Letter to a Pentecostal Scholar

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Sunday, July 8th, 2012

Dear Prudence,

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.

Love,

W.

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Wolfgang Vondey
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13 Responses to “Letter to a Pentecostal Scholar”

  1. James Bowers says:

    Wolfgang, while I understand the common perception that anti-intellectualism has dominated modern Pentecostalism, I think that judgment — perpetuated by some Pentecostal scholars themselves — is an oversimplification. A close study of early Pentecostal pioneers reveals they were “scholars” in their right. Many of them — including A. J. Tomlinson, R. G. Spurling, Hattie Barth, J. H. King, and G. F Taylor — demonstrated an appreciation of church history and, in Taylor and Barth’s case, formal training in education. It seems to me that the conclusion that Pentecostals are anti-intellectual reveals more about the scholastic orientation of those making such judgments. That is, one has to operate with a very limited and particular Enlightenment understanding of what qualifies for education or intellectual development and a bias that is being critiqued today on many levels. One also has to embrace the idea that an emphasis on experiences and practices of worship, witness, and mission are without import for theological development. This is also rejected by some of the best thinking about confessional practices and education today. One of my concerns, given the narrative, holistic, communal, and integrative nature of Pentecostal spirituality is that some Pentecostal scholars are now adopting methodologies and theological genres of discourse which will reshape Pentecostalism in ultimately destructive ways. In my opinion, there’s an issue worth pursuing.

    • Wolfgang Vondey says:

      Thank you, James. Your feedback is appreciated. I share your concerns for an oversimplified presentation of the anti-intellectualism of early Pentecostals. That is why I indicate in the letter that I intend to pursue the nature of that intellectual stance more closely in the next letter. You may find a position closer to your own, but be that as it may, I think you are conflating two different issues into one. The first generation of classical Pentecostals were certainly interested in the life of the mind, the intellectual pursuit of the faith. That much can easily be seen in the collections published by Douglas Jacobsen, for example. But he also advises that they were in a sense “amateurs” in that task, compared to the rigor of academic scholarship existing elsewhere at the time. What I would argue, however, is that even with their interest in educational pursuits a form of anti-intellectualism persisted. Juan Sepulveda just recently suggested that we still find that attitude today. That skepticism is not directed at scholarship per se but at the dominant forms of scholarship that pervade the academic world. In that sense, then, we are saying the same thing: Pentecostals are seeking different forms of the intellectual life, different pedagogical environments and methods more akin to the nature of the Pentecostal scholar. Just what exactly that is, however, I think we still need to find out! Hope you will keep reading …

  2. I am interested in being a Pentecostal scholar, just waiting on the timing of it all. Good post! Blessings!

  3. Stephen Dodson says:

    Dr. Vondey,

    Thank you for your timely post. I am working on a paper concerning the development of theological education in the Pentecostal movement. I was hoping to address some of the same issues you mentioned. Having grown up in classic Pentecost, I can attest to this mindset. Even now as I attend seminary at Regent, I have felt a resistance from some brothers and sisters in ministry. Maybe now it’s not an anti-intellectual mindset, but some see it as a waste of time when the harvest is ready and there is work to be done. I disagree and refer to Oswald Chambers who said “The good is the enemy of the best”. As for me, I will give the Holy Spirit His rightful place at the center of my life, but I will also strive to be a scholar who serves my King with a whole heart and mind.

    Blessings

    • Thank you for your comments. There are a small number of sources that summarize the development of Pentecostal scholarship. There was an issue of Pneuma a while ago dedicated to dialogue with the Jacobsen couple on education among Pentecostals. Amos Yong also summarized the development (he classifies three waves of Pentecostal scholarship), and there is a good summary of the history of the SPS by Vinson Synan. But much work needs to be done, especially on how, as you put it, Pentecostals “give the Holy Spirit His rightful place”. What does that mean in the universities and schools and in the concrete life of scholarship? That’s where the rubber hits the road …

  4. Wolfgang,
    Thanks for sharing this. I am most aware of the anti-intellectual history of Pentecostalism. It endures to this day in the Bible Belt, specifically, Arkansas where I live. My Facebook post is a running guerrilla war with fundamentalist/literalist/legalistic attitudes, churches, and people. Still today questions or doubts in Pentecostal churches are not permitted.

    In February, 2012, I invited two atheist friends of mine to go to a local Pentecostal church. One demurred, telling me that the last church he attended some 30 plus years ago the preacher called him out and embarrassed him. I laughed and told him that “Pentecostals don’t do such a thing with atheists”. How wrong I was!

    The other atheist friend, a Messianic Jewish couple, and I went to hear a Christian Zionist, Christian Dominionist, and “prosperity gospel” televangelist from, where else, Oklahoma. After standing for a protracted praise and worship, we all sat down, and shortly the visiting “rabbi” took the podium. He proceeded to “release the Einstein spirit of greatness” from a young black woman, to release the “hurt” (without apologizing for white genocide) from one-third of the Caucasians who came forward to be prayed over as “Indians”, to prophesy that “missiles” will be delivered into the hands of “True Believers” (the LAST place I think we need missiles), and that out of this one congregation this year would arise another “Facebook” and another “Google”, i., multi-billionaire companies.

    This last prophecy mirrored his website where, under the heading of “God’s Coming Transfer of Wealth” he prophesies that: “Those with no money will become millionaires; those who are millionaires will become multi-millionaires; and those who are multi-millionaires will become billionaires.

