Rudolf Bultmann, the German New Testament scholar whose program for the “demythologization” of the Gospel provoked a storm of controversy in the years after World War II, wrote in his seminal essay: “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” This lapidary sentence is not empirically validated in any way. It stands there as an axiomatic assumption.
Bultmann was a very pleasant individual. I met him many years ago and was impressed by his unpretentious and open demeanor (also, by the way, by the discovery that this apostle of modernity was afraid of flying). I am hopeful that he now resides in a heaven that modern man supposedly cannot believe in. But if even in this mythological residence he somehow still holds on to his assumption, I would love to take him on a tour of global Christianity today. He would meet millions of electricity consumers who not only believe in the miracles of the New Testament, but, much more interestingly, in the miracles that supposedly occur in their churches every week.
The contemporary world does not at all show what so-called secularization theory asserts: that modernity leads to a decline of religion. With some exceptions, notably Europeans and an international class of intellectuals, most of our contemporaries are decidedly religious—and not only in the less-modernized parts of the world. There are many large religious movements, only a few of them violent, most of them resulting in significant social, economic, and political developments. Arguably the largest and most influential (and almost entirely nonviolent) of these movements is Pentecostalism.
I first came across Pentecostalism when I was a graduate student and by mere happenstance wrote my master’s thesis on religion among Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City. Since my work took me increasingly to the developing world—Latin America first, then Africa and Asia—I became more and more aware of the explosive growth of Pentecostalism. When I started a research center at Boston University in 1985, I was able to support a series of studies of Pentecostalism in different countries, with the earlier ones conducted by David Martin, the British sociologist who has since become something like a dean of Pentecostal studies. (I should mention that the terminology is confusing, in part because Pentecostalism has affected the mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches. Different terms have been used in addition to plain “Pentecostal”—neo-Pentecostal, charismatic, renewalist—but the phenomenon is the same everywhere. For simplicity’s sake, I just use “Pentecostal” here.)
Pentecostalism has never had the slightest religious appeal for me (I am, it seems, incurably Lutheran). But as a sociologist I have been fascinated by it, and as someone concerned with improving people’s lives I have come to see Pentecostalism as a force for good. It provides comfort and community for people going through disorienting social change, especially among the poor and marginalized. It preaches a morality that encourages sobriety, discipline, and devotion to family, and that emancipates women. Needless to say, not all Pentecostals heed the sermons they hear. (They are not alone in this.) Those who do, begin to experience social mobility and will indeed improve their lives. I came to the conclusion that, contrary to widespread prejudice, Pentecostalism is itself a modernizing movement in the developing world.
In all likelihood, Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing movement in history. Its defining characteristics have always been around: ecstatic worship, speaking in tongues, grassroots leadership, and, most important, miraculous healing. But contemporary Pentecostalism is usually dated from the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1906, William Seymour, an African-American Holiness preacher, came from Houston to Los Angeles and started a congregation in an abandoned stable on Azusa Street. Very soon, all the Pentecostal characteristics appeared. The Azusa Street revival was highly infectious. Its missionaries and publications fanned out, first across the United States, then overseas. By the 1930s Pentecostalism had become a sizable international denomination. The most explosive growth occurred after World War II in countries of the Global South.
This is a religion based on spontaneity, and much of it is sparsely organized, while in some places it has been forced underground (as in China, where it is mostly illegal, and in Muslim-majority countries). Thus it is difficult to give precise numbers. The most reliable estimates put the number at about 600 million Pentecostals worldwide. The phenomenon is huge.
The challenge of Pentecostalism comes not only from its size but also from its geographical distribution. The demographic center of Christianity has shifted to the Global South, where there are now more Christians than in Europe and North America. There are some Pentecostals in the Global North, some non-Pentecostal Christians in the Global South. Christians in the latter part of the world tend to be, if not outright Pentecostal, robustly supernaturalist. The majority of Christians in the world are now supernaturalist—and in that respect much closer to the world of the New Testament than are their northern coreligionists. Through immigration rather than conversion, this version of the faith is now spilling over into the North. It constitutes a great theological challenge to those of us, Catholic as well as Protestant, whose faith is of a more sedate variety.
For Pentecostals, miracles, especially miracles of healing, are very real. The spiritual world is close at hand. The empirical world is constantly penetrated by spiritual beings both good and evil: the Holy Spirit and the angels, demons and even Satan himself. What is more, human beings who have been baptized in the Holy Spirit may acquire the “gifts of the Spirit” (the charismata of the New Testament), including the laying on of hands to heal the sick, exorcism of demons, prophecy, and even, on occasion, the raising of the dead. Non-Pentecostal Christians react to all this on a scale ranging from skepticism to condemnation: These miracles, they say, are probably illusory, explicable in naturalist terms—for example, spiritual healing can be explained as a psychosomatic process—or a form of magic, an illicit attempt to force God’s hand.
