Letter to a Pentecostal Scholar II: the nature of Pentecostal anti-intellectualism

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Monday, July 16th, 2012

Dear Prudence,

I half-anticipated your stormy response to my first letter. You are upset by the accusation that Pentecostals are anti-intellectual and at the same time you know it to be true. Pentecostals become scholars (and sometimes the other way around) but continue their work only with a sense of uneasiness amidst the ivory tower of the educational and academic system so dominated by the ideals of Western pedagogy that they reflect little (if anything) of a Pentecostal ethos. If I continue, it may sound like a defense of Pentecostalism; but I must try to be honest with you, with myself, and also take an authentic look at Pentecostals. I promised you more thoughts on the nature of Pentecostal anti-intellectualism. I hope I can answer some of your questions and stir up some new ones.

The nature of Pentecostal anti-intellectualism does not readily fit the stereotypes, and Pentecostals cannot simply be judged as fundamentally opposed to the life of the mind. An evangelistic and eschatological pragmatism centering on the life in the Holy Spirit motivates a hesitancy to engage in existing forms and institutions of education without thereby rejecting the intellect entirely. At the same time, even with the fading of eschatological urgency among contemporary Pentecostals, the establishment of Pentecostal schools, and the rise of Pentecostal scholarship, a form of anti-intellectualism persists across the movement in the form of what I would call a skepticism towards culturally and socially dominant models of Christian pedagogy.

Some scholars have argued that the dominant pedagogical model that connects Christian faith and scholarship advocates a restrictive view of Christian learning, teaching, and research and is therefore ill-fit for Pentecostal concerns. Others say that Pentecostals themselves possess a genuine pedagogy emerging from their own worldview and spirituality, which, however, are not easily integrated in the dominant liberal arts curriculum and the research university. Again others see the problems in the shift from modernity to postmodernity and describe Pentecostal beliefs and practices as standing in conflict with the intellectualism and rationalism of the modern world (and hence as a postmodern phenomenon). What is the result? As I see it, we either arrive at a rather uneasy relationship of scholarship and Pentecostalism or at an opportunity for Pentecostals to enrich the existing philosophy of education. On the one hand, Pentecostals are struggling to emancipate themselves from the dominant but ill-fitting educational paradigms; on the other hand, I wonder, could the Pentecostal commitment to signs and wonders not help reform the current world of academic scholarship? Of course, as long as we keep Pentecostal scholarship locked up among Pentecostal audiences, the difference remains under cover.

But what if you lifted that cover for a moment? Would we not discover that Pentecostal scholarship arises first and foremost from the affections rather than intellectual ability? At the Pentecostal Theological Seminary, where I received my Pentecostal training, it was as if we rejected the sole rule of the intellect while attempting to integrate the right thinking (orthodoxy) with the right affections (orthopathy) and the right practices (orthopraxy). Pentecostal ‘thinking’, if I may call it that, takes place at the affective, unconscious, predeliberative level (where it is aimed at witness and worship) before it enters the cognitive, deliberate world of understanding. Pentecostal anti-intellectualism does not deny the importance of the intellect, but it rejects its claim at supremacy to the full pursuit of knowledge.

What else would you see? Would it not be that Pentecostal scholarship is dominated by the imagination rather than by reason? As I said elsewhere, the imagination questions the dominance of a universal, scientific reason; it is more improvisational, more playful than the performance and instrumentality demanded by the traditional institutions, disciplines, languages, and methodologies. This critique is directed more explicitly at the pessimism and failure of modern scholarship to speak to the hope and transformation of the world, to the concrete life of faith, to the practices and embodiment of the Christian life. Pentecostal anti-intellectualism does not reject rationality, but it questions the dominance of reason alone as a proper and sufficient instrument for the discernment of truth.

Finally, it seems to me that Pentecostal scholarship operates more comfortably on the level of oral rather than written discourse. Here we find Pentecostal testimonies, stories, songs, and preaching rather than the definitions, theses, concepts, and systems that govern the scholarly world of research, writing, and teaching. Does this emphasis on orality signal an inherent inability for the Pentecostal imagination to function in the dominant mode of the intellectual world? Perhaps to some extent, since Pentecostal tongues resist the function and categorization of language and form a rather messy, noisy, and untidy pedagogy when compared to the clean and orderly models of liberal arts and scientific knowledge. Glossolalia are the flagship of the Pentecostal resistance to the sole rule of the intellect. Where the mind fails to grasp their meaning and purpose, the Pentecostal relies on the affections and the imagination to allow the utterances to stand. Pentecostal anti-intellectualism does not reject rational language, but it questions the ability of reasoned discourse to capture the world in its manifold dimensions.

