Questions about the Development of AG Doctrine

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The past few months haven’t been as productive as I have needed them to be. The holiday season interrupted the usual rhythm of my weekly schedule. It has been harder to carve out the time to write.  So I have been using this opportunity to do some reading in the area of the development of doctrine.  Since my study is an account of how Assemblies of God doctrine began and was developed, this subject is very important.  Some of the questions I have been asking in my research are:

  1. When the AG wrote its statement of faith, what theological influences were they drawing from that would constitute what AG doctrine would become?
  2. After AG doctrine was articulated, how would those who wrote books or commented on the doctrine understand it?
  3. How has AG doctrine grown or developed over the past 100 years?

Inherent in these questions is a question of AG methodology.  The statement of fundamental truths of the Assemblies of God is written as list of “bible truths.”  In as far as the founders understood it, what they articulated is what the ‘Bible teaches.”   If you account for doctrine in that way, doctrine becomes simple statements that are either true or false.  The are simply propositional statements of perceived truth by the community that declared them.

Theology, though, does not work that way.  As knowledge continues to grow and research is done, the field of understanding what the Church believes is growing.  In that sense, it is totally possible that we may know more about a theological subject or concept than in the day it was written. We also have the ecumenical problem of how different theological concepts lead to different and new theological communities.  The Pentecostal movement is one such community.  Born from a mix of Weslyan -holiness and reformed-baptistic influences, Pentecostal movement adopted ideas from these other communities and brought it into their own community, adding to it their own distinctive doctrine of Baptism in the Holy Spirit.  The Pentecostal faith itself is a development of doctrine, not just a set of beliefs drawn from the Bible.

Early AG leaders adopted the evangelical view of doctrine as simply propositional statements of truth.  In thier minds, statements of truth are plain in the scripture and are always true in every context.  This is a reflection of Princetonian/proto-fundamentalist understanding of truth.  It sees the bible as a simple book of facts about God.  But where is the Holy Spirit in this view?  Does the Spirit continue revelation or only reveal that which is already revealed?

More modern approaches to doctrine recognize that at some level, doctrine is located in time and space. There is a historical and cultural situation in which doctrine arises. And these understandings are important for exegeting doctrine.  So the community in which doctrine is developed and the circumstances in which it is developed are important as well. How do we understand doctrine and how can we provide space for doctrine to develop without violating the sence in which doctrine is true?  I have enjoyed reading on this topic and here is a few ideas I think are helpful in this conversation:

  • George Lindbeck argues that doctrine should be understood as the language of the community. His cultural linguistic theory understands doctrine with these hermeneutical understandings.  If a doctrine has a cultural history, then such doctrines are allowed to develop as the community develops.
  • Jaroslav Pelikan also understands doctrine as truth located in the community. He defines doctrine as that which is “believed, taught and confessed.” (Pelikan, The Emergance of the Catholic Tradition, p. 4). Doctrine begins with the experience of faith, that faith is then taught from the scriptures and in turn that understanding of faith that is taught is adopted by the community as a confession.
  • Richard Heyduck also believes that development of doctrine is important if any community wants to preserve its doctrine.  He argues that doctrine has focused on the validity of doctrinal positions. But a contextual approach (which he calls canonical linguistic) understands doctrine in its genesis.  When it was originated, it was a  declaration of by the church of what the church believed.  Therefore, doctrine to Heyduck is simply a ‘speech act of the church, spoken to the church, and heard by the church.’ (Heyduck, The Recovery of Doctrine, p 77. )
  • Clark Pinnok (Flame of Love) suggests an important understanding of doctrine in terms of the Holy Spirit.  He argues that truth is a revelatory work of the Spirit.  The Spirit not only declared truth in the scripture, but He is presently active in revealing truth today.  No community has all the truth completely understood. The Spirit emphasizes certain aspects of God’s truth in different times and in different contexts. The development of the doctrine of the trinity or the nature of Christ is an example of this reality.  Rather than a once for all understanding of the truth of scripture, the Holy Spirit reveals the truth in every historical setting and in every community.  Therefore, each setting could have an understanding of the same truth of scripture, but revealed in the community in a different way.  Therefore, Doctrine cannot be individually understood, we must learn from the whole church over all time.
  • Alister McGrath offers a different approach. (McGrath, Genesis of Doctrine)  His four theses of doctrinal development take into account more than just propositional or cultural linguistics.  McGrath’s “four theses” of doctrinal criticism look at the way doctrine functions as social demarcation, narrative theology, articulation of experience and truth claim.  Doctrine has all of these elements. It is a truth claim from scripture. But different communities use the same passages and have different understandings of doctrine. Doctrine is also an explanation of the person’s place in the narrative of God’s story.  An example is the view of Sprit baptism as an end time phenomenon.  It is developed as a way of expressing a persons experience as well. For Pentecostals, Baptism in the Spirit and tongues were not just believed, they were expreienced. That experiential hermeneutic is vital to their doctrine. But it also has a cultural and theological history. There were aspects in which the doctrine defined them social as a separate distinct theology.  So for McGrath, there is more than one way to describe doctrine. It has to be understood in all these ways in order for doctrine to develop into new contexts.  McGrath argues that “Doctrinal criticism obliges us to ask what specific theological insights lie behind a specific doctrinal formulation, and what historical contingencies influenced both those insights and the manner in which they were thus being articulated, with a view to restating (if necessary) that formulation.” McGrath, Genesis of Doctrine, pg 7-8.
All of these approaches to doctrinal development are attempting to answer the same question. Is doctrine permanent? Is truth, as understood by particular Christian community, subject to change and development?  This is the question I am asking in the Assemblies of God and our understanding of doctrine.  Can the AG doctrine develop without losing our distinctive Pentecostal understanding of theology?
Statement of Fundamental Truths
 No doubt the Statement of Fundamental truths had a cultural linguistic function.  It defined the doctrinal issues that were present at the time of its formation.  The preamble says:
“ No claim is made that it contains all truth in the Bible, only that it covers our present needs as to these fundamental matters.” (GC Minutes, 1916)

The way forward for the Assemblies of God is not the abandon our distinctive doctrines.  It is to allow our doctrines to continue to develop.  We need to become more Pentecostal in all our expression of all our beliefs. In order to do that, we have hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church today.  That requires a more nuanced understanding of the genesis and development of doctrine. That is what I hope for my dissertation to accomplish.

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