Letter to a Pentecostal Scholar III: the promise and problems of historical scholarship

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Friday, July 27th, 2012

Dear Prudence,

It is great to hear that you have met friends at graduate school who are also Pentecostals. Can you imagine that I was warned even about those? One of them, I was told, would have strange ideas “even for a Pentecostal.” We ended up becoming very good friends. :) It is important to have a sounding board as a Pentecostal. We cannot become theological hermits. On the other hand, I understand your surprise at the discovery that few of your friends actually want to study doctrine and that you wonder if your interest in systematic theology is peculiar. When I visited some graduate programs to learn more about them, one professor told me that Pentecostals are really afraid of the hard work of theological doctrine and that they hide behind the study of history or the Scriptures. Not that historical or biblical scholarship is somehow easier, I don’t think that’s what he meant; but there are very few Pentecostals who engage constructive, systematic theology to this day. Let me take the opportunity to explain some of the reasons for that gap and tell you about the promise and problems of historical scholarship among Pentecostals. 

As I shared with you at the beginning of our conversation, Pentecostal scholarship began with the training of Pentecostal missionaries at the beginning of the twentieth century. The emergence of historical scholarship marks the second phase of the intellectual history of Pentecostalism. This phase began in the late 1960s with the work of Swiss theologian, Walter J. Hollenweger. Emerging as probably the foremost authority on worldwide Pentecostalism, Hollenweger published his extensive research while many Pentecostal scholars completed graduate programs in environments that neglected or obstructed the interaction of critical scholarship and Pentecostal faith and praxis. Many Pentecostals probably never actually read his ten-volume doctoral dissertation Handbuch der Pfingstbewegung (Handbook of the Pentecostal Movement), but its one-volume translation became immensely popular. It catapulted interest in Pentecostals into the academic world and stimulated Pentecostals to learn more about themselves. I recall that your own curiosity was sparked when you first read it. 

With Hollenweger’s work arose a wave of Pentecostal historians intend on discovering and preserving the early history of the Pentecostal movement. The remarkable spread of the Charismatic Movement in the established churches at the same time also encouraged Pentecostals to rediscover their own roots and to confront historiographical models that failed to account for the rise and persistence of modern-day Pentecostalism. These historians laid the groundwork for Pentecostal archives across the world that today offer countless resources, books, newspaper articles, pamphlets, letters, sermons, and testimonies that tell the intellectual (his)tory among Pentecostals. Pentecostal historians helped not only to distribute the Pentecostal perspective of the movement’s history but also to reformulate dominant historical accounts and thus to reshape the historical discipline itself. The promise of Pentecostal historical scholarship is that descriptive historical studies and social scientific research will eventually shift scholarly attention more fully to the Pentecostal movement worldwide and thereby soften the anti-intellectual base of classical Pentecostalism and the stereotypes existing elsewhere.

I can imagine that you find my account far too positive. Your email suggests that you are tired of reading the “same-old-same-old” books. You find the “endless repetition” of the “same themes, the same topics, the same places, the same dates” not only “annoying” but “suspicious.” I think you are not alone in that assessment. But if we talk of any problems of historical scholarship among Pentecostals, we need to see them in context. We can isolate perhaps four dominant issues: 1) early scholarly historical accounts focused almost exclusively on the history of the Pentecostal movement; Pentecostal historical scholarship was historical scholarship of Pentecostalism. 2) When scholars looked at the historiography beyond the movement, they tended to reinterpret history in light of Pentecostalism; every religious event and movement was interpreted either as a result of the day of Pentecost or a precursor of the modern-day Pentecostal movement. This tendency led to a pentecostalization of historiography among Pentecostals. 3) Many historians drew theological conclusions and assessments from their work although they were not trained in theological scholarship; in turn an untrained audience accepted their statements as if they were informed theological judgments. This has led (4) to the isolation of a few theological ideas as representative of the early movement and to their perpetuation even in today’s theological scholarship.

Many of these problems are understandable, don’t you think? Can a young movement prevent overemphasis and enthusiasm as we see it here? What would you have done at the time? Few of us can argue that we would have swum against the stream. I suggest that you do not neglect reading these accounts but that you balance them with contemporary re-assessments. We cannot understand the contemporary works without the classics, even if they appear repetitive. And you will not understand the significance of today’s scholarship without knowing where the discipline has come from. Can we not call the last 50 years of historical scholarship among Pentecostals remarkable? Much work still remains to be done beyond the focus on North America. Much remains to be said about the future of Pentecostal historiography beyond the Pentecostal movement. This is more than I can say, and I am sending you with this email also a list of books and articles you should read. At the bottom of the list you will find the names and contact information of some of those early historians. I suggest you talk to them in person as long as you still have the opportunity. They are a living history!


Wolfgang Vondey
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9 Responses to “Letter to a Pentecostal Scholar III: the promise and problems of historical scholarship”

  1. I believe there is no other place for a systematic theology to arise but from those of Pentecost I also believe a systematic theology will arise from within Pentecost shortly. The problem as I perceive it however, is that the Pentecostal message has been allowed to fall to the ground. A reading of the old articles by William Durham and other early Pentecostal leaders carries an uncompromizing-zeal that we just do not find today. The church must pick up and be faithful with the message given to it at Topeka & Azusa (e.g. tongues as initial evidence, the baptism as synonymous with receiving the Spirit, those baptized as constituting the “church”). These doctrines are grossly unpopular & we will receive opposition and the castigation of all around us. Until we have been faithful with what God has given how do we expect to receive more truth?

