By Neil Dhingra
Marius Nel’s fascinating An African Pentecostal Hermeneutics is subtitled “A Distinctive Contribution to Hermeneutics.” But the distinctiveness that differentiates African Pentecostal hermeneutics from the conservative evangelical version with which it’s often paired neither prevents Pentecostalism from being ecumenical nor insulates it from criticism. As such, Nel’s book performs the valuable service of getting its readers to question whether their traditions are likewise distinctive, and whether such distinctiveness works for or against church unity and if it may be liable to scandal and abuse.
How, in the first place, is the Pentecostal way of reading Scripture distinctive? The answer has to do with the outpouring of the Spirit here and now, which creates a “fusion” between the text’s original context and that of the prayerful 21st-century reader, so that Scripture’s meaning is not a scientific recovery of the faraway past but an actualization in our present. Pentecostals “read the Bible not primarily to gain knowledge about ancient history or ideas, but because they [expect] to share the same kind of experiences and the same kind of relationship with God that the Bible witnessed to.” As such, Pentecostal exegesis is more likely to be in the form of testimony than concepts and glossolalia than propositions, and its authority is in the concrete reality of a community “restored” or “apostolic” rather than in the timelessness of definitions or systems. The Pentecostal enters the world of the Bible, whose narratives then become repeatable in this world.
Nel grasps the danger of unmediated experience if it’s not evaluated by rigorous exegesis. He ends his first chapter with several pages of disturbing accounts of neo-Pentecostal pastors who have made their congregants eat grass to be “closer to God,” drink petrol, and walk around naked (as in Eden, and as seen on Facebook). Nel doesn’t mean to suggest replacing a fundamentalism of the text with what Ben Quash has called an “unquestioned and unassailable” appeal to the authority of “my experience,” however uncertain its relationship to the actual text of Scripture. Instead, any would-be interpretation of Scripture must take place within an apostolic community that includes scientifically trained exegetes and collectively deliberates as did the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. And this apostolic community must extend fellowship to all those who have also tried to enter into the Spirit of the Bible, whether Church Fathers or medieval nuns.
As the mention of deliberation would suggest, a Spirit-filled reading doesn’t entail sudden flashes of insight — that subjective equivalent to the Enlightenment dream of ascent to a perfect and timeless “critical and passionless objectivity.” Nel recognizes how Jesus and Paul read the Hebrew Bible and suggests that the Spirit can lead us to prolonged dispute and engagement, toward and not away from what seems like dissonance. As such, an interpreter does not escape from difficulty or for that matter any history of difficulties, inevitably shaped by human frailties, when reading Scripture. The Pentecostal reading of Scripture results in a self-conscious practice in which the fusion between the present context and the original context takes place dialogically through participation in a narrative tradition with others, not immediately and not by means of magic.
The second question: How is the African Pentecostal way of reading Scripture distinctive? A strength of African Pentecostal hermeneutics is the emphasis on orality, so that Scripture is inseparable from the means through which it is communicated — whether songs, chants, or dances. As such, Scripture is inseparable from the encounter with Scripture, which is nearly always interpersonal, and which is ideally deeply transformative. Scripture is actively felt to be “sharper than any double-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12), not merely “book knowledge.”
Here, there’s also the thorny question of inculturation. Nel recognizes an “African traditional thought and religion,” in which the world is inescapably religious — shot through with spiritual powers, some evil and destructive, some promising freedom from such cosmic forces, in which the Bible’s authority is bound up with its talismanic power. In conversation with critics such as David Ngong, Nel seems to agree that “African traditional thought and religion” does not adequately describe the African context, not least because it can marginalize women.
David Ngong has also suggested that a focus on the miraculous in this world can lead to a haunted spiritual life of uncertainty, strife, and anxious appropriation of supernatural powers, instead of an Augustinian measured love for reality, “because one who loves God with his whole being knows that he himself does not lose what God does not lose” (Ngong, “Salvation and materialism in African theology,” Studies in World Christianity, 15:1 , pp. 1-21, at p. 17).
Nel would seem to agree here. But Nel disagrees with Ngong’s claims that African Pentecostalism neglects science and modernization. Further, he believes that the Pentecostal believer’s “experiential narrative journey,” even if experienced by ordinary people, can subsequently spur self-reflection and generate theological statements that contribute to ecumenical progress. In other words, African inculturation is neither beyond critique nor rendered theologically uninteresting by critique.
The distinctive contributions of African Pentecostal hermeneutics are to show not only the possibility of “the day of Pentecost apostolic charismatic experience as exemplary for biblical and theological interpretation” but also its catholicity. If, at the very least, a Catholic ecclesiology has to recognize Pentecostalism as one of its streams, as Leander Harding has argued here, and acknowledge that possession of the right structures and liturgical books without the presence of the Spirit is still inadequate, we can ask if a Catholic hermeneutics has anything to contribute to a Pentecostal hermeneutics.
One somewhat roundabout way to approach this is to note that Nel cites Clark Pinnock’s article “The Work of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics” several times, and there Pinnock cites the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner to describe how the Spirit guides interpretation that’s neither “dead continuity” nor “uncontrolled dynamism.” Indeed, Rahner, in his “The Development of Doctrine,” says that revelation is “an historical dialogue between God and man in which something happens.” Thus, our knowledge in faith is not just a matter of logic, but “through the luminous power of the Spirit” we come into “contact with the res [thing] itself.”
When Pinnock describes how the Word is opened to us, he appeals to Rahner’s example of a man in love, about which he knows more than he can say, although he certainly tries with his “paltry” love letters. The man possesses the reality, but cannot yet formulate propositions about what he already knows. He may become more self-aware of his love and comprehend what it is much more clearly (and enrich the experience), but it has always been there in root form. For Pinnock (and likely Nel), this is something like how Scripture unfolds and becomes actualized in our ecclesial and personal histories.
But there seems to be a difference between Rahner and Pentecostalism. Nel notes the eschatological passion of Pentecostalism from Azusa Street to today, even though a century has gone by, writing that Pentecostals still consider “their own day as the ‘latter rain.’” Rahner, on the other hand, seems to say that we are resigned to historical distance:
greater reflexive articulateness of a spiritual possession is nearly always purchased at the cost of a partial loss in unhampered communication (“naïve” in the good sense) with the reality given in faith (and which is still possessed in its entirety).
He dismisses the desire to return to the “simplicity and unreflexive density and fullness of the Apostolic consciousness in faith” as romanticism.
In other words, the Pentecostal believes that time and its distance must come to an imminent end; Rahner seems to accept our temporary and less intense yet continuing connection through Word and Sacrament.
Which is more rightly distinctive — the urgency of Pentecostal eschatology for fullness or the emphasis that Rahner must place on the institutional church here and now? That’s the question for another post, another book. The Catholic distinctive, for better or worse, may end up just being patience.