The Spirit Of And Spirit In Craig S. Keener’s Spirit Hermeneutics

The Spirit Of And Spirit In Craig S. Keener’s Spirit Hermeneutics

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PNEUMA 39 (2017) 168–178

The Spiritof and SpiritinCraig S. Keener’s Spirit Hermeneutics

Jacqueline N. Grey Alphacrucis College, Australia

[email protected]


This essay provides a critical review of Craig Keener’s Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost. It explores three key considerations for pentecostal hermeneutics that are drawn from Keener’s volume: the importance of engagement with the global, ecumenical community; the contribution of a distinct pentecostal pneumatology that informs the task of hermeneutics; and the role of analogous expe- rience in the reading of the Old Testament. Scripture, including Old Testament texts, is not self-referential but points to God and God’s activity in creation. The essay con- cludes that the corrective to an invalid reading should not be prioritizing the original intention of the biblical author; instead, it suggests, the determiner of a valid reading could be found in the theological worldview to which the text points.


Spirit – hermeneutics – Old Testament – Pentecostalism – Craig S. Keener


At the center stage of pentecostal theology and scholarly discourse for sev- eral decades has been the theme of hermeneutics. The actors have been drawn from the global community, including biblical scholars, theologians, historians, philosophers, and sociologists.1 At the heart of the drama are issues of pente-

1 For a summary and overview of the scholarly study of hermeneutics by Classical Pentecostals

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2017 | doi: 10.1163/15700747-03901008


the spirit of and spirit in craig s. keener’s spirit hermeneutics


costal identity, culture, and theology. The theater has been driven by conflict between advocates of evangelical reading approaches (including historical- critical methodologies) and those that promote more postmodern readings (including reader-response and postcolonial approaches). Enter, stage right, preeminent New Testament scholar Craig S. Keener. Keener’s long-anticipated entrance into the dialogue does not disappoint. His volume Spirit Hermeneu- tics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost presents an ecumenical vision for the task of reading Scripture that is consistent with his pentecostal heritage, yet generous to the broader Christian community seeking to live by the Word and be shaped by the Spirit to the glory of God.2This article will explore three key topics that Keener’s volume contributes to the ongoing drama of pente- costal hermeneutics: the ecumenical priority and responsibility of a pente- costal hermeneutic, the identification of the “Spirit” in Spirit hermeneutics, and the subsequent challenges of reading Old Testament texts for a Christian reader.

The Spirit of Spirit Hermeneutics

From the outset, Keener presents the task of Spirit hermeneutics as a global and ecumenical enterprise. This outlook flows from his interpretative lens of Luke-Acts by which he suggests that a truly Spirit-inspired reading should be consistent with the Spirit-inspired purpose of the text.3 For Keener, that equates with a missional reading of Scripture, an approach that draws from the deep wells of his own pentecostal heritage. After all, the purpose of the empowerment of the Spirit in the Lukan narrative was to equip the church for the global task of witnessing to the risen Christ. According to Keener, a missional reading is one that, among other things, responds in faith (25)4

see L. William Oliverio, Jr., Theological Hermeneutics in the Classical Pentecostal Tradition: A

Typological Account(Leiden: Brill, 2012). “Hermeneutics and the Spirit: Identities, Communi-

ties, and Making of Meaning” was the conference theme of the 43rd Society for Pentecostal

Studies Annual Meeting in 2014.

2 Note 37 of “The Final Report of the International Dialogue between Representatives of the

World Alliance of Reformed Churches and Some Classical Pentecostal Churches and Leaders

1996–2000.” (accessed January 5, 2017). 3 Craig S. Keener,Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost(Grand Rapids,mi:

Eerdmans, 2016), 19; all references to this book will be made by page number parenthetically

in this article.

4 Specifically, Keener refers to a reading that responds in faith as “experiential.” He also later

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and is humble and globally sensitive (45–49, 59–98). Continuing his Lukan reading, Keener asserts that the Spirit of a Spirit hermeneutic empowers the socially marginalized; it is truly liberating and a truly liberating hermeneutic, particularly for those in postcolonial contexts. The inspired speech gifted by the Spirit in Acts (particularly chapter 2) equipped believers to cross cultural and linguistic barriers. The “spirit” of Keener’s hermeneutic is summarized in his statement:

The Spirit speaks through different gifts in the local church, and we all provide a safety net of discernment for one another’s blind spots (1Cor 14:19). The same will be true with the global church; sometimes what others hear from the Spirit in the global church will challenge us, and sometimes what we hear will challenge others. Yet we are together one body in Christ, needing one another. The one Spirit is heard best through the one body into which the Spirit has baptized us (1Cor 12:13; Eph 4:4–6).


