Friday, June 15, 2012

Acts 2: Understanding Pentecost: more than meets the eye (part 1)

A century of rubbing shoulders with Pentecostals (not to mention the prolific numerical growth of the Pentecostal movement worldwide) has softened some of its harsher critics. Nevertheless, there remains a great divide between ministers who actively encourage parishioners to pursue "further" experience(s) of the Holy Spirit and those who counsel their members to rest in the assurance that they already have received and possess the Holy Spirit. This divide is rooted in a fundamental difference of doctrine about the role of the Holy Spirit and the nature of what the Bible means by the phrase "baptized in the Holy Spirit".

Pentecostals think they really have it. Evangelicals1 and Catholics think they understand it. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, I would suggest that Pentecostals have not yet reckoned with everything the baptism in the Holy Spirit is and does, and Evangelicals and Catholics have yet to think through and revise their polemics.
the Dead Sea Scrolls ... force us to consider Jewish traditions about Pentecost

What the Dead Sea Scrolls have done is to force us to consider Jewish traditions about Pentecost that have previously been discounted as too late to be relevant. These diverse traditions all suggest a single common denominator upon which all of New Testament pneumatology is built -- that in the New Testament period, Pentecost was primarily a day of covenant forging and renewing!

In Acts 2:1, Luke purposefully highlights that the miraculous out pouring of the Holy Spirit occurred on "Pentecost", the Greek name of the Jewish feast of Shavuot. No detail of biblical narrative is random. Luke is intentionally creating theology by investing his account with Judaisms' prior understanding of this celebration. 

The problem with this particular celebration is that the Hebrew Bible does not explicitly state everything that Shavuot became to the Israelites. Pastors attempting to do due diligence in their background study read in the Hebrew Bible laws regulating a harvest festival and stop there. What they don't realize is that within Judaism Shavuot became so much more than a wheat harvest. By not being familiar with the cultural and literary life of Shavuot through history, many well intentioned Christians have cut short their background study. They are like miners who spent all day mining to find one speck of gold dust and left the cave thinking that it was all mined. Meanwhile, just down another corridor there was a huge vein of gold waiting to be dug out.

Another problem is that many pre-Dead Sea Scrolls scholars (both Christian2 and Jewish3) taught that the Jewish traditions that associated Shavuot with covenant were fools-gold because they all developed after the New Testament era. In other words, these traditions were not newly discovered at Qumran. We have known about them for millennia, appropriately preserved by Jews around the world. The fact that these covenant connections also occurred in the Dead Sea Scrolls now forces everyone to reassess their value for biblical and theological study.4 Yet, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was recent enough that many ministers still come across scholarly articles of a bygone paradigm, not realizing that there is evidence these articles do not consider.
All of the teachings on the Holy Spirit in the New Testament need to be reassessed

All of this is to say, there is more to Pentecost than meets the eye. Few people have heard about the covenant connection the Holy Spirit has with the Law of God. All of the teachings on the Holy Spirit in the New Testament need to be reassessed, and the way we communicate them needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, for Pentecostal and Evangelical alike. 

But why do Evangelicals need to rebuild their pneumatology? Haven't Evangelical scholars such as James Dunn5 and Max Turner6 already appropriated such covenant-Sinai imagery into their theology? They have. Yet they have argued against Pentecostals in such a way that assumes covenant always equals salvation. To the contrary, to say that the Holy Spirit is covenantal in nature is a blade that cuts both ways, as I will argue in "subsequent" posts. ;)

While the language of the debate between Christian groups needs to be completely reframed, it is my hope that treating the Holy Spirit as the agent of covenant will build a bridge of understanding and unity between the various ministry philosophies that exist.

1. Even though Pentecostals find themselves under the wide umbrella of Evangelical theology, I use Evangelical here for Evangelicals of an anti-Pentecostal persuasion.

2. O’Toole, Robert. “Acts 2:30 and the Davidic Covenant of Pentecost.” Journal of Biblical Literature 102.2 (1983): 245-58. See also Eduard Lohse, "πεντηκοστη" 6:44-53 in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. eds. Kittel, G., and G. Friedrich, Translated by G. W. Bromiley. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964–1976.

3. Jacobs, Louis. “SHAVUOT” Pages 1319–22 in vol. 14 of Encyclopaedia Judaica. Edited by Cecil Roth and Geoffrey Wigoder. 26 vols. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1973.

4. VanderKam, James C. “Covenant and Pentecost.” Calvin Theological Journal 37.2 (2002): 239-54.

5. Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1939.

6. Turner, Max. Power From On High: the Spirit in Israel’s Restoration and Witness in Luke-Acts, Journal of Pentecostal Theology: Supplement Series, no. 9, Edited John Christopher Thomas, et al. England, Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.

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