Pentecostalism and Christian Unity by Wolfgang Vondey

By: Timothy Lim Teck Ngern
Sunday, July 4th, 2010

Wolfgang Vondey (ed.), Pentecostalism and Christian Unity: Ecumenical Documents and Critical Assessments (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2010). 277 pp. $ 33.00

Pentecostalism and Christian Unity is a remarkable collation of fourteen essays by nine international scholars. The 277-page volume discusses Pentecostalism’s affinity with predicaments regarding the pursuit of Christian unity. In my opinion, the book shows promise as a textbook on Pentecostal ecclesiology and ecumenism. Following an editorial introduction to the nature of Pentecostal involvement in ecumenism, part 1 contains six essays analyzing the heritage of Pentecostalism and the ecumenical movement. Historian Douglas Jacobsen examines the perspectives of eight early North American Pentecostal theologians on Christian dis/unity. Historical theologian and ecumenist Harold Hunter investigates to what end global Pentecostalism and the modern ecumenical movement represent “two movements of the Holy Spirit.” Carmelo E. Alvarez recounts the struggle of Pentecostal Church of Chile and the Pentecostal Mission Church of Chile in joining the World Council of Churches. Paul van der Laan draws from Pentecostals’ long and successful dialogue with the Reformed communities in the Netherlands as a model for moving from rejection (of the other) to that of acceptance and choosing unity. Raymond Pfister’s chapter focuses on a Pentecostal pedagogy for reconciling Christian divisions. Finally, Cecil Robeck Jr. shares lessons from his long-standing involvement in the International Roman Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue, a must read for Pentecostals serious about the potentials and pitfalls for ecumenical participation.Part 2 collates five “International Ecumenical Documents with Pentecostal Participation.” The final reports of Pentecostal dialogue with the Secretariat for Promotion of Christian Unity of the Roman Catholic Church between 1972-1976 (along with the Protestant and Anglican Churches), 1977-1982 (with Classical Pentecostals), 1985-1989 (on Koinonia), and 1990-1997 (on Evangelization, Proselytism, and Common Witness), as well as the report of the dialogue between the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and Classical Pentecostals, 1996-2000 (on Word and Spirit, Church and World).

Part 3 contains reflective essays by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Frank Macchia, and Wolfgang Vondey on the convergence text, The Nature and Purpose of the Church (1998) and its revision, The Nature and the Mission of the Church (2005).

The collection shows that Pentecostalism has come a long way in its ecumenical participation. The documents of part 2 and Robeck’s honest assessment, in particular, enable a deeper appreciation of the dialogue between Pentecostals and the Roman Catholic Church. Chapters four and eleven provide insight into the initial phase of Pentecostal engagement with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. And various other forms of dialogue are presented in the remaining essays. These accounts reflect vividly the growing tendency among the visibly divided churches to reestablish their unity.

However, in reading the subtitle for book: “Ecumenical Documents and Critical Assessments,” I assumed that I would find critical reflection among Pentecostals on many significant ecumenical documents. Many outstanding ecumenical documents chart the progress of Christian unity, including the body of Vatican II documents and decrees that relates with the Church, the Churches and Ecumenism; the various World Church of Churches documents such as Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, and select WCC’s Assembly reports; the Princeton proposal on One Body in Christ (a joint effort of theologians and leaders from across different Protestant denominations in North America); just to name a few. But there is no Pentecostal assessment of these documents. The closest I find is the final section where Kärkkäinen, Macchia and Vondey each reflect on a convergence text. The extensive collection of texts in Part 2 is limited to final reports of ecumenical dialogues with official Pentecostal participation.

Nonetheless, a number of suggestions in the volume are helpful for charting the future of Pentecostal engagement in efforts of establishing and reestablishing Christian unity.

  1. If pneumatology is the beach-head for ecumenism, it does not necessarily mean that the Pentecostal/Charismatic traditions, which is presumably most articulate and developed in its pneumatological musings, is to lead the pursuit of Christian unity. However, with a healthy self-identity, Pentecostals will not bemoan that their distinctiveness unwittingly undercuts the goal toward unity. The limits of Pentecostalism and ecumenism should be acknowledged. As Vondey concludes, “the nature, mission, and unity of the church is found neither in ourselves nor in others alone but in the relationships in which we engage one another” (p.268). Perhaps, the logic of denominationalism is useful to define one’s denominational and ecclesial self-identity, but a denominational mindset does not offer an ecumenical-ecclesiological sensibilities for conceiving a plural Christian ecclesiality. We may have to wait for the Pentecostal community to chisel out its ecclesiology for understanding its own identity and for an ecumenical paradigm to receive the gifts of grace given to the ecumenical community.
  2. I would recommend an expansion of Part 2 of this volume in future reprints. At present, Vondey has made editorial decisions to limit the many Pentecostal dialogues and as such he has included only final and definitive reports that have substantial Pentecostal participation. But the subtitle could be read in at least two other ways – (a) critical assessment of ecumenical documents (read convergence texts and pertinent ecumenical proposals) from the Pentecostal perspective; or (b) critical assessment of “ecumenical documents” (read as ecumenical reports of dialogues, investigation, and proposals) from a Pentecostal perspective. The volume critically assessed select ecumenical document which had active Pentecostal-Charismatic participation from a Pentecostal perspective, but it can be expanded to help readers appreciate the many additional shades and sides of “Pentecostalism and Christian Unity.”
  3. Finally, some ideas for future studies. Jacobsen’s thought on the complexity of ‘colors of ecumenism’ is an example of ecumenical behavior that can be developed. Hunter’s observations on ‘conciliarism’ among Pentecostals is another example that needs further engagement. The question of course is, how will Pentecostals continue to contribute to Christian unity? Principles and lessons learnt have been addressed in this collection. Still, as Pfister’s pedagogical essay has reminded us, the ecumenical spirit of Pentecostalism has yet to be transmitted from the leadership to the ground. Is this then a call for Pentecostals to reshape their ecclesiological and pedagogical sensibilities, so as to take into account their own global and local identity, as well as to identify with all other Christian traditions as members of global Christianity? This, it seems, is Vondey’s challenge to Pentecostal communities!

Tags: , , ,

Timothy Lim Teck Ngern
This entry was posted by on Sunday, July 4th, 2010 at 5:06 am and is filed under Book Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.