Pentecostal Scholarship Observed: Amos Yong as Theological Type

By: Michael Wilkinson
Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

BrillWolfgang Vondey and Martin William Mittelstadt (eds.). The Theology of Amos Yong and the New Face of Pentecostal Scholarship: Passion for the Spirit.  Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies 14. Leiden: Brill, 2013. xvi+290 pp. ISBN 978-90-04-25174-8

Sociologists are observers and interpreters. We have the task of observing the taken for granted assumptions of social life and the power of invisible structures.  We pay attention to structure, culture, social interaction, stratification, social institutions, and social change. We do not always agree on what we see or what it means. And yet, we are given this gift of interpretation, of making sense of the familiar and the strange. The sociologist Max Weber developed a specific methodology of interpretation that focused on the subjective meanings of social interaction and the social worlds humans creatively constructed. His approach focused on the Ideal Type. An ideal type is an analytical device for observing and interpreting a complex social reality. It is a measuring stick or a conceptual tool that represents specific aspects of a case. Ideal types are especially useful for making historical comparisons as Weber did in his work on religion and capitalism. Yet, ideal types may also be useful in the advancing our understanding of Pentecostal scholarship.

The Theology of Amos Yong and the New Face of Pentecostal Scholarship is a new volume in the Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies series published by Brill. The volume, edited by Wolfgang Vondey and Martin Mittelstadt, is in my view an exercise in establishing an ideal type, and the specific case is the work of Amos Yong. The volume is organized around the work of Yong in two sections spanned by twelve scholars. The first group of essays introduces the work of Yong, his methodological assumptions, hermeneutical commitments, and theological arguments on many contemporary topics from world religions, to pneumatology, science, and Renewal. The second half consists of a series of critical essays from an ecumenical perspective with assessments from Evangelical, Orthodox, Anglican, and Roman Catholic viewpoints.

Overall, the volume is about the current state of Pentecostal scholarship for which Yong’s work is a representation. Vondey and Mittelstadt hold Yong up as a measuring rod by which the scholarship of Pentecostals and charismatics (or pentecostal Christians and Renewalists) can be compared. Amos Yong is not simply an exemplar. Rather, his scholarship represents a theological type.

There are several observations I want to make while interpreting the findings of this volume. First, it appears to me that Pentecostal scholars are still trying to find a level of respect for the work they do. It is clear that Pentecostals have come a long way from the testimonies of early missionaries to more sophisticated historical accounts, biblical studies, and theological arguments. There is some movement towards embracing the work of Pentecostal scholars into the mainstream of scholarship on Pentecostalism. However, there is also some tension between celebrating what Pentecostal scholars have accomplished and their inclusion in the broader work of scholarship whether that be in religious studies or the sociology of religion.

Second, I wonder how Yong’s work, or Yong himself, will find the courage to boldly take pentecostal scholars where they need to go. Certainly, Yong’s methodological and hermeneutical commitments will open doors for pentecostal scholars who will offer new interpretations of the movement and it’s organizations, biblical readings, theological reflections, and social commitments. Yong’s work and the model it represents may even find a home among those who push harder for new theological interpretations of the traditional theological commitments among Pentecostals. In this sense, I wonder how transformational (or reforming) the agenda is for Pentecostal theologians. Or in the end will it simply be a lot of playful activity dancing around traditional formulations? And if so, will it really matter to scholars of pentecostalism who may not understand the nuances of the internal debates among pentecostals and charismatics?

This leads me to my final observation. The editors of the volume claim that Yong’s scholarship acts as a hinge between the theological and the move towards scientific explanations, natural and social, for pentecostal scholars. It is not exactly clear how this works or what the relationship is between the theological and the empirical. Empirical theologians may find a vast rich resource of theological ideas to test in congregations and in the lived religion of pentecostals. But sociology, for example, rarely, if at all, is interested in testing theological assumptions. Rather, social theory and sociological concepts represent the key measuring rods for observing and interpreting. I do sympathize with theologians who express concern that social scientific explanations can be reductionist or miss important theological explanations when things like class, culture, and institutionalization become the primary mode of interpretation. And sociologists of pentecostalism ought to pay attention to pentecostal modes of acting, thinking, and feeling which includes the theological. However, I am not sure that pentecostal scholarship offers a unique social scientific method, for example, that cannot be accounted for already in the methodological assumptions found in the more reflexive, postmodern, and qualitative work of researchers. Or from the subjective and interpretive work of Weber.

The Theology of Amos Yong and the New Face of Pentecostal Scholarship makes an important contribution with the questions it raises about the new face of Pentecostal theology. It also raises questions about the future of pentecostal scholarship and the impact of pentecostal scholars shaped by a Yongian agenda. Time will tell what impact Yong will have on pentecostal scholars and the role he plays in shaping the scholarship of pentecostalism. To not take Yong seriously or the theologians who employ his work, however, will be injudicious for any scholar of pentecostalism.

Michael Wilkinson
Professor of Sociology
Trinity Western University

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Michael Wilkinson
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One Response to “Pentecostal Scholarship Observed: Amos Yong as Theological Type”

  1. Thank you for this review, Michael. Readers may also be interested in the list of contributors, which includes aside from the editors also Andrew James Carver, Jacob D. Dodson, Jeff Hittenberger, Mark Mann, L. William Oliverio Jr., David A. Reed, Tony Richie, Christopher A. Stephenson, Steven M. Studebaker, and Paraskevè Tibbs. The list of topics covered is as broad as Yong’s work (biblical foundations, modernity, metaphysics, epistemology, hermeneutics, theology of religions, ecumenism, disability, culture, science, evangelicalism, pneumatology, trinitarian theology, etc.). If Yong’s work is a type, as you say we say, then his work does not cast a single shadow; it does not define Pentecostal scholarship in the singular. Therein lies a more of a promise than an ideal.