Thursday, December 07, 2006

THE FIRE FAILS


As I have said previously, I am convinced the modern Pentecostal movement offers the Christian Church a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with the timeless faith of the Apostles and the balance of mystery and rationalism that has all but been lost in the Christian West.

However, I also believe that Pentecostalism is a system of theology that cannot and will not bring anyone to the fullness of the faith "once for all delivered to the saints."

This is not because Pentecostal people are "bad." It isn't because Pentecostal or Charismatic theology is "wrong" or "evil." It is because the underlying theological foundation for Pentecostal and Charismatic theology is poverty stricken. It is simply too weak to bear the weight of the fullness of the Apostolic faith.

Coming as I do from a Pentecostal background, that word "Apostolic" holds a particularly pregnant meaning. Unfortunately, my understanding of "apostolic" was quite deficient during my days as a Pentecostal.

In fact, the very tendency in the West to break off into "factions" and "denominations" is particularly strong among Pentecostals. This revealed itself early on in the movement over the issue of water baptism. Being cut off from the wisdom of the Church these sincere believers embodied all that was wrong about the Protestant innovation of "Sola Scriptura." They did not have access to the wise understanding of the Trinity preserved in the Church so they mistook the trinitarian teaching for tri-theism and reacted against what they perceived as a heresy.

But this so-called "new issue" demonstrates the first theological poverty of Pentecostalism: A poverty of communion with the saints.

Since Protestantism tends to reduce the Christian faith to certain theological propositions, the Pentecostals allowed this reduction full flower in their attempts to "recapture" the power of the first century Church. Feeling no sense of connection with their fellow Christians throughout the ages, the Pentecostals only care for those first century believers that they see as their true heritage. They are also willing to adopt other heretical groups through the centuries that seemed to bolster their notions of ecstatic experiences as THE theological stamp of approval.

This lack of connection with the Church through the centuries meant that the Pentecostals were left to their own devices and fell into many, if not most, of the heresies of the past.

The second poverty of Pentecostalism is the rank individualism that permeates the entire movement. this again is a flowering in the Pentecostal movement of the general poverty of Western Christianity. Individualism reduces faith to "me and Jesus got our own thing going" and reduces Church to either a religious pep rally or, worse yet, a Christian self-help group. Worship is measured by how it made me "feel" rather than what it reveals about the Uncreated God. Hence Pentecostals and Charismatics tend to measure their spiritual growth by their experience of "victory" in their personal lives. But the narcissistic weakness of this religious poverty guarantees a perpetual spiritual "kindergarten" for these believers.

One of the unintended consequences" of this gross individualism is the "cult of personality" that naturally arises when a dependence on individual abilities is emphasized. Pentecostal groups are usually founded on some strong personality who has the gift of gab and a flare for the theatrical. Unfortunately, "the arm of flesh will fail you" and the cultural landscape is littered with the sad lives of men (and some women) who simply could not maintain the fevered pitch expected of them from their loyal following. The stories of emotional, psychological, and event physical manipulation, all for "God's glory," are simply too numerous to mention.

Another poverty that I see in Pentecostalism is the weak theological dependence on ecstatic religious experiences. This true hunger in the soul of a person for an authentic and intimate experience of the presence of God cannot be truly satisfied with self-centered religious phenomena. In fact, much like sweets ruins your appetite, so the spiritual "cotton candy" of shallow ecstatic religious experiences, brought on as much by psychological peer pressure as by anything divine, deaden this good hunger and eventually creates an almost narcotic dependence on these less than satisfying religious events.

Interestingly enough this emphasis of emotional experiences not only leads to a kind of religious addiction, but also feeds other physical desires as well. Most Pentecostals do not like to talk about the strong minority of sexual weaknesses that tend to dominate many Pentecostal and Charismatic sub cultures. This emphasis on keeping the emotions heightened at all times, or reducing worship to experiencing a religious "high" tends to reinforce a lack of physical discipline. Recent events are the exceptions that many times prove the rule.

Finally, the greatest poverty I see in Pentecostalism is theological. While this is changing, Pentecostalism has traditionally been suspicious of theological training. Seminary instruction was considered suspect, and a reliance on the education of the "Spirit" was more valued. But beyond that there is a real and debilitating "historical amnesia" among Pentecostals that impoverishes their religious education. There is so much wisdom preserved in the Church that is simply unknown to most Christians nowadays and that ignorance is dangerous. It means there are generations of believers who will have to learn all over again lessons already learned by their brothers and sisters of the past. What you don't know CAN hurt you.

There are hopeful signs. A recent Pew Poll found that speaking in tongues, a strong distinctive of Pentecostalism, is waning. Post-graduate work is becoming not only acceptable among Pentecostals but expected. And whole new denominations have formed by Pentecostals and Charismatics wanting to overcome the inherent weaknesses of their own shallow religious traditions by discovering the wisdom of ages past.

