Category Archives: Pentecostal theology

Amos Yong on Pentecostal preaching (book review)

I recently received this review copy of Amos Yong’s new book, The Kerygmatic Spirit: Apostolic Preaching in the 21st Century (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018).  Besides its collection of 15 Yong sermons (preached mostly between 2014-17), several features make this volume both an essential homiletical resource for preachers in the key of Pentecost, and a germane catalyst towards a Pentecostal practical theology of preaching.

First, there’s Josh P.S. Samuel’s Introduction that examines how Yong’s preaching content and style “situates” within the Pentecostal tradition.  Then there is Yong’s Epilogue that theologically maps forays towards a Pentecostal approach to preaching contextual to emerging 21st century challenges.  There, I especially appreciate his discussion on preaching as “oral performance”, positing that apostolic preaching requires a thoroughly embodied delivery and aims towards the listener’s embodied experience and response to the Word.  Interestingly, as Yong explains, rather than preparing a sermon manuscript, he generally only prepares an outline which he feels well enables his audience engagement while allowing for a measure of spontaneity.  Of course, I suppose he is no doubt well stocked with amply prepared structures and themes to readily retrieve through the course of his deliveries.  I have moreover been observing in the sermons read thus far, rhetorical devices here and there that probably help fuel his engaging deliveries.

Then along with his Afterword, there is Tony Richie’s helpful commentaries on each of Yong’s sermons, each discussing how Yong effectively translates his well-known theological themes and projects into congregational preaching that is both evangelistic and simply edifying at the grassroots level.

Finally, readers will find themselves more than nourished with homiletical inspiration, at each of these 15 wells of fresh spring water Yong has graciously dug for our refreshment on the way.  Thus far I have only read the first three messages.  And they are— good.

So, I just finished reading the third message titled, “The Lukan Commission,” which Yong preached at a multi-congregational Presbyterian church in March 2010.  Though communicated in an easy-to-hear style, it is loaded with typical Yong themes of the Spirit and “im/migration,” something I deeply resonate with, since I too have much lived and experienced it.  Yong thus speaks about “the Spirit witnessing . . . of a new world— a new world in which white and black and yellow . . . are able to experience the unity of Christ that does not cancel out the diversity of our colour.”

 

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Pentecostals & Roman Catholics: our convergences outweigh our differences

“Without a doubt, Pentecostals and Roman Catholics comprise a majority of the world’s Christians. . . . Why are these two groups gaining members at such a dramatic rate when other denominations are declining . . . The answer may lie in their shared openness to the Holy Spirit, to the charisms, and to their value of an embodied, experiential and supra-rational faith.”
Karen R.J. Murphy, Pentecostals and Roman Catholics on Becoming a Christian: Spirit Baptism, Faith, Conversion, Experience, and Discipleship in Ecumenical Perspective, Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies, vol. 28 (The Netherlands, Leiden: Brill, 2018), p2.

In this monograph, Karen Murphy examines how Roman Catholics and Pentecostals are discovering through formal ecumenical dialogue, key similarities between themselves within the themes of “Spirit-baptism, faith, conversion, experience, and discipleship.” More specifically, her work provides a timely and important analysis on how the fifth phase of the International Roman Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue (1998-2006) (IRCPD) explored these topics within the broad theme of, “On Becoming a Christian.”
The fifth round report can be viewed at the Cyberjournal for Pentecostal-Charismatic Research: http://www.pctii.org/cyberj/cyber18.html

As Murphy notes, two methodologies significantly facilitated the fifth dialogue. First, they consistently asked one another the “hard questions” about how their respective traditions understand the selected topics, and responded, in an effort to clearly identity similarities and clear differences. Second, for the first time in the history of the dialogues, they together approached the selected themes from the perspective of both biblical and patristic sources (15, 293, 305-306).

Murphy stresses that the most important outcome of the fifth round was the participants’ shared conclusion that their dialogue demonstrates:
“At their core, both Pentecostal and Catholics desire all to experience Christ in a personal manner, to express, visibly manifest, and grow in their faith through discipleship with the aid of the community, and to be joined in the unity of the Spirt. In this regard, Catholics and Pentecostals are more similar than they are different and share a common goal with regard to their hopes for all who become a Christian.” (p. 306).

On this note, I find pertinent to quote the final paragraph from the fifth phase report, which I will break into three crucial parts:
“Finally, each of us has learned a great deal about the ways in which the other fosters faith, conversion, discipleship and formation, understands experience, and the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. As we reflected on the scriptures and to the witness of the early church writers, and as we heard the way our partners in this dialogue engage in fostering the Christian life in those who come to the faith, we recognize in each other a deep commitment to Christ.

