Introduction

A local group of Christians with which I am a little familiar provides us with an excellent test case for my claim that the paradigms and dictionaries we bring to the text are even more determinative for the meaning we see in the Bible than the text of the Bible itself.

With what little knowledge I have, I would characterize the group in terms of three key beliefs which differ from most mainstream churches (if I am wrong on details, this entry is more about how we read the Bible than about the group per se):

1. A belief that speaking in tongues is the evidence of having the Holy Spirit (in distinction from the gift of tongues, which I suppose would be those who continue to speak in tongues regularly after conversion). Those who do not speak in tongues are not truly saved.

2. A belief that a person should only be baptized in Jesus' name. Baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is inappropriate because of the manner of baptism in Acts. Those who have been baptized in the name of the Trinity must be rebaptized. Further, a person cannot be saved unless s/he is baptized (although children who have not reached the age of accountability will go to heaven).

3. A disbelief in the Trinity. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in fact three phases or modes of the same person. God is one person, not three.

Now, how does this theology work in terms of how the Bible is appropriated. I will give a description in terms of my claims about how we read the Bible.

This is a wonderful example of a pre-modern interpretation of the Bible. The overriding presumption is that the words of the Bible form a single message. Therefore, words from one book of the Bible are interpreted on the basis of controlling interpretations from other words from other books. This approach, typical of so many Christian groups, usually reflects a lack of awareness of how to read the books of the Bible in context. This approach is particularly typical of the "Left Behind" approach to prophecy, which mixes words from various contexts all over the Bible into a coherent paradigm.

The original meaning of an individual book is of course what the words of that book meant when the book was produced. A contextual reading of 1 Thessalonians thus asks what situation Paul was in when he wrote it, what the words likely meant in Paul's mind, and what the words likely meant in the minds of the Thessalonians.

This is of course how the words "want" to be read. Perhaps it is valid to read them in terms of God's message for us, perhaps in fact that is what it means to consider them Scripture (I am now alluding to a post-modern way of using Scripture). But this is not how the words themselves "want" to be read--it is not what Jesus, Paul, or the other authors understood their words to mean. When 2 Thessalonians 2 says, "Didn't I tell you these things when I was with you," it clearly wants us to take the I as the apostle Paul and the you as the Thessalonians. Paul did not tell anyone alive the things to which these words refer.

In the next section, I will explore ways in which the group in question infuses the words of the Bible with the definitions of their "tradition" and how they "glue" words from one context to words from other contexts. All of these operations take place outside the text and the resultant meanings are distinct from the original meanings of the text. From a post-modern perspective, however, these observations in themselves do not necessarily mean the group is wrong. They can modify their paradigm by claiming to have the correct spiritual interpretation of the text. At the moment, however, these processes take place on a pre-modern plane. That is, the group does not realize they are not reading the words with the meanings Jesus, Paul, or the other New Testament authors understood the words to have.

 

 

Acts 2: The Controlling Passage

As best I can tell, the book of Acts, especially Acts 2, provides one of the most important "centers" or controlling elements in the way this group reads Scripture. Thus Acts 2:38 says, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit."

The group correctly reads the verse to say:

1. Peter associates the forgiveness of his audience's sins with baptism.

2. This baptism is "in the name of Jesus Christ"--nothing is said of God the Father or the Holy Spirit.

3. A person receives the Holy Spirit in association with such repentance and baptism.

Let's see how the group relates these three aspects of the verse to their key beliefs.

First let's look at their insistence that such baptism be in the name of Jesus [only] and their rejection of the idea of the Trinity.

They have correctly noticed that the book of Acts consistently involves a baptism in the name of Jesus. Nothing is said in Acts about baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Indeed, I suspect they are right to think that the earliest Christians baptized in the name of Jesus (cf. Rom. 6:3).

But as pre-modern readers, they cannot allow other segments of the early church to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (e.g., Matt. 28:19). They view the Bible as a single text written by God, so the historical tensions that almost certainly existed in the early church are mowed down by the lawn mower called "harmonization."

