The Spirit, the Text and the Reader

How does the Bible convey God’s truth to me, the reader, in a way that God can do something in my life? This question is the crux behind any discussion of Pentecostal hermeneutics. Different answers have been given and reflect the different stages in the ongoing development of Pentecostal hermeneutic theory (if there is such a thing).

Looking back, our Pentecostal fathers never argued this question. To them, the Bible was a faithful guide – a lens, through which the Spirit-filled reader could look back at the Spirit’s work in the past, immerse himself completely in the experiential world of the text and realize how the Spirit would begin to work in the same way today. Restorationism, to early Pentecostals, was not primarily a question of outward forms and ecclesiastical organization, but rather a spiritual act: The Spirit was able to use the Biblical text to transfer an ancient experience to today’s readers. Objective observation of the text from a detached stance, or even the provision of scientific proof for Biblical authority was never a relevant question to those Pentecostals. The Bible, very pragmatically, proved itself faithful by actualizing the experience it described.

Enter the Fundamentalists. With their sophisticated debates, their clear profile against a growing liberalism and their historical-grammatical exegesis, they swayed most of mainstream Evangelicalism. And, had early Pentecostals still been able to withhold themselves from the debates and thereby create a quasi para-modern model, this separation did not last. With the influx of Evangelical-molded scholarship into the Pentecostal fold, as well as the desire of Pentecostal denominations to retain their close affiliation with their fellow Evangelicals, Pentecostals gave in and adopted those methods – all the while not realizing, that they had to buy the whole underlying modernist package along with them. All of a sudden, Biblical exegesis changed its face. Now, the work of the Spirit was seen mostly in the past – back then, when the Early Church was still extant, the Spirit moved and worked in peoples lives. Other people (or sometimes the same) observed this work of the Spirit and – again, at the Spirit’s prompting – wrote it down. This, however, is about where the Spirit’s doing ends. And now, many centuries later, the Pentecostal exegete enters the stage. With the Spirit’s help – at best – limited to “illumination”, his task is twofold: (a) to observe as objectively as possible what the Spirit did in the past, and (b) to draw lessons from this observation, which, should a comparable situation arise, might be applied in the reader’s life. Notice how little the involvement of the Spirit in this present side of the equation!

It is only now, with the crisis of modernistic exegesis in the confrontation with postmodern literary theories, that we realize we’ve lost a whole dimension of spirituality. It is no wonder that some recent Pentecostal studies label modernist exegesis a betrayal of fundamental Pentecostal beliefs. Fortunately, a new model is emerging now: Let’s look again at the equation. Back then in the past, the Spirit strongly impacted people’s lives – and, in consequence, the community around them got impressed with the shared experience, too. The Spirit, again, worked through their observation of what was happening and prompted them to write down their experience. Now, many centuries later, the Pentecostal exegete is reading the text. And, guess what happens: The same Spirit that created the original experience and guided the inscripturating community now uses the text to work in the life of the reader. The text becomes alive and the experience of the past becomes an experience of the present. Suddenly, there is no need for a two-step process of observation and application – the experience of the reading-event itself becomes the application to the reader’s life.

Meditating about all of this, my thoughts go back to an early class in Theology 101. I remember Millard Erickson, revered Southern-Baptist fundamentalist writer, railing in our textbook against any Barthian (“neo-orthodox”) ideas that the revelatory event might lay in the present. The text book writer’s aversion against such a present-day event was instilled in us, students in a Pentecostal school, right from the beginning. And suddenly, I begin to think that it might be time not only for a rethinking of our hermeneutical theories, but also for a reevaluation of the text books we borrowed from our Evangelical friends. Sure, so far there might be no good ones from our own side (See, there’s a challenge if you’re looking for one). But does this really justify “importing” others with an underlying philosophy that robs us of an understanding our fathers rightly (even if not articulated) had, and that is at the basis of our Pentecostal theology?

But, back to the issue at hand. The text that relates the story of people’s past experience with the Spirit cannot remain “vicarious experience”, but has to initiate actual experience in the life of the reader. This, however, leaves a couple of questions for any scholar who has so far been trained with and taught to love systems like the historical-grammatical method. First of all, I’m curious about the place of historical observation, background, and authorial intent in this model. Secondly, I’m wondering about what safeguards are there to avoid falling into the trap of absolute subjectivism, where the text could mean anything to anybody.

For the first question, perhaps the issue of authorial intent is the easiest to settle: Who has been able to objectively identify the original author’s intent, anyway? Maybe the move to a new model simply marks our liberation from a hot debate? But even if so, what about history, and culture, and the study of the original Sitz-im-Leben of the text? I think they’re needed now, more than ever, as tools of translation of the text’s content for modern-day readers. Far removed from the original setting and the background of both the original author as well as his first audience, today’s reader needs such tools to help him grasp a text that the Spirit wants to use to work in his life. Note, however, that this vital information does not become the end in itself, nor does it produce the understanding that is the goal of exegesis. Rather, it simply clarifies the text and therefore clears the way for the Spirit to work more easily now.

