New Wineskins for Pentecostal Studies, by Sam Hey

New Wineskins for Pentecostal Studies

by Sam Hey


Dr Sam Hey, a former high school science teacher, lectures in Biblical Studies at Citipointe Ministry College, the School of Ministries of Christian Heritage College in Brisbane.  His article is part of his Ph.D. research studies.

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“Until recently it was possible to obtain a doctorate in theology at a Pentecostal Bible College without knowledge of ancient or modern languages, without knowledge of the origin or composition of the Bible, without secondary education, and simply on the basis of six years’ instruction on the Bible” (Hollenweger 1972, 292).

As Pentecostalism has matured and been accepted into mainstream denominations this pre-critical fundamentalist view of the Bible has had to be replaced by more sophisticated approaches which are more widely accepted by those with whom they interact.  But that change rang alarm bells for many Pentecostals who had discarded scholarship as faith-destroying and even demonic.

Pentecostal beliefs have been considerably influenced by the hermeneutical approaches that they have used.  Pentecostalism inherited from the Reformation the belief that Scripture has meaning which is clearly and easily discerned (Osborne 1991, 9).  From John Wesley they inherited the conviction that the text of Scripture needed to be integrated into their own life, speech, and devotional experience (Arrington 1988,378).  The Holiness movement gave them a subjective fundamentalist view of Scripture and a suspicion of critical scholarship (Hollenweger 1972, 291).

After an initial period of isolation, Pentecostal churches found increasing opportunity for interaction with evangelical churches which shared their common goals.   The large Pentecostal Assemblies of God (AOG) movement joined the National Association of Evangelicals when it was founded in 1942 (Hyatt 1996, 179).  The upward social mobility, higher incomes and suburbanisation which followed World War II led to a change in educational outlook and aspirations of American Pentecostalism led many members to pursue a more sophisticated understanding of their beliefs.

Bible school training was improved and the Bible-based theology programs of the 1940’s were mostly replaced by liberal arts degree programs (Menzies 1971, 376).  The change in training methods has led to changes in the thinking of the graduating church leaders.  Through them it is changing the Pentecostal movements.  The inauguration of credentialing of AOG ministers in 1959 was an indicator of the increasing concern for conformity (Menzies 1971, 376).

With an increasing interaction with evangelical churches came the adoption of their historical- critical methods.   This led to an emphasis on the context and the pursuit of the intention of original author of the text (Cargal 1993, 163; Fee 1991,86).   This development has not been welcomed by older traditional Pentecostals who say that it threatens the Pentecostal belief in a post-salvation reception of the Spirit evidenced by glossolalia.

The younger, newer graduates are also concerned.  Sheppard says that a dependence on critical exegesis challenges the vitality and freedom that characterised traditional Pentecostalism and will endanger its future (Sheppard 1994, 121).   He says that Pentecostals were beginning to pursue the historical-grammatical method at a time when biblical and theological scholarship has moved beyond this emphasis (Sheppard 1994, 121).   Sheppard singles out Gordon Fee as an example of this.  Joseph Byrd suggests that the Pentecostal emphasis on detailed critical exposition in seminaries has produced pastors with a good knowledge of technical exegesis but lacking the prophetic edge which characterised early Pentecostalism (Byrd 1993, 207).

The application of scholarly methods such as that of Fee and Menzies has challenged the distinctive Pentecostal belief that a post-salvation “baptism in the Spirit” evidenced by tongues is the intended teaching and the normative pattern of Scripture.  When Fee’s critical methods are used, the experiences of Jesus and the apostles are found to be so different from those of modern day Christians that they must be considered irrelevant (Fee 1991,94).  The Pentecostal claim to an intended pattern in Acts which can be applied to all Christians is found to be unwarranted.  Glossolalia as the sole evidence of the Pentecostal baptism is also found to be untenable (Fee 1991,99).

