Does Pentecostalism offer any resources for Christian apologetics? That is the focus of our brief reflection.
In the spring of 2014, for a course on theological method, our teacher and Pentecostal theologian, Wolfgang Vondey, introduced my PhD colleagues and me to a fascinating academic exchange between the Pentecostal-Ecumenical theologian, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, and the Roman Catholic theologian, Lyle Dabney. Our course readings particularly focused on Dabney’s review essay on Kärkkäinen’s two-volume reflection of the Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue in the twentieth century (1972–89 and 1990–97).
The Problem of ‘Saul’s Armor’
Dabney zeroes in on a problem in Pentecostalism, which he terms as an inability to do sustained theological reflection based on the movement’s own identity and spirituality. To illustrate this, he uses the well-known Old Testament narrative of David slaying Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 and focuses on the part where David experiments with Saul’s armor in preparation for his fight with Goliath. Dabney writes:
In Saul’s powerful armor he (David) is immobilized and helpless, “I cannot [even] walk!,” he cries. But with the contemptible weapons of a shepherd—the very weapons with which God had enabled him to slay the lion and the bear—he triumphs over the foe, declaring the name of the Lord. The words of Zechariah might well have been written as a reflection on just such a story as this: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the LORD of hosts” (Zech 4:6).
Then Dabney makes a striking parallel with Pentecostal theology. For Dabney, the Pentecostals are like David in Saul’s armor, in many ways “immobilized and helpless” as a result of dependence on theological frameworks that either suppress or ignore the role of the Holy Spirit, thereby “resisting and frustrating” their distinctive theological voice that emerges out of their powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit.
Dabney argues that Pentecostalism must lay aside “the ‘might’ and ‘power’ of Saul’s armor” and “take responsibility for its own theological impulse and, like David and his ‘five smooth stones,’ take up the humble talents and tools and truths that are its own.”
For Dabney, Pentecostalism comes with a promise because in a post-Christendom world, Pentecostals have “rediscovered and reclaimed the original pneumatological substance of Christian discipleship and worship and witness to Christ.” Pentecostal theology, therefore, should be a theology of the Holy Spirit (Third Article Theology), as a remedy and corrective to the pneumatological subordination in the discipline of theology over the last several centuries.
Apart from Kärkkäinen’s response to Dabney, many Pentecostals have taken Dabney’s challenge seriously and responded with notable monographs on theological method and other systematic treatments over the last two decades (e.g. Amos Yong, Frank Macchia, Steven Studebaker, Wolfgang Vondey). But what about a Pentecostal approach to Christian apologetics? Can Pentecostals offer any pneumatological resources for the defense of the Christian faith?
The Promise of ‘David’s Sling’
Inspired by this Dabney-Kärkkäinen exchange, I want to dwell a little more on the 1 Samuel 17 narrative and offer a pneumatological reading to see what one can glean for Christian apologetics as a Pentecostal. Here, the shepherd boy, David, first hears the open challenge of Goliath in the battlefield and is particularly bothered by his open defiance of Israel and its God (1 Sam. 17:8–10, 23, 25).
Now it is important to note how David, as one anointed by prophet Samuel and thus empowered by the Spirit of God (16:13), interprets Goliath’s battle cry. Goliath addresses the Israelites as “servants of Saul” (17:8) and therefore locates their identity in merely existential terms as ones serving an earthly master.
But David, angry and aroused on hearing Goliath, cries out: “who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (17:26). Thus, the Spirit-filled David deftly rejects the label injected on him and his people by Goliath and interprets the Philistine’s challenge from a true knowledge of his and their real identity—armies of the living God (transcendent or focused on the spiritual), not mere servants of Saul (existential or focused on the natural) (insight from Robert Rajamani). This clear understanding (I would argue, pneumatological) of his true identity becomes foundational for David’s response to Goliath.
Upon the insistence of Saul, David tries out Saul’s armor but quickly discards it (17:38–39)—which is another sort of a human, existential response to Goliath—and goes out to fight the giant in his true self with his staff, five smooth stones, shepherd’s bag, and sling (17:40), fully trusting in God. David’s approach, compared to Saul’s, is open to the supernatural and transcendent and does not merely rely on human abilities and resources. In engaging an enraged Goliath, David points out that the strength and potency of his battle weaponry are not found in the natural and physical (which is nothing compared to Goliath’s) but are of spiritual nature and rooted in the very name and power of his God that Goliath has sought to defy and ridicule.
For David, it is this God, the God of Israel, who will help David defeat Goliath, and the entire Philistine army that has opposed and mocked Israel, the people of God (17:45–47). Yes, this God of David did not let David or the people of Israel down (17:48–51) .
Implications for Pentecostal Apologetics Today
I think the connection to contemporary Christian apologetics is simply unavoidable. There are many skeptics that openly defy and deride the Christian faith, and quite similar to the Philistine of David’s time, they label the people of God from a purely natural, existential perspective. These unbelievers tend to dismiss Christianity (including other religious faiths) as mostly useless and of no significant value in solving the complex socio-political issues and ethical dilemmas that confront us in the twenty first century. For them, God is not great and it is a delusion to believe in God.
But 1 Samuel 17 reminds us that like the shepherd boy, David, the people of God, who are filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, have every adequate spiritual resource to fight against and prevail over the spirits of naturalism and godless existentialism that are embodied in the thoughts of these astute, yet mistaken skeptics and cultured despisers of religion (to borrow from Schleiermacher).
The very transcendent source that these skeptics seek to deny, reject, undermine, and ridicule becomes the wellspring of power for the believer to bring forth the demise of the seemingly powerful and threatening ideologies that seek to engulf and destroy the influence of religion and the transcendent in contemporary society.
Moreover, just like the Spirit-filled David had to step out in faith to fight Goliath directly and in public, the Spirit-empowered believers cannot ignore the challenge of these skeptics and allow their public mockery of religion go unaddressed. The Spirit-filled believer should step out with passion, conviction, reason, and in faith. Moreover, as the apostle Paul made it clear, for the Spirit-filled believer, the weapons of warfare are not carnal but are spiritual in nature, full of divine power (2 Cor. 10:4).
Therefore, in making a comparison with the David and Goliath narrative, I DO NOT IMPLY that the skeptics of our time are evil giants like Goliath, who need to be engaged in a physical battle and destroyed. Here, the apostle Peter’s advice is more appropriate; amidst all this ridicule, we are called to give reason to our hope in gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15).
It is important to know that these skeptics’ open defiance and rejection of religion, particularly the Christian faith, is based on a wrong understanding of the true identity and nature of the Christian faith. Just as it took a Spirit-filled and Spirit-empowered David to correct such a misunderstanding and caricature of Israel, I sincerely believe that the Spirit-filled body of Christ today has the resources and power to accomplish the following:
- respond and correct the misunderstanding and caricature of the Christian faith by these skeptics;
- defeat the prevailing presence, influence, and damaging consequences of their deprived ideology that affects many aspects of public life today; and
- present a promising alternative to engage and solve the many important contemporary ethical issues.
Come, blessed Holy Spirit, fill us with your power and wisdom to defend the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ!
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