A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Stephanie Juliot
Craig S. Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY. Keener has authored 24 titles, and over one million of his books are in circulation today. In his 2016 hermeneutical manifesto Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost, Keener sets out to answer important interpretive questions for readers of God’s word: How do we hear the Spirit’s voice in Scripture? What is the Spirit’s role in hermeneutics? What can the global church learn from Pentecostalism’s experience of the Spirit? As a widely recognized expert on the historical background of the New Testament and a deeply committed charismatic churchman with broad cultural and denominational exposure, Keener is strategically placed to speak to the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical hermeneutics.
Spirit Hermeneutics endeavors to provide “a biblical theological reflection supporting a dynamic, experiential reading of Scripture” (1), and “to help articulate how the experience of the Spirit that empowered the church on the day of Pentecost can and should dynamically shape our reading of Scripture” (4). Keener approaches this task from an Arminian, continuationist perspective and his method is exegetical and biblical-theological. His argument in Spirit Hermeneutics is that Scripture invites readers to become part of its narrative. A reading that is shaped by Pentecost is one that expects the Spirit to move in lives of contemporary readers while remaining “faithful to both the Spirit-inspired biblical text and the experience of the Spirit within a believer or among believers as an interpretive community” (4).
In his first section, “A Theological Reading Towards Praxis and Mission,” Keener makes a case for experiential and eschatological readings of the biblical text that are true to the original context. Experiential reading is a stance which interprets experiences in light of Scripture and also takes experiences into account when reading Scripture. This is not an approach which locates meaning with the reader, but one that recognizes the experiential nature of life in dynamic, dependent relationship with the living God. The Spirit and the Scripture work together “to provide a more objective guide and framework for our personal relationship with God” (32). In chapter 2, “Reading from the Vantage of Pentecost,” Keener argues that “the central thrust of the Pentecost narrative is empowerment for mission” (39), and makes a case for an eschatological reading, which sees Christian readers as participants in the last days.
In part II, “Global Readings,” Keener argues that Christians hear the Spirit’s voice in Scripture more clearly when we listen critically to others, especially those unlike ourselves. Chapter 3 suggests that Pentecost is a global event—God reaches out to all people in all cultures, and “different cultures may hear different aspects of the Spirit’s voice more readily” (66). Chapter 4 points out that Scripture not only invites us into a cross-cultural experience but provides guidance for how to contextualize while remaining faithful to the unchanging gospel message. In chapter 5, Keener argues that interpreters need the input of other cultures because these perspectives humble us and make us aware of our blind spots. Chapter 6 is an exemplification of the principles articulated in chapter 5, as Keener highlights valuable pneumatological contributions of Christians in the Majority World concerning spirits and miracles.
Part III (“Connection with the Designed Sense”) focuses on the importance of understanding the biblical text in its original context, which is an essential move in Keener’s overall argument since many have downplayed the original meaning’s value in the name of Pentecostal hermeneutics. Chapter 7 argues that the Christian canon is the time-tested, authoritative “measuring stick” by which all personal revelatory experiences are to be tested. In chapter 8, Keener argues that attention to the ancient meaning of the biblical text is a way of thinking that is “demanded by the shape of the texts themselves” (132). This perspective leaves room to hear the voice of biblical authors as those who shape the meaning of the text, a topic which Keener addresses in chapter 9. Finally, in chapter 10, the value of both literary and historic approaches is upheld as the interpreter’s due diligence to both the intrinsic and extrinsic data of Scripture’s communication; once the ancient meaning is appreciated, the modern significance must be discovered.
The task of Part IV, “Epistemology and the Spirit,” is to demonstrate that the Word and the Spirit function together in a hermeneutical spiral to reveal God to those who approach the text with faith-filled dependence on what he says. Chapter 11 argues that faith is a key characteristic of this epistemology; Christian epistemology is “founded on historical evidence, yet confirmed by the living testimony of God’s own Spirit” (158). Keener addresses the intersection of epistemology and hermeneutics in chapter 12, highlighting that the church has a particular way of reading the Bible which is characterized by dependence on the God who makes himself known there. This hermeneutic is not so much a methodology as it is a worldview that depends on personal encounter with Christ. Chapter 13 calls Christians to read the Bible as truth, which means our approach to the Bible must be characterized by entering its narrative world, suspending disbelief, and expecting to meet God.
Keener turns to Scripture’s concrete Spirit-led models in part V (“Intrabiblical Models for Reading Scripture”). In chapter 14, Keener highlights principles from Jesus’s ministry which provide a model for readers of Scripture today: Jesus paid attention to ancient contexts even as he applied the text to contemporary situations; he focused on the heart of God as revealed in the Torah; he called people to God’s ideals; he was not constrained by the religious establishment; he understood his own identity in light of Scripture. In chapter 15, Keener focuses on the NT’s reading of the Torah as a witness to the way of faith; the law’s principles are unchanging and useful for guidance in the Christian life, though the specifics of obedience look different today in our vastly different context. Chapter 16 urges interpreters to read for both Christological and personal application, arguing that there should be no disconnect between overarching theological themes which point to Christ and recognition of positive and negative models for life in Scripture.
