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Uncoolman
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Date Posted:16/04/2008 9:13 AMCopy HTML

The Revival Groups and Biblical Interpretation
An Exercise in Exegesis


By Ian Thomason


Introduction

The Revival Centres International (RCI), the Revival Fellowship (RF), and the Christian Assemblies International (CAI), are frequently criticized for promoting doctrines that are incompatible with the understanding of the Christian Church throughout the ages, and of her mainstream contemporary expressions. Lloyd R. Longfield, the charismatic father of the Revivalist groups, once candidly admitted in an interview that he alone was responsible for the formulation of official RCI doctrine and policy "...rightly or wrongly[1]." Such a declaration naturally caused some people to stop and think, and prompted many to consider the range of skills, knowledge and experiences that Ps. Longfield needed to possess, to enable him to derive accurate, biblical policy from his study of Scripture. Surely everyone is entitled to holding their own personal opinions on a range of issues, but when personal opinions become normative for any group, they must be tested before being accepted.

The aim of this essay is to identify, by overview, what I perceive to be an unsuitable system of biblical interpretation (hermeneutic[2]), which appears to be widely practiced within the RCI, the RF and the CAI. It is my conviction that, by using unmethodical, inconsistent and often inappropriate interpretative techniques (exegesis[3]), many Revivalist pastors often reach conclusions that are not supported by the biblical texts that they refer to and rely upon.

The history and science of biblical interpretation

The primitive Christian Church (AD 30-120) inherited its methods of interpretation from two principal sources: Rabbinical Midrashim[4], and classical Greek philosophical hermeneutics[5]. The Apostle Paul, for example, regularly made recourse to both when crafting his complex theological arguments. In Galatians 4:24 we note him using the word allegoroumena, a technical term first applied by Classical Greek philosophers, to describe the allegorical interpretation of Homer's epics. Allegorical interpretative methods developed to such an extent in the Eastern (Greek) Church by the close of the second century, as to eclipse the use of Jewish Midrashim altogether.

Medieval hermeneutics later (AD 600-1500) sought to ascribe to the Bible four inter-related levels of meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the tropological or moral, and the anagogical or eschatological[6]. It was during this period that the ideological and practical separation between the Western (Latin) and Eastern (Orthodox) approaches, over disputes which had begun in the fourth century, was fully realised. Learning in the west thereafter centered on the use of the Latin Vulgate[7], and so knowledge of the original biblical languages by Church scholars all but disappeared. In the east, theologians continued their studies in Greek, but, unfortunately, not in Hebrew. The net result was the Eastern tendency to favour the allegorical method that had been prevalent in their churches since the time of Origen[8].

It was largely due to the Protestant Reformation, however, that academic and practical interest in the biblical languages revived. This led to the reintroduction and application of the grammatico-historical method exegesis after an abeyance of about a thousand years. A process that seeks to interpret Scripture literally, giving priority to authorial intention, the method remains the mainstay of contemporary Protestant theological scholarship. Emphasis is towards the evaluation of language (grammatical and syntactical) forms, and the consideration of the cultural, social and historical settings of each book of Scripture. The fundamental aim of the method is to discern the message intended by the writer, in its entirety, into a form that is applicable and relevant to the Church of the current day.

The reality is, though, that a broad range of interpretative methods finds a place in determining the full meaning of certain biblical passages. However, whatever the approach applied, it must be uniformly applied, methodical and consistent if meaningful results are to be gained.

