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Explanation and Interdisciplinary Rationality: Which Way for Pentecostal Theology?

by Dr. Nimi Wariboko


            My general impression of the book to which this essay responds is that it was well conceived and executed for the college market.[1] It enables pentecostal theology to break through various academic science boundaries not only for the self-comprehension of pentecostals, but also to indicate ways in which science and theology may benefit from each other in engaged mutual interaction. The book exemplifies, programmatically, how a dialogue between pentecostalism and the sciences (from quantum mechanics to cosmological astrophysics) might proceed. So much for a review; let me now proceed to state the principle direction of my response.

What I intend to do in this response essay is to lift up the deep structure of this book. The book harbors some deep assumptions that the editors and contributors brought to the conversation between theology and science. Since the intended market is for undergraduates, these assumptions are understandably not laid bare. But we have to un-conceal them. The act of unconcealment is very necessary if we want to engage the editors and the contributors at the level of scholarship that can push the pentecostal theology-science dialogue forward a bit.

            My discussion of the deep structure of the book will center around two themes. First is the question of explanatory function of religion and science. I then turn to the issue of the character of “rationality” that can strengthen the pentecostal public voice in the interdisciplinary conversation. Both themes are methodological in orientation.

The challenge with this approach (putting a finger on what is beneath this project) is that the book is a collection of voices, and they do not all speak the same tongue. I will attempt to ferret out the deep structure (not as a metaphysical mechanism, doctrinal sameness, but as a methodological practice) in all the chapters by way of analogy. The chapters are analogous in at least three ways which I will call analogia pneumati. The first similarity is that they all are rooted in pneumatological imagination and pneumatological “assist” to the ‘“laws of nature,’ which, like the ‘laws of logic,’ seems to be relational patterns without which the world as we experience it would be inconceivable.”[2] (This need not delay us.) The second is rooted in the quest for explanation, while the third is a shared theological method of interdisciplinary, transversal rationality. There is a proportional analogy at work when each of the voices is speaking of the theology-sciences engagement.


Explanation in Pentecostal Theology and Science Conversation

Science and pentecostal worldviews have explanatory functions insofar as each of them makes claims about reality. On this front Science and the Spirit sets out to accomplish two things: to consider the intersection of pentecostal worldview and contemporary science and give an overview of the emerging conversation on issues that are specific to pentecostal belief and practice and modern science (pp. 3, 6). The 11 contributors (including the two editors) who wrote the 10 chapters are all good at clarifying just where the tension lies between the explanatory frameworks of pentecostalism and science.

The authors easily accept that science fulfills a formidable explanatory function; but also insist that pentecostal belief (religion) also fulfils an explanatory function and proceeded to develop arguments, proposals, and cases to show how this explanatory function may be understood and then be positioned to complement, assist, confront (where necessary) and critique modern science (naturalism or methodological naturalism). This is the modus operandi of the book and is executed in such way that each of the chapters is at the same time an apologetic for science and for pentecostal spirituality. “If the chapters are meant to encourage pentecostals to see the sciences as a legitimate expression of the Spirit’s work… they are also offered as an unapologetic articulation of the viability of pentecostal spirituality in the face of a rampant naturalism, materialism, and reductionism that is often confronted in association with the sciences” (p. 6). This is certainly a high wire to walk. How were they able to do it?

Although it is not stated explicitly, a close reading of the book reveals that the authors applied to science and to the pentecostal worldview “inference to the best explanation” in order to enter the discursive space of the science-theology dialogue. What does “inference to the best explanation” means? This is the methodology used by scientists to describe their way of approaching and gathering data: they launch a hypothesis in order to see how much of the observed facts would be satisfactorily explained on the assumption that the hypothesis is true. “According to inference to the best explanation, we infer from certain facts to a hypothesis that would, if correct, provides an explanation of the available evidence.”[3]

What Smith-Yong and company have done by this is to show that pentecostal explanation is not based on a simplistic “this is that,” head-in-the-sand supernatural explanation or the Spirit-is-the-answer model. Rather, they insist that the pentecostal worldview is capable of making a “rational” attempt to understand reality, which is taken as “enspirited,” animated by the Spirit of God; and it can account for “regularity and the miraculous.” The authors argue that in a universe that is not presumed closed the “miraculous” (divine action) is not an interruption of the “natural” order but a manifestation of the “especially intense way in which the Spirit is active and present in the universe” (pp. 46-49, 58-62). Thus, the pentecostal hypothesis provides the best explanation for a universe that is open and it makes sense of the activities of pentecostal-charismatic believers, evidence of spiritual encounters, and claims similar to them.

