The Role of the Holy Spirit in Biblical Hermeneutics

Robert J. May, M.Th.


Contents | Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Conclusion | Bibliography

Chapter 2 - Times of Refreshing and The Mark of the Spirit?:

A Case Study in Charismatic Hermeneutics


We have attempted to show that any analysis of the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical hermeneutics is difficult due to the lack of literature on the subject. This is even more so in the case of so-called 'Charismatic Hermeneutics'. It is not unfair to state that Charismatics have been slow in taking seriously the need to critique their praxis. Charismatic spirituality has tended to reflect an implicit anti-intellectualist approach to doctrine and the like. This has been equally true of the way Charismatics read the Bible. What has often gone on in many circles being labelled 'prophetic interpretation' or 'Spirit-inspired interpretation' or 'Charismatic interpretation' has tended to do so uncritically. However, the tide is turning and an ever growing group of biblical scholars are applying themselves to a more rigorous evaluation of a potential 'Charismatic Hermeneutic'.[1] For the purposes of this chapter we intend to narrow the focus to two books.

The first book is Dr. Mark Stibbe's Times of Refreshing: A Practical Theology of Revival for Today. Stibbe is widely regarded as a leading New Testament scholar and 'a leading charismatic theologian'[2] whose academic work has been particularly within Johannine studies. He was a lecturer in the Department of Biblical Studies at Sheffield University as well as being an ordained Anglican minister. He is currently the vicar at St. Andrews Church, Chorleywood. His influence within Charismatic Anglican circles is substantial and continues to grow.[3] It will be of no surprise, then, that Stibbe is likely to gain an increasing degree of influence within Charismatic circles outside of Anglicanism, and his status as a recognised academic will be seen as adding even greater credibility to his ideas.

Times of Refreshing is an attempt by Stibbe to provide biblical and theological foundations for the events that have been associated with the 'Toronto Blessing'. Stibbe states: "[We] need a practical theology of revival to guide us through these exciting days".[4] We shall look at the book more closely below but its significance lies in the fact that this is one of the very few examples of a 'leading charismatic theologian' reading and using the Bible in a particular way - what might be called 'Charismatic Hermeneutics'. The significance for us, therefore, does not lie with the book's potential impact on those who will read it, but rather its significance lies in the standing of the author and with what he is presenting as a particular kind of hermeneutics. Current literature provides us with very few examples of this kind of approach to hermeneutics,[5] but we do have something in this book.

The second book is The Mark of the Spirit? A Charismatic Critique of the Toronto Blessing edited by Lloyd Pietersen. This book has been compiled by members of the Department of Biblical Studies at Sheffield University. Although none of the writers could be considered leading biblical scholars in their prospective fields (they in fact call themselves 'junior' members of the academic community of which Stibbe would be regarded as more 'senior'[6]) they nevertheless write from within that academic community and are associated with a University Department that does have substantial academic credentials within the field of Biblical Studies. Although they have entitled the book 'A Charismatic Critique of the Toronto Blessing', it is in fact a critique of Stibbe's book with some additional references to other wider issues connected with the Toronto Blessing.

Again the significance of The Mark of the Spirit? for our purposes does not rest on the book's potential impact upon its readership. It is of interest because it represents a serious attempt by a group of academics to analyse and critique the kind of hermeneutics that Stibbe is presenting in Times of Refreshing. It is the significance of the issues rather than the potential significance of their impact that has led us to focus on these two books in this chapter.

What we shall now attempt to do is to describe the hermeneutical issues raised by each book beginning with Stibbe. We shall attempt to represent each writer fairly and without comment. Once the issues have been described, we shall then attempt a critique of both books engaging with the major issues that have been raised.

Times of Refreshing

As we have already stated, this is an attempt by a leading biblical scholar to provide 'a practical theology of revival for today'. It was written in 1995 at a time when the Toronto Blessing was in 'full swing' and is written from a position of favour towards the events surrounding the 'Blessing'. Stibbe wants to lay biblical and theological foundations for the phenomena associated with the Blessing and to ask whether it could be labelled a 'revival'. The book is clearly written for a popular audience rather than for an academic one[7] and is, therefore, less technical with its language and clearly set out.

