PENTECOSTAL Spirituality AND THE USE OF SCRIPTURE
by Richard D. Israel (slightly abbreviated)
In the following, we will look at the use of scripture in Pentecostal Spirituality as follows: 1) Pentecostalism's understanding of itself as the fulfillment of the prophesied last days outpouring of the Spirit, 2) the use of scripture in Pentecostal doctrine, 3) the significance of the Spirit's presence for the individual believer as reader of scripture and 4) scripture in Pentecostal preaching. Pentecostalism's experience of the Holy Spirit, the key issue in Pentecostal spirituality, dramatically influences each aspect of the use of Scripture.
1) Pentecostalism's understanding of itself as the fulfillment of the scripturally prophesied last days outpouring of the Spirit
The theological (1) and historical (2) roots of Pentecostalism go back into the 19th century in America. Restorationism (3) was a major theme of this period. According to the Restorationist view, the New Testament Church would be restored to its full vitality just prior to the return of Jesus Christ. The experience of the Holy Spirit by the Apostles and others, described in the book of Acts, became the sign of "the last days" as prophesied in Joel and experienced in Acts. The Acts experience was the "Former Rain" and the Pentecostal Revival came to be seen as the "Latter Rain". (4)
Restorationism and a premillenial eschatology are merged into Pentecostal's self-understanding of the meaning of the Pentecostal Revival. The Day of Pentecost in Act 2 was preceded by the ascension of Jesus in Acts 1:6-11 where the role of the coming of the Spirit was placed in eschatological perspective. The coming of the Spirit was for empowerment for witness before the coming of the Kingdom at the return of Jesus. The former rain on the day of Pentecost inaugurated the last days, the latter rain in this century is the culmination of the last days.
To illustrate the Pentecostal understanding of the combination of Restorationism and Premillenial Eschatology, a diagram from a sermon by Aimee Semple McPherson is supplied on the last page.
Several aspects of Pentecostal spirituality relate to this. First there is a strong mission emphasis. It is the "last days" and the proclamation of the (Full) Gospel "unto the uttermost parts of the earth" is a urgent, paramount mandate for Pentecostals. Secondly, the restoration mindset sometimes produced and continues to produce a disdain for the historical Church among some Pentecostals. Denominations are often viewed as a decline from the New Testament Church. The historical Churches are sometimes described as compromised or dead institutions, even anti-Christ. Thirdly, some streams of Pentecostalism are opposed to any form of "social gospel" because it is futile to attempt to change the perishing world system. (5) All energy should be devoted to evangelism, "saving souls" not trying to fix a doomed world. Fourthly, a holiness in lifestyle is called for in order to be prepared for the return of the Lord at any time. There are probably others that could be added to the list, but these will hopefully give a glimpse of how Pentecostal spirituality is impacted by the eschatological significance of the latter day outpouring of the Spirit.