The historical method and pursuit of the author’s intention has created an unbridgeable historical gap which has led Pentecostal scholars in recent times to question this approach (Cargal 1993, 163).  Many Pentecostal scholars in recent times have begun to look to other approaches for support for the distinctive Pentecostal beliefs.

Post-modern Pentecostalism

Recent editions of the Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Pneuma, reveal that the hermeneutical sophistication of Pentecostals has risen dramatically over the last decade as they have begun to integrate the latest hermeneutical practices.   This is seen in the writings of Pentecostal scholars such as Cargal (1993), Byrd (1993), Harrington and Pattern (1994) and Arrington (1994).  These scholars have begun to point out the inadequacies and dangers of the Pentecostal emphasis on intentionality and the grammatical, historical, and critical context of the text.  They have looked to post-modern hermeneutical methods instead (Mclean 1984, 36).

While it is beyond the scope of this article to evaluate post-modernism to any large degree, it is important to consider the ways in which this influential movement is affecting the development of Pentecostal hermeneutics in general and the distinctive Pentecostal beliefs in particular.   In recent times the ability to locate an absolute, intended meaning within the text has been challenged by the recognition that the interpreters of the text “cannot silence their own subjectivity, or achieve an objective neutrality” (Thiselton 1977, 316).

Gerald Sheppard says that both liberals and fundamentalists have perpetuated the same false notion that the original intention of the author can be located.   Both of these “left and right wing modernist groups” are pursuing the same impossible task (Sheppard 1994, 121).

Cargal (1993, 163) and Arrington (1994, 101) observe that most Pentecostal preachers have been unaffected by the greater acceptance of critical scholastic methods.  Many Pentecostals have continued the Pentecostal practise of interpreting the same text differently at different times to meet the different needs that arise.  Pentecostal readings of Acts have had less to do with a rationalistic, inductive method of biblical interpretation and more to do with a creative interaction with the text of Acts (Macchia 1993, 65).

Pentecostals usually emphasise the immediacy of the text and multiple dimensions of meaning arising from the “leading of the Spirit”.   They give scant consideration to its historical-critical context.  This approach invariably leads to multiple meanings and multiple applications the same text.  At times one of these meanings can attract strong support and become a fixed belief.  The post-salvation experience evidenced by glossolalia is an example of this.

Many Pentecostal scholars in recent times have claimed that the Pentecostal method has “more continuity with post-modern modes of interpretation than with the critical-historical method” (Cargal 1993, 165; Arrington, 1994, 101).   Post-modernism distinguishes itself from modernism by the rejection of the notion that “only what is historically and objectively true is meaningful,” (Cargal 1973, 171).  However, it must be remembered that Pentecostalism and post-modernism have different reasons for rejecting this claim.

Some Pentecostals, such as Howard Ervin, have suggested that the post-modern questioning of modern scientific certainties provides support for a return to the ancient world views of biblical times (Ervin, 1981,19).  Ervin’s view is a naive misrepresentation of post-modernism.  While post-modernism recognise that reason and rationalism cannot tell us everything, it does not claim that critical thinking is passe, but simply that it is limited (Cargal 1993, 178).

Despite this qualification, the “post-modern vision of reality opens up the possibility of the transcendent virtually closed by modernity.” (Cargal 1993, 178).  Therefore Cargal is able to say that developments within post- modern methods of interpretation hold promise for Pentecostals (Cargal 1993,187).

The Pentecostal emphasis upon the Spirit as the source of multiple meanings of the text is an important contribution which Pentecostalism can make to the Western Church.  Cargal says that “the [Pentecostal] recognition of the dialogical role of the experiences of the believer in both shaping and being shaped by particular interpretations of the biblical text is both compatible with certain post-structuralist views of the reader as creator of significations and an important critique of objectivist views of the meaning of the Bible and its authority” (Cargal 1993, 186).

The larger text

In this last decade Pentecostals have recognised that the process of interacting with biblical narratives such as Acts is “more complex and creative than a mere historical investigation into the original intention of the author/editor” (Macchia 1993, 67).     Pentecostal beliefs such as the belief in the sign of glossolalia did not just arise from the biblical text, but from the larger historical and cultural texts with which Pentecostalism was interacting.