In the end, I believe that the depiction of Pentecostalism as anti-intellectual is appropriate as long as it is true to the heart of Pentecostal concerns and places them in contrast to the dominant models of scholarship and learning. As long as we also look at the progressive nature of Pentecostal scholarship, as I tried to do recently. Pentecostals cannot be stereotyped as rejecting scholarship, education, academia, and the intellectual dimensions of life. At the same time, the uneasiness, skepticism, and resistance to purely cognitive, rational, and scientific modes of knowing should be acknowledged among Pentecostals. It is here where Pentecostal scholars struggle, not because we can’t conform to existing demands of the academy but because we want to go further. In my last letter I told you about five stages in the emergence of Pentecostal scholarship. When I have time, I will share with you how Pentecostals learned to engage the academic world.

Yours truly,


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Wolfgang Vondey
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9 Responses to “Letter to a Pentecostal Scholar II: the nature of Pentecostal anti-intellectualism”

  1. Jon Ruthven says:

    I have a new book coming out shortly, that moves beyond the “head and heart” dichotomy to see the conflict as absolutely primal. See the last section of *What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology. Traditional Religion vs Biblical Emphasis,* “How Protestants Messed Up Discipleship.” This section provides a biblical profile of the ideal Christian vs. the process of traditional Christian education, particularly seminary education. I argue at the very core, they express opposing goals, content and method; they represent the two trees of the Garden, and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Pentecostal “anti-intellectualism” may go to the essence of the primal struggle between framing the world from the point of view of the serpent, or hearing/obeying the word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

    • Thanks, Jon. I look forward to reading your new book. My letters try to aim at a certain realism: yes, we need to acknowledge the anti-intellectualism among Pentecostals, but also: let’s see what that actually means for Pentecostals. From a non-Pentecostal perspective the stereotypes condemn Pentecostals often too quickly. Even Pentecostals don’t always know what to do with their attitude. I actually think that there is something here Pentecostals need to preserve. The Pentecostal motto is not “faith seeking understanding” but “faith despite understanding/not understanding”.

  2. Kenneth L. Harrell says:

    Professor Vondey:

    The last two posts have been very interesting to read and very challenging to digest. I do agree with you that there are some latent anti-intellectual attitudes that shape the agenda of Pentecostalism till this day. In reading your article, I am glad you didn’t blame it on cultural deprivation the way that Robert Mapes Anderson did. I used to think that way because I grew up in a stable middle class congregation with a seminary trained pastor who was always challenging our thinking both on the bible and on issues in general.

    We were a seeming contradiction; on the one hand we were holding to external standards and doctrinal commitments when most classical Pentecostals were trying to get away from them but we also were following our pastor’s theological journey into the broader historic orthodox Christian tradition. Because of one man, I was early introduced to John Wesley as the rightful founder of the holiness movement, became aware of the Reformers, the English Puritans and Edwards and even was introduced to Augustine. I was challenged to wrestle with scripture even as I was taught to reverence it.

    In our fellowship of churches this was not usually the case. Stereotypically, they had a herd mentality. If the top leader taught something or compelled it people were supposed to fall in line, never question anything and keep their opinions to themselves. The services were predictable because there was an established way of doing everything, even as all was attributed to the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

    Not surprisingly, the rank and file were encouraged implicitly and explicitly to get a factory job or perhaps a trade, get married, raise a family and mind their own business, all as a condition for maintaining one’s right standing with God and the denomination. Of course, the elites of the church were paradoxically encouraged to go to college and universities but only in fields that would produce wealth and not produce the critical mind. Though more of the pastors today are college educated they are more likely to be business administration graduates than english,history or philosophy ones.

    Even though we have an ATS accredited seminary, most of the movers and shakers rise on their family kinship group’s previous pedigree in the church, or on success in the corporate professions or both. A person who wants to be competent interpreter of scripture in the accepted academic sense, and who wants to glean from the broader Christian tradition outside of Pentecostalism and develop a tight sense of systematic theological formulation is simply on the outs. Increasingly, some of the younger generation has bucked the system and sought relevant theological education. The more qualified they become, the greater the obstacles become for their advancement and most of them either choose to remain isolated or leave for mainline churches who are hungry for formally trained clergy with a Pentecostal preaching and worship style.

