Letter to a Pentecostal Scholar V: the new face of Pentecostal theology

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

Dear Prudence,

I appreciate your passionate interest in the Society for Pentecostal Studies. It is only natural for you to ask if you have a place there as a new and emerging Pentecostal scholar. I will think about how to best approach the topic. But before I can do so, there is need of some more explanation about the development of Pentecostal scholarship that impacts the shape of the Society. In my last letter, I talked about the emergence of biblical scholarship among Pentecostals. I distinguished this group from the historical scholarship that developed earlier. Today, I want to spend some time on the questions: does Pentecostalism have a theological scholarship?

In a way, all Pentecostals are theologians. I do not mean to use this statement to support the platitude that, “to be a Pentecostal is to think about God.” Though true, I want to avoid the impression that the “theologian” is somehow other (or worse: better) than a historical or biblical scholar. They are all involved in a theological exercise. The first Pentecostal pioneers were theologians, even if somewhat “amateurs” at that task–at least from the perspective of contemporary scholarship at the time (See how Douglas Jacobsen describes this in Thinking in the Spirit).

However, the wave of Pentecostal historians and biblical scholars I described did not engage the theological exercise deliberately and systematically. Their goal was the understanding and delineation of history or the exposition of Scripture, not the formulation of theological method or doctrine (although Pentecostals have many times equated historical and biblical scholarship as theological scholarship among Pentecostals). Theologians, who deliberately and constructively engaged the questions of doctrine in conversation with the wider theological tradition, emerged as the fourth wave of Pentecostal scholarship only during the 1990s. This work began with a clear emphasis on the distinctives of the Pentecostal faith, sometimes cast in the language of apologetics. You have frequently asked the questions of that generation: what is particular about Pentecostal theology? These question led to proposals on a theology of the Spirit-filled life that attempts to integrate the various distinctive emphases of Pentecostals, such as speaking in tongues or spiritual gifts, in the broader theological and ecumenical discussions. This generation of Pentecostal scholars has entered the broad range of theological disciplines, but it has also discussed primarily internal issues. Many a times, the books and treatises that resulted from this generation of theologians reflect already existing forms of systematic theology without showing much of the uniqueness of Pentecostal thought or, when doing so, without integrating Pentecostal distinctives fully in existing formulations of doctrine. You have probably heard the critique that pertains to such works as “Pentecostal theology is doing nothing new except adding a doctrine of Spirit baptism.” I think this is a caricature of the development, but even so, Pentecostals have not added significantly to the reshaping of the constructive theological agenda until the turn to the twenty-first century.

The publication of Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies since 1979 and the Journal of Pentecostal Theology, founded in 1992, contributed greatly to the sharpening of theological scholarship in the English-speaking world. Perhaps there is no radical break in the emergence of contemporary Pentecostal theology, but the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen a new generation of Pentecostal theologians who have begun to reconsider existing doctrines in a more constructive fashion. The products of these scholars ask a different question: what do Pentecostals have to contribute to a renewal of Christian theology? and what does it mean to do Christian theology explicitly as a Pentecostal? Interests of these scholars include traditional fields of theology, such as soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, the doctrine of God, or the doctrine of creation. However, these scholars also venture into theology of culture, the dialogue with the religions, and the conversation of theology and science. I have tried to summarize the contributions and challenges of this new face of Pentecostal theology in my book, Beyond Pentecostalism. Today’s Pentecostal theology has begun to suggest explicit ways in which Pentecostal theology contributes to the transformation of the theological agenda.  The new discussions have led to conversations on the nature of Pentecostal theology, in general, and have begun to shape a new generation of Pentecostal scholars who go beyond the traditional historical, biblical, and internal theological discussions.

In a way, Pentecostal theology is still in-the-making. We cannot speak of it as something completed. But many in your circles may ask if there is such a thing as Pentecostal theology at all. To them, I would respond by pointing to the work of these men and women who are now emerging and who are challenging the theological academy as Pentecostals. Who do you know among these theologians? Are you among them? Where do you see your position? How do you make your voice heard? In other words: what does it take to be a Pentecostal theologian? To these questions, I want to turn the next time. In the meantime, let me hear your answers to my questions. Let me hear from your friends where they stand on the question of the new face of Pentecostal scholarship.

Yours truly,

W

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Wolfgang Vondey
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10 Responses to “Letter to a Pentecostal Scholar V: the new face of Pentecostal theology”

  1. Ciprian Luca says:

    As a Romanian Pentecostal earning a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology & Ethics under the supervision of a Evangelical-Lutheran Professor in a majority Eastern-Orthodox Doctoral School, I’m very much inspired by your “letters” and your work, Dr. Wolfgang Vondey. I’m working on a thesis that aims at an ethical reading of the concept of the holiness of the Church, but my goal for the future is to help articulate a solid and relevant ecclesiology for the Pentecostal movement in Romania and Eastern Europe. Once again, thank you for your inspiring letters!

