George Marsden suggests that a characteristic of evangelicalism is its transdenominational nature. What he means is that evangelicals seem at home in parachurch ministries and organizations that transcend any particular denominational structure. Transdenominationalism is about cooperation across denominational lines through mediating institutions like InterVarsity Fellowship. The point is that evangelicalism does not exist apart from the cooperation of persons and local churches across denominational lines. As a school that is not officially connected to any particular denomination, Regent School of Divinity (SOD) sees itself as transdenominational insofar as part of its mission is to serve as many ecclesial traditions as possible. Can one find this transdenominationalism at the SOD?
Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category
From “Empowered Evangelicals” & “Radical Middlers” to … ? The Society of Vineyard Scholars and the Renewal of the VineyardMonday, April 22nd, 2013 by Amos Yong
These past few days I have been privileged to have been a guest at the fourth annual conference of the Society of Vineyard Scholars (SVS). As a renewal movement in its second generation, the Vineyard as a whole is both confronting the various challenges attending to and also embracing the many opportunities opened up by charting a way forward that builds and expands on the legacy of its charismatic founder John Wimber. A number of observations stand out for me as someone who is an outsider to the Vineyard but one sympathetic to its quest, at least as played out in the SVS, for a robustly charismatic and renewalist theological identity and self-understanding. Read the rest of this entry »
Ben Witherington III. The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism and Wesleyanism. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2005. 294 pp. $34.95
For Witherington, Evangelicalism—that “many-splintered thing” (ix)—has three main tributaries: Reformed theology, which contributes the emphasis on soteriology, Dispensationalism, which renews the focus on eschatology, and Wesleyan/Pentecostalism with its stress on the experiential (3). Important for Witherington, in their distinctive elements, each of these systems is “only loosely tethered to detailed exegesis of particular texts” (6).
Witherington applauds the Reformed tradition for its high Christology, its Trinitarian emphasis, its belief in the atoning death of Jesus and its omnipotent God (3–89). It is its TULIP that is dead and ought to be thrown out (167–68). It is not God but human response that limits the atonement: “God’s grace is resistible at the outset and rejectable later” (88).
Dispensationalism (93–168) is certainly not Witherington’s favorite form of Evangelicalism, wed to “the all-too-American gospel of success and wealth” (93). He draws some no-holds-barred-conclusions. “There will be no Armageddon between human armies . . . all divine solutions to the human dilemma descend from above . . . . One should not look to the modern secular state of Israel as some sort of fulfillment of biblical Israel;” from the Christian point of view, all OT prophecies are fulfilled in or by Christ, not apart from him or the church (109). Also: “Unless by rapture one merely means being taken up into the air to welcome Christ and return with him to earth, there is no theology of the rapture to be found in the NT anywhere” (130). For Witherington, much of the Dispensational system collapses.
“Mr. Wesley Heading West” (169–237) focuses attention on Wesleyan concepts. As a cradle Methodist, Witherington admits the difficulty of criticizing his theological parent. Not surprisingly, he is more restrained in his criticism, declaring that to him there appear fewer weaknesses in the Arminian approach to biblical texts than in other systems (171). Witherington concedes that Wesley’s notion of sinless perfection has imperfectly followed the text of the NT. An encounter with the perfect love of God may have a profound effect on a person, but there is no suggestion that perfection, in the full sense of that term, will result (214).
In a glance at “The People of Pentecost” (216–222) Witherington takes issue with consequence or subsequence, which he argues cogently is weakly based, and in some cases distorts the biblical text (218). On the question of there being any particular gift Christians must manifest to demonstrate being Spirit-filled, Witherington is clear: “absolutely not” (220).
In the final part, “The Long Journey Home—Where Do We Go from Here?” (225–54), Witherington argues that the story of God’s people is to be read starting from Jesus. This would involve not only reading the OT, but also ourselves and our non-Christian neighbors, through the lens of Jesus. Indeed, the foundation of Evangelical Christianity, at present apparently a Book, needs to be replaced by a Person, Jesus. For, if we read the Book carefully it points us beyond itself to the incarnate Person. Though, even Jesus is not the ultimate object or, as Rowan William says somewhere, the terminus of our faith.
