Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost, by Craig Keener

Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost,
by Craig Keener

Reviewed by Daniel Juster, ThD

If I had the capacity to write a book on hermeneutics, I would have written Spirit Hermeneutics. I know of no book that so fully represents my own thinking on this topic. The book is broadly rooted in Pentecostalism, but is not at all myopic and indeed applies to all who embrace Scripture as God’s inspired and trustworthy revelation.

Author Craig Keener spent his young adult years in Pentecostal contexts including times of pastoral ministry. He is a thoroughly committed Pentecostal or Charismatic, and has been on the pastoral staff in Baptist contexts as well. He broadly relates to the whole Church as well as to the Messianic Jewish community.

Dr. Keener is a friend of the Messianic Jewish movement and first attended the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations conference in St. Louis in 1984. He later taught for our Messianic Jewish theological school in Maryland, Messiah Biblical Institute. Today he is a professor at one of the leading Evangelical seminaries, Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.1

Little did we know when we first met Dr. Keener that this young professor from Philadelphia (Palmer Theological Seminary) would become one of the preeminent exegetical theologians of the English-speaking world, with an exhaustive three-volume commentary on Acts, comprehensive commentaries on Matthew and John, an extraordinary book on miracles, The Credibility of New Testament Miracles (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), and an award-winning reference book on cultural backgrounds for New Testament interpretation, The IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1995).

Commenting on Spirit Hermeneutics, no less an authority on interpretation than Anthony C. Thiselton writes,

Few subjects are more important today than the relation between hermeneutics and the Holy Spirit. If we want to take the Bible seriously, Craig Keener rightly insists that the “spiritual” hermeneutics includes global Pentecostalism, but is also much broader. We need careful attention to the meaning to curb undue subjectivism.

At the center of the book is the issue of how our spiritual experience rightly impacts our interpretation of the Bible. For Dr. Keener, this is especially connected to how charismatic experience effects the interpretation of the Bible.

Experiential reading in a responsible way does not endorse pure subjectivity in interpretation. Nor do I refer to looking for a personal application or “takeaway” for each verse or even paragraph, although (as argued later in the book) application by responsible analogy helps us to hear and engage the text more sympathetically and concretely. Rather, by experiential reading I mean believing to the depths of our being what we find in the text.2

Some might not know that the issue of interpreting the Bible through the lens of charismatic or Holy Spirit experience is no small matter today since Pentecostal and Charismatic Christian scholars have produced multiple studies, books, and articles on this topic. Dr. Keener sorts through them all. In addition, he sorts though a great deal of the literature on hermeneutics in general. This book is intended to supplement a more standard text like the great work, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1991), by Grant Osborn.

Some Pentecostals believe that a more postmodern approach to interpretation, freed from the restraints of ideas like the intent of the author and from the quest for objective meaning is more in tune with charismatic experience. Thus, for some, reading in the light of dependence on Holy Spirit and our consequent experience will yield an adequate interpretation of the text: academic study is just not necessary. Spirit-filled readers approach the text with the emphasis on what the Holy Spirit is saying to me personally or to the community. One could say that this is a reader-response approach in a charismatic Christian context, where the text can mean many different things at different times to different people and communities. Most of those charismatics who believe that the postmodern approach is liberating are also looking for communal readings of the text through the Spirit since the experience of the Spirit is not a mere individualistic matter but a communal reality. Therefore, contrary to Keener, such interpreters look to studies that emphasize that Scripture only finds meaning in community and within the limitations and advantages of community. Keener continues to argue for author intent in hermeneutics.3

In regard to the importance of the intent of the author, Keener agrees with the emphasis of the renowned Pentecostal scholar Gordon Fee that author intent is often a very important check on subjectivism.4 On the other hand, Keener argues against the rationalistic evangelical orientation of the 19th century. There is more Holy Spirit in interpretation and more communal influence than was perceived in the old hermeneutic approaches.

