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The Speaking in Tongues Controversy: A Narrative-Critical Response, Part 1

The Soteriological vs. The Pneumatological

According to Walston, “Pentecostals have only minored on Lukan soteriology. … Classical Pentecostals have minored on what Luke majored on” (44). Yet, Walston continues, if Pentecostals would allow Scripture to speak for itself instead of interpreting it through their assumptions, it would become “obvious that Luke’s intent is to establish the soteriological nature of the early church in conjunction with the preaching of the gospel and the infilling of the Holy Spirit” (85). Walston quotes Pentecostal scholars Roger Stronstad’s The Charismatic Theology of St. Luke, Douglas Oss’ contribution to Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?, and Donald John’s contribution to Initial Evidence a number of times in an attempt to demonstrate that Classical Pentecostals believe that Acts is a purely pneumatological narrative (47-55).8 It is clear that Walston has misread the nuances of the Pentecostal argument. Luke records incidents of repentance, salvation, and conversion in Acts; these are soteriological elements and Pentecostals recognize them as such. However, Walston fails to realize that Luke does not directly associate these elements with the Holy Spirit. Thus, Luke’s pneumatology does not include regeneration, as, for example, Paul’s can be interpreted as including.9 Walston’s own list of twenty-six soteriological incidents in Acts is made up mainly of Luke simply saying, in various forms, that the Lord added to their numbers or certain people believed. This is the case in at least seventeen of the incidents, and in another five the Spirit is mentioned as the agent because what is being described is the baptism in the Holy Spirit, not salvation. In none of Walston’s twenty-six incidents of salvation does Luke describe the Spirit as being directly and explicitly active in the heart of the believer to effect regeneration. For these reasons, Pentecostals can validly say that although Luke speaks of salvation and regeneration in Acts, his focus is the Spirit in relation to the prophetic empowerment of believers for service and mission.

As mentioned above, Walston presents statistical data attempting to prove that Luke’s intent was soteriological and not pneumatological. As proof of this, he presents twenty-six reports of conversion and notes that only three explicitly mention tongues. (He also uses these statistics to show that it was not Luke’s intent to present tongues as the initial evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. I address this below.) In my own survey of Acts, I discovered that Luke narrates seventy-five scenes in which charismatic activity is present (e.g., tongues, prophecy, visions, healings, miracles) compared to sixty-six scenes where soteriological activity is present. These seventy-five and sixty-six scenes usually overlap, with the charismatic activity leading to the, usually, very generalized salvific outcome, which is just as we should expect given the promise in Acts 1:8. Using Walston’s methodology, statistically Luke’s emphasis leans not toward the soteriological but toward the pneumatological.

What do Pentecostal scholars actually believe about the soteriology of Acts? Based on Walston’s assessment, they think it is void of soteriology. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just so there is no mistake, here are a few comments. In Stronstad’s work cited above, he writes that “Acts is the story of the geographic advance of the gospel” (63); “The inaugural gift of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost is a pivotal event in Luke’s history-of-salvation theology” (49); and “[I]n the charismatic theology of St. Luke, the Holy Spirit plays a leading role on the stage of salvation history” (48). In a later work he writes that Acts “is primarily about Christ, salvation and the Holy Spirit. … In Luke’s theology, the day of Pentecost is a momentous and epochal episode in the forward movement of the history of salvation” (Prophethood 27, 70). Finally, he must have had Walston’s position in view when he penned the following:

Since Luke-Acts is the story of the origin and spread of the gospel, and since the Spirit of prophecy is given to the penitent, it is historically and theologically impossible for there not to be a close relationship between salvation and the gift of the Spirit. But in spite of the close relationship between salvation and the gift of the Spirit, for Luke-Acts the function of the gift of the Spirit is not soteriological but prophetic. To confuse the close relationship between the two as meaning an identity of function is a serious methodological error and leads to a gross distortion of Luke’s very clear and explicit pneumatology. (Prophethood 122)

