Over the past decade, Pentecostalism has become something of an academic darling for historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and scholars of religious studies. Researchers ensconced in the secularized environs of the university have produced a flood of books and studies about the fantastic worlds of global Pentecostalism. And yet, while sometimes sympathetic and irenic, the academic interest in Pentecostalism has had the curious backhanded effect of disenchantment. The sociological fascination proves a cover for condescending incredulity, with Pentecostalism reduced to a sort of global snake-handling.
This reduction of Pentecostalism to a specimen shuts down the articulation of Pentecostalism as any kind of theological voice. Indeed, the sociological account of Pentecostalism implies that “Pentecostal theology” is an oxymoron. Which is a shame because, over the last century, an interesting theology has been developing in such classical Pentecostal traditions as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ, as well as in charismatic movements within the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. (The shared sensibility of Pentecostal and charismatic traditions is often described under the umbrella of small -p pentecostalism.)
At the heart of this Pentecostal theology is an ontological claim: that the same Spirit who animated the apostles at Pentecost continues to be actively, dynamically, and miraculously present both in the ecclesial community and in creation. Pentecostal theology is a theology of the Creed’s third article and is predicated on the belief that the Spirit is a spirit who surprises us by continuing to speak, heal, and manifest God’s presence in ways that counter the shut-down naturalism of modernity. As a result, following in the wake of the Spirit, it is a nimble theology that seeks to explicate and understand the controlled chaos of charismatic worship—a faith seeking understanding of the experience of the Spirit’s surprising ways.
Although Pentecostalism sometimes gets a space on the table as a subject of study, it rarely gets a seat at the theological table as a contributor to the conversation, even among serious theologians. On one level, this is not surprising. The Pentecostal movement emerged largely from an underclass with little access to formal education. In an often-told story, one of its saints embodied this marginalization: Willie J. Seymour—the preacher at the center of the Azusa Street revival in 1906, a son of former slaves—received his theological education in Texas while listening in a hall outside the classroom that white students alone could enter. Pentecostalism is a tradition of preachers and evangelists, not scholars and doctors.
And yet, though Pentecostalism is clearly focused on an embodied spirituality, this does not mean that it lacks a reflective theology. Granted, early Pentecostals never produced academic theology or attempted a synthesis of biblical revelation and philosophical frameworks. But we can distinguish between an implicit or low theology embedded in a spirituality and an explicit or high theology that articulates the implicit theology as an intellectual vision of the world. While early Pentecostalism lacked the latter, it was rich with the former. And as the twentieth century unfolded, Pentecostalism gradually developed a more explicit, academic theology.
This apology for the early Pentecostals’ low theology has been the consistent refrain of church historian Douglas Jacobsen of Messiah College. In his 2003 book, Thinking in the Spirit: Theologies of the Early Pentecostal Movement, Jacobsen invited us to see that constructive theological voices were always at work in Pentecostalism. He has now supplemented his historical monograph with a helpful Reader in Pentecostal Theology, which provides opportunity for firsthand encounters with early voices—including some who are well-known (Charles Fox Parham, Willie J. Seymour, A. J. Tomlinson, C. H. Mason, and the inimitable Aimee Semple McPherson) and others who have been underrecognized (G. F. Taylor and David Wesley Myland).
This is theology forged at the pulpit and in prayer, in the heat of revival and the swelter of the camp meeting—a theology that bears the stamp of its liturgical origins. Early Pentecostal theology could not marshal the categories of high intellectual theology, but Jacobsen’s Reader in Pentecostal Theology demonstrates that it was not, therefore, essentially atheological or anti-intellectual. (Although, admittedly, anti-intellectualism does manifest itself within Pentecostalism from time to time.) Indeed, Jacobsen argues, “one might even go so far as to argue that, apart from theology, pentecostalism would not exist. It is not necessarily the uniqueness of their experiences that sets pentecostals apart; it is the way those experiences are theologically categorized and defined.”
The miraculous phenomena that manifested themselves at the Azusa Street revival, for example, compelled serious and sustained reflection. The events needed explanation, and the Pentecostal preachers and leaders turned to the resource that was most important to them: the narrative of Scripture. The resulting implicit theology was not a synthesis of revelation and philosophy but rather a synthesis trying to make sense of experience in light of the narrative of Scripture.
Thus early Pentecostal preachers found themselves regularly citing the narrative of Acts and the Gospel of Luke in order to interpret tongues-speech and other “signs and wonders.” Their theological conclusion was that, as the early outpouring of the Spirit empowered the apostles to be witnesses to Jerusalem, Samaria, and the ends of the earth, so the outpouring at Azusa Street primarily constituted an empowerment for mission. They did not simply revel in the experience of the supernatural; the phenomena pushed them to seek answers for hard theological questions.
