God Forgive Us For Being Women: A Theological Response

What follows is my “theological response” delivered today at the annual meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies as one of four panel respondents to Joy E. A. Qualls’ God Forgive Us for Being Women: Rhetoric, Theology, and the Pentecostal Tradition ( Frameworks: Interdisciplinary Studies for Faith and Learning; Pickwick, 2018).

“God Forgive Us for Being Women”:

A Theological Response

Practical Theology Interest Group

Rick Wadholm Jr.

Trinity Bible College & Graduate School

Presented at the 48th Annual Meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies

Introduction and Testimony

I am grateful for the work of Joy Qualls regarding her publication of this invaluable work on women in ministry in the Assemblies of God. Her work continues to open the way for further studies of the use of rhetoric in Pentecostal circles, but more importantly in addressing the issues of women serving in leadership in the broader Pentecostal Church. In the movement through the various ways in which the Assemblies of God has addressed this subject, there were many stories and accounts, which gave room for considered pause and reflection. Many more (quite honestly) caused anger sufficiently that I was forced to put the book away for a while (and even tossed the book at one point). There were still other moments where I sensed the Spirit’s call to action on my own part in raising up a new generation of ministers for the good news of the kingdom in preparation for Jesus’ soon coming.

By way of offering some frame of context for my responses to this volume I offer the following. As a professor in an Assembly of God Bible college, I pour my life into discipling women and men called into vocational ministry. I serve several graduate schools and seminaries in the Assemblies of God globally and do likewise in those contexts realizing those students are transformative for the national churches they represent as these women and men are in their pursuit of graduate ministerial training. I am committed to this work. I long to see the sons and daughters of God empowered by the Spirit, educated for the work of the ministry, and serving to the Spirit’s fullest potential in and through them. I have contended for at least one U.S. District Council of the Assemblies of God to revise completely their bylaws to change the explicitly masculine language regarding the opportunities of serving in the presbytery and district leadership (with such a change being made in the upcoming District Council). I count this one small victory, but note that Qualls’ work reminds me that even should the rhetoric turn toward allowing women, this does not necessarily entail the actual election of women to such positions.

As a Pentecostal, I cannot but help to share a personal testimony as well. My mother as a teenager was invited to a revival service in the “Black side of town” at a racially mixed Pentecostal church holding services in a Quonset hut. Sister Lang was the evangelist preaching that evening. During the service, Sister Lang gave a word of knowledge to my mother in the crowd regarding her need for healing. She invited my mom to the altar where she began by asking if my mom had committed her life to Jesus. That very night my mother was saved, healed, and baptized in the Holy Spirit thanks to the prophetic preaching ministry of Sister Lang. In this fashion, I owe my own salvation and Pentecostal heritage to the ministry of Sister Lang.

Three Theological Words of Appreciation

While there could be any number of pointed comments made regarding specific points of Qualls work, I will leave such to others. Further, while there are many things praiseworthy in this volume, I will offer only three specific points. Thus, I would like to offer the following three specific theological ways in which I believe Qualls has helped to further this long-overdue conversation.

First, I would offer that her work on the history of one specific Pentecostal fellowship provides an avenue of investing the development and contours of a sort of theological history. In the case of this project, the Assemblies of God has been examined in ways previously not engaged. As such, Qualls has helpfully offered this gift of taking the reader on a journey through the various movements of Assembly of God leadership and their responses to women in ministry. Such a historic turn allows for a critical self-reflection for those on the inside of said fellowship, and speaks to potential self-reflection for other Pentecostal fellowships to consider their own journeys (for good or bad, for empowerment or silencing) and to offer ways to look to the future in what God has done and might still do among us as we sort through our specific theological claims and discern how the Spirit is speaking.

Second, Qualls has reminded the Pentecostal community that our rhetoric matters. We only often imagine we understand speech as those given to emphasizing divine speech patterns and forms. However, Qualls offers her prophetic rebuke, by way of historical examination, of the ways we have failed to appreciate our rhetoric. The way we describe, respond to, affirm, confront, empower, or silence women in ministry reveals more about our own hearts than it does about the Spirit per se. Our claims seek to draw upon the Scriptures, but seem to prefer cultural adaptations and entrapments more than we might like to admit. We cannot escape our contexts and the ways this shapes our speech (word choices, patterns, etc.), but we can (and must) be enabled to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.           