Although Pentecostals and Catholics may give different emphases on aspects of becoming a Christian, each fosters the Christian life for the glory of God. Knowing this helps overcome misunderstandings or stereotypes we may have had about each other. It follows that this calls Catholics and Pentecostals to examine their conscience about the way they have sometimes described one another in the past, for example calling the other a “non-Christian” or a member of a “sect”.

We have found much that we share together. Although we have significant differences still on some questions, we are able because of our study in this dialogue, to call one another brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Murphy also notes of course, the ongoing friction, ignorance, and caricatures worldwide, that far too many members of each tradition carry and of one another. Regarding common Pentecostal ignorance, Murphy states:
“Frequently viewing Roman Catholics through a pre-Vatican II lens, many Pentecostals accept old stereotypes of the Catholic Church dating back to the Reformation or earlier, and a, as a result, ‘have failed to recognise the genuine Christian character of the Roman Catholic Church and its members’ going so far as to suggest that ‘virtually no Catholic is a Christian.” (p. 12).

The structure of Murphy’s book closely follows the fifth round’s thematic dialogues. These themes thereby structure her five middle chapters, which the book’s subtitle identifies. Though primarily written for those with ecumenical interests, her study is also helpful towards readers wanting to better understand how Pentecostalism and Roman Catholics converge and diverge in their respective understandings of becoming a Christian and growing in the Christian faith. Besides delineating the fifth round’s outcomes, Murphy also helpfully situate the dialogue within the history of the IRCPD, and suggesting how this fruit can further ongoing ecumenical progress between the two traditions, thus also inferring implications towards the greater field of inter-Christian ecumenicalism.

Meanwhile, the Sixth Phase (2011-2015) of the IRCPD has now also concluded, which was titled, “Do Not Quench the Spirit”: Charisms in the Life and Mission of the Church.” The report can be view at: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/pentecostals/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_2011-2015_do-not-quench-the-spirit_en.html

I want to conclude this brief review by recalling a key aim of the fifth round, which was to help people within both traditions, recognise one another as brothers and sisters in Christ (5-13, 301-302, 307). Yet apart from formal ecumenical dialogues, how do we actually go about this, at the grassroots level? How do we help grassroots members of each tradition, move beyond ignorant based caricatures and misunderstandings of one another’s practices and beliefs? For this reason, the very best feature of Murphy’s work is her passion hope (13, 61-62) that through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, we may continue these labours— until worldwide, Roman Catholics and Pentecostals eat together, the Eucharist at the shared table of Christ, who heals our broken communion.

https://brill.com/abstract/title/34615

Fasting: training our body for the life of prayer

I recently read Old Testament Pentecostal scholar Lee Roy Martin’s book, Fasting, A Centre for Pentecostal Theology Short Introduction (Cleveland, TN, CPT Press, 2014). Martin’s book is perhaps the very first ever attempt from Pentecostal orientation, to construct a theology of fasting , based on a thorough analysis of the relevant biblical texts, and an ecumenically-conversant survey of historical practices across Christian traditions, with special to early 20th century Pentecostal exemplars.

I find most salient, two unique approaches Martin develops on the subject of fasting as a spiritual discipline, which he strives to develop from Pentecostal assents. First, is his final chapter titled, “Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Fasting.” Here, he persuasively argues how we can appreciate and engage the practice fasting as a key “component of Pentecostal spirituality” (p. 147). As one component, Martin outlines how “a theology of fasting may be informed by the Fivefold Gospel” (Christ as Saviour, Sanctifier, Spirit Baptiser, Healer, and Coming King) (p. 150-151f). Yet I believe that more important is Martin’s stress on how fasting fits within Pentecostal spirituality when practiced as a means of ordering bodily desires towards a hunger for God’s presence (pp.147-150, 160).

