The role of culture and biblical hermeneutics is not a new issue within the life and history of the church. Pentecostalism, in particular, finds its expression in a deluge of multi-cultural indigenous regions and people groups around the world. Antipas Harris has identified some specific cultural challenges within the context of pentecostal-type churches in what is called the global South. His goal is to assist these churches to engage in critical evaluation of the theological issues regarding cultural and social issues which are contrary to the liberating message of the Gospel and wrestle with biblical hermeneutics to inform their theological doctrines and practices. Harris proffers his examination of these theological issues within the context of practical theology, as well as the wider African-American theological scholarship. The aim of re-envisioning a pentecostal-type independent ecclesiology as his subtitle aptly states, is certainly a timely and daunting task in light of the fact that pentecostal-type churches are so diverse in nature. However, that being said, Harris narrows the issues to some specific cultural and theological frameworks.
Harris identifies two major areas of concern, namely hermeneutics and gender oppression within today’s pentecostal-type churches. He points out that the cultural issues of “holy attire” and the ordination of women in leadership are oppressive practices that are the result of un-critical theological reflection and unilateral decision-making practices among church pastors and leaders. He proposes that within the context of the African-American cultural context, preaching and teaching are the result of a lack of critical theological methods and critical biblical exegetical skills. From Harris’ perspective, because of limited formal education preaching is limited to and results in the readings of Scripture in the context of personal experience and revelation or insight.
Harris’ assessment and evaluation of independent pentecostal-type churches is interesting considering that these types of churches are among the fastest growing segment of independent churches in the Global South, as well as globally. He also recognizes a problem in the polity of these independent churches which results in doctrinal practices that are not reflective of critical theological reflection on Scripture, experiences of the Holy Spirit, and culture. The book asks a significant question that is applicable to many independent Pentecostal churches; “Is there a way to assess the tenets of Scripture, revelations of the Holy Spirit, and culture, in order to make more consistent theological judgments for doctrinal practices in a re-envisioned ecclesiology” (p. 24)? In response, Harris proposes a trilateral model, which consists of the interplay between Scripture, experiences of the Holy Spirit, and culture. He provides this paradigm to proffer a hermeneutical tool, which he asserts will aid in overcoming the misappropriations of theological frameworks within Scripture and the lack of cultural critique in the context of liberation theology.
Certainly, the implementation of critical exegetical methodologies by pastors and church leaders will inform their doctrinal practices in a more critical fashion. However, other variables of the problem identified by Harris are involved. Pastors of independent pentecostal-type churches are limited in their education for various reasons which are not identified in this work. The issue of polity is another factor which impedes the process of incorporating critical biblical exegetical skills. In the context of practical theology, it would be beneficial for the argument of the book to contend more in depth with the issues of polity and provide examples of viable resolutions in order for these pastors to be able to incorporate his trilateral paradigm to their context.
Harris does well to struggle with the cultural issues presented in Pauline theology regarding circumcision for Jewish and Greek converts. He articulates various scholarly perspectives regarding this issue and concludes that the liberating nature of the gospel is not limited to “freedom from certain requirements of the law,” but also affirms cultural diversity. This is an important exegetical point in Harris’ argument. He contends that in this particular issue regarding circumcision, Paul is negating the cultural requirement in reference to faith in Christ, and that this is not a polemic against the law. He uses this point to argue that the gospel affirms culture. This is a broad and controversial statement. The question arises as to how one is to apply this example to the gender cultural issues that he has identified in his case studies. While Harris discusses the use of his trilateral methodology as a general paradigm to answer this question, the more specific issues regarding the application of hermeneutical tools in the role of community are not fully developed.
Another helpful point in Harris’ argument is brought up in his discussion regarding theories of culture. He incorporates H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture,” a taxonomy of the relationship between Christianity and culture, and Kathryn Turner’s “Theories in Culture” to argue that the gospel message is not intrinsically against culture, but rather, communicates its liberating and transforming message within the diversities of culture as it evolves over time. Harris believes that as culture changes, the re-examination of church doctrine must be critically re-evaluated in order to stay relevant. Of course, one inquires as to the extent in which cultural modifications can be implemented before the core of the gospel message is changed. However, Harris does not argue for changing the gospel message. His argument is restricted to the appropriation of critical theological evaluation through critical biblical exegesis as it relates to culture.
Harris has identified relevant issues regarding biblical hermeneutics, theological doctrines, polity and ecclesiology within the context of pentecostal-type churches. He specifies theological doctrines regarding ordination of women, leadership of women, and restrictive dress codes to illustrate what many perceive as oppressive doctrines. He makes a significant contribution to open the door for pentecostal-type communities to integrate critical theological reflection within their experiential-based praxis by presenting a trilateral methodology. The role of community emphasized in this trilateral broadens the discussion of Pentecostal hermeneutics by incorporating a hermeneutic specifically designed to deal with the issues of culture. He presents his argument for the relevancy of cultural change as the grounds for the re-examination of church doctrine clearly and concisely. The book does so through the articulation of theories regarding culture, utilizing biblical exegetical examples, and incorporating hermeneutical methodology to proffer his emphasis of a trilateral approach to resolve the specific issue of gender oppressive practices within the churches he has identified.