Letter to the Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS)

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Dear Society for Pentecostal Studies,

For some time now, I have been pondering the history and nature of Pentecostal scholarship. My peers struggle with the idea that Pentecostals engaged in theological scholarship may perhaps not be contradictory, but that it is not taken seriously. Among my friends, Pentecostal scholarship just does not seem to be advertised sufficiently. Although much of the creative theological thinking that today is taking place among Pentecostals has emerged from the Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS), almost none of my non-Pentecostal friends has even heard of your organization. Even among my Pentecostal friends, there are many who are uncertain about the intentions of the Society and whether the SPS has a future. What I would like to know is, what role exactly does the SPS serve in the development of Pentecostal scholarship?  What is the vision of the Society? What role will it play in the future of Pentecostal thought in and beyond North America? In order to explain my dilemma, I would like to revisit what I understand to be a long-standing problem–a problem that has resurfaced in recent debates about requiring a faith commitment from members of the Society. Of course, I cannot give an an answer to this debate, but I suggest that in order to resolve what I sense to be very serious disagreements among the membership, the Society should first direct its attention to its own self-understanding.

When I attend the meetings of the SPS, it seems to me that there are two kinds of attitudes dominant among scholars. Let me characterize them by a different construction of the title of the Society: when asked what “SPS” stands for, there are two different answers: Society FOR Pentecostal Studies or Society OF Pentecostal Studies. Considering that a single iota has proven significant in the history of Christian doctrine, it seems to me that the difference of an entire preposition should not be overlooked. So which is it from the perspective of the Society? It seems to me that it is time to settle the question!

The mission of the Society states its purpose as “to stimulate, encourage, recognize, and publicize the work of Pentecostal and charismatic scholars; to study the implications of Pentecostal theology in relation to other academic disciplines, seeking a Pentecostal world-and-life view; and to support fully, to the extent appropriate for an academic society, the statement of purposes of the World Pentecostal Fellowship” (Article 2, Constitution and Bylaws). Which of the two choices of titles reflects this statement? Is it the Society of or the Society for Pentecostal Studies? My guess it that both prepositions have their supporters, but you cannot have both in a formal title. Only one can properly represent the idea of the Pentecostal scholarship.

I propose that the idea of a “Society OF Pentecostal Studies” is too restrictive. In some sense, it is simply the assembly of Pentecostal scholars who meet once a year to discuss papers. In a way, that is probably an accurate description of much of the history of the SPS. In fact, unless you actively seek interaction outside the annual meetings, there is little evidence that the Society stimulates, encourages, recognizes, and publicizes Pentecostal and charismatic scholarship. Even participation in the annual gatherings depends almost exclusively on your own initiative. What I mean is that the label “Society OF Pentecostal Studies” is accurate–but it is not desirable! Certainly, such an academic society does not a faith statement.

The label “Society FOR Pentecostal Studies” has a different connotation. In this image, the society serves Pentecostal scholarship. It indicates not only purpose but more importantly the object and recipient of the desires and activities of the Society. It is Pentecostal Studies that stands at the heart of this description–not the Society. In this sense, the Society seeks to be a true representative of Pentecostal Studies. The latter always supersedes the former. Here, I am not simply expecting a well-arranged meeting with colleagues, I expect to see friends and strangers, those whom I have come to trust along the way and those who challenge me to see new and different paths. When I attend the annual meeting, I intend to come away surprised by the diversity of tongues and confirmed by the familiarity of expression. As I look to the next decade, I see a Society that expresses more deliberately what it means to stimulate, encourage, and recognize Pentecostal studies. From that perspective, and perhaps with a long-term study of the practices of SPS members, I can find myself involved in the business of Pentecostal academic scholarship rather than in petty debates about whether the Society still has a future. So that is where I stand. The SPS should be the Society FOR Pentecostal Studies. Do you agree? Do you think we can avert the crisis caused by different opinions on a faith commitment if we first understood the servant-nature of the Society for Pentecostal Studies? Would we not attract more Pentecostal scholars if they knew whether the SPS serves as and advocate for their concerns? Would a clear advocacy for the identity of a Society for Pentecostal Studies not help raise awareness among non-Pentecostal constituencies? What is the future of the Society for Pentecostal Studies if it is not the future of Pentecostal scholarship?

Kindly Yours,

Prudence

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Wolfgang Vondey
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5 Responses to “Letter to the Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS)”

  1. Pam Holmes says:

    Well worth pondering. Thank you.

  2. Fr. Timothy Cremeens says:

    Dr. Vondey

    I totally agree with your analysis of the restrictive nature of the name “Society OF Pentecostal Studies” as opposed to “Society FOR Pentecostal Studies”. I feel that over the past couple of decades SPS has had a tendency to revert back to a “Classical Pentecostal” oragnization. It needs to branch out even more into the field of Spiritual Renewal Studies including those outside of the classical Pentecostal fold.

    • Thank you, Fr. Timothy. I have hear from others that the denominational politics at SPS can have an unfortunate influence on the Society. personally, I have not had a bad experience, but restrictive attitudes are not going to take the SPS forward, I agree.

  3. Although not a part of the organization, I wish to disagree with the last suggestion as magnanimous as it sounds. While there is no end of organizations willing to “branch out” into the wide plain of thought on the study of pneumatology , there are few organizations rightly focused on Classical Pentecostal theology (which is by no means a narrow one).