Yet more significant is how Martin earlier develops this fasting as an expression of Pentecostal embodied worship, through his chapter titled, “Toward a Biblical Theology of Fasting.” Recognising fasting as a “natural human response” to “intense affective experience” (p. 79) and particularly exemplified in biblical examples of “lament”-oriented prayer, Martin argues how the practice of fasting demonstrates a holistic approach to prayer that thus goes beyond prayer simply articulated through words “as a product of the mind” (p. 81). Hence, we can appreciate fasting as a whole-body articulation of prayer, particularly lament-oriented or urgency-oriented prayer. Therefore, fasting demonstrates an embodied and affective approach to worship. Hence, a practice that well illustrates Paul’s exhortation to “present” our “bodies” to God as “a living and holy sacrifice”; a “spiritual service for worship” (Rom 12.1) (p. 91-92)

Martin thus suggests we should approach the practice of fasting, as an important mode of physically embodied prayer. Hence, the act of fasting is prayer not just cognitively spoken, but an important act of worship, that affectively speaks expresses prayer through our whole body. Here we should recall the athletic imagery that describes the ancient Christian understanding of asceticism. We should thus approach fasting as an ascetical practice that trains our body to function as a means of embodied prayer. Faster thus helps capacitate our bodies towards acts of worship. This is incidentally, an ancient Christian understanding of fasting within the broader rubric of Christian asceticism. Moderns have often miss-construed the broad drift of acetic practices as expressing a negative orientation towards the body and/or a freeing of one’s spirit from it. Yet actually, historic Christian asceticism rather presumes the integral role of the body towards Christian spirituality; hence, like other ascetical practices, the aim of fasting is ordering the body towards its spiritual purpose, which is worship before God and embodied mission within and towards creation. Through its stress on bodily action within worship and prayer, Pentecostal spirituality affirms and exemplifies this historic ascetical orientation. Martin’s suggestive outline towards a Pentecostal theology of fasting confirms this observation. Namely, via his attempt to do so via the narrative sequence of the Five-fold Gospel; particularly when we thus appreciate the Christ as Coming King motif as inferring the missional and eschatological aim of ascetical practices, including fasting.

Martin concludes with “practical guidelines for fasting,” also recalling his own experiences with fasting and examples on how he has benefited from its practice. Here he also provides a taxonomy of varied types of fasting. Martin’s survey of the biblical data, ecumenically broad survey of varied Christian approaches, and early Pentecostal sources is commendable, and provides a helpful foundation towards constructing a theology and practice of fasting.

Much more can probably be said, and should be said on the affective role and effects of fasting; hence, how fasting fosters transrational modes of knowing, and the receiving of ecstatic experience(s). This would probably necessitate a more trans-disciplinary approach to the topic. Both the fortifying and combative role of within the notion of spiritual warfare also warrants further attention. Yet Martin provides a helpful introduction that is readable at a popular level, pastorally oriented and themed, yet evidencing solid scholarship.

Martin, Lee Roy. Fasting. A Centre for Pentecostal Theology Short Introduction. Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2014.

Preaching the story and symbol of Pentecostal tradition

With help from Wolfgang Vondey’s 2017 book, Pentecostal Theology: Living the Full Gospel (Bloomsbury T&T Clark).

Earlier this month, just before Good Friday, I was invited to preach a three message series for a church camp this coming June. I was given a theme (“Let Your Light Shine”) and asked to come up with something, “inspirational.” On Saturday before Easter, I prayed to God, “Lord, what am I going to do? What would you have me to say? Keep in mind that that the Saturday before Easter is traditionally called, Holy Saturday. And it was surely for me, a Holy Saturday for within an hour’s time, the whole series flashed before me: “Pentecost.” Moreover, what also emerged that hour was a very clear outline, preaching texts, themes and aims, for the whole three nights. That was a real “ah ha” moment; a redemptive, or redeeming insight.

Now I what greatly aided this sudden inspiration was that I had spent several months extensively reviewing and engaging Wolfgang Vondey’s 2017 book, Pentecostal Theology: Living the Full Gospel (Bloomsbury T&T Clark). I have earlier written some reviews on his book (see below for links). In my earlier reviews, I stress the book’s aesthetic qualities, imagery rich yet simple vocabulary, and highly readable and profoundly edifying prose. For these reasons, I also described it as a systematic theology that may richly fund Pentecostal preaching and congregational liturgical leadership with formatively-powerful imageries, symbols, and themes—evocatively calling people to God at the altar of Pentecost.

Now that I have actually started crafting some messages with help from Vondey’s text, it seems to me that some of you may benefit from these practical examples on how his work can function as a powerful resource for structuring messages on core Pentecostal themes. I will thus proceed in two steps. I will begin by presenting the broad outline I have developed, along with the main points of my first two messages. Then in Part Two, I will explain how Vondey’s Pentecostal Theology book funded my sermon preparation.

PART 1: three sermons on “Back to Pentecost”

Introduction to preaching series

Pentecost. Back to Pentecost.

Back to the light that comes from the fires of Pentecost.

Fires that warm the heart / make bright the face / and empower us—

For overcoming / fruit-bearing / victoriously prospering— Christian life.

