Thursday, October 22, 2015

David Bernard and Positive Biblical Criticism

I recently downloaded a copy of the doctoral dissertation of David K. Bernard—the General Superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church International—entitled "Monotheistic Discourse and Deification of Jesus in Early Christianity as Exemplified in 2 Corinthians 3:16-4:6." Rev. Bernard has been awarded the Ph.D from the University of South Africa. Having accomplished this incredible feat of endurance myself, I want to offer my congratulations to Dr. Bernard and the growing number of UPCI scholars who have obtained or are seeking doctoral degrees.

You can download a copy of this dissertation by clicking here.

I am now in the process of working through this 282-page document. This work offers a close reading of II Corinthians 3:16-4:6—a passage that I long thought held potential for Oneness Pentecostal interpretation, but one that has largely eluded Oneness scholars to date.

I was surprised by Dr. Bernard's use of rhetorical criticism in the title of this work and as one of the main hermeneutical tools used in his reflections on this passage. Rhetorical criticism focuses on how biblical writers used the figures of speech and rules of composition common to the culture of their day for effective spoken and written communication—and especially persuasion.

Concerning rhetorical criticism in biblical study, evangelical scholar Ben Witherington states: "I'm interested in the question of how ancient Greco-Roman rhetoric helps us to understand the New Testament, and whether or not the writers of the New Testament used such a methodology. As a historian, the first question is, "Did the writers of the New Testament use rhetoric?" Did they use this kind of methodology to persuade people about Jesus Christ? For me the answer is clear enough: yes, to one degree or another. Some writers in the New Testament use it minimally, but others are really quite seasoned practitioners of Greco-Roman rhetoric in the way they present their material, ranging from Paul to the author of Hebrews to Luke and various others."

While I have spoken with Rev. Bernard a few times over the years, I have had only one substantial conversation with him. He had just been hired as a theology instructor and Dean of Students (I believe I recall this correctly) at Jackson College of Ministries at the time when I was leaving this institution. (My departure—as many of you know and as is documented in Thomas Fudge's Heretics and Politics—was under a cloud of suspicion. I, along with several of my faculty colleagues, had introduced a new world of academic biblical scholarship to JCM students as well as stressing the Wesleyan and Reformation roots of the Pentecostal tradition.)

In our conversation, which occurred in the JCM library, Rev. Bernard and I discussed several books in the JCM collection—all of which had been purchased at my suggestion. Our conversation eventually turned toward biblical criticism—in this specific case, redaction criticism of the synoptic gospels. Redaction criticism investigates the editorial role that the biblical writers played in assembling, structuring, combining, and elucidating source materials as they constructed the books which are now recognized in the Jewish and Christian canon of sacred scripture.

Norman Perrin in "What is Redaction Criticism?" states, "The prime requisite for redaction criticism is the ability to trace the form and content of material used by the author concerned or in some way to determine the nature and extent of his activity in collecting and creating, as well as in arranging, editing, and composing."

I argued that various forms of biblical and literary criticism were neutral tools that could greatly benefit conservative evangelical scholars. I stressed that the threat to biblical authority did not lie in these methods, but in the presuppositions of their users. Liberal Protestant scholars with a low view of biblical inspiration would certainly confirm their views when employing these tools. But the same thing is true for conservative evangelical scholars who hold a high view of biblical inspiration. There is no reason to believe that when a conservative scholar employs these tools that he will necessarily reach liberal conclusions.

To demonstrate my point, I raised the issue of editorial differences in the parallel gospel passages about Jesus' confrontation with a ruler of the synagogue. (We often wrongly identify this man as the "rich young ruler." These passages speak of his wealth, but not of his age. Luke designates that he was a "ruler," a respected leader in the synagogue.) I pointed out the obviously different theological emphases and implications in the ways that Matthew and Mark frame the initial question asked by the ruler to Jesus.

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments." (Matthew 19:16-17 NIV)

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good-except God alone.  (Mark 10:17-18 NIV)

The key difference is the way the word "good" is used in the two passages. In Mark, "good" has a Christological emphasis—he addresses Jesus as "good master" and Jesus replies that there is none good but God, at least hinting at the issue of Jesus' divinity. In Matthew, the emphasis is on human moral behavior. Here "good" modifies "works" or "deeds"—the ruler asks what "good deed" does he need to do and Jesus replies that only God is good, apparently arguing that only God is capable of truly good works.

I pointed out that these parallel presentations of the same event have very different theological meanings and that this difference is best explained by the editorial activity of the gospel writers—each stressing his own theological goals—when committing this oral memory of Jesus to the written page. I also stressed that the editorial contribution of each evangelist in no way undermines the authority of the gospel message. Rather it demonstrates the multi-dimensional ways that the early Christians "remembered" the words and stories of Jesus and applied them in a variety of situations in their own lives.

Sadly, my willingness to entertain such questions and to use critical tools to deal with them must have confirmed the suspicions of the weakness of my commitment to biblical authority in the mind of Rev. Bernard. The conversation ended with him unconvinced and the cloud of doubt still firmly ensconced above my head.

So it was a bit more than surprising to see Rev. Bernard, in writing his doctoral dissertation, taking essentially the same position regarding the positive possibilities of biblical and literary critical methodologies in the hands of evangelical scholars that I took all those years ago. The tools of literary analysis, it turns out, are neutral after all and can be used with Bible-affirming results by scholars who hold a high view of biblical authority.

Admittedly, both Dr. Bernard and I were very young when this conversation took place in the early 1980s. But it seems to me that I arrived at the conclusion that literary-critical methods are valid tools for conservative biblical interpretation a few decades before Dr. Bernard embraced it.