The “spirit” of Keener’s proposed hermeneutic is global and ecumenical. It is therefore the responsibility of the pentecostal community to identify, hear, and engage in dialogue these voices from the broader Christian family.

This emphasis provides an important corrective to current pentecostal approaches to hermeneutics (including my own work) that have tended to be western in emphasis, internally focused, and monodirectional. As Keener observes, the focus on personal (that is, individualistic) application most likely reflects more our western culture than a charismatic culture. Instead, listening to the global church requires that the privileged sector of the church (which ironically includes the previously marginalized pentecostal community of the West) hear the contribution and critique of those from less privileged contexts. It helps both groups to see their own “blind spots” and cultural lens through which they read Scripture. However, while Keener recognizes the reliance of western biblical scholarship on traditional historical-critical methods (83), he is reluctant to identify this approach as a western philosophical emphasis. Instead, a potential approach may be found by exploring a theology of the Spirit who empowers readers.

writes, “Preunderstanding shapes how we come to texts, so the transformed heart should also transform how we approach Scripture (with eagerness, faith and obedience) and what we hear there” (40).

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The Spirit inSpirit Hermeneutics

This exploration of hermeneutics raises an important question: what is, or more specifically who is, the Spirit central to the endeavor of Spirit Hermeneu- tics? In raising this question, it is important to note that Keener is attempting neither to develop a pneumatology nor to provide detailed reflection on the Spirit. That task is outside the scope of his book. His work does, however, pro- voke reflection on the person of the Holy Spirit that is highlighted in the title of his book. Is the reference to the Spirit inSpirit Hermeneuticsthat of a necessary subject or an optional adjectival appendage? At various points in his volume, Keener reflects that the noncessationist approach promoted by Pentecostals has been so successful that it is no longer distinctive. This leads Keener to sur- mise that a Spirit hermeneutic is essentially a Christian hermeneutic (288). He writes, “There is littletheologically[sic] distinctive about being cessationist today; what is distinctive is actively embracing a lifestyle that expects, as God determines, the activity of God’s Spirit” (284).While the theological boundaries of a pentecostal community (both inside and outside) are certainly fluid (297),5 Keener’s comment suggests that as the wider Christian community abandons cessationism there will be little theological difference between Pentecostals and other denominational groups, and subsequently little difference in their hermeneutic. There is certainly some evidence for the crosspollination of the- ological values among charismatically oriented communities: the Australian context demonstrates a lessening of the priority of the doctrine of initial evi- dence among women ministers in the ag through transfer growth from other denominations, though not of the practice of spirit gifts.6 There is also ample evidence, however, that Christian communities identifying as noncessationist maintain distinct and separate theologies from that of Classical Pentecostal groups.

The final report of the ecumenical dialogue of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and some Pentecostals (1996–2000), focusing on the “Word and Spirit, Church and World,”7highlights that while both groups affirm a non-

5 Keener also notes in his introduction that he rejected the narrower title of Pentecostal

Hermeneutics in favor of Spirit Hermeneutics because “… the elements that characterize a

good ‘Pentecostal’ hermeneutic are elements that should characterize any truly Christian and

Spirit-led hermeneutic” (3).

6 Jacqueline N. Grey, “Torn Stockings and Enculturation: Women Pastors in the Australian

Assemblies of God,” Australasian Pentecostal Theology, no. 5–6, 2001.

aps/index.php/APS/article/view/51/48 (accessed January 5, 2017).

7 “Final Report of the International Dialogue.”

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cessationist outlook8 and hold many theologies in common, there are signifi- cant differences in their language and theology (particularly in their pneuma- tology and hermeneutic). While I support Keener’s emphasis on the common- ality and unity of the broader noncessationist Christian community, it is not a corollary that all groups seeking to live according to the will of God through the power of the Spirit will adhere to a common hermeneutic or pneumatology. In fact, features of Keener’s hermeneutic that he describes as valuable may not be as vital to some Christian communities as it is to Pentecostals. For example, the warc-Pentecostal Report notes, “For Pentecostals the Bible is a story; they read their lives into that story and that story into their lives.”9This approach is similarly identified as a feature of Keener’s hermeneutic as he draws from the depths of his pentecostal heritage. He writes, “The line between salvation his- toryinthebiblicalnarrativeandcontinuingsalvationhistoryinthebiblicalnar- rative and continuing salvation history today is thin, so that readers approach the text as a model for life and ideally expect God to continue to act as he acted in Scripture” (28). While certainly not unique to Pentecostals, this approach is a distinctive of Pentecostalism. However, this language and approach are not necessarily natural to other groups within the Christian community, such as the warc communities, despite their rejection of cessationism.10 What this highlights is that despite sharing a noncessationist outlook, the theology and hermeneutic of these groups, though they have much in common, remains dis- tinct.11 In this sense, can there be a single “Spirit hermeneutic” when there is a