    • That’s great news, Ciprian. We desperately need constructive theologians in the Pentecostal movement. And we need a working ecclesiology that is able to capture the diversity of the Pentecostal movement. And we need interaction with the Eastern Orthodox tradition. You are uniquely positioned to contribute to these issues. Be encouraged!

  2. Remarkable events occurred in Topeka and at Azusa Street in the restoration of Pentecost which commenced a remarkable history of anointed ministries declaring the Pentecostal-doctrine in light of Scripture. These early-doctrines (relating to the baptism in the Holy Spirit) were thereafter neglected and suffered attack by later generations and movements beginning in the 1940′s and savaging the teachings further until we have what we see today; THIRD WAVE THEORY, INDISCRIMINATE AND COLLECTIVE HANDS-LAYING, DOCTRINES OF “RELEASE”, SPECIALLY-NAMED “ANOINTINGS”, etc., etc. (Where is all this in Scripture?) A significant source of the problem is that the modern pneumatology is not Pentecostally-derived as many (I would venture “most”) of the teachers and formulators of modern-doctrine retain their own sacramental, evangelical, charismatic, etc. ideologies. There are certain foundational underpinnings that define Pentecostal-teaching of which I wonder how many “Pentecostal” theologians would subscribe.

    • Daniel, you may wonder about the extent to which contemporary Pentecostal theology is still/truly “pentecostal.” If you use as a measuring stick, as you seem to do, the events that marked the birth of classical Pentecostalism in North America, then you will arrive at the negative conclusion, as you do, that “Pentecostals” have departed from the doctrines they once held. I would urge you to remain connected with the original events but also to expand your view to a global Pentecostalism that has far outgrown classical Pentecostalism (see my book, Beyond Pentecostalism). The sacramental, evangelical, charismatic etc. ideologies you note are what make up Pentecostal theology today. Take them away and you have no authentic Pentecostalism of the 21st century. At best, you have in what remains the remnant of classical Pentecostal doctrine, but that alone does not constitute Pentecostalism any longer. If you want to preserve it, then you need to renew it. Restorationism needs renewal in order to be Pentecostal.

  3. Christopher Wilson says:

    Dr. Vondey,

    I look forward to your upcoming letter. Of this letter I would ask if you are grouping such scholars as Rodman Williams, Charles Holman, etc. in the 1990’s grouping as scholars who were essentially Biblicists who happened to believe in spirit baptism. I recall reading one such scholar (I believe it was John Ruthven) who stated that his generation had to be educated in cessationistic evangelical institutions which tried to get them to not believe what the bible clearly said about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. While this type of education was certainly restrictive, it did give the scholars a solid biblical base from which to build. It appears to me that the next generation of scholars to which you refer, those who have emerged in the 21st century who you feel are doing more constructive things for this enterprise are often engaged in attempts to blend Pentecostalism with the secular philosophies of our era. If I am mistaken on my characterizations please give me a more accurate assessment.

    Your brother in Christ,

    Chris

    • Chris, I obviously did not attach names to the groups I identified. I did not want to single out any particular person in a blog post that can only be so long. But for starters, I would put Rodman Williams in the first group of theologians (evidenced in his “Renewal Theology”). Also here I would put Stanley Horton (his “Systematic theology” 1994); French Arrington (his “Christian Doctrine”, 3 vols., 1992-94); Guy Duffield and N. M. Van Cleave (“Foundations of Pentecostal Theology” (1983). But this group also has a number of scholars who transitioned to the next generation and who belong to both generations. Here I would find Frank Macchia, Steve Land and others. In the current group of theologians, I would put Amos Yong at the forefront (watch out for my forthcoming book on the role of Yong’s work for Pentecostal scholarship), and many younger scholars who venture into hitherto unknown territory (e.g., science, religion, economics, etc.). Hans Frei tried a similar characterization in his “Five Types of Christian Theology” and his examples for each type were perhaps more scrutinized than his typology. So, please do not tie the description too closely to particular persons but consider if I have somewhat accurately described the emergence of Pentecostal theology.

  4. Orlando J. says:

    Wolfgang,

    Thank you for your very interesting posts. I especially enjoyed your use of a “letter” – very Lewis-like.

    I want to add a few observations to this discussion.

    God obviously doesn’t want us to relinquish our minds, for we are commanded to love Him with all our “heart, soul, mind, and strength”. Our knowledge of God, however, comes primarily from revelation through the Holy Spirit. The Biblical pattern is that revelation comes to those who aren’t “wise in their own eyes”, but to the meek, humble, and child-like. I believe that the outpouring of the Spirit in the last 100 years underscores this.