In recent years Pentecostal students of hermeneutics have recognised that the study of the text needs to be broadened to include the inter-textual connection which exists between the biblical texts, the ritual “texts” enacted in worship and the relational “texts” of the faith community (Dempster 1993, 129; Cargal 1993, 163).

A trans-contextual basis is needed which allows the “comparative evaluation of contextual criteria of interpretation and indeed the purposes for which each set of criteria gains its currency” (Thiselton 1992, 6).  Pentecostals have not interpreted the text as individuals, but as members of communities of readers who cannot be isolated from their communal expectations.  It was the expectations of the faith community and its social setting which ultimately determined the Pentecostal interpretation of glossolalia in Acts and not historical-grammatical concerns.

Pentecostalism is increasingly recognising the role of its traditions and Christian communities in shaping its beliefs (Fee 1991,69).  The text of Scripture is usually read in the light of one’s own sociological, cultural, religious, ecclesiastical and national histories.  Fee says that the Pentecostal belief in a baptism in the Holy Spirit distinct from conversion and evidenced by tongues “came less from the study of Acts, as from their own personal histories, in which it happened to them in this way and therefore was assumed to be the norm even in the New Testament” (Fee 1991, 69).

The Pentecostal New Testament scholar, Gordon Fee, has challenged the Pentecostal beliefs which have arisen from their traditions suggesting that they  need to be re-examined on the basis of the biblical texts (Fee 1991, 69).  Some Pentecostals see this approach as an implicit threat to the Pentecostal belief in tongues as the evidence of a post salvation Spirit baptism (Burgess and McGee 1988, 305).

Plurality of meanings

Church of God pastor and scholar, Joseph Byrd believes that new hermeneutical methods such as those of Paul Ricoeur are needed if the distinctive Pentecostal beliefs are to survive the sophisticated theological treatments by Pentecostal scholars such as Fee (Byrd 1993,203).    The hermeneutics of Holland and Ricoeur offer promise to those who seek to preserve the Pentecostal tradition as it acknowledges the role of the readers in projecting their own interests, desires, and selfhood into the text (Thiselton 1992,472).

Wolfgang Isler suggests that biblical texts are deliberately ambivalent (Thiselton 1992,517).  This ambivalence has enabling interpretations such as those of Pentecostals to meet the spiritual needs of twentieth century Christians.  Isler suggests that the text deliberately invites the reader to place themselves into different roles within the textual setting (Thiselton 1992, 517).

Sheppard suggests that Pre-critical Pentecostalism should not be dismissed as uncritical, but recognised as attuned and acclimatised to the cultural values of the marginalised groups in which it began (Sheppard 1994, 127).  Michael Foucault has shown that modern ways of knowing have led to  pre- and post-modern values being overlooked.  Early Pentecostal hermeneutics has focused on subjective, intuitive ways of knowing, the validity of which needs to be reconsidered (Foulcault 1973, 217-249).

Pentecostal hermeneutics must allow for the claim that the Holy Spirit reveals deeper meanings of the text that allows it to be culturally relevant (Cargal 1993,174).   The difficulty with this proposal is that it easily leads to excesses and misinterpretations.  The emergence of the unitarian Pentecostals is an example of this (Synan 1997,161).  Unless other controls exist, Fee suggests that  “we must abide by rules of good exegesis and exert extreme caution in considering any deeper meanings.” (Fee 1979, 39).

In recent times the task of hermeneutics has been widened to consider the way in which biblical texts have been used to serve the interests of different groups and to loosen or maintain dominating power structures and authorise values which serve the interests of individuals or corporate entities within religious communities (Thiselton 1992, 7).  Recent Pentecostal studies by Margaret Poloma confirm that glossolalia has provided support for the Pentecostal protest against modernity and motivation for evangelism (Poloma 1989, 3).

