Counting Jesuses and "Truths"
My first Bible enjoys a prominent place on my bookshelf. It is visible upon entering my office and during numerous glances at my desktop computer and printer during the workday. It brings back many memories. I remember waiting with great anticipation for its arrival. Life in a small West Virginia city in the days before Amazon required patience. Upon receiving a recommendation from my pastor’s wife, I walked to the local stationary store to place an order. After selecting and paying for the perfect Bible, ten days of anxiousness began. When a phone call announced its arrival, I stopped everything to retrieve my prized possession quickly.
The Bible was beautiful! A black leather binding enclosed its over fourteen hundred pages. It even bore my name embossed on the front cover. Opening my New Scofield Reference Bible, I was impressed. It contained the King James Version of Holy Scripture and copious notes to guide the reader to a proper understanding. Written initially by C. I. Scofield in 1909, a committee of scholars recently updated the notes. Surely the assembly of scholars could guide this fledging Pentecostal in understanding the Christian faith. After all, according to my pastor, Pentecostals were just Christians with a plus, that is, our Pentecostal doctrines.
Over the next three months, I journeyed through the pages of my Bible, reading Scripture and its interpretation. To understand our “plus,” my pastor provided a short compendium of Pentecostal doctrines by Ralph Reynolds, Truth Shall Triumph. Its goal was to present the “propositions” of Bible truth in a simple, clear, and logical manner. The presentation of “truth” followed a consistent pattern: 1) statement of Scripture; 2) statement of truth; 3) exposition of truth, and 4) application of truth. The author was adamant; Truth Shall Triumph provided a sound foundation for “instruction and indoctrination” in the Pentecostal faith. Reading my New Scofield Reference Bible notes and Truth Shall Triumph provided the “lens” through which I viewed the Christian faith.
My “lens” served me well until I attended a Pentecostal Bible College. It seemed some future Pentecostal ministers formed their faith by reading Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible notes and had not read Truth Shall Triumph for “indoctrination.” It was also apparent the teachings received from their Pastors provided a different understanding of the essentials of the Pentecostal faith. They understood the Christian faith and their “plus” in a radically different way.
Raucous doctrinal debates filled classrooms and dormitories. Student preaching at daily chapel services provided an opportunity to express one’s Pentecostal doctrinal truths and unique Bible interpretations inspired by the “illumination” of the Spirit. College faculty were amiable referees, seeking to temper passions and not wishing to incur the wrath of pastors and denominational officials who entrusted the youth to their care. Only dynamic worship services focused on Jesus brought unity and love to the College community.
As I entered the ministry, I became acutely aware that Pentecostal formation created a dichotomy in our faith. We possessed a passionate love for Jesus, expressed in worship, but gave this love a cold rationalistic expression in sermons. An overarching concern for communicating theological truths supplanted the gospel’s proclamation and presentation of the living and present Lord Jesus. The biblical narrative, the story of God, culminating in Jesus Christ, was eclipsed. Paul’s admonition questioned our praxis, “Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3, NRSV).
Debating the theological truths presented by Scofield, Reynolds, Dake, or others is beyond this article’s scope. Its purpose is to examine the implications of the “truth” approach to the Christian faith in creating a dichotomy of faith, a passionate personal love of Jesus, partnered with a cold rationalistic orthodoxy. This dichotomy is very apparent in the churches I visit, Pentecostal and Evangelical.
One of my favorite pastimes and one my wife likes least is counting Jesuses and “truths” during church services. The object is to discover how many times the pastor presents Jesus personally, in the context of the biblical narrative, and how many times doctrinal truths occur. Visiting a new church almost always prompts my wife to say, “You are not going to count today, are you?” I smile, with the understanding that she already knows the answer. I try my best to count silently, but sooner or later, a “truth” statement happens that prompts a whisper, “There you go!” I quickly receive an elbow nudge from my wife, reminding me that my silence is not only appreciated but required!
It never ceases to amaze me how pastors feel the urgency to move beyond the biblical narrative in preaching. The unofficial results of my “counting” reveal the shrouding of Jesus in statements of doctrinal “truths” that serve not to engender faith in Jesus, lead to a personal encounter with the risen and present Jesus, and create a passionate love for Jesus, but to establish that the Jesus they believe in corresponds to the “truth.” With unbridled enthusiasm, they loosen their ship of faith from its gospel moorings and set sail on the turbulent seas of the world, confident their “truths” provide the only compass to guide the congregation to spiritual formation.
But perhaps this 19th and 20th-century analogy is too tame. Let’s update it to the 21st century. With unbridled enthusiasm, they fuel up a SpaceX rocket, launch in a fiery burst, escape the biblical narrative’s gravitational pull, and boldly go into the heavens to receive intimate knowledge of God’s mysteries needed for the spiritual formation of earthlings (congregations). The “eclipse” of the biblical narrative removes all boundaries from preaching!
The preaching of these pastors reflects the adoption of a propositional model of faith. They sincerely believe that propositions, declarative sentences, best present the truth of God’s revelation. The meanings found in the sentences point beyond themselves to universal truths. The propositions present “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). They are a sacred treasure of “sound teaching” in need of guarding (2 Tim. 2:13-14). Passing on the “deposit of faith” found in propositions to new generations is mission-critical for the church (1 Tim. 1:14; 2 Tim. 2:2). At its essence, faith is an assent to revealed truths, doctrine. Salvation requires the assent to doctrine. Preaching a sermon infused with doctrine is, therefore, justified and essential. These Pastors believe understanding will lead to faith. They forget that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life!
However, Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism have deep roots in Pietism. Rodger Olson’s description of Pietism is appropriate here. Pietists stress a heartfelt experiential faith. Faith involves a “personal relationship to God expressed in a life lived according to the revealed will.” Pietists affirm the authority of Holy Scripture for their faith and life but go beyond Protestant Orthodoxy’s quest for doctrinal correctness to emphasize salvation as “the experience of inward transformation by the Holy Spirit through faith as the personal appropriation of God’s grace.” They view faith in an affective, heartfelt, and experiential way. Hearing a “propositional” sermon creates an inner tension between affections and knowledge, a dichotomy of faith.
Avery Dulles summarizes the affective-experiential nature of faith. This understanding of faith emphasizes faith’s affective component and closely connects faith and experience. Faith is foremost a matter of the heart, the center of the human being. Christian faith is evocative of an overwhelming affection, love for Jesus Christ. Jesus is a demonstration of God’s love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). This love is “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom.5:5). Through the gospel’s proclamation, believers experience Jesus, are changed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and begin a new life of devotion to Jesus, growing “in the grace and knowledge” of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (1Pet. 3:14). The encounter with Jesus joins head and heart and connects faith with experience. Faith results in a new disposition, orientation of the heart that controls all powers of human emotion, perception, will, and understanding. For the Pietist, only faith resulting from meeting Jesus leads to understanding. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life!
Counting Jesuses and “truths” reflects the passion of a Pentecostal Pietist to see the Christian faith arise from the experience of Jesus. Only this experience can create a new disposition of the heart, resolve dichotomies of faith, and lead to salvation and spiritual growth. The passionate love for Jesus expressed in worship should find a similar expression in sermons. A concern for communicating doctrinal truths should not supplant the gospel’s proclamation and presentation of the living and present Lord Jesus. The biblical narrative should provide the “lens” through which we learn to view and understand our Pentecostal Christian faith. Only faith in and experience of the one who is the way, the truth, and the life, Jesus, leads to understanding.