Third, in a fashion reminiscent of early Pentecostals (like Sister Aimee), Qualls has not based her work upon any forms of Feminism (though she could properly have done so). Instead, she has sought to be descriptive of the Assemblies of God’s history and to root her work in the theology of the outpoured Spirit and Pentecostal testimony to such as engagement of the Scripture’s own witness. My appreciation of this point is not because Qualls chose not to make use of Feminism, but because she instead chose other bases for her work to offer ways (through careful choice of rhetoric) to persuade readers to hear what she says without offering the stumbling block for many who might not otherwise give their ears to hear.

Three Theological Words of Commendation

By commending Qualls work, I mean first off to give thanks for the ways she is helping us to speak to each other and listen better toward faithfulness to our Lord. Second, I mean to commend this work toward ways in which it might be better clarified and strengthened in its contentions. Third, I mean to commend this work for our hearing in call and response to what God is at work doing among us already and desires to do toward that Day. With such explanation of my meaning to commend this work, let me humbly offer the following three specific commendations.

First, this work would be better served through a clarification of language regarding the baptism in the Holy Spirit and pastoral ministry/authority. The baptism in the Holy Spirit functions as empowerment for witness and is not calling to vocational ministry. This failure to distinguish between empowerment as witnesses to Jesus and those called vocationally among those empowered for witness makes for argumentation that does not appreciate the fullest import of the empowerment of the baptism for all, and the distinguishing features of specific gifts within the church for individual members of the body.

Second, and related to the first, there seems to be at times a collapsing of language wherein terms are not sufficiently clarified or distinguished. Qualls seems to collapse such terms as calling and authority, and preaching and pastoring. These terms could use careful distinction as calling to ministry does not essentially entail authority within the church, nor does preaching entail pastoring. In relation to such terminological ambiguities, one might wonder in what ways “pastor” is made use of since many within Pentecostalism seem good with women pastoring women, children, or youth, but somehow not preaching in the Sunday AM worship setting as the regular preacher nor leading a board of elders.

Third, there appears at times to be an over-simplification of the unity of thought in early Pentecostalism (or at any other time in Pentecostalism) that regards the Assemblies of God as primarily in favor of women in ministry, pacifist, etc. There has always been a mixed response to these issues. What we are dealing with is predominant voices who were published and whose writings are extant. We do well not to overplay these nor to imagine things as more cohesive than they might have likely been. While Qualls at times allows for variant voices to be heard in her reporting of history, this work would be further strengthened in the recognition that always we are only dealing with those literate leading voices who were published and preserved. This may or may not be actually indicative of the Assemblies of God even as it is representative of specific leading voices. The broader constituency likely is not aware of such and may not even care. This is perhaps a problem of theological education wherein leadership may speak to issues, but the broader church simply does not hold such in individualized contexts.

Four Theological Orientations of Response

Finally, I would like to offer a four-fold (without offence to our five-fold brothers and sisters) orientation toward a stronger theological reading of Scripture and expression of such through our practice as the Pentecostal Church in better orienting our vision and language regarding women in ministry.

First, creation (as pre-Fall). Qualls rightly notes the ways in which Evangelicals have tended toward appealing to a proposed creation idea of the role of women in the Church drawn primarily from the post-Fall narrative of Genesis. Qualls does well indicating the ways in which appealing to pre-Fall creation is the ideal and ought to inform our trajectory within the redemptive community of God. I would press this yet further along the lines of interpretation offered by J. Richard Middleton’s The Liberating Image.[1] Creation of humans in the image of God was creation liberated into freedom toward and for one another. It was not bounded by relations of power and authority over and against, or exclusionary, but relations in light of God’s own inner communion: Father, Son and Spirit … mutual self-giving in love one for the other. Pentecostals, as those who live in light of God’s soon coming kingdom, also live in light of this beginning (and have perhaps missed this as orientative toward God’s intent in creation). To borrow the German terms for those points, which lay beyond historical investigation – urzeit and endzeit – Pentecostals are well served to draw upon our theology of urzeit (without exclusion of the endzeit), but it should actually be the urzeit to which we appeal as God’s intent and not the sin-filled world of historical experience. These times belong to the margins as those things outside of our experience and belonging to the revelation of God distinctly calling for belief, and to be enacted by faith. These are believed and experienced only by faith as that which belongs not to the fallen world groaning for redemption, but as the world “very good” and where God is with his people and his people with God. Such life is indeed liberating from the very beginning as a move toward the end. While Qualls makes certain overtures toward such a reappropriation of this true beginning, readers would do well to take up this task toward a more fully developed theology of creation pre-Fall.