Experiences similar to those in Scripture often make Scripture more believable or close to us than it feels to those who do not have such experiences. I noted earlier that Messianic Jews or members of house congregations hear emphases or resonate with experiences or emphases in Scripture that some others miss; likewise, those who have experienced miracles often find them more plausible than those who have not.5

We could picture rationalistic approaches as a process whereby evidence in the form of language (word study, syntax, and context) is placed into the logical processor of the mind, which then gives us the true and objective interpretation. The Holy Spirit, however, is essential to sound interpretation, and gives us analogous experiences to the biblical authors without which the text simply does not register. So many things go over the heads of interpreters who do not have analogous experience. We will note later in this review that Keener presents the gifts of the Spirit and miracles as example. Many therefore read the text without being able to really understand what it is saying despite the best use of interpretive tools.

Keener also addresses the popular Pentecostal practice of ordinary laypersons (this includes many Evangelicals as well) who think they can just read the text and fully understand it, so that scholarship plays no role in getting the interpretation right.6 In some circles of Evangelicals there are interpretive traditions that really are not rooted in any meaningful quest for objectivity.7 Keener defends the importance of people reading the Bible and understanding it through the help of the Spirit as best as they can, but argues that teachers with scholarship are also needed to bring balance to an individual’s and community’s reading of the Bible.

That means that it matters what the text is saying in its context. Exploiting the Bible to say only what we mean—to communicate merely our own opinions—is simply wrapping our own ideas in the cloak of biblical authority. Hijacking the biblical text’s authority for our own agendas is a dangerous venture. The Bible spoke harshly of prophets who claimed God’s authority for their own ideas.8

What are some implications of this study?9 First, there is no such thing as a clean and easily-obtained objectivity for understanding the meaning of texts. We are all limited by our own education, spiritual experiences, the communal context of our lives, and our experience in study where scholarship including historical background and language is important. Objectivity in interpretation is a quest, not an arrived-at attainment. We move closer and closer to the objective meaning through the leading of the Spirit. Movement toward objective meaning is through a combination of what was called the historical-grammatical-cultural approach to the meaning of texts (which Keener still defends as important), the reality of analogous spiritual experience to the biblical writers and characters, and finally dialogue among capable people from different communities.10 Indeed, inter-communal dialogue provides us with new possibilities for seeing the texts and new and greater levels of interpretive integration while still always returning to the text in context as an important-but-not-perfect control. Thus Keener rejects the radical reader-response theories in which the meaning of the text is only whatever the reader gets out of it for him or herself. It is true that the Holy Spirit can speak to a reader from any text as a jumping off point, and we can receive all kinds of information from the Spirit or from our own imagination, but we should not think that the text can mean many things that were not intended. Keener still is seeking the actual meaning of the text.11 This search is a corrective to Pentecostal, Charismatic and postmodern approaches to the text that are simply overly subjective, lazy, and sloppy. Charismatics need to be concerned for good exegesis based on good scholarship.

Experiential reading is important, but it must be genuinely consistent with the message of the text that is canonical for Christ’s body. Basic principles such as literary context and sensitivity to biblical books’ ancient cultural settings would go a long way toward restraining undisciplined “charismatic” interpretation. Genuine Spirit hermeneutics for the community must recognize and submit to the parameters established by the shape of the biblical text itself.12

Keener therefore integrates the importance of subjective experience in interpretation, community tradition and experience in interpretation and the importance of grammatical historical exegesis in interpretation. Keener is not naïve but is well-versed in the major currents of philosophical hermeneutics and the debates that are taking place. This has great influence on approaches to biblical interpretation in the academic world.

So often Keener shows that there are false dichotomies in approaches to interpretation. A sample of his chapter or section titles gives a sense of the enriching discussion on such dichotomies.

• Post-modern or Ancient Meanings (119)

• Pre-modern as Well as Modern Ways of Reading (129)

• Implied Authors and Limits in Ascertaining Authorial Intention (139)

• Both Literary and Historical Approaches (142)

• Both Ancient and Modern Meanings (145)

The discipline of hermeneutics is actually filled with false dichotomies and Keener exposes these false dichotomies. He provides a strong defense of the role of the Holy Spirit in enabling understanding while checking illumination with a pursuit of an objective text meaning.