Yes, let it be our aim for these nights before God

In whom within Himself burns an altar that generates—

Life-giving fires of Pentecost.

Let us come back— to Pentecost.

That’s why Church camp is often called, “retreat”; church retreat.

We cannot advance, without times of “retreat”— to holy ground.

Coming back to the mountains of sacred encounter.

Coming back to the fires of Pentecost

Falling down from the heavenly altar— where burns the loving heart of God.

We’ll be encountering this light, through a journey.

A transforming journey— across three mountains. Three mountain peaks.

Where at each mountain top, we’ll encounter God— at the altar / on holy ground.

A map for the journey:

1st session 2nd session 3rd session
Mountain Horeb Zion/Upper Room Bethany
Text Ex 3.1-5 Acts 1.8; 2.1-4; 17-21 Mt 5.1-3, 16; 28.16-20
Title “Behold the Light” “Receive the Light” “Show Forth the Light”
Main worship

movement

To the altar

Behold

At the altar

Receive

From the altar

Show forth

1st sermon outline (“Behold the Light”; Exodus 3.1-5):

  1. The desert is the place— of God-encounter.
  2. The holiest God-encounters are always— altar calls.
  3. God’s heart is an altar: it generates— Pentecost.
  4. Coming to God’s altar, starts with focused worship.

2nd sermon outline (“Receive the Light”; Acts 1.8; 2.1-4, 17-21)

  1. God’s love.
  2. Visions and dreams.
  3. Boundary-breaking prayer: tongues speech.
  4. Passion for God’s coming kingdom.

3rd sermon outline (“Show Forth the Light”; Mat 5.1-3, 16; 28.16-20)

Not developed yet.

End-camp practical take-away:

Three spiritual formation practices in the key of Pentecostal spirituality

The three messages suggest a practical “take-away,” that participants may practice as a “rhythm” within their ongoing spiritual formation. Each cycle comprises a narrative journey, yet can be also viewed as a spiralling process.

Life practice God encountered as:
1 To the altar / Behold Saviour/Sanctifier
2 At the altar / Receive Spirit Baptiser / Healer
3 From the altar / Show forth Coming King

PART 2: Themes retrieved from Vondey’s Pentecostal Theology book

For a summary of and reviews I have made on Vondey’s book, see the following links:

My earlier blog posting: https://monteleerice.wordpress.com/2017/09/23/review-vondey-wolfgang-pentecostal-theology-living-the-full-gospel-2017

My review at Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies: http://www.apts.edu/aeimages/File/AJPS_PDF/18-1-BR-Monte-Lee-Rice.pdf

Wolfgang Vondey, Pentecostal Theology: Living the Full Gospel (London, UK: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), in Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 21. No. 1 (February 2018): 98-103.

What I want to specifically mention here, is Vondey’s main thesis, and how he has conceptualised the Pentecostal Fivefold Gospel as a “narrative” of common Pentecostal practices that are commonly performed within a given movement related to a metaphoric place Pentecostals have historically typified as the “altar.”

Vondey’s main thesis is this:

“Pentecost is the core theological symbol of Pentecostal theology, and its theological narrative is the full gospel.” (p. 1). Coupled to this thesis is another major argument Vondey stresses. Namely, that in Pentecostal liturgical life, the notion of “altar” or “altar space,” is a core “metaphor” describing a “ritual space” (p. 5, 40) around which the Fivefold Gospel narrates Pentecostal movement to, at, and from a place of God-encounter, to the world in mission, and back to the altar (pp. 5, 30-31, 55, 84-85, 90, 108-109, 288-289, 292).[1]

Therefore, and this is most important to note, Vondey suggests that in Pentecostalism the Full Gospel actually functions not just or even primarily as a doctrinal confession, but rather as a narrative of common Pentecostal practices that both shape and emerge from the Pentecostal experiences of salvation, sanctification, Spirit baptism, healing, and reign of God, which Pentecostals also experience as increasing eschatological passion for the soon coming of Christ and God’s kingdom in its fullness (pp. 288-294).[2] Hence, Vondey proposes that the Fivefold gospel expresses a narrative movement around the altar that goes like this:

Saviour: To the altar.

Sanctifier: At the altar.

Spirit Baptiser: Through the altar.

Healer: From the altar to the world.

Coming King: Away from the altar in the world.

We must note that Vondey stresses this narrative movement as a heuristic reading, not an absolute structure. Hence, the narrative is a generalised observation, recognising there are diversities to the movement that do not always necessarily follow this scheme or narrated structure. Yet he also asserts that phenomenologically, the narrative broadly describes the ritual life of Pentecostals worldwide. In my three message series, I have condensed Vondey’s narrative into three movements.

