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Review of ‘Spirit Hermeneutics’ – Craig S. Keener by Jo Soper

Jo SoperJo Soper teaches hermeneutics at WTC. With her husband Jon, she also leads Exeter Network Church – a Bishop’s Mission Order looking to shape itself around mission and following the Spirit without being unnecessarily weird. In addition to teaching at WTC and co-leading ENC, Jo loves learning, teaching, body boarding, a glass of good red wine, and getting opportunities to pray for people who have never encountered Jesus.

Spirit Hermeneutics…

I am so glad that Craig Keener has written this book. Pentecostalism has grown exponentially across the globe, and this is in my view a very welcome addition to a growing number of scholars articulating the massive contribution a Pentecostal worldview brings to the wider church. In truth, it is a hard thing to put words to the ‘how’ of the dynamics of the Spirit.

In fact, Keener ends up insisting that, rather than reading from within any one denomination, his book sets out to articulate what it means to read ‘in light of Pentecost’, that is, what it means to read in an age when the Spirit is poured out on all, when gifts of the Spirit are given to the body of Christ, when we are living the story of Acts. He claims this view as ‘Christian’ rather than Pentecostal. He gets my vote on that score!

He explains and explores the call for Christians to read expecting God to speak and act as he has done through history. And he does a great job of giving place to experiential reading as not just inevitable, but biblical and, frankly, more enjoyable, while at the same time showing that he knows there are potential pitfalls (‘Mary had a virgin birth so why shouldn’t I?’).

One of the things Keener is clearly trying to do is to bridge approaches to interpreting the Bible that depend solely on digging out the original intention and then almost legalistically applying it to the contemporary context, and approaches that are in danger of ignoring the first intention and coming to the Scriptures asking only ‘What does this mean to me?’. He does a great job, helped by the fact that he is himself both a careful and thorough exegete and a practising charismatic.

Keener appears to be writing in reaction to the excesses of approaches (Pentecostal, reader-centred, postmodern?)  that leave the Scriptures open to meaning whatever I (the reader) want, and using the Bible to back up what I already thought: I love his example (true apparently) of the woman who, having met someone else, was praying about whether she should leave her husband, and read ‘Put on the new man’ as a green light from God. He convincingly emphasises the need for anchoring our interpretation in the ‘designed sense’, and insists that this sets the parameters for possible interpretations. A growing understanding of the overarching message of Scripture via making every effort to uncover the original cultural context is a sound and vital goal, and will help us avoid lifting meanings from Scripture which are contrary, even the exact opposite of what the Scriptures set out to say (for example, on the topics of slavery or the liberation of women).

My only regret is that Keener’s book doesn’t include a chapter which, rather than putting a tighter rein on the Pentecostal horse, gives a sharp squeeze to the more conservative one. He insists there is no room for irresponsible exegesis, which from time to time the Holy Spirit seems to employ to get our attention. In my view it is time to properly give place to prophetic ways the Spirit uses Scriptures precisely out of their original context but with staggering accuracy and insight in the contemporary context, assuming we don’t claim these as ‘the meaning’, and assuming they don’t directly contradict what the Bible clearly teaches (as in the ‘Put on the new man’ example). This happens too often to discount as ‘extreme’ and ‘to be avoided’. Who will champion the case for a Spirit-led, faithful misreading?

Nevertheless, this book makes for interesting and thought-provoking reading on many topics such as how New Testament writers (and Jesus himself) appropriate the Old, on the role of the Spirit in epistemology: ‘We know that he dwells in us by the Spirit he has given us’, and on communication theory. I enjoyed his love and personal experience of a global perspective (not least as his wife is Congolese), which not only challenges ‘normal’ in relation to things like deliverance and the miraculous, but also challenges us to take seriously cultural difference, both in terms of the original text and in properly missional readings into new contexts. Related to this is the fundamental connection between what happened at Pentecost (speaking in other languages) and a call to mission. This again compels us to think about re-contextualisation: As well as recognising and honouring the original context and the underlying fact that the message comes to us embedded in particular contexts, we call on the Spirit to help us interpret the message of Scripture into ever new contexts.

Although this isn’t for the student wanting an introduction to the basics of hermeneutics, Keener has an accessible style, and the book is well laid out.  He gives helpful examples, and is self-disclosing. He also has a vast love for and knowledge of the Bible from which we have much to learn.

Keener is calling for a hermeneutic that marries an outpouring of the Spirit’s gifts with an equal passion for reading the Scriptures well. And that is a marriage that WTC is happy to get behind!

– Jo Soper

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