At first glance, harmonization looks like it is the most godly approach to Scripture--finding ways to reinterpret passages of the Bible so that their meaning is no longer in tension with the meaning of other passages. When the Holy Spirit is truly behind such harmonization (that is, leading the reader to truth through it, even though the truth is different from the original meaning) or when a person is either consciously or subconsciously doing it with orthodox faith setting the boundaries, I don't have a problem with it.

But I have two problems with it when it is used to support unorthodox views or when individuals (I am not referring to this group now) use harmonization to dismiss sincere Bible scholars as unspiritual because they don't harmonize. The first problem I have is that harmonizing ultimately rejects the voices of Scripture and substitutes itself for Scripture.

For example, Matthew and Mark record Jesus' healing of a leper and his healing of Peter's mother-in-law in opposite order. A harmonizer might suggest Jesus healed two lepers: one before Peter's mother-in-law and one afterwards. This example is harmless enough, but you have created a scenario that neither of the gospels present. You have invented your own scheme and, in a sense, rejected both what Matthew and Mark actually say.

Again, in this case the result is really not that big of a deal. But the Jesus only group actually rejects Matthew's baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in favor of Acts. A clever rationalization ensues--and such splicing is often ingenious. They might argue that "name" is singular and invoke some interpretation that says these three are really all Jesus, just in three phases of his existence. What might seem to be a baptism in the names of three different persons is really just baptism in the one name of Jesus.

This leads me to the second problem I ultimately have with harmonization when it becomes unorthodox or is used to support a condescending attitude toward Bible scholars (again, I am not referring to the group with this last comment). The resultant interpretations are simply wrong in terms of what the text originally meant. It's playing a game with the text. A Bible scholar who genuinely sees tensions in the biblical text may have a much greater respect for the text of the Bible than a harmonizer. That's because such a person is willing to let each part mean whatever it seems to mean. In other words, such a person doesn't shove harmonizations down the Bible's throat. Some people's "idea" of the Bible is far more important to them than the text of the Bible itself.

So in the case of the leper and Peter's mother in law, the wording of the leper story is extremely similar in both gospels. Indeed, it is overwhelmingly likely that Matthew and Mark stand in some literary relationship to one another--that one is either copying its basic text from the other or that they are both drawing on a common source of some type. As such it is overwhelmingly likely that the leper story is the same story placed in different locations by the two authors. Harmonization in this instance is not only not important for faith but it is simply an incorrect interpretation.

Similarly, while Matthew uses the singular for "name," one can only support the idea that this is simply naming Jesus three times if one brings this pre-conception to the text. There is certainly nothing in the text that would lead us in this direction. The resultant interpretation may preserve the "idea" of harmony, but it does so by raping the biblical text of its actual meaning. It ignores what the text wants to say in order to preserve what the interpreter wants the text to say.

Indeed, if anything the New Testament itself pushes us to distinguish Jesus from God, not to identify them. Thus Jesus says he does not know things that the Father does (Mark 13:32). The Father speaks while Jesus prays (e.g., Matt. 3:17). Jesus is the firstborn of creation (Col. 1:15), which seems to place him on the creation side of the equation in Paul's mind (a situation those of us who believe in the Trinity also need to explain). The group no doubt has ingenious ways of reinterpreting these passages, as Christians in general have great "coping strategies" to explain away "naughty verses" that don't fit with our Wesleyan or Baptist or Presbyterian paradigms.

But when we really value the text (and are looking for the original meaning rather than a "spiritual" one), we don't find possible ways to interpret it so it fits with our theology, we try to go with the most probable reading of the text. Inevitably, we begin to see the Bible in context as a chorus of voices that basically are in harmony with each other, but we also see tensions between real people. From my perspective, you simply cannot let the Bible set the agenda without reaching some conclusion of this sort. To do otherwise is to foist on the Bible a view it does not "want" you to have. It would be like trying to honor me for being such an incredible war hero despite my continued protests that I have never been in a war or even in the armed forces. What I really want you to do is to listen to what I'm actually trying to say to you.

