Monday, December 24, 2012

An Expanded Vision of Pentecostal Theology - An Initial Thought

I have spent my entire life in the Pentecostal church and now pastor in the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination.  I have seen a lot come and go, I have attended a lot of local, regional, and national meetings of Pentecostals, and I think I have a fairly good handle on what many (if not most) consider to be Pentecostal theology.  The core for many is the matter of speaking in tongues, and depending on your background, it broadens all the way out to praying for miracles and unique manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

I think if that defines our theology, our distinctive as Pentecostals, we have missed most of what was intended by the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Let me first say that I believe in the reality of those things, experience and practice them, and even pray for them.  I believe they have a powerful role in the lives of individual Christians and in the body of Christ.  I am not going to deny any of that, but I am going to argue for something that might strike some Pentecostals as bordering on wanting to have my papers revoked: all those things are derivative truths of Pentecostal theology.  By derivative I mean they are the logical theological extensions of what we believe about the power and reality of the Spirit of God.  Our distinctive theology ought to begin with a pneumatology and then lead to charismata, miracles, and so forth.  A Pentecostal theology that begins with a few effects and uses them to categorically define the cause will miss a lot of biblical insight, and in all honesty, will leave a lot of people undiscipled and badly formed.

If, however, we begin at the beginning – the nature and power of the cause of Pentecost – everything will begin to fall into place, including the more spectacular and public gifts of the Spirit.  The beginning is simply this fact: Pentecostals believe in the imminent, active, and powerful action of the Holy Spirit among the disciples of Jesus Christ, in His church, and in the world today.  If we use a framework like this to begin discovering the role of the Holy Spirit among believers, we have available to us the whole of Scriptural teaching on the Spirit.  If we open this conceptual door first, we become aware of so much more than just a few manifestations.

For instance, the fruit of the Spirit are Pentecostal realities.  Paul describes that familiar list as the consequence of the work of the Spirit, not the achieved character traits of really successful Christ-followers.  They are fruit – the inevitable consequence of healthy trees.  As such, the fruit of the Spirit are the character traits of the third member of the Trinity having his way within our lives.  If this is achieved by even a small group of disciples, we have people living with each other, God, and toward the world in love, joy, peace, patience, and so forth.  A more powerful and spiritual group of people would be hard to imagine, and if this isn’t Pentecostal I don’t know what is.

Then, keeping this same group of fruitful believers in mind, imagine them exercising gifts like glossolalia and prophecy.  They begin with a divine power and wisdom behind what they do and say with each other, so their expression of these unique gifts is filled with kindness, gentleness, faith, and so forth.  Has not every Pentecostal pastor prayed that when people express the gift of tongues and interpretation in public that they do so in a Christ-like fashion?  Is that frustrated prayer the reason why so many churches that are Pentecostal in theology are not so in practice?  How can we expect fruit-less believers to suddenly handle a gift with that much power and potency as if they were fruitful?

And yet, the standard Pentecostal model ignores the primary work of the Spirit, building Christ-like disciples, and emphasizes the effects and then we are frustrated when they are consistently abused and used to abuse.

I am aware of these kinds of conversations taking place in some academic circles, but it needs to be brought to pastors and church leaders.  After all, these are the front lines where most of the training in Christ-likeness takes place and where it too often suffers it most grievous losses.  The Holy Spirit is now God with us to enact the will and kingdom of God among his people and in his creation.  This is a vision so much larger than any of us can imagine, and so much larger than a short list of our favored spiritual gifts can ever encompass.  Let us begin with the presence and power of God among us first and then learn to talk about the expression of the Spirit among us.


Paul Coleman said...

Well said. I think the gifts have been for far too long something thought of as a means to an end rather than the fruit, the result of a deeper inward change. They often end up as weapons in the hands of otherwise well meaning believers.

Paul Coleman said...

Agreed. I have attended churches and have witnessed the gifts used in such a way that they seemed to be thought of more as a means to an end rather than the fruit of the inward change claimed. Essentially, power tools in the hands of children.

Larry Allen said...

Well thought out, Phil. I am teaching a course on Pneumatology in January. With your permission, I will use this blog as a starting point for the class to consider.

Phil Steiger said...

Larry - sounds good to me, and I hope it is helpful!