This year for my Protestant Spiritual Traditions class at Tyndale Seminary I was required to write a paper on Pentecostalism. The assignment was simple: to write three question you would ask a Pentecostal and then answer them as if you were that Pentecostal. No further research (outside of what was discussed in class and the assigned textbooks were to be used). As a Charismatic Anabaptist, this assignment was intriguing to me and when I shared what I was writing on, several individuals seemed interested in reading further. So, I’ve included this essay here. This essay also begins a series of a few more scholarly and longer pieces to this blog. These essays will appear once a week throughout the month of May as an experiment to see if the readers enjoy this type of writing or not. Please feel free to get back to me with your comments regarding how you think this is going.
Many individuals believe speaking in tongues, prophesy, and other manifestations of the Spirit to be the very essence of the Pentecostal Movement. However, the scope of Pentecostal spirituality encompasses considerably more than the characteristics listed above. In Protestant Spiritual Traditions class, Dr. Van Johnson related that Pentecostalism is a fairly young movement, having only been formed around one hundred years ago (Johnson 27 March 2015). Nevertheless, in this short time period, Pentecostalism has established itself as being a diverse and worldwide movement which embodies and incorporates such aspects as spiritual gifts, an individual awareness of the Holy Spirit’s movement in a believer’s life, and a passion for evangelism and mission (Johnson). Yet, despite the fact that many Christians from other faith traditions do not fully understand Pentecostalism, it remains one of the largest Christian traditions in the world. Today, over a quarter of all Christians worldwide identify as Pentecostal or Charismatic, the majority being children and youth, coming from urban centers and living in geographically poor areas (Johnson). Due to the large influence Pentecostalism has on evangelical Christianity, this paper will seek to address the specific characteristics of Pentecostalism in a way that those unfamiliar with the Pentecostal movement can understand.
Question 1: Many Pentecostals believe in a post-conversion experience where one is filled with the Holy Spirit. This is often referred to as “baptism in the Holy Spirit” and is accompanied by visible manifestations – primarily speaking in tongues. What does this baptism entail and why do Pentecostals believe it is important?
Speaking in tongues, commonly referred to as glossolalia, is often considered to be the initial evidence of a believer being baptized in the Holy Spirit and subsequently filled with His power. In the same way that one is physically baptized in water to testify to their love for Christ, Spirit Baptism refers to a total immersion in the Holy Spirit and a desire to witness for Him. According to Pentecostals, this concept of speaking in tongues as evidence of being baptized in the Spirit first originated in the book of Acts, where on the day of Pentecost, many believers began evangelizing in foreign languages they had never spoken before. When the crowd around the believers heard them speaking in their own languages, many were amazed and drawn to the Gospel (Acts 2).
In recounting this miraculous story, the early Pentecostals initially associated this supernatural experience with xenolalia or the speaking of a foreign language unknown to the speaker but recognized as an actual earthly language. Well-known father of the Pentecostal movement, Charles Parham believed that God would give Christians the ability to speak foreign languages in order to expedite missionary activities and reach the nations for Christ (Johnson). Although Parham maintained this notion, Pentecostals later came to associate the baptism in the Holy Spirit primarily with glossolalia or the speaking of a “heavenly language” unknown to humankind (Johnson). In both instances, tongues were and are considered to be an essential witness to the Holy Spirit’s power in an individual’s life. Whether for personal edification, missionary activity, or both, tongues empower an individual to be bold in Christ and attain a place of intimacy with Him, where their desire for holiness grows.
For example, Adam Stewart writes about Ellen Hebden, a monumental figure within the Canadian history of Pentecostalism, recounting her experience with tongues in this way: “the Holy Spirit manifested His power in such a wonderful manner that everyone present saw that it was God” (qtd. in Steward 22). According to Johnson, Pentecostalism was heavily influenced by the Holiness Movement of the 1800s in which individuals focused on a New Testament restoration of the present day church (Johnson). This resulted in many of these individuals shunning worldly pleasures, including alcohol, tobacco, and dancing, in an attempt to better focus on Christ.
Thus, for many Pentecostals, tongues were (and are) a sign of combining holiness with the power of the Holy Spirit. In this pursuit of holiness, the early Pentecostals sought to live godly lives – not because they disdained worldly joys, but rather, because they had experienced such a profound joy in Christ that they did not want anything in the material realm to distract from it (Johnson). This new understanding of spiritual holiness prompted many Pentecostals to witness and evangelize; spurred on a desire to testify to the greatness of God; and ultimately established a framework for the expectation of even greater spiritual manifestations to take place.
Question 2: Many Pentecostals have witnessed and experienced miracles, healings, and prophetic utterances, yet many other evangelical Christians believe these events ceased after the book of Acts. Are these supernatural experiences truly still meant for today? How can one know whether or not these claims are truly legitimate?
