Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Pentecostalism is poised to become the dominant expression of Christianity in the West. The phenomenal growth of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches as well as the mainstreaming of Charismatic worship "styles" means that Pentecostalism and its emphasis on the immediate and intimate experience of the Presence of God in a believer's life is fast becoming normative for the vast majority of Western Christians.

I remember years ago as a boy in a classical Pentecostal church (Assemblies of God) hearing about the non-pentecostal churches in our area. They thought we were crazy and they warned their people to stay away from "those people." Now, those same non-pentecostal churches are singing worship choruses during services and their people are lifting their hands as they sing as a sign of worship. Eyes closed, hands raised, these people in these non-Pentecostal churches are following the successful and packed Pentecostal churches they see around them. In less than 30 years the influence of Pentecostalism has gone mainstream.

The vast majority of so called "mega-churches" are Pentecostal or Charismatic in nature.

As a former Pentecostal pastor, some have asked me if there is any benefit I see in my previous Pentecostal world.

As I think of this, I remember a relative of mine asking me if I'd ever consider returning to the Pentecostal fold. He asked in hopes of finding something that might convince me to abandon my "foolish" journey to Orthodoxy. I had to smile when he asked, knowing his sincerity and honest desire to "rescue" me from my folly. He really meant well. He really loved me and wanted the best for me.

But I had to look him in the face and say there was no way I'd go back after having discovered the "treasure hidden in the field." I had "sold all I had" to "buy" this field and there was no need to go back.

I am grateful for my Pentecostal background but would have to actually "unlearn" much of what I have learned over the subsequent years to be able to return to what I believe is an inherently childish Christian theology.

Having said that, I would like to discuss briefly where I see the great value of Pentecostalism in remedying some theological poverty in the West.

One of the main reasons for the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment (mutually and historically connected events) was the scholasticism of the Roman Catholic world at the time. Scholasticism, in my opinion, was neither good nor bad, but, as with most historical developments, had both positive and negative consequences.

One of the negative consequences was the emphasis on a legalistic framing of theological truths.

It is no surprise that the vast majority of the Protestant Reformers were Augustinians. And it was the Augustinians who were at the forefront of the Scholastic movement in Roman Catholicism. There are sufficient numbers of Orthodox critics of Blessed Augustine, but I won't join their chorus. However, I am convinced that the theological system initiated by this great doctor of the Undivided Church had tragic consequences centuries after the passing of this great man. Consequences unintended by him and certainly unforeseen.

The Protestant Reformation accepted the theological system of the day from the Roman Catholics lock, stock, and barrel. They simply came up with different answers to the same questions, hence the split in the Western Church. What then developed historically was a theological system that was left intact and unquestioned by the interlocutors. The fight was about the answers to established questions and not about the theological questions themselves.

Soon after the Reformation (some would call it a Revolution, the first of many more to come) there were divisions among the Reformers all along the same rationalistic and theological framework already accepted.

The results of this religious development rocked along for several centuries until the Methodist movement in England and the sorted "Awakenings" that occurred in Great Britain and then in the United States. These "revivals" of religious fervor were always marked by demonstrative displays, whether it was the "mourner's bench" at the front of the church buildings that later developed into the "altar call" area in the front of many Pentecostal churches, or the ecstatic displays chronicled by reporters of these "Awakenings" during the height of these "outpourings." The people were hungry spiritually and gifted orators were able to whip this "hunger" into a frenzy of religious demonstration which turned into periods of religious devotion for a time. These movements also has a sociological component as well, reaching the poor and "great unwashed" masses with both a sense of hope and spiritual fulfillment.

But then there was a "need" for another "revival" when the devotion waned, as it always had in the past.

What followed was a successive number of "revival" movements that spawned whole new denominations.

The so called "holiness" movement so important in the initial revival work of the Wesley brothers of Methodism developed into new "holiness" movements meant to either "recapture" the purity of the initial Methodist movement or to restore the perceived "power" of the "first century church." At the end of the 19th century several revival movements claimed to have rediscovered the "missing theological truth" that would propel the Christian message forward, and all of these movements depended on touching that part of the human soul that longed for true intimacy with God through Christ.

But the hunger of the human heart was still unsatisfied by these movements and the theological underpinnings of these various revival movements still left many cold. Especially when the natural maturing sociological pressures were brought to bear on these new Christian movements.

The beginning of the 20th century was then ripe in the West for "another" revivalistic movement, both spiritually and sociologically.

Next, the Pentecostals emerge.


Michael Bauman said...

I'm not sure that St. Gregory of Palamas would agree with you that Scholasticism is neither good nor bad. I'm not sure I agree with you either. Its fundamental error of elevating the mind of man as our highest faculty truncated the Incarnational gift of communion with our creator to such an extent that it almost denies the Incarnation altogether. It is this very lack of intimate communion with God that the various movements you describe hunger to reclaim.

Yet look at so many of our icons, the saints stand, hands outstretched in supplication and praise for our Lord. Might we not show a little more outward fervor when we respond to the call of the priest with LORD have MERCY? When the Psalm calls on us to clap our hands with joy, should we not do so? Does our joy always have to be so restrained?

Barnabas Powell said...

Well, Michael, I agree that St. Gregory may see things differently about Scholasticism, but my hope was to avoid a discussion of that historical, philosophical, theological movement and delve into what I believe are some of the roots of these Revivalistic movements in the West.

As an Orthodox, I have absolutely no problem with physical gestures in worship or hearty responses in the liturgy, especially at Pascha with the "He is risen INDEED!"

However, I believe the fathers regularly warn against a lack of sobriety, which, many times, leads to the great and soul destroying sin of prelest.

It is precisely this lack of sobriety (that does not necessitate a lack of JOY) that I see as one of the primary dangers of these revivalistic movements.

I hope to get into this further in subsequent articles, but I'd like first to talk about the positives I see in the Pentecostal movement after I finish this very brief and truncated historical set up.

Thanks for reading and responding. I hope my next few articles address some of your observations. If not, please write in response.