The rigor and seriousness of early Pentecostal theology was embedded in the experience of revival and the work of mission, preaching, and pastoral care. But the centrality of Pentecostal experience would eventually push Pentecostal theology into its central philosophical insights with the development of an implicit Pentecostal epistemology: a vision of human understanding. This is perhaps best summarized in Steven Land’s groundbreaking 1993 book, Pentecostal Spirituality. Pentecostalism is primarily a spirituality that embodies a worldview, Land argues, even if that worldview was not originally articulated in intellectual categories.
In other words, Pentecostalism remains, first and foremost, a spirituality: a rhythm of rituals and practices, prayers and altar calls. But that produces a position of theological and philosophical significance. Pentecostals take the central point of the narrative of Acts 2 to be Peter’s courage and willingness to recognize in strange phenomena the operation of the Spirit and declare it to be a work of God. To declare “this is that” (Acts 2:16) was to be open to God working in unexpected ways and to make a theological claim about the phenomena. Thus at the heart of Pentecost is a radical openness to God—especially an openness to a God who exceeds our horizons of expectation and comes unexpectedly.
Still, there is no denying that the early writings left most of Pentecostal thought entirely implicit. What has emerged in recent years is the attempt to make the ideas explicit”and to test them in the arena of high theology. Tan-Chow May Ling’s Pentecostal Theology for the Twenty-First Century and Michael Welker’s collection The Work of the Spirit are two recent books that tell the story of Pentecostal theology’s emergence from an implicit folk theology to its articulation as an explicit scholarly theological agenda.
Pentecostalism is usually traced to the Azusa Street revival that ran from 1906 to 1913. (Similar but independent revivals were happening at this time around the world.) With deep roots in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and African spirituality, the Azusa Street revival engendered the classical Pentecostalism associated with denominations such as the Assemblies of God, the Church of God in Christ, and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). Classical Pentecostalism was also usually distinguished by a distinct emphasis on speaking in tongues. Taking up second-work theologies from their Wesleyan heritage, Pentecostals identified speaking in tongues as “the initial physical evidence of baptism of the Holy Spirit.” (Though they also emphasized the continued manifestation of all the gifts of the Spirit.)
The resulting energy was initially directed almost entirely toward mission work. In the 1960s and 1970s, Pentecostal-like phenomena and experiences began to be seen in more mainline denominations and traditional churches. This was identified as the “charismatic renewal” and signaled a spillover of Pentecostal spirituality into traditional communions, including the Catholic charismatic renewal (first begun at Duquesne) and renewal movements in Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian traditions.
While the spirituality and practices shared certain similarities, especially an emphasis on the Spirit’s surprise and the continued operation of even the miraculous gifts, the charismatic movement did not adopt the notion of tongues as “initial evidence” of baptism in the Holy Spirit. Thus capital- P Pentecostalism is usually taken to refer to classical Pentecostalism, whereas “charismatic” identifies those traditions and theologians who also emphasize a central role for the Spirit’s surprise, but within existing liturgical and theological frameworks. These were later followed by what is often called the third-wave charismatic movement associated with Peter Wagner. This refers to the growth of nondenominational charismatic churches such as Vineyard Fellowship. Like the charismatic renewal, third-wave charismatics do not affirm initial evidence, but neither do they identify with traditional denominations or communions.
Among all these small-p pentecostals, there are important similarities, particularly regarding the shape of religious practice. And, as the recent theological work has begun to make explicit, a unique understanding of God, persons, and the world is embedded and implicit in Pentecostal worship and practices.
Several aspects of the Pentecostal worldview are worth noting—beginning with the radical openness to God and, in particular, God doing something different or new. This engenders an emphasis on the continued, dynamic presence, activity, and ministry of the Spirit, including continuing revelation, prophecy, and the centrality of charismatic giftings in the ecclesial community. Included in this ministry of the Spirit is a distinctive belief in the healing of the body as a central aspect of the work of the Atonement. In contrast to rationalistic evangelical theology, Pentecostal theology is rooted in an affective epistemology. And contrary to common assumptions about the otherworldliness of Pentecostals, the movement is characterized by a central commitment to mission, with a strong sense that mission includes concern for social justice. Here, I think, Pentecostal theology is poised to make unique contributions to broader discussions. Indeed, the charismatic movement has already influenced liturgical renewal within the Catholic tradition.
