In the Garden of Eden, God provided two trees – the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of Life is the knowledge of God. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is life without the knowledge of God. To eat of the Tree of Life is to acknowledge that humans need God to flourish. To eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is to suggest that we can find our own way. This ancient narrative offers an appropriate way of understanding the affinity for liberal theology.
The liberal theological method begins with human experience and then formulates theology in light of that experience. Liberal theologians deny the miraculous because it is beyond their experience. This means that the deity of Christ is denied in favor of an exceptionally enlightened, but merely human, religious teacher. Science has priority over a revealed theology because science can be empirically verified. Therefore human problems can only be diagnosed and resolved through the studies of biology, psychology, sociology, and other human sciences. The salvation of humanity can be accomplished only through political and economic means. Human liberty can only be achieved when traditional institutions that enslave individual initiative and imagination are deconstructed.
The most current example of this liberal theological method is found in the conversation about homosexuality. For liberals, the primary text for understanding and affirming homosexual behavior is found in the “gay experience.” (That’s why liberals reject The Nashville Statement). If two (or more) men (or women) find love, affirmation, and meaning together, then there is no higher basis for sexual morality. Traditional marriage must be redefined. In this liberal method there is little place for an authoritative text like the Bible. Experience is the authoritative text. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is preferred over the Tree of Life.
It should also be pointed out that in the liberal method science is subject to human experience. In the field of biological science the primary purpose for sex is procreation – the multi-generational flourishing of the species. Anything else is an aberration. But not so in the liberal methodology where individual experience trumps all other considerations. In fact, this means that science is often manipulated, or reinterpreted, to support liberal assumptions. When science cannot support liberal assumptions it must be suppressed.
So what does this have to do with Pentecostalism? The heart of Pentecostal spirituality is divine encounter – an experience with God. Liberal theologians have been quick to appreciate the Pentecostal emphasis on experience. The issue of homosexuality has become the litmus test. Some Pentecostals affirm homosexuality, and if not outright affirming they resist the traditional teaching of human sexuality. They see Pentecostalism as the deconstruction of traditional Christianity. Also, because the liberal method emphasizes experience some Pentecostals suggest that we should be more “pastoral” when dealing with the issue of homosexuality, as if being pastoral means to disregard the teaching of Scripture.
So, is Pentecostalism becoming an exercise in liberalism? Yes, there are some Pentecostal academics that embrace a modified liberal theological method. They see liberalism as more responsive to the needs of the oppressed. The irony is that as Pentecostal academics are embracing liberalism (Liberation theology) the oppressed are embracing popular Pentecostalism (Miller & Yamamori, Global Pentecostalism, 2007). Even more surprising is that the liberal method is being practiced in the traditionally conservative Pentecostal pulpit and pew. Some Pentecostals are happy to reject the creeds and rituals of historic Christianity in favor of an individualized experience. Many Pentecostals insist that their individual interpretation of Scripture has priority over the teaching of the Church. Personal experience is often given priority over the authoritative Word of God. Also, many Pentecostals outright reject science when it conflicts with their own assumptions.
Many Pentecostals give priority to their personal experience – their cultural situation in life – when reading the divinely inspired Scriptures. In this way of reading Scripture issues of slavery, racism, and the subjugation of women are understood in terms of cultural sensitivity instead of the Scripture challenging culture. This finds expression in the ways Pentecostals in pew and pulpit understand human sexuality. Through years of pastoral counseling I’ve encountered many young Pentecostals who defend their premarital sexual immorality with the words, “But, we are in love with each other and we plan to get married.” Their experience of love trumps the divinely inspired words of “flee fornication.” I’ve counseled many married couples struggling with pornography and adultery. The divinely inspired words of “You shall not commit adultery” mean little to their personal experience. I’ve counseled many troubled marriages which have eventually suffered divorce. The divinely inspired words of Jesus about divorce didn’t inform their decision. Many Pentecostals have accepted serial divorce and remarriage as normative. And yes, I’ve counseled with men and woman who are same-sex attracted. When I’ve shared the teaching of Scripture, I’ve been told, “This is the way God made me. I’m not broke, don’t try to fix me.” When judged by scripture it appears that both heterosexuals and homosexuals are sexually confused. The truth of Scripture is that we are all broke and we all need to be fixed.
The irony is that the liberal method is being used to defend “conservative values.” This was demonstrated in the last presidential election. Candidate Donald Trump has flouted traditional sexual values throughout his life and career. At the Republican National Convention he defended homosexual marriage. Even so, the majority of Evangelicals and Pentecostals supported him because their political experience had priority over their traditional Christian values. This is the liberal method!
There is a difference between liberal experience and Pentecostal encounter. Whereas liberal methodology begins with human experience, Pentecostal methodology begins with divine encounter. Liberals discern truth out of human experience – the knowledge of good and evil. Pentecostals discern truth from their encounter with the Word of God – the Tree of Life. In mature Pentecostalism the first encounter with the Spirit is the Spirit’s inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. In liberalism the Word is interpreted in light of human experience. In Pentecostalism the human experience is discerned by the authoritative Word of God as the Spirit enlightens our hearts and minds. Pentecostals should never give subjective experiences authority over the divinely inspired Word. Furthermore, Pentecostalism should not be understood in terms of the deconstruction of traditional/historic Christianity, but as a renewal movement within the tradition. Following the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, scripture and tradition have priority over reason and experience.
Pentecostalism has sometimes lost its way. Early on, fanaticism almost destroyed the movement. Because of distrust of traditions and creeds, Pentecostalism has sometimes inadvertently embraced various heresies – modalism, Arianism, Nestorianism, etc. Today, it seems that we are wandering, that we have lost our way. We have confused our cultural experience with the mission of God. However, early Pentecostals saved the movement when they discerned their experience by divine encounter – encountering the divinely inspired Word of God. The Pentecostal movement will flourish only as it is nourished by the Tree of Life.