[This article appeared in the April 2008 issue of First Things; since it takes a few months for articles to become available for free online, I thought I’d here point to it.]
Over the past decade, Pentecostalism has become something of an academic darling for historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and scholars of religious studies. Researchers ensconced in the secularized environs of the university have produced a flood of books and studies about the fantastic worlds of global Pentecostalism. And yet, while sometimes sympathetic and irenic, the academic interest in Pentecostalism has had the curious backhanded effect of disenchantment. The sociological fascination proves a cover for condescending incredulity, with Pentecostalism reduced to a sort of global snake-handling.
This reduction of Pentecostalism to a specimen shuts down the articulation of Pentecostalism as any kind of theological voice. Indeed, the sociological account of Pentecostalism implies that “Pentecostal theology” is an oxymoron. Which is a shame because, over the last century, an interesting theology has been developing in such classical Pentecostal traditions as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ, as well as in charismatic movements within the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. (The shared sensibility of Pentecostal and charismatic traditions is often described under the umbrella of small -p pentecostalism.)
At the heart of this Pentecostal theology is an ontological claim: that the same Spirit who animated the apostles at Pentecost continues to be actively, dynamically, and miraculously present both in the ecclesial community and in creation. Pentecostal theology is a theology of the Creed’s third article and is predicated on the belief that the Spirit is a spirit who surprises us by continuing to speak, heal, and manifest God’s presence in ways that counter the shut-down naturalism of modernity. As a result, following in the wake of the Spirit, it is a nimble theology that seeks to explicate and understand the controlled chaos of charismatic worship—a faith seeking understanding of the experience of the Spirit’s surprising ways.
Although Pentecostalism sometimes gets a space on the table as a subject of study, it rarely gets a seat at the theological table as a contributor to the conversation, even among serious theologians. On one level, this is not surprising. The Pentecostal movement emerged largely from an underclass with little access to formal education. In an often-told story, one of its saints embodied this marginalization: Willie J. Seymour—the preacher at the center of the Azusa Street revival in 1906, a son of former slaves—received his theological education in Texas while listening in a hall outside the classroom that white students alone could enter. Pentecostalism is a tradition of preachers and evangelists, not scholars and doctors.