In the Introduction,[8] Stibbe attempts to show why there is a need for a biblically based theology to underpin any theology of revival or renewal. Stibbe acknowledges the lack of thinking that has gone on within charismatic circles which now must be addressed. However he is equally concerned about an image of theologians and biblical scholars which is often characterised as "...purely rationalistic, scientific...cerebral...irrelevant and cynical".[9] Therefore, for Stibbe, doing theology in the context of renewal will require a different approach, one that has already been explored within Pentecostal circles and now is being explored by other 'Spirit-filled' Christians. Stibbe goes on to describe the key elements of a 'Theology of Renewal'.

First, it should be Biblical. The Bible is the basis for all theological reflection but many Charismatics have often down-played its role with an over-emphasis on direct revelation from the Spirit. Second, it should be experiential. There is a willing acceptance of the supernatural and the present anointing of the Holy Spirit in reading and writing. Third, a Theology of Renewal should be devotional. Theological study should not be done in detached intellectual isolation but in an attitude of worship. Fourth, it should be communal in nature. Scholars should do their work within the context of the church community rather than within the implicit detached individualism of the academy. And fifth, it should be practical. A theology of renewal does not deal with irrelevancies but seeks to have a serious impact on the lives of God's people. Stibbe states that it is these five elements that form the basis of the book. He also states that serious biblical and theological reflection is vital if the mistakes of the past are to be avoided.

Chapter 1[10] is entitled 'Historical background'. The focus of the chapter is on the role that Ezekiel 47:1-12 has played within this 'new move of the Spirit'. The passage is seen as presenting a prophetic insight into what God has been doing in the twentieth century. Christian Groups and other individuals, unrelated and independently, have been drawn to this passage believing that the Spirit is showing them something significant about the current events associated with the Toronto Blessing. Stibbe then explains his understanding of 'Pentecostal Interpretation' as compared with either liberal or conservative approaches to interpretation. He states that Pentecostals and Charismatics "have a different approach to hermeneutics".[11] Rather than being preoccupied with uncovering the author's original meaning (as in liberal and conservative approaches), Pentecostal interpretation is characterised by a 'This-is-That' approach. So, the "primary task of exegesis involves us perceiving what the Father is doing right now amongst us (like Jesus in John 5:19) and then allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us to Bible texts which elucidate that work".[12] So, Christians look at the 'This' of their present experience and then go to scripture to find the corresponding 'That' in the text that will provide guidance for them. Stibbe is arguing that the 'This' of the Toronto Blessing corresponds to one part of the 'That' of Ezekiel 47. What Stibbe (and others) is in fact saying is that the four waves found in Ezekiel 47 correspond to the four moves of the Spirit that have taken place in the twentieth century of which the Toronto Blessing is in some way related to the fourth wave.[13]

Stibbe is keen not to reject issues of history. In fact, he suggests that part of the process of recognising a 'This-is-That' parallel is in analysing the historical context of the original author. Similar parallels in context between the original author and the modern reader may be indications of similarities between movements of God's Spirit and, therefore, part of a 'prophetic sense'.[14] Stibbe now describes what he believes are the three waves of the Spirit that have already taken place this century[15] - Pentecostalism at the start of the century, The Charismatic Movement in the 1960's, and Protestant Evangelical Renewal in the 1980's - each with an increasing measure of impact, and then concludes that "the current blessings witnessed in Toronto and in thousands of churches throughout the world are the first hints of a fourth wave".[16] Then using Ezekiel 47:1-12, Stibbe then makes eight suggestions as to what the distinctive characteristics of this fourth wave might be based on the Ezekiel text.[17]

Stibbe states that he is not attempting to answer every question associated with the Toronto Blessing nor is he claiming to have put forward a definitive theology of revival. He describes the theology of this book "provisional not final" and "each chapter [as] a discussion starter not the final viewpoint".[18] Certainly Pietersen and his colleagues have responded to Stibbe's 'openness' and it is to their book that we now turn.

The Mark of the Spirit?

This book is a thinly-veiled critique of Times of Refreshing rather than a more general critique of the Toronto Blessing. The book has a more 'academic feel'[19] to it and it is clear that the writers have taken their task seriously and attempted to substantiate the claims that they are making. They are concerned to deal thoroughly with the issues they feel are important and have, therefore, targeted their analysis on key aspects of Stibbe's book rather than attempting to deal with every issue that arises within Times of Refreshing.