On the second question, the answer might be simple, but disappointing on the first view. Perhaps the only safeguard against an unlimited plurality of meanings and resulting experiences is the Spirit behind everything. To be sure, this is not something that can be objectively grasped, evaluated and put into words into a nice text book. But, given who this Spirit is, it might just be enough, anyway. Also, note (and here we’re getting po-mo again), that the Spirit works through a community, back in the past as well as right here in the present. That means, again, there is a filter and a moderating force to sift out extreme interpretations – supposing, of course, that the community works as it should. Thus, we would be led to believe (and, yes, the key word here is believe as opposed to objectively deduce) that, as long as the readers of a text keep in contact with the Spirit and move within the Spirit-filled community, they can expect to find the “right” experience in their interpretation event.

Paul Ricoeur on the constant core of the self

In another chapter of his book, Thiselton shortly expound Paul Ricoeur’s model (mainly based on Time and Narrative, vol. 3) of self-identity. Ricoeur touches on the age-old quest for the “constant core” of the self, the element which links all individual experiences, impressions and moments into a coherent person. The basic problem has always been, that the self, as far as we know it, is anything but constant. With every moment, every experience, and every new element of learning the self is changing (This assumption is actually the very basis of the so-called “hermeneutical circle”). Yet, we always speak of this ever-changing self as “the same person.”

In RicoeurÂ’s model, there is no constant, unifying core of the self. Yet, at the same time, it is not reduced to the helpless self of postmodernity, either. Rather, there is something which provides an external structure to self-identity: narrative. The self cannot be understood apart from its temporality, its embedding into an ongoing narrative, whose plot helps to determine who exactly the individual is at any given time.

I find RicoeurÂ’s model attractive for a number of reasons:

  1. It provides good reason to abandon old dualistic models of the human being – seeing that the efforts to split a person into elements like body and soul usually just mark the attempt to find the one element that could be the “constant core.”
  2. It makes all the more sense once the right narrative is chosen: I am who I am not because of any constant element in my personality. I am who I am because I am part of GodÂ’s great narrative, in which he has chosen to love this ever-changing self as my person.
  3. It contains a further important parallel to Christian soteriology. While the self is always constantly shaped by its experience and by the unfolding narrative plot, Ricoeur allows for a special case: a major change or shift in the plot of the underlying narrative may lead to a complete “reconstitution” of the self. Now, wouldn’t the moment where you are transformed from a sinner to a saint in the eyes of God have to be considered a major plot change? What is “reconstituted” would then be the “new creation”/the “new man” the New Testament is always talking about.

Thiselton on textual interpretation and the self

Continuing my reading of Thiselton’s Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise, I have come upon a very interesting series of points on textual interpretation. Thiselton presents a model that seems to reverse the usual direction in interpretation, which moves from the — supposedly objective — interpreter towards the text as an object to be examined. In a chapter, which he entitles "Five Ways in which Textual Reading Interprets the Self", he offers the following list:

  1. First of all, the text conveys information and impressions about the author to the reader. This, however, seems to be a rather subordinate function in Thiselton’s model.
  2. As the text talks to its reader, it has an effect on the person of the reader himself. Of course, this point (as well as all of the following), seems especially important when we’re talking about a Biblical text, where the word of God is certainly supposed to have an effect on the reader.
  3. As soon as the text begins to touch on the realm of the self’s understanding, the reader begins to learn new things about himself by means of the text. In the words of Ernst Fuchs, the text first becomes the translator of the self before the self can even begin to translate the text.
  4. Next, the interpreting self reveals a lot about himself through the interpretation. People can be seen as belonging to a certain community, for example, just by looking at the way they will handle a particular text.
  5. Finally, the text transforms the individual. In hermeneutical terms, the text — or rather, whatever the reader gathers from it — becomes part of the reader’s set of presuppositions, pre-judgements, and prejudices, which will influence his reading of any other text from now on.

So far, I am not entirely sure what to make of Thiselton’s list. I’ll have to think about it. To be sure, it presents an interesting alternative to the one-sided empiricist view of textual interpretation which stands at the basis of modernity. However, while this might provide a much needed counterweight, I think it’s jumping the ship on the opposite side: What I am missing is a clear indication of the role the informational content of the text is supposed to play in the whole of interpretation. Of course, Thiselton does say a couple of words on this in the last paragraph of his chapter, namely, that a certain understanding of informational content might even be a prerequisite for transformation. Yet, I still get the feeling that this is not enough.

As so often, the truth between the two extremes seems to lie somewhere in the middle (Shannon Buckner should love this: "It’s all about balance …").

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.