2005-10-03

Why do Pentecostals misread the bible?

One of my many magnum opus'ses (opi'i?) on the internet has been the Criticisms of Charismatic and Pentecostal Belief article at Wikipedia. I wrote the bulk of this article a year ago and it has been wonderful to see many Wikipedia contributors coming along and patching it up, making it better. It's also been good to see some Charismatic and Pentecostal brothers in Christ come along and also contribute to the article, making sure that the article is continually working towards a "Neutral Point of View".

So for today's post I thought I might just copy and paste the sub-section from the article that is marked "Exegesis". Most of this is my work, though it is obvious that others have come along and done their bits as well. If you see anything that could be improved, then you should go to the Wikipedia article and improve it.

Exegesis

Exegesis is the way in which Biblical passages are examined and interpreted. Although Charismatics and Evangelicals alike believe that the Bible can be understood and applied by all believers, Evangelicals are often critical of the way in which Charismatics (and Pentecostals) interpret and apply scripture.

This issue is a much larger one in modern society because it has to take into account modern ways and methods of interpreting written text. Evangelicals tend to take a Structuralist view of interpreting the Bible. This means that Biblical texts should be interpreted according to their literary type and takes into account the text's purpose, its audience and its historical and philosophical context. Moreover, an Evangelical will argue that a Biblical text can only be understood and applied in this manner, and that any departure from this will lead to a misinterpretation of Scripture. In this sense, Evangelicals believe that the Bible is like any other text in the manner in which you read it, but unlike any other text because its ultimate authorship is divine.

A Pentecostal preacher. The content of preaching is often determined by Biblical interpretation (exegesis)
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A Pentecostal preacher. The content of preaching is often determined by Biblical interpretation (exegesis)

Charismatics, however, are less likely to follow a Structuralist approach to interpreting scripture. While they may not discard the Evangelical approach, many Charismatics believe that the Bible's divine authorship allows it to be interpreted in a more subjective and reader-centred manner. In many ways, it could be argued that Charismatics are more likely to take a Post-structuralist or even Post-modernist way of interpreting Scripture. Thus a Charismatic will be able to take a verse of Scripture out of its literary context and apply it in a subjective manner. Such an approach could be defended by arguing that God's power to guide cannot be limited by human conventions such as textual structure. Furthermore, since it is God who is guiding the individual through this interpretive process, it could be argued that it is a superior way of interpretation since it assumes that God is able to give the Christian immediate and clear guidance. The Evangelical approach to interpretation, however, could therefore be seen as a limiting of God and has an overly intellectual and transcendent view of God, rather than a personal and immanent view of God that typifies Charismatic interpretation.

Evangelicals argue, however, that many modern day Charismatic leaders have gone beyond this subjective interpretive model and are actually teaching things that are contrary to orthodox Christian belief. The fact that there is such a diverse range of beliefs within the Charismatic movement (beliefs which are often contrary) is proof, according to Evangelicals, that such an interpretive model is flawed. After all, the Evangelical would say, why is God not guiding his people in a consistent manner?

With that being said, an example of the difference between a Charismatic and an Evangelical interpretation of Scripture can be seen in a quick examination of 1 Corinthians 2:4-5, which says My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power (NIV).

One way that this verse could be interpreted by Charismatics is that it backs up the belief that God is acting in our world to produce miracles. Therefore, it could be argued, church meetings should include times when God can work miracles. On the other hand, preaching conducted solely on the basis of the human understanding could be classed as the “wise and persuasive words” mentioned in this verse, and such preaching should not be the focus of the Christian meeting. This interpretation basically assumes that Paul's ministry in Corinth was both a preaching ministry and a ministry that involved supernatural manifestations. The implication for Charismatics is that since Paul did this, so should the modern-day church.

Another way this verse could be interpreted by some Charismatics focuses on the phrase “so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power”. What this could prove is that the Christian should trust not in various arguments or in intellectual knowledge alone, but upon a more experiential knowledge of God. On the basis on this rationale, some Charismatics conclude that it should not matter, therefore, if someone disagrees with them or challenges them in their faith – they can trust in their personal experience. However, many Charismatics and Pentecostals alike hold that all subjective experience is subject to the authority of the objective Word of God.

Evangelicals tend to interpret these verses in a very different way. The verse needs to be taken in context with the rest of what Paul says, especially chapter 1:22-23 which says Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. Critics of the Charismatic understanding of the supernatural would say that these verses contradict the idea that Paul's ministry was primarily one of performing miracles. 2:2 is also important to the Evangelical because it states that I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Thus the demonstration of the Spirit's power found in 2:4 could in fact be the conversion experience of the Corinthian readers, and “God's power” in 2:5 is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Evangelicals argue that this way of interpreting the text fits into a structuralist model because it takes the verses in its historical and grammatical context. Charismatics and even Pentecostals would counter-argue that such an interpretation reads more into the text than is clearly stated and ignores the historical context -- a context that was characterized by the dynamic of the Holy Spirit manifested through supernatural signs and wonders. Furthermore, if 1:22-23 is a condemnation of reliance upon signs and wonders, then it is equally a condemnation of an overly intellectualized approach to the Gospel.

It needs to be pointed out that claims of "faulty" exegesis are not a criticism that can be applied solely to Charismatics. It is entirely possible for Charismatic Christians and leaders to understand and apply a Biblical text in a manner which is acceptable to a Structuralist approach (and thus meet the interpretive framework that many Evangelicals hold to). It is also entirely possible (in fact, it is probably very common) that many Evangelicals themselves are guilty of "faulty" exegesis and may be teaching unbiblical doctrines. Evangelicals will argue, however, that this phenomenon is far more likely to occur within a Charismatic church than in an Evangelical church.

One of the more important counter-arguments that Charismatics and Pentecostals have with the Evangelical approach is that they are often guided by preconceptions when approaching the text of scripture. These preconceived ideas - such as the cessation of certain spiritual gifts - will quite often find their way into the text's interpretation. Thus, according to this argument, Evangelicals are often guilty of eisegesis

A well-known New Testament scholar, Gordon Fee, is regarded highly by many evangelicals for his work in this area. Despite this, Fee is Pentecostal, which shows that many generalised arguments against Charismatics and Pentecostals may often not be correct at all times.




From the Theosalient Department

The Wikipedia text is covered by the GNU Free Documentation Licence

3 comments:

Paul W said...

Neil,

This a great article and it is very fair. I know in the past that I have had to repent of contempt towards the spirituality of Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians. At Bible College one of my tutors was an apostolic church pastor. I remember him taking us through Scripture and showing us why the traditional Pentecostal view of "baptism in the Spirit" was wrong. This tutor also introduced me to the work of Charismatic Anglican Mark Stibbe on the Gospel of John. Stibbe IMHO is one of the best scholars writing on this Gospel right now--although his book defending the Toronto Blessing was awful.

Paul W said...

Your description Evangelical and Pentecostal hermeneutics as "structuralist" and "post-structuralist" respectively was really helpful too!

Dyspraxic Fundamentalist said...

Some good points here.
My only complaint is that I think you use the word 'Structuralist' to mean something that it does not normally mean.

Structuralism is the theory of Levi-Strauss in anthropology and linguistics that texts can be deconstructed by identifying bianry oppositions. I do not think that most Evangelical scholars would take this approach.