In the Introduction, Lloyd Pietersen paints the background to the book. The writers are all Charismatics who are unconvinced by the "large claims" that have been made by proponents of the Toronto Blessing.[20]. They are engaging primarily with Stibbe's analysis in Times of Refreshing but also the book is intended to be an assessment of the Blessing itself. Pietersen believes that there are serious theological and hermeneutical issues being raised by the Toronto Blessing, and they believe that it is there duty to respond to Stibbe.[21] Pietersen summarises the position held by the book's contributors: "We regard ourselves as Charismatics who are concerned to see genuine evidence of the life of the Spirit in the church and, as such, are critical of much of current charismatic praxis".[22] The introduction concludes with a brief summary of the remainder of the book and an outline of credentials of each writer. As with Stibbe, the writers do not see this volume as the final word on the subject but rather as part of an ongoing debate.[23]

It is the second chapter deals specifically with Stibbe's understanding of a 'This-is-That' hermeneutic and is written by Mark Smith. Smith addresses the issue of the Toronto Blessing leading Christians to read the Bible in a new way[24] of which Stibbe's use of Ezekiel 47 is a good example. Smith is concerned about the conclusions that Stibbe draws from the Ezekiel text and Stibbe's 'claim' that the Bible 'prophesies the Blessing' or more simply, the 'This' of the Toronto Blessing corresponds to the 'That' of the fourth wave in Ezekiel. Smith is concerned with Stibbe's use of Ezekiel 47 and his claim that it is indeed the 'That' of the Toronto Blessing.

Smith firstly deals with Stibbe's claim of 'prophetic interpretation'. Smith asks whether what is meant by this phrase is either the interpretation of a prophetic book (of which Ezekiel is one example) or a form of interpretation that is prophetic in nature, and, therefore, different from other more 'academic' forms of interpretation. Smith concludes that Stibbe is claiming a form of interpretation that is given to the 'Spirit-filled' believer by the Holy Spirit. For Smith, Stibbe is not claiming to be offering a prophecy based on a biblical passage. What Smith suggests is that Stibbe is claiming biblical proof for the Toronto Blessing - the Bible prophesied these events in Ezekiel 47. For Smith, this moves Stibbe's claim for support for the Toronto Blessing to a much higher level of authority. "Hermeneutically speaking...[Stibbe]...has shifted from claiming to be prophesying to claiming biblical authority for what he is saying".[25] So Smith now wants to challenge this claim; is this what Ezekiel 47 teaches?

Smith begins by suggesting an initial flaw in Stibbe's argument; the role of the number 4 in the book of Ezekiel. This number appears forty times in the book and is understood to symbolise 'totality or completeness'. Smith points out that Stibbe recognises this. However, since the number represents completeness, Smith argues that it is strange for it then to be taken as 'literal' by Stibbe as indicating four distinct 'waves of the Spirit'. Smith states: "It thus seems faintly ridiculous to claim that the text sets out a pattern for the way things will actually happen. The text promises complete renewal, and it symbolises this by the number four. It does not promise four actual stages to renewal".[26] Smith now goes on to look more directly at a This-is-That approach to hermeneutics.[27]

Implicit in this approach is a movement from experience to text. For Smith this would be the first departure from 'conventional approaches'. The second difference is the place given to the 'original sense'. The third difference for Smith is the role that is assigned to the Holy Spirit in Stibbe's approach. The Holy Spirit is given a far more active role to the point that the interpreter can 'claim divine authority' for their interpretation. For Smith, this raises serious questions about this approach since it can no longer be subjected to the 'usual tests'.