To conclude by reiterating my earlier statement, Vondey’s Pentecostal Theology book provides salient resources for funding Pentecostal preaching and congregational liturgical leadership. It does so through formatively-powerful imageries, symbols, and themes— evocatively calling people to God at the altar of Pentecost. I hope my own present work at crafting out a message series that draws deeply from some of Vondey’s main themes, provides a helpful example to other preachers who may benefit from this germane homiletical resource.

Amazon link:
[1] For further clarity to this theme of the “altar” as a metaphor for the Pentecostal ritual space, see also Vondey, “Pentecostal Sacramentality and the Theology of the Altar,” in Scripting Pentecost: A Study of Pentecostals, Worship and Liturgy, eds. Mark J. Cartledge and A.J. Swoboda (New York, NY: Routledge, 2017), 94-107 (98-101).

[2] For further clarity to how the Full Gospel narrates pentecostal “altar”-rooted practices, see Vondey, “Embodied Gospel: The Materiality of Pentecostal Theology,” in Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion: Volume 8: Pentecostals and the Body, eds., Michael Wilkinson and Peter Althouse (The Netherlands, Leiden: Brill, 2017), 102-119 (103).

Reflections from SPS 2018 meeting

Through the relational encounters, stimulating sessions, and hospitable ethos, I have departed from the 2018 Society for Pentecostal Studies meeting with renewed passion towards serving the Pentecostal tradition— for the unifying renewal of the global Church.
 
While this was my seventh consecutively attended conference, I find myself again renewed in conviction that I am a son of the Pentecostal Full Gospel, a steward entrusted with its saving grace for the whole world, and servant to its message of Christ our Saviour, Sanctifier, Spirit-baptiser, Healer, and Coming King.
 
From varied sessions, several themes sustain my departing reflection:
“Church, where is your good news for the poor? Have we traded our prophetic voice for a seat at the table at the privileged?”
 
“Where the margins are, Pentecost explodes.”
 
“Let us pray for those who cannot pray, for ours is simple and humble faith.”
 
“Let us listen to the questions the Majority World is asking, and let their questions shape our answers.” (paraphrase from Carlos Cardoza Orlandi’s plenary session on “The Breath of the Spirit and Our Theological Vocation”)
 
Pentecostal spirituality envisions and fosters:
A way of salvation, where through Christ the Spirit grows us into God’s loving presence, healing us by re-ordering their affections towards His kingdom, and sending them us in mission with God in behalf of its coming.
 
A holy way that forms a new people who embody and enact holy love.
 
An apostolic way of life within the mission of God for the renewal of all creation.
Paraphrased points from Dale Coulter’s plenary session on “Recovering a Wesleyan Vision of Pentecostalism: Five Theses”).
stock-vector-pentecost-descent-of-the-holy-spirit-in-form-of-tongues-of-fire-with-symbolic-people-or-645142681670722847.jpg

I am both and more

I am far more “hetro” than “mono”

I am no more either West or East

Yet a product of both and more

I am Pentecostal and Catholic

Yet can we really be otherwise?

With my whole body

I praise the Lord

Speaking in tongues

Yet love doing so

Through well written litanies.

On the earth I am a stranger

A migrant and foreigner

Yet building altars

On the way

The reasons I am preferentially pro-migrant, pro-refugee, pro-racial minority, pro-cultural/racial diversity, pro-whole world, and very anti-nationalist spirit—

Is that I’ve lived almost half life abroad from my homeland,

Have experienced what it means to be a racial minority,

And am part of a cross-national/racial/cultural marriage.

I thus detest xenophobia (“fear of strangers”) in all its forms.

 

The Bible characters I thus identify most with, are people like

Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Ezekiel, and the apostle Paul.

Like them, I have lived in tents,

Walked the desert paths,

And built altars in many foreign lands.

So the biblical metaphors that describe me are those of

Alien status,

Pilgrimage,

Sojourning,

And foreigner.

 

The biblical practices I value most are

Hospitality,

Breaking bread with others,

And embracing otherness.

 

Yet I believe—

All these themes describe what Christian faith is all about:

Learning to enjoy, learn, and receive from one another,

The many tongues of Pentecost.

This is the mystery of the Gospel:

That we who are different and many, learn through the Spirit of fellowship—

How to embrace one another as one new humanity, on the way to new creation.