Now in saying such things I do not mean to negate my view that it is ultimately great to hear the Spirit speaking in the words apart from what they meant originally. What is important to me is that we don't confuse such spiritual meanings with the original meaning. And even more important to me is that we don't mistake the splicings of our own making with the authoritative voice of God.

 

 

The Necessity of Water Baptism

I'd now like to look at another aspect of the group's interpretive paradigm, namely, the idea that unless you are baptized in water (in the name of Jesus, as the last entry discussed), you are not going to make it to heaven.

First of all, I believe the group has rightly ascertained that Acts 2:38 treats receiving the Spirit as a part of coming to Christ in Acts 2. I feel my Wesleyan background, using its own interpretive paradigm, has often associated the Day of Pentecost with a work of grace subsequent to becoming a Christian (entire sanctification, following the lead of John Fletcher rather than John Wesley). It took me years to listen to the biblical text on this one. I agree with the group that Acts treats reception of the Holy Spirit as an essential component in coming to Christ, not as a work subsequent to conversion.

Indeed, I would say that Paul, Acts, and Hebrews treat the reception of the Spirit as the defining element of becoming a Christian (cf. Rom. 8:9; 2 Cor. 5:5).

But is baptism in water as essential as "baptism in the Spirit" or the reception of the Spirit, terms that Luke-Acts seems to use interchangeably. Some groups, including some in my own tradition, make fine distinctions between phrases like "baptism in the Spirit," "filling with the Spirit," "receiving the Spirit," and the "fulness of the Spirit." But these are moves made from the outside of the text looking in. The text does not make any explicit distinctions of this sort--they are read into the text rather than out of it.

Jesus in Luke foretells baptism in the Holy Spirit. Acts implies that Pentecost is the fulfillment of this prediction. The Day of Pentecost is thus baptism in the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:38 equates receiving the Spirit with the Pentecost experience. They are said to have been filled with the Spirit on this day (2:4). Finally, the phrase fulness of the Spirit does not even occur in the New Testament. Once again we see that the definitions and dictionary a person brings to the text determines the meaning you see in the text.

So how essential is water baptism? It is clearly important. Acts 2:38 treats it as normative. The first words out of the Ethiopian eunuch's mouth after Philip convinces him of the gospel relate to water for baptism (Acts 8). Suffice it to say, the idea of a Christian group forbidding water baptism or even not encouraging it would have been foreign to the book of Acts.

But is it as important and essential as "baptism in the Holy Spirit"? Will an unbaptized Quaker or Salvationist miss heaven over this? What about someone who dies before they get to a baptismal? The group in question is keen to point out that Acts 2:38 says that the baptism is "for the forgiveness of sins." The reception of the Holy Spirit is not mentioned here as the mechanism of cleansing--the water baptism is.

On the other hand, this is a lot of weight to put on the preposition "into" in the Greek. Words like these can have many different nuances, and the group is taking these words in a very, very narrow sense, probably much narrower than they were originally meant.

Thus Acts 15:8-9 speak of the purification coming by way of the Holy Spirit: "God who knows the heart witnessed to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as He also gave to us, and he showed no difference between us and them when he cleansed their hearts on the basis of their faith." The coming of the Holy Spirit in the incidence to which Peter refers took place before these Gentiles had been baptized (Acts 10). This fact demonstrates that the two "baptisms"--baptism in the Holy Spirit and water baptism--are separable experiences.

Indeed, at Samaria they were baptized and did not receive the Spirit (Acts 8). This incongruous situation led Peter and John to make a special trip to Samaria, presumably to "fix" this "problem" (although here more interpretation is involved on my part).

Paul can associate joining together with Christ with baptism (Rom. 6:4). But more often than not it is the Holy Spirit he focuses on as the boundary marker between sonship and non-sonship (e.g., Rom. 8:9; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; cf. Eph. 1:14; Heb. 6:4-6). In 1 Corinthians he actually downplays the significance of baptism because of local problems there: "Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel..." (1:17).