In part VI, “Whose Charismatic Interpretation?”, Keener argues that what is central to the Spirit hermeneutic of charismatics is not so much a group of theological distinctives as “the embrace of experiencing the text” (263). He contrasts naïve “Pentecostal” readings with biblically sensitive ones in chapter 17, admitting that the former “seems to reflect a stream-of-consciousness approach to interpretation,” which needs to be corrected through careful work in and teaching of the biblical text (265). In chapter 18, he challenges the use of the global Pentecostal community as a safety net, since the community’s perspectives are too diverse to provide a standard; Scripture and the entire global and historic church must be the standard.
In hermeneutics textbooks today, students of Scripture are hard-pressed to find a thorough treatment of the Holy Spirit’s role in the interpretive process. Keener’s Spirit Hermeneutics speaks into this void within biblical studies by naming the flaws in several popular hermeneutical methods, directing interpreters to the biblical text for guidance, and prescribing a way forward in light of this evidence.
Keener presents a well-rounded approach to reading Scripture as a Christian. His attention to Christian experience, mission and praxis, the global church, and the distinctives of Pentecostalism contribute a helpful perspective in a body of hermeneutical literature which often treats the Spirit’s role as a footnote. He demonstrates that the Spirit guides believers at every step of biblical engagement; not just in the final step of application, but as we approach the text, as we read it in global community, and as we interpret our lives in light of its message. He models this Spirit-led engagement with a testimonial approach, which provides frequent examples from his own life and experiences
Perhaps the most significant contribution of Spirit Hermeneutics is its exegetical and epistemological argument for the inseparability of Word and Spirit. Christian experience cannot and should not be relegated to the sidelines of biblical studies, because Scripture itself invites its readers to become a part of God’s story. Additionally, Keener’s work is a helpful corrective for those who tend to ignore or underestimate the Spirit’s role in biblical interpretation, whether academic or devotional. This call to abolish any dichotomy between Word and Spirit is a key feature of the work, which marks it as broadly Christian rather than narrowly Pentecostal.
Keener’s call for experiential reading and the boundaries he sets around what it means for the Spirit to guide contemporary readers was especially helpful. He avoids two hermeneutical extremes—postmodern reader-centered approaches and purely historical text-centered approaches—by arguing from the Bible itself that the text’s message invites personal appropriation. I am encouraged by Keener’s attention to the dynamic, personal relationship in which the Christian lives with the Author of the biblical text. This emphasis doesn’t merely give lip-service to the conviction that the Bible is not a historical artifact, but carefully works out the hermeneutical implications of dealing with a word that is living and active and a Spirit who is personal.
“Global Readings” is an appropriate complement to Keener’s call for experiential reading. While the West has enjoyed theological hegemony for some time, westerners do not have a monopoly on the Spirit because our experience is limited. It is humbling to remember that the Majority World has its own diverse perspectives and experiences of the Spirit and therefore can make significant contributions to hermeneutical discussions, bringing blind spots into view and promoting creative engagement. As a biblical scholar and churchman with a great deal of cross-cultural experience, Keener is well-positioned to call for global biblical engagement.
One weakness of the book is the structure; the organization of concepts is not exactly intuitive, and the result at points is redundancy rather than forward movement. For example, Keener devotes an entire section to “Connection to the Divine Sense,” but this is an emphasis which runs throughout the entire book—he constantly qualifies statements about Spirit experiences by stating that they must be consistent with the original meaning of the biblical text. These disclaimers felt quite redundant by the end of the book. Another small quibble is the book’s choice of endnotes over footnotes. There are extensive notes, which tend to be explanatory as often as they are bibliographic; placing these explanations on the same page as their referent would serve readers well.
Keener uses simple, generally non-technical language that cuts through complicated conversations to get to the heart of the issues. While the language of Keener’s work is accessible, the content is less so. This book is not an introduction to hermeneutics for beginners, but a focused look at a specific hermeneutical theory characterized by the Spirit. Those with a background in biblical studies and theology will be best equipped to mine its riches.
Overall, Craig S. Keener’s Spirit Hermeneutics is a winsome, charitable, and persuasive call for Christians of all denominational stripes to read Scripture in concert with the Spirit who inspired it: experientially, globally, attentive to its original meaning, and in a posture of submissive trust. This book offers not only a passing glimpse through a window into Pentecostal hermeneutics, but an invitation into an interpretive home fit for all Christians which is founded upon a Spirit-saturated approach to reading God’s Word.
Stephanie Juliot is a Masters of Divinity candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She creates and edits Christian resources from the shores of Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia.
Buy the books
SPIRIT HERMENEUTICS: READING SCRIPTURE IN LIGHT OF PENTECOST, by Craig S. Keener