Welcoming Spirit Hermeneutics

Welcoming Spirit Hermeneutics

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PNEUMA 39 (2017) 153–161

WelcomingSpirit Hermeneutics A Response to Craig S. Keener

Hannah R.K. Mather

London School of Theology, London,uk



There was a need in the field of Spirit hermeneutics for a solid, biblically grounded, and centered contribution, and Craig Keener has filled this gap more than sufficiently. This review highlights the following elements within Spirit Hermeneutics as being particularly significant: first, the identification of the connection between the original shape of the biblical text and its contemporary implications; second, the argument that a Spirit-directed epistemology must underpin a Spirit hermeneutic; and third, the inclusion of confessional elements.This review questions whether the role of prophecy (especially in connection with the original context and contemporary implication) could have featured more prominently in the book.


Spirit – hermeneutics – epistemology – confession – context – Scripture – Bible – relationship

Craig Keener’s Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost is an extremely comprehensive survey of Spirit hermeneutics, or what has pre- viously been known or is known under a variety of different names, includ- ing illumination, charismatic hermeneutics, pentecostal hermeneutics, and pneumatic hermeneutics.1It is well laid out, with an introduction, six sections

1 Keener discusses Spirit hermeneutics in relation to pentecostal hermeneutics in the intro-

duction and explains that when he uses the term pentecostal hermeneutics it is with a small

“p” in order to refer “to an experience with God modeled in Acts 2, not a denomination or

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2017 | doi: 10.1163/15700747-03901009




each covering particular issues pertinent to Spirit hermeneutics, and a concise, thought-provoking conclusion. It is a large book, but the clear and method- ological structure makes it easy to dip in and out of, and readers should not be daunted by the size. Particularly helpful in this respect is the way Keener begins each section with a short explanatory overview of the section as a whole and the focus of the chapters within it. His writing style is clear, explanatory, and inclusive and is peppered with confessional elements throughout, the lat- ter being a particular personal highlight. My impression is that Keener works hard to write in a style that is not unnecessarily complicated and that draws the reader in, and he should be commended for this. He does have a tendency to repeat himself or to say similar things in different ways but this is usually when he is really trying to emphasize a key point to the reader (for example, the importance of the original context in which Scripture was written as a founda- tional, grounding principle for a Spirit hermeneutic) and so, in this respect, the repetition is quite helpful.


The introduction should be read by all who endeavor to read even a small part of this book, because in it Keener outlines the context in which he writes (and if any more of this book is read, it will become clear that for Keener, understand- ing the context in which something is written is foundational for all subsequent interpretation and application). Keener plays to his strengths as a biblical the- ologian, explaining that he is writing from a perspective that focuses foremost on the biblical evidence and less on the current state of the hermeneutical discussion (1, 17). He also explains that in contrast to his exegetical commen- taries, his approach to the biblical witnesses “is deliberately integrative, moving back and forth among different biblical writers in an effort to show that the emphases in question are rarely limited to a single biblical writer” (17). This is important, because it shows Keener’s desire to illustrate that the hermeneuti- cal theology he offers is significant enough that the biblical foundation for it

title that must contain it.” Craig S. Keener, Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost (Grand Rapids,mi: Eerdmans, 2016), 3–9 (quote on 8); all references to this work in this review will be made parenthetically by page number. In my opinion, scholarship needs to establish boundaries for this area of research and settle on and stick to clear terminology. “Spirit hermeneutics” seems to me to be the most straightforward, ecumenically inclusive term and I am glad Keener uses it.

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is present across the whole canon, not just within specific sections. He does a really good job of this, consistently and thoroughly grounding his proposition for a Spirit hermeneutic on scriptural evidence and long-established historical- grammatical principles.

Overview of Partsitovi

Each of the six major parts interweaves with the others. They can be read on their own and dipped into and out of, but if the reader has the time, greater wealth and depth of insight will be found by reading them one after the other. Part i is a first step toward looking at how Scripture speaks to us today. Here, Keener illustrates a biblical basis for reading experientially, based on Jesus’s relationship with the Father as a model for a believer’s relation- ship with God (John 10:14–15) (chapter 1), and reading from the vantage point of Pentecost (chapter 2). Part i is important because in it Keener establishes some key principles on which he expands later in the book, such as the impor- tance of respecting the original author’s horizon and intentions, and of reading missionally, from Spirit-filled experience, with humility, and eschatologically. Part ii looks at global readings of Scripture and the importance of respect- ing and recognizing the ways different cultures (and not just denominations) read.

