Friday, October 09, 2015

Keswick and Pentecostal Hermeneutics: Experience Over Grammatical Exegesis

Keswick did not interpret Scripture solely based on the grammatical-historical significance of passages.  On the contrary, experience was employed as an extra-biblical hermeneutic with which to interpret Scripture.  Consequently, it is unsurprising that Keswick taught: “There are times in our Christian life in which we have . . . to . . . accept as children from God things which often seem to be, and are, in contradiction with what appears to us the teaching of Scripture.”[1]  By way of contrast, “The strong concern for the exact meaning of the printed word . . . is one of the principal things that distinguish fundamentalism from other less intellectual forms of American revivalism or from the more experientially oriented holiness tradition or . . . pentecostalism.”[2]  Keswick's experience-based hermeneutics passed into its Higher Life successor, Pentecostalism, for adopting Keswick hermeneutics and accepting what was contrary to what one thought was the teaching of Scripture was very important if one was to embrace charismatic fanaticism.  Donald Dayton explains:

[There is a] distinct hermeneutic, a distinctively Pentecostal manner of appropriating the Scriptures. In contrast to magisterial Protestantism [and Baptist orthodoxy] . . . Pentecostalism reads the rest of the New Testament through Lukan eyes . . . [placing] [n]arrative material [over] . . . didactic . . .Pauline texts. . . . In making this claim, Pentecostalism stands in a long tradition of a “subjectivizing hermeneutic.” . . . The “higher life” antecedents to Pentecostalism in the nineteenth century used a similar approach to Scripture in appropriating elements of the Old Testament Heilsgeschichte devotionally. The exodus from Egypt, the wilderness wanderings, and crossing Jordan River into the Promised Land all became stages in the normative pattern of the spiritual pilgrimage from conversion into the “second blessing” (“Beulah Land”).[3]

Thus, in the infancy of Pentecostalism at Azuza Street in Los Angeles, “[T]he operative hermeneutical principle [was that] . . . ‘the literal Word could be temporarily overruled by the living Spirit.’ . . . [I]n order to continue the [Pentecostal] revival, it was necessary for God to act independently of the regulating structure provided in the written Word.”[4]  Consequently, God's commands regulating the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians were “ignored . . . in all the early Pentecostal meetings. . . . Pentecostals . . . were not overly concerned with the problem of reconciling their experience with 1 Corinthians, chapter 12."[5]  Pentecostal historians admit that their movement arose and spreads by events and experiences, not by careful preaching of the Word, interpreted grammatically and historically.  Synan writes:

Pentecostal Christianity tends to find its rise in events . . . [and recognizes the] priority of “event.” . . . These events . . . giv[e] a distinct focus to one’s reading of Scripture. The focus is upon the realistic, even the empirical, results . . . a dramatic breakthrough of supernatural power, a display of charismatic phenomena. It is not the case of a teaching that gains a hearing, but events that attract a following. . . . [F]undamentalists have consistently criticized pentecostals for departing from a theological accent on God’s “propositional revelation” in the Scripture. (pgs. 25-27, 209, Aspects of Pentecostal-Charismatic Origins, ed. Vinson Synan)

 For the charismatic, the “exegetical difficulties which may arise [in Pentecostal doctrine] are, in the final analysis, more than balanced for Pentecostals by the experiential proofs.”[6] The mind must not be used to interpret Scripture, since "under rational inquiry pentecostalism falters," as do its Higher Life precursors.[7] Experience[8] is supposedly superior to Biblical theology and logical study of Biblical teaching.[8] Thus, both through continuationism and through the rejection of a literal interpretation of Scripture for an exaltation of experience, the Higher Life theology of Robert P. and Hannah W. Smith “gave birth to the Keswick Convention . . . and Pentecostal movements.”[9]

In summary, Charles S. Gede, professor at the Southwestern Assemblies of God College in Waxahachie, Texas, explains:

[T]he operative hermeneutical principle [was that] . . . “the literal Word could be temporarily overruled by the living Spirit.” . . . (1) there was an awareness of the scriptural regulations governing public glossolalia, and (2) [Azuza street leaders] were unwilling to apply the provisions of the written Word consistently. Why were they willing to let the inconsistency continue? . . . [“We] have seen over and over again during the past fifteen months, that where Christian workers have suppressed these manifestations [because of Scriptural teaching], the Holy Spirit has been grieved, the work has stopped. . . . Who are we to dictate to an all-wise God as to how He shall work in anyone?[”] . . . [I]n order to continue the revival, it was necessary for God to act independently of the regulating structure provided in the written Word . . . pragmatism was the method used to solve this problem[.] The existence of the third presupposition would explain the practice of the selective application of biblical authority. On certain issues biblical authority was asserted vehemently; on other issues it was viewed as antagonistic to the acts of God by his Spirit. That is particularly true with respect to their beliefs and practices of glossolalia. The three presuppositions would be implemented by the hermeneutical principle of pragmatism. . . . The desire and attempts to perpetuate the revival developed an unacknowledged presupposition that the imposition of any structure, including that set forth in the written Word, nullified the experiential activity of God. An implementing hermeneutical principle of pragmatism flowed from that presupposition. (pgs. 90-92, “Glossolalia at Azuza Street: A Hidden Presupposition?” Charles S. Gaede. Westminster Theological Journal 51:1 [Spring 1989] 77-92)[11]

