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.

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Statement of Fundamental Truths Turns 100

100 years ago this week the Assemblies of God Statement of Fundamental Truths was adopted by the 1916 General Council in St. Louis. Although AG Leaders were reluctant to adopt a statement of faith during those early years, a doctrinal statement was needed to stave off division over debates about trinitarian vs. oneness baptism.  A resolution committee was tasked with crafting the document and it was adopted despite much debate.

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Click for Article by AG General Superintendent George O. Wood

Since 2009, I have spent countless hours studying this document as part of my PhD dissertation. Four of the Sixteen statements deal with the return of Jesus (which is the subject of my dissertation). I love this document. I have wrestled with its stregnths and weaknesses, its changes and the ways it has stayed the same. I feel as if i have come to know the writers as personal friends. My dissertation will make a significant contribution to the understanding of the theology of this document. It is not only one of the most important documents in the AG, it is also an important key to understanding Pentecostal doctrine.

In honor of the centennial of this important document, I thought I might share 5 facts about the Statement of Fundamental Truths that you may not know.

  1.  The AG was the first of the Pentecostal groups to produce such a document. Some shorter statements were present in different groups, but the AG was the first to put together a comprehensive list of doctrinal statements. Other groups, such as the Church of God (Cleveland) didn’t produced full statements until nearly 40 years later.
  2. The statement was written by five men who served on the resolutions committee.
    • E.N. Bell – Baptist Pastor and graduate of Rochester Theological Seminary who joined the Apostolic Faith movement and became the first Chairman of the Assemblies of God.
    • T.K. Leonard – Pastor from Findlay, Ohio who operated one of the early Pentecostal Bible Schools (The Gospel School).
    • S.A Jamieson – Highly educated and successful Presbyterian Pastor and Presbyter who gave up all of his positions to join the Pentecostal movement in 1908.
    • Stanley Frodsham – British born writer and editor who became the editor of the Pentecostal Evangel for over 20 years.
    • Daniel W. Kerr – Former Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor and who joined the AG in 1916 and founded several AG Bible Schools, including Central Bible College in 1922.
  3. Adoption of the statement caused a rift in the new fellowship by narrowing their doctrinal positions.  As a result, the AG lost 156 people and several key early leaders such as D.C.O Opperman, Howard Goss and R.E. McAlister.
  4. The original statement adopted in 1916 contained 17 fundamentals. Several fundamentals were combined and the list was narrowed to 16 in 1920. The statement was substantially revised at the request of Chairman J. W. Welch  during the 1925 General Council.  The statement was reordered, headings were changed and significant wording was also changed.  Subsequent changes also were made in 1961 and minor revisions several times recently. Although many historians claim the SFT is has been unchanged for a century, the reality is that the statement has been revised frequently.
  5. The statement was meant to be inclusive, exhaustive nor infallible. It has a sense of inclusiveness and openness in order to avoid sectarianism and dogmatism.  It declares:

‘The Statement of Fundamental Truths is not intended as a creed for the Church, nor a basis of fellowship among Christians, but only as a basis of unity for the ministry alone…The human phraseology employed in such statement is not inspired nor contended for, but the truth set forth in such phraseology is held to be essential to a full Gospel ministry. No claim is made that it contains all truth in the Bible, only that it covers our present needs as to these fundamental matters’.

I have grown to love and appreciate the history of our doctrine and the way it has shaped our movement. I am so blessed to have had the opportunity to study the history of my fellowship.  The Statement of Fundamental Truths has helped guide this fellowship for 100 years.  It is an important document to AG ministers, AG churches and to our history and heritage.

 

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.

A Timeline of Assemblies of God Doctrinal Books

The primary emphasis of my research this Summer has been to find and develop a chronological timeline of all of the Assemblies of God books that discuss AG doctrine.  Gospel Publishing House has produced works for Pentecostal minsters and lay people nearly from the beginning of the AG.  Soon after the AG began, GPH published tracts on various topics that were advertised in the PE and available to purchase.  A decade later, various books were beginning to emerge from the press.  They have continued to produce materials for the Assemblies of God.

My research has been focused on collecting the rescources that attempt to articulate  Assemblies of God doctrine.   These books, I believe, will tell the story of the development of our doctrine as our leaders attempted to flesh out the truths included in the Statement of Fundamental Truths that was adopted in 1916.  It is this pivotal relationship between the bible doctrine and the fundamental truths that I hope to investigate.

