Systematic Theology: The case for sound Pentecostalism
Sound theology is the product of careful inquiry of biblical perspectives. The reality of theology is that God exist, He has revealed Himself and He has given revelation to the common man through the means of scripture.
In the scriptures themselves, we see the narrative of redemption of God played out. Biblical text presents a stream of truths through many different people, places and environments. Any student of the bible will see the a system of doctrine developing through these encounters. This is for us to have “the spirit of Wisdom and Revelation to know Him better.” (Eph 1:17)
Any systemic theology must come from careful study of the context and the content of passages throughout the written scriptures. We must avoid just cherry picking biblical texts that support our pet doctrines. Any honest look at theology must take the whole of scripture and take it where the text leads us.
At the core of any position must be the reality of the Holy Spirit, the inspiring One of all text. Any attempt at systemic theology that does not put the role of the Spirit to lead the student into all truth (John 16:13) is incomplete.
Many theologians fear allowing the revelation of the Holy Spirit within their theological frameworks. This is true of Pentecostal scholars as well. It would seem that the fear is related students coming to bizarre assumptions related to some biblical themes.
Nature of Systematic Theology
Before we can consider the impact on theology, we must look at religion as a concept. It is important to understand what religion is. It is by definition, “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.”
Since the beginning of time, humanity has struggled with the truth of the divine. History is full of people trying to understand Someone, beyond their own powers, being responsible for creation and redemption of souls. Nearly every form of religion in history has wrestled with this. The beginning of understanding religion is we are depending on Someone beyond us.
The struggle of revelation and understanding has taken different forms. The reasoning of this is seen in the ancient religious studies of the Egyptians for example. While some of the religious groups of history are quite bizarre, it was with a common theme: understanding their existence in relation to the divine.
The same is true of the many religions today. Everyone from the Muslims to the Hindus to the Buddhists to the rastafarians all started with a quest for knowledge. The name change, the leader change but the problem remain the same as it was in the days of Moses.
Ultimately, this quest leads many out of a religious system into a basis of faith. Christianity is a faith, not a religion. As people are seeking for the divine, the gospel of Jesus Christ is heard, received and the sinner is redeemed. However, we can not discount that in many cases, it begins with a quest of religion.
What about Religious Authority?
As James H. Railey Jr points out in Systematic Theology, Edited by Stanley Horton; there is 5 different types of authority: Canonical authority, Theological authority, Ecclesiastical authority, Experience as authority, and Reasoning as authority.
This means the scripture are authority in our lives, the creedal statements matter, the Church itself is a form of authority as well as our experience and reasoning. While some of them are stronger than others, most people look to all of these for a basis on spiritual authority and for faith.
It is important to use several of these concepts for revelation and understanding. Many cults have been formed by only considering the Canonical authority. In my experience, many that only use this method are weak in their understanding of hermeneutics.
While creedal statements are important to understand the doctrine of believers, they can lead to some some extremes. The Apostle’s Creed, one of the earliest creed is a great starting point for theological knowledge. However, it is not the end all of all things theologically. This is true of Pentecostals as well. We must go deeper than our doctrinal statements!
Some consider, especially Catholics, consider the Church to be the final authority on all the spiritual. Biblical understanding is interpreted by leaders of the Church and the people are informed how to react to it. This can come from a key leader such as the Pope or more subtly through a group of executive leadership.
Experience tends to lead up as an authority as well. This is mainly done in the mind, will and emotions (soul) of the person. As they experience spiritual things, the revelation and knowledge of God come in totality into various areas of their thought process.
The final of these authority is reasoning. While some, since the Enlightenment, have tried to make reasoning into their own god; reasoning does give authority to spirituality and coming into the light of God Himself. Rationalism tried to grasp the reality of the divine. Using reasoning alone without canonical or theological authority leads to some very odd beliefs. Many New Age thinkers have tried to use rationalism outside of theological authority.
What is theology?
It is simply the study of God. Another way to define theology is call it the pursuit of the Divine. All pure theology must come from the revelation of God to man through the scriptures. While some might claim supernatural experiences as a basis of faith; they can not be the foundation of theology. Prophecy is not equal to the Canonical authority.