Now that it is clear how I intend to register my response to this book at the level of deep structure let me proceed to its strength and weakness. The nature of this book is such that where one found its strength one also discovered its major weakness. While the authors are quick to point us to how pentecostal worldview fulfills an explanatory function and can be made reasonably compatible with modern science, they fail to develop a notion of pentecostal explanation. How is pentecostal explanation to be construed and understood, its “conceptual continuity with explanations in other fields,”[4] and how they differ from other religious and scientific ones. To put it differently, they failed to develop or propose a model of explanation that will fit the pentecostal experience, especially for a book that aspires to be programmatic for pentecostal engagement with science. Such a model would have provided a preliminary answer to one or both of these questions (as per Holten): “Does pentecostal worldview explain?” “Does it succeed in explaining whatever it purports to explain?”

In ignoring these questions, they subjected their book to four strictures of philosophy of science. First, they evaded providing justification for pentecostal explanation on the basis of certain specified criteria of rationality. Second, they did not address how the explanatory function of pentecostal worldview may be understood. Third, they also failed to address whether or not pentecostal explanation takes place only within the context of religion alone. They only assumed that pentecostal explanation is not limited to the context and analysis of religious view of life. There is nothing wrong with this assumption; the only problem is that it was not consciously, explicitly defended. Finally, they failed to address how pentecostals “should insist on the integrity of the explanations afforded by their own belief-system irrespective of their acceptability to non-believers” or people who do not share their religious outlook.[5] It is, however, clear that if they had done this preliminary work, they would not narrow religious explanation to pentecostalism. The editors and their co-workers seek to go “beyond the ‘internal’ conversations in pentecostal ghetto and join more mainstream conversations” (p. 3).

Now that the contributors have marked and mapped out a sphere for pentecostal worldview in the theology-science dialogue, a question that suggests itself is this: What is the proper relation between pentecostal worldview (and for that matter, religious explanation) and other types of explanations such as scientific ones? Is the dichotomy between “sacred” religious explanation and “profane” scientific explanations now abolished, or are they now related or kept separate? Is the conversation between pentecostal theology and science based on the principle of NOMA (or Non-Overlapping Magisteria) as advocated by Stephen Gould (call it the Nestorian model), the Adoptionist model (where both types of explanations are completely identified), or the Chalcedonian model (some kind of transversal model) that is to be operative in interdisciplinary discourse?[6] This is a question begging for an answer! (It is true that the book was written for college students, but it is truer to say that the responses at this SPS conference are meant to engage the book in such a matter as to advance the pentecostalism-science conversation.)

Perhaps an engagement with Wentzel van Huyssteen’s views (in his The Shaping of Rationality) on what explanation is about within the disciplines of science and theology would have helped their larger cause. Here I am thinking of the editors using his model, with the appropriate corrections and qualifications, to develop a pentecostal model of rationality for interdisciplinarity in theology and science. Huyssteen’s transversal model takes into account the contextuality and the embeddedness of religious explanation in certain human cultural domain and goes further to show the epistemically crucial point of religious experiences as informed by religious explanation. His transversal model creatively points “beyond the confines of local community, group, or culture, toward plausible forms of transcommunal and interdisciplinary conversation.”[7]

The absence of a theory of pentecostal rationality, an appropriately relevant domain-specific transversal explanatory model, deprives Science and the Spirit of the flowering of thoughts in certain key theoretical engagements, especially for shaping programmatically, manifestos-ly, or inter-communally the science-spirit conversation across multiple academic boundaries. Having not developed their own concept of theological rationality, the authors relied on the regnant theory of rationality. That is the type championed by Huyssteen with its roots in Calvin Schrag. This point will be appropriately discussed in the next section.

Permit me now to expand our discussion of the explanatory function of religion and science a little bit. I intend the expansion to reveal more of the hidden potentials of this book and point to some of the key issues that should occupy the science-and-spirit discourse. I promise to limit myself to three issues.

An important programmatic concern in the pentecostal engagement with the sciences is (should be) the nature of concepts in pentecostal religious explanation. How should Pentecostal theological concepts work or evolve in its encounter with science. According to Pascal Boyer, religious representations (the starting point of religious explanations) are particular combinations of mental representations that satisfy two conditions. First, religious concepts violate certain expectations from ontological categories. Second, they preserve other expectations. Take these for examples: Omniscient God [the ontological category of person is preserved] + special cognitive powers [certain known expectations of bounded rationality are violated]. Virgin birth [Person is preserved] + special biological feature (violated). Religious explanation works by using concepts which refer to (more or less) new objects by giving its ontological category and special features different from other objects in the same ontological category. Religion invokes this type of concepts to explain events.