Second, being in Christ. As Pentecostals we have already begun to experience the new creation breaking in upon us in our experience of the Spirit-anointed, Spirit-anointing Messiah. While this is a foretaste, it means that in our experience of Jesus we are experiencing what was intended from the beginning and have been liberated to a world already being made new in Christ. This inclusion in Christ, and only in Christ, toward that life calls for a rethinking of gendered relations. If indeed, there is neither male nor female in Christ (Gal. 3.28) what does this mean in the praxis of the Church? It certainly does not mean a removal of gendered life in Christ, but does point beyond simply an idea of “salvation” as inclusion in the community of God. It entails a remaking of all peoples as the one people, a testimony against the relations of distinction used against one another and an entering into unity where the “other” is received as Christ. This is not degendering, nor regendering, but engendering all of God’s people into Christ Jesus, the man from Nazareth, Son of Man and Son of God. This is a freeing to be male and female beyond cultural boundedness, but also within cultural expressions as embodying Christ with us.

Third, pneumatologic rhetoric. Perhaps, further we might begin to think pneumatologically and thus see in the “shy member of the Trinity”[2] the very work women (as Qualls helpfully states throughout) in Pentecostalism have taken up as they point to another, the Christ, rather than themselves. There are a number of directions this might develop, but perhaps most relevant to the project of Pentecostal rhetoric is an opening of speaking by the Spirit in tongues. To speak in tongues is to speak beyond the boundedness of the world as we know and experience it and to speak toward the language of the kingdom coming.[3] This is, partially, to exercise the tongue with “pneumatological imagination.”[4] This is to speak by the Spirit, a pneumatologic rhetoric, that points to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom over and beyond all words with imagined power in the present passing age. This liberating of the tongue is orientative toward God’s future where one people live fully in the one Spirit as those speaking in many tongues with one voice. This is the pneumatologic rhetoric of the distinctions among us enabled by the Spirit to bear witness to the one God and Father of all. Following Leonardo Boff, “The Spirit sets humankind free from an obsession with its origins, its desire to return to the original paradise, access to which had been finally closed (Gen. 3:23). The Spirit moves us on toward the promised land, the destiny that has to be built and revealed in the future.”[5] This pneumatologic move points us, orients us, and even draws us, eschatologically as God’s future in-breaks by the Spirit into the present.

Fourth, eschatology, specifically an eschatological hermeneutic.[6] A hermeneutic of eschatological orientation is at play in how Pentecostals read Scripture (or ought to be), make our theological confessions, and our Pentecostal Christopraxis.[7] An eschatological hermeneutic as Christopraxis hears Scripture toward their aim (when all things are brought into the life of Christ Jesus as from the Father) rather than simply via a historical-grammatical reading of Scripture. Such a hermeneutic might be regarded as prophetic which is language which Qualls proposes as the potential of Pentecostalism and as truer of early Pentecostalism. Qualls’ contention was that this earlier hearing of Scripture was impacted by a shift toward priestly understandings over and against prophetic understandings. While a specifically gendered bias might appear in a priestly turn (it is not inherently so), to paint the priestly as inherently conservative and the prophetic as somehow progressive or not conservative, seems to miss the very conservative nature of the prophetic as pointed out in the works of Terence Fretheim and James Barr.[8] Thus, while one might argue for a return to a prophetic engagement with Scripture, such would be ultimately “conservative”, that is, it is thoroughly in light of creation pre-Fall, being in Christ, pneumatologically proclaimed, in light of the making of all things new. Further, a truly “priestly” and “prophetic” turn is a turn to King Jesus as true beginning and end. Perhaps the notion even of “conservative” in such a sense alters the term as many have come to define it in light of life in a sin-fallen world who are not seeming to take seriously the in-breaking kingdom of God. Such an eschatological orientation cannot but hear beyond the historical context and potential historical intent of the texts of Scripture and see these in light of Jesus the Christ in whom those previously in Adam find themselves by the Spirit declaring a world that is testified to by the life of the en-Spirited community toward that dawning day of his return. This is why Bonhoeffer would say, “The church of Christ witnesses to the end of all things. It lives from the end. It thinks from the end, it acts from the end, it proclaims its message from the end.”[9] And thus may it ever be so of those claiming Pentecost, and the God of Pentecost, as their shared experience.

