What is Pentecostalism anyways?

This week I attended a seminar (colloquium) with Dr. Amos Yong. Amos is a well-known Pentecostal theologian. That might sound like an oxymoronic statement to some readers, but he is gaining a global following with a long list of published articles and books.. on theology. And he’s Pentecostal… so I stick to my oxymoron. He’s on the West coast at the moment, working with Biola University. Fuller’s School of Theology invited him to a colloquium. And, my sources let me know he would be there haha so I rocked up – to my first SOT (School of Theology) event. It was great to hear the questions from the SOT students and staff – particularly on dialogue across declining denominational lines, and social justice. It warmed my heart 🙂

Firstly, Amos emphasized that any discussion of ‘Pentecostalism’ should be ‘Pentecostalisms‘. I agree because many of the people who attend formerly Pentecostal churches in Australia now refuse to be categorized as ‘those Pentecostals’. So it’s a fallacy to think there’s a one approach or reading within the movement that considers the biblical passage of Acts 2 a significant event for understanding of God’s work today. Amos presented four ways Pentecostals stand divided. And I found his categorization very interesting. I think this paper was presented before at York University, so I’m not ruining his next book by sharing it… And I’ve decided to write it as my running thoughts on the divisions. So please forgive irreverence and/or theological naiveté. You’re welcome to correct me…. so long as you understand these are not all my positions – here are the main divisions Amos sees:

1) Tongues – what are they for? – empowering or evangelism? 

This divide is primarily historical, I think. It occurred in the classical Pentecostal period, with the early twentieth century understanding of tongues as “xenolalia”, meaning foreign languages. Most Pentecostals, pragmatic as they are, would like an explicit biblical passage on what tongues are for and a list of proper (rather than inappropriate) times for use. Tongues (glossolalia) is a particular manifestation of the Holy Spirit in which someone is inspired to vocalize a language – but doesn’t necessarily know what they are saying. This manifestation was very important to early Pentecostals who reasoned, in a naively beautiful way, that tongues are languages, languages are for communication – so, therefore this must be an efficient way for the Spirit to share the message of the Gospel without getting Christians involved (who wouldn’t like this idea?!). Unfortunately, the few Pentecostals that tested this theory in China were infamously killed and the message came back ‘if you want to use tongues for evangelism, first be careful you haven’t given the other person gunpowder’, or something to that effect. Generally the gift is now considered a better personal prayer language (or party trick, depending on your circles) than evangelism tool.

2) Is Spirit empowerment Private or Public? 

Charles Fox Parham (who was white) saw the main benefit of Spirit baptism as personal, or private empowerment. This fixed the xenolalia issue – if tongues was for personal edification, there was no need to stand on the docks in China and yell it (or get killed for it). However, William Seymour, the black preacher that was trained by Parham but then rejected by him, saw it quite differently. He saw the point of Spirit baptism as for public engagement – and thus, many black Pentecostal churches are now infamous for their social ethic – feeding and clothing the poor in their local areas. Racial divides in church are not something I’m used to as an Australian. So I’ll just park that one for now.

3) Trinitarian Belief & Theological Pursuit?

This division relates to the Trinity, as the pentultimate Christian doctrine of one God in three persons. But, it also relates to how Pentecostals view theological education and thinking. According to Amos, Oneness Pentecostals account for about 150 million people in the world today. Apparently, about 1/4 of the unnumbered Christians in China are Oneness Pentecostals. Most simply, this means that they reject the doctrine of the Trinity as a  tri-theistic (or as three Gods), inconsistent with Scripture. They prefer to read the Biblical text alone, without the Nicene Creed. While many Pentecostals are not oneness, many do reject theology as a human pursuit, and advocate for a simple reading of the biblical text. Others nuance theologians as divisive only when not directly working with a local church. Still others are seeking theological explanations that draw back into the traditions of the two thousand years of the church and reject ideas that Pentecostalism and theology are incompatible.

4) Is Pentecostal Primal or Post-secular?

Harvey Cox talks about Pentecostalism as a primal or pre-modern religion. This has definitely been one way in which Pentecostalism is represented in the literature – let’s call it a ‘noble savage’ view of Pentecostals – the newspaper images of chaos in meetings, gutteral sounds while people roll on the floor, a cacophony of languages, dancing, musical expression have all built this view. Some people present these primitive connotations as a positive, in terms of Pentecostalism as a return to primal, spiritual instincts all humans share. But, it can also be considered negative – linked with spiritism and exoticism usually reserved for animistic religions, and defended against by Christian intellectuals. However, other literature describes Pentecostalism as modern. There are modern ways of “production lining” church and spiritual formation through age group appropriate meetings and warehouses that churn people through their meetings. Many adherents consider checking their children into a space age technological capsule for the service to be about as modern as it gets.  And then, there is a growing body of literature that claims Pentecostalism is the ‘post-modern‘ church, in the sense that it illuminates the voices of the people, highlighting global diversity and with a general lack of doctrinal control or metanarrative. It allows for emotional expression, and a spirituality denied by the Enlightenment. New expression Pentecostal churches in the West use technology to create decentralised, online spaces where people interact. So is Pentecostalism primal, modern or postmodern? Or is it all three?

Anyways this short summary of the divisions in Pentecostalism(s) goes to show that history is happens around us all while we are unawares, and that often a word like ‘Pentecostal’ needs a while to unpack. And the honest truth is, I don’t actually know most of the time what the word means.

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