Boyer goes on to argue that evolution has wired the human brain to make use of an inference system to produce mental representations of this sort. Religious concepts according to him are influenced by the way the brain’s inference systems produce explanations without our being aware of it.[8] The upshot of Boyer’s argument, if I understand him well, is to reject the notion of explanatory power of religion and to say explanation should be properly associated with inference systems in the brain, “each of which is adapted to particular kinds of events and automatically suggests explanation for events.”[9] There is no doubt that pentecostal theologians and philosophers have some work to do with regard to clarifying the meaning of concepts they intend to use in religious explanations and also deploy in the science-theology dialogue.

Second, Science and the Spirit pursues the project of pentecostal engagement with the sciences and does it in somewhat an elitist manner. It “narrowly” enters into the conversation at the level of professional (academic) scientific practices. What is the nature of this conversation in the day-to-day life of the believer? When does the believer—not engaged in “academic glossolalia”— resort to religious explanation of “hard scientific data”? Religious explanation is not just limited to the laboratory and does not always function as “public theology.” Besides, in the quotidian life of believers it does not occur at all times. Pentecostals’ (believers’) religious explanation is based on the use of the idea of unobservable underlying reality of divinity (triune God) to make sense of the contingencies of every day existence. A good diversity of every day experience is interpreted in terms of Spirit and they use such interpretative scheme to transcend the limited vision of cause and effect relationships provided by common sense.[10] This is to say for many people it is only when they are confronted with the unusual that the limited causal vision of common sense cannot handle that they resort to spiritualistic theoretical thinking. Understanding when in the daily quotidian life spiritualistic model of explanation kicks in is crucial for the kind apologetic task the contributors of Science and the Spirit set for themselves.

Finally, pentecostal spirituality, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is largely concerned with explanation, prediction and control (EPC). There is an emphasis on “manipulation” of spirit-world for this-worldly benefits of prosperity, health, and children. Religion or faith is an instrument for achievement of goals, for the practical control of the world. Of course, there is also a concern with spiritual communion with the triune God. Here the worship of God has intrinsic value; it is entered into as ends in itself. Pentecostal spirituality puts accent on the practical control (via divine rescues, miracles, and “surprises”) of the world, an orientation (EPC) that is not strange to science. What kind of explanatory framework (pentecostal principle) can serve to systematically link pentecostal praxis, pentecostal theology, pentecostal (orientation to) science, and pentecostal social ethics”? Here I am reminded of the questions Amos Yong himself asked in 2005:


My questions are these: when are Pentecostals going to take [their] experientialism, empiricism, and pragmatism seriously enough to engage the sciences that are also driven by similar methodological dispositions? When are Pentecostals going to counter the reductionistic interpretations of certain members of the scientific community with their own non-reductionistic perspectives?[11]



Interdisciplinary Rationality: Which way for Pentecostal Theology?     

As I said before, the strength of this book also reveals its weakness. This book has given a robust, academic pentecostal voice to the science-theology conversation. While it is commendable that by adopting the pentecostal voice the authors avoided the temptation of speaking in generic religious terms the theological method that ostensibly grounds their dialogue is not pentecostal. The voice is pentecostal, but the hand is not. They adopt what I interpret as the interdisciplinary rationality (as per Wentzel van Huyssteen).[12] This form of rationality is the regnant method of doing interdisciplinary reflection and conversion, and it comes with its own limitations. This method is not grounded in divine revelation (which is congenial to Pentecostal sensibilities).[13] Interdisciplinary rationality (aka “transversal rationality,” “postfoundationalist” approach to interdisciplinary dialogue) is grounded in philosophy, comparative religion, pragmatism, and commonsense. As van Huyssteen recently put it:


In this view, rationality is a deeply social practice, embedded in the experiences and narratives of our daily lives as these are contextualized by the radically interpretative nature of all our experience…. All our knowing is grounded in interpreted experience and is accountable to interpreted experience, and the adequacy of this accountability is subject to rational justification as justification through interpersonal expertise.[14]


It is germane to mention at this juncture that I do not wish to claim that the method of inquiry in Science and the Spirit is derived exclusively from the regnant (van Huyssteen’s) interdisciplinary rationality, for its method(s) is philosophically flexible and has connotations of teleological, Schleiermacherian (pentecostal Christianity to be taken seriously by its otherwise “cultured despisers”), and evangelical backgrounds.