The RCI/RF and academic interpretation

The original Christians are often thought of as being unlearned and simple people, who were entirely reliant on the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit to make things known to them. Such an image, however, isn't completely true, given that a good number had benefited from a formal education in traditional biblical interpretative methods. During the first century it was the right of every Jewish male, irrespective of his place in society, to be able to study midrash in the Synagogue. In addition, the Bible clearly identifies that a number of scribes, Pharisees and priests were converted to Christ, and it was they who brought with them, the fruit of more extensive formal scholarship and training. Many Gentile or Greek Christians were equally proficient in interpretative methods. Hermeneutics formed a mainstay in the education of freeborn Greek youths, alongside logic and rhetoric. The Jews of the Diaspora[9], including the likes of Paul and Barnabas, were often learned in both the Rabbinical and the Greek systems. This liberal education further assisted the Gentile Church in developing its understanding of the meaning and theology of the sacred Scriptures.

Pastors of the Revivalist churches, in contrast to the ministers of most groups within the contemporary orthodox Church, receive no formal education or preparation in Christian hermeneutics whatsoever. This may well be due to a fear that such an education would introduce the 'leaven of tradition' into their fellowships, but unfortunately, the withholding of such training leads to simple and unnecessary ignorance - of the interpretative methods applied by the Church since its beginning, and of the Greek and Hebrew languages - thereby robbing the respective organisations of the ability for detailed critical analysis. To over-emphasize the sovereign role of the Holy Spirit in the preparing of Christians to accept (and not to understand as is often mistakenly assumed) Scripture is paradoxical, given this philosophy necessarily under-emphasizes the work of the Spirit throughout the course of Church History. It almost presents an impression, yet unstated and certainly untested, that the Spirit was absent from the Church from AD 100 to AD 1958, when the Revival Centres was loosely established.
RCI/RF interpretative principles

Pastors and members within the RCI, the RF and the CAI do apply certain principles when interpreting Scripture, however my contention is simply that the methods used are unsuitable to the task at hand. Fundamental among these principles would be the general concept of conformity. Within the Revivalist groups, conformity is impressed to accepting the statements, teachings and directions of the organization's founder, and then of his appointed representatives: the pastors. It almost seems to be a case that to question the 'correctness' of a particular doctrine or theological position is to question the right of the entire fellowship to exist.

The second interpretative principle is to develop biblical themes in accordance with the fundamental philosophical positions shared by the respective groups. In this way every reference to 'salvation' in the New Testament must, in some fashion, invoke: (1) repentance, (2) baptism by immersion in water, and (3) the 'receiving' of the Holy Spirit with the manifestation of speaking in tongues. Similarly, references to 'Israel' in the two testaments are seen to always involve the beliefs and theories of the Anglo (British) Israel theory, and this irrespective of the contexts in which the Bible references appear. Those passages that seem to support neither view are often ignored in weekly messages from the platform, or complex explanations offered to explain away their plain and obvious meanings.

The third general principle is the partial or incomplete 'translation' of biblical words or phrases to support a given doctrinal position. In possessing neither a practical or theoretical knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, and by ensuring that the general membership remains equally untutored; pastors are able to reinterpret passages of Scripture to suit denominational positions and requirements. The danger, however, is that the words and phrases that are used are easily wrested from their proper contexts, and then applied in ways that run contrary to the intent of the author and the clear meaning that he sought to impart. All this for little more than a lack of basic knowledge and training.

Another principle regularly applied is the application of human reason to support philosophical assumptions. For example, it appears that neither the RCI nor the RF share the mature understanding of the Trinity that is held by the majority of Christianity, as encapsulated in the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon. The person of the Holy Spirit is often diminished, in practical terms, to being little more than a 'spiritual force' whilst at the same time his work is exalted far above the work achieved by Christ on the cross. It is for this reason that one will hear much of the Spirit in the personal testimonies of members, yet remarkably little (if any) reference to the name (or saving work) of Jesus Christ.

The fifth major principle is the wholesale discarding of Church teachings and traditions, as being without any merit in the establishing of proper doctrine or practice. The Revivalist groups generally view apostolic traditions and Ecclesiastic traditions as being synonymous. In this way, for example, the Church creeds (which express apostolic orthodoxy) are considered to be the irrelevant pronouncements of men, and, therefore, are not viewed as applicable in considering or constructing doctrine. It is the result of this principle applied to practice, that Lloyd Longfield was able to separate the person of Jesus Christ from the persons of the Father and Holy Spirit.

