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Pentecostal Vs Non-Pentecostal Hermeneutics

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From the elected leaders of our nation and others, to the biblical scholars to who write the commentaries which aid people in the understanding of Scripture, differences of opinions abound. While there is much agreement, there are also many philosophical and theological chasms that cannot be bridged. One such topic of disagreement is in regard to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Some church denominations claim that when the person becomes a believer, they then are filled with the Holy Spirit. Others believe that being filled with the Holy Spirit is something that comes along after a person becomes a believer. This specific subject causes sharp disagreement about the current practice of exercising the gifts of the Spirit that are listed in the Bible, whether these gifts still operate in the body of Christ today, and if they were a sign at the change of the era only to be used to indicate that a new era was starting. After surveying some of the commentaries written by Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal scholars, this writer has concluded that the reason for the differences of opinion in regard to what Scripture says about the baptism of the Holy Spirit is that the non-Pentecostals scholars hold theological presuppositions that force them to approach the works of Luke through the writings of Paul in a systematic theological manner, rather than employing a biblical theology based on exegesis and allowing Luke to speak for himself. This paper will focus mainly on the work of the non-Pentecostal scholar F. F. Bruce.

Exegetical and Hermeneutical Examples

F. F. Bruce "studied at Aberdeen, Cambridge, and Vienna, and taught at Edinburgh, Leeds, and Sheffield," was the "Rylands Chair of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at Manchester," and he was the "foremost figure in the post-World War II resurgence of evangelical scholarship in Britain" (Douglas 1982, 108). He was an educated man with a passion for the Scriptures. The following is an examination of his commentary on the Pentecost narrative in Acts chapter two.

It was concluded in the unit one assignment that Luke's intent for writing was that Theophilus "may know the certainty of the things" of thing he was taught (Luke 1:4) which can legitimately classify his work as didactic. Then the New Testament writer Paul affirms that there is a biblical precedent for using biblical narratives for didactic purposes (Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11; and 2 Tim 3:16-17). With this as a paradigm, we now look as Bruce's work.

Bruce has a selective approach to historical precedent: he will use an Old Testament passage to interpret the Pentecost narrative, but will not allow the Pentecost narrative to be used to shape the practice of the contemporary church. In Acts 2:1-4, the Pentecost event was narrated. Luke described a what appeared like "tongues of fire" (2:3) resting on each person there, and they were all "filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues" (2:4). Bruce claimed that the activity described there was the Spirit of God moving using the Old Testament narrative of Numbers 11:26 to interpret the New Testament Acts narrative. In the Numbers 11:25-26 narrative the Spirit that was on Moses was also given to his elders it says: "Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took of the Spirit that was on him and put the Spirit on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they did not do so again. . . . the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp." From the comparison of these two texts Bruce concluded: "the descent of the Spirit on the disciples was attended by prophetic speech" (1955, 52). This shows that his approach to hermeneutics will allow for historical precedent to be used in the interpretation of New Testament passages with Old Testament passage.

Bruce goes on to clarify his position of this event with the use of a foot note where he quoted Loyd which states that "the coming of the Spirit is followed by irregular and abnormal phenomena," and "strange and novel spiritual experiences" (1955, 52). It seems rather certain that Bruce is implying his agreement with Loyd that this event is a not repeatable or normative event. Bruce's goes on to make the claim that "the baptism of the Spirit which was our Lord's prerogative to bestow was, strictly speaking, something that took place once for all on the day of Pentecost" (1955,70). From this statement it becomes clear that Bruce does not view the baptism

of the Spirit accompanied with speaking in tongues as a historical precedent in regard to the practice of the contemporary church, nor that it is a normative practice for contemporary Christians. The use of historical precedent that was used by Bruce to interpret this event is not evenly followed through with to allow for normative for practice. Bruce appears to interpret the Spirit baptism at Pentecost as a "Once for all" (1955, 70) event.

Bruce describes the prophetic speech in Acts 2 as "prophetic speech of a peculiar kind-utterance in 'other tongues'" (1955, 52). He then appeals to Paul to define this activity through what Paul had written in 1 Corinthians 12:10, 28-30; 14:2-19. This indicates that Bruce is operating with a presupposed position. This is not allowing Luke the ability to speak for himself, and it is using a Pauline lens through which to view the work of Luke. Bruce is attempting to interpret the Acts 2:1-4 narrative in a systematic theological approach rather than a biblical theological approach. This may solve one problem for Bruce, but it then creates another. In the text that Bruce is quoting as support for his position, Paul makes a distinction between prophecy and tongues: "I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified" (1 Cor 14:5). The difficulty is that Bruce claims that the speaking in tongues in Acts 2:1-4 is a type of prophecy, but he is appealing to Paul who states that prophecy and tongues are two different things.

Then there is the conflict with Bruce's own statement above "So now the descent of the Spirit on the disciples was attended by prophetic speech, but prophetic speech of a peculiar kind--utterance in 'other tongues'" (1955, 52). But then Bruce frustrates his own position by saying "glossolalia or any or any other ecstatic utterance is no evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit (1955, 52). So, first he claims the tongues was prophecy so that his process of identification with Numbers 11:26 works, but then he down plays the significance of the tongues by saying that it is no evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Bruce does not acknowledge that the purpose of of Luke's writing was to teach "Theophilus" about his faith and that he wanted him to "know for certain" what he had been taught. The disregard of the this statement made by Luke at the beginning of Luke chapter one effects how one view the genre of Luke's work.