In Western Christendom, there have been sharp differences between Catholic and Protestant attitudes toward miracles. Officially, the Catholic Church has been supernaturalist in principle, but cautious in practice: Saints are expected to perform miracles, but these are juridically investigated and bureaucratically regulated; miracles outside these procedures are frowned upon. Bureaucrats are always suspicious of free enterprise. But the Church has made many concessions to popular Catholicism practicing a much more spontaneous supernaturalism.
Protestants have been much more wary of the supernatural: God speaks to us through the kerygma, the proclamation of the Word, and the sacraments; to seek him elsewhere, as through miracles, shows a lack of faith. Calvinism has been most radical in stripping Christianity of its supernatural trappings—compare a Baroque Catholic cathedral, full of relics and multiple depictions of saints, with the plain, white-washed churches of Puritan New England. American Evangelical theologians (very non-Pentecostal ones) have developed a doctrine called “cessationism”: Miracles have ceased because they are no longer needed, either after Jesus’ earthly ministry came to an end or after the canon of the New Testament was completed. Mainline Protestants, I think, just prefer not to think about such matters too much.
Pentecostals challenge all of these attitudes as deviations from the full gospel, deplorable concessions to the naturalist zeitgeist. The challenge is always there as Pentecostals come to the attention of other Christians, regardless of the challengers’ level of sophistication. Partly because of their social mobility, which leads to higher education, the Pentecostal challenge has become more sophisticated—though, at this point, without losing its passionate quality. A very good example of this is a book by Francis MacNutt (a Catholic involved in the “charismatic renewal” movement in that church), who along with his wife conducts a healing ministry based in Florida. The 2005 book is a bill of indictment against non-charismatic Christians, as is already wonderfully expressed by its title, The Nearly Perfect Crime: How the Church Almost Killed the Ministry of Healing.
More subtle but no less passionate is a recent book by James K. A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy. Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an institution that used to be a bastion of stern Dutch Reformed theology. Smith, a convert to Pentecostalism (though he now describes himself as a charismatic, or “small-p Pentecostal” and is a member of the Christian Reformed Church), sharply criticizes contemporary Christian thinkers for making basic concessions to naturalism etsi Deus non daretur, “as if God did not exist.” Against this, Smith insists that Christian thought should base itself precisely on the presupposition that God does indeed exist, with all the implications from this drawn by Pentecostalism. The book’s introduction has the nice title “What Hath Athens to Do with Azusa Street?”—paraphrasing Tertullian, who wanted to free Christian theology from the hegemony of Greek philosophy.
Since I have no academic credentials as a theologian, there is a degree of chutzpah in my tackling the subject of Pentecostalism. I will admit that in my table of virtues, chutzpah has an honorable place (at least if exercised with some discrimination). I will also admit to a lack of deference to academic credentials, many of which are fraudulent. But I have a more respectable explanation: I think that the “priesthood of all believers” also has a cognitive dimension. If the Reformation has given lay people access to the Scriptures, it has given them a warrant to reflect on them as well.
In what I have said above, it should be clear that I am a friendly observer of the Pentecostal phenomenon. Of course I respect Pentecostals as fellow believers, but I also value their contribution to what David Martin has called “betterment” in the lives of people. But I am convinced that interfaith dialogue, while acknowledging areas of agreement, must also be frank in stating disagreements. In other words, it is as important to say no as to say yes. I will now say no to the Pentecostal project of placing supernatural charismata at the center of the Christian faith. This in no way diminishes my appreciation of what Pentecostalism has to offer otherwise to the Christian community and to society at large.
In formulating my friendly dissent, I will (inevitably, I guess) use certain Lutheran categories. I think, though, that others, at least this side of radical Calvinism, can translate these categories into terms of their own traditions. It so happens that Lutheranism has a long history with proto-Pentecostals. Luther himself had serious disagreements with the “spiritualists” (Schwärmer) of his time, who evinced many of the characteristics associated with Pentecostalism. While Luther was hiding from the imperial ban in the Wartburg, some preachers from the town of Zwickau came to Wittenberg, where they agitated for a more spiritual form of the burgeoning Protestant movement. They were inspired by the teachings of Thomas Müntzer, who was a pastor in Zwickau for a while and later became much more radical theologically and politically; he became involved in the Peasants’ Revolt and was executed in the course of its suppression. Luther’s colleagues begged him to return to Wittenberg to deal with the agitation. He did, despite danger to himself, and preached a series of sermons against the “Zwickau prophets.”
