Letter to a Pentecostal Scholar IV: opportunities for biblical scholarship

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

Dear Prudence,

What a surprise to hear that you shared my last letter with your colleagues. And what is even more stunning is your observation that many of them had not even heard about the historical scholarship among Pentecostals I outlined so briefly. That a biblical scholar and Pentecostal is not acquainted with the history of Pentecostal scholarship is indeed a problem. Your question is well put: how can a Pentecostal be both a biblical scholar and a Pentecostal and not know the history of hermeneutics among Pentecostals? How can Pentecostals become world-scholars if they do not know the world of Pentecostal self-understanding and interpretation of the world? You are rightly upset that anyone who follows such a path will create only an isolated Pentecostal scholarship that has not much to offer to the world beyond. But let us put those concerns aside for a moment and consider the role of biblical scholarship in the history of Pentecostalism. While that may increase your concerns for the gravity of the current state of affairs, it should also instill the hope for great opportunities.

Biblical scholars mark the third wave of Pentecostal scholarship that surfaced in the 1970s. These scholars investigated both the biblical sources most relevant to how Pentecostals understand and describe themselves, particularly through the lens of Luke-Acts, and the dominant interpretations of such texts. Questions concerning Spirit baptism, cessationism, dispensationalism, and hermeneutics led Pentecostals to discussions genuine to Pentecostal concerns. On the one hand, conservative Evangelical exegesis with the establishment of the historical-critical method as its flagship severely challenged Pentecostal hermeneutics. On the other hand, Pentecostal biblical scholars began to engage in these and other discourses emerging in the circles of the Society of Biblical Literature and challenged the viability of such discourse for the reflection of their own pneumatological focus and charismatic experiences in the biblical texts.

These conversations produced a substantial amount of literature on distinctive Pentecostal concerns, including Spirit baptism and speaking in tongues, that helped shape a distinctive Pentecostal hermeneutic in response to both liberalism and fundamentalism. If historical scholars made Pentecostalism visible to the larger world, biblical scholarship now raised the interest of the theological community. Pentecostal theology in general would do well not to forget its roots in biblical scholarship! Pentecostals offered fresh contributions, among other things, to hermeneutical method, pneumatological focus, and the revival of interest in Luke-Acts. In turn, non-Pentecostal scholars began to take up Pentecostal interests and integrated them in the larger academy.

Pentecostal biblical and historical scholarship were the first to engage the wider academy. Members from both groups eventually laid the groundwork for the Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS) in North America, the first independent academic society among Pentecostals in 1970. Other academic societies followed in Europe (1979), Latin America (1992), Africa (1998), and Asia (1998). These societies have become the backbone for Pentecostal scholarship today. I am sure you have your own opinion on the SPS, since you have experienced it for the first time last year. But let me postpone discussion on the Society for another time. While the SPS was once dominated by interest in biblical and historical scholarship, the Society is today much more diversified with focus on theology, philosophy, religion and culture, ethics, missions, practical theology and Christian formation. The importance of biblical scholarship for this venue should not be underestimated.

Ask your friends if they are aware of the contributions of biblical scholarship among Pentecostals. Do they follow what they believe to be Pentecostal or do they stand within the tradition of Pentecostal hermeneutics? Are they interested in what Pentecostals have to say or what they have to say; and do they simply equate the latter with the former? I would encourage your colleagues to start asking what it means to look at Scripture as a Pentecostal community rather than a Pentecostal individual. Perhaps therein lies the greatest opportunity for Pentecostal biblical scholarship.

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Wolfgang Vondey
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4 Responses to “Letter to a Pentecostal Scholar IV: opportunities for biblical scholarship”

  1. Ewen Butler says:

    Thanks for some more great reflections, Dr. Vondey! I have to admit I still wrestle somewhat with how a Pentecostal communal hermeneutic works out in practice. While Spirit and Scripture work in tandem, I find a sense of security in holding to the historical-critical method as perhaps a tool in the ‘hand’ of the Spirit to facilitate meaning. I may indeed have a fairly accurate self-understanding of what it meant for me or anyone else to have been a Pentecostal three decades ago. It was a time when few exegetes gave much attention to authorial intent. However, I have since become far more cautious! Navigating between what ‘seems like’ or ‘feels like’ how the Spirit is usng an ancient text versus its plain meaning arrived at through the use of historical-critical tools is still a challenge on the ground!!

    • Well said, Ewen. The challenge is not just a Pentecostal one, at least as far as engaging common interpretive methods. However, the issue I see as critical is much less the question if the historical-critical method (or any other method for that matter) is appropriate for Pentecostals. More significant for me is the individualization of biblical interpretation Pentecostals have adopted from an Evangelical mindset. I see in the work of Rickie Moore, Kenneth Archer, and others (and to the same extent also in theological hermeneutics in the writings of Amos Yong) a communal emphasis on biblical studies that I believe is missing in practice on the ground.

  2. Jon Ruthven says:

    Pentecostal scholarship in fact *does* bring something to the table. For example, I was amazed to discover that traditional scholarship had never noted (as far as I was able to discover) the climactic quotation of arguably the most important speech in Christian history: Peter’s (Luke’s) Pentecost sermon. The content of Isa 59:21 cited in Acts 2:39, it seems, was simply too “Pentecostal” for traditional scholarship to acknowledge, particularly as it asserted that the essence of the New Covenant, was not a sacrifice for sins, but the gift of the prophetic Spirit. (“‘This Is My Covenant with Them’: Isa 59:21 as the Programmatic Prophecy of the New Covenant in Acts,” JPT 17 (2008), 2 parts. This was a revolutionary insight for me–to the extent that it reframed my understanding of the Christian message. It’s summarized in *What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology* (Tulsa: Word & Spirit).

    • Thanks for the tip, Jon. It reminds me of one of the influential texts in my career, “Deuteronomy and the Fire of God” by Rickie Moore (JPT 7, 1995, 11-33). It portrays what happens at Pentecost in the terms of the fiery revelation of God at Mt. Horeb. Here Pentecostal hermeneutical method and interpretation of content come together.