I would actually have utterly missed the point of this book if I did not end where Qualls begins: with a prayer for forgiveness. But here, instead of a rhetorical word of confession by a wounded and abused member of the body of Pentecostal fellowships, I offer a confession of my sins (and our sins), of omission and commission. I have sinned against my sisters here in failing to speak up on their behalf as often and as boldly as the Spirit has compelled me to. I have sinned against my sisters here in speaking and acting in ways that dismissed and damaged God’s fullest calling on their lives to minister fully on his behalf. I have sinned against my sisters here in not always affirming their imaging of God in Christ with regard to the call to care for the flock of God. I have sinned against my sisters here as a man thinking first of being a man among brothers, and have not raised up my sisters as the prophetic witnesses they are in God’s congregation. 

Dear Church, we have sinned against our sisters … and we have sinned against God. We have sinned against Christ’s body. We have sinned against the temple of the Holy Spirit. And we can only begin towards redemption here by saying, “God, forgive us….”


[1] Middleton, J. Richard. The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005).

[2] Frederic Dale Bruner and William E. Hordern, The Holy Spirit: Shy Member of the Trinity (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984); see also, T. F. Torrance, Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (T & T Clark, 2001), 63; Andrew K. Gabriel, The Lord is the Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Divine Attributes (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011), 94. Gabriel prefers the term “the Forgotten God,” 100.

[3] On which see, Robert Jenson, Visible Words: The Interpretation and Practice of Christian Sacraments (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 57.

[4] Amos Yong, Spirit-Word-Community: Theological Hermeneutics in Trinitarian Perspective (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 133-217.

[5] Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988), 192-193.

[6] On just such an example of eschatological orientation in our hermeneutic and speech toward the telos of creation as defining for Pentecostalism/s, see Yong, Spirit-Word-Community, 47-48.

[7] On the construction of a Christopraxis, see Ray Sherman Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).

[8] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Prophets and Social Justice: A Conservative Agenda”, Word and World 28 (2008): 159-168, and James Barr, “The Bible as a Political Document,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 62 (1980): 278-279.

[9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 3; ed. John W. de Gruchy; trans. Douglas Stephen Bax; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 21.

Preaching and the Sanctified Imagination

One of the most wonderful things about teaching in a Bible College as a practitioner (I preach and teach in local churches regularly) is that my calling encourages me to reflect more critically upon my pastoral practices. Though my specialization for academia is in Old Testament and theology, I’ve been afforded the opportunities to be the preaching professor for five years now. This has enriched my life as a preacher immensely (whether the congregants have felt so is another issue).
One area that recently has caught my attention in a fresh way is the need for a sanctified imagination in the pulpit.
I know many folks have witnessed imagination in the pulpit, but this is not that. Though, to be sure, one cannot preach without imagination. The very act of preaching requires a movement beyond the text of Scripture even while it should flow from and to Scripture. To simply read the Scriptures is not necessarily to engage the imagination (though any good reading of a text should do so). To say anything beyond simply reading is to engage the imagination and offer something extra-textual. While the act of reading (and hearing) invites imagination we have too often considered ourselves as preachers to simply be saying what the Scriptures say in our preaching. But that would be to only read Scripture (and one might even argue that is still not the case). If we would preach, we must imagine that world as it was, as it is, and as it must finally be (e.g., see Walter Brueggemann’s, The Prophetic Imagination and The Practice of the Prophetic Imagination). Thus, my own reflections on the act of preaching lead me to conclude the act of preaching is an act of the imagination.
This does not mean a free-for-all imagining, but a sanctified imagination. If a preacher would preach Christ they must have a sanctified imagination.
A sanctified magination is one that has been immersed in, and is being transformed by, the Spirit through the Word. It is consumed with meditating on the Word. It sings, speaks, thinks, reads, prays, and then eventually preaches that Word. Such an imagination has found itself in the unbreakable grip of the Father’s love in Christ Jesus–a love that consumes the passions and will of the preacher.
Such a sanctified imagination cannot but declare the revelation of God in Christ. It cannot but speak of King Jesus saving, healing, and baptizing in the Spirit. Such a sanctified imagination sees the world of Scripture playing out before them in fresh ways. This sanctified imagination declares the kingdom of God even as it enacts it in the life of the Spirit-filled community caught in the midst of the world (and living for that world and its redemption).
My prayer for myself, my students and those to whom I share in the preaching of the Word is that our imaginations might increasingly be caught up into the sanctifying life, death, resurrection, and soon coming of Christ who makes all things new.

