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!