Ramblings on teaching in the Pentecostal church

Last week, in our church leaders council (something like a board of deacons), I conducted a survey of important themes people would like to talk about in future sessions. We then rated these themes by means of points given by each participant. Interestingly, the topic that got by far the most points was the question of the exact place and method of teaching within the church. So here are some random thoughts on this topic out of my daily writing.

I don’t think a whole lot of clear-cut reflection has been done on this in the Pentecostal realm, so far. This is simply because Pentecostals have not been very teaching-oriented anyway. Now, any serious Pentecostal would probably contest this notion, but the problem lies in the definition of teaching and bible study. Of course, every church used to have something like their mid-week Bible study session (sometimes in alteration or combination with a church prayer meeting), but if there was anything systematic at all, it was some kind of survey on Biblical texts, like a running commentary on Bible books, or similar. This picture, too, has changed during recent years. As mid-week Bible studies (like any mid-week event) suffered in attendance from work hours, travel requirements and family commitments, they have either been abandoned, moved to house groups or replaced by other groups. Some of the replacements continue the old style (which was and remains often doubtful because of the lack of qualification of the teacher), others now choose less Biblical topics, often drawing from the individual study leaders current favorite spiritual topic.

But why didn’t Pentecostals ever systematically teach? Or, as my dissertation topic will put it, why didn’t they ever stop to systematically reflect on their teaching? On their doctrine (this very word would have you stoned in some circles, as we’re not supposed to be teaching “doctrine”, but only “the bible”). Part of the answer surely lies in what Hollenweger identifies as the orality, the realgeschichtliche Orientierung of Pentecostalism, which does not dabble too much in transcendent ideas and philosophic concepts, but has always been more a down-to-earth kind of movement. Closely connected is another part, the insistence on sola scriptura (which, of course, no down-to-earth Pentecostal would express in complicated Latin terms, like this). “Doctrine” as such is not considered a good thing because it is an abstraction from the Bible, in which we have everything already spelled out. Beyond an often dangerous literalism, there lies a positive kind of hermeneutic (though, of course, unspoken and rarely discussed) at the heart of the Pentecostal approach to Bible teaching: The idea that, if the individual believer is filled with the Spirit, access to the meaning of the Word of God is provided to him by the very Spirit who inspired this written word, the Spirit, who is sent to “lead you into all truth.” While, of course (otherwise there would be no need for my dissertation), this is overly simplistic, it is an important concept, that my dissertation will pick up and postulate as a pillar-stone of theological approaches to truth in the post-modern age.

Postmodernism despises truth. In fact, postmodernism simply abolishes the notion of truth as we knew it before. “The truth” (which, incidentally, Jesus claimed to be) does not exist any more as such, but, at best we have individual approaches to such a truth, tainted as they are by individual circumstances, presuppositions, characteristics, personality issues, whatever. In this best case, someone might even allow for the possibility of such a truth to exist – always with the careful qualification that it will never be accessible objectively to anyone. If absolute truth exists, there is an absolute barrier between this truth and mankind. At worst, absolute truth is simply rejected completely – if we can’t see it, why should it be there at all?

What’s going to be our answer to this? First of all, we have to hold to the notion of absolute truth. As said before, Jesus claimed to be “the truth”, the Bible is all about “the truth” and if we’re taking God for serious, we can’t just give up this idea. But, on the other hand, all of the post-modern observations about our relation to truth seem to have a valid point. We are definitely trapped in our subjectivity, our presuppositions and our personal version of the hermeneutical circle (or spiral, whichever way you like to have it). There does seem to be this barrier between the truth and me. So, will I ever be able to reach God’s truth then?

It is exactly at this point that the old Pentecostal hermeneutic principle comes in. I might not be able to access an objective truth which is blocked out (at least partially) and therefore tainted by my own subjectivity. But someone else can. Someone who is not hindered by human limitations. Someone, who is not blocked by anything. Someone, who doesn’t even need “access to truth” as such, because “truth” is not a separate entity for him – he simply is truth himself. God is truth, and therefore he knows truth – “the” untainted, whole, true truth. Now this alone wouldn’t help me if there wasn’t that important bit of Biblical revelation about the Holy Spirit (being one of the three persons of the trinity and therefore, God) living in my since the start of my new life in Christ. And this Holy Spirit not only has – being God – complete and objective (again, I would question the applicability of “objectiveness” to God, since truth is not a separate “object” for him) access to God, but he has been specifically put into my life for the very purpose of “leading me into all truth!” So there is access to truth, after all.

At the core of my dissertation lies the belief that, through the various way the Holy Spirit speaks to me (Spirit-inspired Scripture, the tradition of the Spirit-filled community, the experience and reason of a Spirit-driven person), access to theological truth is indeed possible for the believer.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Of course, such access might then also contain the challenge to use it, in an intelligent, efficient kind of way. Going beyond mere “sola scriptura” literalism, to an thoughtful, systematic approach to the truth God speaks to us. Call it systematic theology, call it whatever you like. But do it.

3 Antworten zu “Ramblings on teaching in the Pentecostal church”

  1. Christoph – the teaching question is one that is popping up with greater frequency here in Ireland as well. we are running into more and more people who are frustrated and starving for some depth, but for many of the reasons you have listed, they are not given any. there are signs this is changing, but it may take some time. especially here in ireland pentecostalism is very young, and emerging from that adolescence takes time.
    as to your thesis, i think this holds some real possibilities and i’m looking forward to it being expanded. one thing i think it might offer is a broadening of our understanding of what the spirit entails for believers (beyond tongues, etc). it really opens the possibility of a holistic understanding of the work of the spirit, something we desperately need. keep it up!

  2. Hi Christoph,

    Just ran across your blog through Rich Tatum’s site. Your thesis here is fascinating. It would be helpful to disentangle how actual teaching, study, and theological reflection is assisted by (without being supplanted by) the person and work of the Holy Spirit. I take it that you don’t want simply to lapse back into the old-fashioned Pentecostal hermeneutic, but rather want to form a synthesis between that and (for lack of a better term) rational Biblical and theological study.

    I really love your remarks and the relationship you’ve posited between Postmodernism and Pentecostalism. These are hardly ever discussed in the same breath.

  3. Have a Cup of Coffee with Christoph Fischer…

    I’d like to welcome my cup of coffee to the blogroll. Christoph Fischer is a pentecostal pastor and doctoral candidate (yes, I did say that in the same breath) in Germany….

Über Christoph

Christoph Fischer (* 1978) ist Pfarrer der Evangelischen Landeskirche in Württemberg auf der Pfarrstelle „Erlöserkirche“ in Albstadt-Tailfingen.

Christoph ist verheiratet mit Rebecca. Gemeinsam haben sie drei Töchter.