Maybe someday—hopefully—the cloud of suspicion that has followed me for all these years will dissipate as my JCM affirmations become less heretical and more mainstream within Oneness Pentecostal scholarship.

But I am not going to hold my breath.


  1. Very fascinating post with trailers from what seems like another lifetime ago! I remember helping Dr. Bernard move into my office as I was moving out, he being my replacement. All that aside, let me ask your frank opinion. In the early days of Pentecostalism (1914-1916), there was a serious parting of the ways between two branches, the Oneness branch and the Trinitarian branch. The latter seems to have intentionally remained connected to the largely evangelical world with their retention of the doctrine of the Trinity and an affirmation (albeit somewhat awkwardly) of salvation by grace through faith. The Oneness faction rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and became, so to speak, enemies of both Trinitarian Pentecostals and evangelicals. In time, the Oneness group also to a large degree succumbed to a message of salvation that was oriented toward works-righteousness (via their views of water baptism and tongues-speaking) rather than grace and faith (though there were some notable exceptions).

    Here is my question: Do you think the academic work of leaders like David Bernard within the Oneness Pentecostal group heralds an effort to reconnect with the larger evangelical world and/or the smaller Pentecostal world?

  2. The following was an answer to a Facebook post by David Bernard. This was a couple of months ago and very interesting.

    The NT clearly shows invocation of the name of Jesus. It may be "Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38) or "Lord Jesus" (Acts 8:16) or "Lord Jesus Christ." But it is clear that the apostles invoked the saving name of Jesus, which means "Jehovah-Savior," and specifically referenced the One who was the Lord and Christ (Messiah). The UPCI simply says we should follow the consistent example of the apostolic church, as shown by the example that I gave from Acts and the Epistles.

  3. Do I think that the academic work of some the leaders of Oneness Pentecostalism heralds an effort to reconnect with the larger evangelical world?

    Yes and no. I assume - and I can only assume since I have had no direct conversations with these men - that the motivations that lead these OP leaders to seek higher degrees from academically sound universities and seminaries are threefold:

    First, these efforts show a sense of need for legitimacy and recognition within and without OP. This effort to obtain legitimacy outside OP ranks is not unlike the actions of George Eldon Ladd and the faculty of Fuller Seminary who sought academic recognition and acceptance from mainline Christian scholars in the 1950s and 1960s.

    Second, I think that these leaders show a personal motivation toward excellence that cannot be fully realized in OP pulpits. The logical place to fulfill this admirable personal drive is in higher academic studies and publications. Crudely put, some of these guys just "have a doctoral degree in them."

    Third, I feel that these leaders sincerely desire to use whatever tools they may gather from higher education to further the cause of truth as they perceive it.

    ALL OF THESE ARE ADMIRABLE QUALITIES. But they are also strangely familiar. I remember several OP guys at a little school in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1980s that had exactly the same sincere motivations that led them into the pursuit of higher degrees. And we all remember what happened to them.

    Having said this, I do not think that any of these motivations amount to a conscious desire to reconnect with evangelical Christianity. I feel that the wall of exclusiveness (the sense that OP is the "full gospel" with the remainder of Christianity holding a sub-standard faith) and the OP reinterpretation of dispensation eschatology (that sees all non-Oneness Pentecostals as the apostate church of the endtime) are simply too great to overcome.

    I doubt that any of these OP leaders would want to state these obstacles to evangelical inclusion as bluntly as I have here - but that does not mean that the description is inaccurate nor that these core conclusions do not necessarily arise out of OP exclusivism. As you said years ago Dan, once you leave these core conclusions behind, you find yourself on the "vanishing left" of the OP movement. And pretty soon, you are gone altogether.

    The irony of all of this is that opponents of higher education in OP are probably right. The embrace of serious academic study of biblical religion (in a context beyond the social control exerted by in-group pressures) and the willingness to see one's place in the long march of Christian history often - some would say inevitably - undermines one's absolute conviction to an absolute faith.

    My prediction is that some of the Oneness Pentecostal leaders embracing legitimate academic biblical and historical study - people like you and me all those years ago - will eventually find themselves outside OP looking in. Others will find a way to compartmentalize their academic and practical views and will remain in leadership roles despite their academic discomfort. Others will never experience any academic discomfort and will seek to utilize their new academic tools to defend/reinforce the received belief system.

    Regardless of the movement - or lack thereof - of these academically-trained leaders, Oneness Pentecostalism will prevail as a "closed community" asserting its spiritual superiority over all others. There will be no reconnection with evangelical Christianity - because such a reconnection would so redefine the core belief system of OP that it would cease to exist in its current form.

    1. I'm inclined to agree, Joe. Indeed, your last statement is, in opinion, the most telling--that any attempt to reconnect with evangelical Christianity would redefine the core belief system to the extent that it could no longer exist. Isolationism, at least formally, is required. Alas, the path of this sort of isolationism has been followed so many times by so many various groups, and in the end, they become their own benchmark for any claim to truth, which is to say, they find it nearly impossible to reach any level of objectivity.

  4. Fascinating reading. The 'cloud' under which Joe, Dan and Don left JCM will NEVER lift in the thinking of the narrow minded crowd that created the cloud in the first place. However, those of us who looked (at whatever later date) deeper into that situation realize clearly the 3 became scapegoats forced into that role by others who wanted it that way. Frankly, all 3 are / were greater 'thinkers' than I ever hoped to be. That scared some weaker leaders who had invested a lifetime in 'that's the way we've always done it' practice. The 3 had to go. Create an issue, let the cloud of suspicion lay it's foggy path and stand back and get rid of anyone who may think differently than how the Elders taught us. Bless God !!!