Thus official Lutheranism positioned itself in an anti-Pentecostal stance from early on. As Carter Lindberg showed in his thorough study, The Third Reformation?: Charismatic Movements and the Lutheran Tradition, Zwickau-type “spiritualism” kept flaring up throughout Lutheran history, notably in seventeenth-century Pietism (the continental analogue to Anglo-American Methodism). As is not surprising, mainline Lutheran authorities kept rejecting these upstarts. Perhaps the most curious episode began in 1841, when Johann Christoph Blumhardt was pastor of a small town in Württemberg, a region in southwest Germany steeped in Pietism. A woman in his congregation showed symptoms that he came to interpret as demon possession. Contrary to his training and the tradition of his church, he felt moved by compassion for the woman to perform an exorcism. The woman was healed. Blumhardt’s fame spread, and for a while he conducted a healing ministry, which attracted people from near and far who came to be healed from various ailments. The church authorities finally put a stop to it, but Blumhardt gave up his pastorate and continued his ministry. Whatever one may think about such events, it is clear that supernaturalism has had an enduring attraction.
It seems to me that, perhaps surprisingly, it is the Lutheran view of the Eucharist that provides a useful clue to the problem of “spirituality,” from the ecstasies of Zwickau to those of Pentecostalism today. The surprise comes from the fact that this particular view came, not from the contestation with the Schwärmer of the sixteenth century, but from a different contestation. The clue may be found in one phrase in Article 10 of the “Augsburg Confession,” the document that the Protestant party submitted to the Imperial Diet of 1530 and that has become the founding statement of Lutheran theology. The phrase refers to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist: Christ is present in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine.
The contestation here was not between Luther and Thomas Müntzer, but with both the Catholic Church and the early version of the Swiss Reformation represented by Zwingli. The Lutherans tried to position themselves between Rome and Zurich. On the one hand, there was what was popularly called “the miracle of the Mass,” celebrated at the altar by the priest empowered to do this by virtue of his ordination, signaled by the ringing of the little bell at the precise moment when the “transubstantiation” was supposed to occur. (I am not concerned here with the question of whether this miraculous understanding accurately reflected official Catholic doctrine, then or now.) On the other hand, there was the Swiss view that the Eucharist was a simple memorial, literally following Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (I am also not concerned here with the fact that a more complex understanding of the Eucharist developed later in the Calvinist phase of the Swiss Reformation.) The polemical intent of the phrase is clear. Christ is present in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine: What occurs here is neither transubstantiation nor a simple memorial—that is, neither a miracle nor a mundane event.
I think that the understanding expressed in the phrase can be usefully applied to issues other than the Eucharist: namely, to the Bible and the Church. Many Evangelicals hold that the Bible was directly inspired by God and is therefore “inerrant.” Catholics believe that the Church possesses divine authority bestowed by Jesus on the apostle Peter and his successors and is therefore empowered to issue “infallible” statements in matters of faith and morals. Not so the Lutheran view, in which the Bible is a collection of texts produced by human beings under specific historical circumstances, neither directly inspired nor inerrant. God revealed himself in, with, and under these contingencies of history. (It is no accident, by the way, that modern critical scholarship of the Bible first flourished in Lutheran theological faculties in Germany.)
The Church is a thoroughly human institution, with all the vices and follies of such an entity, possessing no intrinsic authority and certainly not the power of infallibility. God’s revelation is communicated in, with, and under an all too fallible institution. Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession simply defines the Church as the locale where the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are offered, with no need for any further legitimations, such as apostolic succession or papal governance.)
We can now apply the same understanding to the issue of healing that is so central to the Pentecostal experience. All Christians, along with believers in other religious traditions, pray for deliverance from the perils of life, including illness. If God exists, he can do anything; he can heal my illness or that of my neighbor’s child. But when non-Pentecostal Christians pray for healing, they do not specifically ask God to perform a miracle—certainly not every week in a service featuring a charismatic healer or prayer group. They typically expect God to act through natural processes: the skill of the surgeon, the efficacy of medication, or just the process of remission. This is well expressed in the healing service regularly performed in many Episcopal churches, which does ask God to heal a sick individual, but leaves open the means by which God may do so and assumes no charismatic authority of the officiating priest.