2) The use of Scripture in Pentecostal Doctrine
Pentecostals are deeply concerned to align themselves with scripture doctrinally. The story of the Bible School of Charles F. Parham in Topeka, Kansas where a group of students were baptized in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues on January 1, 1901 has been viewed by some as the beginning of the Pentecostal Revival. There is ample evidence that there were others who had experienced this in the preceding decades. Why this account has achieved the status of a hieros logos in some circles can be explained in part, perhaps, by racist attitudes of white Pentecostals. It is also noteworthy, however, that the narrative always includes "the assignment" that preceded the experience. Parham had left for a preaching tour and given the students the task to study the scriptures and discover what the bible teaches is the evidence that one has been baptized in the Holy Spirit. As a result of inductive Bible study, the students discovered that speaking in tongues was the initial physical evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is what prompted the students to go to prayer asking to be baptized in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues is how they knew it had been accomplished. (6)
The "subtext" of the Topeka testimony might be that Caucasians were the race through whom the Spirit was poured out, and if so, that deserves to be deconstructed. On a surface level, the issue is more closely related to the biblical authenticity of the experience. This reflects the deep concern of Pentecostals to be biblical in their doctrine, especially in their doctrine of Spirit Baptism. (7)
The students at the Topeka Bible College were not trained biblical scholars. Their formulation of the doctrine of the initial physical evidence of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit has been critiqued by many scholars from a variety of angles, such as whether it is a "normative" or merely a "normal" experience, or critiques regarding the role of narrative portions of scripture for doctrine. For all that, the issue of the biblical rootedness of the experience has never been displaced and Pentecostalism won gradual acceptance, "...welcoming the opportunity to renew fellowship with evangelical Christianity many years later, especially in the decade of the 1940's". (8)
The use of narrative texts of the New Testament (the Gospels and especially the book of Acts) for doctrine reflects an important aspect of Pentecostal Spirituality. For Pentecostals, testimony, rather than doctrinal discourse, is the preferred mode of conversation. The presence of the Spirit working in the life of an individual believer generates testimony, witness and thanksgiving to God. Doctrine sets certain parameters for Pentecostals, but "faith" understood as a body of beliefs (i.e. doctrine) would never be the first definition given in a Pentecostal lexicon. For Pentecostals, the Bible is a story and they read that story into their lives and their lives into that story.
Christian traditions with strong tendencies toward rationalism are sometimes dismissive or condescending toward Pentecostal "enthusiasm" and Pentecostals can be equally dismissive of cognitive efforts toward understanding the Faith. In spite of mutual suspicion, though, there is a shared concern for doctrine as well as practice to be biblically rooted and this is an area in which meaningful dialogue can take place.
3) The significance of the Spirit's presence for the individual believer as a reader of scripture
Personal, devotional reading of the Bible is a common Christian practice. For many Pentecostals, the presence of the Spirit is seen as the constituent element in the process. Testimonies of believers who have had a Pentecostal or Charismatic experience often compare their lives as believers before and after their experience. Many of these include a new-found significance of scripture in their lives. Prior to their experience, the scriptures were hard to understand, confusing. After the baptism of the Spirit, the Word became alive, exciting and bursting with meaning. This genre of testimony identifies a distinctive aspect of Pentecostal spirituality as it pertains to the use of scripture.
The Paraclete, abiding and indwelling Spirit of Truth, guides into truth and teaches all things (John 14-17). This indwelling of the believer by the Spirit assures the Spirit's presence to teach believers as they read the Spirit's inscripturated words. The Spirit "illumines" the World to the believer. In non-Pentecostal interpretation "illumination" usually means that the Spirit uses the Word to illumine the believers's life after it has been correctly exegeted. In Pentecostal practice that is often the case as well, but it can go beyond that. The Spirit not only applies the word by illumination, but the Spirit may impart a new meaning of a scripture as well. Pentecostals feel free to use the noun "revelation" and the verb "to reveal" to describe this experience. What they are saying by these words is simply that the Spirit may use a scripture to speak a word to the reader. That word is not necessarily tied to the grammatical historical sense of the biblical text.
One could say that is an extension of the sensus plenior of scripture. The Spirit spoke a fuller meaning to the Apostles regarding the prophetic nature of the Old Testament texts and their application to Jesus in the New Testament. The same Spirit indwells believers to speak to them a "fuller sense" of the scriptures in the individual life of each believer.
This sense of the Spirit's ministry as Teacher is on the extreme periphery of a not uncommon Protestant understanding. Calvin, for instance, taught that the "inward testimony" of the Holy Spirit establishes the authority of the Scriptures (Book I, Chapter VII, section 4). (9) While the Pentecostal practice goes well beyond Calvin, there seems to be a shared belief in the Spirit's presence in the reading of Scripture. Pentecostals would deny that they have gone to the point of the Libertines disputed in Calvin's Institutes, Book I Chapter IX, "Fanatics, Abandoning the Scripture and Flying Over to Revelation, Cast Down All the Principles of Godliness."