9 10


Of Reformed theology, the Report notes: “In previous centuries, Reformed theologians usually said that all signs and wonders were confined to the apostolic age. Increasingly, theologians, pastors, and church members see that this opinion finds no ground in the Scriptures. However, a careful reading of Paul’s letters leads Reformed Christians to the conviction that it would be wrong to concentrate attention on the so-called supernatural gifts, such as glossolalia and healing” (“Final Report,” Note 32).

Ibid., Note 27.

Keener notes that there is a similarity between the enchanted worldview of Pentecostal- ism and Calvinism that sees God at work in everything in their lives (28–29).While there is somecommonality,however,therearemarkeddifferencesinthetheologyandapproaches of the two groups in how they arrive at this conclusion. For example, according to the Final Report, “Reformed Christians tend to use the language of ‘covenant’ to describe the initiative of God and the formation of God’s people.” In comparison, “Pentecostals tend to use the language of ‘the outpouring of the Spirit’ to describe the initiative of God and the formation of the Church as the Body of Christ.” (“Final Report,” Notes 38, 39). While I recognize that Keener is emphasizing the commonality of charismatic experience among a broader noncessationist community as part of the important quest for unity,

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diversity of theologies among noncessationist groups? Instead, perhaps as each noncessationist group seeks to read Scripture in light of the activity of God’s Spirit through the lens of their tradition there will be Spirit hermeneutics, or at least multiple contributions to the ecumenical task of Spirit hermeneutics.

Who, then, is the Holy Spirit in Spirit hermeneutics? There is much that an emerging pentecostal pneumatology can contribute to the theology of nonces- sationist communities of the Christian family, particularly regarding herme- neutics. This endeavor has already begun by theologians, particularly Amos Yong in his volume Spirit-Word-Community.12 Yong and other pentecostal the- ologians, such as Frank Macchia and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, have highlighted the value of exploring social and relational models of the Trinity to appreciate the person of the Holy Spirit within the perichoretic life of the Trinity. Per- haps further reflection by biblical scholars on the “who” of the Spirit of a Spirit hermeneutics can add to this conversation. For many Pentecostals, the Spirit is experienced as inviting and including the believer into the life of God.13It is not just about experiencing the spiritual gifts, or fulfilling the mission of God (though it is certainly part of it), but an encounter with the living God.This also means that one of the primary roles of the Spirit in hermeneutics is to draw the believer into the relational life of God through the reading of the Word and not just to help apply the text to the contemporary situation.14

Throughout his volume, Keener proposes a two-step process to the task of Spirit hermeneutics.15The first step is the exploration of the original intention and context of the biblical writer (as much as possible). Keener acknowledges that uncovering the original intention of the biblical writers is notoriously dif- ficult, which is perhaps why he uses a variety of ways to describe this process





commonality and the desire for unity should not, however, be confused with theological conformity.

Amos Yong, Spirit-Word-Community: Theological Hermeneutics in Trinitarian Perspective (Aldershot,ukand Burlington,vt: Ashgate, 2002).

Keener identifies this as he writes, “At its best, Pentecostal spirituality is about living out a dynamic relationship [sic] with God” (29).

For Keener, a Spirit hermeneutic is one that gives careful consideration to application. The same Spirit that guides us in reading Scripture also guides us in applying and living the text. Keener concludes that a Spirit hermeneutic is also essentially a Christian reading (237).

In my own context of Australian pentecostalism, there is a dance among the older genera- tion commonly referred to as the “Pentecostal two-step”. While I have resisted referring to Keener’s two-step process as the “Pentecostal two-step,” I cannot help but be sentimental over the association.This is perhaps an example of the stream-of-consciousness approach to reading texts that Keener warns against.

