Reading the Bible
To understand Pentecostal theology properly we also need to understand how Pentecostals and Charismatics read the Bible, which they acknowledge universally as the source of their theology – although Catholic Charismatics will include the authority of tradition and the Church. For most Pentecostals and Charismatics, theology is inseparable from the Bible in which they find their central message. Although identifying to a great extent with the ‘evangelical’ position on biblical authority, most are not usually preoccupied with polemical issues like the unity and inspiration of the Bible and other theological niceties. Their purpose in reading the Bible is to find there something that can be experienced as relevant to their felt needs. Ken Archer points out that Pentecostals, like the Holiness groups from which many of them emerged, read the Bible with ‘a thoroughly popularistic, pre-critical, text-centred approach’. They believe in ‘plenary relevance’, that the Bible contains all the answers to human questions and must simply be read, believed and obeyed.
Some insight into hermeneutical processes can be gained by the work of Latin American theologians. Severino Croatto outlines three aspects of the discipline of hermeneutics, which is not only concerned with the ‘privileged locus’ of the interpretation of texts (the first aspect), but must also take into account that ‘all interpreters condition their reading of a text by a kind of preunderstanding arising from their own life context’ (the second aspect). For him the third aspect is equally important: ‘the interpreter enlarges the meaning of the text being interpreted’. Carlos Mesters says that when ‘common people’ (such as most Pentecostals) read the Bible, a ‘dislocation’ occurs and ‘emphasis is not placed on the text’s meaning in itself but rather on the meaning the text has for the people reading it’. It is mainly in the West where some Pentecostal academics have more closely identified themselves with a ‘conservative evangelical’ approach to the Bible. There, a greater emphasis is placed on ‘correct’ biblical hermeneutics (the ‘right’ interpretation of the Bible) and on written theology. But most Pentecostals worldwide rely on an experiential rather than a literal understanding of the Bible, and it is therefore not very meaningful to discuss the interpretation of the text alone. They believe in spiritual illumination, the experiential immediacy of the Spirit who makes the Bible ‘alive’ and therefore different from any other book.