Distinctives in Pentecostal Theology

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Mathew Clark Director of Postgraduate Studies, Regents Theological College 1. Introduction In the mid-1980’s the Institute for Theological Research at University of South Africa launched the Pentecostalism and Neo-Pentecostalism Project. It was managed by the Department of Systematic Theology, with Henry Lederle as Project Leader. The Project was advised by a board which included a number of Pentecostal church leaders. In January 1987 I was sponsored by the Institute to research and write the work that was eventually published in hardcover by Unisa in 1989 as What is distinctive about Pentecostal Theology? It was the first publication from the project and appeared under both my name and Lederle’s. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the notion of Pentecostal propria or distinctives was very much in vogue. Scholars such as Lederle (e g Lederle (1981)), who was of traditional Reformed background and theological education, were attempting to understand the implications of the experiential aspects of neo-Pentecostalism for theologising, while an emerging Pentecostal scholarship was equally keen to articulate the essentials of their theology as distinct from the non-Pentecostal varieties. This led to a flowering of serious theological literature – systematic, Biblical and historical – from Pentecostal scholars or about Pentecostalism, e g monographs from Cronje (1981), Dayton (1987), Lederle (1986), Stander (1985) and Stronstad (1984), and collections from Spittler (1976) and Elbert (1985). It was also a standard topic at theological conferences such as SPS, and in many journal articles on Pentecostalism. This paper is the beginning of my own serious attempt to revisit the issue, something I have intended to do for a number of years now. It is prompted by a basic question: is it still relevant to Pentecostal studies to scratch where it itched 2 decades ago? If not, why has the itch gone away, and has anything replaced it? 2. The relevant issues of the late 1980’s A major spur to Pentecostal research in the 1970’s and 1980’s was the growth of the neoPentecostal and charismatic movements. An initial concern of scholars involved in these movements was how to incorporate their new-found experiential dimension of Christianity into the theological frameworks of their traditions. How could one articulate, in the language of rational western theology, the relationship between doctrine/tradition and experience Linked to this was the question of emotional expression: is strong emotion inevitably linked to charismatic experience? If so, how can we live with or express this in our own very prosaic traditions and liturgies? Lederle (1981) approached this challenge from his own experiences as a Reformed theologian in South Africa. Most Pentecostal graduates at that time had studied at non-Pentecostal universities under non-Pentecostal professors, and on their graduation the movement had not always assimilated them without some tension. It is significant that a number of the first generation of Pentecostal graduates either became post-Pentecostals or continued in their denominations in ongoing tension with many of their peers in Pentecostal ministry. In South Africa some anti-intellectual ministers would actually boast “I have been to the braambos (the burning bush) not the Stellenbosch (seat of a Reformed theological faculty)” The search for a Pentecostal hermeneutic that marked the 80’s and 90’s threw some light upon this matter by highlighting the problems involved in applying a hermeneutic learned in a Protestant/Evangelical/Reformed environment within the dynamics of Pentecostal ministry, e g McClean’s (1984) and Sheppard’s (1984) contributions in Pneuma. The role and use of the Bible in a movement whose ethos is rooted in Anabaptist-Wesleyan-Holiness method and values may be significantly distinct from groups whose roots are in classical Protestantism. On the other hand there is some debate today as to whether the roots of 20th century Pentecostalism should be sought in one of these camps or the other – e g Menzies (2007) argues that the ReformedEvangelical roots are more significant than any others, whereas Dayton (1987) argues for the primacy of the Wesleyan-Holiness roots and Clark (2004) adds to this the relevance of the Anabaptist-Moravian roots for Wesleyanism and thus for Pentecostalism. By the second half of the 20th century, Pentecostal missions were being hailed as a remarkable success story in comparison to the mission efforts of most other Christian groups. Research into the planting and growth of Pentecostalism outside of the North Atlantic world focussed attention upon the distinctive aspects of Pentecostal evangelisation, preaching, liturgy, and community. The astonishing growth of Pentecostal-type churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America was reducing the North Atlantic churches to an insignificant minority – in terms of numbers if not of resources, research, publications and money. Today there are probably more Pentecostals within 100 miles of Seoul, Sao Paulo, Johannesburg, Lagos or Accra than there ever have been in the whole of Europe and the UK. Pentecostals also overwhelmingly outnumber evangelicals