“Hear What the Spirit is Saying to the Churches”: Reading the Bible in the Pentecostal and Black Churches

In the previous post in this series on the history of Biblical interpretation, I introduced personal, devotional readings of the Scriptures through the lens of the monastic practices of lectio divina and Gospel Contemplation. Today we’ll turn to similarly personal approaches in the Protestant world. With the Reformation’s twin focuses on the importance of the individual believer and the Bible as the sole authority for Christian life, it is no surprise that it produced its own traditions of devotional reading of the Scriptures. While there have been some developments in academic theology and philosophy that support such readings, such as Schleiermacher’s priority on religious experience and Kierkegaard’s focus on subjective experience as an antidote to existential anxiety, for the most part this has always been a grass-roots movement within the Protestant world. Even those who are trained in academic hermeneutics retain their priority on the personal experience available to anyone.

The earliest of these movements was Pietism, which developed within Lutheranism toward the end of the seventeenth century as a reaction to the dry, dogmatic theology that emerged from Reformation thought. Led by Philipp Jakob Spenker, Pietism insisted that the “priesthood of all believers” meant that every believer needed an active, holy life of Bible study and prayer, and rejected any reading of the Bible that did not prioritize its direct application in the life of the reader. This line of thought proved to be influential in Protestant spirituality, finding a home among the Moravians and Wesleyans, and from there it found its way into the late nineteenth-century Holiness Movement (which birthed groups such as the Church of the Nazarenes, the Salvation Army, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance), and from there into Pentecostalism. In the rest of this post I’d like to look at how this tradition of direct, personal application of the Bible plays out in two related but distinct contemporary traditions, Pentecostalism and the American Black Church.

From its beginning, Pentecostalism has always been an ethnically and economically diverse movement, and has grown to be a major force in places that have often been exploited by the West, such as Africa and South America. While having its roots in revivalism and the Holiness Movement, Pentecostalism proper dates to the 1906 Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles. This event was marked by the widespread manifestation of glossolalia, or ‘speaking in tongues’, and participants understood this to be a recovery of the experience of the disciples at Pentecost — and therefore a restoration of the Church as intended by God. With an origin like this, it is no surprise that the continuing work of the Holy Spirit is a primary emphasis of Pentecostal life and theology. There are at least three major ways this impacts how Pentecostals read the Bible: 1. the transformative intent of the Scriptures; 2. the collapsing of the distance between author and reader; and 3. the continuing revelation of the Holy Spirit. Let’s look at each in turn:

First, it is a core Pentecostal belief that the same Holy Spirit that inspired the writers of the Bible also guides those who read it (assuming they have been baptized by the Spirit). The Bible is, then, primarily a place of encounter with God, rather than a set of historical or theological propositions. Its authority rests not in the provability or inerrancy of its message, but in its ability to transform lives today. In the words of Clark Pinnock:

Certainly the scriptures are inspired but not in the sense of their being a static deposit of revealed propositions that we can systematize and make into an idol. Scripture is not something that we control. It has a dynamic authority and is a living guide. Its proclamation is not primarily intellectual in nature either but a life transforming interaction. (236)*

Or, As Lee Roy Martin has put it, “the event of scriptural interpretation [is] itself always a kind of exodus, a pilgrimage, a journey into God” (5). The reading of Scripture, then, is not primarily a cognitive enterprise, but is to be deeply affective: “There is a vital place for emotions well as reason, for imagination as well as logic, for mystery as well as certainty, and for that which is narrative and dramatic as well as that which is propositional and systematic;” and “Experience is vital to knowing the truth” (Moore, 11f). This experiential encounter, which is understood to be the work of the Holy Spirit, means that Pentecostal hermeneutics goes well beyond traditional Protestant ideas of ‘illumination’; in fact, the interpretation of the Bible can be considered to be ‘inspired’ in the same way that its writing is. So great is this conviction that reading the Bible is meeting God that, when reading Pentecostal hermeneutics, I’m often struck at how writers often seem to wholly conflate hermeneutics with knowing God: Knowing God and understanding the Bible are the same thing.

Second, because the Bible’s primarily role is not to impart facts but to change lives, the historical or literary context of a passage is less important than the reader’s immediate experience with it. This collapse of history in interpretation is not thought to be a ‘bug’ in the system, but one of the very marks of faithful reading: to see the same principle at play in Genesis, the Prophets, the Gospels, Acts, and one’s own life is a mark of the Spirit at work. But, this same flattening out of time also leads to remarkably individualized readings. Again, this is not thought to be a problem, but a gift of the Scriptures. One Pentecostal academic wrote of an experience where his grandmother was reading John 14 when the call came in from the hospital informing her that her husband had died. In that moment, the line “I go to prepare a place for you” took on a new significance for the family, even as he recognized that it was at best an ‘ironic’ reading of the passage: “A passage that ostensibly communicates the absence of Jesus communicated to my family in that time of loss the presence of Jesus” (Baker, 97).

This connects to a fascinating difference between Pentecostal and Fundamentalist hermeneutics: Pentecostals are not bothered by the ambiguity of the Scriptures or human language more generally; they delight in the multiplicity of meanings in the Scriptures, which may be of equal or lesser value in any given moment. The text cannot say what it does not say, but it can say many things. As Clark Pinnock writes:

I am not talking about attaining ‘the’ right meaning, because there is no one and only possible meaning. … Multiple interpretations are not only possible, but inevitable, owing to the fluid nature of texts. (241)

By not only accepting but celebrating the multiplicity of possible interpretations found in a given text, this understanding thus eliminates one of the major criticisms of ‘literalist’ hermeneutics.