Smith first looks at the place of the 'original sense' in biblical interpretation. He argues that this has always played an important role in biblical Christianity; in fact, it has been of "paramount importance".[28] It is the original sense that constrains the interpreter; the biblical text cannot mean anything. Even when we have a poorer understanding of the original sense we certainly have a good idea of what it was unlikely to mean, so, "where we are unable to determine what the text meant, we should not attempt to say that it means something today".[29] Smith is concerned that Stibbe's approach detaches itself from the importance of the original sense. For Smith, then, biblical authority lies in the relationship between our contemporary application and the original sense of the text. The stronger the relationship, the greater the authority. Smith goes on to criticise Stibbe's 'Pentecostal Interpretation'.[30] Smith believes that by having a low regard for the original sense, Stibbe is able to make claims that have no basis in the biblical text and, therefore, lack true authority. This approach (Stibbe's) is not representative of Pentecostal approaches in general, and, so claims a status that is totally unwarranted. Smith concludes: "If an interpretation of a text is not justified by the text, that will remain the case no matter how many times the interpretation is repeated by different people. Repetition of error, even when it is given in the name of the Spirit, remains error".[31]

Smith is further concerned about Stibbe's reference to forms of interpretation within the New Testament as a basis for a 'This-is-That' approach to hermeneutics. Smith acknowledges that this method of interpretation does appear in the New Testament alongside other methods. However, he disagrees that, since it is present in the New Testament, the modern interpreter is free to use the same method. For Smith, the place of the New Testament canon in church history negates this method of interpretation. The early church recognised the need to recover the original sense and since that was their understanding, the church in the twentieth century should be faithful to their approach.[32] Even where New Testament authors have been clearly unconcerned with the original sense, we must still seek to uncover their original intentions to be authoritative.

Smith acknowledges that the interpretative framework that the early church worked with is different from present methods. They were schooled in Jewish methods collectively known as midrash. For Smith, this method was certainly not by the specific instigation of the Spirit, it was simply the method employed by the interpreters of the day, and, therefore, would have been used by the writers of the New Testament.[33] This approach is acceptable due to the unique position of the early church in the events surrounding the incarnation. Smith states: "[It] is important to realise also that they stood at a unique place in history with a unique apprehension of what God had done in Jesus Christ...It was in the light of their unique position that they interpreted the Old Testament".[34] So, much of the focus of the interpretation of the New Testament writers was christological, this being the defining factor of their method for handling the New Testament. Smith concludes that midrash is not appropriate for the modern interpreter: "...I believe it is important to reject Stibbe's 'This-is-that' approach. It is an approach which, even while using the biblical text, prevent the Bible from speaking its message to us, and causes us instead to read to read our own messages into it".[35]

A Critique of the Debate

The authors of The Mark of the Spirit? have raised some serious objections and pointed to some serious flaws in Mark Stibbe's Times of Refreshing. Any failure to recognise this and to simply brush them aside as biased and narrow would be foolish. Charismatic leaders have to engage more fully with their critics even if it is only to prove their case more comprehensively. We suspect that Stibbe certainly would be willing to do this. How serious, then, are the objections contained in The Mark of the Spirit??

It is clear that the writers of The Mark of the Spirit? were deeply disturbed by Stibbe's book. Hence the whole tone of the book is very negative and focused on Stibbe's ideas. The extent to which this is a more personal debate between present and ex-members of a University department one would not wish to comment, but the book does have that feel about it. One also feels that they are trying to damage the credibility of this particular book (and its author?) rather than offering any constructive way forward. It is this particular element of the book that is disappointing. However, the issues that they have raised are serious and should still be properly examined.

Stibbe's Times of Refreshing has the feel of a book that was written in a hurry in the heat of the moment. Since it would appear to have been written for a popular audience, it lacks the textual apparatus and bibliographical support that a more academic approach would have given. It is, therefore, a 'soft target' for a would-be critic. It is heavily dependent on individual testimonies from past or present individuals who have been involved with either past or present 'moves of the Spirit'. The book also fails to deal with the more negative experiences of those who have been to 'Toronto meetings' or churches that have been divided over the issue. The upbeat, simplistic tone to the book does not help those who wish to seriously engage with the issues. From this point of view the book is disappointing.

However, Stibbe's matrix of a 'Theology of Renewal' at the start of the book is exciting and does offer a serious alternative to dry and irrelevant academic pursuits for those who are looking for an alternative. This approach would certainly find widespread support amongst many Pentecostal and Charismatic theologians who are looking for a new approach to hermeneutics that allows space for the Holy Spirit and yet does not completely abandon all to experience and extraordinary phenomenon, nor returns to the detached rationalism of more traditional approaches. A serious theological approach within the context of Renewal is what many are looking for. It is, therefore, disappointing that there is no comment in The Mark of the Spirit? written by 'thinking Charismatics' about this kind of approach to theology since, for Stibbe, it underpins all that he does in the remainder of the book. This is a serious flaw in that book and should be addressed.