In a paper read at the 2004 Society for Pentecostal Studies Conference, Paul Elbert speaks of Luke as having “two main thematic experiential nexuses, the soteriological one and the gift of the Holy Spirit [i.e., the pneumatological] one” (“Luke’s Fulfillment” 25). In the same work, he writes,

For Luke, the ministry of the earthly Jesus and of the heavenly Jesus are dynamically linked, the soteriological nexus of faith/repentance/forgiveness/salvation in the ministry of the earthly Jesus in characters’ lives (Prodigal Son, Woman with Ointment, Zaccheus) continues in characters’ lives under the ministry of the heavenly Jesus (Ethiopian Eunuch, Sergius Paulus, Lydia, Philippian Jailer, Crispus). The former characters can be understood by Luke to fulfill prophetic announcements from heaven and from the Holy Spirit prompted revelation that Jesus is a Savior, with narrative coupling to that same component of Joel’s prophecy (Acts 2:21). The latter characters can be similarly understood. And for Luke, the ministry of the heavenly Jesus also includes the outpouring of the gift of the Holy Spirit, fulfilling a programmatic prophecy by John the Baptist, teaching on prayer and known predictions by the earthly Jesus and His narrative predictions, as well as another component of Joel’s prophecy (Acts 2:17a, 18). This ministry takes its literary place alongside the soteriological nexus in Lukan personification in another collection of experientially descriptive and delicately different phrases, namely the pneumatological nexus of Spirit-reception/Spirit-filling/Spirit-falling-upon/Spirit-outpouring. This latter pneumatological nexus of the Lukan gift of the Spirit is narratively connected … with distinctly noticeable and prominently placed promissory language. I argue that both the soteriological nexus and the pneumatological nexus are well illustrated by the expected examples and precedents and that both are contained in Luke’s programmatic concept of ongoing prophetic fulfillment. I also suggest that prophetic fulfillment is understood by Luke as underpinning the missionary guidance portrayed in Acts. (6)

Robert Menzies explains the relationship between the Holy Spirit and conversion in Acts, writing, “Luke always attributes forgiveness … which is granted in response to faith/repentance, to Jesus” (Empowered 217). “Luke does not view the gift of the Spirit as a necessary element in conversion. In Luke’s perspective, conversion centers on God’s gracious act of forgiveness (e.g. Acts 5.31-32; 10.43). … [I]n terms of human response, faith-repentance is the decisive element in conversion, for it forms the sole prerequisite for receiving the forgiveness of God (Lk. 5.20; 24.47; Acts 3.19; 5.31; 10.43; 13.38; 26.18)” (Empowered 224).

So, an examination of Walston’s claim that Pentecostals have “minored” on Lukan soteriology proves true. However, his claim that Pentecostals have “minored” on what Luke “majored” on proves false. Since Luke “majored” on pneumatology, the Pentecostal position aligns best with the material in Acts. Furthermore, Pentecostals do not believe that Acts is void of soteriology, but recognize that Luke is communicating to Theophilus (and us) information about the prophetic-empowerment available through the Spirit to accomplish the mission of Luke’s programmatic verse 1:8, i.e., Spirit-inspired disciples will spread the gospel.10

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Category: Fall 2005, Spirit

About the Author: Robert W. Graves, M. A. (Literary Studies, Georgia State University), is the co-founder and president of The Foundation for Pentecostal Scholarship, Inc., a non-profit organization supporting Pentecostal scholarship through research grants. He is a Christian educator and a former faculty member of Southwestern Assemblies of God College in Waxahachie, Texas, and Kennesaw State University (adjunct). He edited and contributed to Strangers to Fire: When Tradition Trumps Scripture and is the author of Increasing Your Theological Vocabulary, Praying in the Spirit (1987 and Second Edition, 2017) and The Gospel According to Angels (Chosen Books, 1998).

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