Oh Lord, won’t you buy me ……1847053,00.html has an interesting article on the relation between prosperity gospel and the economic crisis. Although their title blows it way out of proportions by suggesting that God might be to blame for the whole mess, the article is an interesting read with sources like the UC Riverside’s John Walton and Rochester’s Anthea Butler. HT to Willem Ouweneel.

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.

Christology and Pneumatology: Inseparable twins

When one of my Google Alerts brought me to the Catholic Analysis blog, I was surprised to find the opinion that …

the truest, fullest, and most authentic "Pentecostalism" is already available in the heart of the Catholic Church […].

 Oh, really? Anyway, getting curious, I ordered Joseph (aka "Benedict XVI" ) Ratzinger’s book on New Outpourings of the Spirit, and, behold, this is interesting stuff. While, of course, I strongly disagree with his sacramental ecclesiology, Ratzinger does deal with a lot of questions that seem familiar from a Pentecostal point of view. I really liked his explanation on the inseparable relationship between Christology and Pneumatology.His basic premise is that,

Christ and the Spirt are properly distinguished only if, by considering their difference, we can learn better about their unity. We cannot properly understand the Spirit without Christ, nor indeed Christ without the Spirit.

This means that …

  1. our understanding of Christ becomes possible only through the Holy Spirit, in whom Christ "shares himself." In view of the upsurge of charismatic movements within the Catholic church in recent decades, Ratzinger contends that

    the new presence of Christ in the Spirit is however the necessary presupposition for there being sacraments or any presence of the Lord in the sacraments.

    This, of course, ties in closely with his previous argument that the sacraments alone constitute the church. Also, he argues that the whole concept of successio apostolica, which is immensely important in Catholic ecclesiology, cannot exist without a proper pneumatological foundation, i.e. an ever-renewed "Sacrament of the Spirit."

  2. our focus on the Spirit has to transform itself into a focus on Christ.

    The Incarnation does not stop with the historical Jesus, with his sarx (2 Cor 5:16!). It is thus that the "historical Jesus" becomes forever significant, precisely on account of his "flesh" having been transformed in the Resurrection, so that now, in the power of the Holy Spirit, he can be present at all times and in all places […].

    The Spirit’s whole purpose in ministry is not to point to himself, but to mediate the risen Christ to the believers.

In view of the often one-sided emphases on either Christology or Pneumatology, especially in the debates between Pentecostals and mainline Evangelicals, I find these thoughts really helpful.

This is interesting stuff. I’m going to have to reflect on it a little more and I’m curious to read the rest of the book. Tell me what you think …


Council blogging

At the Pentecostal BFP movement’s 112th general council for the moment, I’m one of the lucky few with an internet connection, thanks to my hotspot flat rate. I hope to be sharing some reflections from an inspiring event with my readers, so, stay tuned. Just a few minutes ago, I had submitted a rather lengthy article to begin with, but my blogging software somehow killed it and I don’t have the time right now to type it again. 

In a couple of minutes, I’m off to today’s business session, dealing, among other topics, with "hot" topic of the movement’s relationship to the ACK, Germany’s largest ecumenical council — which (and that’s the problem) contains among other members the Roman Catholic church. So, it’s going to be an interesting afternoon and I hope to be back with some updates.

pre/anti/para/post — Whither Pentecostalism, when modernity is on its way out

Mainstream Evangelicalism is basically a modernistic movement — there’s no doubt about it. In many places, Evangelicals have become synonymous with Evangelical Fundamentalism. Along with liberalism, its eternal foe, fundamentalism is deeply entrenched in the modern way of reasoning coming directly out of the European Enlightenment. But where does Evangelicalism go when its underlying modernistic epistemology is disappearing? Most interestingly, large parts of the wider Evangelical movement seem to cling to modernism with all their might — steering themselves ever wider into a neo-fundamentalist trap of irrelevance to the new, postmodern culture.

While I firmly believe that Pentecostalism is and always has been part of the Evangelical movement, this is a good moment to note a decisive distinction: Pentecostalism never really was modern. Label it however you want, I for one prefer the term "para-modern" that Ken Archer argued for in his 2001 book A Pentecostal Hermeneutics for the Twenty First Century. Now, this would seem like good news and an open road ahead for Pentecostalism, where it not for many Pentecostals‘ strive to become "more Evangelical", which often brings us dangerously close to the neo-fundamentalist Evangelical. Do we really want to go there? Or might the "way out" for Evangelicalism’s current cul-de-sac be in the very Pentecostal part of its fold? Certainly, the early twenty-first century does seem like a bad time to finally jump on the modernist bandwaggon and adopt what we’ve been spared so far.

What Really Unites Pentecostals?

The major hallmark of Pentecostalism is — tada! — the prosperity gospel. Who’da thunk? Well, Ted Olson certainly does think so:

But for now, as the Pew Forum survey shows, Pentecostalized Christianity is nearly synonymous with the prosperity gospel. So while we listen to our brothers and sisters, we also need to proclaim biblical truths that counter the "health and wealth" message. The spiritual gift most needed in the 21st century is the gift of discernment 1 Cor. 12:10.

While I agree on the importance of discernment, I’m kind of missing it in this article. First of all, it seems hard to generalize the Pentecostal movement on a global scale. The article does admit that, but then, in conclusion, comes back to such a generalization. Second, I find it kind of hard to focus on one single aspect and declare this "the thing that really unites Pentecostals" — especially when this is just the aspect that would exclude a lot of folks (including me) from the Pentecostal fold.
No, Mr. Olsen, I do not agree.

Christocentrism as organizing principle

During my research for establishing the criteria for a truly Pentecostal approach to theology, I ran into one important element that I had so far neglected in my own developing model: early Pentecostalism organized its theological thinking around the fourfold (fivefold in some cases) perspective on Jesus Christ as savior, healer, baptizer, and coming king (Holiness-Pentecostals would add "sanctifier" as fifth element). This central framework constitutes the fundamental Pentecostal approach to the question of valid loci in systematic theology — which should be retained, I think, in a new approach that takes into account our Pentecostal tradition. So Christocentrism becomes the organizing principle of Pentecostal dogmatics.

Continue reading „Christocentrism as organizing principle“

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.