Stibbe's Hermeneutics

We shall now look more directly at the hermeneutical issues that have been raised in the debate between Mark Stibbe and Mark Smith. As we have seen, Smith puts some serious challenges to the hermeneutical method employed by Stibbe (ultimately rejecting them entirely) and these need to be more closely examined. We have already noted that the overall tone is negative and Smith makes no attempt to propose a way forward for a 'Charismatic hermeneutic'. Smith's concerns are multiple but seem to focus on three main areas: the place of the original sense and its relationship to authority of interpretation, the role of the Holy Spirit in the process, and the way we are to read the Old Testament and the place of a Jewish-style 'This-is-That' approach. However, before going onto these larger issues we will briefly comment on one of the 'minor' problems that Smith indicates.

Smith attempts to indicate that one of the flaws in Stibbe's use of Ezekiel 47 is the role played by the number 4 in that particular book. The number is symbolic of completeness or perfection and Stibbe recognises this. However, he then employs the particular occurrence of the number in chapter 47 in a literal sense which is certainly highly questionable and inconsistent. Smith is right to point this out and it does seriously weaken the foundation of Stibbe's support for the use of this passage. This issue is clearly related to the place of the 'original sense' in any interpretation. Stibbe would need to provide much stronger justification for making this connection if he wants to draw such an authoritative parallel. Stibbe's case might have caused less concern if he had adopted a more tentative approach and, while recognising the place of the number 4 in the Ezekiel text, suggested that in this instance he believed the Holy Spirit might be indicating something of significance.

The Place of 'Original Sense'

Smith argues very strongly for the role played the author's original sense in the hermeneutical process describing it as of 'paramount importance' in the history of the church's approach to hermeneutics. This is debatable. Historically, the extent to which allegorical approaches to interpretation, whether within the Patristic period or the medieval period, considered the original sense of paramount importance seems limited and questionable. There was a clear desire to reach beyond the 'plain sense' to the 'spiritual sense' and this appears to have been 'more paramount' to the interpreters. Clearly, there have always been groups that have sought to work with the plain sense, and one of the Reformers' greatest services was to bring the church back to plain sense reading, but for Smith to be so categorical seems extreme.

Further, elements of modern biblical hermeneutics are building a strong case against the so-called 'historical-critical method' pointing to some of the weaknesses and the difficulties of being able to realistically access the original author's intentions. This is not a debate that we need to enter into in any great detail at this point. However, there is a degree of truth in Stibbe's claim that there is no biblical precedent for interpretation being entirely dependent on uncovering the author's original sense.[36] Text-centred and Reader-centred approaches have opened the possibility of other avenues of investigation as to how the Bible might be read more holistically and, therefore, better understood. Smith's position is representative of one particular approach to the Bible. To state that this has been and still is the only way to read the Bible seems both historically flawed and fails to interact with other modern approaches. Stibbe has aligned himself with scholarship both within elements of Pentecostal scholarship and other new approaches. Stibbe does not reject the role of the historical context of the original author and the usefulness of the author's original sense; he is simply questioning the centrality of this position and opening the way for other approaches. However, Stibbe does not make this transition clear, nor does he expand on his challenge to the place of authorial intention. Since this is the basis for his hermeneutics throughout the rest of the book, this is a serious flaw.

Reading the Old Testament

Smith raises an interesting point concerning the relationship between the Old Testament, the New Testament writers and the modern reader. Smith concludes: neither necessary nor appropriate to try to interpret the Old Testament as specifically predicting our current experiences. That is not its role...The way Christians should read the Old Testament is as a collection of documents written by the people of God about their experiences of God and their faith in him... The way to do this is by interpreting the texts according to their original sense.[37]

Smith clearly has concerns with the way that Stibbe has used the Ezekiel text to claim prophetic justification for the events connected with the Toronto Blessing. However, it would seem that Smith is claiming that Stibbe is making a stronger claim for the relationship between the Ezekiel text and the Toronto Blessing than he in fact is. Certainly, Stibbe is claiming a 'This-is-That' parallel between the text and the activity of the Holy Spirit in the twentieth century. However, despite Stibbe's lack of clarity at this point, it is clear that he is not claiming that what we are seeing in the twentieth century is the fulfilment of Ezekiel 47:1-12. Smith, however, wants to push him in this direction. He is certainly suggesting that contained within the Ezekiel text is a pattern for renewal of which events within the twentieth century are but one example.[38] This parallel might then be helpful in determining whether the Toronto Blessing is a genuine move of the Spirit. However, even by allowing Stibbe to hold a more tentative position, Smith still has a very strong point to make: can we use biblical texts in this way to support present events?

