” (Lk. 12:53).  Impiously Jesus restored the withered arm of a man on the Sabbath, “and the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” (Mt. 12:14).  Yes, at the end of this movement of the fire, the place, the prayer and the story, is the possibility of an impious piety, a secular piety.  As Nietzsche said impiously, but echoing John 12: 24, “I love those who do not know how to live, except by going under, for they are those who cross over.” [xxxiv]   This impious piety is intrinsic to a Pentecostal aesthetic.  An impious piety is inseparable from a secularising tendency, for impious piety does not stop at a point which is then declared sacred and imposed imperialistically on all.  Impious piety is always able to see through the hubris and show it up for what it is – this is a sense of humour, a sense of satire, an ability to see the funny side, especially of oneself.  The Jews of course never lost this, but Christians have historically hardly ever discovered it - perhaps until now.

            Finally, though, in the parable of the tainted grain, the sign on the forehead is about a seed of Redemption.  God’s word penetrates the enframing, the general situation of madness, but it may be itself enframed, as “the Scriptures”, that is as sacred writings belonging to one among a number of world religions.  This has been the case in the madness of the West since the nineteenth century.  But the sign on our foreheads, which is invisible, is the real presence of the Holy Spirit, in which alone the Scriptures can make sense.

            I find both the modern twist Kaufmann gives to our first story about the place, the fire and the prayer, and the second story about the tainted grain are addressed in the Bible in the story told by Luke, of Jesus on the Road to Emmaus. The disciples meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus. They don’t recognise him, even though they are Christians and going to Emmaus in desolation about the death of Jesus.  They don’t understand Christ’s suffering or his glory. Jesus himself provides the answers they seek from the Scriptures.  They hear him and appreciate his explanations.   But they only awake from their dogmatic slumbers and see Jesus – the scales only drop from their eyes – the new season’s grain only rids them of their madness – when he makes the sign. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him.” (Lk. 24:30-31). 

The story, the place, the prayer and the fire will be remembered where we do this in remembrance of Him. Not just as a ritual gesture, not just as a remembrance, but as making him really present in the Holy Spirit in our mischievous piety.  When the disciples with Jesus arrived at Emmaus, they sat to eat together.   The redemption was not a concept. It was not a doctrine. It was a moment, a person, a presence. It was a right time, and so it is for us.  At the right time (kairos) the designated time, the madness lifts.  When the time came for the spell of the tainted grain to be broken, it mattered that the king and the prime minister knew who they were and from where they came, and to what they were destined.  Then they could restore order for the whole kingdom. Only the sign of their forehead, an invisible sign, signified Redemption.  But in the time to come, every mouth will cry praises to the King.  




Our first two points are that Pentecostal aesthetics are tied to secularisation, which is seen as belonging to Christian truth, and that Christian truth will not get lost in a drift from the sacred/metaphysical, but rather find its way within a new age of the Church. The third story will complement the first two.  It comes from the great student of Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption, Emmanuel Levinas  (1906-1995).  In one of his texts Levinas relates the following talmudic story, and his comments on it are part of his own contemporary talmudic teaching:


Old Hillel, the grand Doctor of the Law in the first century BC,[xxxv] exclaimed on seeing a skull carried along by the current, ‘You were killed for having killed, but those who killed you will be killed.’  If the crimes of history do not always strike down the innocent, they are still not judgements.[xxxvi]  We wrongly conceive of a chain of violent events as the verdicts of history where history itself is the magistrate.  Hillel knew that history does not judge and that, left to its fate, it echoes crimes.  Nothing, no event in history, can judge a conscience.  This is upheld by theological language, which measures the entire miracle of such a freedom, while stating that God alone can judge.[xxxvii]


This story says, ethics comes before history.  Our God is an ethical God. We are not constrained by history, by necessity, by anything extrinsic.  The ethical God is the unique one, and is for the unique one (i.e. each one of us).  This ties back to what we said earlier about the goodness of Creation, and especially, of man.  This “Good!” grounds ethics.  This is manifest first in freedom.  Our real freedom before God, is freedom for God, freedom from all the myths that would constrain us, all the false gods, the idols we bow before and give our lives to. 