In short, baptism in water is clearly associated with the cleansing of the heart in Paul and Acts. But 1) since water baptism and Spirit baptism are separable experiences in Acts, 2) since when the distinction is not made the spiritual seems to take precedence, and 3) since the spiritual is more often mentioned and water baptism is not, on the whole water baptism seems secondary to Spirit baptism.

So would a Spirit baptized person who was not water baptized go to heaven? The NT doesn't directly address this question. True, the thief on the cross was never baptized, but the Holy Spirit had not yet been given at that time. He was like an Old Testament saint in that regard.

I'm not sure I have a knock down drag out argument except to say that it is not the baptism that the NT authors emphasize as the operative element in conversion. 1 John speaks of the heart, for example.

True, Paul does have followers of John the Baptist become rebaptized at Ephesus (Acts 19). But the reason was because John's baptism did not involve receiving the Holy Spirit. There may also be other features involved here, historical factors leading Acts (cf. John) to emphasize that following the message of John the Baptist and following Jesus is not the same thing.

So I probably cannot prove what any NT author would say about the unbaptized Quaker or the person who gets in a car accident on their way to their baptism. But would God have accepted any of the Gentiles in Acts 10 after they received the Holy Spirit before they were baptized? I think He would have, although this is an inference. And while I cannot absolutely prove it, it seems to me that the baptism of the group in this passage (Acts 10:47) is almost a kind of after-the-fact ratification of that which the Holy Spirit had already done in them.

So inferences are involved on both sides of the issue. I have to infer what the NT authors would say about an unbaptized Quaker. I'm trying to do so on the basis of what the text says. The group in question is also inferring an answer to this question. In particular, they are inferring that all the relevant passages that don't mention water baptism while talking about the Spirit in conversion assume it as equally essential. All in all, their interpretation centers primarily on a rigid reading of one verse (Acts 2:38), whose interpretation is then inferred in all other places in the NT.

But we cannot assume that Paul has the same precise theology as Luke--or even that Luke is giving us Peter's exact words on the Day of Pentecost (there's significant evidence to conclude that the sermons of Acts give us as much of Luke as they do of the historical sermons in question). That means that the group's case is built on 1) the "normal" process of conversion in Acts (without any comment on the unusual) and 2) inference from the "normal" examples of Acts. The NT makes no direct comment on the "unusual" circumstances we are addressing.

 

 

Tongues as Evidence of the Spirit

The final component I wish to discuss on this topic is the belief that speaking in tongues is not just a gift of the Spirit that some Christians have, not even the view of some that speaking in tongues is a gift all Christians could have, but evidence of the Holy Spirit's presence in your life to where if you have never spoken in tongues, you are not a Christian.

It is easy enough to see where the group gets this idea. It's a simple line of thought:

1. A person is not a Christian if s/he has not received the Holy Spirit.
2. A person who receives the Holy Spirit will speak in tongues.
3. Therefore, a person who has never spoken in tongues has not received the Holy Spirit and is not a Christian.

I agree with the first premise. However, I disagree with the second. Accordingly, I disagree with the conclusion.

I've argued before that the "dictionary" you bring to a word determines the meaning you see in it. That is true in this case. A person from this group brings a "definition" of the Spirit that entails speaking in tongues. Therefore a person is not a Christian if they have not spoken in tongues.

Where does this "definition" come from? I would say two places. First, it comes from the experience of the founders of this group. It's easy to say that all Christians will speak in tongues when you come to Christ if you spoke in tongues when you came to Christ. The problem is of course for the rest of us who believe we experienced conversion and yet did not speak in tongues.

If the founders of this group spoke in tongues when they had their conversion experiences, it is easy enough to interpret the fillings with the Spirit accordingly. After all, on three occasions in Acts groups who receive the Holy Spirit speak in tongues (Pentecost, Gentiles, followers of John the Baptist).