For Smith this is an illegitimate use of the Old Testament - 'That is not its role'. Is Smith saying then that there are no prophecies contained within the Old Testament still to be fulfilled? Is the modern reader unable to glean any information concerning the parousia, the kingdom of God, the new heaven and the new earth, the place of present day Israel, the final judgement and so on from Old Testament texts? Can there be no further insight to the modern reader gathered from the stories of God's people in the past as to how God might operate in the present? Is the modern reader unable to interpret their own experience in the light of the Old Testament in a way that is more than just reading the experiences of God's people in their time?

We accept that part of the function of the Old Testament is "as a collection of documents written by the people of God about their experiences of God and their faith in him". However, to reduce the role of the Old Testament to just this devalues the Old Testament and seriously limits the role that the Old Testament can play in the life of the church. Further, would Smith then see the New Testament in the same way, as merely a collection of documents by God's people about their experience of God? Surely there is, particularly within the prophetic portions of the New Testament, information for the modern reader about events that are yet to happen or may be currently happening.[39] And if we can do this with the New Testament, why not with the Old? Smith needs to make his views on the legitimacy of this kind of interpretation more clear. His description of the role of the Old Testament for the modern reader is only partially true.

Smith is further concerned by the way Stibbe moves from experience to text, for this has not been the 'conventional method'. However, the possibility of reading the Bible completely detached from the experiences of the reader are surely, near impossible. Bultmann convincingly demonstrated the fallacy of 'presuppositionless exegesis'.[40] Detached, rational exegesis is a myth. All interpreters begin with presuppositions that have arisen out of their experience whether or not these are well thought out theological frameworks or observations made within the community of faith is not important. We simply acknowledge that when we come to the Bible to find meaning, we come with some degree of preunderstanding. We bring our context to the text. The question is not whether our presuppositions exist, but rather to what extent they become inflexible and so prejudice our interpretation. Both Stibbe and Smith are equally in danger of this.

However, despite these concerns, we still have serious reservations about the way that Stibbe is using Ezekiel 47. He certainly needs to be far more tentative and cautious about making the kind of 'Spirit lead' claims that he is and provide more convincing support for his conclusions.

The Role of the Holy Spirit

The way we understand the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical hermeneutics is very much determined by our 'hermeneutical presuppositions' of which the above (the original sense and the role of the Old Testament) are just two examples. For example, if we begin by stating that any valid, authoritative interpretation has to have as strong a link as possible with the author's original intention then we are limiting the scope of authoritative readings that we are willing to accept as legitimate. Similarly, if we have decided to loose ourselves from the traditional theological frameworks that have often controlled interpretation and then allow our present experience to have a stronger role, we are already changing the parameters by which we judge legitimate interpretations. This all has a clear impact on our understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical interpretation.

The role that we are willing to assign to the Holy Spirit would have to remain within the parameters of our hermeneutical presuppositions. So, for example, any interpretation that cannot be shown to 'connect' with our understanding of the author's original intention could not be viewed as being 'of the Holy Spirit'. Similarly, any interpretation from the Old Testament that appears to predict or explain our future or present experience would be deemed unacceptable and not from the Holy Spirit. If we are willing to accept that what we perceive as genuine moves of the Spirit should have a direct bearing on the way that we read the Bible to the extent that we disconnect ourselves from the apparent 'plain sense' of the passage, then what we are prepared to recognise as the work of the Holy Spirit becomes less dependent (or even independent) of the author's intentions.