In doing so I have a running timeline of resources produced by the Gospel Publishing House on the topics of Bible Doctrine & Fundamentals and a list of resources on Eschatology.  For those interested in this topic, I thought I would share my list.  Perhaps it will benefit your research as well.  If you know of any others, please comment so I can add them to my list.

A couple observations from developing this timeline:

  • The first full bible doctrine book was produced 20 years after the AG wrote its Statement of Fundamental truths.  The first systematic theology was written nearly 40 years after the AG started.  Although there were many article about various doctrinal or bible truths in the Pentecostal Evangel, very little was produced as a comprehensive understanding of the theology of the AG.  Consequently, not much has been done in the second half of the century either. P.C. Nelson’s Bible Doctrines, first written in 1936, is still used as a text for new AG minister today.  Only two new works on doctrine have been produced in the past 30 years despite the explosion of Assemblies of God ministers & educators holding post-graduate degrees.
  • Works on eschatology were some of the first books produced by GPH.  Frank Boyd was by far the most influential eschatological writer in the period of 1925-1960.  Horton carried the eschatological tradition forward from 1960 to the present. Since 1975, despite the popularity of books on the End Times, there have only been five books on eschatology published by GPH and four of them were by Stanley Horton.

It’s unclear what all this means at this point. This is the task of this dissertation. I am attempting to construct a narrative of the development of Assemblies of God doctrine with particular emphasis on its eschatology.  This is the fun part of this PhD journey.  I hope I am enjoying it just as much 4 years from now.

Bible Doctrines Timeline

1926 – Pillars of Truth – S. A. Jamieson

1927 – Fundamentals of the Faith – D. W. Kerr

1936 – Bible Doctrines – P. C. Nelson (SWBC edition)

1937 – Knowing the Doctrines of the Bible – Myer Pearlman

1948 – Pentecostal Truth – Pearlman and Boyd

1948 – Bible Doctrines – P. C. Nelson (GPH edition)

1953 – Systematic Theology E. S. Williams

1954 – We Believe…A Comprehensive Statement of Christian Faith Riggs – GPH

1954 – What My Church Believes: Assemblies of God Cornerstone series book two Ralph Riggs GPH

1955 – Into All Truth – Stanley M. Horton GPH

1963 – Our Faith and Fellowship – Ralph W. Harris – Teacher’s Manual

1963 – Fundamentals of the Faith Donald Johns – Teachers Manual

1973 – We Hold these Truths – Zenas J. Bicket – GPH

1977 – Our Faith and Our Fellowship – G. Raymond Carlson GPH

1980 – Understanding Our Doctrine – William Menzies

1993 – Bible Doctrines: A Pentecostal Perspective – Menzies & Horton Logion

1994 – Systematic Theology – Ed. Stanley M. Horton

Eschatology Book Timeline

1925 – The Budding Fig Tree – Frank Boyd

1928 – Things Which Must Shortly Come To Pass – Stanley Frodsham

1928? – Jesus coming at hand (collection of articles) GPH

1937 – The Path of Prophecy – Ralph M. Riggs*

1948 – Introduction to Prophecy – Frank Boyd

1948 – Studies in Revelation – J. Narver Gortner* intro by Frank Boyd

1950s – Signs of the Times – Frank Boyd

1955 – Ages and Dispensations – Frank Boyd

1959 – Waiting… C.M. Ward (evidential)

1962 – God’s Calendar of Coming Events – Riggs

1963 – Bible Prophecy – Stanley Horton (teachers manual)

1963 – Dispensational Studies – Ralph Riggs*

1967 – Promise of His Coming – Stanley Horton

1967 – Studies in the Revelation of Jesus Christ – Frank Boyd (Berean)

1968 – Prophetic Light – Frank Boyd

1968 – The Story of the Future – Ralph Riggs

1975 – Its Getting Late – Commentary on first Thessalonians – Stanley Horton

1975 – What You Should Know About Prophecy – C M. Ward (adapted from Horton)*

1977 – God’s Plan for this Planet – Ian Macpherson (GPH)

1981 – What’s Ahead: A Study of End-Times Events (book) Charles Harris

1982 – What’s Ahead (Teacher Guide) – Carol A. Ball

1991 – The Ultimate Victory – Stanley Horton

1995 – Bible Prophecy: Understanding Future Events – Stanley Horton*

1996 – Our Destiny: Biblical Teachings on Last Things – Stanley Horton

(Image is an advertisement for GPH’s first Prophecy book in the Pentecostal Evangel in 1927)

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“Those Things Most Surely Believed Among Us”

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Since going to my first seminar in May, I have been focusing my research on several areas that deal with what the Assemblies of God believes about eschatology.  Right now I am doing research in the primary sources, particularly early sources like periodicals and books published by the AG.  The goal is to find out what the AG says they believe (16 Fundamental truths), what those who write about what the AG believes say they believe (Bible Doctrine books), and what those who are in the AG, who write about what they believe, say they believe (articles in the periodicals).

