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The Globalization of Pentecostalism: A Review Article, by Paul Elbert

To assume, carte blanche, that Pentecostal or Evangelical mission occurs in a “postmodern” world is to circumscribe mission with an ill-defined, ill-fitting and astonishingly unperceptive concept, one that is unnecessarily limiting and highly questionable.  Given the potentially infectious nature of this pretentious world-characterization (which I believe is a naïve mischaracterization), scholars might do well to jump off the relativistic and insular postmodern bandwagon altogether.[42]  For Pentecostals now, of all people, to bog down in the vague notions of modernity and postmodernity invoked by secular humanities scholars in order to bring the experiential dimension of biblical realism to the theological table, when God has allowed them the golden opportunity to be a part of an entirely new intellectual era – an era that has worldwide acceptance and understandability –  would be, historically, most tragic and inappropriate.

However, an apparent adherent of such an insular worldview is Gerald T. Sheppard, “Pentecostals, Globalization, and Postmodern Hermeneutics: Implications for the Politics of Scriptural Interpretation’ (289-312).  According to Sheppard, Pentecostalism is not a movement which arrives and is sustained from heaven, rather it should find “the real presence of the Holy Spirit” in the history of institutions (290).  Sheppard thinks that the “humanities” have adopted postmodern theory since 1960, an overblown claim.  He blithely ignores the larger and more influential scientific/engineering academy and suggests, wrongly in my view, that “What is at stake for the Pentecostal is the dense topic of postmodern hermeneutics” (289).  I can recall that F. F. Bruce once said on his editorial page of Evangelical Quarterly that he got tired of being called a “fundamentalist.”  I think that he would have liked to know exactly what was wrong with him, instead of just being the object of pejorative labeling.  Some scholars denigrate with the “fundamentalist” label those who think it reasonable that the Evangelists knew more about the earthly Jesus than creative scholarship seeking a “historical” Jesus, an earthly Jesus different from the one portrayed by the less knowledgeable Evangelists.   Others simply equate cessationism and Young Earth Creationism[43] together as a package with “fundamentalist,” hence the need for editorial clarification.  In any case, Sheppard slams “fundamentalists,” the method of “historico-grammatical exegesis,” and liberal “higher criticism,” but he never gives a single concrete example of how his postmodern interpretation functions in regard to a specific passage of Scripture or in regard to any other text.  Tying “fundamentalists” to the skepticism and anti-supernatural bias of the historical-critical method helps to define what Sheppard thinks a “fundamentalist” is.  However, since many Great Commission Christians in the Pentecostal world have fundamentals when it comes to biblical texts, producing differences from Catholic, Orthodox and Reformed/Evangelical traditions, differences of which they do not need to be ashamed, Sheppard might have profited from the Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition of illustrating his point with a practical example.  However, he appears rather enthralled by his understanding of reality as “postmodern,” so perhaps any argument from example would be deemed superfluous.  One will have to stretch in order to detect any “characteristic breakthrough of Pentecostal piety” (Russell Spittler, “Foreword,” vii) in Sheppard’s supposed implications.

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About the Author: Paul Elbert, physicist-theologian and New Testament scholar, teaches theology and science at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary. He is co-chair of the Formation of Luke-Acts section in the Society of Biblical Literature and is a research advisor to the Dominican Biblical Institute, Limerick, Ireland. His writings have appeared, for example, in Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft and in Catholic Biblical Quarterly. He served as editor of two anniversary volumes for Old Testament scholars, Essays on Apostolic Themes (1985) and Faces of Renewal (1988).

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