Neither Stibbe nor Smith give any detailed account of their understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit. Clearly Stibbe believes that the Holy Spirit has a far more active role than more conservative approaches. He freely speaks of being 'lead by the Holy Spirit' in the exegetical process.[41] Smith notes that Stibbe's hermeneutics vary through the book. At one point Stibbe is claiming a more 'prophetic' interpretation which seems less concerned with the original sense, and yet in other places Stibbe's exegesis seems highly dependent on the author's original sense.[42] Is Stibbe being conveniently inconsistent with his hermeneutics and the position that he assigns to the original sense, or does Stibbe believe that the process of interpretation is less one dimensional and that, on certain occasions, the Holy Spirit may reveal an interpretation that seems to break all the rules of accepted hermeneutical practice? Stibbe does not answer this question directly in his book.

Certainly, elsewhere, Stibbe speaks positively of the current developments that are taking place in hermeneutics. Stibbe writes:

Traditional, diachronic methods have produced a pseudo-scientific, left-brain scholarship which has reduced biblical texts to lifeless corpses. In the last decade or so, people in the academy and in the church have become disillusioned with this colourless rationalism and have called out for a more intuitive, right-brain hermeneutic. This have left room for new methodologies allowing for participation instead of detachment, imagination instead of reason, holism instead of atomism, story instead of history.[43]

What Stibbe refers to as a 'more intuitive, right-brain hermeneutic' could open the way for the kind of hermeneutics that Stibbe has indulged in in Times of Refreshing. Intuitively Stibbe felt there were connections between Psalm 1 and parts of Ezekiel 47, for instance.[44] Stibbe would presumably claim that this 'intuition' had strong connections with his understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in hermeneutics. The Holy Spirit could, on certain occasions, provide the reader with intuitive insight into a particular biblical text that might brake many of the accepted rules for exegesis, but would still be a legitimate interpretation. This is perhaps the essence of 'prophetic interpretation'. Stibbe writes that there is an existential dimension to Pentecostal hermeneutics that is willing to begin "with what the Spirit of God is doing here and now".[45] This present dimension of the hermeneutical task is increasingly being seen by many as a definite realm of the work of the Spirit. The Spirit speaks to us out of the biblical text and into our present experience.


Smith has attempted to render illegitimate the kind of hermeneutics that Mark Stibbe has presented in Times of Refreshing. He has succeeded in pointing to some serious problems with the way Stibbe has used the Bible. However, his argument is flawed since he fails to deal with the basis of Stibbe's approach which is outlined in Stibbe's introduction. Stibbe has done little more than follow the format of this outline drawing on the different elements that he suggests should be part of the process. Since Smith has failed to indicate the difficulties that he has with Stibbe's overarching method, it is somewhat difficult to assess how convincing his case is. For example, if Stibbe were to use the same method but with more 'acceptable' conclusions (in the eyes of Smith) in relation to authorial intent and so forth, would Smith be more comfortable? Smith does not make it clear whether his difficulties lie with the method Stibbe employs or Stibbe's conclusions drawn from his method.[46]

Ultimately both writers are disappointing in helping us to come to any clearer understanding of the Spirit's role. The nature of Stibbe's book suggests at an understanding of the Spirit's role that is in line with other Pentecostal and Charismatic approaches but this is never made clear nor justified. We are left to presume a particular understanding that might be in line with the likes of McKay (rejecting most if not all academic insights and relying entirely on the prophetic sense, and the least likely for Stibbe) on the one hand, or more in line with Menzies and others (accepting the place of scholarship and historicity, but wanting more room for an experiential dimension). Smith has made much of the apparent errors and departures that Stibbe has made from 'conventional hermeneutics'. He is right to raise the issues but does little to move the debate forward. He has not answered the specific question that we still seek to answer: could the Holy Spirit 'inspire' an interpretation that appears to break all the accepted rules of conventional hermeneutics?

In the final chapter we shall attempt to look at one possible framework that allows the possibility of such a subjective, prophetic and experiential dimension to the Spirit's activity and yet also provides parameters for such interpretation to be scrutinised and judged.


[1] An excellent example of this would be T. Smail, A. Walker and N. Wright, Charismatic Renewal: The Search for a Theology (London: SPCK, 1995).

[2] See brief biographical details at the start of Times of Refreshing.

[3] For example, he is a regular contributor to Renewal magazine, a particular point of focus for Anglicans that are interested in Charismatic renewal. Stibbe's appointment at Chorleywood is also significant since it has been a recognised centre for Anglican renewal for a number of years through its previous Vicar, David Pyches and also his links with the late John Wimber.

