Analysis of the AG Trust: part three


Research and Development

“The very first project of the new Assemblies of God Trust is to commission a remake for the Foundations For Faith course to bring its approach into modern times. Six years equals a generation of elementary kids. We are over six generations behind.

Does learning doctrine have to be boring? Can learning doctrine ever be really fun? The group of children’s pastors we brought together to rewrite the curriculum believe it can and will be fun.

The new approach will not change the 16 Fundamental Truths, but will enable us to more effectively teach the next generations — generations who don’t know what it is like to live without a computer, Game Boy, Xbox or cell phone or the Internet.

The Research and Development Initiative of the AG Trust will provide the funds to enable our Fellowship to produce innovative, cutting-edge educational materials to teach timeless truths to all ages.”

Research and development usually entails working on developments and ways to improve or redesign what a company has to offer. One will note, however, that at some point, Ford stopped developing the Pinto once they found out that car exploded from a fender-bender.

You can read the Statement of Fundamental Truths here. The problem that arises from efforts called “research and development” in regard to the 16 tenets is that there is something else called “doctrinal purity”. In fact, what the Assemblies is talking about when it comes to updating Foundations for Faith has nothing to do with research and development and everything to do with repackaging for subsequent generations.

And there is nothing wrong with updating for future generations of young people (and old people, for that matter), provided that what is proclaimed as truth corresponds rightly with theology and is properly epistemic. The fact that the curriculum has not been updated in six generations (for whatever reason, Christians love to refer to people in terms of generations) shows that doctrinal purity, and not research and development continues to be at the fore. The firebrand pastor has been dictating–and still does dictate–how things are operated from Springfield to its affiliated district offices.

I appreciate the tough spot in which the leadership of the Assemblies of God finds itself, from the very top to district officials to university presidents and presbyters. On one side, there is scholarship, some of whom are pastors and faculty, who stop short, in classrooms and offices, of saying that the Statement of Fundamental Truths is broken and needs a revisit and renovation. The intention, generally, is not spite or ill-will, but preservation of the movement and or intellectual integrity.

The other side–again, generally–are those who find Jesus to be the answer to all the questions, who think the solution to real-life societal and ecclesiastical issues is more of the Holy Ghost, who find these serious questions to be a sign of apostasy and a pre-tribulation, premillennial rapture of the church and represent a desire to resort to primitive Pentecostalism.

Both sides are guilty of one thing: appealing to doctrinal purity. In terms of doctrinal purity, the latter has a natural, home-field advantage; while the former needs to watch the tongue for fear of being placed under suspicion. Faculty at A/G Bible colleges don’t get tenure, at last check, but a series of one-year contracts. If they don’t like you, they can replace you, saying they choose not to renew a contract. And they have not been afraid to replace, because those administrators are beholden to regents, many of whom represent the latter.

Tenure is a controversial topic right now in education in general. I believe tenure should remain a part of the academy, but not in its current–unaccountable and broken–form. And if that needs reexamination, so does this concept of “doctrinal purity”.

What you’ll notice by the above link to doctrinal purity is that there is no direct link to anything about the A/G’s Commission on Doctrinal Purity. Their fingerprints are all over anything that has anything to do with doctrine, position papers or theological development (if there is any) coming from headquarters. It’s like Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, or the Gestapo: faceless and beholden to its own special interest.

The 1800s brought about a number of significant developments in American religious life: the Second Great Awakening, the rise of the tent meeting, the Holiness movement and the crisis cults. When one also considers the number of catastrophic events endured by the United States in the 19th Century–two economic collapses, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, the oppression of the American South by carpetbaggers and robber barons, etc.–it creates the perfect stew for the explosion of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity, first in Europe in the 1890s, then here in America, incidentally, in yet untamed Kansas on New Year’s Day 1901.

I make a brief historical pitstop to say this: nothing that happens anywhere in American life occurs in a vacuum. The flowering of tongues as a new Christian distinctive is neither a sovereign move of God nor an overreaction of human limitation pressed against an undefinable, unqualifiable experience. [Though, in the interest of full disclosure, I tend to think more toward the second than the first.] That statement alone will rankle more than a few, but it’s the truth: it corresponds with reality and is epistemologically sound. Everything that happens with the birth of modern Pentecostal Christianity makes perfect sense when given a historical backdrop. It does not diminish the events, it makes them real. Reality lends these things gravitas.

And reality, frankly, is not what we do very well.

Among the other religious developments were the crisis cults, and Christian flash-in-the-pan heresies: the rise of the Amish, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, their heritage found in the Millerites (as we’ll see, the Holiness movement is a child of Miller as well), Latter Rain, multiple anointings/blessings (Charles Parham himself preached somewhere between 10-12 ), the Social Gospel, and one could by extension include the Ku Klux Klan and other supremacist movements as well. They all–minus the Social Gospel–preached sanctification as isolation: the Amish still drive buggies, the Mormons moved west, the JWs essentially hid until the date of the end came and went (…and came, and went…and came, and went…) and the Holiness movement latched up with everything from abolition to temperance, beginning what I have long referred to as “bomb shelter Christianity”.

The reality of the matter is that movements that heavily rely on “doctrinal purity” are fundamentally unsure. And you cannot hold something as fundamentally true when it has not happened, thus eliminating the final four of the 16 tenets. So, in the face of anxiety and uncertainty, and in the effort to assert a fully-human existence, a movement needs purity, and to vigilantly defend itself against thorough examination, even from itself.

This disturbing trend exists in all the crisis cults. The Assemblies, itself not a cult by any definition, would be wise to step away from such a sordid, unwitting relationship and allow itself to be scrutinized, examined and reworked for the sake of integrity in theology and openness to criticism; at the very least, for its very viability in the near future. If what we believe is true, we ought to welcome it. If what we believe is not properly theological, then we as those bound to truth, should be welcoming of examination. This is not mere semantics or word-play: little things matter. A statement of faith not only allows for institutionalized opinion, but for open and honest scrutiny.

The fact is that the Assemblies of God excels in doctrine, but suffers in theological development. A wholly Pentecostal theology has been sought, but by those who have been kept on the outside (Amos Yong, Clark Pinnock, et al) or forced out, when faced with a preponderance of the evidence (Edith Blumhofer, et al): and these are the people, off the top of my head, who have done the research and attempted to offer help for development!

The Assemblies needs to raise capital to develop a theological task force–many of whom are already in house–to move past fundamental truths and toward sound Pentecostal theology. Simply retooling Foundations for Faith and making the 16 tenets palatable for a new audience is unacceptable when there is so much more work to be done. In this respect, the A/G is no different than the federal government’s answer to problems in education: throw more money at it and make it more entertaining, make them take tests and meet centralized standards. The conscience of the Assemblies is clearly part of the religious right, though unable to be a part of the political process. What business does a generally-conservative laissez faire voting bloc have working within methods that are clearly progressive/statist? (Pro-lifers should also be put on notice this way.) Change the culture and you change things, change things at the top and you can expect two responses on the ground: muted, suppressed hostility or unconscious acceptance.

A conscious people wouldn’t need to fear the approval or contempt of “doctrinal purity” in the first place. Thus, it appears that the AG Trust is banking on unconscious donations based on thoughtless acceptance. After all, thinking about the matter at hand only seems to get one in trouble. There is a better way, and there is hope for the future. The AG Trust  as it is now is neither. The frustrating fact is that it could be a catalyst toward both.

Respectfully submitted for your consideration. Part four forthcoming.

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