Pentecostalism Its Defining Characteristics

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In many respects, Pentecostalism accepts the basic themes of Protestant theology, but with a significant addition that leads to modifications of doctrinal emphasis at some points and different patterns of worship at others. The term "Pentecostal" takes its name from the Jewish festival of Pentecost, during which, the New Testament records, the apostles were "filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues" (Acts 2:4). Traditional Protestant theology had regarded this phenom enon as unique to the age of the apostles; adapted and necessary to the first phase of the expansion of the church, it was not, on this view, requisite or active thereafter.

The defense of this "cessationist" position was not without its difficulties, beginning with the fact that any consistent application of this argument threatened to make large sections of the New Testament irrelevant to modern Protestantism. In practice, of course, no such argument has ever been made. When all the theological accretions are swept away from the argument, it reduces to one very simple point: the Holy Spirit is not experienced in the church today as it was by the apostles on Pentecost. The significance of the events in Topeka, Kansas, in January 1901, and then at Azusa Street in Los Angeles in April 1906, was that they suggested that things might have changed. And if they had, a lot of theological rethinking would have to be done. We see here a classic example of what the historian of science Thomas Kuhn famously described as a "paradigm shift" in the development of the natural sciences—the emergence of new approaches when the capacity of older theories to account for new experiences and observations is seen to be defective.

The feature that both characterizes and distinguishes Pentecostalism from all other forms of Christianity is its insistence and emphasis upon an immediate encounter with God through the Holy Spirit and the ensuing transformation of individuals. Although Pentecostals and other charismatics do not always agree on how best to articulate theologically this understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit, they share a common expectation of certain patterns of divine action. The "full gospel," Pentecostals insist, must include the gift of tongues. Yet there is more to this characteristic of Pentecostalism than this brief statement might suggest. Pentecostalism does not simply believe in speaking in tongues; it provides a social context that reinforces a sense of expectation that speaking in tongues will take place, thereby creating the social structures that sustain and extend the phenomenon.16 Pentecostal communities embody this social expectancy, which provides an important support against criticisms of the phenomenon as "abnormal" or "improper" from outside.

So what exactly is this gift? The New Testament draws a distinction between xenolalia ("speaking in foreign languages") and glossolalia

("speaking in tongues"). Most early Pentecostals, such as Charles Parham, insisted that believers have been given the power to speak in foreign languages; most of them subsequently came to the view, however, that the Spirit causes speaking in tongues for personal edification. The classic Pentecostal view has come to be that this phenomenon is a consequence of the presence of the Spirit in believers.17

So just what is "speaking in tongues"? In trying to answer this question, it is helpful to draw a distinction between a description of the phenomenon and its theological interpretation. The phenomenon usually takes the form of an intense religious experience expressing itself in ecstatic speech, typically during a period of worship or open prayer that is perceived to have great personal meaning for the individual worshiper. The "speech" in question corresponds to no known language and is generally unintelligible to external observers.18 Charismatic theologians interpret this phenomenon as corresponding to the experience of the early Christian communities, as recorded in the New Testament, particularly in Paul's Corinthian correspondence. It is seen as a sign of the living presence of God within individuals, offering both reassurance of salvation and guidance to individuals and the community as a whole.19

The phrase "baptism in the Spirit" has come to be especially important for Pentecostalism. It refers to a special divine anointing, gift, or blessing subsequent to conversion, which is demonstrated by speaking in tongues. Classical Protestantism held that all necessary resources were given to the believer at baptism or conversion. The continuity of Pentecostalism with the holiness tradition is clear at this point: sections of the movement recognize a "second blessing" in which believers receive a special anointing from God to enable them to live a victorious life, triumphing over sin and temptation. The holiness movement recognized a postconversion enhancement of an individual's personal spirituality, which was often described as the "second blessing." The baptism of the Spirit is seen as the fulfillment of this "second blessing."

Writers such as A. J. Gordon and Reuben A. Torrey began to speak of a "baptism of the Holy Spirit" in the 1880s and 1890s. However, this was conceived primarily as the empowerment of the individual through an increase in the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. An excellent example of this phenomenon can be seen in the ministry of the noted evangelist Dwight L. Moody, who experienced this form of personal renewal in 1870. Yet—and this is of critical importance—there was no suggestion that this "second blessing" or "baptism in the Holy Spirit" led to speaking in tongues. It was all about empowerment and encouragement.

The suggestion of a theological link between "baptism in the Spirit" and "speaking in tongues" was first made by Parham in 1901, and that link has remained typical of Pentecostalism ever since. Refinements introduced since that time include the distinction between speaking in tongues as a universal sign and as a specific gift. On this view, all true believers are able to speak in tongues as a sign of their baptism in the Spirit, and some have the gift of being able to use this in public worship. The evidence of this "second blessing" is the ability to speak in tongues.

This has important implications for the understanding of the identity and significance of Jesus Christ in Pentecostal thought. Whereas traditional Protestantism tends to think of Christ as having secured forgiveness of past sins and an assurance of eternal life through his death on the cross, Pentecostalism has developed a fourfold understanding of his significance that is often referred to as the "foursquare" gospel, following the approach developed by the American Pentecostal leader Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944). While preaching in California in 1922, she had a vision based upon four symbols—a cross, a crown, a dove, and a cup. She took these to be symbols of the central themes of evangelism, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and used them as the theological basis of her International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.20

The "foursquare" interpretation of evangelism emphasizes what Christ presently does within the lives of believers. While retaining the traditional Protestant teaching of the past and future dimensions of salvation—the forgiveness of past sins and the future hope of resurrec-tion—McPherson stressed the transformative impact of Christ upon individuals and communities here and now. On this approach, Jesus Christ is to be understood as:

1. Savior—the one who delivers individuals from their sins

2. Healer—the one who delivers from illness and the power of Satan

3. Baptizer in the Spirit—the one who empowers ordinary people to bear witness to the gospel to the ends of the earth

4. The coming King—the one who is preparing the way within the church for his coming return in glory

Although the basic beliefs of the foursquare gospel are not universally acknowledged within Pentecostalism, they illustrate one of the movement's most significant characteristics—the affirmation that Jesus Christ may be experienced at the present moment and has the power to heal and transform people and communities at their point of need and in their moment of need.

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  • achille
    What are the defining features of pentecostalism?
    24 days ago

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