Glossolalia has also been a symbol used to promote individual, social and racial equality, they have been replaced by beliefs which condone organisational, sexual and racial dominance (Poloma 1989, 3).  Poloma says that while charismata such as tongues are a factor in the rise and revitalisation of religious movements, “it seems to depart quickly once it has completed the task of institution building” (Poloma 1989,232).

The Appeal of Pentecostalism in a Post-modern Age

It is not difficult to locate reasons for the appeal of Pentecostalism in a post-modern world.  Pentecostalism has challenged the perceived threats inherent in post-modern approaches and has provided appealing alternatives to post-modern dilemmas.  In contrast to the uncertainty arising from a complex multiplicity in post-modernists, Pentecostalism speaks of one absolute unchanging God who is behind all different views.

In contrast to the post-modern perplexity in facing an avalanche of information, Pentecostalism reduces truth to one source of information, the Bible and one interpreter – the Holy Spirit.   Post-modernism accepts the uncertainty of past and of the future events.  In contrast to the variety of experiences which exist in a post-modern world, Pentecostals claim the one Holy Spirit which behind the variety of charismatic experiences.   Glossolalia is still the chief Pentecostal experience and it continues to provided evidence of a supernatural God and an invisible world.

The attempt by some Pentecostals to align Pentecostal hermeneutics with the popular post-modern movement must not overlook the differences that exist between them.   While post- modernism is in reality an extreme form of modernism, and a “misnomer for ultra modernity” (Oden in Dockery 1995, 26), Pentecostalism is a reaction against modernity.

Post-modernism accepts the anti-supernatural, pro-critical approaches that were important in  modernism and these would  not  be accepted by most Pentecostals.   “Although the post-modernist hesitates to deny the validity of all religions”, says Lints, “he hesitates also to assert the exclusive truth of but one religion.” (Lints 1993, 206).  Pentecostalism, in contrast still holds to a single Christian truth.  Glossolalia is considered to provide support for the existence of the supernatural and evidence that Pentecostalism is the one true faith.

Paul Ricouer

Pentecostals appear to be divided between the modern, critical approach typified by Fee and the post-modern approach of recent scholars.   One solution to this dilemma is Paul Ricoeur’s post- critical hermeneutic (Byrd 1993, 207).  Paul Ricoeur has attempted to combine attempts to reconstruct the original meaning of the text with attempts to existentially apply readings of the text to contemporary situations (Bleicher, 1980, 217).  His description of the movement of the reader from a naive, intuitive interpreter of the text to an increasingly self-critical analyst mirrors the development of Pentecostal hermeneutics well.  This hermeneutic, which has developed from that of Schleiermacher asks us to listen with tolerance and mutual respect and to balance the creative with the analytical (Thisleton 1992, 4).

Ricoeur has shown that objectivity and subjectivity need not be considered as opposites, but two aspects of the one paradigm that exist along side each other as “two sides of the one coin”.   These two should interact.  The Pentecostal praxis informed what was found in Scripture, while at the same time careful study of the text has informed Pentecostal praxis (Moore 1987, 11).  By combining the benefits of the Critical-historical-literary method with the recognition that multiple interpretations of the text exist the Pentecostal interpreter is equipped to discover and applied the “biblical” message.  (Arrington 1994, 101).   The dual recognition of the objective and the subjective leads to the acknowledgement that the differing understandings of the glossolalic references in Acts have been shaped by the differing contexts in which they were formed.   Modern hermeneutics can no longer a search for the “true” or “historical” meaning.  It must examine the effect of the text and investigate the processes which the text creatively produces and sets in motion.

The hermeneutics of Ricoeur stresses the creative effect of symbols, metaphors and narratives on religious imagination and thought.  This method encourages an awareness of the diversity of meanings that the text will present to diversity of readers (Byrd 1993, 211).  When applied to the interpretation of the glossolalic passages in Acts this method would suggest that Pentecostal and non Pentecostal interpretations exist side by side as alternative readings of the text.