in most of these contexts, the opposite of the situation in the North Atlantic region. This means that how they preached, prayed, evangelised and worshiped in achieving this remarkable situation became vital for Pentecostal selfunderstanding. McClung (1986) was among those who focussed upon this area of Pentecostal research. The extension of Pentecostalism in significant numbers into the so-called Third World also confronted the movement with demands of social justice within this region. This was an area that apocalyptic movements either avoided as far as possible, or lost themselves in totally. Pentecostalism had generally adopted the former course. In White-ruled countries in Africa such as Rhodesia and South Africa the White-dominated Pentecostal denominations were faced by the attraction to Black, political and liberation theologies on the part of their Black colleagues. In Latin America the growth of Pentecostalism was paralleled and challenged by the growing popularity of theologies of revolution and liberation among churchmen of that region. The study of Pentecostalism and socio-political issues thus became an area of crucial interest for Pentecostals at that time. My own doctoral research (Clark 1989), prompted by the contrasting attitudes of Pentecostals and Evangelicals in the Rhodesian war to those of the ecumenically aligned churches, addressed this by investigating the political theology of Jurgen Moltmann from a Pentecostal perspective. Pentecostal leader Chikane recounts his own involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa (Chikane 1988), and was also a motivator behind the publication of the Kairos Document (Kairos Document 1985), a declaration that challenged all Christians to overtly join the liberation struggle, to the extent of using or condoning violence if necessary. Crucial, if not always central, to addressing all of these concerns lay the notion of “encounter with God.” Pentecostals were essentially people who claimed to have had a particular encounter with God. Not a “new” encounter, but an encounter such as that modelled in e g the gospels and Acts – an encounter that occurs within parameters defined by the Christian scriptures. The challenge for Pentecostal theologians has thus been to articulate theology as people who have had this encounter, while neither diminishing the dynamic aspects of the encounter nor playing fast and loose with the technical demands of theological science and its disciplines. This has probably been one of its most difficult assignments, particularly in those intellectual contexts dominated by post-Enlightenment categories, as Kelsey (1974) pointed out. The temptation has been either to reduce the encounter to some sort of sociological, anthropological or psychological phenomenon, or (in reaction) to reject a “dead” theological system that refuses to take God seriously. These were all issues that naturally presented themselves to my research in 1987, and I attempted to address them as thoroughly and relevantly as possible. 3. A plurality of Pentecostalisms: regional and cultural diversity of burning issues? Any approach to the matter of Pentecostal propria in this decade of the 21st century is faced by a number of complexities that render it difficult, if not impossible, to treat Pentecostalism simplistically as a monolithic movement. The theme of this conference highlights one of those areas: non-western Pentecostalism. The spread of Pentecostalism into the developing world, where the overwhelming majority of Pentecostals are now to be found, and the increasing competence of developing-world theologians to record and articulate their own belief and practice, offers an alternative approach to the self-understanding of Pentecostalism that can no longer be ignored. Are there not perhaps at least two disparate sets of burning issues that need to be dealt with? And what will determine who documents the process normatively, and how? My personal journey illustrates the challenges of living, researching and articulating Pentecostal issues in two different worlds. In South Africa I served in a denomination of over 1 million members with 2000 ministers, at least 50 of whom held PhD or equivalent in theology (2007 data.) I am now accredited as a minister in a UK Pentecostal denomination that has less than 60 000 members nationally, with about 600 ministers, of whom 2 or 3 have PhD or equivalent in theology (2008 data.) But just 2 UK-grown contemporary Pentecostal scholars (Warrington and Kay) have published and edited as many theological collections and monographs as all the South African scholars combined. The picture is similar if one takes the scholar/publication ratio of North American Pentecostals and compares it with Asia, Africa and Latin America, even within a single multinational denomination such as Assemblies of God. In the developing world Pentecostal scholars are more likely to be local (large-) church ministers, national leaders, or teachers intensely involved in meeting the massive training demands in an environment of rapidly growing churches, than tenured scholars in seminaries or universities. This has the rather odd effect that students researching issues in the developing world are using, as the primarily available published sources, works that originated