Pentecostalism and ChristianityA non-Pentecostal looks at the historical and immediate importance of the Pentecostal movement to the Church today.
This paper is written by a non-Pentecostal, as a result of conversations with Pentecostal colleagues and
friends. It has been developed out of a sense of the importance of Pentecostalism for Christianity today, and yet of an awareness of some of the problems and struggles that lay heavily on sections' of Pentecostalism, particularly among college, university and theological seminary students as well as professors.
It is my considered opinion that Pentecostalism is one of the major renewal movements of Christian history and that these developments have been the most important occurrences throughout the lengthy record of the Christian heritage.
These outstanding times of revitalization have emerged from periods of dearth, have covered sizable sections of the Christian world both demographically and geographically, have lasted for quite a few generations, have given impetus to new and creative forms of ministry, have brought about significant expansion, and then have declined.
A great chain of renewal
After the awakening there was a period of somnolence when much of the dynamism was lost, but then after a period of time, in much continuity with the best of the past, renewal has returned.
Pentecostalism is not a contemporary expression of the long tradition of Christian extremism …
As I see it, the great movements of Christian renewal may be described as
- the Early Church c.100-300 AD, flowing out of the New Testament;
- Early Monasticism c.350-550;
- Celtic Monasticism c.550-750;
- the High Middle Ages c.1075-1275;
- the Reformation of c.1517-1650,
- Evangelicalism c.1735-1890,
- and Pentecostalism c.1900-present.
Viewed in this way, Pentecostalism is not a contemporary expression of the long tradition of Christian extremism, but rather stands as the present representative of the noblest of all Christian inheritances—the great chain of renewal.
Pentecostalism shares in the salient characteristics of Christian renewal: as in the past, so today. Pentecostals are almost always Trinitarians, so Father, Son and Spirit are all exalted. Although any consideration of Pentecostalism must notice the emphasis on the Spirit, almost any hearing or reading of Pentecostal sermons—at least in Canada—will be found to be Christocentric and crucicentric as well, with the added assumption under-stood if not always articulated, that God the Father is above all, before all and in all.
There need be no concern by other Evangelicals that claims to personal revelation will supersede Scripture … Pentecostals are among the strongest Bible Christians today.
Pentecostalism has a practical Trinitarian balance that often exceeds the dreadful theological imbalance of many of its critics. Undoubtedly, it is conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit which enables Pentecostals to display such wholeness. Pentecostals also have a high view of the Bible. It is not simply a doctrine of biblical inspiration and authority, but an experience of God speaking through His Word in truth, grace and power. In this situation there need be no concern by other Evangelicals that claims to personal revelation will supersede Scripture. Actually, Pentecostals are among the strongest Bible Christians around today. Pentecostals also emphasize the reality and necessity of conversion, which helps to produce a sacrificial activism that has persuaded many of their offspring of the genuineness of their faith and of the privilege of following in their train.
Forward looking Christians
In addition, they are positive and forward-looking Christians, with great anticipation for the future of the Church on Earth as well as in heaven. Their pessimistic premillennialism concerning the Church in history is countered by their confidence in what they believe to be the promise of a great end-times awakening, of which they are the heralds, and which has at times been known as the Latter Rain. The anticipation of this final awakening, and of their unique place within it, thus can give a great sense of significance to Pentecostals concerning their movement and their ministry.
Pentecostalism also has what is considered to be its distinctive emphasis on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which may not be as unique as it might appear at first sight. The purpose of the baptism was to work and serve Christ in His power, by the Spirit. The power was the accessibility of the particularly dramatic gifts of the Spirit as outlined in 1 Corinthians 12, signified in operation by the expression of the gift of tongues.
A longing for more of God's power after conversion, albeit in a somewhat different form, is true throughout renewals. And the expression of such gifts as healing and exorcism has a lengthy pedigree, and only seem surprising to many Protestants because the Reformers, in order to undercut the Roman Catholic claim to apostolic succession and apostolic powers, placed a prohibition on such matters. So the Pentecostal gifts are in good measure only a rediscovery.
Pentecostalism also participates in the effectiveness for which the major renewals have been famous. It is now the largest denominational family in worldwide Protestantism, and all of this is in less than a century. As a renewal movement, Pentecostalism sought to share its new understandings and experiences with the rest of the Protestant churches, but in most situations was rebuffed. As a result, Pentecostals withdrew into a very productive isolation.
By the mid-20th century they were once again communicating with the rest of Christendom, and in great effectiveness. The TV healing evangelists, typified by Oral Roberts and Kathryn Kuhlmann, were demonstrating to many nominal Christians that God was alive and working. David Duplessis sought to penetrate the upper echelons of ecumenical Christianity, while Demos Shakarian's Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship International reached Christian laymen of every denominational stripe at their breakfast meetings and conferences.
Revitalizing the Church
Then in the 1960s the Pentecostal experience and spirituality began to impregnate historic Protestant congregations, institutions and ministries in process. In '67 the Roman Catholic charismatics emerged, and in the same year the counterculture Jesus People, with their culturally relevant music, profoundly influenced the Pentecostal way.
Next there came what some have described as the Third Wave, including the Vineyard, the Toronto `Blessing,' and Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Brompton, in London, England, all the while Pentecostalism in various modes of attire was ever spreading globally. All of these strands, so expressive of the Pentecostal ethos, I will refer to as the Pentecostalist movement.
