I love being part of ecumenical dialogues because I always learn as much about my own family of churches as I do about the other traditions represented. A few years ago I was involved in an ecumenical conversation as one of five representatives of Pentecostalism. The team members were from various parts of the world with two being from lands traditionally Orthodox.
At one point in the conversation the Pentecostal team was asked about our views of the sacraments: Do Pentecostals believe in the sacraments and how many? One of my fellow team members immediately responded in the affirmative and said that we Pentecostals had seven. After recovering from a bit of shock at this answer, I interjected that this perspective did not hold true for most Pentecostals in the United States.
At the first break I inquired further about this view among Pentecostals in former Communist nations. Did they really hold such a view of the sacraments? Much to my surprise I was told that in lands historically Orthodox, Pentecostals had drunk deeply from Orthodox life and this affected their theological development. While it remains true that many Pentecostals still function with a Zwinglian view of the sacraments, there is a small, but growing effort by some Pentecostal theologians and church leaders to recover a more robust sacramentalism. These efforts remain part of a broader dialogue with Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Patristic thinkers as well as an extension of the spirituality central to Pentecostal life and witness.
This trend has resulted from the convergence of a number of different developments. In the United States it began in the 1980s and the debate between Donald Dayton and George Marsden over how best to understand the nature of evangelicalism. Dayton contended that the Wesleyan and Pentecostal sides of the movement represented a different way of doing theology than the Reformed and Baptist parts. This difference was further fueled by a number of Methodist and Pentecostal thinkers in the 1990s who began to explore the connections between Wesley and the Patristic witness ( Ted Campbell and Randy Maddox ), the sacraments ( Hal Knight ), and the potential correlations with Pentecostalism ( Steve Land ).
A second trend began in Sweden by the Swedish Pentecostal Peter Halldorf. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s Halldorf explored and adapted the spirituality of the Patristic tradition, in particular the desert fathers. Halldorf is a prolific writer although virtually everything he has published is in Swedish, which has limited his influence. He continues to edit a journal Pilgrim , and is a leader of a retreat center and ecumenical community . His efforts to fuse together Orthodox spirituality and Pentecostalism has had an important impact on the development of the Swedish Pentecostal churches and is even influencing Norwegian Pentecostals.
More recent writers have continued to explore the connections between Pentecostal spirituality and Orthodox spirituality as exemplified most clearly by the Assemblies of God theologian Simon Chan. Beginning with his Spiritual Theology (1998), Chan has written a number of works centered on liturgy, ecclesiology, and sacramentalism that calls for Pentecostals and evangelicals to recover the spiritual traditions of the church. A desire to explore his own Russian roots led Assemblies of God theologian Ed Rybarczyk to compare Orthodoxy and Pentecostalism in which he noted a number of similarities around the doctrine of salvation. Finally, the Bulgarian Pentecostal Daniela Augustine, who was baptized Orthodox but converted to Pentecostalism, has begun to write works that fuse both traditions together, especially her most recent publication Pentecost, Hospitality, and Transfiguration .
This movement to explore further the connections between the spiritual traditions of Christianity and Pentecostalism has borne fruit in recent works that call for a view of the sacraments as mediators of grace in the life of the Christian. These works are Dan Tomberlins Pentecostal Sacraments and Chris Greens Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lords Supper . One can also see it in the efforts at liturgical renewal by the members of the Joint College of African American Pentecostal Bishops .
When one considers many of the basic impulses of Pentecostal spirituality these trends are not so surprising.
- Pentecostals have always held to a sacramental view of the world in which God is immanently at work
Pentecostals have no problem with the idea that material realities can mediate spiritual realities as viewed in their practice of anointing handkerchiefs to send out to the sick. They also function with a hermeneutic that interprets scripture symbolically. This is part of the reason why many gravitated toward premillennialism in the first place, but it also explains why they operate with a multilayered approach to the interpretation of scripture.
- Central to Pentecostal spirituality is a theology of encounter that accents a conscious experience of divine presence
Normally, this experience occurs around a mourners bench (the low-church version of an altar), but in the Pentecostal mind it remains connected to a sacramental view of the world. Anything can become a conduit of Gods presence and thus facilitate an encounter with God.
Taken together, a sacramental outlook and a theology of encounter provide fertile soil for a turn toward sacramentalism and the spiritual traditions of Christianity. In fact, the Pentecostal push toward sacramentalism challenges other traditions to emphasize the connection between charismatic and sacramental encounters with grace. At the end of the day, these are simply two ways of describing the same reality.
The past thirty years have proven to be a very fruitful time of theological exploration of the sacraments and spirituality among Pentecostal theologians and church leaders. What initially surprised me at the table of an ecumenical conversation has turned out to be a trajectory that seeks to develop some of the basic impulses at the heart of Pentecostalism. Most in the confessionalist wing are not aware of these developments, which is why I mention them here.
Such developments suggest that there is great potential for a fruitful dialogue among evangelicals on the sacramental and charismatic dimension of the Christian life that may bode well for the Church catholic.