Dr. Keener is not averse to dealing with difficult issues such as how to apply the Torah today. He does so with a “principle approach” somewhat like that of Walter Kaiser.13

Although Paul affirms that believers are not under the law in the sense of needing it for justification, he does expect believers to fulfill the moral principles of the law.14

However, though he shows high regard for the Torah and its applicability, a Messianic Jewish reader would probably see the applicability of more Torah texts as more directly relevant than Keener perceives. Keener makes a good comparison of the Torah laws with those of Israel’s neighbors that reminds me of Conservative Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s The Torah Revolution (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011), and the classic by G. Ernest Wright, The Old Testament Against its Environment.15

What Relevance does this book have for Messianic Jews?

Messianic Jews deal with many of the topics in this book. They deal with communal influence in interpretation. The question of how to respond to Jewish midrashic interpretation parallels the question of responding to interpretations in Christianity that are not based on author intent but on readings that go back to the early Church fathers. Some popular interpretations in Christianity are not compatible with Messianic Jewish interpretations. For example, some interpreters of Acts 1:6 put forth the view that the apostles were asking a wrong-headed question as to when the Kingdom would be restored to Israel. Yet the text is really asserting that Yeshua confirms their question and the hope that what they envision will happen. Many texts are read within Christian communal contexts in ways that Messianic Jews believe are wrong, especially reading Hebrew texts as having reference to fulfillment in the Church when the reference is to fulfillment in ethnic Israel. This is common knowledge to most Messianic Jewish leaders. Keener’s whole evaluation of the issue of community determination in the way we read Scripture has great relevance here.16 The reason is that we can see that communal interpretations that are very strongly dominant in some Christian streams, do not show understanding of the contextual meaning of the text.

Is Messianic Judaism charismatic? Should it be? Many Messianic Jews are charismatically oriented. This means that they believe the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit as described in the New Covenant Scriptures should parallel our experience today. Messianic Jews emphasize getting back to the original Jewish context for the New Covenant Scriptures. In this regard they seek to show that continued Jewish identity and life in the New Covenant is the apostolic teaching and example. Returning to that original context also includes a non-cessationist interpretation of the gifts and power of God. Dr. Keener does argue for this as the intent of the Scriptures. If so, Messianic Jewish life would be Jewish life with great power in the Holy Spirit and the exercise of the supernatural gifts of the Spirit.17

Keener puts forth an idea of the relationship of experience and objective text meaning as in a creative tension. Our experience opens up meanings to understand in the text that are really there but are missed, but the text in context is also a check on fanciful interpretations based on subjective experience. Our experience in the Holy Spirit influences how we see the text. However, our experience of Jewish life also gives us insights into texts that are sometimes missed. We see so much in the text that is missed by others because we live a Jewish life!

Finally, it is important to realize that the idea of interpretation only being a matter of data being fed into a mind that processes it is a very weak understanding of how to come to truth. The experiential and the intuitive are crucial. One can only reason on what one has experienced, or at least by some analogous experience.

I cannot recommend Spirit Hermeneutics too highly. There are great benefits to be gained by a careful reading of this book.

1 Craig S. Keener, Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 15.

2 Ibid, 25.

3 Ibid, 136–140.

4 Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth; A Guide to Understanding the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993).

5 Keener, 26.

6 Ibid, 129.

7 Ibid, 111–112.

8 Ibid, 112.

9 The following points are close to what I have argued in a little booklet entitled Teach us Your Truth (available through Tikkun International, Gaithersburg, MD).

10 Keener, 141–142, 147–149, 277–280.

11 Ibid, 115–117, 139.

12 Ibid, 276.

13 Walter C Kaiser, Recovering the Unity of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 157–169.

14 Keener, 223.

15 Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1951; cited in Keener, 209–216.

16 Keener, 277–281.

17 Ibid, 280.