Another common principle is an abuse widely shared by Christian ministers everywhere. To the Jews it was known as 'pearl-stringing', to the contemporary Church it is known as 'proof-texting', and it involves the lifting of discrete sections of Scripture from their original settings in order to support a preferred doctrine, theme or argument. In effect, context (historic, textual, cultural and linguistic) is completely ignored and bypassed. The current versification of the Bible promotes this abuse, as many Christians tend to view individual passages as stand-alone elements of truth. The reality, however, is completely different. Each and every verse exists as but one block in a greater structure. To appreciate the structure, one must view it in its entirety. To quote a well-known aphorism: "...a text without a context is a pretext for a proof-text." It is through proof-texting that the Bible is wrested to support whatever ideology one might care to conjure up.

The final definitive interpretative principle commonly employed within the Revivalist fellowships, is the superimposition of a Modernist world-view[10] atop the Scriptures. This frequently results in the diminishing of biblical teachings that run contrary to the philosophical positions held by the various fellowships. For example, the misunderstanding and inaccurate teaching on the existence, reality and activity of demons has led to the formulation of Revivalist doctrines that contradict biblical teaching [see Demons]. From an exegetical standpoint, speculation and personal subjectivity often results. It can easily become a case of the 'chopping-and-choosing' between what is to be accepted as literal, and then explaining away the remainder by categorizing the same as 'ignorance', 'parable' or similar. When taken to its logical end, this approach judges the Bible to be untrustworthy and wrong.

Conclusion

It is my belief that the interpretative methods currently employed by the RCI, the RF, and the CAI hamstring these fellowships, and significantly reducing the ability for their leaderships to develop sound, biblically-based doctrines. Sadder still is that this occurs for no other reason than an unfounded suspicion of, and unwillingness to embrace, proven hermeneutical methods. All Christians should seek to defend their faith with non-believers, but one's faith must rest on what Scripture actually teaches. A faulty interpretation lends itself immediately to a faulty faith.

Given that the RCI, the RF and the CAI groups each draws on the labours of academic Christian scholarship every time their members open an English Bible, there is little logic to the wholesale denunciation of the valuable training and learning that is widely available today. When all is said and done, I believe it becomes a case of choosing not to know, and such an approach should never be the choice of maturing believers. 
 


[1] Interview conducted between L.R. Longfield and T. Waller, 1996, www.cults.org/archives.
[2] Hermeneutics, from a Christian perspective, refers to the art and science of biblical interpretation.
[3] Exegesis is the practical application of hermeneutic theory, its aim being to draw out from a passage of Scripture the meaning intended by the original author of the text. Homiletics is the art of bridging this meaning, thereby making biblical teachings applicable to Christians of today.
[4] Midrashim is the plural for midrash, which are rabbinical commentaries on the Jewish Law.
[5] The Greeks first sought to interpret Homer's epics in an attempt to derive hidden philosophical truths. Hermeneutic theory was later to encompass broad methods of scholarly enquiry.
[6] Eschatology is the study of 'end things'. It encompasses both the return of Christ and the eternal state of the saved and the lost.
[7] The Latin translation of the Bible produced by Jerome during the fifth century.
[8] The Greek churches inherited classical hermeneutics from philosophy, and applied its methods to the Bible texts. The result was that much of the Old Testament was read allegorically, rather than literally. This practice was preferred in the North African centre of Alexandria, but was widely rejected elsewhere, most notably in Syrian Antioch.
[9] The "Dispersion" of the Jewish Nation (Israel) by force into the Aegean region. This "second Exodus" was completed around BC 586.
[10] A world-view, also known as a paradigm or frame-of-reference, is a psychological filter that all humans use to analyse information in the attempt to make sense of reality.

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