AG Doctrine: What Was, Is, and What Should Be

book-banner-61In 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.

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.

Assemblies of God Eschatology Research update: Summer 2015

1914_04A few months ago I was in Cleveland TN for my first PhD meeting.  That time with other PhD students was incredibly helpful for me to get me moving in the right direction.  For the past month I have been moving issue by issue through the early Pentecostal periodical called Word & Witness.  W&W was published by AG founding father, E. N. Bell.  When the AG organized in 1914, it became the official organ for the fellowship. Most of the issues I have read have been 1912-1914.   Here are a few brief note worthy observations from my research so far.

Larry R. McQueen argues in his book Toward a Pentecostal Eschatology that the AG adopted a “finished work” theology of salvation that was baptistic/reformed verses the Weslyian/Holiness stream of Pentecostals.  That approach to theology was ready made for the AG to adopt a dispensational understanding of eschatology.   It also did not allow for much variation in eschatological views.   My research certainly is bearing that out. Most of what I have found follows the “dispensational script” that McQueen argues for.  At this point, it cannot be argued that the AG has been anything except for dispensational in their eschatology, as some other scholars suggest (or perhaps have hoped for).  That is freeing because I can just assume it and move on to seeing how it developed during the later years.

One observation to note about the Word and Witness is that prior to the organization of the Assemblies of God in April of 1914, the paper was primarily testimonial.   Most of what was published were testimonies of how God was moving in various places.  There were editorials and small articles that argued doctrine, but for the most part, most of the eschatological content was in the form of testimony.  There were descriptions of visions of Jesus coming or the anti-christ.  Some of the testimonies of other topic might end with a statement of eschatological nature, but few of articles were doctrinal thesis on the end times.  Toward the end of 1913, more full articles on the “Signs of the Times” and other eschatological themes began to be published.  This was true of other topics as well.  Doctrine became more and more important as organization became more and more imminent.  After 1914, there were numerous doctrinal clarifications on various subjects as an apologetic for the stances the AG assumed as a result of organization.  The testimonies were vast and varied, but what they had in common was the experience of the Holy Spirit.  There is no right experience. However, if your organization wants to decide a statement of beliefs to identify itself, the need for univocal articulation of doctrine increases and the space for diversity decreases.

One interesting side note was that the Assemblies of God General Council was first called in order to unify and organize various loosely affiliated Pentecostal ministers.  However, this may have never happened had there not been two issues facing ministers with no official credentialing body.  One was train fares.  Ordained ministers received a special fare of half price on the railroad.  Bell encouraged his readers to support the organizing of what would eventually be the AG so that they could receive the discount rate.  Secondly, the need for governmental recognition of an incorporated body for the purpose of owning property. Bell says, “But on the business side of things, such as holding property, accepting rates on the railroads for preachers, holding property in foreign lands for missionary work, etc, etc, etc, it is necessary to obey the laws of the country.” (WW, 3/1914).  Quite a pragmatic reason for creating a new denomination, is it not?

I will continue to work through these periodicals, but I am also working through some of the doctrinal books produced by the Assemblies of God, particularly Myer Pearlman, Frank Boyd, Ralph Riggs, E. S. Williams and Stanley Horton.  All of these were influential men in the AG and the books addressed eschatology.

All in all, I am having a wonderful time researching my topic. I am growing in love for these early ministers and their contributions to our theology.