outside of, and often with little or limited reference to, their own ministry and existential situation. The migration to the North Atlantic region of developing-world scholars with prolific publication records, such as Amos Yong, Allan Anderson, Wonsuk Ma and others, may still have something of an ameliorating, if attenuated, effect. A case in point is the typical North Atlantic Pentecostal-Evangelical debate on issues such as hermeneutics and initial evidence. In the North Atlantic world these are crucial areas of debate and revisiting them is relevant to the normal ministry situation of most Pentecostal ministers. However, in the developing world many elements of the Pentecostal-Evangelical debate are simply irrelevant to most ministry situations. On the interface between a dynamic Pentecostal form of Christianity and animism or Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism (or even folk Catholicism as encountered in e g Latin America and the Philippines) these may be peripheral rather than central matters. Two monographs that appeared in 2008 illustrate this divide, Warrington’s Pentecostal Theology and Kalu’s African Pentecostalism. Warrington describes his aim as “to focus on a Pentecostal theology which is defined by distinctive elements of Pentecostal belief and praxis but especially by an undergirding Pentecostal philosophy” (Warrington 2008:vii). Chapter headings then include God, the church, the Bible, Spirituality and ethics, mission, Healing, exorcism and suffering, and eschatology The longest chapter is on God, in which 16 pages deal with the Father and Jesus, and 86 pages deal with the Holy Spirit, and of those 35 pages deal with the baptism in the Holy Spirit and especially the issue of subsequence. While at certain “relevant” places in the work nonWestern scholarship is indicated or referenced (such as in the overview of world Pentecostalism and the discussion of mission) the sources he lists for the majority of the work are overwhelmingly Western and the issues that are raised are described and discussed from primarily that perspective. For Warrington the burning issues of Pentecostalism are the burning issues of North Atlantic Pentecostalism. Even in the discussion on mission the sources and topics are oriented predominantly toward the Western perspective. Within Warrington’s own culture and context this is a valuable and insightful work. But as an adequate representation of complex and diverse global Pentecostalism(s) it is not so convincing. Kalu’s work aims at presenting a comprehensive overview of the complex historical, social, political and theological influences that have shaped African Pentecostalism. In his conclusion he states “The effort has been made to retell the story of African Pentecostalism by paying attention to space, time, themes, and various scholarly discourses. The overarching conceptual scheme indicates that African Pentecostalism emerged from African indigenous and cultural responses to the gospel message.” (Kalu 2008:291.) In outlining the burning issues that Pentecostal theology in Africa seeks to address, he asks: “How do Pentecostal theologies connect the conception of salvation with issues of contemporary significance like poverty, wealth, prosperity, health, healing and the reconstruction of daily life? Is African Pentecostalism a genre of fundamentalism? Finally, how do Pentecostals read and preach the Bible and claim the enduring, archaic power of its oral nature?” (:250.) Kalu provides in his select bibliography an impressive list of Pentecostal writings relating to Africa, an equally impressive African contribution among them. The manner in which he shapes his history and theological discourse in conversation with these sources provides a cogent model for contemporary Pentecostal theologising. It is more than just aware of cultural distinction: it offers an account and analysis of the Pentecostal thinking of a major portion of the Pentecostal church that can be read by those who are not African and still be understood to recognisably represent Pentecostalism as they too know it. Kalu contends that Pentecostalism in Africa has recently changed at a pace as rapid as it has grown. The following significant shifts in its shape and ethos have occurred since the later 1990’s: 1. Prosperity theology is widely criticised; 2. there has been a return to a holiness ethic; 3. there is a blossoming of intercessory ministry; 4. evangelism has intensified; 5. there is wide engagement of the public space; 6. there has been a massive charismatisation of the mainline churches. (Kalu :19) It may well be that Kalu is here reporting his own West African context, as in e g Southern Africa not all of these changes might be as evident. However, they do indicate how the burning issues have migrated within part of the African region of the Pentecostal movement. Kalu (:21) reports Martin (2005:121) with regard to the ambiguities born of the dynamism of a movement that is called to articulate itself relevantly in different parts of the world: even when it crosses borders, it goes native; 2. there are some cases of Anglo-Saxon origins, but many more where it is free-standing; 3. in some places it expresses folk religiosity but also ingests it; 4. the class content of its membership cannot be easily