Even a secularism that does not believe in God in an avowed sense can cohere with what we are saying here, insofar as it follows this ethic.  The value placed on human dignity and personhood, and on womanhood, equality of rights and opportunities, equality before the law, freedom of reason.  These things the Church can share with the secular world without infidelity.  The “I” that lives these values conjugates the “we” and vice versa, because realising my uniqueness, I realise yours.  The “we” is not that of the herd, of the crowds that conjugate totalitarian power and vice versa, but a “we” between human beings in their reality and life.  The new  piety is not an infidel piety, in a cynical sense, as Kaufmann thought, but a secular and humanist piety. It is positive. As Levinas taught through his many writings and exegeses, “Monotheism is a humanism.”[xxxviii]  Historically it is through monotheism that what we call humanism is revealed and universalised.  The new piety is secular and humanist and that is the essence of our aesthetic too. This aesthetic is a philosophical horizon of all our genuine theology.  The old Platonic idea that we ‘naturally’ hunger for the transcendent has been unmasked as a myth.  People hunger for peace and justice in their life and in the world they see around them.  People hunger to love and be loved and accepted and to be included and heard and respected and valued.  There is no need to confuse our Pentecostal theology with Reformed theology, with its rationalist and subjectivist horizons.

In secular culture Christianity faces its own image.  Every other culture is extrinsic to Christianity, but secular culture is an offspring of it, as it is of Judaism as well.  The two world religions have this in common.  But we need to distinguish prodigal from proper secularism. Prodigal secularism is the secularism that like the prodigal son in the parable in Luke’s Gospel wants to go off and squander all his Father’s inheritance. So for instance, a secularism that sees the natural world as ‘resources’ and everything in quantifiable terms, is a prodigal secularism.  A secularism that also sees man as ‘resource’ is prodigal. It is prodigal, not simply because it is ignorant of God (God can work with that) but because it is disconnected with ethics as original theology. On the other hand, as in Jesus’ parable of the talents, it does not suffice merely to save the deposit, simply to stay home like the prodigal’s elder brother. 

Christianity in the Johannine age of the Church – our age - has to work in and through secularism, keeping it to its ethical prerogatives. A strong ethic and weak thought (pensiero debole) belong together.  A strong ethic is the one which accords with humanism of whatever cultural stripe.  Weak thought – philosophy after metaphysics - refuses the power and the implicit violence on offer in every sacred ‘finality’, whether it is a teaching, or a way of understanding, or a doctrine of God or any principle that would, Vattimo says, “silence all questioning”.[xxxix]  “To be clear: the Christian inheritance that returns in weak thought is primarily the Christian precept of charity and its rejection of violence.”[xl]  Peace-making and the restitution of good will among people demands an ethical humanist basis at the least.


Man is therefore indispensable to God’s plan or, to be more exact, man is nothing other than the divine plans within being.  This leads to the idea of being chosen, which can degenerate into that of pride but originally expresses the awareness of an indisputable assignation from which an ethics springs and through which the universality of the end being pursued involves the solitude and isolation of the individual responsible.[xli]


Only in terms of ethics are we free from history and free for it.  The ethical humanism which is the core of proper secularism forms the basis of a common civilisation. Ethics lets us see other religions, to see other ideologies in their true light and work with them or argue with them, as the case may be. Without ethics, without obedience to the Law and to Christ, we cannot understand, we cannot see the basic interpretative criteria, the law of love and non-violence. Levinas taught, “Ethics is an optics of the divine.”[xlii]  For Pentecostal hermeneutics here is the basis of the pragmatism characteristic of  Pentecostalism; not utilitarianism or instrumentalism (as Pentecostals so often mistakenly believe!). 