A Day To Celebrate?

PicnicToday was my final worship service with the congregation I have loved and served for the last decade. And it was exactly the kind of day I wanted to share with my church family: our annual church at the lake.
We sang together, heard testimonies of healings, shared communion (although I accidentally forgot the grape juice at home, so we just used grapes instead 🙂 ), swam, played games, feasted, prayed over each other, and just enjoyed being together. This is the life of the church. Not simply “weekly worship services”, but where the community of believers share life together around the table of communion and celebrate our Great God and Savior who is Himself perfect fellowship: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I love my church family in Karlstad. I love my community.  This is the way I want to remember our life together. Enjoying each other. Laughing and crying. Playing baseball and praying in the Spirit. Singing God’s praises and soaking each other with water balloons (thrown in love, of course). Visiting around the tables filled with food. Celebrating with the cup (or at least grapes) and the bread of remembrance.
This is a day that will be emblazoned on my mind. A day stored in the treasury of my heart. A day for future reflection. A day to celebrate God’s grace and mercy and a family that is bound to one another as the very body of Christ himself.
This is the conclusion of a decade of ministry: life shared with both seasoned saints and the newly regenerated. Sharing life with those who have been in the Faith for nearly 70 years…and others whom I led through the waters of baptism only a few years ago. Children and parents whom I’ve led to Jesus feet. A widow whom I have visited regularly in her sorrows and consolations. Families I have worked to see restored to wholeness. Young adults I’ve watched mature and helped to grow in the Faith in the midst of their many struggles and questions.
It was a day to remember. A day to celebrate…in sorrow for the distance that will separate us…in joy for the things which God has done and will yet do.
Thank you Lord for my many days in Karlstad!

Blood and Water

Blood and waterI have continued to be more deeply convinced that giving undue historical emphasis in explaining texts leads in a direction not normally intended by the writers of Scripture. A case in point came to mind in a recent conversation with two of my students. One was reading a volume Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (David C. Cook, 2013) by J. Warner Wallace. I have not read this volume so I can make no claims about its contents. It simply spurred the conversation. We were discussing the historical intent of the crucifixion narratives of the various writers and specifically we discussed John’s account of Jesus death and how when the Romans came to him they found he was already dead so instead of breaking his legs (as would be necessary to bring about a quick death due to asphyxiation which might normally take days for the crucified to succumb to under normal conditions) one of them pierced him with a spear and the text says “blood and water flowed out immediately” (John 19:34 NET, emphasis mine).
Why does John emphasize that blood and water flowed from Jesus side? He is after all the only writer of the story of Jesus in the canonical accounts to mention this. John states right afterward that “the person who saw it has testified (and his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth), so that you also may believe” (John 19:35 NET). He writes with theological intent to convince his audience to trust in the Lord Jesus and also to know that this particular witness is trustworthy. So why does John tell us that “blood and water” came from Jesus side? Why doesn’t he just say “blood”? Is he trying to saying something more specific about the death of Jesus?
There are numerous accounts I have read and heard where it is proposed that John is simply saying that Jesus was truly dead and this is typically followed by an attempted forensic pathology discussion of how one’s body reacts post-mortem. However, this seems to do an injustice to John’s specific intent. Not that it isn’t John’s intent at all to speak of the certainty of Jesus death (it seems to be a part of it) and therefore the certainty of resurrection, but to treat the account as if this is all it really is saying. John seems to be doing more than simply providing some historical claim to “blood and water”.
The following note found in the New English Translation is helpful in placing John’s comments within their greater Johannine context:

101 sn How is the reference to the blood and water that flowed out from Jesus’ side to be understood? This is probably to be connected with the statements in 1 John 5:6–8. In both passages water, blood, and testimony are mentioned. The Spirit is also mentioned in 1 John 5:7 as the source of the testimony, while here the testimony comes from one of the disciples ( 19:35). The connection between the Spirit and the living water with Jesus’ statement of thirst just before he died in the preceding context has already been noted (see 19:28). For the author, the water which flowed out of Jesus’ side was a symbolic reference to the Holy Spirit who could now be given because Jesus was now glorified (cf. 7:39); Jesus had now departed and returned to that glory which he had with the Father before the creation of the world (cf. 17:5). The mention of blood recalls the motif of the Passover lamb as a sacrificial victim. Later references to sacrificial procedures in the Mishnah appear to support this: m. Pesahim 5:3 and 5:5 state that the blood of the sacrificial animal should not be allowed to congeal but should flow forth freely at the instant of death so that it could be used for sprinkling; m. Tamid 4:2 actually specifies that the priest is to pierce the heart of the sacrificial victim and cause the blood to come forth. (NET)

When we look at a sampling of the Church Fathers on this passage we discover a decidedly unhistorical intent rules their exegesis (or better, a decidedly theological intent rules their exegesis). None of them denies the historicity, but each in turn recognizes a greater theological intent to John’s including this detail.
Tertullian (On Baptism XVI) writes: “For He had come “by means of water and blood,” just as John has written; that He might be baptized by the water, glorified by the blood; to make us, in like manner, called by water, chosen by blood. These two baptisms He sent out from the wound in His pierced side, in order that they who believed in His blood might be bathed with the water; they who had been bathed in the water might likewise drink the blood.”
Augustine (Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John): “Three things then we know to have issued from the Body of the Lord when He hung upon the tree: first, the spirit: of which it is written, “And He bowed the head and gave up the spirit:”  then, as His side was pierced by the spear, “blood and water.” Which three things if we look at as they are in themselves, they are in substance several and distinct, and therefore they are not one. But if we will inquire into the things signified by these, there not unreasonably comes into our thoughts the Trinity itself, which is the One, Only, True, Supreme God, Father and Son and Holy Ghost, of whom it could most truly be said, “There are Three Witnesses, and the Three are One:” so that by the term Spirit we should understand God the Father to be signified; as indeed it was concerning the worshipping of Him that the Lord was speaking, when He said, “God is a Spirit:” by the term, blood, the Son; because “the Word was made flesh:” and by the term water, the Holy Ghost; as, when Jesus spake of the water which He would give to them that thirst, the evangelist saith, “But this said He of the Spirit which they that believed on Him were to receive.” Moreover, that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are “Witnesses,” who that believes the Gospel can doubt, when the Son saith, “I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me, He beareth witness of me.” Where, though the Holy Ghost is not mentioned yet He is not to be thought separated from them. Howbeit neither concerning the Spirit hath He kept silence elsewhere, and that He too is a witness hath been sufficiently and openly shown. For in promising Him He said, “He shall bear witness of me.” These are the “Three Witnesses,” and the Three are One, because of one substance. But whereas, the signs by which they were signified came forth from the Body of the Lord, herein they figured the Church preaching the Trinity, that it hath one and the same nature: since these Three in threefold manner signified are One, and the Church that preacheth them is the Body of Christ. In this manner then the three things by which they are signified came out from the Body of the Lord: like as from the Body of the Lord sounded forth the command to “baptize the nations in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” “In the name:” not, In the names: for “these Three are One,” and One God is these Three. And if in any other way this depth of mystery which we read in John’s epistle can be expounded and understood agreeably with the Catholic faith, which neither confounds nor divides the Trinity, neither believes the substances diverse nor denies that the persons are three, it is on no account to be rejected. For whenever in Holy Scriptures in order to exercise the minds of the faithful any thing is put darkly, it is to be joyfully welcomed if it can be in many ways but not unwisely expounded.”
Cyril (in his Catechetical Letters) writes of baptism (water) and martyrdom (blood) as the referents in this passage. This doesn’t mean he understood it as a non-historical event, but only that he saw in John’s comments something more. In fact, he saw a theological agenda intended to speak to the place of the Church in the sufferings of Christ: identifying with Christ through baptism and martyrdom.
John of Damascus writes in the context of the “water and Spirit” (drawing a link to John 3) that these two (blood and water) refer to “water for our regeneration, and the washing away of sin and corruption; and blood to drink as the hostage of life eternal.” This is a decidedly sacramental (baptism and eucharist) hearing of the text. Again, this is not to suggest that John of Damascus denied the historicity of this event, but to note he hears something more in the words of the Gospel writer.  John of Damascus also places this firmly within the context of the endowment of the Spirit in connection with the washing of the waters of baptism (not identifying Spirit and water baptism, but connecting them as both essential features of the Christian life; perhaps this is a reflection of the later theological gloss in 1 John 5:6-8).
Jerome (A Commentary on the Apostle’s Creed 23): “It is written that when the side of Jesus was pierced “He shed thereout blood and water.” This has a mystical meaning. For Himself had said, “Out of His belly shall flow rivers of living water.” But He shed forth blood also, of which the Jews sought that it might be upon themselves and upon their children. He shed forth water, therefore, which might wash believers; He shed forth blood also which might condemn unbelievers. Yet it might be understood also as prefiguring the twofold grace of baptism, one that which is given by the baptism of water, the other that which is sought through martyrdom in the outpouring of blood, for both are called baptism. But if you ask further why our Lord is said to have poured forth blood and water from His side rather than from any other member, I imagine that by the rib in the side the woman is signified. Since the fountain of sin and death proceeded from the first woman, who was the rib of the first Adam, the fountain of redemption and life is drawn from the rib of the second Adam.”
So I guess what I’m getting at is that there may be a “thicker reading” of the text (see Kevin Van Hoozer’s numerous works on this term) than simply John making a historical claim (which he is). He may be heard to make the claim of Christ’s fullest provision for the sanctification of His Church in the outflow of blood and water from his side. It is these that bear witness to us: the blood and the water.
__________________
Related articles:
Beyond the Historical Grammatical Malaise
On Theological Interpretation and Authorial Intent
Hearing Scripture Together