Here we encounter an important dynamic of biblical interpretation. The book of Acts has a "gap" with regard to the relationship between receiving the Spirit and speaking in tongues. The text of Acts does not say that those who receive the Holy Spirit always speak in tongues. The reader must then infer whether 1) we are meant to assume speaking in tongues every time someone receives the Spirit in Acts, even though Acts does not say so or 2) there were only certain key occasions when speaking in tongues occurred.

We might note that Philo the Jew mentions a tradition that a fire issued from Mt. Sinai at the giving of the Law and that this fire could be heard in articulate speech. The Jews of this period associated the Feast of Pentecost with the giving of the Law, so Luke and/or God was giving more than just some sign of conversion in the speaking of tongues on the Day of Pentecost. Perhaps this is an indication that God was inaugurating the new covenant in which He wrote His laws on our hearts instead of on tablets of stone (cf. Jer. 31; 2 Cor. 3; Heb. 8). Some would say this symbolizes the reversal of the confusion at the Tower of Babel.

In any case, speaking in tongues has a strong symbolic significance here, a significance that our dictionary doesn't come equipped with because we are not ancient Jews. The tongues that took place in Acts 10 make it clear that the Gentile experience of the Spirit was in no way inferior to the inaugural experience of the Jews at Pentecost. The purpose of narrating speaking in tongues at Ephesus to the followers of John the Baptist is less clear and, in my opinion, provides the strongest argument for the group we are discussing.

Nevertheless, their position is largely an argument from silence. Tongues does not play a major role in the New Testament. It appears almost exclusively in these three Acts passages and in 1 Corinthians. Of course there are significant differences even between 1 Corinthians and Acts on this score. The tongues of Acts seem to be human languages that help unbelievers come to Christ. The tongues of 1 Corinthians push unbelievers away and seem to be something like the tongues of angels (13:1).

In 1 Corinthians Paul addresses a problem in Corinthian worship relating to the use of tongues, and the overall tendency of 1 Corinthians 14 is to promote the use of prophecy over tongues in worship. Paul allows the use of interpreted tongues only and then only two or three in a service.

He says not to forbid tongues, which is clear enough about the direction of the conversation: he is not promoting, he is not prohibiting. I do not say this to demean the use of tongues--I don't actually have a problem with Pentecostal groups that might have uninterpreted tongues throughout the whole worship service. Paul was writing to the Corinthian church within the parameters of their context. I suspect that many Pentecostal churches actually are edified by uninterpreted tongues in their worship! (and by the way, I use this same line of argument to justify the Wesleyan Church's prohibition of tongues in public worship--it would not edify in our churches but create immense conflict).

My point is that I have good reason to think that an approach that considers speaking in tongues so essential to Christianity is out of focus. As Paul says, "All don't speak in tongues, do they?" (1 Cor. 12). In Greek this is a question expecting a negative answer. No, all don't speak in tongues. Paul makes no distinctiong between the gift of tongues and tongues as an evidence of the Holy Spirit. This is splicing done from the outside of the text looking in. Paul's primary point indeed seems to be to tell a Corinthian group that thinks its hot stuff that its not as hot as it thinks.

Well, my blather goes on too long. A final word about the comment in the latter part of Mark 16 in later manuscripts predicting that Christians will speak in tongues. Some groups in Kentucky take the comment "they will pick up snakes" as a command and so pick up poisonous snakes in their worship. But this comment is an indicative, a description. It is not an imperative or command. It says what will happen, not what must happen.

And of course in the end these verses were not in the original of Mark. Eusebius at the beginning of the fourth century mentions that the ending was absent from almost all the Greek manuscripts he has seen of Mark. The earliest manuscripts of Mark do not have it. There is a shorter ending in some manuscripts that reflect texts of Mark floating around that supplemented the text with something else. All in all, these verses start the chapter all over as if 16:1-8 didn't even exist. It is largely a summary of various post-resurrection statements in the other gospels.