[4] Times of Refreshing, p.xv.

[5] I am currently unaware of any other book that has been written by a serious charismatic theologian who is doing hermeneutics in this particular way and writing about it.

[6] The Mark of the Spirit?, p.3.

[7] There are no footnotes or endnotes referring the reader to the sources of Stibbe's information, but there is a limited bibliography at the back of the book. The general style of the book is clearly aimed at a 'non-academic' reader.

[8] Times of Refreshing, pp.ix-xix.

[9] Times of Refreshing, p.x.

[10] Times of Refreshing, pp.1-29.

[11] Times of Refreshing, p.4

[12] Times of Refreshing, p.5.

[13] Times of Refreshing, p.7.

[14] Times of Refreshing, pp.7-9.

[15] Times of Refreshing, pp.11-21.

[16] Times of Refreshing, p.22.

[17] Times of Refreshing, pp.23-29.

[18] Times of Refreshing, p.xix.

[19] There is a more extensive use of footnotes and more substantial bibliographies at the end of each chapter.

[20] The Mark of the Spirit?, p.1.

[21] The Mark of the Spirit?, pp.2-3.

[22] The Mark of the Spirit?, p.3.

[23] The Mark of the Spirit?, p.5.

[24] The Mark of the Spirit?, p.33.

[25] The Mark of the Spirit?, p.36.

[26] The Mark of the Spirit?, p.37 (Italics are Smith's).

[27] The Mark of the Spirit?, pp.38-40.

[28] The Mark of the Spirit?, p.41.

[29] The Mark of the Spirit?, p.42.

[30] The Mark of the Spirit?, pp.44-51.

[31] The Mark of the Spirit?, p.51.

[32] The Mark of the Spirit?, p.52-54.

[33] The Mark of the Spirit?, p.57.

[34] The Mark of the Spirit?, p.57

[35] The Mark of the Spirit?, p.61.

[36] Times of Refreshing, pp.4-5.

[37] 'This-is-That Hermeneutics', p.61.

[38] Stibbe draws attention to the way this passage in Ezekiel has been understood in the past history of the church (unfortunately unreferenced) and also that the Spirit's action is 'mysterious' and should not necessarily be bound to the pattern Stibbe believes is revealed in Ezekiel. By moving from experience (there have been three moves of the Spirit in the twentieth century) to text (there are four waves in Ezekiel), Stibbe believes that the Holy Spirit has shown him (and others) that there is a 'This-is-That' connection between the two. See Times of Refreshing, pp.9-11.

[39] We would certainly not want to suggest that there is a clear endtime's timetable contained within the New Testament that writers such as Hal Lindsey have popularised in books such as The Late Great Planet Earth (London: Lakeland, 1976). However, we would want to suggest that the New Testament (and the Old Testament) has a very definite role to play in helping the modern reader understand and be informed about their present and future experience.

[40] R. Bultmann [S. Ogden (Ed.)] Existence and Faith: shorter writings of Rudolf Bultmann (London: Collins, 1964) 'Is exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?', pp.342-351

[41] Times of Refreshing, p.5 any others??

[42] ''This-is-That' Hermeneutics', pp.46ff. Smith points out that Stibbe's exegesis of the unforgivable sin in the conclusion gives a very high place to the original gospel writers sense of the term. Elsewhere, however, Stibbe's exegesis seems more free of the original sense; his treatment of Ezekiel 47, for example.

[43] M. Stibbe, 'The Theology of Renewal and The Renewal of Theology', JPT 3 (1993: pp.71-90) p.79.

[44] Times of Refreshing, p.24f.

[45] M. Stibbe, 'Interpreting the Word in the Power of the Spirit: The Emergence of Pentecostal Hermeneutics', Skepsis (Autumn 1996: pp.1-8) p.2.

[46] It is arguably implicit in Smith's case that he does have a problem with Stibbe's overall method. However, he never directly addresses this and the reader is still left with questions about the role of the Holy Spirit, the place of experience, the need for a more devotional approach, the validity of a 'prophetic sense', and so on. Smith does not provide a viable alternative other than the apparent 'retreat' into conservative hermeneutics which allows little space for the Spirit.

Contents | Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Conclusion | Bibliography