The last point is this, that Pentecostal aesthetics are constituted by an ethic which cannot any longer be thought of as limited to the Church as an organisation or to Christianity as a religion. Although, in turn, this ethic, cannot survive without the Church in the world as the witness to Creation Revelation and Redemption, the true horizons of this ethic.  The Pentecostal world view and the proper secular world view are connected by a humanism that insists on a freedom of the spirit.  In both there is a responsibility and self-determination, which for the Pentecostal is in God’s purposes.  Thereby she lightens the world and those purposes; but they are not a givenWe are God’s plans.





The fourth story is from the Babylonian Talmud[xliii]


A group of rabbis were arguing about a point of halakah (legal interpretation of the Torah).  One of them was the sage Eliezer.  He said, 'If the law agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!' Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — some say four hundred cubits. The other rabbis retorted, 'No proof can be brought from a carob-tree.’ Again Eliezer said to them: 'If the law agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!'  Suddenly, the stream of water began to flow backwards.  The other rabbis said, 'No proof can be brought from a stream of water.'  So Eliezer urged: 'If the law agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,' whereupon the walls started falling.  But Rabbi Joshua rebuked the walls, saying: 'When scholars are engaged in a legal dispute, is it right to interfere?'   Immediately the walls stopped falling.  They did not fall in honour of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they resume the upright in honour of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing like that. Again Eliezer said to the others: 'If the law agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!  ' Suddenly they heard a Heavenly Voice saying: 'Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer? the law is as he says.'   But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: 'The Bible says, “It is not in heaven.” [Deut.30:12] What did he mean by this?” — Rabbi Jeremiah answered: “Since the Law had already been given at Mount Sinai, we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou has long since written in the Bible at Mount Sinai, “Decide on the basis of a majority.”

           Later one of the Rabbis – Nathan - met Elijah the prophet, and asked him, “What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do in that hour?” —  Elijah replied: “God smiled and said: 'My children have won against me, my children have won.’ “


This story certainly follows from the discussions above.  It depicts a biblicism based on relationship and chosenness, in the sense Levinas gives it above where he speaks of man as indispensable to God’s plan.  It also depicts a spiritual coming-of-age.  No longer are we following the Bible like a rule book, we are fulfilling God’s plans.  This is proper for an age of Christian completion, a Johannine age of the Church. 

            There are two further remarks I would make.  Firstly, this story, like our others, speaks of this kenosis, this self-emptying of God, of “God with us”(Mt. 1: 23).  It is a story of us taking the responsibility.  This can only be done in the Holy Spirit, as Jesus makes clear to his disciples in his discourses before his Passion in John’s Gospel.  Jesus himself reiterates what was prophecied over him by Isaiah (in Mt. 1:3), “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.”  (Jn. 14:18). This he does as he promises, in the person of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2).  But the basis of life in the Spirit is revealed in our deeds.  We are doers not just hearers (Jam 1: 22) Faith without works is dead.  This is something Judaism has always been strong on, to the extent of arguing with God, on the basis of His word, as most famously Abraham did on behalf of Sodom (Gen. 17) and Moses did on behalf of God’s people (Ex.32).  And so the Kingdom comes down to us, and what we are doing and who we are enlisting and encouraging to help and how we stand in the midst of it all, in relation to God.  If it is a humanism, it is a divine humanism that we are speaking of as proper secularism.

