So you have made the decision to become a Pentecostal scholar! What a decision! Yet, it does not surprise me at the least. All along it has been apparent to all of us that you have felt the strong calling of God in your life and that your faith was more a challenge of the mind than of the heart. Few are there like you who can debate the significance of the Incarnation at one moment and then pray for my anointing the next. And still, your email shows that you have been struggling with your decision. Being called a “Pentecostal” does not easily mix with being called a “scholar”! I remember our conversation before I left for graduate school: how you asked why being a Pentecostal was not enough for me and why I had to go to study theology. I recall the comments made by our family and friends –even our pastor–that a Pentecostal doesn’t need education, that all that intellectualism is an obstacle to the work of the Holy Spirit, that the anointing is not in the head but in the heart, that graduate school would teach me heresy, and that Pentecostals don’t belong at universities. (Even after I moved, people called me a heretic because I attended a Jesuit university.) But what choice did I have? At my time, there simply were no Pentecostal institutions that offered a doctorate. The number of Pentecostal scholars is still small, perhaps there are about 500 of us with a Ph.D. I had to make a choice, and I believe I made a good one. But enough of me! It is you who gets to surprise us today. What a day to celebrate that you are studying for a Ph.D. and that deliberately as a Pentecostal. I am proud of your courage and full of prayer for the challenges ahead. I know you are aware of the difficulty of your decision; your email is full of questions as if I could answer them. I am not sure if I can–if anybody can–but I will try in the next weeks to address your concerns. Today, let me only speak to your first question: How did Pentecostals get involved in scholarship in the first place?
It is not until the middle of the twentieth century that Pentecostalism garnered any sort of intellectual or academic attention with the advent of the Charismatic Movement among North American universities, the emergence of Pentecostal academic societies and institutions of higher education, and the rise of Pentecostal scholarship with its penetration of different fields of intellectual inquiry. At the same time, the beginnings of modern-day Pentecostalism also signal a persistent stance of anti-intellectualism, a rejection of higher education and learning, and criticism of the academic world. Pentecostals worldwide only gradually have begun to rescript the movement in its intellectual and pedagogical dimensions.
The intellectual history of Pentecostalism has not yet been written. I shall have to be adventurous. I would divide the history of Pentecostal scholarship into five periods of development, each focusing on the formation of a particular vocation: (1) Pentecostal missionaries, (2) Pentecostal historians, (3) Pentecostal biblical scholarship, (4) Pentecostal theologians, and (5) Pentecostal scientists. The first period launched at the beginning of the twentieth century is synonymous with the training of Pentecostal missionaries. Bible institutes and missionary training schools became particularly dominant in North America as many Pentecostals leaving the country to evangelize the world found themselves in need of instruction and training. This generation was the first to struggle with the integration of Pentecostal eschatology and spirituality including a persistent form of anti-intellectualism in the educational and academic landscape of the time.
Most of the first generation of Pentecostals only received a basic education and did not or could not engage in the challenges of continued academic instruction. Apart from Bible schools, there were few attempts to build Pentecostal institutions of higher education, and the limited number of Pentecostal scholars typically received their training at non-Pentecostal schools and universities. Some Pentecostals who pursued scholarly careers felt forced to leave their denominations. Others were reluctant to engage in academic education and professional scholarship altogether or voiced suspicion of the scholastic tendencies in the history of Christianity. From the perspective of post-Enlightenment scientific and academic history, classical Pentecostals (along with the Holiness and Fundamentalist traditions) have been dismissed as a profoundly anti-intellectual movement. In turn, Pentecostals worldwide have not succeeded in correcting this interpretation. On the contrary, the rise of world Pentecostalism has confirmed the stereotype that Pentecostals in many places possess a strong prejudice against academic and theological training. The critical voices did not dismiss learning and education entirely but voiced a lack of patience at the prospect of forsaking or postponing the spread of the gospel as the result of the formal educational process. You know what I mean: when you believe that Jesus comes back tomorrow you don’t go out and enroll in a multi-year graduate program.
The Pentecostal mission was the evangelization of the world in the power of the Spirit, words, signs, and wonders that hastened the day of Christ’s coming. Consequently, the missionaries received only minimal training, often bypassing long-term college or seminary degree programs. Even when Bible institutes became more prominent in the 1920s and 1930s, many Pentecostals went into the mission field without credentials and formal studies. They did not reject the intellect or those dedicated to the life of the mind but questioned the purpose of engaging in such study at this crucial point in salvation history.
During this time, can we say that emphasis was placed on worship, witness, and mission rather than preparation, training, and study? I wonder if that is the best way to put it. Were those Pentecostals really anti-intellectual? Or were they perhaps just the victims of circumstance? Let me know what you think. After all, you were once a skeptic, weren’t you? Weren’t we all? So how did we get to today’s Pentecostal scholarship? How to the Society for Pentecostal Studies? Did Pentecostals stop being anti-intellectual? I don’t think so! But we should not stereotype this form of skepticism too quickly. Let me therefore think about this some more and respond in more detail about the nature of Pentecostal anti-intellectualism in my next email. For now, I hope you find my musings stimulating enough to warrant a response.