Witherington also argues that we should “do our theologizing in the very same manner as Jesus and the biblical authors—using stories” (239). However, so far as I can see, the theologizing that comes to us from the NT was not only done “out of various paradigmatic stories” (240). The gospel is neither limited to nor embodied in a message: Jesus did not simply tell stories. A case can be made that he only told stories because something had already happened both in his coming and in his ministry. Without the coming of God in him, without the expression of the coming of God’s powerful presence in his activities (not least the miracles), Jesus would have had no stories to tell. Yes, the early Christians told stories of the Jesus event, but they were also compelled to connect that story with their own stories. For, the power of his Spirit, manifest in events (including the miraculous), required new stories.
If this is right, I would suggest that the way forward in re-conceptualizing (Evangelical) theology is not in finding new ways to do hermeneutical tricks with old stories. Instead, as we look carefully at those stories, I suspect we will want to find new ways to allow the powerful presence of God access to our present. The result would mean—as it did for Jesus and his early followers—that we would then be obliged to explain what was happening, as well as retell the Old story about the One whose powerful presence was being experienced. In short, theologizing is not done merely by interpreting paradigmatic stories. Theology is describing and interpreting God, including both his speaking and acting, in relation to present experience.
Does such an approach put theology at the mercy of experience? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that, from a biblical perspective if there is no experience there is no theology, only history. But no, in the sense that just as contemporary stories (our words) do not replace the message of Jesus—they can reflect on, enliven and enlighten it—so contemporary experience (healings, tongues, prophecy, miracles) does not replace or eclipse the activities of Jesus but, like the stories, can give them contemporary expression and significance as it did for the early Christians.
The problem with Evangelical theology is certainly in the distinctives having poor exegetical foundations. But, if the devil is in the distinctives, the heresies are in what we hide with our present theologies: the person of Jesus and his ongoing powerful presence among us through the Spirit.
Paul Tillich’s The Protestant Era (1948) spoke of the “Protestant principle” wherein an anathema was placed upon absolutizing truth claims and systems. Perpetual reform corrects finite aspirations to ultimacy and drives a movement between substance and principle. The Pentecostal Principle takes inspiration from the “Protestant principle” while superseding its claims by offering the “pentecostal principle” as a third, dynamic, and kairotic surplus of the interrelationship of substance and reform. Developing a special vocabulary throughout, Wariboko offers a meta-ethical and religious vision in this dense monograph, one full of asides (e.g., a lengthy one on ecstatic language and tongues, pp. 56-65) as well as the use of conceptual images and analogs (e.g., his use of “Apelles’ cut,” the division of divisions, to illustrate something of the “pentecostal spirit,” pp. 143-149).
The Pentecostal Principle sets out to explain the essence of pentecostalism. In doing so, Wariboko is also explaining something more fundamental than just a religious movement, extending to the question of humanity and reality itself. The book is explaining the essence of the “pentecostal” as a “spirit,” a principle or a transformative creative energy within the materiality of existence. Like a psychologist accounting for a client in the psychologist’s own private assessment, Wariboko is accounting for the underlying historical impulses exemplified in global pentecostalism. By operating with the assumption that he knows the clients better than they themselves do, Wariboko challenges the reader to deep reflection on the nature of the pentecostal.
The book begins with a lengthy introduction followed by five chapters and concludes with an epilogue. The introduction and the first chapter provide readers with the background and framework for understanding the “pentecostal principle,” recounting Tillich’s “Protestant principle” and providing philosophical meditations on scriptural and philosophical themes from which Wariboko derives his own principle. The “pentecostal principle” is understood to be triadic in nature. The “Catholic substance” is met by the “Protestant principle,” which perpetually reforms and critiques the closure of the former. The “pentecostal principle” meets this tension of excess and reform as the kairotic force, breaking in and out from both outside (the transcendent) and within (the immanent). Such a triadic structure notably parallels Amos Yong’s triadic hermeneutics and metaphysics in Spirit-Word-Community (Ashgate, 2002), and this parallel raises the question if a common pentecostal triadic metaphysics is currently developing– despite Wariboko’s denial that he is developing a metaphysics (p. 18).
