On Pentecostal Theology: An Interview with Robert Menzies

Silas Daniel, an editor with the Brazilian AG magazine “Obreiro Aprovado” (“Approved Worker”), recently asked if I (Robert Menzies) would be willing to provide a written interview for their publication.  Last October I spoke to a group of Brazilian pastors via Zoom and two Pentecostal publishers have translated and published several of my books there.  So, they feel the need to address some theological questions and asked if I would do the interview.  My English version of this interview, which was translated into Portuguese and published late last year, is provided below.  I wish to thank Silas Daniel and his Brazilian AG colleagues for their excellent questions and their passion for proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to “the ends of the earth.”

Brazil CPAD Interview

Robert Menzies
Oct. 30, 2020

1) In recent years, Pentecostal theology has gained the attention of the academic world. What do you attribute this to?

I believe there are two reasons for the growing influence of Pentecostal theology.  First, the rapid growth of Pentecostal churches, particularly in the Majority World, makes it difficult for the global Church to ignore this movement and its theology. Indeed, Pentecostal churches around the world have been growing with such rapidity that Philp Jenkins refers to the Pentecostal movement as “the most successful social movement of the past century (Next Christendom, 8).”  So, many want to know, “What is driving this movement?  What do they believe?”

Secondly, Pentecostal theology has matured and a host of Pentecostal scholars from various parts of the world are now making important contributions in virtually every area of the theological enterprise (historical, biblical, systematic, and practical theology, as well as missiology). Pentecostals have an important theological contribution to make to the broader church world, and this is now being recognized by scholars both within and outside of the Pentecostal movement.

2) One of the most disputed themes in the Pentecostal theological environment today is Pentecostal hermeneutics. Most Pentecostal theologians (including you) have espoused a hermeneutic that remains faithful to traditional methods of interpreting the Bible, but enriching them with the use of some tools of redaction criticism and narratology. Others, however, have been seduced by the idea of ​​adopting principles of postmodern literary criticism. In 1993, you had a debate with Timothy Cargal about this. What are the dangers of this proposal, which was adopted by Kenneth Archer and others?

Since the Reformation most protestants have viewed “historical meaning” —the meaning of the text understood in its original historical and literary context—as a central goal of our reading of the Bible.  The biblical author’s intended meaning, then, becomes the foundation from which faithful application of the Bible’s message to our situations can be made.  When this emphasis on historical meaning is discarded and the goal of interpretation shifts from locating meaning in “the author and the text” to “the reader and the text,” we move from a solid foundation to very slippery, uncertain ground.  The meaning of the biblical text is no longer defined by the inspired author, but rather by the perception of the fallible reader.  In this post-modern approach there is no objective meaning and thus multiple meanings, even when they are contradictory, are recognized as valid. This approach, advocated by some contemporary scholars, ultimately represents a rejection of the authority of the Bible.  The ability of the Word of God to speak to us and challenge our presumptions and prejudices is lost.  We, the reader, take control and determine what the text means.  This, of course, is very dangerous and leads to confusion in our churches.

Some, like Archer, argue that the Holy Spirit and the Christian community will keep us from error.  However, if we study the twenty-plus charismatic movements that have appeared in the history of the Church, we find that none of them ended well. This is a sobering fact. The Montanists are an excellent example of a charismatic group that probably started well, but ended badly. The list of other such movements is painfully long.  Most of these movements started well, but all of them remained on the periphery of the life of the church. In time, due to an over-emphasis on charismatic gifts and a lack of grounding in Scripture, these groups went astray. A charismatic leader or self-proclaimed prophet would arise and lead the group into self-destructive fanaticism and heresy. However, as my father, William Menzies, would say, here is where the modern Pentecostal movement is different. Here we find its uniqueness. The Pentecostal movement has survived long enough to become a part of mainstream Christianity.  Our commitment to the Bible as our authority, the measure of and guide for our experience and practice, has been vital to the on-going success of the modern Pentecostal movement.  If we move away from this emphasis on Scripture, we will lose our way.

3) What are the main contributions of Pentecostal theologians to biblical hermeneutics?

Pentecostals are calling the church to take a fresh look at Luke-Acts.  Only by hearing Luke’s distinctive voice can we develop a truly holistic doctrine of the Holy Spirit.  Only by reading Luke-Acts on its own terms can we understand the significance of the promised baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5).  For far too long Protestant theology has highlighted Paul’s important insights into the work of the Spirit, but largely ignored Luke’s contribution. 

More specifically, Pentecostal are challenging two assumptions that limit how many Protestants read Luke-Acts.  The first assumption insists that since Luke’s narrative treats a unique era in the life of the church, it should be understood that the events he describes are not presented as models for subsequent generations of Christians.  In short, many assume that Luke the historian wrote to provide the church with its message, not its methods.