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from “the original sense of the text” to the “design of the text” (147, 150, 219). This is not to suggest that Keener is weakening his emphasis on the impor- tance of the original context, but that he simply recognizes the complexity of the task. To honor the original community and context to which God spoke, as recorded in Scripture, is to recognize that God spoke and continues to speak today. To simply subsume the message to the original audience as our own is to dishonor this important value generally shared by the noncessationist com- munity. This first step is followed by a careful application to the contemporary situation. While the Spirit is involved in both steps, it is the second step that Keener suggests most vitally requires the guidance of the Spirit. This is also because, in Keener’s model, an application should be considered valid only if it correlates with the range of meanings implied in the original communication (20). This is a common sense and practical qualification for the task; Keener provides noteworthy warnings against undisciplined associations (or stream- of-consciousness type approaches) that have plagued the pentecostal commu- nity (34). While I wholeheartedly affirm with Keener the need for a reading to “flow” from the original context, it is the practicality that interests me. How can this be done? While outrageously divergent interpretations may be dismissed on the “commonsense” basis of thematic inconsistency, what about readings and applications that have a seemingly legitimate claim as an analogous read- ing, such as those that promote a continuation of the patriarchal culture of the biblical world?16

The ideal for Keener is to produce a reading “… somehow analogous to those most plausible to the text’s ideal audience or at least to general first-century culture” (104), assuming one is reading a NewTestament text. As a woman read- ing a text from the first century that is generally uncritical and accepting of its broader patriarchal culture, how much should my contemporary applica- tion of the text reject any limitations based on my gender as a first-century situation that is not analogous to my context, and how much of it is a “king- dom culture”? Yet, as Keener notes, “Cultures and genres differ, but God, Christ and human nature remain the same” (200).17In this sense, how much of a text reflects culture, God, or human nature, and how do we discern this? For the



Examples of such readings are highlighted in Shane Clifton, “Sexism and Demonic in Church Life and Mission,” in Shane Clifton and Jacqueline Grey, eds.,RaisingWomen Lead- ers: Perspectives on Liberating Women in Pentecostal and Charismatic Contexts (Chester Hill,nsw: Australasian Pentecostal Theology, 2009), 51–70.

Keener writes, “… we must enter the narrative world of the Scriptures to hear there from the same God who inhabits that world, believing that ultimately that world theologically remains our world, a world in which God is active” (200).

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pentecostal community that aims to read their lives into the biblical narrative and read the biblical narrative into their lives, this question is vital. This also raises the question of the role of the community in determining the range of meaning: how is the range of meaning implied in the original communication and its application today determined, and who decides?18For me, however, the real challenge with the two-step process is that its focus tends to be consumed by trying to understand the situation of the original community in Scripture rather than Scripture as a signpost to understanding and encountering the life of God.

While Keener does admit to emphasizing this task in his volume as a correc- tive (5), it does question the goal of a Spirit hermeneutic. For many pentecostal readers, the goal of hermeneutics is to encounter the life of God. Therefore, as a pentecostal reader, I can identify limitations based on my gender in Scrip- ture as the situation of the first century and not something to be applied to my context because it is not analogous theologically to the life of God. As we are invited into the mutual love of the life of God, subordinationism (both onto- logically and functionally) based on social categories (including gender) has no place.19This hermeneutic involves careful study of the context of Scripture; however, the focus is on the Spirit bringing what Macchia calls “… the reign of the Father, the reign of the crucified and risen Christ, and the reign of divine life to all of creation through the indwelling of the Spirit.”20This nuance of Keener’s approach can be equally utilized in reading Old Testament texts.

Reading Old Testament Texts

One of the challenges for Christians reading Scripture is how to understand the cultural and theological message of Old Testament texts, particularly in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Keener’s volume provides




This is also why Keener’s reduction of the role of local community in the hermeneutical process is not completely helpful. Recognizing his argument of a global and historic community as important and often neglected by Pentecostals, to minimize the role of the local community is perhaps a trifle imbalanced.

For an exploration specifically countering the ontological and functional subordination of women through the lens of pneumatology, see Lisa P. Stephenson, Dismantling the Dualisms for American Pentecostal Women in Ministry: A Feminist-Pneumatological Approach(Leiden: Brill, 2012).

Frank Macchia, Baptized in the Spirit: A Global Pentecostal Theology (Grand Rapids, mi: Eerdmans, 2006), 89.

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a valuable contribution to this discussion. From the outset, Keener acknowl- edges that uncovering the intention of an author and historical reconstruction of Old Testament texts often involves a different dynamic from that required for New Testament texts, such as the Pauline epistles. Similarly, he notes the difficulty in “… how to distinguish transcultural principles from their concrete applications” (223). To demonstrate the importance of a culturally sensitive exegesis Keener provides examples in interpreting Old Testament law. Through his examination of Old Testament law, Keener highlights the contextual nature of biblical texts. Since they addressed a legal milieu different from that with which contemporary readers are familiar, believers are encouraged to under- stand the principles behind the rules of these legal texts (232–234). This also relates to a Spirit hermeneutic since the Spirit is the One who reveals God’s truth, both in the Scripture and today.