For me, however, the natural home for Pentecostals and Charismatic Christians is the Orthodox Christian Church. Here there is a trustworthy "fireplace" for the Pentecostal "fire." Many are surprised to hear me say that it was my Pentecostalism that prepared me for my journey to Orthodoxy. In Eastern Orthodoxy there is a comfort level theologically for paradox and mystery. As opposed to the West where rationalism has been allowed free reign, Orthodoxy's emphasis on the present work of the Holy Spirit provides a theological balance for a sterile theological rationalism that may excite the mind but leaves the soul cold. Pentecostals and Charismatics will discover in Orthodoxy the wisdom necessary to avoid all the pitfalls so often present in the world of Pentecostalism. There are theological remedies for and spiritual medicine that provide authentic healing and spiritual health for those weary of the eternal search for the everlasting "goose bump."

Pentecostalism reveals the primary spiritual poverty of the West. This is its greatest gift to the Christian world. But we cannot remain ignorant of the fatal weaknesses of Pentecostalism without condemning generations of sincere believers to a life of a perpetual "spiritual kindergarten."

So, to all my precious Pentecostal and Charismatic friends, I say to you what Philip said to Nathaniel: "Come and see!"

7 comments:

Thor said...

What an amazing post. I'm coming to Orthodoxy from the Assemblies of God (even went to a Bible college), so I can relate to quite a bit of what you wrote.

I think, ironically, that I would expect more exercise of the spiritual gifts within Orthodoxy than within Pentecostalism. I had a college professor that commented that a visitor to an AoG church might conclude that God speaks a lot but doesn't do much else. It is a sad testament to the denomination.

Please pray for me as I make this journey, because my wife does not share my enthusiasm or my conviction about the Orthodox Church.

Barnabas Powell said...

Thanks for the encouragement.

Thor, I think you will discover that the gifts of the Spirit are more abundant in the Orthodox Church, but, as you may have also discovered, Orthodoxy discourages making a big deal out of miracles.

Making a big deal o0ut of miracles is a source of, what the fathers called, "prelest" or spiritual pride and the fathers warn us that this is a particularly damning sin. It really destroys any authentic "good" that comes from the display of the Spirit's power by reducing this merciful touch into either a side show or an opportunity to manipulate others spiritually.

I'd be interested in your thoughts about the whole series of articles I've done on Pentecostalism. I have wanted to be both fair and firm, but really not convinced I've accomplished either.

I certainly will add you to our prayers as you journey. Please pray for me as well.

B

David Bryan said...

I have very much enjoyed this, sir. I'm passing on the series of posts to a catechumen friend of mine who's still nonetheless enamored with charismaticism and wonders why experiences there seem to "dwarf" (in his mind) things he sees in Divine Liturgy.

EYTYXOC said...

(My first attempt was accidentally posted before I finished writing it - I hit "Enter" instead of "Preview." Please delete it.)

David Bryan said...
I have very much enjoyed this, sir. I'm passing on the series of posts to a catechumen friend of mine who's still nonetheless enamored with charismaticism and wonders why experiences there seem to "dwarf" (in his mind) things he sees in Divine Liturgy.


I be that "catechumen friend"! :^) I am actually not so much enamored of charismatic gifts as in a bit of a quandary with respect to my Bible-believing Charismatic friends (some I know in person, others I've met via Internet) who are solid in their faith, life and theology, and have a real Spirit-dependent relationship with God that conflicts with what Orthodoxy seems to teach about baptism, chrismation and the Eucharist. Most are out-of-church, anti-hierarchical Christians, having seen and experienced the abuse and lording-it-over-the-flocks of typical churches and church leaders - which often keeps the people in an infantile, pastor-dependent or man-focused spiritual state.

Nonetheless, after 25+ years as Charismatic/Non-denominational Christians, my wife and I became catechumens in the Orthodox Church (OCA) for many of the reasons you discuss, as well as a desire to share the faith of the martyrs and early Christians - something we thought we were doing until we began reading Church history and the Church Fathers.

I'll add your Web Log to my links of Orthodox Converts.

Thanks for the essays!

Barnabas Powell said...

Thanks Eytyxoc.

Please know that, contrary to what you may hear from some Orthodox, the Church holds that ecclesiology is essentially a mystery, which means as much as we do know, there is so much more we simply don't know.

I firmly believe the Wind blows where it wishes. The question is "where can my soul be matured in the faith?" I also firmly believe the Orthodox Church is that place.

While there may be sincere believers who have an impared relationship with the Church, The Church is not "optional." Ecclesiology is the last "undiscovered country" of the Protestant Reformation. Wrestling with ecclesiology brings people to Orthodoxy, at least it did for me.

With the current fad of "emerging churches" among the Evanglicals, I wonder how many of these sincere seekers are actually looking for the Church. I believe most of them are looking for this missing piece of their Christian faith.

George said...

Thank you for this series. It's the most balanced review I've seen.

Having come from an AoG background and having formerly placed much credence in manifestations, I relate completely to everything you said - everything.

I am most fortunate that my AoG pastor was a theology egghead with a passion for roots - which had me looking at expressions in 2nd temple Judaism, which along with other promptings led me to Holy Orthodoxy, thanks be to God.

I was led to your blog by commentor David Bryan, and am a friend of Eytyxoc. Both are wonderful men and I'm fortunate to add your writings to their inputs to my life. Thank you.

Barnabas Powell said...

George,

Thanks for the note.

I truly love my Pentecostal background, especially the people.

And it is those precious people I want to stay in contactwith and translate this beautiful Orthodox faith into something they can hear.

B