 

Perhaps for me, the most formative Pentecostal theologian on me remains, Walter Hollenweger, father of the modern critical Pentecostal theological tradition, and early articulator of the Pentecostal giftedness towards “oral theology and liturgy.” Hollenweger was also a poet. One of my favourite pieces from him, is the “Prayer of the Frog.” For the frog is an “in-between” creature: home in two worlds, yet not fully belonging to either world. Both worlds function as a liminal threshold— to somewhere else, a place better than either, yet built on the best of both worlds.

“Prayer of the Frog,” by Walter Hollenweger.

“Sometimes, I feel like a frog,

Happy in the waterpond—

until I run out of air and creep on land.

Happy in the fresh air,

until my skins hurts in the glaring sun and I plunge back into the water.

O God,

Why did you make me an in-between creature, neither fish nor fowl?

Why am I not a flamingo, or an eagle or a mighty roaring lion?

Just a frog?

You did not ask me whether I wanted to be a frog,

Nor whether I wanted to be at all,

Nor did my parents ask me.

So, I am, what I am, an in-between being.

When I am with the feminists they call me “macho”

because I want to pray “Our Father.”

When I am with the pacifists they call me a war-monger

because I do not believe that the abolishment of the Swiss Army serves world peace.

When I am with the military they call me a pacifist

because I find it a scandal how we treat the conscientious objectors.

When I am with the Christians, they say I am not a Christian

because I find many of their convictions superfluous.
When I am with the Non-Christians the say I am a Christian

because I believe in Jesus Christ.

When I am with the progressives they say I am conservative

because I do not know how to re-organize world trade justly.

When I am with the rich people they say I am a leftist

because I expect them to share their riches.

When I am with the Catholics they say that I am a Protestant

because I do not believe in the infallibility of the pope.

When I am with the Protestants they say I am a Catholic

because I like the Catholic liturgy.

When I am with the Ecumenists they say that I am a Pentecostal

because I would like to see more of the Spirit in the ecumenical movement.

When I am with the Pentecostals they say I am an ecumenist

because I am convinced that they need the ecumenical movement.

When I am with the critical exegetes they call me “pious”

because God sometimes speaks to me in Scripture.

When I with the uncritical Bible readers they say that I do not believe in the Bible

because I do not accept their facile interpretations.

 

O God, you alone know what I am.

Help me to believe that this is enough.

You made me an in-between being so that I can be an evangelist.

But God it is a tough job.

Sometimes I am confused and terrified.

Strengthen my faith so that I am

A cheerful in-between creature, a happy frog.

From Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide (1997).

 

“Rightly ‘sounding” God’s Word: Amos Yong on Pentecostal orality”

I am presently reading Amos Yong’s 2017 essay volume, The Hermeneutical Spirit: Theological Interpretation and Scriptural Imagination for the 21st Century (Wipf & Stock Publishers; Cascade Books).

All the chapters evidence new trajectories in Yong’s ongoing theological projects. Yet I am mostly drawn to Yong’s chapter on Pentecostal orality, titled, “Understanding and Living the Apostolic Way: Orality and Scriptural Faithfulness in Conversation with African Pentecostalism” (originally drafted for an international conference presentation in Nigeria, November 2016). For this reason, I will begin by critically reviewing this chapter, and then provide a brief survey the book.

Orality as a hermeneutical criterion

While the notion of orality has long been recognized as a major descriptive of Pentecostal spirituality, a question is: how does orality relate, or should relate, to Pentecostal hermeneutics? Yong thus begins this chapter by asking, “How do Pentecostals read and interpret the Bible? How should Pentecostals do so?” (p. 43). Then “in conversation with African pentecostal perspectives” (p. 44), he argues that we recognise the role of orality not just within the interpretive process but even more boldly, its role towards rightly reading and interpreting Scripture (pp. 57-62).’

Yong’s analysis on how orality plays within African Pentecostalism and African culture is especially commendable given that African Pentecostalism is within our present era not only a major shaper of world Pentecostalism but world Christianity as well (pp. 44-45, 48). Yet too often, “prior generations of scholarship” have associated “African orality . . . with cultural inferiority.” Yong’s discussion thus illustrates a corrective, by engaging “African perspectives for the purposes of both comprehending the oral dimensions of human experience and exploring the formulation of a global biblical hermeneutic from such vantage points” (p. 44).