1.  AG Periodicals

I  have been reading through the early issues of Word and Witness (1912-1915), a periodical by E.N. Bell.  I have been looking at every article that mentions eschatology and making notes of significant thoughts and ideas from these early works. I am looking for common threads of their belief in the return of Jesus. More so, I am trying to see how these early pentecostals related the outpouring of the Spirit to their belief in the return of Jesus.  Did they have a “Pentecostal” eschatology.  This is slow work, but important.  I have many more issues to go of this and other periodicals of the Assemblies of God.

2.  AG Bible Doctrine Books 

The other place I am doing research is to read all the AG books about the bible doctrines to see how they relate to the statement of Fundamental Truths.  Some of the books are direct articulations of each of the 16 Fundamentals. Some are organized like systematic theology texts and group the chapters by theological categories such as Doctrine of God, Man, Sin, Salvation, etc.  It is interesting reading.  I am surprised by two observations:  1) I had often heard and believed that early AG founders and writers were not trained theologians.  Its not true. Many of these writers were well trained and understood theology, but chose to write works that only quoted scripture.  They had the capacity to interact with other theological traditions and views, but chose instead to try to set out what “the Bible says”.  2) There are relatively few Bible Doctrine books for the Assemblies of God.  Infact, the most popular book used by ministers is Bible Doctrines by P.C. Nelson which was written in 1936 and is still in print. So far I have identified around a dozen works devoted simply to explanation of the doctrine of the Assemblies of God.

3. SPS Proposal

This leads to the final part of my research this month.  I have been working on something I could submit as a paper to the annual meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies next March.  SPS is an annual meeting of Pentecostal and Charismatic scholars for the purpose of presenting and receiving peer feedback on work they are doing in their field of study.  I presented a paper on my work on Howard M. Ervin in 2008 at Duke University.  I am excited to return now that I am back in my program.

Following my research on these Bible doctrine books, I have found it interesting to observe how these works function as expressions of the 16 Fundamental truths.  Some of them are Truth by Truth explanations of each statement.  Some, however, neither mention the STF or the Assemblies of God.  Many have introductions written by important officials of the Assemblies of God.  What these leaders say about each work varies as to how authoritatively the author speaks on behalf of AG doctrine. o I have much more research to do to understand this relationship. But this is the paper that I will be presenting next March at SPS.   Below is my proposal.  I am excited about it.  Not bad for my first month of work. Here is my proposal:

“Those Things Most Surely Believed Among Us: The Shifting Roll of the Bible Doctrine Genre As An Authoritative Interpretation of the Assemblies of God Statement of Fundamental Truths.”

This paper will look at the relationship of the books on bible doctrine produced by Assemblies of God leaders to the Statement of Fundamental truths.   The Statement of Fundamental Truths was not intended to be a “creed” for the fellowship but a statement of unification on essential beliefs. Further clarification of “those things most surely believed among us” we often expressed in various articles in the early AG periodicals. Some early leaders and educators at the AG Bible Institutes saw the need for a more comprehensive work on the doctrines of the Bible to be book form. The first such book on AG bible doctrine, P.C. Nelson’s Bible Doctrines was published twenty years after the STF was adopted. Others followed in what Jacobsen calls the “Scholastic Period” of the Assemblies of God. This paper will analyze how these works functioned as an expression of the SFT. As clarification was given to what the AG believed, what authority would these books on bible doctrine hold? How would these works serve as authoritative interpretations of the Statement of Fundamental truths? This paper will look the stated purpose of more than a dozen books on Bible doctrines that were published by Gospel Publishing House up to the present day. This paper will demonstrate a shift in relationship over time of these works on Bible Doctrine and their place as authoritative interpretations of the Statement of Fundamental Truths.