The following is excerpted with permission from The Master’s Seminary Journal, “The Rationality, Meaningfulness, and Precision of Scripture,” by Robert L. Thomas, Professor of New Testament, The Master’s Seminary, Fall 2004:
Contemporary Examples of Irrationality
The psamist has written, “Your Word is very pure; therefore Your servant loves it” (Ps 119:140; cf. Ps 19:8b). Yet irresponsible interpretive methods can defile that purity on the receiving end, when the Word of God is taught or preached. That is certainly the case when evangelicals using nonevangelical hermeneutical principles interpret and expound the Scriptures. We can appreciate the purity of the Word more fully by contrasting its correct interpretation with the abuses it has suffered from recent evangelicals, particularly those who treat the Word as irrational.
Charismatic irrationality. Two types of such abuses illustrate a widespread practice. The first comes from charismatic circles. Timothy B. Cargal in his article, “Beyond the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy: Pentecostals and Hermeneutics in a Postmodern Age,” sees postmodernist provisions for multiple meanings of a single Bible text in a very positive light.1 He criticizes both Fundamentalists and Modernists for their “philosophical presupposition that only what is historically and objectively true is meaningful.”2 He agrees with postmodernism that “meaning is not limited by positivistic constraints”3 such as single meaning. He notes that “the Holy Spirit may ‘illumine’ the words of the text so as to ‘make them speak’ to any number of situations unforeseen by the human author of the text.”4 He justifies this position by erasing a distinction between “inspiration” and “illumination,” i.e., by saying that interpreters of the text are as fully inspired as were writers of the original text.5 On that basis he contends,
I would say that indeed Pentecostalism does have something to contribute to
postmodern discourse about the Bible—particularly within the church. Its emphasis
upon the role of the Spirit in interpreting/appropriating the multiple meanings of the
biblical texts is an important contribution as the Western church seeks to reclaim its
sense of mysticism and immanence of the transcendent which was diminished by
He says that one’s interpretations of a text cannot be limited by rationalism to an objectivist view of one meaning of the text and its authority—that meaning determined by authorial intent—but rather must make room for additional meanings provided by mystical experiences of the interpreter. If those additional meanings proposed by Cargal are beyond rationalism, they of necessity must be irrational and therefore introduce extraneous material, i.e., impurity, to an understanding of the biblical text.
Fee also exemplifies the charismatic abuse of the Bible’s purity by discouraging a rationalistic approach to interpretation when he writes the following regarding to teleion (“the perfect” or “mature”) in 1 Cor 13:10:
It is perhaps an indictment of Western Christianity that we should consider ‘mature’ our rather totally cerebral and domesticated—but bland—brand of faith, with the concomitant absence of the Spirit in terms of his supernatural gifts! The Spirit, not Western rationalism, marks the turning of the ages, after all; and to deny the Spirit’s manifestations is to deny our present existence to be eschatological, as belonging to the beginning of the time of the End.7
His disparaging word about Western rationalism negates a view of the Bible as a rational book.
Also, Pinnock has a negative word to say about rationalism when he contrasts rationalism with the work of the Spirit in illumining the text:
[T]here is the strong influence of rationalism in Western culture which fosters a neglect of the Spirit. There is a mystery when it comes to the Spirit which rationalism does not favour. It does not feel comfortable talking about God’s invisible wind. It prefers to draw up rules for interpretation which will deliver the meaning of any text by human effort. It does not want to drag mysticism into hermeneutics. Therefore, the only thing we leave for the Spirit to do in interpretation is to rubber-stamp what our scholarly exegesis concludes. This is an obstruction to effective biblical interpretation which grieves the Spirit of God.8
He goes so far as to call rational exegesis “an obstruction to effective biblical interpretation which grieves the Spirit of God.” He takes strong exception to the use of human reason in understanding the Scriptures.
Charismatic Archer follows the same path:
This concern [i.e., a focus upon what the original inspired author meant and/or intended first readers to understand is inadequate as a Pentecostal hermeneutic] has led some scholars to articulate a hermeneutic that is more representative of the early tradition and ethos of Pentecostalism. These scholars desire to move away from a hermeneutical system that is heavily slanted toward rationalism which tends to downplay experience and/or the role of the Holy Spirit.9
Archer advocates a moving away from a hermeneutic that is slanted toward rationalism. One can hardly contend that these scholars are free from irrationality in their handling of Scripture. They are thus among those who are imposing human impurity on the purity of Scriptures. A rational approach to the Bible must admit the importance of the Holy Spirit’s guidance in using rational principles of interpretation, but admission of the Spirit’s role is not equivalent to moving outside the realm of biblical reason.
1 Timothy B. Cargal, “Beyond the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy: Pentecostals and Hermeneutics in a Postmodern Age,” Pneuma: The Journal of the Society of Pentecostal Studies 15/2 (Fall 1993):175. Professor Cargal is University Lecturer in Philosophy and Religion at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
2 Ibid., 168.
3 Ibid., 171.
4 Ibid., 175.
5 Ibid., 175-76. Pinnock is another who advocates the erasure of a distinction between inspiration and illumination (Clark H. Pinnock, “The Work of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology [JPT] 2 [April 1993]:3-5). Specifically, he calls “both operations of the Spirit, not just the original inspiration which produced the Bible but also the contemporary breathing of the Spirit in the hearts of readers, inspiration” (ibid., 4).
6 Cargal, “Beyond the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy” 186.
7 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT, ed. F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1987) 644-45 n. 23.
8 Pinnock, “Work of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics” 8.
9 Kenneth J. Archer, “Pentecostal Hermeneutics: Retrospect and Prospect,” JPT 8 [April 1996]:75.
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