The Pentecostal Way

One of the truly great church men of last century, missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin in his book The Household of God¬†a collection of lectures on ecclesiology, identified the three main historic Christian traditions: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant. He also proposed an addition to these historic traditions: Pentecostal. What was so significant about Bishop Newbigin’s assertions was that it was in the early 1950’s, a few decades into Pentecostalism and before the Charismatic renewal movements of the 60s and 70s. As early as that time he recognised that with the Pentecostal movement something distinct, monumental and permanent had occured in Christian history. Moreover it was fully acknowledged by someone who was not part of the movement but nevertheless was a prominent Christian figure, one of the leaders in the ecumenical movement no less, as well as one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. While I’m sure Pentecostals at that time would have appreciated Newbigin’s affirmation, it came as no surprise the significance of their movement since they believed they were part of the prophesied end time movement of God.

Newbigin took¬†Pentecostalism very seriously, including its strengths and weaknesses, as a bona fide form of Christianity that makes a significant contribution to the Church. If you are familiar with early Pentecostalism, they were shunned by the world and the Church alike. So it is quite remarkable that in a few decades it had already become a force to be reckoned with in global Christianity. Today, more than a century after the seminal Azusa Street Revival more than a quarter of all Christians are Pentecostal. It is arguably largely responsible for the historic shift of Christianity from the North to the global South. Some scholars like the late renowned sociologist of the 20th century Peter Berger consider Pentecostalism as the greatest religious movement in human history. (For an overview of the story of global Pentecostalism from a previous post with updated resources you can go here.) However, in spite of the diverse movement’s prominence and global influence, it is still in many ways not respected the way it ought to be. It struggles to be recognized as a legitimate, mainstream tradition in the larger Christian world.

The older traditions have important disagreements with one another but they still recognize each other somewhat as peers. Pentecostals however are not really given that mutual recognition. Generally the Pentecostal response to this has been to just carry on with what they are doing but it has made them a bit more insular. This is particularly true in theology. Pentecostals are only just in the last few decades beginning to be represented in academia and forming their own intelligentsia. In spite of the progress made there, Pentecostal theology is still regarded as too young to have a seat at the big boys’ table. For example, in theological discussions when “tradition” is spoken of the heritage of Pentecostal practices and their meanings are generally not being referred to. Anything of the past venerated by the older centres of Christianity get privileged as “tradition.” Tradition therefore in theological parlance is implicitly eurocentic.

Now if the argument is that Pentecostalism is too young, surely after a 100 years it is old enough to have its own contribution to the heritage of the Christian world. While its theology may not depend on academic precedents, its missional drive and contextual approach to theology has obvious New Testament precedents and it has been more effective in spreading Christianity to the ends of the earth than its predecessors. Even if you do not take it seriously you still have to reckon with it because of its pervasive and widespread impact. Pentecostal tradition may not be as refined and articulate as others but being more primitive does not mean it is less robust or profound. Practical simplicity sometimes veils sublime sophistication. While Pentecostalism may seem quite bombastic and admittedly we sometimes get carried away, there is certainly more to it than what meets the eye. There is deep embodied theology at work.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. – Revelation 2:29

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