    Then he commanded everyone to rise so that he could “graft you into the Tribe of Israel”. After hearing the foregoing, Mike (my atheist friend) and I did not rise. At that point he pointed his finger at me and thundered, “Rise! Why will you not rise?” I remained silent. He then asked, “Are you a Christian?” And I answered, “Yes, sir, I am.” He then says, “Why will you not rise then?” I did not answer him. Then he directed the elders, “Ushers, escort these people out of this church.” The ushers/elders came to the end of our pew, and we remained seated, peacefully saying nothing. This angered him immensely, and at this point he stuck his finger at us a fourth time and shouted,’”If you don’t leave this minute, I am going to call the police and have you arrested for criminal trespass.” At that point, not wanting to make a scene, we arose and walked out, escorted by the holy goons, one of whom immediately after our exiting the building stuck his hand/palm toward me and said, “I rebuke you in the name of Jaysus!” Not being an un-bold Pentecostal, I stuck my hand right back toward him and responded, “I rebuke the spirit of religion in this church—in the name of Jesus.” The next morning the pastor of a church that I have legally represented for years, posted a Facebook comment and rebuked me publicly. This same pastor then blocked me on Facebook because I wrote him an email trying to discuss the issue, intellectually and theologically, with him.

    As I said, questions/doubts/challenge/intellectual inquiry are not always permitted. This is only the tip of the iceberg in my dealings with this anti-intellectual strain in Pentecostalism.

    • Thanks Cliff for a heartfelt comment. Your experience shows a side of anti-intellectualism many are not comfortable with. We like to create a more homogeneous image of Pentcostalism than it is often found in public life. You helped me see my own letter in a light that I did not see before, perhaps not even intended. Intellectually, I am sure many have questions to the Pentecostal churches that have to be answered and yet remain unanswered. What I intended with my letter, however, was to ask about those who do follow the life of the mind and wish to remain Pentecostal. Those wold ask the question of the intelligibility of the prosperity gospel, for example, and how this can be reconciled with social activism among the poor elsewhere among Pentecostals. My thought is that there are many who would like to become scholars but who hesitate on their commitment to Penecostalism at the same time. You speak of the other side, which exists, of those who are dedicated to Pentecostalism but hesitate to ask critical, inquisitive questions that challenge the status quo. I am sorry about your hurtful experiences and can only remain prayerful in the hope that you remain committed to both the Pentecostal life and the life of the mind.

  5. W,
    Absolutely. I am not easily chased from the Pentecostal fold by those who have hijacked my faith. Btw, I suspect you are familiar with Rick M. Nanez’ book, Full Gospel, Fractured minds, which is about the anti-intellectual propensity of Pentecostalism. I am encouraged by some social justice Pentecostals in South America just as I am disheartened by the prosperity gospel message sweeping Africa, where (per a Pew poll) in Nigeria, I think it was, 90% of ALL Christians (not just Pentecostals) think “poverty is a sin” and “God wants me to be rich.”

    All this raises the question: Is false hope better than no hope at all?

    And a related question: Can God, does God, turn even the Gospel of Greed to good in that He permits (while abhorring) it but uses folks’ selfishness, greed, and (genuine) desire for a better life to bring them in the fold (where they can be “straightened out” later)?

    Cliff

    • Yes, Nanez’ book is an important account, along the lines of Mark Noll’s idea of the scandal of the Evangelical mind. But I don’t think he goes far enough in offering an analysis and remedy of the situation. I will try to say more about this in my next letter on the nature of Pentecostal anti-intellectualism.

      • Christopher Wilson says:

        Dr. Vondey,

        This is in regards to your upcoming letter which will more fully address Pentecostal anti-intellectualism. I am only half way playing devil’s advocate here as there is much truth in what I am about to say: there was/ is a good reason for classical Pentecostals to be anti-intellectual, many people come out of seminary worse for the experience. This is not because their eyes have suddenly been opened, rather it is usually because they have been indoctrinated into a school of thought without even realizing it. This process takes years of selective readings and exclusions of competing ideas. It seems that almost all are unaware of the box they are being put into including people with otherwise brilliant minds. Perhaps this is because there is a supernatural element to any seminary education as well. Reformed seminaries graduate 5 pt Calvinists, liberal seminaries graduate students who hold to a low view of scripture, etc. Obviously the students were predisposed towards those view points or they wouldn’t have chosen those seminaries in the first place. However very, very few people can take a step back from their situation and see their own box.

        Your brother in Christ,
        Chris

  6. W,
    Amazingly mystical account of your personal calling to be a minister on your website. As a tad of a mystic myself, I envy you. I have never heard the audible voice of God, but I do believe that such events, though very rare, do happen. I tend to value subjective, experiential, intuitive (I am 100% intuitive, discerning, on the Myers-Briggs), emotional, feeling truth over objective, rational truth (although I filter my subjective “take” via my rational, analytic, legal-trained mind). If there is a conflict between the two, I go with the intuitive every time. Rarely, if ever, has this been a decision I regretted.
    Cliff

  7. spencer ledbetter says:

    Commenting on the anti-intellectualism of Pentecostals I believe requires looking at two factors:
    1) There have always been Pentecostal scholars as in any other field or profession, and
    2) The anti-intellectualism was based on the perception of the sufficiency of the Holy Spirit as opposed to the insufficiency of academia to replace it.

    There certainly was a fear that intellectualism served as a substitute for the Holy Spirit. This was not true biblically, but examples of scholarship where many put their trust in their own mind (e.g Rationalism, Empiricism, Liberal Theology, and Religious Pluralism) rather than on what the scriptures esxpressly taught, was replete as well. The true academic enterprise is not to be feared any more than ignorance is to be praised. But discernment as to what is the will of God as opposed to what isn’t, must always be upheld!