    At first I thought this was mostly a race and class phenomenon since I grew up in a traditional African-American Pentecostal denomination. I thought the emphasis on solidarity, the lack of emphasis on formal education and the emphasis on obedience to leadership were rooted primarily in our particular history as descendents of the former slaves with the socioeconomic tendencies and problems that came along with it.

    Then I began to read classical Pentecostal scholarship written by North American Anglo scholars and intellectuals. As much as I was and am appreciative of the pioneering work of many of these people, I must say that the nature of their work does not resonate with me the way that the works of Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox scholars and intellectuals do.

    It seems to me that many of them, at least those from the so-called Springfield school, have been more interested in proving that they are Evangelicals with the addition of charismatic gifts than in articulating a distinctively Pentecostal worldview. As a result, a great number of them simply accept most of the agenda, theological and otherwise, set by the Evangelicals. I have often wondered if the formation of the NAE and the dominance of the AG in setting the agenda for the PFNA and SPS has permanently made it difficult for Pentecostals to get off the ground in formulating a robust intellectual tradition.

    To be fair, the so-called Cleveland school, in my opinion has a better stated agenda. They insist that Pentecostalism is its own distinctive tradition, some going so far as claiming as a third way of being Christian. But I think that the Cleveland folk are not ready to follow the logic to its own conclusion and are afraid to shed the skin of Evangelicalism.

    In my own formation I have been wrestling with the implications of a distinctively Pentecostal pneumatology. I attended a college in the Dutch Reformed tradition that emphasized scholasticism. While there, without awareness of the work of contemporary Pentecostal scholars and intellectuals, I came to the conclusion that the distinctive claims of Pentecostal pneumatology made identification with Evangelical theology impossible.

    For me it was this simple, a fundamentally different Pneumatology should lead to a fundamentally different epistemology, a fundamentally different understanding of revelation, a fundamentally different hermeneutics, a fundamentally differing soteriology, a fundamentally different Christology and a fundamentally different moral theology.

    I wish more North American Pentecostal thinkers would see this in ways that global Pentecostal thinkers are more flexible. If there is a distinctive Catholic theology, a distinctive Reformed Theology and distinctively different Lutheran theology all with broad and specific implications for interaction with each other and with the various “secular” academic disciplines, surely Pentecostal thinkers must be willing to push their own envelopes and follow the distinctive claims of our movement to their logical conclusions in relationship to other traditions and to the province of non religious based knowledge.

    I am still waiting for this to occur. If it does, I believe that Pentecostals will be as much influential culturally as they are numerically. If not they will simply be irrelevant outside of their own respective communities. Like all other Christian communities, we need a grammar for internal discourse and one for external discourse. That would take hard work, self-criticism, interlocution with other traditions both Christian and secular, the building of viable institutions with an intentional intellectual agenda, and of course time to mature as a tradition. I sincerely hope this will happen. But if it doesn’t I won’t be surprised.

    Thanks for writing this article. I look forward to future posts. I am still debating within myself as to whether seminary education and graduate school in a religious studies department is worth the time, effort and money. I would love to become an engaging classical Pentecostal historical, moral and systematic theologian who is solidly grounded in biblical theology in relationship to the church and a cultural critic in relationship to the world. You have inspired me to wrestle with this again.

    • Dear Kenneth,

      What an amazing response! Thank you for taking the time to think through the issues and provide a personal account that is worth reading. I definitely want to encourage you to keep thinking about the calling to academic theology. For Pentecostals, I would say, it is not so much a matter of wether it is worth it than whether they are called to it. The particular form of anti-intellectualism I portray among Pentecostals is partly the result of a lack of community that supports the educational endeavor. I think you are correct that many Pentecostal groups have immitated Evangelical forms of pedagogy that are just as ill-fitting as Saul’s armor on young David (see this metaphor in Lyle Dabney’s article with the same title). I don’t think the Cleveland school is one of them, however. In my experience Cleveland shows more of an attempt to define Pentecostalism in its own right (Land), to distinguish Pentecostal hermeneutics (Moore), and to understand the uniqueness of Pentcostal pedagogy (Johns). Perhaps your focus is more on what Pentecostals teach than on how they teach. One certainly conditions the other. But my letters are not yet about content, more about the principle of Pentecostal thought. This brings us together to Thames question in the end: what is the unique aspect and identity of Pentcostal scholarship? I think Pentcostals will find it when they stop talking about Pentcostalism as an object and start being Pentcostal in whatever they do…

  3. I positively resonate with so much of the personal sharing and normative comments of others. And I share Dr Vondey’s outook and interpretations. I emerged from a catholic charismatic formation and won’t retell my experiences here as they are already largely and well expressed by others who’ve shared their pentecostal experiences. I would like to suggest a few angles from an interdenominational perspective, using some philosophical categories as generic placeholders even while recognizing that we must go beyond them, through such as song and story, to even begin t convey the rich textures and deep contours of our experiences. Above all, thanks for this thread everyone.