4) Scripture in Pentecostal preaching
If "illumination" or "revelation" are terms descriptive of Pentecostal spirituality's reading of scripture, "anointing" is the definitive term for Pentecostal preaching where the Holy Spirit is present. Pentecostal preachers are typically not evaluated by their congregations for the degree of exegetical or theological sophistication in their sermons. The congregation expects to sense the Spirit's "anointing" in the proclamation. Anointing here is used in the sense of a special charisma, not relative to an office as in the Old Testament where it applied to (some) prophets, priests and kings, but to an event, the proclamation event. The biblical exemplar for such a view of anointing is that prophetic tradition of the "ecstatic" prophets where the Spirit comes upon a prophet on an occasional basis with a word. Though the term "anointing" is not used in this "occasional" sense in these prophetic texts, it has come to have that meaning for Pentecostal preaching. Anointing describes the Pentecostal view of the Spirit's presence in proclamation.
Scripture, in Pentecostal preaching, is respected as the source of sound preaching. Pentecostals are encouraged to bring their personal Bibles with them to services. Because of this, pew Bibles are rarely found in Pentecostal Churches. The sound of "rustling pages" as the preacher announces his or her text is a sign of a strong congregation. A biblical text is almost always read prior to the sermon, though occasionally "for the sake of time" the reading of the text will be dispensed with. The preacher nearly always basis his or her sermon in a biblical text. The sermon itself, though, is often not exegetical or expositional. The text may serve merely as a "springboard" for what the Holy Spirit has been showing the preacher. The proclamation is often composed of testimonial narrative affirming a truth of the scripture which the speaker feels impressed on him or her by the Spirit.
There is a great freedom given by the congregation to the preacher to speak the message given by the Spirit. The scriptural text functions to show the congregation that the message is rooted in scripture and nor purely the preacher's whim. The congregation members each have their own Bible to refer to not only for the purpose of helping follow the message, but so that each one can assure himself or herself that the message is indeed scripturally based.
What the congregation and preacher both want, though, is a sense of encounter with the Holy Spirit, a felt presence of the Spirit to "touch lives". One salient definition of Pentecostal preaching is "to create an atmosphere where the Holy Spirit can do business". (10) Certainly not all Pentecostals would agree with that, yet it expresses a part of the reality. It is possible for preachers spontaneously to change their prepared sermon even in the course of speaking if they sense that the Spirit is trying to do something else or to dispense with the preaching of the Word altogether if the Holy Spirit leads in other directions in the course of the service. Interestingly, congregations do not view this as a sign of poor preparation, but a sign of spiritual sensitivity. This reflects the priority among Pentecostals given to the freedom of the Spirit. The Spirit must be free to lead where the Spirit wills and the Spirit need not inform the preacher in advance of the divine design for the service. The preacher is only required to follow the leading of the Spirit.
This results in some tension between the role of the Word and the Spirit in Pentecostal preaching. Will the Spirit-anointed word of the preacher displace in authority the Spirit-inspired word of the Scripture? How are such tensions to be adjudicated? Word and Spirit are viewed as complementary dynamics. The Spirit acts in harmony with the Word and any spiritually generated deviation from the "norm" of the Word is squelched. On the other hand, the Spirit enlivens the Word, speaking to the congregation in the realm of their lived experience. For Pentecostals, Word without Spirit results in ceremonialism or nominalism or legalism of formalism or intellectualism, robbing the Christian life of its dynamic vitality or its abundant character.
A central distinctive of Pentecostal Spirituality is evidenced by Pentecostalism's use of Scripture. That distinctive, which runs throughout all four of these venues of their use of Scripture, is the mode of immediate presence of the Spirit. The "latter rain" fulfillment of the Day of Pentecost sees a new dimension of the Spirit's presence in the restoration of the Church to its New Testament power, begun with the Reformation and culminating in the Pentecostal Revival. The Doctrinal aspect of Pentecostal Spirituality safeguards and authenticates the Pentecostal claim to the experience of the Spirit's presence and manifestations. In the devotional reading of the Bible, the Spirit's presence as Paraclete imparts wisdom and insight. In Pentecostal Preaching, the Spirit's presence anoints the message to make the Word effective in the life of the congregation.