classified; 5. it may be varied but retains family likeness; 5 6. it fuses the modern mode with an ancient spirit or primal piety; and 7. it recovers the Word but also transcends it. It is in the notion of “family likeness” that one may find a rationale for looking for itches that are common to the wider family, and not just to the North Atlantic clan on the one hand or to the African (or Asian or Latin American) clan on the other. This is a quest that, as Warrington’s (2008:12-13) list of dissenters and sceptics indicates, might well seem simplistic at best and impossible at worst. Does this mean we need to despair of achieving it? In revisiting the major issues of 1987, and in awareness of the regional and cultural pluralities within Pentecostalism, it might nevertheless reasonably be suggested that a common ethos and some common burning issues can still be identified. For instance, Kraus’ (1979:173-174) description of the Anabaptist ethos might well be appropriated by wider Pentecostalism as its own identifier, and as such be able to provide a common understanding of “Pentecostalism” that could suffice for the purposes of this analysis: a radical, Jesus-centred, martyr movement (see my detailed argument for this appropriation in Clark (2004)). However, even this is merely articulation of a common ethos (a symptom) and not of a common worldview (the disease?) 4. What is distinctive about early 21st century Pentecostalism? 4.1 Can a distinctive Pentecostal world-view be identified? In the realm of philosophical studies it is possible to identify major world-views and their derivatives, and to utilise them to gain some understanding of diverse cultures and religions. There is a recognisable Buddhist world-view (a subjective world-view) and a recognisable Judaeo-Christian world-view (an objective world-view.) Within the Christian family there are recognisable variations of the Judaeo-Christian world-view, and even some possible adaptations (Islam) and some major apostates (the dualistic world-view of E W Kenyon and the Faith Movement, and the Buddhist-type world-view undergirding some of the “positive confession” schools of doctrine.) Since so much of the diversity within Pentecostalism is an expression of the various regional, ethnic, cultural or class diversities embraced by the movement, it might well be possible to proceed further than the search for distinctive doctrine or even ethos, and find out at what philosophical level Pentecostalism operates. For instance, if it is pre-modern as some indicate (Poloma 2003:22), how does it then so regularly facilitate modernisation, as others have noted? (e g Wedenoja 1980:41-43.) If it is postmodern (a popular categorisation) then why are so many Pentecostals convinced of particularist and absolute Truth e g a literal understanding of John 14:6? While one encounters many references to “the Pentecostal worldview” in the literature, as a simple internet search will demonstrate, rarely does one encounter a serious attempt to outline the nature of that worldview in any detail. One encounters either a rather glib “it is premodern” or “it is postmodern” comment in passing, or an assumption that it entail notions of pneumatology (especially tongues-speaking!) or of magic and mysticism or of encounter. One even finds it discussed under the traditional headings of Christian doctrine. Despite offering to highlight “an undergirding Pentecostal philosophy” Warrington does not seem to avoid this typical limitation. Johns (1995), in conversation with those who urge Pentecostals to accept their place in the postmodern way of thinking and acting, has (in my reading) come the closest to presenting a philosophical approach to a Pentecostal world-view, as opposed to a list of its doctrinal and experiential differences, or simply a description of its ethos. Kalu (2002) and Khathide (2003) have both presented useful descriptions of the African worldview and the manner in which Pentecostalism has interacted with it. Onyinah (2002) 6 shows how worldviews may interact in Africa when deliverance as part of Pentecostal ministry comes to be understood in terms of an alternative worldview that sees the “deliverer” as a Christian shaman – an alarming syncretism in Africa. The question as to whether Paul Yonggi Cho represents a shamanisation of Pentecostal practice confronts Pentecostals with the challenge of defining its worldview in contrast to the worldviews of Asia. Klauck (1994) demonstrates the discontinuity in worldview, and Luke and Paul’s efforts to highlight it, between the oracular and thaumaturgical practices of first century Christians and those of their pagan counterparts. For Pentecostal ministry in a non-western setting this latter demonstrates that the Biblical material is as crucially involved with this issue as is Pentecostal selfunderstanding.


  • Varnel Watson
    Reply December 9, 2017

    Varnel Watson

    Until Pentecostal scholarship is able to clearly define a Pentecostal worldview that successfully illustrates the core of the “family likeness” of global Pentecostalism, the two worlds of Pentecostalism may continue to drift on in isolation from each other, each thinking it’s a priori realm of ideas is the only (or at least most important) one.

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