Biblical truth leads the student to both what is to be received but also what should be rejected. Thomas Zimmerman once said talked about this in the form of a river. He stated that the banks are important for the river to operate as it is designed to do.
It is also important to consider that theology goes past just “What does the Bible say” and also considers how it works out in the community of faith. Many consider the revelation and the interpretation but stop short of the application for the faithful. A solid theological position requires all these elements to be present.
Historical, Exegetical, or practical theology?
In the discussion of theology, systematic theology stands in the company of historical, exegetical and practical theology (among others) How does Systematic theology related to them and why should Pentecostal value it over these other system of theological thought?
Historical theology is the study of what the Church believes in the first few centuries. How did the doctrine develop is the central question of this school of thought. The problem with historical theology is paganism took root in early on and as a result all types of heresy came into play during the days of the desert fathers.
Exegetical theology tries to be faithful to the biblical text by interpreting scriptures through detailed studies. This has led to student to take biblical languages very serious as well as the culture of the time in the first century. The problem with this process is many times, they read into things that are not there and get carried away from customs and cultural themes. An example of this is when evangelists try and find “hidden secrets” in Jewish culture.
What about practical theology? By its name, we know that it wants to make theology practical in the community of faith. It wants to make doctrine have flesh and bones. One supporters of this school in the Pentecostal ranks has said, “All convictions have to be worked out through real ministry.” The challenge with this we often try and explain way doctrines that are hard to understand. This is would be especially true of divine healing and spiritual gifts.
Systematic theology takes the best of historical and exegetical theology and develops it into a more rounded and biblically sound system of faith. It answers the questions of what does the scriptures teach?
5 Sub-systems of theological thought
Since the Reformation, there has been several smaller reforming movements that has tried to develop doctrine. There has been more than these four but I believe this are the critical ones. It is important for us to understand them and respond properly.
Calvinism was started with the teaching of John Calvin and places high emphasis on the sovereign of God over creation. It would become known among theology students as TULIP. This is an acronym for the five basic tenets of this theological system.
- Total Depravity
- Unconditional Election
- Limited Atonement
- Irresistible grace
- Preservation of the saints
The problem with this system is there is no place for the will, mind and emotion of the person to make a decision for Christ. Azusa Report, as a ministry, rejects Calvinism. This is also the theological framework for some heretical teachings as “Once saved, Always saved.”
Arminianism is the response to Calvin by Jacob Arminius. He stated that the problems with Calvinism is it tend to make God the author of sin of His choice in past eternity and that there are a complete denial of the free will of mankind.
In the Articles of Remonstrance, the following was present as their tents of the theological system.
- Predestination is conditional
- Christ died everyone but only believers are saved
- A person is unable to believe and needs the grace of God.
- Grace is resistible
- Only the regenerate will endure to the end.
In this theological system, God has called all people to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ but every person has to make that choice if they will accept or reject the invitation. Azusa Report is boldly subscribed to Arminianism but rejects the more extreme doctrines such as Open Theism.
Liberation theology is a system that has influence in some circles of Pentecostalism. In fact, it became a major issue during the Presidental election in 2008 because Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright is a very passionate believer in liberation theology.
It started really in the 1960’s in Latin America. It is known as a “diffuse movement” among desenting groups. It attempts to reinterpret the Christian faith (as well as scriptures) with a perspective on the poor and the oppressed. Followers hold that the gospel can only proclaimed if they are liberated from poverty. It has been called “the Robin Hood doctrine.”
Most Pentecostal movement reject liberation theology but there is many local churches that do believe it, especially among Black and Hispanic populations. Like most Pentecostal ministries, Azusa Report judges it as heretical.
Evangelicalism is another theological system that many believe in today. In fact, there is a very powerful National Association of Evangelicals that directly influence religious policy towards the President of the United States.
The core belief of evangelicals is the the gospel must be communicated to the lost world. Heavy emphasis is given to the truth that every person must make a decision for Christ for themselves.
It is worth saying that within the theological framework is that social justice is a critical expression of the faith in Christ. Azusa Report subscribes to evangelicalism as does all biblical Pentecostal ministries.
