Pentecostal Sacraments?

By: Dale M. Coulter
Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Historically Pentecostals have understood water baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and foot washing to be ordinances rather than sacraments. That is, they are rituals instituted by Christ, but not designed to mediate grace in any way.

In his new book, Pentecostal Sacraments, Daniel Tomberlin seeks to challenge this idea by claiming that Pentecostal spirituality actually operates within a sacramental framework that stands in tension with the claim that such ritual practices are simply ordinances. This sacramental framework is best understood in terms of the Pentecostal (and Holiness I might add) desire to see the worship service as centered upon an encounter with God at the altar (101). Ordinances are sacramental because they are also places of encounter.

Here is a summary of the chapters:

  • Chapter 1: an analysis of the altar in the OT and Pentecostalism as a place of encounter
  • Chapter 2: an analysis of Pentecostal spirituality as a journey into Christ through the Spirit that is mediated by the church
  • Chapter 3: a theology of the sacraments as an ongoing altar call
  • Chapter 4: water baptism as a sanctifying sacrament
  • Chapter 5: Eucharist as participating in the divine energies
  • Chapter 6: Footwashing as the sacrament that imparts sanctifying grace over the course of the journey
  • Chapter 7: Holy anointing as a sacrament for bodily healing and for the dying

What is important about Tomberlin’s approach is that he places the Lord’s Supper, water baptism, etc., within the broader context of encounters with God that are mediated through the church. Tomberlin implicitly argues that the church is a sacrament. As a charismatic communion and prophetic community, the church is “the special dwelling place of God’s Spirit on earth” (69). Consequently, the worship service is itself sacramental because it is how the church mediates the presence and power of the Spirit. More specifically, as the climactic moment of the worship service, encountering God at the altar reveals how deeply sacramental the church is.

To view the church as mediating God’s presence in the encounter at the altar allows Tomberlin to claim that “the sacraments are an ongoing altar call in which the believer encounters God through the Holy Spirit” (103). Tomberlin is calling on Pentecostals to see practices such as water baptism as sacraments that transmit God’s grace precisely because believers encounter God through them. This is because the invitation to come to the altar within Pentecostalism has always been an invitation to meet God and be changed.

In short, the Spirit unleashes his power in and through the church gathered together in worship. This worship climaxes with the invitation to encounter God at the altar. Sacraments are merely a visible invitation to encounter God. And yet, Tomberlin also holds that they are the “priestly gifts” of Christ to his church by which he catches up believers into the drama of salvation so that they re-live Christ’s own story of baptism, washing the disciples feet, sharing the last supper, and healing the sick in their lives by participating in these events. This is what singles out the sacraments as unique places of encounter. No other devotional acts so connect believers to the story of Christ’s own life–his redemptive drama becomes our redemptive drama.

So, how is God present in the sacraments? Ultimately, Tomberlin attempts to stake out a position somewhere between the Reformed view of the sacraments, which he also thinks was John Wesley’s view, and the Lutheran and Catholic views (173-175). To achieve this goal he draws on the thought of the fourteen-century Orthodox writer, Gregory Palamas.

Tomberlin sees a connection between Palamas’ understanding of the divine energies and the Pentecostal view that handkerchiefs and other material objects can be anointed to become objects upon which God’s presence rests and through which God’s presence flows.

Drawing on a tradition in Greek Christianity, Palamas saw a difference between the common activity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and their common essence. He referred to this common activity as divine energy because the Greek term for activity is energeô. Moreover, Palamas claimed that the Triune God’s common activity takes physical forms like the light that appeared in and around Jesus during his transfiguration (Luke 9:29, 30, 34). At that moment, the Son’s humanity was permeated with the divine activity or energy of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This activity is the extension of God’s own triune life into the world. Believers participate in God’s life through fellowship with God’s energetic-action, not by sharing God’s essence.

For Tomberlin, Pentecostals have always talked about the presence of the Spirit as being “physical” through an appeal to the Shekinah, which is glory of God that descended into the temple.  The Shekinah was the tangible presence of God that filled the temple (1 Kings 8:10-12; 2 Chron. 5:13-14; Ezek. 43:5). Likewise, on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit’s presence was manifested through tongues of fire resting upon the believers. The Spirit’s movement is really the common activity or energy of the Triune God at work in the world.

Since this common activity can take on tangible dimensions, Tomberlin suggests that “the elements of holy sacraments can be permeated by God’s energies” (84). Like an anointed handkerchief, the sacraments are “spiritual graces” because they become the special conduit of God’s energetic-action. This is how God is present in the sacraments.

Tomberlin also claims that believers encounter the “real presence” of Christ in the bread and the wine. It is difficult to know exactly what he means by “real presence” sometimes because Tomberlin always puts the phrase in quotation marks while at the same time claiming “anyone receiving the Eucharist received nothing less than the flesh and blood of Christ. The bread and cup. . .are understood to be an extension of the incarnation” (163).

