The Spirit and the Bride: A Preview

By: Dale M. Coulter
Sunday, February 27th, 2011

In less than two weeks, I will address the esteemed body of scholars meeting under the umbrella of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. My topic will really concern how pentecostals, and indeed all renewalists, can understand history. I thought what I might do on this blog is give a little preview of what I hope to do.

First, pentecostals have operated for quite some time within a restorationist framework of history that leaves little room for a central concern of the movement from its inception: the call to unity. And, I don’t simply mean ecumenism, but the call to racial reconciliation and unity as well. The restorationist framework is best viewed in three central ideas: 1) the Apostolic Faith; 2) the Full Gospel; 3) the Latter Rain.

  • The phrase Full Gospel refers to five or four theological ideas connected to the work of Christ: Christ as savior, sanctifier, Spirit baptizer, healer, and soon and coming king
  • The phrase Apostolic Faith refers to a recovery of the life of faith and experience found in the Christianity of the first few centuries
  • The phrase Latter Rain refers to a way of viewing history in terms of a divine covenant to pour out the Spirit at various key moments

Full Gospel not only refers to a set of theological commitments, but a historical narrative of restoration. Beginning with justification by faith alone in the Reformation, early pentecostals thought that there was a subsequent restoration of key doctrines. The second was sanctification by Wesley, then divine healing, the premillennial second coming of Christ, and baptism in the Spirit. Full Gospel is really the counterpart to the Constantinian-fall-of-the-church narrative that many pentecostals embraced. Between the two, one had a historical narrative that saw the church as falling from her primitive state around the time of Constantine and restored slowly from the Reformation.

In this narrative framework, the Latter Rain provided the rationale for the restoration of Spirit baptism because it offered a covenantal framework for why the Spirit was being poured out at the Azusa Street Mission and other centers of revival.

There are several problems with this framework, not least of which is that is cuts off much of the history of Christianity as a period of the fallen church. In addition, however, the historical framework does not have the capacity to provide a theology for the global movement of pentecostalism, and thus it works against the very call to unity pentecostalism first espoused. Finally, and this point will be developed in my presentation, the Latter Rain dimension of the framework actually undermines the relationship between speaking in tongues and Spirit baptism.

What I hope to do is offer a narrative, grounded in early pentecostal discourse, that supplies a rationale for restorationism or renewal that also preserves key theological motifs within early pentecostalism. I will extract this narrative from the use of bridal imagery by early pentecostals, especially of a Wesleyan variety, to explain Spirit baptism. Whether they recognized it or not, early pentecostals utilized bridal mysticism as a theological context to describe the powerful spiritual experiences connected to Spirit baptism. This is one of the reasons why early pentecostals thought that only Spirit-baptized believers were members of the bride.

To be baptized in the Spirit, then, was a transformative experience that caught the believer up into the embrace of the bridegroom. Tongues were important insofar as they in a sense represented the kiss that sealed the relationship between bride and bridegroom. Renewal was grounded in a robust theology of encounter that saw relationship with Christ as involving the ecstatic embrace between bride and bridegroom. In the midst of this embrace, a believer became not simply a lover of Christ, but a lover of others. To his credit, William Seymour saw more clearly that most the implications of this event for racial reconciliation  and the unity of all believers. Ecumenical unity cannot occur apart from racial unity within the churches.

Within this robust theology of encounter is a view of the Spirit’s work as encompassing sanctifying and charismatic activity. The emphases of the Full Gospel need not be lost in this theology of encounter; instead, they form an organic whole that works itself out from the new birth onward. It is not so much about saved, sanctified, and filled with the Spirit as it is with fully operating within the Spirit’s charismatic and sanctifying activity, and to do so requires ever deepening encounters with the bridegroom. Within these deepening encounters one can argue for the place of Spirit baptism and the sign value of tongues as attesting to the “kiss” of the divine lover who now speaks through his beloved.

If we view renewal as a recovery of the early Christian theology of encounter that involves the charismatic and sanctifying dimensions of the Spirit’s presence, then the flow of Christianity history occurs through the recovery of such an encounter. One need only look to the monastic streams within Christianity and their flow into the proliferation of religious orders to know that long before pentecostalism, and even before Protestantism, renewal was occurring. The Middle Ages are replete with calls to renew the church through a recovery of a robust theology of encounter that can supply the transformative power to unite humans to Christ and turn them into agents of moral and social change. The Spirit makes believers to be the bride and thereby renews the churches.

Tags: , , , , ,

Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Sunday, February 27th, 2011 at 9:44 pm and is filed under Church History, Renewal Studies, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “The Spirit and the Bride: A Preview”

  1. Ken says:

    Sounds excellent!