Pentecostalism. For the most part, the theological framework is mostly Evangelical in practice and Arminian in doctrine. The key difference between Pentecostal and the other system is the serious inquiry of Pneumatology (doctrine of the Holy Spirit).
At the core of the Pentecostal theological system is the emphasis on the Baptism in the Holy Spirit with the intial physical evidence of praying in other tongues. (Acts 1:8;Acts 2-1-4)
It goes without saying the Azusa Report subscribes to the theological framework of Pentecostalism very passionately.
The need for Exegesis
There are several stages of development in the theological process but the beginning of it must be sound exegesis of individual passages. The other stages (synthesis and presentation) falls to the ground with the foundation. The challenge here is making sure the student does not create deduction.
The goal of any attempt at exegesis to let the text say what Holy Spirit intended it to mean in its original context. In order to do this, we must look at all the factors such as social norms, historical context, and educational levels of the writer and reader.
Much of the bad theology that is within the Pentecostal church came from people trying to understand a verse or passage based on the culture of the early 20th century that had a very different set of problems than the first century Roman empire. Oddly, this disconnect was used to justify slavery in American history.
Howard C Kee in his book Knowing the Truth: A Sociological Approach to New Testament Interpretation points out many texts can only be proper interpreted a hard look at the social issues of the day. Biblical letters were seen to be sensitive to cultural and social factors. An example is how Matthew uses righteous as a quality of behavior; very different from how the Pauline letter define it.
One thing that many Pentecostals who do not understand Systematic theology has committed to not understand the genre of letters. This is one of the most important questions to ask when trying to understand any text in the scripture. There are several different genres such as historical narrative (Genesis and Acts), poetry (Psalms and Job), gospel (Mark and Luke), epistles (Timothy and Titus) and prophecy (Daniel and Revelation).
This becomes important to Pentecostals because we disagree with evangelicals about the interpretation of Acts. They concerns the book merely historical in nature. Pentecostals believe that is both historical and theological in nature. We hold the faith and mission of the Church must be in the context of the power of the Holy Spirit. It is in Acts that we see the Baptism of the Holy Spirit marked by a private prayer language.
Biblical criticism and Interpretation
Criticism as we know it today actually started in the reformation movement. Back then, it was called higher and lower but now we call them literary-historical and textual criticism. For a proper exegesis of a text, both of these are important.
Historical criticism helps us know more precisely the historical information of a passage or a book of scripture. It helps us to interpret it more much more insight. Primary sources must include the Bible but can also include contemporary writings of the time and archaeology. Books written about the text need to be consider secondary and never primary.
Textual criticism is a science. It examines ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek manuscripts of the text and seeks to recover what the original writer was saying. There are literally thousands of ancient copies out there and all of them have differences in wording, order of words, and omission of text. Some of them has been mistakes and others is due to the updating of language use in history.
It must be stated that some have tried to commit historical reconstruction to justify modern doctrines. An example of this is partial preterism. They claim there is evidence that the doctrine existed before the 1600s. They try to reconstruct textual criticism to make it seem to be the case.
Presuppositions of Theologians
The last thing to cover is that what we interpret has to bring the text to our world. However, in doing so, we can’t make one theme more important than the scriptures allow. This was the mistake of the “Word of Faith” movement. They were guilty of basically making a canon within the Canon that fit their doctrinal conviction.
As Pentecostals, we have to make sure that we have both a biblical and theological foundation. We must believe in modern day miracles because the Word of God teaches it and as see this to be true from a theological value. In doing so, we must never become a materialist or a rationalist. We accept that miracles are beyond us.
It is also important that Pentecostals have place for the self-revelation of God. We believe that the scriptures are the authoritative mode of revelation. In doing so, we believe the Word of God affirms, confirms, guides, and witnesses the power of God in the world we live in today.
We hold that only a believer who has born again can have knowledge beyond them. John’s Gospel tells us that we can clearly, purposefully, and powerfully know the mystery of spiritual things through the Holy Spirit. We can have both cognitive and affective understanding. Study and experience are two sides of the same coin for the Pentecostal.
In closing, we must hold that scripture is authority and the Canon is closed. However, we also believe that the Holy Spirit still speaks to use today to correct, edify, and establish believers. The gifts of prophecy, word of knowledge, and discernment is not just mere history.