The Pentecostal Principle: Ethical Methodology in New Spirit

By: L. William Oliverio Jr.
Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Nimi Wariboko. The Pentecostal Principle: Ethical Methodology in New Spirit. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-8028-6697-4. $25.00.

Paul Tillich’s The Protestant Era (1948) spoke of the “Protestant principle” wherein an anathema was placed upon absolutizing truth claims and systems. Perpetual reform corrects finite aspirations to ultimacy and drives a movement between substance and principle. The Pentecostal Principle takes inspiration from the “Protestant principle” while superseding its claims by offering the “pentecostal principle” as a third, dynamic, and kairotic surplus of the interrelationship of substance and reform. Developing a special vocabulary throughout, Wariboko offers a meta-ethical and religious vision in this dense monograph, one full of asides (e.g., a lengthy one on ecstatic language and tongues, pp. 56-65) as well as the use of conceptual images and analogs (e.g., his use of “Apelles’ cut,” the division of divisions, to illustrate something of the “pentecostal spirit,” pp. 143-149).

 The Pentecostal Principle sets out to explain the essence of pentecostalism. In doing so, Wariboko is also explaining something more fundamental than just a religious movement, extending to the question of humanity and reality itself. The book is explaining the essence of the “pentecostal” as a “spirit,” a principle or a transformative creative energy within the materiality of existence. Like a psychologist accounting for a client in the psychologist’s own private assessment, Wariboko is accounting for the underlying historical impulses exemplified in global pentecostalism. By operating with the assumption that he knows the clients better than they themselves do, Wariboko challenges the reader to deep reflection on the nature of the pentecostal.

The book begins with a lengthy introduction followed by five chapters and concludes with an epilogue. The introduction and the first chapter provide readers with the background and framework for understanding the “pentecostal principle,” recounting Tillich’s “Protestant principle” and providing philosophical meditations on scriptural and philosophical themes from which Wariboko derives his own principle. The “pentecostal principle” is understood to be triadic in nature. The “Catholic substance” is met by the “Protestant principle,” which perpetually reforms and critiques the closure of the former. The “pentecostal principle” meets this tension of excess and reform as the kairotic force, breaking in and out from both outside (the transcendent) and within (the immanent). Such a triadic structure notably parallels Amos Yong’s triadic hermeneutics and metaphysics in Spirit-Word-Community (Ashgate, 2002), and this parallel raises the question if a common pentecostal triadic metaphysics is currently developing– despite Wariboko’s denial that he is developing a metaphysics (p. 18).

In the second chapter, he correlates biological emergence and ethical methodology, with the kairotic as it emerges as “pure means” or as “evolving potentialities … eros toward open future …” (p. 100) in the play of the pluralism of human ethical existence. Yet, the third chapter seems to suggest that a precondition for ethical analysis is a telos in the particularities of a given society (p. 118). And for those desperately searching in these pages for a concretization of his ethical proposal, it can be found in the “Flowchart of Ethical Analysis” at the end of the third chapter. The fourth chapter most specifically addresses the nature of the pentecostal spirit itself: spirit is natality (new birth) and attends to the cultivation of identity. Spirit is also play understood as pure means, which is the subject of the fifth chapter. Here, play is not a counterpoint to work but the “deactivation of law and radicalization of saving grace” (p. 164). The ends are open in the pentecostal principle, where religion is not co-opted into the maintenance of order.

As Wariboko moves between social analysis, ethics, continental philosophy and theology, The Pentecostal Principle intertwines and sometimes blends these disciplines together. If there is a moment that epitomizes the book as a whole, it comes in the epilogue. There, the author recounts his own pentecostal conversion and experience, which stands at the root of his conviction that the pentecostal principle is the capacity to begin anew, with “a strong notion of self-transcendence because we served a God of surplus and possibility” (p. 208). Yet, Wariboko looks to illuminate this experience with an interpretation of grace from Slavoj Žižek who draws from Kant and Schelling. How is the former informing the latter? How is the latter being used to interpret the former? In addition, a Barthian critique arises throughout. The interrelation of Wariboko’s sources is questionable.

Nevertheless, The Pentecostal Principle is one of the most significant contributions to the nature of the pentecostal to date. His claim about its kairotic nature nicely correlates with Douglas Jacobsen’s historical claim that early pentecostalism was founded, in the plurality of its theologies, on the notion of God doing new things (see Jacobsen’s Thinking in the Spirit). Still, some may wonder if his “pentecostal principle” really is “pentecostal” enough to claim continuity with the global movement itself. I am inclined to think that, by and large, he has accomplished here what Tillich did. Nevertheless, The Pentecostal Principle will likewise be critiqued on its theological substance.

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L. William Oliverio Jr.
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