In my time studying AG doctrine I have had many conversations with people about how I feel about AG eschatology. Usually people are asking about my work because they are uncomfortable with some particular point of AG doctrine that they would like to see changed. The more one is exposed to education and differing point of views, the more that ministers want to see doctrinal positions develop or change to keep up with theological development. For instance, there are some who would argue for the need for a different eschatological position than the AG’s historic premillennial and dispensational position. As a student of theology, I understand that there other positions out there that would perhaps fit our theological orientation better. I understand the desire to see doctrine develop, but I also think it is important to better understand what WAS and IS before we can properly discuss what SHOULD BE. Let me explain.
What WAS the AG position? This is the question that historians like myself are trying to answer. This is what my dissertation is dealing with. I am attempting to understand where the doctrines came from, who influenced them and what has been the historic position. But history makes no judgement on what was. It is simply is telling the story. In my opinion, very few people understand nuances of the actual historical position of the AG on eschatology. Many times people have criticized the position without really understanding how it came about. First you must know what it was before you can begin to understand what it is.
What IS the AG position? This is the role the denomination plays. Every group has the right to define its doctrinal position. For the AG, Statement of Fundamental Truths has defined the beliefs of this fellowship. There may be some who are not comfortable with where the AG stands on various issues (such as eschatology or initial evidence) and are interested in seeing these positions change. But how realistic is that expectation? Changing official doctrine of an established denomination is not an easy task. The AG must have an official position that it upholds and they also must defend that position in order to maintain unity. Even if George Wood personally felt like aspects of AG doctrine needed to change (and I am not saying he does), his personal convictions would not change the position. No one person has the right to define the fellowship. General Superintendent E. S. Williams said in the Introduction of PC Nelson’s Bible Doctrines (1936), “It is not the prerogative of any one person infallibly to interpret for the entire General Council its doctrinal declaration… Neither can a lone individual, though elected to office in the General Council, (can) speak infallibly for the entire Council Fellowship in endorsing the work of one person who seeks to interpret the meaning of the Fundamental Truths adopted by the body.”
What SHOULD be the AG position? This is an altogether different question and it is answered differently by different people. The historian does not necessarily have an answer; it is what it was. The denomination does have an answer; it is what it is. The theologian on the other hand can answer it differently. The theologian’s job is to reflect on what it could be. They can explore the breadth of theological reflection and weigh out the positions in order to find out if there is a better way. For example, there are scholars who are saying that there are ways in which AG eschatology can be more ‘Pentecostal’ in its orientation. This process of imagining what it could be and even what should be is what theologians do.
This is where many ministers get frustrated. The more educated ministers are the more they are interested in this reflective process. But they are expecting the denomination to act like a college of theologians. The denomination is not built to do this kind of theological reflection. Denominations are built to proclaim and to preserve doctrine. At the same time, denominations get frustrated with theologians. They expect theologians to fulfill a dogmatic role of defending the positions of the church. But that is not what they are designed to do. The theologian’s task is to explore the possibilities and suggest changes that could be made or developed. (For a great example of this discussion see Richard Dresslehaus, ‘What Can The Academy Do For The Church’ AJPS 3.2 (2000), pp. 319-323).
Remembering that the way doctrine is discussed is different in each of these realms can help in aiding the conversation within a theological community without making enemies of the various parties. It can also help ministers understand why things don’t change as easily as perhaps we think we should. It can also help the denomination to avoid being suspicious of the academy. We have to work together. The more cooperation and understanding there is between these theological and ecclesiastical institutions the more possibility there is for development of AG doctrine.