For many lay readers in the pentecostal community, Old Testament texts act as a symbol pointing to both God and God’s actions in the world. Their goal is not necessarily to understand the historical background of the text but to understand and encounter God.21 The text does not point to knowledge or information but is a symbol with which the reader resonates. Pentecostal read- ers seeking to live out the biblical narrative read their experience into the text. For Keener, this can be both positive and negative: positive in that experience helps readers make associations with the text but negative in that those associ- ations may not be valid (32–36). However, is the solution to make the original intention of the author the final arbitrator of a valid or invalid reading, or should the theological worldview to which the text points be the determiner of a valid reading? This is not to devalue a contextual reading of Scripture, but to recognize the role of Scripture. A reader cannot generate any meaning from a text; it has to be consistent with the theological worldview drawn from the biblical text as a whole. That theological worldview, for Pentecostals, is under- stood foremost as God’s fellowship, love, and grace.

It is then the role of the local community as thesensus communis, the shared common sense of a reading community (informed by the broader communities of historic, global, and ecumenical Christianity), that helps overcome “blind spots” and provides corrective limits and positive frontiers for reading. For the pentecostal community, Scripture functions as a signpost pointing to God and the kingdom of God. The Spirit guides readers to be attentive to the presence and present activity of God (28–29). In Ricoeurian terms, the biblical text is


Jacqueline N. Grey, Three’s A Crowd: Pentecostalism, Hermeneutics and the Old Testament (Eugene,or: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 122.

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not self-referential but points to something other than itself.22Scripture points to and reveals God and the in-breaking of God’s kingdom both now and to come. Yet, this theological worldview is not developed by reading the Old Testament corpus alone but through an analysis of the whole of Christian Scripture. Passages such as the Pentateuchal law are interpreted through the hermeneutical lens of the New Testament, albeit as principles or models that point to the greater reality of God and God’s kingdom.

For Keener, in order to “recontextualize” the passage for the contemporary context, readers should apply the principle to which the text points. Yet for Christian readers, it would be remiss to complete this task without considera- tion of a New Testament perspective. As Keener demonstrates in his case study on tithing, these texts should be read in light of the larger biblical witness (235). Without direct reference to tithing, Jesus emphasizes the theological value of biblical stewardship: we and all that we have belong to God, not to ourselves. Old Testament texts regarding tithing can be incorporated into a theology of biblical stewardship. In this way, Christian readings of Old Testament texts are interpreted in light of the New Testament. As Keener stresses, “… a truly Chris- tian reading focuses on Christ” (237).

While Christian readers of the Old Testament such as myself would affirm the primacy of christological (or christocentric) readings, where would an Old Testament text fit in Keener’s two-step process? Should an Old Testament text (read in light of relevant New Testament texts) be deliberated as part of the “meaning” of the text (by somehow helping clarify the original sense of the text), or should it be read as part of the “application”?When Matthew identifies Jesus as the fulfilment of the promised child of Isaiah 7:14 (“God with us”), is this reading clarifying Isaiah’s original sense of the text, or is Matthew applying Isaiah’s promise to the new situation of the new work of God in Jesus Christ? For Keener, Matthew’s interpretation can be read as part of the meaning of Isaiah 7:14. He writes, “Yet Isaiah himself also apparently looked beyond the immediate fulfilment to an ultimate deliverance through a greater son” (242). That “meaning” cannot, however, be derived from an exegetical study of the original sense of Isaiah 7:14, but is derived by reading the text in the light of Christ. Therefore in reading Old Testament texts, it may be that for Christian readers “meaning” can be found outside the original sense of the text but that extended meaning should be limited to a christological focus.


Ibid., 122.

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While there is more that could be explored in the feast of Keener’s volume Spirit Hermeneutics, the three topics highlighted above provide much food for thought. The inclusion of the global, ecumenical community is an important corrective that Keener highlights.While the broader noncessationist family can help illuminate the “blind spots” of the pentecostal community, however, it should not be assumed that unity will result in theological conformity. Instead, Pentecostalism should continue to explore its distinct contribution to the ecu- menical banquet, particularly in the fields of pneumatology and hermeneutics. The experience of the Spirit provides the reader with new and fresh ways of viewing Scripture as the text points to God and God’s actions in the world. While Keener rightly emphasizes the importance of Spirit experience for iden- tifying analogous experiences in Scripture, he limits the “safety net of discern- ment” to the original context of the passage. Instead, I have suggested that it is a broader theological worldview, shared by thesensus communisof the pen- tecostal community, that provides corrective boundaries and invites positive frontiers for reading Scripture, including the Old Testament.

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