There are historical and theological antecedents to each of these aspects of Pentecostal Spirituality which illustrate the continuity of Pentecostalism with Christian tradition, so that it is inappropriate to see Pentecostalism as a cult. It is also true that the particular alignment of these aspects of those antecedents makes Pentecostal Spirituality distinctive. I conclude with the prayer that the spirituality developed within Pentecostalism may be better informed by and also inform the spiritual life of the Church.
1. Donald Dayton, The Theological Roots of Pentecostalism. (Peabody, MA: Hendrikson Publishers, 1987) argues that theologically, Pentecostalism has close ties with 19th century Wesleyan Holiness movement.
2. Edith L. Blumhofer, The Assemblies of God: A Chapter in the Story of American Pentecostalism, (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1989) pp. 50ff., notes the role of revivalism of D.L. Moody and others who tended to be Congregationalists, Baptists and Presbyterians as a formative influence on Pentecostalism in this period.
3. Blumhofer notes four aspects of this outlook which were determinative for Pentecostalism: 1) It was "...closely related to the hope of perfection and the call for religious reform, " 2) it "...promoted assumptions of Christian unity and simplicity," 3) "...serious grappling with eschatological issues accompanied American interest in Restorationism." and 4) "...restorationist expectations both occasioned and supported antidenominationalism." op. Cit. pp. 18-19. For the topic under discussion in this paper, the third issue is our focus.
4. The terms were taken from Joel 2.
5. Not all Pentecostals are so negative. While there is not time to pursue it, one would expect that those Pentecostals in Wesley's lineage might be more open to social concerns if post-millenialism is the "social correlate" of the doctrine of sanctification. Even here, though, premillenial eschatology had found a place in Wesleyan thought by the mid 1890's (Dayton, op. cit. P. 165). This negativity may also reflect the social location of Pentecostalism as sectarian, outside and over against the mainstream society.
6. While this story functions to demonstrate the concern of later Pentecostals to be orthodox and biblical in their doctrine, it is interesting to note that Parham himself was not overly concerned with doctrine. When some of his teachings were challenged because of "doctrinal innovations" he replied, "Truly spiritual people do not quibble over tenets and points of doctrine; it is a sign of waning spirituality to do so." (Quoted in Blumhofer, p. 87.)
7. Ralph M. Riggs' book The Spirit Himself. (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1949) reflect this concern. The following comments are illustrative: Before the bar of public opinion, the Pentecostal people have been arraigned by their fellow religionists of modern days. Like Paul they answer, "After the most straitest sect of our religion we have lived (Acts 26:5). Are they Christians? So are we. Are they Protestants? So are we. Are they sincere, devout, and in the worship of the Lord Jesus Christ...? We (we speak foolishly) are more so. cf. 2 Cor. 11:22,23." To those who are believers but not Pentecostal, he concludes his introduction: "We commend to their consideration the study of the Holy Spirit which follows. We ask only that they search the Scriptures to see if these things be so." (pp. xii-xiv)
8. William W. Menzies, Anointed to Serve. (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1971) p. 40. Note the previous citation of Ralph Riggs's book published late in that decade. Menzies' use of the term "evangelical" needs to be understood in the American context rather than European. Evangelical means "Protestant" in Europe; in America it means something like "conservative" as contrasted with "liberal". Institutionally this tends to be reflected in the distinction between the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches.
9. ..."The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men's hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what they had been divinely commanded." Calvin, John Institutes of the Christian Religion. (John T. McNeill, ed. And Ford Lewis Battles, trans.) (Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), p. 79
10. Charles Greenaway, missionary and minister in the Assemblies of God, quoted frequently by Richard B. Foth, former president of Bethany Bible