Third, Pentecostals are convinced that the Holy Spirit continues to speak today in exactly the same way as it spoke to the Prophets and Apostles. They believe not just in the priesthood of all believers, but also on the prophethood of all believers. They see themselves as the restoration of the New Testament Church and therefore as living within the biblical frame of reference, as though their own lives are chapter one-thousand-something of the book of Acts: They understand themselves as “active participants in the same drama in which the biblical personages were involved, of playing the same sort of part as they played in it, and of doing so in the same prophetic manner” (McKay, 66). Or again, “The stories are told and re-told because the history of God’s salvation is not finished but still open. We read it with an eye on the extension of the story” (Pinnock, 237). And so, Pinnock concludes: “Pentecostal and charismatic believers … are people of the Spirit and not yet people of the book only” (233).

With ultimate authority resting in the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit rather than in the text of the Bible itself, this opens up Pentecostalism to an obvious accusations of relativism and subjectivism. While Pentecostal hermeneutics rejects the idea that subjectivism is in and of itself bad, this does not mean that ‘anything goes.’ Discernment of spirits is of great importance, and particularly the role of the local church in this, bringing to life Jesus’ teaching, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” In theory, if not always in practice, the local church acts as a constraining force. In the words of Scott A. Ellington, “[A]ctive participation in a reading community is the best safeguard against subverting the text to the service of individual self-interest. Biblical authority, then, incorporates the notion of involvement in the community of faith” (161).

Before moving on to an assessment of this perspective, I think it’s important to look at the similar approach to the Scriptures found in the American Black Church, which has strong ties to but is distinct from Pentecostalism. All that’s been said above applies equally to this context, but in the Black Church we see Pentecostalism’s roots as a faith for marginalized peoples come to the fore. Cleophus LaRue writes: “Blacks believe that God is for them — even when being for them is understood in a provincial, restrictive, and selfish manner…. Scripture revealed a God of infinite power who could be trusted to act on their behalf” (LaRue, I Believe I’ll Testify, 60). In this, there is understood to be a huge role for the imagination in hermeneutics, as marginalized people imagine and help to co-create with the Scriptures a world in which they are valued, celebrated, and liberated from oppression: “Imagination helps us to see and to say what often lies dormant within us …Imagination is not simply a step in the exegetical process … Imagination is a process unto itself. It should permeate the whole of the exegetical exercise. It is the imagination that must envelop our exegesis and not the other way around” (LaRue, 72).

What then can be said about this approach by way of assessment? What sticks out most to me is that, in keeping with their ‘restorationist’ beliefs, with the importance of the direct work and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, Pentecostal hermeneutics actually re-creates the hermeneutical space of the New Testament. There, we saw that the Apostles didn’t so much use their Bibles as a source for their beliefs as they did as a resource of language and testimony through which they came to articulate their experiences of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And to a great extent this can be said for Pentecostal hermeneutics as well. Bible interpretation is understood to be an ongoing dialogue between the text and experience. Moreover, with the importance of the local community of faith in constraining interpretation, Pentecostals also to some extent recover the Rule of Faith, which was originally also local (through an individual church’s bishop) as well as universal.

When it works well, Pentecostal hermeneutics has a lot going for it. Like the devotional hermeneutics we looked at in the last post, it recovers the importance of the upper left hand quadrant of personal experience that has for so long been intentionally ignored in hermeneutics. With its acceptance — or even delight in — the multiplicity of meanings in a text, it also avoids the major pitfalls of biblical literalism and Fundamentalism. And, in both its suspicion of rationalism and origins from marginalized communities, it even anticipates some of the critiques of postmodern thought, which we’ll look at in the next post in the series. And so, Pentecostal hermeneutics is far from simply an ‘anything goes’ emotionalism or experientialism. It has a lot of strengths.

But, as we see on the grid above, it has very little engagement with the right-side perspectives, the objectivity of the text and its history, and structural and systemic considerations. This is, to my mind, a considerable weakness. There can be no doubt that our interpretations of the Bible are always shaped by our personal experiences, both with the text and outside of it. This is nothing new. St. Augustine struggled with sex and so he read the story of Adam and Eve as being a story about sex; Martin Luther struggled with legalism and so read the whole Bible through the lens of grace freeing us from the law; John Calvin was a lawyer, and his reading of the Bible highlighted the theme of divine justice. And on and on. But when it comes to hermeneutics, this is largely seen as an accident, and pushed aside. I am convinced we would do better to keep our personal experiences out in the open, where we can see them and better scrutinize them. And Pentecostal hermeneutics does this well. But, at the same time, we cannot rely on our experiences, or those of our local communities, alone. Subjectivism is not bad, but it is not sufficient on its own. There is also a lot of room for it not to work well, and here it runs the risk of hyper-individualistic readings — and not only hyper-individualistic readings, but ones that are believed by the interpreter to be divinely inspired. There’s obviously a lot of ways this could go very badly! Ultimately, Pentecostal hermeneutics adds a critically important component of biblical interpretation to the mix. But it needs stronger mechanisms for correction and discernment of spirits than the local church can provide.


* Note: Except where noted, all references come from the wonderful set of essays in Pentecostal Hermeneutics, edited by Lee Roy Martin (2013).

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