[1] Pg. 183, Keswick’s Authentic Voice, ed. Stevenson. The quotation is from the famous and influential sermon “The Sufficiency of Grace” (pgs. 183-188, ibid) by the renowned Keswick leader and Faith Cure continuationist Otto Stockmayer and was preached at Keswick in 1896 (pg. 140, ibid). Stevenson’s compilation of Keswick messages in his Keswick’s Authentic Voice was, as validated and endorsed by many Keswick leaders, from the General Director of the China Inland Mission, J. Oswald Sanders, to the Chairman of the Keswick Convention Council, A. T. Houghton. The book, and Otto Stockmeyer’s sermon, does present “indeed ‘Keswick’s Authentic Voice’” through the “outstanding addresses” selected (pgs. 9, 11, ibid), including Stockmeyer’s.

[2]  Pg. 61, Fundamentalism and American Culture, George Marsden.

[3]  Pgs. 22-24, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism, Dayton.

[4]   Pg. 146, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism, Robert Anderson. 

[5] Pg. 163, ibid.

[6] Pg. 62, A Theology of the Holy Spirit: The Pentecostal Experience and the New Testament Witness, F. D. Bruner, citing pg. 26, The Heavenly Gift: Studies in the Work of the Holy Spirit, Pearlman (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1935) and pg. 39, Systematic Theology, Williams, vol. 1.

[7] Pg. 206, Aspects of Pentecostal-Charismatic Origins, ed. Vinson Synan.

[8]         Bruner notes:
The modern family-book of Pentecostalism has . . . the following main chapters: Wesley—revivalism—Finney—the holiness movement. In each chapter personal experience is given special stress . . . [and] in the Methodist and holiness movements, the personal experience most stressed was that which was subsequent to . . . conversion . . . the experience which came in the Pentecostal movement to be called the baptism in the Holy Spirit. (pg. 47, A Theology of the Holy Spirit: The Pentecostal Experience and the New Testament Witness, Frederick Dale Bruner. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970)

[9]         Compare pg. 6, “A Plea for Experience,” The Pentecostal Evangel: The Official Organ of the Assemblies of God, 448-449, June 10, 1922.
[10]         July 27-28, The Christian’s Secret of a Holy Life, Hannah W. Smith, ed. Dieter.

[11]         Pgs. 90-92, “Glossolalia at Azuza Street: A Hidden Presupposition?” Charles S. Gaede. Westminster Theological Journal 51:1 (Spring 1989) 77-92.


James Bronsveld said...

That hermeneutic is precisely what caused that great revivalist icon of Fundamentalism, John R. Rice, to write the following:

We have retreated from fanaticism. We were afraid of "wild fire." And the truth is that, fearing what men would say, we have not thought enough about what God would say. We have gone in human wisdom. We have gone with educated sermons, with entertaining sermons, with doctrinally sound sermons; but, alas, we have gone without the Holy anointing, without the miracle-working, supernatural power of the Holy Spirit![Emphasis mine]

Since the real Holy Spirit power is in the subjective experience, "what God would say" is not necessarily "doctrinally sound," and that's considered to be in harmony. No wonder fundamentalism is so oriented to personalities and carnal philosophies and generally less concerned (or even unconcerned) with sound doctrine!

Kent Brandenburg said...


Excellent quote. Jack Hyles often said the same thing. It is a type of continuationism. Very good catch. Thanks.

KJB1611 said...

Dear James,

Thanks for the quote-good point. Of course, it is true that we can intellectually assent to doctrinal orthodoxy, but that alone is not enough. I'm sure we would all agree on this. Doctrinal orthodoxy contributes to a greater passion and spiritual affection for God, enabled by the Holy Spirit apart from whom we can do nothing.

James Bronsveld said...

Bro. Ross,

Agreed. In context, Rice was arguing for the need for a Spirit baptism like "Finney, Moody, and Torrey," while bashing the "Darbyites" for their "self-assured Bible teachers" and "small groups of believers" unaccompanied by the conversion of "harlots and drunkards." His hermeneutic, as you cited from Vinson Synan, was "not the case of a teaching that gains a hearing, but events that attract a following."

Your current article dovetails well the recent posts on rampant Hylesism (and even the Mincy repentance article) here. It all comes down primarily to an error-filled hermeneutic in which man-determined results govern the interpretation of Scripture. I say "man-determined," because the results of living by the fruit of the Spirit, being submitted to the Lordship of Christ, and the evidence of grace-producing sanctification are not among the results used by these men to judge whether their hermeneutic is correct.

KJB1611 said...

Dear Bro James,

Thanks for the comment. I wasn't assuming were disagreeing; however, may people attracted to Keswick and/or Pentecostalism and their experience-driven hermeneutics assume that any criticism of their movements is a criticism of walking with God, when, in truth, doctrinal purity and Biblical theology is central to closely walking with God; thus, I wanted to make the point clear for readers less sympathetic than you, of which I am quite sure there are some, whether they comment or not.