Part iii argues that “God inspired Scripture itself in particular cultural con- texts” and that those contexts, along with the author’s designed sense (the sense projected by the author), are “vital and foundational objective[s] for interpreting Scripture” (99). Keener argues that there is a connection between the original shape of the text and the contemporary implication, and that understanding the original author’s textual design enriches our understanding and discernment about reapplication, or “recontextualization,” as he terms it (132–133).2Having established the historical-critical basis on which Spirit inter- pretation should be grounded, in Part iv Keener argues that underpinning a Spirit hermeneutic must be a Spirit-directed epistemology “which grows from a faithful relationship with God and trusting submission to what God says” (287). Partsiiiandivare, for me, the most centrally significant in the book.

2 See chapter 4 for a useful discussion about decontextualizing the original context. This is

grounded on biblical illustrations of the New Testament authors decontextualizing the Old

Testament for their contexts.

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In Part v Keener highlights concrete models for reading Scripture within Scripture itself. This includes viewing Jesus’s relationship with Scripture as our hermeneutical model (chapter 14) and applying the Deuteronomy and Romans theology of the Law and the Spirit hermeneutically (chapter 15). The governing principle that Keener applies hermeneutically from Paul’s theology of the Law and the Spirit in Romans is this: “The original sense of the text, insofar as we may recover it, remains foundational, as in exegesis, but the Spirit working in God’s people helps us to apply those principles in new ways in new situations” (219). Chapter 16 concludes Part v with a look at how and whether Scripture can be read christologically and personally at the same time. Keener’s key point here is that a truly Christian reading focuses on Christbut the Spirit actualizes the Law’s principles in our lives (Rom 8:2; Gal 5:18; 22–23) and applies Scripture to us personally too (237). I love Keener’s application of this important biblical theology to Spirit hermeneutics. At the heart of the Decalogue is personal covenant relationship with God, and through Christ the Spirit actualizes this central principle of the Law in our lives today (Rom 8:2). Scripture can and should be read christologically and personally. Also significant in chapter 16 is Keener’s call for consistency in how Scripture is applied. He cautions that we should avoid two extremes: 1) “treat[ing] the Bible as a series of omens, in which verses or phrases out of context speak directly to our situation”; and 2) “read[ing] the biblical text purely for historical interest.” He writes that if we as readers stop at the historical sense, then “the text becomes simply a museum (or a mausoleum); we are not reading the text distinctively asScripture, as God’s Word” (emphasis original, 255). Admittedly, this is not a groundbreaking new idea but sometimes the most important things to say are not the new ideas but the old ones that need reemphasizing, and Keener is not afraid to do this.

Part vi does not intertwine as well with the other sections, but the subject matter is important to address within a book like this. In the two short chapters here Keener’s focus is to warn that “not all purported Spirit readings equally reflect the mind of the Spirit. Some in fact can be fairly amiss” (287). He looks at different populist pentecostal and charismatic readings of Scripture and tackles uninformed and undisciplined reading. He concludes with an emphasis that he repeats throughout the book, that all genuine Spirit hermeneutics, whatever particular interpretive style or form it takes, “must recognize and submit to the parameters established by the shape of the biblical text itself” (276).

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Three Important Components

There are a number of elements within a book with this level of content that I could highlight,3 but I consider three particularly significant. The first two are the original context and intended sense, and epistemology (Parts iii and iv). The third element is his incorporation of confessional elements throughout his writing.


A previous critique of Spirit hermeneutics research is how or whether a Spirit hermeneutic (or pneumatic exegesis) can be illustrated.4 In the past this has been addressed by incorporating a confessional element, which allows the intertwining of personal faith commitment with the exegetical work to be illustrated.5 Keener incorporates this particularly well, time and time again allowing elements of his own personal context to shine through, which in turn provides a stronger, richer insight into the hermeneutical theology he proposes. In certain situations the context and subject matter really benefit from this kind of confessional approach, and I believe that Spirit hermeneutics

3 For example, Keener’s emphasis that a Spirit hermeneutic is for all who are people of the

Spirit. He emphasizes this interdenominationally (both within and outside of charismatic/

pentecostal circles), crossculturally (Part ii), and historically. Concerning the historical and

interdenominational influence he writes, “The Pentecostal emphasis on the Spirit in inter-

pretation has a long history before Pentecostals; it is thus historically a wider Christian

hermeneutic” (287).