    However, it doesn’t stop there. The Biblical pattern is also that after revelation there is a period where the mind engages to try to understand what the revelation means. For example, in the Old Testament, God revealed himself to Abraham, a humble friend of God. But it was Moses, who was educated in the teachings of the Egyptians that God used to write the Law. In the New Testament, Jesus was revealed as Messiah to uneducated fishermen, but it was Paul, who had an equivalent of a PhD, that God used to make sense of it all. This pattern is true even in my own life. The Holy Spirit grabbed hold of my heart without use of argument or reason – He just took over. It’s taken the rest of my life to this day to work out with my intellect what it all means. I think this pattern agrees with your presentation of the history of the Pentecostal movement.

    Unfortunately, what God didn’t intend to happen, happened. People are creatures of the extreme. This happened during the Reformation. Luther’s desire to reform the church had an unintended consequence of the church splintering. Likewise, the outpouring of the Spirit had an unintended consequence of anti-intellectualism.

    Related to this, as you rightly point out, is the lack of a sense of history. Although, I think this is true for most Protestants (granted Protestant’s sense of history is at least 500 years back, whereas P/C is only about 100 years), and not only Pentecostals/Charismatics. This attitude is not healthy because it severs a true movement of God from its historical context. As a result, it’s hanging in mid-air with nothing to support it. God intended renewal, not re-invention of the wheel. This has many negative consequences, one of which is a divorce from traditional, orthodox understanding of Scripture.

    With all that said, God continues to confound the wise. My family is attending a church called Catch the Fire, which is part of the Toronto Airport Fellowship Church – the Toronto Blessing. We also enjoy listening to Sid Roth, Bill Johnson, and Rolland & Heidi Baker. Quite frankly, I hear testimonies of miracles that happen that leaves me scratching my head asking, “Where is this in Scripture?” How can reason account for gold dust, gold teeth, legs growing, Glory clouds, supernatural transport, etc, etc? We can’t, and that’s what makes God, God. All we can do is trust Him. Gladly though, He’s not asking us to turn-off our brains. Personally, I’m discovering that it takes the power of God to navigate through the rough waters where Faith and Reason converge to make sure that I don’t drown in unbelief.

    Thanks again for you posts. Because of people like you, the Pentecostal/Charismatic-wing of the church is getting some needed support. And thanks to schools like Regent, the term Pentecostal Theologian is losing its status as an oxymoron.

    • Thank you Orlando. You offer some foundational reflections on the relationship of Pentecostal/charismatic scholarship and spirituality. I will have to say more about that in the future. I would, however, sharpen your perception at one point: the outpouring of the Spirit, as such, did not have the consequence of anti-intellectulism. It was the contrasting of mind and spirit by those who found themselves baptized in the Spirit. Partly, it was the observation of intellectuals who apparently did not possess the same spiritual vitality. I would say, Pentecostals did not receive the fullness of the outpouring of the Spirit (or if ey did, they did not make use of all the gifts of the Spirit). In principle, as many others have said, all churches possess some of the spiritual gifts poured out by the Spirit. What I think distinguishes Pentecostals is that they earnestly seek the fullness of gifts, a holistic spiritually, if you will. That will shape their theology differently from those who remain within a particular gift and who do not aspire to other gifts. Not all of this is coming up roses. There are serious challenges to Pentecostal scholarship I shall discuss in my next letters. At least, I will try. :)

  5. Ewen Butler says:

    The question that keeps dogging me in the academy is “For the purpose of wading into the broader theological arena, what constitues a Pentcostal perspective?” In the classical tradition in North America, it would be the old four or five-doctrinal positions. The Charismatic renewal would obviously be very different again. My own boyhood brand (!) is yet another slant–in short, pneumatologically centered but definitely not big on power encounters and widespread use of the charismata. Rather, the emphasis was profoundly Christocentric, bibliocentric (admittedly fundamentalist in many respects), and soteriological (Christus Victor atonement motif).

    So I have struggled somewhat to get a clearer picture of what any of us mean by the term “Pentecostal.” If we insist on a very broad definition, are we not re-articulating a theology of the third article that others long before us, including the Reformers, recognized despite not giving it the priority that we would wish they had? Put another way, what would really be new about connecting pneumatology to culture, science, poiltics, religion, etc. that others before us did not understand except that they might call it “grace”?! HELP thou my unbelief, Dr. V!!!

    • Thanks for the comment, Ewen. I will have to work my way toward that definition. But I don’t think Pentecostals have a motif–as some kind of objective consciousness that they hold up and call Pentecostal theology. I am closer to the idea that a Pentecostal perspective is a spirituality…but even that is not a good answer at this point. More groundwork needs to be done before I can speak to these issues….