To build his case, Yong retrieves help from orality scholar, anthropologist, and Jesuit priest, Walter Ong, whose 1960’s/1970’s-era work remains a staple resource within orality studies.[1] Ong observed how in traditional cultures and throughout human history prior to the emergence of mechanized printing technology, spoken words, especially when spoken by recognized spiritual leaders, are presumed to be loaded with effectual and spiritual potency. Moreover, this potency requires aesthetically attending to how the words sound. As Yong notes, Ong also demonstrated how the rise of mechanized printing technology de-sacralised this earlier enchanted view of spoken words, while privileging written literacy over the more ancient arts or oral literacy. He thus argued that “orality” comprises a relational dynamic that always subsides once it gets printed. The essence of “orality” comprises sound, hearing, and dialogue; not reading from a printing page. Hence, printed media never conveys the same relational power as “oral media.” The oral Word always comprises greater transforming/relational power than the printed Word.

Drawing both Ong’s work and African cultural perspectives together, Yong therefore challenges us to consider the possibility that: “how something is uttered and heard is not to be subordinated to what is said” (p. 49). Western biblical interpretation has often focused on issues of reading texts in their original contexts. Yet orality dynamics suggest moreover, that meaning emerges from “how the sacred text is sounded.” Including, how it is chanted, sung, prayed, claimed, pronounced, and declared (p. 49). Attending to orality as a hermeneutic criterion, thus also challenges us to posit biblical hermeneutics as a exercise aimed not just towards orthodoxy, but towards the facets of orthopathy (right feeing) and orthopraxy (right actions) as well (pp. 57f).

Therefore, as Yong appropriately notes, attending to how orality dynamics factor within the hermeneutical aims of Scripture reading, thus presents fresh clarity to the ancient dictum: “the rule of prayer shapes the rule of belief (lex orandi, lex credenda) (p. 60). entecostal orality thus suggests: how we pray, shapes what we believe. Perhaps more pointedly: how we speak the Word, shapes what is believed.

To conclude, I will list several practical implications that Yong’s proposal raises. First and foremost, I would say that recognising orality as a hermeneutical criterion, enjoins greater attention towards fostering some measure of aesthetic quality within the ministry of preaching. This means, attending to the sound of preaching, as a criterion towards assessing the integrity of the preached Word.[2]

Second, this also suggests fostering a tighter relation between homiletics and biblical exegesis, specifically by constantly attending to whatever oral patterns might be intrinsically structuring a biblical text, thus also stressing the orality of the ancient cultures from which the Scriptures emerged as written documents. A good example is in fact the first verses of the Bible. Here, a literal translation of Genesis 1.1-3 proves illustrative: “A wind from God hovered . . . and God spoke.“ Might it be that in the ancient mind, the very sound of the stormy wind with all its force, signified something powerful about God speaking?

Third, attending to orality as a hermeneutical criterion, also enjoins us towards attending to the aesthetical sound of all Scripture reading and prayer as well, within the liturgical settings of communities gathered in worship. Hence, this means retrieving a very ancient assumption about sounds and words spoken for sacred purposes: there are sounds and words that when rightly spoken, are loaded with efficacious power.

The Bible was first read within orality rich cultures. In those cultures, truths were often communicated, learned, and retained in memory through memory aiding techniques like verse, rhythm, and melody; hence, through aesthetical sound rhythms and patterns. So rightly sounding the Word is therefore, an aesthetical task. This means we are actually reflecting on the three Transcendentals of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and how each proceeds from the other. Yet what this finally suggest is that: how we say the Word, is really just as important is part of the very Word we say. So to reiterate, how we speak the Word, shapes what listeners believe.

Book survey

This new edition is a following volume of a series that began with the 2014 published two volume set, The Dialogical Spirit: Christian Reason and Theological Method for the Third Millennium and The Missiological Spirit: Christian Mission Theology for the Third Millennium Global Context (Wipf & Stock Publishers; Cascade Books). While the essays in the first two volumes were written from 2000-2014, most of this book’s 12 pieces were written after 2011; five between 2016 and 2017. Note also that this volume reflects Yong’s sustained themes on the dialogical and missiological aims the Spirit through the ongoing event(s) of Pentecost. Yet here Yong breaks new important ground by bringing these themes into critically reflective engagement with the “contemporary theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS) conversation” which today reaches across all major Christian traditions. For those who may not know, TIS essentially stresses that Scripture should be consciously read within the context of early Christian creedal tradition (e.g., Apostles’ and Nicene Creed, together articulating the triune God as Father (creator), Son (redeemer), and Spirit (sanctifier).