The second point is our ability to reason.  Instead of the violent justice of old, or the punitive justice, it is already part of our secular ethos to seek restorative justice and this is a good thing.  It shows evidence of a love that speaks, gets dialogue going, brings people together, a love that cannot work without reason in the full sense of the word logos that was lost in modernism.  Our story shows dispute, and the necessity for it, that is, for argument.  This is where philosophy and rhetoric are so necessary to the Kingdom.  The great Christian philosopher Josef Pieper argued that: “to engage in philosophy means to reflect on the totality of things we encounter, in view of their ultimate reasons; and philosophy, thus understood, is a meaningful, even necessary endeavour, with which man, the spiritual being, cannot dispense.”[xliv]  Philosophy as ‘weak thought’ is not about doctrine, but very much about investigative argumentation that looks at all the angles and consequences and acts on the basis of what is right as far as can be seen.  God may well laugh and say, “My children have won against me!”  But we need to be careful. In the story, it was rabbis arguing, great men of prayer and the Bible, not fools.  In our argumentation is all the power for good and evil and all the difference between the wise man and the fool. This story tells of a dangerous freedom and the true extent therefore of our responsibility. 




In terms of the threefold horizon of Pentecostal hermeneutics, Creation, Revelation and Redemption, the Pentecostal aesthetic (way of seeing things/art of truth) is tied to the destiny of secularism.  Pentecostal aesthetics are comfortable in the secular domain, but distinguish between a prodigal and proper secularity.  Secular humanism and Pentecostal spiritual humanism (biblical humanism that is) can work for peace and good will on an ethical basis. Pentecostal aesthetics upholds ethics before beliefs, which manifests in what could easily be mistaken for ‘pragmatism’.  Actually this ethics is not praxis in the modern sense of Practical Theology, nor simply utilitarian practicality but belongs to a biblical wisdom tradition.

By Jacob’s well Jesus met the Samaritan woman.  He told her that in time to come people would no longer worship God on the holy mountain of the Samaritans or in the Temple in Jerusalem, but in spirit and truth.  In other words he told her the Kingdom of God is not about religion and its trappings – not the geography of religion (the Vatican State or  Lambeth Palace), nor its organisation; Catholic imperialism, Orthodox nationalism and Protestant factionalism are surpassed in the secular Church of the Holy Spirit. The Kingdom of God is enacted in love like his.  It is not geographical, it is not organisational, it is spiritual.  We still meet Jesus at the well.  Now it is not just Samaritans and Jews but Christians as well that Jesus speaks to.  Today Christians mistake the cultural trappings of their religiosity, including fixed belief systems and denominations, for the spirit and truth.  Today, every denominational Christian is a Samaritan, spiritually speaking.

            Surely it is providential that the Church has three ages.  The age of the Mother love of the Roman Church, the age of Pauline belief-led Church are necessary to each other and necessary for a third age, inconceivable without them.  But the third age of the “Johannine completion” is the age in which by definition what Jesus says to the Samaritan woman at the well is a given. 


[i] I have published two studies that form a background to this article: “Pentecostalism and the Three Ages of the Church” in Australasian Pentecostal Studies 10, 2007; “Pentecostalism and The Age of Interpretation” in Australasian Pentecostal Studies 11, 2008.

[ii] This is covered in “Pentecostalism and the Three Ages of the Church” APS 10, 2007. Briefly, think of the epochs of Church history, the apostolic, patristic, medieval, modern (reformation).  Within churches the epochs will be counted differently, so within ‘modern’ Catholics, for example, will count, Tridentine and Vatican II as epochs and believe themselves qua Vatican II at the start of a new epoch.

[iii] This is covered in “Pentecostalism and the Age of Interpretation”. Briefly, “post-Nietzschean” means post-ideological and perspectival; a metaphysics that presupposes infinity rather than totality (in Levinas’s sense, Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis, Pittsburgh: Duquesne, 1969. 

[iv] Such as presented in Gadamer in Truth and Method. trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, New York: Continuum, 2002.  Originally published as Wahrheit and Methode, Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck) 1960; the revised and expanded German edition was published in 1986 as volume 1 of the Gesammelte Werke.

[v] That seminal work for contemporary Christian philosophy, F. Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption (Der Stern der Erlösung) trans. Barbara Galli, Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2005.

[vi] I exploit the equivocal sense of the word ‘man’ here, following Rosenzweig, in which ‘man’ can refer to both an individual person (of either sex) and also to the whole of humankind. 