In the second chapter, he correlates biological emergence and ethical methodology, with the kairotic as it emerges as “pure means” or as “evolving potentialities … eros toward open future …” (p. 100) in the play of the pluralism of human ethical existence. Yet, the third chapter seems to suggest that a precondition for ethical analysis is a telos in the particularities of a given society (p. 118). And for those desperately searching in these pages for a concretization of his ethical proposal, it can be found in the “Flowchart of Ethical Analysis” at the end of the third chapter. The fourth chapter most specifically addresses the nature of the pentecostal spirit itself: spirit is natality (new birth) and attends to the cultivation of identity. Spirit is also play understood as pure means, which is the subject of the fifth chapter. Here, play is not a counterpoint to work but the “deactivation of law and radicalization of saving grace” (p. 164). The ends are open in the pentecostal principle, where religion is not co-opted into the maintenance of order.
As Wariboko moves between social analysis, ethics, continental philosophy and theology, The Pentecostal Principle intertwines and sometimes blends these disciplines together. If there is a moment that epitomizes the book as a whole, it comes in the epilogue. There, the author recounts his own pentecostal conversion and experience, which stands at the root of his conviction that the pentecostal principle is the capacity to begin anew, with “a strong notion of self-transcendence because we served a God of surplus and possibility” (p. 208). Yet, Wariboko looks to illuminate this experience with an interpretation of grace from Slavoj Žižek who draws from Kant and Schelling. How is the former informing the latter? How is the latter being used to interpret the former? In addition, a Barthian critique arises throughout. The interrelation of Wariboko’s sources is questionable.
Nevertheless, The Pentecostal Principle is one of the most significant contributions to the nature of the pentecostal to date. His claim about its kairotic nature nicely correlates with Douglas Jacobsen’s historical claim that early pentecostalism was founded, in the plurality of its theologies, on the notion of God doing new things (see Jacobsen’s Thinking in the Spirit). Still, some may wonder if his “pentecostal principle” really is “pentecostal” enough to claim continuity with the global movement itself. I am inclined to think that, by and large, he has accomplished here what Tillich did. Nevertheless, The Pentecostal Principle will likewise be critiqued on its theological substance.
I appreciate your passionate interest in the Society for Pentecostal Studies. It is only natural for you to ask if you have a place there as a new and emerging Pentecostal scholar. I will think about how to best approach the topic. But before I can do so, there is need of some more explanation about the development of Pentecostal scholarship that impacts the shape of the Society. In my last letter, I talked about the emergence of biblical scholarship among Pentecostals. I distinguished this group from the historical scholarship that developed earlier. Today, I want to spend some time on the questions: does Pentecostalism have a theological scholarship?
Centuries of social, political, cultural, and religious diversity weigh heavily on expressions of Christianity. Party politics, greed, personality driven ministries, ministry as business, and denominational and non-denominational church struggles over members seem to be the order of the day. These influences have moved Christians further and further away from divine principles to which Christians are called to live out before a world that is far from God. The Church is called to be holy; so Christians must pursue holiness amidst an unholy world. The world does not know God so the world cannot lead in holiness. The best way to win the world to faith in Christ is by bearing witness to Christ through the Christian’s lifestyle of holiness – a life that is indifferent of the world—and expressed love towards those who are not living that life. Miller argues that a careful revisit of historical developments that have altered Christianity from its biblical form of indifference might be a meaningful way for the Church to regain its fervor in representing Christ in the world—a world that God expects for Christians to be in but not of. Read the rest of this entry »