Pentecostalists can begin to feel decidedly negative about aspects of their heritage, such as perceived anti-intellectualism, inadequate exegesis, a lack of opportunity for quiet, reflective, God-directed worship, too facile an embrace of right-wing politics and a frequently unexamined and noxious triumphalism.
The constant emergence of new pulsations of the Pentecostalist movement suggests that this great renewal was nowhere near completion, and as a result it naturally began to produce leaders for the wider Evangelical Protestant domain.
In Canada, probably the two most readily recognized and respected Evangelical leaders are two Pentecostals: David Mainse, whose national daily TV broadcast, 100 Huntley Street, has been in operation for almost a quarter of a century; with the other being Brian Stiller, one-time director of national Youth for Christ and then of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and now the president of Tyndale College and Seminary of Toronto.
In light of the way that God has been using Pentecostalism and the movements to which it gave rise, it is necessary that all so involved have some understanding of their greatness, their significance, and their unique position in contemporary Christianity, as the particular embodiment and exemplar of Christian renewal in our day. With all respect, popes, archbishops, moderators and other ecclesiastical leaders pale in comparison with the importance of these major Christian renewal movements. Happy the day when the institutional leaders and the renewal movements are one!
Since there is every evidence that this Pentecostal coalition will continue to expand, the appreciation for it should know no bounds. Christians in older or more socially respectable churches should never undervalue or adopt a superior attitude, or compare Pentecostal bodies unfavourably with those known as mainline. Often those
who rejoice in the latter appellation are most in need of the renewal that the Pentecostals signify.
A crisis of identity?
Although Pentecostalism and its cohorts are evincing great effectiveness, they are also facing major difficulties, a situation not to be wondered at, since the two frequently go together. Pentecostalism is well into its third generation of life, if not its fourth, which in the anatomy of movements is the time when questions of identity arise. Up until this time there has been a large measure of agreement about the nature of the present renewal among Pentecostals, but all of a sudden critical and unsettling evaluations are being proposed.
On account of its dynamism, growth and size, Pentecostalism and its associated movements find themselves in
contact with many other Christians. Emerging from relative isolation, it can be a shock to find gifted and dedicated Christians in other communions, even in those most obviously in need of renewal, and can result in a sense of deprivation and inferiority. This is probably most true among young Pentecostals engaged in graduate level academic and theological studies, interacting with brilliant and articulate non-Pentecostal professors. At such a time Pentecostalists can begin to feel decidedly negative about aspects of their heritage, such as perceived anti-intellectualism, inadequate exegesis, a lack of opportunity for quiet, reflective, God-directed worship, too facile an embrace of right-wing politics, and a frequently unexamined and noxious triumphalism. In such a context an exodus of bright, embarrassed young people may begin from the Pentecostal world, but unfortunately the latter end is often worse than the first.
Instead of being purveyors of renewal to a darkened Christendom, in a search for acceptance, respectability and a new integrity, they frequently ally themselves with forms of Christianity far removed from renewal. Unaware of how to live in a pluralistic Christianity, they also at times transfer their robust loyalty from the Pentecostalists to their new ecclesiastical home, in the process at times becoming members of the establishment in affiliation and attitude. These are only a few of the predicaments facing contemporary Pentecostals.
… the Pentecostal movement cannot save itself by returning into isolationism.
In this setting a few words from a sympathetic outsider might have some value. The first is that the Pentecostal movement cannot save itself by returning into isolationism. There was a place for splendid isolation as strength was developed; but in the will of God the movement is now a worldwide phenomenon responsible for the well-being of the whole Church of Jesus Christ. Such a situation requires great humility. A public acknowledgement of the weaknesses and failures of the Pentecostals in act and attitude, perhaps after the manner of John Paul II, would manifest an integrity that would help to do away with self-righteousness and pride, revitalizing the renewal, stanching the brain drain, and communicating with others much more efficiently in weakness than in purported strength.
Appreciating our roots
They also need to keep close to the conservative Evangelical world, for it is here that essential roots lie—in the seedbed of Holiness Methodism. Without seminal roots we are blown about by every wind of doctrine, experience and egoism.
The Pentecostalists also need to realize that they will do their best work for the kingdom of God in their own bailiwick. Of course they will have fellowship and interaction with other Christians, but the big end of their life will be in their own church family—and what a glorious place of size, strength and support this often is, particularly in comparison with the parlous state of much of the rest of Christianity.
In spite of the ongoing renewal of which they are so much a part, they need to take the historical view and realize that if Christ does not return, a new and greater renewal may emerge that does not espouse the singularities of the Pentecostals. In some ways prepared for this occurrence, Pentecostals will be able to deal with the trauma that afflicts many renewal movements when a stronger force appears upon the scene. Instead of anathematizing the newcomers, they will go about the work that God has given them to do, perforce with less visibility and recognition.
If there would be one exercise that I would conceive to be helpful, I would recommend a reading of the history of Methodism, to see why within a few generations a great movement of renewal had largely lost its way, and to remember that Methodism in the early 19th century was very much like Pentecostalism today, and in fact its parent.
May God enable the Pentecostalist movement to increase in faith, hope and love, being a blessing to the Church and to the nations, in this day that God has uniquely given to it, and in all for the glory of God.
This previously unpublished paper was written as a letter to his friend, Dr: Idicherian Ninan, a professor of New Testament at South Asian Institute of Advanced Christian Studies in Bangalore, India.
Dr. Ian Rennie is professor emeritus of Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. He lives in Vancouver; B.C.
Originally published in Testimony, June 2001.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2004 Christianity.ca.