Spirit Hermeneutics

Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost

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Craig S. Keener
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , August
     550 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As Craig S. Keener admits in Spirit Hermeneutics, extreme Pentecostals are often seen as “granola: the nuts, the fruits, and the flakes of the Spirit” (106). Pentecostal and charismatic theology has often been condescended to in the academic theological scene because of its anti-intellectualism. This is surely not the case today with a rising group of gifted charismatic scholars such James Dunn, the late Clark Pinnock, James K. A. Smith, Amos Yong, and a host of others that Keener catalogues (296-303). This book functions like a manifesto for this rising group, outlining the way they read Christian scripture in the Spirit and how they can do so better.

Part 1 looks at the centrality of spiritual experience for relationship with God and for reading scripture in the Bible, and clarifies what that means and does not mean. Spirit hermeneutics is experiential, but not without criteria. Keener emphasizes a hermeneutic that is missional, humble, and eschatologically real. Part 2 looks at how the phenomena observed in the Book of Acts is similar to what is being seen throughout the world in the global charismatic movement. What is seen in these cross-cultural experiences as well as the New Testament is the contextualization of faith and the challenging of modern notions that have dismissed the demonic and the miraculous. In this way, a Spirit hermeneutic can help the Western church overcome its cultural imperialism and cultural biases to return to the realities seen in the biblical narrative. Part 3 moves into a more prescriptive phase in which Keener outlines criteria for interpretation. Here Keener attempts to both support the liberty of prophetic appropriations of scripture while tempering the potential of subjectivism with a strong insistence that every responsible interpreter should wrestle with the historical backgrounds and authorial intent of biblical passages. Particularly astute is his argument that a commitment to discerning the authorial intent of a passage is not just a modern notion, but was prevalent in the ancient world as well. Rich readings will be mindful of ancient meanings as well as future ones. Part 4 argues for a kind of epistemology of sensing the spiritual truths witnessed in the biblical narrative. Keener calls for a “hermeneutic of trust” which does not rule out critical discernment. A part of this section is a discussion of what makes the Bible true. Keener has clearly moved on from more naïve understandings of biblical historicity while retaining a commitment to the Spirit’s work through the text. For instance, while he does not read Genesis 1 literally and notes obvious discrepancies in historical accounts, this should not dissuade a charismatic believer from embracing its message with genuine personal faith. Part 5 looks more substantively at issues of interpretation and how principles within scripture can be used to qualify a pneumatic reading. Keener explores typology within the Bible and principles to understand and apply biblical laws that allow the charismatic interpreter to read dynamically without falling into complete subjectivity. Finally, in part 6, Keener recommends the guidance of the local and global charismatic community to help interpreters. Keener’s proposal is a well-rounded defense and exploration of the charismatic experience and hermeneutic. Any reader of this book will be immediately impressed with the vast research Keener brings to his argument.

There are certain ecumenical questions about the nature of Keener’s proposal. First, there is a question of the scope of the term “charismatic” and the extent of the charismatic community with regards to Catholicism. After all, classic Catholic theology affirms the spiritual gifts and interprets the Bible through the Sprit, thus allowing for practices like lectio divina. In what way is Keener’s proposal different from, necessary, or superior to these classic forms of Christianity? How is charismatic Christianity unique? Is Pentecostalism a recovery of the “true church” or is it merely a contextual recovery movement within the universal church? Embracing the later characterization could prove to have interesting results. Keener notes his wariness towards all established traditions, including enshrining Pentecostal ones (104), but how would a Spirit hermeneutic be enriched with the interpretive methods of the Church Fathers? How could the tradition of the Fathers and the Creeds guide Pentecostal interpreters today?

Second, how does this proposal relate not only to Catholics but also to other Protestants? Almost all Protestant denominations uphold a spiritual aspect of reading the Bible. How does Keener understand these movements? It seems Keener is specifically concerned with disproving “cessationists” (those that see the gifts of the Spirit as no longer operative or normative for today), but if that is the only thing that isn’t charismatic, Keener’s proposal then becomes so general and widely agreeable to most Christians that it struggles to assert something particular (Keener seems aware of this; see 281-285).

The resemblance of Keener’s “Spirit hermeneutics” to James William McClendon, Jr.’s “baptist vision” is uncanny. Keener insists on “pentecostal,” small “p” 3), while McClendon insists on “baptists,” small “b.” The two terms and ways of reading are very similar. Yet, McClendon did more to outline the parameters of what this set of ecclesial communities looked like and to articulate a set of ecclesial practices that would allow these communities to be unique without necessarily claiming superiority over other Christians.  

Keener walks a delicate tightrope between the descriptive and the prescriptive. One of the implicit marks of charismatic communities is their anti-establishment tone. Yet Keener seems to be a much more moderate variety of Pentecostal. Will the broader circles of Pentecostal and other charismatics read and accept Keener’s recommendations or dismiss his statements as a departure from their identity? Keener’s descriptions of how to read scripture in light of Pentecost has been demonstrated judiciously, and those that have not taken up his proscriptions already should do so.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Spencer Miles Boersma is on the part-time faculty and is the assistant chaplain at Thorneloe University.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Craig S. Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. His many other books include The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary and The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. 



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