    It can be helpful, when we explore our own weaknesses, to place them in a context with those of others. For example, wrongful emphases on the apophatic vs kataphatic and speculative vs affective have long been categorized in terms such as rationalism, pietism, quietism and encratism. And there’s a host of other insidious, epistemic-related “isms,” such as scientism, gnosticism, arationalism, evidentialism, fideism and so on that represent various over- and under-emphases on different furnishings of our human epistemic suite. These are all weaknesses. And the present in every denomination, although each tends to “specialize.”

    Quite often, an individual’s weakness (vis a vis personality traits) comes about as one practices a particular strength to a fault. The same may well be true for communities and denominations. This is to suggest that, that – which we (as individuals or communities) may too often inefficaciously over- and/or under-emphasize – once suitably emphasized, may very likely reveal our greatest gift to others and ourselves. So, in discussions like this, as we explore our weaknesses, we may also uncover our strengths!

    Few denominations are homogenous, nowadays, with respect to matters of religious epistemology. From the perspective of an axiological epistemology (regarding the question of how values are realized), there often seems to be more homogeneity (even communal cohesion) ACROSS denominations between like-minded/hearted epistemological cohorts (e.g. fundamentalists, anti-intellectualists, rationalists, fideists, pietists, traditionalists, etc) than there is WITHIN denominations between like-minded/hearted creedal cohorts (i.e. specific interpretive views re: paterology, christology, pneumatology, soteriology, ecclesiology and eschatology). What they share or not, then, will otherwise essentially boil down to an implicit theological anthropology (which may or may not roughly and de facto correspond to an otherwise explicit outlook such as an evolutionary epistemology, cartesian dualism, kantian transcendentalism, existential thomism, etc), which can profoundly shape one’s interpretive outlook, far beyond the influence of discursive formulae.

    It is interesting to watch such inter-religious affinities play out from a practical (e.g. political) perspective. To the extent that an epistemology (one’s view re: how we know) models one’s ontology (one’s view re: what is the case), which further informs one’s deontology (one’s view re: what should be the case), when it comes to political affiliations (one’s view re: how are we going to thus make it the case), for example, religious cohorts, quite often may seem to more so cluster based on varying degrees of epistemic humility (one’s view re: just how well we actually know) and less so cluster based on creedal affiliation (what it is we otherwise believe). These degrees present along a spectrum from radical fundamentalism (with no epistemic humility) to a radically deconstructive postmodernism (with an excessive epistemic humility) with different Goldilocks (just right) epistemologies occupying a middle range, e.g. weakened foundationalism, nonfoundational constructive postmodernism, postfoundational fallibilist pragmatism, etc. More concretely, this means that fundamentalist Catholics and Protestants may very well feel like they have more in common with each other than they do with the progressive cohorts of their own coreligionists and vice versa.

    What it often boils down to is how it is we choose to relate (descriptive) science, (evaluative) culture, (normative) philosophy and (interpretive) religion. People who share similar strategies for relating these different horizons of human concern may feel like they have more in common with each other than they otherwise do with their own coreligionists. And they may feel like they have more in common, even, with others – not just within Christianity, but – across the Great Traditions! What I like to say is that these human activities are methodologically-autonomous, each asking a distinct question of reality, but axiologically-integral, all necessary but none, alone, sufficient. What Dr Yong calls the “pneumatological imagination” thus entails a sort of “Pentecostal critique,” of epistemological extremes. Dr Vondey’s integration of orthopathy, orthopraxy and orthodoxy well articulates a Goldilocks religious epistemology, which can gift pentecostals with cross-disciplinary, indeed trans-disciplinary, competence to realize life’s deepest values in superabundance.