The core affirmation of the Spirit’s continued activity touches further spheres of thought. Theologians, for instance, have begun to tease out the implications for cosmology and ontology, considering the dynamic, active presence of the Spirit in the whole of creation. With a pneumatological understanding of creation, there follows an affirmation of the Spirit’s ongoing activity in nature as well as in human culture. (This is hinted at in John Polkinghorne’s essay in the Welker volume but expanded and deepened in Yong’s contribution to the book.) The same presence and activity of the Spirit in humanity’s cultural work also needs to be considered (along lines suggested by Vincent Bacote’s 2005 volume, The Spirit of Public Theology).
The Spirit’s healing ministry also has interesting theological consequences: Implicitly embedded in this central claim that God cares about our bodies is a radical affirmation of the goodness of creation that translates into a radical affirmation of the goodness of bodies and materiality as such.
Here, I think, is one of the most underappreciated elements of a Pentecostal worldview, for the move from the Spirit’s physical work to a new understanding of physicality offers possibilities for overcoming some of the most pernicious dualisms of modern times. Pentecostal worship involves the body: arms raised or outstretched, bodies prostrate on the floor or dancing in the aisles, the laying on of hands, bodies kneeling at the altar, banners waving, etc. (Cartesian “minds” could never engage in Pentecostal worship!) This is why some Pentecostal theologians such as Frank Macchia and Simon Chan have suggested that a Pentecostal worldview is a sacramental worldview. It emphasizes the goodness, necessity, and instrumentality of material elements: God’s Spirit is active through concrete and material phenomena. It is a gritty spirituality—one that affirms all the messiness and awkwardness of embodiment, because it is in and through such embodiment that God’s Spirit is at work.
Pentecostals have often accepted rejections of the world, but the core elements of a Pentecostal worldview aim toward an affirmation of the fundamental goodness of spheres of culture related to embodiment, such as the arts. This deserves much more attention than we can give it here. We might note, however, that it is precisely this aspect of Pentecostal spirituality that explains why Pentecostal spirituality is also often attended by a prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel—whether preached in Africa, Brazil, or suburban Dallas—is, we must recognize, a testament to the very worldliness of Pentecostal theology. It is one of the most un-Gnostic moments of Pentecostal spirituality, which refuses to spiritualize the promise that the gospel is “good news for the poor.” Granted, this means something different and far less admirable in the comfort of an air-conditioned megachurch in suburban Dallas than it does in famished refugee camps in Uganda. But, in both cases, the implicit theological intuition that informs Pentecostal renditions of the prosperity gospel is evidence of a core affirmation that God cares about our bellies and bodies.
The Pentecostal affirmation of materiality is intimately linked with an understanding of the human person as embodied spirit. For Pentecostals, while we are more than our bodies, we are also never less than our bodies. Implicit in Pentecostal practice is a distinct epistemology that privileges an affective mode of knowing. This intuitive, even emotional knowing (“I know that I know that I know” is a common Pentecostal testimony) is more literary than logical; we are the kind of creatures who make our way in the world more by metaphor than by mathematics. The way we know is more like a dance than a deduction.
Finally, Pentecostals have always emphasized that the empowerment of the Spirit is first and foremost an empowerment for mission that is tethered to an eschatological expectation (well illustrated by Ling in Pentecostal Theology for the Twenty-First Century). Pentecostal scholars such as Doug Peterson and Eldin Villifañe have emphasized that the Pentecostal movement has been consistently (though not uniformly) characterized by a central commitment to social justice, with a preferential option for the marginalized. The Azusa Street revival remains, for Pentecostals, the paradigm—a revival in an abandoned stable, led by a one-eyed African-American preacher locked out of his previous charge. This stems, I think, from Pentecostalism’s first principle: The revolutionary activity of the Spirit always disrupts and subverts the status quo of the powerful. Within this revolutionary community of the Spirit, one finds not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble (1 Cor. 1:26).
Increasingly, theologians have begun to explicate these implicit elements of Pentecostal worship and religious experience. In the middle of the twentieth century, as Pentecostals sought to train up new generations of missionaries and ministers, Bible schools and colleges began to emerge. These forays into higher education required the training and formation of teachers who could then return to train the faithful. Since Pentecostal traditions lacked the resources to train their own professors, this was a catalyst for Pentecostals to become engaged in theological formation in more traditional and academic contexts—including early generations who went on to do doctoral work in biblical studies and history at Ivy League institutions, though most were trained at mainstream evangelical institutions. (The uneasy relation of Pentecostalism to evangelicalism is a story for another time.)
About this time, the charismatic renewal brought classical Pentecostals into conversation with charismatics from Catholic, Lutheran, and Presbyterian traditions, which had a long legacy of scholarly theological formation. And those Pentecostals whose formation had been in evangelical contexts were familiar with the sorts of conversations fostered by the Evangelical Theological Society (established in 1949).