The clue to Tomberlin’s meaning is his desire to steer a middle course between Lutheran and Catholic views of physical presence and Reformed views of a spiritual presence. My best guess is that Tomberlin wants to draw a connection between the common activity of the Trinity as having a physical presence (the light at the transfiguration or the Shekinah/glory) and the extension of Christ’s physical body and blood. The energetic-activity of God permeates the humanity of the Son as visible light at the transfiguration and this same energy extends the humanity of the Son to the bread and the wine.

When believers partake of the bread and the wine, they encounter the Triune God whose energetic-activity fills the elements with his presence in ways that, like the light at the transfiguration, are “physical.” The difference is that the light at the transfiguration could be seen whereas Jesus’ physical presence cannot. At the same time, both are tangible and can be encountered in ways that humans experience with their senses. This is how believers come to share God’s own life; divine activity syncs with human activity to strengthen, nourish, and guide the people of God. For Tomberlin, every encounter with God is about the synergy of divine activity and human activity, and the encounter through the sacraments is no different.

This is a thought-provoking book that is both rich and practical. While I have focused on the theology of the book, Tomberlin, a pastor himself, offers much pastoral advice as to how sacraments should occur in the local church so as to facilitate the encounter. He also has a website that provides further resources for pastors. I challenge all Pentecostals and charismatics who don’t don’t have a sacramental understanding of baptism, etc., to read it.

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Thursday, September 9th, 2010 at 10:58 am and is filed under Book Reviews, Church History, Spiritual Formation, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 Responses to “Pentecostal Sacraments?”

  1. Wolfgang Vondey says:

    Dale, thank you for bringing this book to our attention. This is indeed an important topic, not only for Pentecostals. Chris Green and I are reflecting on the importance of sacramentality for the Pentecostal worldview in an upcoming article in JPT. There needs to be more reflection and discussion on this issue. I wonder, judging from your description, how much this Pentecostal reflection is not still too indebted to the traditional (i.e., non-Pentecostal) view of the sacraments. While there is little “wrong” with those views, and they are indeed necessary for a Pentecostal reflection, such traditional perspectives tend to be ill-equipped for straight-forward application to Pentecostal practices. It seems to me that we need first a certain Pentecostal understanding of what sacramentality is before we can speak about sacraments. What I would want to avoid is that we simply add a view “Pentecostal” ordinances to the list as if the traditional idea of sacramental theology were simply accplicable to Pentecostalism. I look forward to reading this book.

    • Wolfgang,

      Thanks for the reflections. I do think you are correct about the need to “drink from our own wells” first. Dan attempts to place sacramentality within the larger framework of encounter, which I think is Pentecostal. As with other traditions before us, we have tended to shun all forms of sacramental mediation when speaking of encounter. Pentecostals prefer a direct and immediate encounter with God. And yet, as Dan’s analysis correctly points out, Pentecostals have always embraced the mediation of grace through created realities. This is the tension he wishes to exploit.

      Now, as to his use of Palamas to explain how created realities can be suffused with the divine presence, I think you have a point about whether such forms are “up to the task.” One thing I will say is that in general Pentecostals have all too readily adopted other perspectives in an uncritical manner that have actually been detrimental to Pentecostalism. So, again, your point is an important caution. You’ll need to read Dan’s book to determine whether you think he has done this with Palamas.

  2. Jacob Dodson says:

    Dr. Coulter, I really enjoyed reading your post on Daniel Tomberlin’s book. It captured my attention because in reading various sources outside the Pentecostal/charismatic traditions, my thinking has been stretched in relation to the sacraments (including their place in worship and ecclesiology). I grew up in a Vineyard church and really appreciated the times of worship there when people would come forward for prayer and linger, seeking to abide in the presence of the Spirit. The emotions I felt from those times (including intimate musical worship times too) have remained with me through my faith journey and I find myself returning to them from time to time. The interesting thing that I have discovered though is that in visiting other churches, I have experienced very similar (if not the same type of) emotions in their services. For example, at a local Roman Catholic parish, after the assembly of believers has gone forward to receive the Eucharist, the priest often encourages them to sit in silence for several minutes. During that time, on several occasions I have felt Christ’s presence very strongly through the Spirit (or at least that is what I discerned it to be) just as I had in worship and prayer times at the Vineyard. What is the continuity between these experiences? It certainly is not the form of worship (liturgical vs. contemporary). It seems to me that the continuity is rooted in the Spirit’s work (I suppose Tomberlin, following Palamas, might stress here the concept of the divine energies). The dimension of your post that drew me in the most is how the Spirit can be experienced in the sacraments (including the liturgy) and in time at the alter, which both foster human encounter with God. In addition, I wonder how more regular celebration of communion (the Christocentric act of worship that it is) and a more profound understanding of it can renew own spiritual journeys and our churches.