Pentecostal Biblical Studies: Is Going Back to the Source Really All That Bad?

It seems that my friends in the Pentecostal academic world have come up with another interesting link, this time to Jaques Berlinerbau’s An Afternoon With the Society for Pentecostal Studies.  It’s an opportunity for me to opine on a subject that has lurked in the background ever since my brother’s unfavourite Episcopal minister taught me Theology I  in prep school: the whole business of modern and (now) post-modern Biblical studies.

Berlinerbau put his photo on a large number of dartboards five years ago with his article “What’s Wrong with the Society of Biblical Literature?”  But he’s back to review the Pentecostal contingent of this organisation.  There’s one comment that really struck me as rather strange:

Still, none of that astonished me as much as the way that the presenters reasoned through their subject matter. Their stated remarks were devoid of nearly any reference to biblical scholarship. The speakers each built their arguments almost exclusively by citing scriptural passages in an effort to figure out what the Bible was trying to say.

This is highly unusual—the typical exegete’s research leans heavily on the findings of modern biblical scholarship and those findings are prominently integrated into the substance of the analysis.

Making this more unusual was the fact that all of the presenters had considerable training as biblical scholars. All had professional familiarity with ancient Greek and probably biblical Hebrew. A glance at their footnotes (two of the presenters handed out copies) indicates that they were, in fact, acquainted with secondary scholarly literature, especially biblical commentaries.

But that secondary literature was relegated to the backmatter. It could not, for some reason, intrude upon the presenter’s interpretation of scriptural verses. These verses were assumed to link together into a larger pattern of meaning; a meaning which constituted the truth of the Scripture and the labor of the scholar.

While grateful that a non-Pentecostal would break down and admit that we can, indeed, read, write, and complete a sentence (which is more than some other Christians can bring themselves to do) I think it strange that he would unfavourably comment on those who, rather than contenting themselves on what others said about the Bible, would actually want to find out what it said for themselves.   For all his criticisms of the SBL, in a way he’s stumbled onto the reason why the SBL–to say nothing about much contemporary Biblical scholarship–is so irrelevant both to society in general and Christians in particular.

The basic problem we have is that the Bible that is the subject of most academic Biblical criticism and the Bible as understood by Christianity’s supporters on the one hand and its detractors on the other are two entirely different books.  Academic Biblical scholarship has undermined its own reason for existence through a number of processes that have gone on for a long time, the most significant of which is source criticism.  By undermining the veracity and integrity of the Bible’s sources, they have reduced the relevance of its content.  In some ways an atheist who takes the written word at face value and attacks it has a higher value of the truth content of the Scriptures than many academic Biblical scholars do.  In the past liberal churchmen and women have relied on this approach to the content of the Bible as a foil to literal fundamentalism, but we’ve seen in recent years a switch in strategy to a more post-modern approach of “let’s admit it says X for sure but then interpret it to mean Y.”

Beyond that academic Biblical scholarship is excessively riveted to the idea that the Bible spoke first and last to its own time–that is, when they could agree what that time was (and the dating issue is always a fun one in Biblical scholarship.)  They overlook the fact that, if the Bible is only a historical book, it’s probably not worth the study put into it.  Most academic Biblical scholarship doesn’t really tell people what they need to know about the Scriptures to apply it to their current existence.  That problem is made worse by frequently weak approaches to the surrounding disciplines such as history, sociology and economics.  (An exception to that is here.)

Pentecostals understand better than just about anybody in Christianity that the Church isn’t worth much without the living presence of the Spirit, and a part of that is a Biblical exegesis that is alive.  Implicit in that idea are two things.  First, much of the academic work done on the Bible is simply in the way of its understanding, irrespective of what level of life you’re working from.  Second, although Pentecostals are usually characterised as literalists, in many ways the exegesis I hear from many Pentecostal pulpits has what used to be referred to in polite company as the sensus plenior: the Patristic idea that the inspiration of the Scriptures and the nature of the text requires an interpretation that goes beyond the immediate.  For all of their differences, academic scholars and fundamentalists agree on one principle: the only sense of the Scriptures is the one that can be narrowly drawn from the written text, even though their concept of the reliability of that text is different.  To a large extent academic Biblical scholarship has laboured to expunge the sensus plenior, and to bring it back requires the ejection of a lot of baggage.

Under these circumstances, the whole business of Biblical studies as an academic discipline is redefined, and it’s no wonder Pentecostals take a different approach to their work.

Finally I find any idea that secondary material–even if it consists of primary academic work product–should take some kind of priority in discourse is counter-intuitive.  It recalls the warning that Moses Maimonides gave to Muslim and Christian scholars many years ago:

…when they laid down their propositions, (they) did not investigate the real properties of things; first of all they considered what must be the properties of the things which should yield proof for or against a certain creed; and when this was found they asserted that the thing must be endowed with those properties; then they employed the same assertion as a proof for the identical arguments which had led to the assertion, and by which they either supported or refuted a certain opinion…Therefore when philosophers of a subsequent date studied the same writings they did not perceive the true character of the arguments; on the contrary, they found in the ancient works strong proofs and valuable support for the acceptance or rejection of certain opinions, and thus thought that, so far as religious principles were concerned, there was no necessity whatever to prove or refute any of their propositions…

On my website, I have at the masthead the rather pretentious “…a bulwark against the creep of ignorance in geotechnical and marine engineering.”  That was based on a statement by a civil engineering professor at West Point, who lamented that “In this modern information age, it is hard to believe that important knowledge could simply vanish through disuse, but the sad fact is that it happens.”  Even in really scientific disciplines, it’s easy for important things to get lost in the layering of academic work.  Perhaps this is yet another way in which the “breath of the Spirit” can move in the church–that is, if we can avoid getting bogged down in others’ bad habits along the way.

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