According to Johnson, the Pentecostal movement teaches that the supernatural activities recorded in the New Testament are still happening today (Johnson). Cecil Robeck further explains how this concept of restoring the former supernatural activities found its way into what later would be termed “the latter rain movement” (Robeck 19). This theory views the book of Acts as the “early rain” creating the conditions for something of an even greater magnitude to take place in order to usher in the Second Coming of Christ (Robeck 19). Finding its validation in the prophecy of Joel 2:28 in which the Israelites are told that “your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” Pentecostals thus were and are filled with a renewed expectation of the coming of the Kingdom of God (NASB).
Today, Pentecostals hold a largely experiential faith in which they frequently have personal encounters with Christ, resulting in deeper intimacy with God. Consequently, this propels them to move forward in evangelism (Johnson, “Pentecostal Wheel,” 2). Nevertheless, healings and miracles are not solely rooted in the Pentecostal openness to wonder and surprise; however, they further serve as an effective means which God uses to save the souls of many unbelievers.
According to Robeck, miracles are an increasingly important evangelistic tool tangibly proving the Holy Spirit’s empowerment for mission within an age and culture that finds fulfillment in critical thought, scientific reasoning, and logical arguments (Robeck 42). Michael McClymond further goes on to say that “healing stimulates church growth” (McClymond 40). According to McClymond this is especially the case in several Chinese churches where close to 90% of new converts “attribute their conversion to a healing experience” (McClymond 40).
Pentecostals view healings and miracles as an opportunity to evangelize and witness as well as to testify to Christ’s immutable character in which God is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Pentecostals therefore imply that since God historically accomplished all of these miraculous acts and since He has not changed, that He therefore continues to work in the lives of believers in incredible ways in order to continue to build His Kingdom.
Question 3: Pentecostalism has often claimed the motto of “Come, Lord Jesus.” How does Pentecostal theology fulfill the Great Commission? Do Pentecostals evangelize because of Christ’s imminent return or simply in order to serve the marginalized?
A major distinguishing feature of Pentecostal theology is its ability to interact with the poor and marginalized in society. This is evidenced by the fact that Pentecostalism is found within more Third World countries than in the West and can be identified as a movement of the poor, with close to 90% living below the poverty line worldwide (Johnson 27 March 2015). Furthermore, James Smith writes that Pentecostal theology is placed within “an overarching narrative that has an eschatological orientation towards the coming Kingdom” (Smith 45). Due to its experiential eschatology of individuals feeling the tangible closeness of Christ, this movement fosters a theology that the Kingdom of God is both imminent and already existent (Johnson, “Pentecostal Wheel,” 2). Smith further acknowledges that Pentecostalism is a belief system which challenges the complacency of the elite, empowers believers, and seeks to transform society (Smith 46).
With its emphasis on the soon return of Christ, Pentecostalism emphasizes that all believers are invited to participate in the Great Commission because many labourers are needed for the great harvest of souls (Johnson, “Pentecostal Wheel,” 9). Those who practice Pentecostal theology seek to live with the understanding that Christ is coming soon, and therefore all believers have the responsibility to evangelize to as many souls as possible. This results in a sense of urgency that Christians must always be prepared to testify, witness, and provide material resources for those in need. In this way, Pentecostalism fully recognizes the dichotomy of both the “now” and the “not yet” as they seek to build the Kingdom of God here on this earth while awaiting Christ’s final triumphant return.
Pentecostalism is a faith tradition with a deep history of openness to the movement of the Spirit. It has often had a very strong emphasis on evangelism, mission, and the power of Christ resulting in the salvation of many. Pentecostalism acknowledges the power of the Holy Spirit, and encourages intimate encounters with Christ by fostering a patient expectation for His return. By embracing such traits, Pentecostals build the Kingdom of God on this earth, all the while encouraging others to do likewise. At the same time, they continually press forward to witness the Holy Spirit produce an even greater outpouring of His love on this world than what has previously been evidenced.
Johnson, Van. “Pentecostal Spiritual Traditions.” Tyndale Seminary. 27 March, 2015. Lecture.
Johnson, Van. “The Pentecostal Wheel: Defining Characteristics of Early Pentecostal Movement.” Handout. Tyndale Seminary. Toronto, ON. N.D. Print.
McClymond, Michael. “Charismatic Renewal and Neopentecostalism: From North American Origins to Global Permutations.” The Cambridge Companion to Pentecostalism. Eds. Robeck and Yong. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 31-51. Print.
New American Standard Bible. La Habra, Calif: Foundation Press Publications, publisher for the Lockman Foundation, 1971. Print.
Robeck, Cecil. “The Origins of Modern Pentecostalism: Some Historiographical Issues.” The Cambridge Companion to Pentecostalism. Eds. Robeck and Yong. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 13-30. Print.
Stewart, Adam. “A Canadian Azusa? The Implications of the Hebden Mission for Pentecostal Historiography.” Winds From the North: Canadian Contributions to the Pentecostal Movement. Eds. Wilkinson and Althouse. Boston: Brill, 2010. 17-37. Print.
Smith, James. “God’s Surprise: Elements of a Pentecostal Worldview.” Thinking in Tongues. Ed. Smith. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2010. 31-47. Print.