[vii] Rosenzweig, Star, p.142-3 and p.123ff.

[viii] God and world can’t be proved, all proof presupposes God and word ‘proof’ presupposes God in that it presumes upon the ordered nature of the world, one that is intelligently designed.  Methods of proof do not necessarily have anything to say about God as such.

[ix] Star, p.169.

[x] Star, p.279.

[xi] Star, p.163.

[xii]In my article already referred to, “Pentecostalism and the Three Ages of the Church” I identify the ancient Christian notion of the “three ages” of the Church, - Petrine, Pauline and Johannine -  to the Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal styles of Christianity in their denominational difference. 

[xiii] Star, p.168

[xiv] Star, p.168.

[xv] Star, p .177.

[xvi] Star, p.177.

[xvii] Star, p.217.

[xviii] Star, p.219.

[xix] Star, p.219.

[xx] Star, p.268.

[xxi] Star, p.269.

[xxii] Star, p.269 He is of course thinking of the Hebrew.

[xxiii] Because Hasidism is basically a charismatic movement, it has had and still has an uneasy relationship with the more rational Talmudists.  In a rather secularising manner I draw from both traditions for my illustrations. 

[xxiv] W. Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, London: Faber, p.202.

[xxv] When Paul preaches the Gospel to the Athenians on Mars Hill, his message is basically one of secularisation. He starts with their unknowable God, and then says this is the God known to the Jews, but He has become knowable in Jesus, a rabbi. 

[xxvi] Mary’s Magnificat (Lk. 1: 46, 49-42) expresses this same logic of “bringing down” what was (falsely) exalted. 

[xxvii] Rabbi Nachman’s Stories, tr. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Jerusalem: Breslov Research Institute, 1983, p.481.

[xxviii] Mary as the theotokos (God-bearer) is crucial here, as the Church has always known.  Protestantism’s rejection of discourse about Mary is indicative of a spiritualism which has now been historically unmasked.

[xxix] Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, p.202.

[xxx] Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, p.202.

[xxxi] G. Vattimo, Beyond Interpretation, tr. David Webb, Stanford CA: Stanford University, 1997, p.106.

[xxxii] Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, p.203.

[xxxiii] Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, p.204.

[xxxiv] Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Zarathustra’s Prologue 4.

[xxxv] It was Hillel who first strongly enunciated the law of love and non-violence which Jesus also lived and taught.  Paul was taught by his Grandson. 

[xxxvi] Levinas is thinking the Holocaust, at bottom a Christian crime, which from the Christian point of view, starts with merely nominal, cultural or ‘professional’ Christianity, as Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard both recognised in their different ways.  His double negative is supposed to double the emphasis of his point “If the crimes of history do not always strike down the innocent [which they do], they are still not judgements [which they are not and never will be].”

[xxxvii] Levinas, Difficult Freedom, tr. Seán Hand, London: Athlone, p.23. 

[xxxviii] Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom, p.275. “The books in which this humanism is inscribed [the Bible] await their humanists.”  Levinas is thinking, as we are, post-metaphysically, post onto-theologically, here of course. 

[xxxix] Vattimo, Belief, tr. Luca D’Isanto and David Webb, Stanford CA: Stanford University, 1999, p.65.

[xl] Vattimo, Belief, p.44.

[xli] Levinas, Difficult Freedom, p.26.

[xlii] Levinas, Difficult Freedom, pp.17, 159.

[xliii] Baba Mezi'a 59b http://www.come-and-hear.com/babamezia/babamezia_59.html cf. W. Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism, Rev. Ed., Boston: Beacon, 1959, p.164-5.  Critique of Religion and Philosophy, London: Faber, 1959, p.238-9.

[xliv] J. Pieper, In Defense of Philosphy: Classical Wisdom Stands Up to Modern Challenges, [1966] tr. Lothar Krauth, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992, p.12.



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