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Paul L. King: Hermeneutics in Modern and Classic Faith Movements

In addition to Kenyon’s influence, Pentecostal circles generally had an aversion to formal education due to rejection of Pentecostal belief and practice by academics. As a result, some charismatic and word of faith leaders eschew theology and biblical exegesis as being traditional and not Spirit-led. James Zeigler, himself a former Rhema student and former director of the Holy Spirit Research Center at Oral Roberts University, pointed out that many of the Word of Faith teachers, not being schooled in the biblical languages, hermeneutics, and theology, rely heavily upon a literalistic rendering of the King James English version of the Bible.7 They have mostly secondhand knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, based on helps such as Strong’s Concordance or Vine’s Expository Dictionary, Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible and the Amplified Bible (which some scholars believe is deficient because it gives so many options, rather than defining a term within its context). One of my professors when I was a student at Oral Roberts University astutely remarked many years ago, “A little bit of knowledge [about Greek and Hebrew] can be a dangerous thing.”

Derek Vreeland, a defender of the basic principles of contemporary faith theology, nonetheless acknowledges, “The writings of E.W. Kenyon lack theological sophistication and, in part, reveal a departure from the most sound of hermeneutical principles. However, the whole of his teachings falls within the bounds of historical orthodox Christianity, on the fringe perhaps, but still within orthodoxy.”8 Vreeland, even though a now and again supporter of contemporary faith leaders, also admits that Hagin uses a “loose pragmatic hermeneutic” and a “selective hermeneutic.”9 To illustrate this lack of theological and exegetical sophistication, a few examples of hermeneutical flaws in contemporary faith teaching include:

Referring to Hebrews 1:6 where Jesus is called in KJV Bible “the first begotten,” Copeland asserts, “He’s no longer called the only begotten Son of God. He is called the first born from the dead, the first begotten of many brethren. … The next thing He does is include you and me in the begotten of God.”10 This appears to denigrate the deity of Christ and deify mankind. However, I do not believe Copeland is intentionally propagating heretical views here. Rather, he is showing his theological and exegetical ignorance by failing to distinguish between “first begotten” (prototokos—firstborn, prototype) and “only begotten” (monogenes—unique, one-of-kind).

As mentioned earlier, Capps interprets Matthew 7:7 in light of his assumptions regarding other passages of Scripture, denying that it can mean to keep on asking and seeking. Ignorant of what the text really says and means in the original language, he comes to an erroneous conclusion. Barron points out correctly, “Capps’s inflexibility demonstrates a major flaw in positive confession teaching: it attempts to make universal laws out of isolated texts.”11

Regarding Hebrews 11:1, I have several times heard contemporary faith teachers claim, “Now faith is. . .—that means faith is NOW.” However, the problem with that interpretation is that the Greek word translated “now” (de) does not mean “now in time.” Rather, it is a transitional word that can be translated, “therefore.” It is valid to say that sometimes faith is now, but it cannot be claimed arbitrarily that faith is always now, nor can this verse legitimately be claimed as support for the teaching.

As has been cited earlier, inferring from the wording in the KJV Bible, some contemporary faith leaders mistake the subject of Romans 4:17, believing that believers can “call those things which are not as though they are,” when, in fact, God is the person being referred to in the context.

MacGregor notes that Copeland “interprets Isaiah 40:12 in precisely the same manner as Mormon hermeneutics: ‘The Bible says [God] measured out the heavens with a nine-inch span. Well . . . my span is eight and three-quarter inches long. So God’s span is a quarter of an inch longer than mine. So you see . . . God . . . stands around 6’2”, 6’3”, weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple hundred pounds, little better.’”12 While MacGregor believes that Copeland is intentionally borrowing from Mormonism, I think it is more likely that Copeland, if he was being serious when he made the statement, was slavishly adhering to a literalistic wording of the KJV Bible, not comprehending Isaiah’s hermeneutical use of anthropological metaphorical language to describe God in terms that ancient man could understand.

These are only a handful of the many erroneous interpretations pointed out by contemporary faith critics. Having pointed out these flaws, we must also recognize that Hagin before his death in 2003 acknowledged this problem in the contemporary faith movement and emphasized the need for interpreting Scripture in its context and not mistaking figurative for literal (though he needed to go farther with it).13 It should also be noted that there are some contemporary faith leaders such as Bob Yandian and Rick Renner of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who have studied the original languages and seek to apply sound exegesis and exposition, bringing moderation to contemporary faith movement interpretation and praxis.14

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Category: Church History, Pneuma Review, Summer 2012

About the Author: Paul L. King holds a D.Min from Oral Roberts University and a D.Th. from the University of South Africa. He served for 16 years on the faculty of Oral Roberts University as Coordinator of Bible Institute programs and Adjunct Professor in the College of Theology and Ministry. Author of 12 books and more than 60 articles, he was ORU 2006 Scholar of the Year. He has also served as Scholar-at-Large for the D.Min. program at Alliance Theological Seminary, Doctor of Ministry Mentor for the Randy Clark Scholars program at United Theological Seminary and Global Awakening Theological Seminary, Leadership and Church Ministry Consultant and Trainer, an ordained pastor with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Interim Consulting Pastor for the Plano (Texas) Chinese Alliance Church, and Faculty Director of Purdue Ratio Christi/Christian Faculty and Staff Network. His books include God's Healing Arsenal: A Divine Battle Plan for Overcoming Distress and Disease (2011), Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in the Christian & Missionary Alliance (2009), Only Believe: Examining the Origin and Development of Classic and Contemporary Word of Faith Theologies (2008), Genuine Gold: The Cautiously Charismatic Story of the Early Christian and Missionary Alliance (2006), Binding & Loosing: Exercising Authority over the Dark Powers (1999), and A Believer with Authority: The Life and Message of John A. MacMillan. Twitter: @PaulLKing.

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