The second assumption suggests that we go to Paul for theology since his epistles are didactic in character.  The gospels and Acts simply provide the raw historical data for this theological reflection.  Unfortunately, this approach blinds Christians to the full breadth and richness of the biblical witness.  Pentecostals are rightly challenging both of these assumptions and, as a result, are enabling the church to recover its primitive power and its apostolic calling. 

4) You once wrote that if the Methodist theologian James Dunn took the principles he adopted from biblical hermeneutics to the last consequences, he would be forced to agree with the Pentecostal interpretation of Lucan pneumatology. Could you explain it?

Back in 1970 James Dunn pointed the way forward for Pentecostal scholars by stressing the theological integrity of each biblical author.  A truly biblical theology, Dunn rightly urged, could be developed only when we, “take each author and book separately and…outline his or its particular theological emphases; only when he has set a text in the context of its author’s thought and intention…only then can the biblical-theologian feel free to let that text interact with other texts from other books” (Baptism in the Holy Spirit, p. 39). 

Although Dunn correctly highlighted the importance of allowing each biblical author to speak, he failed to follow his own advice.  He argued that the NT uniformly presents the gift of the Spirit as “the climax of conversion-initiation.” Dunn maintained that this was true of Luke as well as Paul and John. Yet if Dunn had taken his own advice to heart, he might has seen that while Paul speaks of the gift of the Spirit as the source of spiritual life (cf. Rom. 8:9); Luke describes reception of the Spirit as a prophetic enabling, an empowering for ministry (cf. Acts 1:8; 2:17-18).  It is ironic that James Dunn, the author of Unity and Diversity in the New Testament and the quote cited above, was unable to acknowledge the distinctive character of Luke’s pneumatology.

5) Decades ago, it was said that Pentecostal hermeneutics was still being built. Today, after the bases laid by theologians like Howard Erwin, William Menzies and Anthony D. Palma, and the contributions of you, Roger Stronstad and others, do you believe that we already have a more mature and solid Pentecostal hermeneutics today?

Yes, we Pentecostals have a wonderful opportunity to communicate our theology, a biblical vision for the life and mission of the church, today.  The Pentecostal scholars you noted above blazed a fresh trail.  Their pioneering efforts have been augmented by important developments in NT studies. The increasing awareness in the broader church world that biblical narratives, including Luke-Acts, convey an important theological message has opened up unprecedented opportunities for us.  Fortunately, Pentecostal scholars are, for the most part, seizing this opportunity and communicating the rich theological heritage upon which the modern Pentecostal movement is founded.  This involves recognizing our strong connections with the Evangelical movement, particularly as it relates to hermeneutics (for example, stressing the importance of historical meaning).  Yet, at the same time, it also means affirming the distinctive aspects of our Pentecostal hermeneutic, chief of which is the way we read the book of Acts as a model for the life and ministry of contemporary Christians. 

So, I do believe that Pentecostal hermeneutics, and the theology that flows from it, have come of age. Pentecostal scholars and the Pentecostal tradition are demonstrating how Evangelical theology might be enriched by a more holistic approach, one that gives full voice to the biblical narratives and thus the entire canon of Scripture. 

6) In your opinion, what are the main names in Pentecostal theology today in the world?

The previous generation produced historians like Vinson Synan and my father, William Menzies, as well as noted NT scholars (thankfully, still with us), Russell Spittler, Anthony Palma, and Gordon Fee.  Stanley Horton, recently deceased, also made outstanding contributions.  The current generation of Pentecostal theologians includes: Roger Stronstad and Chris Thomas (NT); Wonsuk Ma and Lee Roy Martin (OT); Julie Ma and Alan Johnson (missions); Frank Macchia and Simon Chan (systematic); Allan Anderson and Cecil M. “Mel” Robeck (historical).  Prolific scholars, who perhaps are not classical Pentecostals, but would fit into the broader charismatic classification include Craig Keener and Max Turner (NT), and Amos Yong (systematic).  This is just a sampling of notable Pentecostal scholars in the English-speaking world.

A host of Pentecostal scholars from the Majority world might also be mentioned, but most of these would not consider English to be their mother-tongue.  Since I am most familiar with Asia, I will just name a few Asian Pentecostal scholars: Lora Timenia (Philippines); Aaron Zhuang (Taiwan); Joshua Iap (Taiwan, Malaysia); Timothy and Robert Yeung (Hong Kong); Tin Kwan Lei (Hong Kong); Gani Wiyono (Idonesia); and Dong Soo Kim (Korea).

The future for Pentecostal scholarship is bright, largely because of the emergence of fine scholars in countries in the global South, including Brazil. 

7) Some Pentecostal theologians have said that there are three theological currents in Pentecostal theology today: the Springfield School (evangelical), the Cleveland School (preaches a break with evangelicalism) and the Birmingham School (more ecumenist). Do you agree with this classification?