First Things First – The Doctrine of God or the Bible?

John Calvin
John Calvin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are your thoughts on the foundational grounds of a doctrinal statement? This is where doctrinal statements (and creeds) begin. Is the Church better served by a statement which flows from the doctrine of God as foundational (exemplified by the Gospel Coalition statement) or the doctrine of Scripture as foundational (such as the one adopted by my own fellowship–which is very typical of Evangelical statements as far as initial points go even if it is quite distinct to Pentecostalism in its latter points)?
D.A.Carson and Tim Keller write concerning their approach in developing the Gospel Coalition‘s statement:

“This is significant. The Enlightenment was overconfident about human rationality. Some strands of it assumed it was possible to build systems of thought on unassailable foundations that could be absolutely certain to unaided human reason. Despite their frequent vilification of the Enlightenment, many conservative evangelicals have nevertheless been shaped by it. This can be seen in how many evangelical statements of faith start with the Scripture, not with God. They proceed from Scripture to doctrine through rigorous exegesis in order to build (what they consider) an absolutely sure,
guaranteed-true-to-Scripture theology.
The problem is that this is essentially a foundationalist approach to knowledge. It ignores the degree to which our cultural location affects our interpretation of the Bible, and it assumes a very rigid subject-object distinction. It ignores historical theology, philosophy, and cultural reflection. Starting with the Scripture leads readers to the overconfidence that their exegesis of biblical texts has produced a system of perfect doctrinal truth. This can create pride and rigidity because it may not sufficiently acknowledge the fallenness of human reason.
We believe it is best to start with God, to declare (with John Calvin, Institutes 1.1) that without knowledge of God we cannot know ourselves, our world, or anything else. If there is no God, we would have no reason to trust our reason.”

I, for one, appreciate the greater embracing of the relational nature of doctrine (“subjectivity” in its most positive sense) as foundational and find it to be a better indicator of this thing we call being disciples of Christ. It speaks to the inner relation and being of God (as unity in trinity and trinity in unity) as the grounds of all else. All that can and must be said of God flows from God’s self-revelation in His Word and Spirit. For a terrific reading on how D.A.Carson develops his theology check out the article “D.A.Carson’s Theological Method” by Andrew Naselli in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 29.2 (Autumn 2011): 245-272.