I have highlighted this particular issue of method not because I want to draw a line in the sand between experience and God’s revelation, between legitimate and illegitimate strategies of reasoning or knowing as pentecostal theology sallies forth to find its public voice in the interdisciplinary conversation. I am only interested in drawing attention to the fact that pentecostal theologians are yet to construct plausible ways of engaging in the transversal dialogue. The real question is how should the theological method of interdisciplinary rationality be grounded in Pentecostal theology?

            Let us turn to another issue relating to transversal rationality. The deployment of this method in the hands of van Huyssteen is not just for theology to pay attention to natural sciences, but also, and more importantly, to nature. Science and the Spirit points attention only to the natural sciences and not necessarily to nature as an element of pentecostal theological discourse. To turn to nature as object of theological reflection involves how God’s revelation is located in history, even evolutionary history. Van Huyssteen’s turn to history has also meant a non-historical understanding of Genesis 1-3 and to “natural theology.” Neils Henrik Gregersen’s turn has produced the idea of “deep incarnation” as the paradigm for the theological category of Christology. “In Christ, God is conjoining all creatures and enters into the biological issue of creation itself in order to share the fate of biological existence. God becomes Jesus, and in him God becomes human, and (by implication) foxes and sparrows, grass and soil.[15] (By the way, what is the implication of deep incarnation for the notion of “enspirited” world that James K. A. Smith laid out in the book? Does the idea of deep incarnation as argued by Gregersen calls for a trinitarian notion of enspirited world. What is the response of Smith and Yong to Gregersen?)

Science and the Spirit is silent on how the interdisciplinary dialogue with the sciences might affirm, question, or relativize some of the major presuppositions in the traditional understanding of anthropology and soteriology. It is truer to say that Science and the Spirit is not silent, but rather ambivalent. In my lights, it is ambivalent because the contributors are struggling with how to fully adapt to the paradigm of knowledge required by transversal rationality which is yet to be pentecostalized. Their struggle reflects the larger struggle within (academic) pentecostal circles and they are careful not to move ahead of where the pentecostal populace is on key doctrinal issues. Normally the theology engagement with science “requires theology to rethink, even radically rethink, its methods of inquiry and its normative teaching,”[16] but this book attempts to require something similar from the sciences (p. 6).

Let us consider another aspect of the struggle. For instance, most of the references to evolution are primarily about biblical authority and interpretation (pp. 6, 19, 24-28, 92-116). But this appears not to be the real point of tension within the larger academic evangelical circle and the community of scholars involved in the science-theology conversation. These scholars appear to have moved pass the nutty debates of authority and inerrancy to examining the implication of evolutionary history for key theological categories. Even for many academic evanglicals the current vexing points of contention are anthropology and soteriology.[17] This is so, according to Michael Bourgeois, “because Darwinian evolutionary theology challenges the historicity of Adam and Eve, it therefore undermines the traditional Christian theological formula, one that dates back at least to Paul’s epistles, that what Jesus Christ accomplished was necessarily accomplished in history because the problem had been caused in history.”[18] As Stanley Jones, the provost of Wheaton College put it in 2001 PBS documentary on Evolution:


The reason why, as I understand it, that Wheaton College continues to maintain the existence of a historical Adam and Eve in its statement of faith is simply because the existence of those two people occupies a key theological role in everything else we believe. Evangelical Christians, and indeed all orthodox Christians, believe that Jesus had to come and sacrifice himself on the cross and then conquer death by rising from the dead. Why did he have to do that? He had to do it because all of humanity was in bondage to universal sin. And then that leads to the question of where did that come from? Well, that in turn came from what Christians have historically believed was a historical fall by two human parents who bore, in a sense carried along with them, bore with them the rest of the human race in what happened. And so Adam and Eve in fact play a very strategic role in all of theology of what Christians have historically believed.[19]


For most of the scholars in the theology-science conversation (often theologians with liberal theological orientation), the issue is neither anthropology and soteriology nor biblical authority and interpretation, but history (evolutionary history) and how to situate God’s revelation in history that is always embedded in specific social practices. This is how van Huyssteen clarifies the link between history and Christology:


To base one’s faith in God on the conviction that the character and nature of God is revealed in Jesus Christ is already to say that what we can know of God is necessarily mediated through history. But if it is mediated through history, then what we are calling “revelation,” and what we are interpreting as God’s revelation, shares in the ambiguities of history and is therefore by necessity part of the limited, fallibilist form of all our knowledge…. A more embodied theology that takes seriously our own [history of biological] evolution as well as the evolution of our ideas about God and Christ will be able to embrace fully, and this broader sense, the incarnational nature not only of Christ, but of the Christian faith itself.[20]


As we have seen, the theologian-contributors of the volume did not explicitly consider the issues of biblical authority on human origins as passé, but are struggling to focus on human beginning in space between popular pentecostal attitude toward biological evolutionary history and the academy of theologians contributing to the science-theology conversation. This is another high wire they walked without pentecostal (domain-specific) model of transversal rationality.