Other interpretations of the text that Bruce offers is that: (1) the "whole world" is represented by those nations listed in Acts 2: 9-11 who heard the Galileans speak in their languages ( 1955, 54, 55, 61); (2) The "darkened sun" referred to by Peter when quoting Joel 2:28 was fulfilled by the darkened sun when Jesus was on the cross (1955, 62); (3) Bruce recognizes that there is a transfer theme in his commentary on the Pentecost narrative. His comments and acknowledgement of this transfer theme mention the Spirit transfer from Moses to the elders (though he does not mention the transfer in his commentary, he quotes Numbers 11:26 which describes it). In reference to the transfer theme with Jesus he said: "He who had earlier received the Spirit for the public discharge of his own earthly ministry had now received that same Spirit to impart to his representatives, in order that they might continue, and indeed share in, the ministry which he had begun" (1955, 67). And then in reference to Peter's call to repentance: "the call to repentance had been sounded by Jesus and John" (1955,69). Bruce's scope and focus of the commentary from which these examples were cited were to explain the Pentecost event. His recognition of the transfer theme could be more developed but if so it is not displayed here.

The non-Pentecostal position of the baptism of the Holy Spirit as being a sort of "initiation" in to Christianity, rather than an equipping for ministry may be described by Bruce in his commentary on Acts. He states:

". . . it might have been expected that, when the disciples experienced the outpouring of the Spirit from the day of Pentecost onward, they would discontinue water baptism as having been superseded by something better. In fact they did not: they continued to baptize converts in water "for the forgiveness of sins," but this baptism was now part of a more comprehensive initiation which took its character especially from the receiving of the Spirit" (1955, 69).

In this quote, Bruce incorporates Spirit baptism with water baptism and offers the conclusion that the both together are "comprehensive initiation."

The main issues with Bruce's approach to historical precedent are that he inconsistently uses it to interpret Scripture to comply with a presupposition about normative practice, and that he interprets Spirit baptism as an initiation into the body of Christ rather than a prophetic inspiration for divine service.

Challenges to the Non-Pentecostal Interpretation

The Pentecostal theologian can easily challenge (and defeat) the position of the non-Pentecostal in regard to this subject by following through and equally applying the exegesis and hermeneutics of the non-Pentecostal.

There is agreement between Dunn, a non-Pentecostal scholar, and Menzies, in what the appropriate exegetical approach should be. Dunn correctly questioned and then explained:

"Are we to approach the NT as systematic theologians or as biblical theologians and exegetes? The common error . . . is to treat the NT (and even the Bible) as a homogeneous whole, from any part of which texts can be drawn on a chosen subject and fitted into a framework which is basically extra-biblical. . . the method of the latter is to take each author and book separately and to (attempt to) outline his or its particular theological emphases; only when he has set a text in the context of it's author's thought and intention (as expressed in his writing), only then can he biblical-theologian feel free to let that text interact with other texts from other books."(1970, 39).

Menzies, who is a Pentecostal scholar, quoted Dunn (2000, 191) in agreement. It is the opinion of this writer, that the way to challenge the non-Pentecostal on the issues raised concerning the didactic normative intent of Luke's Acts chapter two narrative is to challenge them to, as Dunn put it, let Luke's "theological emphasis" be noted apart from Paul's. Also instead of using the same definitions for words such and "tongues" and "prophesy," avoid the embarrassment of forcing another biblical writer's word definitions on another. Once that is done and the biblical writer (Luke in this case) has been given his full voice, let his text interact with other biblical writers.


The difference of opinion that exists between Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals lies in the exegetical and hermeneutical practices and the presuppositions of the non-Pentecostal scholars. Rather than letting Luke's work stand, it is adjusted to fit into a Pauline form which is likely to agree with the church practices of the non-Pentecostals. To state the issue more clearly: the hermeneutical disagreement between Pentecostal scholars and non-Pentecostal scholars appears to be directly proportional to their disagreement in church practice, rather than exegesis of Scripture.


The scholar looks at the works of other writers as an opportunity to further interact with the subject matter. The average church member is just trying to understand the Bible and does not necessarily desire to be a scholar or read numerous different works to find answers to their questions. There is potential for a variety of responses from the contemporary church ranging from engaged interest to frustrated confusion resulting in abandonment of the faith. The implications of these differences in approach and understanding can be destructive. To the layman, it appears as if scholars are arguing over minutiae and details that are not very important. To the scholar they believe they are following the rules of exegesis and hermeneutics and pointing out the grave errors and violations of the the rules that the others making. Not only does it appear as if there is no agreement or consensus among these scholars, but it set the pace for how the rest of the church handles disagreement. In the opinion of this writer, it looks as if practice and presupposition in the contemporary church trump exegesis and hermeneutics, and that the latter are only used to as a hammer to beat down the opposing view.


Bruce, F. F. 1955. The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Douglas, J. D. "Bruce, F. F. (Frederick Fyvie)" In , in Who's Who in Christian History, ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 108.

Dunn, James D. G. 1970. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press.

Menzies, William W. and Robert P. 2000. Spirit and Power: Foundations of Pentecostal Experience. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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