4 See for example, Richard Bauckham’s critique of Robby Waddell’s The Spirit of the Book of

Revelation. Bauckham commended Waddell for his outline of a pentecostal hermeneutic but

felt that he had not adequately illustratedhowhis case study was Spirit-led exegesis. Waddell

responded to this indirectly, saying that he had decided not to add a confessional element

to his book, feeling that “confessional approaches are devalued by the majority of scholars

in academia.” Waddell then conceded a little, describing his sense of calling “to research and

write on the Apocalypse, providing interpretations of the text that will inform and transform

the way the biblical book is viewed by Pentecostals and others alike.” Richard Bauckham,

“Review of Robby Waddell,The Spirit of the Book of Revelation,”jpt17, no. 1 (2008): 5–6; Robby

Waddell, “The Spirit of Reviews and Response,”jpt17, no. 1 (2008): 31. These articles were part

of a collection of reviews ofThe Spirit of the Book of Revelation(Blandford Forum: Deo, 2006),

in jpt, along with Waddell’s response. Frank D. Macchia and Ronald Herms also wrote review


5 Larry McQueen’s Joel and the Spirit is a very good early example of this. Larry McQueen, Joel

and the Spirit: The Cry of a Prophetic Hermeneutic(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995),

chapter 5.

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is one of those subject areas. My feeling is that scholars should resist shying away from using personal testimony for fear that their work may not sound academic enough and instead look with fresh eyes at how it could really benefit their academic contributions. Keener is to be commended for his positive illustration of how confessional elements can actually strengthen and not weaken academic contributions.


The benefits of the confessional approach become even more apparent in Part iv: Epistemology and the Spirit. In chapter 11 he writes, “Those who have met God have access to an experience that they usually can communicate only by testimony …” (160). His key emphasis is that a Spirit-directed, biblically centered epistemology “grows from a faithful relationship with God and trust- ing submission to what God says” and must underpin any Spirit hermeneutic (287). In other words, personal relationship with God is a central, underpinning aspect to any Spirit hermeneutic.

Is it time for the academy to rethink the boundaries between academics and personal faith relationship? Keener certainly seems to think so, considering his argument that “[f]aith, which is consistent with the mind of the Spirit, is an epistemic commitment” (162). Using a personal illustration of his struggle to balance his intellectual side with his personal faith commitment, he writes:

Most of my academic work has built on open inquiry, to some degree bracketing my faith commitment from the exploration because the approaches accepted in the sphere of inquiry were limited. While in gen- eral this limited methodology caused no problems within the sphere of the issues addressed, it promoted a mental habit of bracketing faith out of the reasoning process when (for much of each day) I was in my aca- demic mode.


Keener further describes how this bracketing approach also risked spilling over into his personal faith. This personal confession emphasizes his earlier point that “Christian scholars sometimes guard their moral life but surrender their intellectual life to the world’s skepticism.” He continues, “If Christ is Lord of our lives, however, his realm must include our intellect” (163). The significance of this for Spirit hermeneutics is that a Spirit-directed, biblically inspired epis- temology holds faith as a central aspect—the personal faith relationship with God, and faith as the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1). This therefore means, as Keener emphasizes (using Rom 8:16, “the Spirit himself testifies with

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our spirit that we are God’s children”), that an epistemology of Word and Spirit is “a subjective relational experience and not exclusively an objective, rational recognition” (162). Therefore, personal relationship with God is central to the epistemology Keener sees as underpinning a Spirit hermeneutic.

Part iv is full of sensible, biblically grounded wisdom about why a Spirit- directed epistemology is foundational for a Spirit hermeneutic. Alongside the above, Keener looks at concepts such as reading with faith (reading with the expectation that God will speak to us personally through it) (164–172), and moral blindness or inability to see truth (171). In chapter 12 he deals particularly with the biblical evidence for moral blindness, looking at concepts such as the sin’s darkening of the mind, degrees of blindness (177–182),6and epistemic dualism in John’s Gospel (182–186).7 In chapter 13 the focus is on reading the Bible as truth. He again talks about this idea of reading with faith and asks: if we argue vociferously for a particular perspective, are we really embracing God’s word with genuine personal faith?8 He further warns that approaching the text with too rigid an interpretive framework is not in alignment with the personal faith relationship with God: “If we approach the Bible with sound understanding, embracing it in faith means that we walk in light of God’s presence, recognizing that God may move in surprising ways” (199).