Yes, I do believe this classification captures well the various theological streams that we see in the Pentecostal academy today.  However, I would emphasize that these categories, while they may helpfully describe the main currents in the Pentecostal academy, they do not equally represent the beliefs and practices found in grass-roots Pentecostal churches.  The vast majority of Pentecostal churches, in my opinion, reflect the theological emphases and message of the “Evangelical plus” group.  A much smaller group identifies with the Cleveland School and very few actually reflect the values and ethos of the Birmingham School.

I identify with the “Evangelical plus” school, as my recent book, Christ-Centered: The Evangelical Nature of Pentecostal Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2020; soon to be translated into Portuguese), makes clear.  I believe that the Pentecostal movement has always affirmed core Evangelical commitments—the authority of the Bible; that salvation is found only in Jesus; and that evangelism is a priority for the church—while at the same time adding significant theological emphases to these core beliefs (how we read Acts, our understanding of baptism in the Spirit, and the way we relate this experience to speaking in tongues).  I describe these distinctive contributions in my book, Pentecost: This Story is Our Story (GPH, 2013), which has been translated into Portuguese.

The Cleveland School emphasizes a post-modern, experientially-driven hermeneutic, but seeks to anchor the Pentecostal church’s belief and practice in an emphasis on tradition, the Five-fold Gospel (Jesus as Savior, Healer, Sanctifier, Spirit Baptizer, and Coming King).  The focus here seems to be more on spirituality and experience than doctrine.  My fear, however, is that with its subjective hermeneutic and flexible approach to Scripture, the Cleveland School will lead to a turbulent and uncertain future for the church.  When the current leaders pass from the stage, what theological commitments will guide the next generation?  The danger of a focus on experience that loses sight of the historical meaning of the biblical text is illustrated in the trajectory of Pietism, which influenced Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher, the Father of Liberal Theology.

The Birmingham School rejects the notion that the Pentecostal movement can be defined by any unifying theological affirmation.  This view also rejects the view that the Pentecostal movement was “birthed” in the U.S. at the beginning of the last century, whether this “birth” be linked to Parham’s Bible school in Topeka, Kansas or the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles.  Rather, the Birmingham School and its leading figures, Walter Hollenweger and Allan Anderson, maintain that there were multiple origins of the modern Pentecostal movement.  In short, the Birmingham School insists that the Pentecostal movement is so diverse that it defies theological description.  Thus, the Birmingham school tends to emphasize phenomenological (or experiential) rather than theological categories for analyzing Pentecostal groups.

I do believe this approach fails to recognize the striking unity that binds together Pentecostals around the world, regardless of their language, culture, or geographical location.  The common thread that unites Pentecostals in specific locations with other Pentecostals around the world is their sense of connection with the apostolic church as reflected in the book of Acts.  The biblical record, then, is the source of a common theological understanding that informs and shapes Pentecostal belief and practice.

Additionally, while much is often made of the theological diversity that marks the Pentecostal movement, I believe this diversity is really a matter of semantics.  The terms, Pentecostal, neo-Pentecostal, and charismatic, become meaningful when we give them specific definition and use them in precise ways. When we do not, the result is a vague picture of an amorphous movement.  I have attempted to offer clear definitions for these terms in my books, Pentecost: This Story is Our Story and Christ-Centered: The Evangelical Nature of Pentecostal Theology.

8) Leave a special message for our readers in Brazil.

Back in 1970 James Dunn voiced his hope for the future.  He longed for the day when a “new Christian presence which is both truer to…the New Testament and more suited and adaptable to our fast-changing world” might animate the Church.  That day has arrived.  This dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit is found in Pentecostal churches around the world, but nowhere more powerfully than in the Pentecostal churches of Brazil.  What has transpired in Brazil over the past 60 years is one of the greatest stories in the history of the Church.  The emergence of the Pentecostal church in Brazil, now numbering well over 20 million strong, is a great miracle that has global significance.  Today, around the world, as I personally witnessed in China, one can find missionaries sent out by Pentecostal churches in Brazil.  You are a part of this great, Christ-centered movement empowered by the Holy Spirit.  I pray that you will treasure and embrace the great legacy of Pentecostal power that is ours and that reaches back to the experience of the early church recorded in the book of Acts.  Never forget that we have been called to bear bold witness for Jesus, the unique Savior of the world, and that we also have been promised power to fulfill this high calling.  This is what Pentecost is all about.

Robert Menzies has a Ph.D in New Testament from the University of Aberdeen (Scotland) and is the Director of the Asian Center for Pentecostal Theology (www.pentecost.asia).  He has written numerous books on the Holy Spirit in the New Testament and Pentecostal theology, including Spirit and Power: Foundations of Pentecostal Experience (Zondervan, 2000); Pentecost: This Story is Our Story  (GPH Press, 2013); and, most recently, Christ-Centered: The Evangelical Nature of Pentecostal Theology (Cascade, 2020).

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