Growing out of these engagements and conversations, a number of scholars in 1970 formed the Society for Pentecostal Studies. While many of the chartered members were from classical Pentecostal denominations, the society quickly became a venue for conversations between Pentecostal and charismatic scholars across the disciplines. Conversations are also hosted by academic societies in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The increasing depth of the tradition has now generated two doctoral programs: a Ph.D. program in “Renewal Studies” at Regent University (directed by Amos Yong) and a doctoral program in Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham (directed by historian of global Pentecostalism Allan Anderson).
Until recently, the conversation remained largely in-house—Pentecostal theologians talking to one another. But over the past decade, Pentecostal theologians and biblical scholars have increasingly found themselves in conversation with evangelicals. (Though many Pentecostal theologians, especially from Wesleyan traditions, are eager to distance themselves from evangelical cessationism—the doctrine that the charismatic gifts ceased with the death of the last apostle, thus calling into question both Pentecostal experience and Pentecostal theology.)
This outward move has expanded into conversations with other non-evangelicals as well—nicely illustrated by a series of articles and responses in the Journal of Pentecostal Theology over the past decade. Bringing in such non-Pentecostal theologians as Jürgen Moltmann, Walter Brueggemann, Clark Pinnock, and Harvey Cox, the journal has pushed Pentecostal scholars to more-explicit theological formulations of the Spirit’s presence and activity in our contemporary context.
The center of gravity for these conversations remained solidly within Pentecostalism: These scholars were invited into the Pentecostal conversation in order for Pentecostals to listen and then discuss among themselves. More recently, however, Pentecostal theology has, I believe, begun to reach a stage of maturity that impels them not only to listen to external conversations but also to contribute to them. Such Pentecostal theologians as Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen (a Finnish theologian at Fuller Seminary), Amos Yong, and Simon Chan (a liturgical theologian in Singapore) are engaged in mainstream theological conversations as Pentecostals.
A key factor in this development has been the ecumenical movement. Led especially by the work of church historian Mel Robeck of Fuller Seminary, Pentecostals have been actively and widely engaged in ecumenical dialogue—and actively sought out for such participation. Long and productive dialogues with the Vatican, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Council of Churches (including important contributions to Faith and Order), and others have brought distinctly Pentecostal voices to the fore and emboldened their sense of making a distinctive contribution to the church catholic.
This shift—the shift that has both enabled and encouraged Pentecostals to pull up a seat at the bigger theological table—is nicely illustrated in Welker’s volume, The Work of the Spirit. The fruit of a consultation that brought together both Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal theologians, historians, sociologists, and scientists, the book exhibits both why the wider conversation wants to hear from Pentecostals and what Pentecostals can contribute to the conversation.
Of course, the fact that Pentecostal theologians are taken seriously also means that they must make their claims open to critique. There are serious theological questions that Pentecostal theologians must face: Is charismatic worship and religious experience rooted in a sound explication of Scripture? Does Pentecostal theology have the internal resources to critique the prosperity gospel that so often attends it? Can Pentecostal theology resist primitivism and provide a constructive account of its own catholicity? How can the fantastic claims of Pentecostal miracles be squared with accounts of the world offered by quantum physics and evolutionary biology?
We’re already beginning to see work done on these sorts of questions. A cadre of Pentecostal scholars—including Yong and Wolfgang Vondey—are diving into the dialogue between science and theology, working from an explicitly Pentecostal standpoint. In some cases, following suggestions from Polkinghorne, they see recent developments in quantum physics as providing spaces that make room for the Spirit’s mysterious activity. Others are pushing back on the regnant paradigms in the sciences—particularly prescientific assumptions regarding metaphysical naturalism—arguing that the orthodoxy of science is open to challenge and making room for a uniquely Pentecostal ontology. (One might hear echoes of Teilhard de Chardin in such a project.) Other charismatic scholars, such as biologist Jeff Schloss, are marshaling the frameworks of evolutionary biology to understand Pentecostal spirituality further (drawing on “signaling theory” to help explain Pentecostal and charismatic manifestations in worship).
These and many other sorts of questions will be put to Pentecostal theologians, and they will struggle to answer some of them. As they pull up a seat at the table, however, we would do well just to listen for a while. Perhaps Pentecostal theology has a unique apostolate: to remind the body of Christ that it is a body born on Pentecost and, at the same time, that Pentecost is a vocation for the whole church.
James K.A. Smith is associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College and, with Amos Yong, coeditor of a new book series, Pentecostal Manifestos, to be published by Eerdmans.