What is Pentecostal Theology?

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Image result for pentecostalism africaPentecostalism is one of the world’s fastest-growing religious movements. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Pentecostals now make up more than a quarter of the Christian population. But what do Pentecostals believe? What are their doctrines and practices based upon? Where do we find a Pentecostal theology? What is Pentecostal theology?

If you asked the same questions about Roman Catholics, you would likely point to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for answers. The Reformed tradition can point to John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion or the Westminster Catechism, and Lutherans look to the writing of Martin Luther, the Formula of Concord and the Augsburg Confession. But where do we look for Pentecostal theology?

The mere suggestion that there is such a thing as “Pentecostal theology” is likely to encounter one of several responses: curiosity by those who believe that the history of Christian thought since the twentieth century cannot be written without a discussion of the Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements but wonder how to articulate such an account, apprehension by those who fear that a systematic theological account might overshadow the spiritual emphasis of the Pentecostal movement, reluctance by those who anticipate that a single account of Pentecostal theology would conceal the significant diversity of the global movement, disbelief by those who doubt that Pentecostals can contribute significantly to the theological agenda, or disapproval by those who think that Pentecostalism is not a theological tradition in its own right. What these reactions share in common is their observation of the absence of a grounding theological narrative and theological symbol to identify and distinguish Pentecostal theology. The majority of recent constructive proposals of Pentecostal theology are programmatic and phenomenological; the intention is to provide principles of a theological narrative yet often without telling the Pentecostal story. As a result, a comprehensive narrative for Pentecostal theology is missing. In order to address this lacuna, I suggest a modest hypothesis: Pentecost is the core theological symbol of Pentecostal theology, and its theological narrative is the full gospel.

The argument that Pentecostal theology emerges from Pentecost is perhaps self-evident. However, the history of modern-day Pentecostalism only recently shows signs of Pentecostals attempting to formulate a constructive and comprehensive theology for the movement. Pentecostal theology has existed for a little more than one hundred years. It emerged with a series of spiritual revivals that marked the worldwide beginning of modern-day Pentecostalism at the turn to the twentieth century. At the heart of those early revivals stood a spirituality, typically transmitted orally and ritually; Pentecostalism was marked by an ad hoc doxology rather than a systematic and dogmatic theology. As a result, Pentecost has not been developed consistently as a theological symbol of the Pentecostal movement. Convictions, beliefs and teachings among Pentecostals are often formulated in the language and structure of other theological or cultural confessions and frequently suffer misunderstanding and misrepresentation. I propose that the way forward for constructive Pentecostal theology is marked by a way inward to and outward from the concrete beliefs and practices emerging with the day of Pentecost. In other words, Pentecost, Pentecostalism and Pentecostal theology are intersecting realities that require definition not apart from one other but as a single theological concern.

The articulation of Pentecostal theology, I suggest, reaches deep into the heart of Pentecost. However, to say so is to invest in a theological symbol not harvested by the traditional confessions as representative of an entire theological system. Even contemporary constructive efforts among Pentecostals have focused less on the root image of the day of Pentecost than on broader pneumatological and ecumenical metaphors. The challenges of using Pentecost as a symbol for Pentecostal theology are manifold. How does the historical event function as a broad theological symbol? How does Pentecostal theology employ Pentecost without the risk of being accused of theological reductionism or historical primitivism? In other words, how do we move from Pentecost to Pentecostal and back again?

Answers to these and other questions require in my opinion that we construct Pentecost as a theological symbol of Pentecostal theology along three intersecting focal points: First, by tracing how Pentecostals find in the plot of the day of Pentecost a genuine and distinct theological tradition. An initial task of theological scholarship is therefore to develop and articulate the sources informing Pentecostal perspectives of the day of Pentecost and to show how these can be used consistently for theological articulation. Second, by proposing a theological narrative framework from the day of Pentecost that captures the theological convictions of the movement. I am convinced that this narrative can be found in the so-called full gospel. The central agenda of Pentecostal theology must therefore turn to the story of this Pentecostal full gospel and interpret and apply this narrative to the full contours of Pentecostal theology. Third, by analyzing how the full gospel narrative is grounded in the concrete spirituality, experiences, affections and practices of Pentecostal worship. In my observations, it is the altar call and response that stands out as the tangible heart of Pentecostal praxis. The altar as a theological metaphor displays how the Pentecostal story is able to move from the day of Pentecost (as historical event) to Pentecost (as a theological symbol), to Pentecostalism (as a theological tradition), and back again. In other words — and this also works in both directions — Pentecostal theology is an invitation to the altar, and the altar is an invitation to the full gospel, and the full gospel is an invitation to Pentecost.

[For a full development of this argument see Wolfgang Vondey, Pentecostal Theology: Living the Full Gospel, Systematic Pentecostal and Charismatic Theology Series (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017).

Media of Pentecostal Theology

Author: Wolfgang Vondey

I am a classically trained systematic theologian with a PhD in the field of systematic theology and ethics. I teach and research in the area of Contemporary Christianity and Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies with concentration on the theology of those movements. This focus in integrated in my larger concerns for pneumatology, ecclesiology, ecumenical theology, and the intersection of theology and science. I teach in the Master of Arts programme in Evangelical and Charismatic Studies and direct the Centre for Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies with teaching and supervision in the Department of Theology and Religion.

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