The recognition that symbols within the text will be re-experienced by succeeding communities and generations in different ways builds greater tolerance and understanding of the ways in which beliefs such as that concerning glossolalia change.   New generations of Pentecostals will not be expected to have the same experience of the text’s symbols as the first generation of Pentecostals (Byrd 1993, 211).  They must be allowed to develop their own views which are appropriate to their own times and situations.

Professor of Sociology, Margaret Poloma suggests that it is not the glossolalic experience alone which makes Pentecostalism distinctive, but the expectant social reality in which it occurs (Poloma 1989, 184).  Malony and Lovekin say that the charismatic group, and not the individual’s experience determine the effects of glossolalia upon a person (1977, 383).   Poloma says that the Pentecostal experience must involve the unexpected and be constantly renewed if it is to survive the pressures of typification, patterned role expectations and institutionalization (Poloma 1989, 185).

Consequently, an exciting new wineskins for biblical scholarship is the emerging hermeneutic of Pentecostalism which challenges the historical-critical approach, and invites the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture to interpret it to the faith community and to individuals within that community.


Arrington F.L.  “Hermeneutics”, in Burgess S.M.  and McGee G.B.  Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1988.

Byrd, J.  1993.  “Paul Ricoeur’s Hermeneutical Theory and Pentecostal Proclamation.”  Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 15, No 2: 203-215.

Cargal, T. B.  1993.  “Beyond the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy: Pentecostals and Hermeneutics in a Postmodern Age.” Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 15, No 2: 163-188.

Dempster, M. W.  1989  “The Church’s Moral Witness: A Study of Glossolalia in Luke’s Theology of Acts,” Paraclete, 23:11-7, Winter.

Dempster, M. W. “Paradigm Shifts and Hermeneutics: Confronting Issues Old and New”, Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 15, No 2: 129-136.

Dockery, D. S., ed.  1995.  The Challenge of Postmodernism: An evangelical Engagement. Wheaton: Victor.

Ervin, H. M.  1981.  “Hermeneutics: A Pentecostal Option,” Pneuma: The Journal for the Society for Pentecostal Studies 3, Fall.

Fee, G. D.  1991.  Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics. Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson, (Second edition, 1994).

Hollenweger, Walter J.  1972.  The Pentecostals : the charismatic movement in the churches.  Minneapolis: Augsburg.

Hyatt, E. L. 1996.  2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity. Tulsa, Oklahoma: Hyatt Ministries.

Poloma, Margaret.  1989.  The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads: Charisma and Institutional Dilemmas, Knoxvile: University of Tennessee.

Johns, D. A.  1991.  “Some New Directions in the Hermeneutics of Clasical Pentecostalism’s Doctrine of Initial Evidence,” in Initial Evidence, ed. G. B.  McGee.  Peabody: Hendrickson.

Macchia, F. D.  1992.  “Sighs too Deep for Words: Toward a Theology of Glossolalia,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology, No.  1, October, 1992, 47-73.

Malony, H. N. & Lovekin A. A.  1985.  Glossolalia Behavioural Science Perspectives on Speaking in Tongues.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Menzies, W.  1971.  Anointed to Serve: The Story of the Assemblies of God, Springfield: Gospel Publishing House.

Moore, R. D.  1987.  “Approaching God’s Word Biblically: A Pentecostal Perspective,” Seminary Viewpoint 8, November.

Sheppard, G. T.  1994.  “Biblical Interpretation After Gadamer”, Pneuma: The Journal for the Society of Pentecostal Studies. 16:121.

Synan, V.  1997.  The Holiness- Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Thiselton, Anthony C. New Horizons in Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Michigan: Zondervan, 1992.

White, J.F.  1983.  Sacraments as God’s Self-Giving, Nashville: Abingdon.

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The God Chasers, by Tommy Tenny

The New Apostolic Reformation, by C. Peter Wagner

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New Wineskins for Pentecostal Studies, by Sam Hey

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