Hence, through these essays, Yong provides examples on how his ongoing work exemplifies a uniquely Pentecostal contribution to the TIS conversation; how we might read Scripture and theologize “in light of the Pentecost event” (p. 13). There are of course other contemporary efforts towards articulating Pentecostal theological hermeneutics, usually in some way engaging the Pentecostal four/five-fold Gospel as heuristic framework for the global Pentecostal theological tradition. So as perhaps a point of departure, what makes Yong’s approach distinctive is his continued elaboration from his “many tongues” metaphor.

Yong thus argues that, recognizing we today read Scripture “after Pentecost,” we therefore, “read “with and through the many tongues of Pentecost” (p. 258). By the “many tongues of Pentecost” Yong means the many “ecclesial traditions” that comprise the whole Christian Church across its theological traditions, along with the “many cultural-linguistic contexts” that comprise the global Christian Church (pp. 258-259). Yong’s dialogical and missiologically nuanced presentation of Pentecostal hermeneutics thus appropriately concludes this volume on the theme of eschatology. Christian hermeneutics “‘in the last days’ (Acts 2:17)” is thus understood as a stretching towards the coming horizon: “It is in this liminal space longing and yearning for the Parousia and return of the Messiah that scriptural interpretation arises” (p. 265). He thus enjoins our “expectation that the depths and riches of God’s work in Christ will continue to be unveiled through the Spirit, in expectation of the final revelation that transcends creaturely space and time” (pp. 265-266).

Another quality of this volume lies in its diversely offered topics, though each takes off from Yong’s engagement with concerns characteristic of theological hermeneutics. So while the first three chapters specifically focus on a Pentecostal perspective towards this theme, Yong presents the next three chapters as discussions on “theological anthropology” (chs 4-6), and the next three on a “pneumatological soteriology” (chs 7-9). The final three chapters (chs 10-12) provides examples on how Yong’s pentecostally take on theological hermeneutics, provide unique readings on selected Bible texts.

I will conclude by mentioning another chapter I found especially captivating: “Running the (Special) Race: New (Pauline) Perspectives on Disability and Theology of Sport” (ch 11). As its title suggest, this chapter retrieve Yong’s earlier efforts towards bringing in conversation together, Pentecostal and Disability studies (similar to ch 4: “Many Tongues, Many Senses: Pentecost, The Body Politic, and the Redemption of Dis/Ability”). Yong’s long sustained explorations at the junction of Pentecostal and disability studies are much rooted in his own life experience, having a brother with Down syndrome. While his prime aim for this essay is teasing out a “Pauline theology of sport” (p. 222), I am sure readers will find his discussion highly relevant for Christian life altogether. For Paul indeed likens the life in Christ as a race, and exhorts us, “Run in such a way that you may win . . . “ (1 Cor. 9.24). Yong however reminds us about the “weakness” motif that permeates the Corinthian letters, and challenges us how we might read Paul’s athletic imagery through the lens of that motif (p. 230). Doing so grants us new perspectives “on what it means to compete, win, or be disqualified” (p. 232). Using the modern “Special Olympics” rather than the normal Olympic Games as a a norm for thinking through our approach to athletics, Yong raises a number of provocative questions for our reflection. I will thus end by listing several on this topic of “running the race”:

  • “ . . . what if, as we have already seen in 1 Corinthians, the horizon is not the advancement of the self but the formation of a new people of God constituted at its center by those who are weak and otherwise socially ignored or marginalized?” (pp. 233-234)
  • “Can we imagine sporting events without winners and losers? The theological counter to this question has to do precisely with what kinds of winners and losers result. Is it not possible for us to acknowledge winners without perpetuating the ancient Greek ideal that second place (or worse) is unacceptable? Is it possible to nurture a spirit of sportsmanship that seeks the common good of all, including those who have been otherwise excluded and marginalized?” (p. 236)
  • “The preceding ruminations suggest that Paul would intone some cautionary admonitions about the various manifestations of sport. In particular, he might suggest that in this domain, we might still be able to learn a thing or two if we adopted the perspectives of those with disabilities. After all, if foolishness and weakness are at the heart of what means to be the people of God, might we not also take these as ordering principles that structure how we compete alongside one another for the ultimate prizes that truly matter?” (p. 236)

[1] See Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Culture and Religious History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970); idem, idem, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 3rd ed. (Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1982; New York, NY: Routledge, 1982, 2002, 2012).

[2] Yong also explores how implications orality raises towards preaching in his essay, “The Spirit and Proclamation: A Pneumatological Theology of Preaching Part II: Orality and the Sound of the Spirit: Intoning an Acoustemological Pneumatology” The Living Pulpit (Summer 2015): 28-32.