Having essentially grown up in a Pentecostal church that was very fundamentalist in it’s perspective, I can now reflect back upon the theological impartation of ministers through the formative years of my youth. Back in the 1960s we did not have a separate room or building for “children’s church,” so my cousins and I sat in the sanctuary with the adults to hear and experience the Word and the move of God. This was key to my own spiritual formation, and provided context for the doctrinal statements of the denomination.
Typically, the pastors who came to serve the small church were either older pastors on their way to retirement, or younger pastors needing an entry-point into the pastoral ranks to qualify for a better future assignment. Few, if any, of the pastors had formal seminary training. At that time the theological sourcebook for pastors was the Bible, and the hermeneutical approach was a quite literalistic interpretation. To their credit, they placed a premium on the Word of God above all other books or sources for doctrine–a heritage that I appreciate and continue to hold. Some read or studied the works of various theological scholars, but as a Pentecostal church it was understood that the Holy Spirit was the teacher and by attuning our spirit with the Spirit we would receive illumination and revelation through God’s Word.
Second to the Bible, among many Pentecostals, and certainly influential in our little country dirt road church, was Dake’s Study Bible. The work of Finis J. Dake in the form of a study Bible was significant. It seemed Pentecostals gave his work extra credence, in that, it was assumed the Holy Spirit anointed him to complete this work, thus making his marginal notes one step away from the inspired King James Version of the Bible in center columns. While I know and appreciate the family that continues to publish his work, the fact is, that while his approach was innovative and informative, his lack of citation for his information, along with his cultural (the South in the 1960s) imposition upon the text, cannot be ignored.
The work of Dake was heavily influenced by the Scofield Study Bible but with an Arminian-Pentecostal twist. The dispensationalism of Darby, via Scofield, became the interpretational grid for eschatology, which took on a heightened level of importance when Israel was established as a nation in 1948. During my childhood, the preaching of pastors and evangelists emphasized that when Jesus said “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt 24:34), He was referring to Israel. Further, it was taught that according to the Bible a generation is 40 years, therefore we should expect to see the return of Christ by 1988. Indeed, someone wrote an ill-conceived pamphlet entitled, 88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will Be In 1988, in which the author identified a specific date for Jesus’ return, i.e., sometime between September 11-13, 1988 during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana.
In 1973 something changed. It took awhile for it to make it to our “neck of the woods” where there was no cable TV or satellite dishes, but many of the younger incoming pastors had been exposed to a new religious broadcasting network known as TBN, which embraced Pentecostal/Charismatic theology. There were already other Pentecostal programs influencing Pentecostal churches, namely the fiery fundamentalist preaching Jimmy Swaggart and the prosperity preaching of Jim and Tammy Baker on their PTL Network. Ultimately, both ministries would experience disgrace and scandal, though both men managed to work their way back into Christian broadcasting, especially Swaggart, who has seen a resurgence through SonLife Broadcasting.
The influence of “Christian” television was significant, especially within the Pentecostal/Charismatic communities. Preachers became television personalities who drew large crowds and pastored large churches. On TBN the emphasis on “prosperity” continued as an overarching theme and the opulent lifestyles of the pastors preaching prosperity appeared to bear out the validity of their message. These ministers and their messages constituted the equivalent of seminary education for many pastors. The centrality of the Bible was augmented (if not replaced) by the teaching/preaching of “successful” pastors who became role models for adoring fans.
Seminary education among many of these preachers was eschewed as unnecessary and unspiritual. In reality, there was probably the underlying fear that the errors of their theological views would be exposed. Also, within Pentecostal circles there was the suspicion that seminaries were hotbeds of liberalism, and truth be told, this was often the case in the seminaries of mainline denominations. However, within Evangelical and Pentecostal circles there were a number of conservative colleges and universities providing sound evangelical theological instruction. The instruction in these seminaries provided an opportunity to dispel the idea that one’s theology was exclusively correct and all others were wrong. This realization resulted in deeper theological reflection, reading of other views, and ultimately (for true conservatives) a return to Scripture as the source of God’s self-revelation.
I appreciate my early experience in the little country Pentecostal church with our emphasis on the Word of God. This foundation has remained with me through seminary and two earned doctorate degrees. However, I have also had my view of theology expanded to understand that no one’s theological view, statement of faith, or doctrinal position papers fell from heaven on tablets of gold. (Only one denomination believes that and they are patently deluded.)
What does this mean? It means that my views come back to the foundational truths of God’s Word. It means that every doctrine, every teaching, every practice, every tradition must be subject to review in the light of God’s Word. It means that we never assume that what any organization or preacher says or writes is infallible or beyond scrutiny. And it means that we must maintain our focus on God’s revelation of Himself through His Son, His Word, and His World.
Next Blog: “Approaches to Biblical Theology”
Copyright © Dr. Mark E. Hardgrove 2017
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