    • Christopher Wilson says:


      First I applaud you for voicing ideas which you know are unpopular; I do however disagree with your exclusionary thinking. It seems like in the end you are saying only those who speak in tongues are Christian? I know that you aren’t saying this quite so strongly, but that is the logical conclusion of believing that:
      1. Tongues is the initial evidence.
      2. Without spirit baptism, a believer will fall away in a short time.
      And as tongues usually requires an extra act such as tarrying at an altar for an indefinite period of time, is it not adding a “work” to our salvation through faith?

      I would caution you against such exclusionary thinking as I have seen many Christian operating in the gifts of the spirit who have never spoken in tongues.

      Dr. Vondey,

      It seems like developing a systematic theology for Pentecostalism is cutting against the grain of where the movement currently wants to go, at least at the academic level. In order to be systematic don’t you need things like categories, deductive reasoning, etc. which are almost by necessity exclusionary? I am legitimately at a loss as to how the movement can simultaneously be going in the direction of postmodernism, non-duality, etc. while trying to have a systematic theology which to me would otherwise be considered a remnant of modernism.

      Your brother in Christ,


      • Chris, I think you are overreacting to Daniel’s post. There is quite a difference between those who are trying to understand and preserve what they see as the essence of Pentecostal voices in the past and those who see nothing else but classical Pentecostal doctrine of Spirit baptism and speaking in tongues. Your perspective is in danger of trying to portrait Pentecostal theology in either black or white colors when it is probable better to say that Pentecostal scholarship at the moment is both black and white. We have to catch both colors if we want to understand Pentecostal scholarship. So, also, when you ask if Pentecostalism is postmodern or modern, the answer is yes, precisely because Pentecostal scholarship is at the same time neo-modern and anti-modern in its position toward modernity while remaining in essence a child of modernity.

    • Thank you Daniel. I would agree with you that Pentecost is a central theme for a systematic theology for Pentecostals. But I challenge you to make more explicit what exactly that means. What is the message given at Topeka and Kansas, as you say, in the terms of a systematic theology? Is it the uncompromising zeal for God? If that is what you mean, that says a lot about how a Pentecostal would proceed but not what that Pentecostal theology would look like. Or is it the unpopular doctrines you list? If yes, how do you envision a broader systematic theology to unfold among Pentecostals? Of course, this is not really what this particular letter is about. My letters yet have to work their way toward the generation of Pentecostal theologians, but in advance I would question if it is really “systematic theology” that would result from Pentecostals. For sure, they should engage the work of systematic theologians, but is systematic theology genuine to Pentecostalism?

      • Christopher,
        We agree these doctrines are unpopular. We must both concede that these were the doctrines maintained by the central-figures of the original Pentecostal outpourings, certainly the Azusa outpouring. The mantle of Azusa seems to have followed Durham and thence persons and organizations that sat under Durham. It was after these early years that the doctrines were watered-down for the sake of peace. I invite you to listen to Durham’s articles (see “Audio MP3″ at lamp-stand.com). He was uncompromising in these essentials of Pentecostalism. Is it exclusivism? Yes & No. It is “exclusive” in the sense that the church is a peculiar & called-out people. It is “inclusive” in the sense that “everyone that asketh receiveth” (Luke 11:10). Durham denounced these compromises as robbing men of the baptism.

        It would be difficult for me to be much more specific in this limited forum. I have written more extensively on this subject on my website (see Subpart G – The Pentecostal Movement). In short a Pentecostal theology will incorporate much more than the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We have misunderstood Pentecost as the baptism, when the Baptism is rather a component of what is typified in the feast. I can confidently say that there is a Systematic Pentecostal Theology that is (indeed) a universal Systematic Theology. I have never heard it taught, but I am happy to go into as thorough-detail as anyone has the time to spare. I must also say I enjoy discussions as these tremendously. Daniel

      • P.P.S. My apologies for the PPS, but I cannot omit the centrality of the cross as as characterizing any systematic theology.

  2. PS. Wolfgang, specifically as to the question of what a Pentecostal Theology should look like; I believe it will incorporate the oneness of God in His essence, duality that is Messiah Head & Messiah body. It will incorporate a threefold redemption of spirit, soul, and body; a three-fold witness of heaven & three-fold witness of earth adding to a six-fold witness of Father, Word, Holy Ghost, Blood, Water, & Spirit (I John 5:7-8) unified seamlessly into a seven-fold witness of God. All of these components are reflected in the Golden Lampstand which stands as a model of God’s testimony concerning Himself that is Christ.

  3. Panama says:

    First-generation historians of Pentecostalism, largely religious insiders who were or sympathized with Pentecostals, had much to lose by being overly critical, and even more to lose if they suggested that not all of the events surrounding the origins of the movement and its theological roots were providentially inspired. To be fair, secular and non-Pentecostal scholars in the social sciences (chiefly sociology and anthropology) were not terribly interested in a movement that they knew little about and probably had little sympathy for. After all, if all one knew about Pentecostalism emanated from the popular press and from Hollywood (Elmer Gantry in particular), then the movement never really stood a chance in the less-than-receptive halls of academia. Suffice to say that Pentecostal historical scholarship in the first half of the 20th century suffered from bouts of intellectual lethargy from its biggest supporters and from ignorant disdain from its detractors.