Once again, I have raised these methodological points to stimulate thinking on how a pentecostal understanding of the human condition (in all its protological, quotidian, and eschatological dimensions) may or may not influence what is currently going on in the transversal space of interdisciplinary discourse. The urgent question is: Can the pentecostal worldview as explained by Smith in his chapter be an ally with other worldviews that dominate the conversation. If the answer is no, do we then need to reconceptualize the pentecostal worldview or consider it as an endangered species that cannot support (uphold, justify) its continuing presence in the transversal space of interdisciplinary conversation?


Concluding Remarks

            Thus far I have tried to reveal the deep structure of the book. I took this constructive direction as a way to help further the discussion on the book as a programmatic piece and to open up conversation pathways among pentecostal theologians. Hopefully, this essay will join the Science and the Spirit to precipitate more authentic pentecostal theological speech between science and the Christian religion.

In closing, one must say that Science and the Spirit accomplished its purpose. It set out to argue positively for the claim that pentecostal religious belief fulfils an explanatory function, to show that pentecostalism can seriously and fruitfully engage with modern science, and to develop ways of engaging the conversation across several scientific disciplines. I believe this book will serve as a reference material for a long time to come. The methodical, careful, and painstaking analyses of the contributors show a mastery of the domain of the pentecostal-science engagement.

The book has claimed for Pentecostals the right for democratic presence at the table of “academic glossolalia” in the science-theology public square. Its editors and contributors are perceptive in extending the discourse to the college students. By this move, they have shown their commitment to training college-age students in Pentecostal-Christian speech for the interdisciplinary public conversation and have invested in their theological formation.



[1] James K. A. Smith and Amos Yong, eds. Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010). All quotations from the book will be referenced parenthetically in the main text.

[2] The quotation is from David Novak, “Theology, Science, and Human Uniqueness: A Response to Wentzel van Huyssteen.” Toronto Journal of Theology 26:2 (2010): 165.

[3] Wilko van Holten, Explanation within the Bounds of Religion (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2003), 135.

[4] Holten, Explanation, 8.

[5] Holten, Explanation, 14.

[6] See Mikael Stenmark, How to Relate Science and Religion: A Multidimensional Model (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004) and Holten, Explanation.

[7] J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, The Shaping of Rationality: Toward Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 8-9.

[8] Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2001), pp. 62-91.

[9] Boyer, Religion Explained, 17; see pp. 1-15 for the upshot of his argument.

[10] Robin Horton, Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[11] Amos Yong, “Academic Glossolalia? Pentecostal Scholarship, Multiple Disciplinarity, and the Science-Religion Conversation,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 14:1 (2005): 65.

[12] J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, Are We Alone? Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006). See the review of this book by Alan G. Padgett in the Scottish Journal of Theology 63:3 (2010): 366-68.

[13] For a stringent critique of the neglect of revelation in transversal rationality, see Novak, “Theology, Science, and Human Uniqueness,” 161-72.

[14] J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, “What makes us human? The Interdisciplinary Challenge to Theological Anthropology and Christology,” Toronto Journal of Theology 26:2 (Fall 2010): 144.

[15] Niels Henrik Gregersen, “Deep Incarnation: Why Evolutionary Continuity matters in Christology,” Toronto Journal of Theology 26:2 (Fall 2010): 173-87; italics in the original.

[16] Novak, “Theology, Science, and Human Uniqueness,” 166.

[17] This assertion should not be construed to mean that all academic evangelical theologians have accepted the fallibility of Scripture. They have only widened the focal lens of the debate.

[18] Michael Bourgeois, “Testing van Huyssteen’s Post-Foundationalist Approach to Human Origins,” Toronto Journal of Theology 26:2 (Fall 2010): 194; italics in the original.

[19] Evolution, pt. 7, “What About God?” PBS 200, quoted in Michael Bourgeois, “Testing van Huyssteen’s Post-Foundatioalist Approach to Human Origins,” 193.

[20] van Huyssteen, “What makes us human?,” 152.


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