    To me, the most exciting implications from our “pentecostal critique” are those that inform our interreligious dialogue. The many-tongued, pneumatological imagination “gets” epistemic diversity in a way that suggests that any authentic orthopathy is necessarily going to be situated in a poly-pathy and that any authentic orthopraxy is necessarily going to be situated in a poly-praxy, for there are many gifts, but One Spirit, and there is a diversity of ministry, but a unity of mission. It will be from genuine post-experiential reflections (via truly participatory imaginations) on our great traditions’ manifold and multiform soteriological and sophiological trajectories (how we are empowered, saved, healed and sanctified via shared desires and practices) that a more generous poly-doxy (how we are oriented via shared beliefs) will ensue, as an authentic orthodoxy. And it will be less encumbered by the facile syncretisms (simple blendings), false irenicisms (easy truces) and insidious indifferentisms (wrongful dismissals) that follow mere conceptual mapping exercises, which simply engage and compare creedal forumlae through discursive analyses, alone. A similar implication follows for any authentic theology of disability, which will esteem differently-abledness in terms of celebrating it as it presents the beauty of our diversity rather than lamenting it through a lens of impoverishment.

    While discussions like this can gift us with a more conscious competence, our pentecostal spirituality, where belonging and desiring even enjoy a certain formative primacy over behaving and believing, can instill a value-realization competence that is manifestly efficacious even when otherwise remaining a tad unconscious, which is to say one needn’t employ or even understand the formal philosophical categories of the above-paragraphs to enjoy the fruits of one’s distinctly pentecostal pedagogy. Such categories merely serve as a philosophical lingua franca to translate the pentecostal wisdom tradition for conversations in the public square. And whether one buys into a weakened foundationalism versus a nonfoundational constructive postmodernism versus a postfoundational fallibilist pragmatism won’t really matter as the gift of wisdom, which combines common sense and love, has always been sufficient to realize life’s greatest values (philosophy not being a formal argument but a life well-lived).

    • Thank you, John. I appreciate the time to write this response. I have waited a day to think it over, and it is probably best to let it stand for itself. You said much about the issue in a much more concentrated way than I could. The Goldilocks analogy is funny, though probably appropriate to some extent. It may describe me better than Pentecostals. The latter still have a sense of distaste for certain things used by others. So they won’t even try out something to see if it fits. David at least tried on Saul’s armor before deciding that it did not fit him. But the story has another part: it’s not just trying some previously owned thing but to discern its usefulness and fit for yourself. It think we are in an extended period of trying out and discerning the will continue for a while until there will be such a thing as a genuine Pentecostal scholarship.

  4. John Sobert Sylvest says:

    clarification re: my last sentence

    Having a Goldilocks (just right) epistemology (even if only implicit) matters greatly as that is an essential element of our pentecostal critique. Which of the 3 specific approaches is what matters much less. Because our critique also emphasizes the practical & performative aspects of our pentecostal heuristics for horizons of human concern of enormous & vital existential import, getting one’s epistemology-axiology right, even in an unconsciously competent way, helps us move more swiftly and with less hindrance along our pilgrim paths.

  5. John Sobert Sylvest says:

    I must defer re: any descriptive account of pentecostal scholarship, which involves sociologic data and historical awareness. I have offered my own normative vision of where it can go, remaining true to its essential experience.

  6. Christopher Wilson says:

    Dr. Vondey,

    After reading your 2 part series I would have to say that you well describe some of the central trend in current Pentecostal scholarship However, I don’t think that the methods of Pentecostal scholarship are as uniform as the older and more restrictive methods of say the reformed or evangelical movements; nor should they be. And it is this openness that is the real although somewhat hidden value of renewal scholarship. Renewalists have the ability to draw wisdom and insights from all of the traditions without having to worry about violating the orthodoxies implicit in each movement. If a scholar finds truth in what is said by a Jesuit scholar, or an evangelical or a Pentecostal then they can draw upon that without having to worry about staying within that school of thought. If they find error then they can freely voice it without having to worry about violating some orthodoxy that particular movement.

    I realize that I just gave a very rational and what some would label “modern” description; but I don’t think that it is modern. Using reason and logic and the laws of thought are of considerable value to all scholars; and these tools shouldn’t be done away with in the name of postmodernism. They in fact should form the very basis of our thoughts and scholarship. However, there are limits to the intellect and to language and at times there are things known within your heart and through the Holy Spirit which are beyond the capacity of your mind to fully express in language and the written word. This is when the renewal scholar must drift into such things metaphor, analogy or even poetic language. The reason and intellect are the ladder and we definitely need the ladder as our base or foundation. But just like Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus , we must know when to kick the ladder away.

    Your brother in Christ,