Typically, however, God is expected to act without the supernatural intervention mediated by Pentecostal healing. No miracle is expected to occur. In other words, God heals in, with, and under natural processes. One may still be open to the possibility that God intervenes miraculously on some occasions, as Johann Christoph Blumhardt was when he felt called to perform an exorcism. But such miracles are not the result of widely diffused “gifts of the spirit,” are not part of regular worship, and are not proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church (or, for that matter, evidence of sainthood, as in the Catholic process of canonization).
The Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist implies a view of creation itself being a sacrament. All of nature, the world as perceived in ordinary experience and in empirical science, is sacramental—in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, displays “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.” In one of my earlier ventures into unauthorized theologizing, I adumbrated this proposition by the phrase “signals of transcendence”: God, as it were, hides in the universe, but here and there we can find signs of his presence. In their understanding of the Eucharist, Lutherans used the phrase finitum capax infiniti—“the finite can contain the infinite.” The finite, perishable elements of bread and wine can, invisibly, contain the infinite, eternal presence of the risen Christ. But so can the finite, perishable reality of the empirical universe. George Forell, one of the best American interpreters of the Reformation, opined that the phrase finitum capax infiniti expressed the very core of Lutheran faith.
I think that the Lutheran view of creation is expressed most powerfully not in dogmatic statements but in hymnody. (The late German bishop Hanns Lilje wrote a beautiful little book about Johann Sebastian Bach with the title Prelude to Eternity.) Put differently: There is no need for additional miracles; the universe itself is the primary miracle. Modern physics, with its quota of astounding mysteries, seems to support this idea. In recent years the idea has been eloquently expressed in the works of the physicist John Polkinghorne, who, not so incidentally, is also an Anglican theologian.
In fidelity to the ecumenical thrust of this argument, let me refer to my favorite Catholic mystic, the medieval anchoress Julian of Norwich. In one of her “showings,” she reports a vision in which she saw God holding in his hand something “about the size of a hazelnut.” When she asks what it is, God tells her that “it is all that is made.” The vision implies that God not only created the world, but that its ongoing existence depends on God’s decision not to let it fall out of his hand. The relation between creator and creation is as close as my hand and an object I hold in my hand. Even if my fist is closed, I can see the outline of the hand as I look at the object it holds.
Yet the Pentecostal critics of Christians holding views like the Lutheran one accuse the latter of succumbing to the “naturalism” of the secular worldview by operating on the terms of “the enemy”: Christian philosophers operate within the conceptual framework of academic philosophy, which excludes supernatural assumptions, and Christian biblical scholars work with the methods of academic history, which exclude miracles as causal factors. Yet in a curious way, the Pentecostal worldview itself is “naturalist”: Nature is perceived as a closed system of causal processes, with supernatural forces intervening in this system from the outside. What is left out of this worldview is the possibility that the supernatural is already working within nature, only rarely coming into it from the outside.
It is undoubtedly correct that modern science and technology have brought about a secular discourse that brackets, even if it does not reject, supernatural definitions of reality. This is an “official” discourse, propagated by the educational system, the media, and the law, and it also functions as a default discourse: When in doubt, believers too fall back upon it. Even if an individual believes in the power of intercessory prayer, his first response to illness will be to call a doctor. Indeed, most Pentecostals in the contemporary world employ this naturalist discourse some of the time, while they have recourse to a supernaturalist discourse at other times. In this they are much like other religious believers. The difference for Pentecostals is in the privileged status and the routine use of this supernaturalist discourse.
Thus, if I say no to Pentecostalism, it is a friendly no—very far indeed from the anathemas Christians used to hurl at each other for even minor differences in doctrine or practice. I respect Pentecostals as fellow believers and appreciate the good they do, especially among poor and marginalized people, but there is also a properly religious reason for my favorable attitude toward Pentecostals. Whatever else I may think about many of their beliefs, they have not lost the central affirmation of the Gospel: that the coming of Christ into our world heralds a tectonic shift in the structure of reality, a cosmic event in the process of restoring the universe to the glory for which the creator intended it. In this, Pentecostals, along with the wider Evangelical community to which most of them belong, are greatly superior to mainline Protestants, many of whom have lost this cosmic dimension of the Gospel. Instead, much of mainline Protestantism has translated Christianity into three secular agendas: moralistic, therapeutic, or political. All three are profoundly distortive.
Max Weber has, correctly up to a point, ascribed to Protestantism an important role in what he called the “disenchantment” of the world. Much of what goes on in the world today could be called re-enchantment (or counter-secularization). Pentecostalism is a very loud version of this development. Those of us who prefer a more quiet version—if you will, the “still, small voice”—need not apologize.
Peter L. Berger is senior research fellow of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston Univerity.