Original Context and Intended Sense

I welcome Keener’s attempt to reestablish what he sees (correctly in my opin- ion) as an imbalance in Spirit hermeneutics (“some interpreters, in the name of ‘pentecostal hermeneutics,’ have played down original meaning’s value” [emphasis original, 99]). This is where the core strength of Keener’s offering sits. He writes that “[d]etermining what the biblical writers were communicat- ing in their original historical setting may not seem flashy … but it is founda- tional to a sound pentecostal hermeneutic” (114). Keener believes that there is a connection between the original context/author and the contemporary application of the passage. Because of this he emphasizes again and again how

6 This theme is also picked up in chapter 14, where Keener highlights Jesus’s criticism of the

Pharisees and Sadducees for their hardness of hearts and uses Jesus’s Parable of the Sower

(and an explanation of it) as an illustration of the importance of the manner in which we

receive a message (or “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven,” Matt 13:11;

Luke 8:10).

7 “[T]hose who embrace the truth and those who resist it” (182).

8 “If we argue vociferously for a particular interpretive approach … yet fail to respond with

awe toward the genuine creator of heaven and earth, we are not embracing the message with

genuine personal faith” (emphasis original, 198–199).

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important it is to understand the original, historical context in which Scripture was written if we are truly committed to seeking contemporary, personal appli- cation.

Chapter 7 establishes Scripture as having “epistemic primacy” (104). It pro- vides “a measuring stick for other claims to revelation, an objective standard against which we may compare our own subjective experience” (112). It is “an invitation to read our experience in light of Scripture” and requires us to submit to its guidance (112). Keener also gives helpful illustrations of his own “charis- matic” experiences of the Lord speaking to him and how he always seeks to evaluate them in the light of Scripture (115–116). Chapter 8 looks at the impor- tance of the ancient meaning of Scripture, drawing out his theme that the original shape of the text and the contemporary implications are connected. This chapter includes a short survey of the discussion about postmodern pen- tecostal hermeneutics and emphasizes balancing subjectivity with objectivity. Chapter 9 establishes further how seeking understanding of the author’s tex- tual design helps us in discerning and reapplying the message (133); and chap- ter 10 concludes Partiiiby exploring how literary and historical approaches to interpretation are both important parts of a Spirit hermeneutic. Keener con- cludes by writing:

[I]f we stop with merely historical observations about the text, we have failed to appropriate its inspired message. Once we understand what biblical texts communicated in their first context, we must hear their challenge or comfort in our own settings as well. Only then do we truly enter the text rather than merely examining it.


In chapter 10 I started to feel a bit confused, not because I disagreed with any- thing Keener writes, but because incorporating literary approaches alongside the historical approach in order to establish grounds for decontextualizing felt quite complicated. I kept wondering (and keep doing so) whether con- necting the historical sense with the role of prophecy instead of with literary approaches might bring forth a really interesting and fruitful exploration. I am surprised that the role of prophecy does not feature more prominently in this book, especially as Keener refers to having ministered in the gift of prophecy during periods of his life (44–45). It has also emerged only on the sidelines in Spirit hermeneutics discussions so far9and is deserving of much greater atten-

9 Notable exceptions are: C.M. Robeck, Jr., “Written Prophecies: A Question of Authority,”

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tion among scholarship generally. I suspect that the lack of focus on the role of prophecy within Spirit hermeneutics (and wider research areas) is an example of cognitive dissonance, and I look forward in hope to a day when the signifi- cance of this precious gift of the Spirit is given the recognition and reverence it deserves among Christian academicians.


There was a gap in the field of Spirit hermeneutics research for a solid, biblically grounded, and centered contribution and Craig Keener has filled this more than sufficiently. The key strengths of Spirit Hermeneutics as I see them are his repeated “not flashy but foundational” emphasis on the importance of determining the original context and the intended sense, and his underpinning of a Spirit hermeneutic with a Spirit-directed epistemology. The inclusion of confessional elements throughout the book is an important aspect that should not be overlooked. I would have loved to see an incorporation of the role of prophecy in his establishment of the link between original context and contemporary meaning.

A potential reading of this book could be one that concludes that, to a large extent, it highlights what should already be visible to the reader. While this could be seen as a criticism, I assert that a strength of this book lies precisely in Keener’s ability to do just that. To a certain extent, the role of hermeneutics is to “join the dots”; to articulate to people the ways in which they are subconsciously already reading Scripture, to help them to recognize this, and, as a consequence, to read and interpret in stronger, more improved ways. It should therefore not be surprising that some of this book reads as Keener restating basic truths. He is doing precisely that; he is joining the dots and restating what should be (but often is not) visible to the reader. He does this in a way that only the most skilled of biblical theologians and articulators can do, and therein is precisely where the strength of Spirit Hermeneutics lies.

Pneuma2 (1980): 26–45; Mark Stibbe, “This Is That: Some Thoughts Concerning Charismatic Hermeneutics,”Anvil15, no. 3 (1998): 181–192; and McQueen, Joel and the Spirit.

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