Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Interview with Joshua Ziefle

SV: Could you please explain some of the theological distinctives of Pentecostalism? In what ways is it different and similar to mainstream evangelicalism?

JZ: One of the helpful ways to understand Pentecostalism is around what Donald Dayton refers to as a “gestalt” of approaches towards Jesus Christ: Savior, Sanctifier, Healer/Baptizer in the Holy Spirit, and Coming King.  This is the traditional four-fold or “foursquare” arrangement of what Pentecostals understand to be the “full gospel.”  These four doctrinal strands (salvation, sanctification/Spirit baptism, healing, and premillennial eschatology) form the core of the movement, especially when Spirit baptism is linked together with the biblical practice of glossolalia (speaking in tongues).  A Pentecostal’s openness to the continued and unexpected work of the Holy Spirit (via tongues and other gifts/miracles) is often experienced in a deeply personal and miraculous way.  Such experience and theological system that accompanies it helps characterize Pentecostalism.

When it comes to the core historic doctrines of the Church and more traditionally conservative approaches to biblical teaching and ethics, Pentecostals and evangelicals have much in common.  The Assemblies of God, for instance, was a founding member of the National Association of Evangelicals in the 1940s.  This said, the roots of the two movements are somewhat distinct: evangelicals deriving from early 20th century Fundamentalism and Pentecostals coming out of more radical Holiness and revivalist movements in the later 19th and early 20th century.  The openness of Pentecostals to the unexpected and sometimes extravagant work of the Spirit, looser Spirit-led approaches to biblical reading and hermeneutics, and embrace of the miraculous as part of the everyday is in tone somewhat different from traditional evangelicalism. This said, each movement’s influence on the other has had its effect over time.

SV: Historically, what are the roots of Pentecostalism in North America? How did the movement begin and gain so much momentum? 

JZ: There are many diverse roots to Pentecostalism in North America: a revivalist tradition dating back to the Great Awakening, the entrepreneurial and innovative approach to faith that has characterized the establishment-free United States, Wesleyan and Holiness theology regarding a “second blessing” of sanctification that encouraged believers to seek more from God, African-American styles of worship and practice, and Modernity’s effort to seek scientific “evidence”—in the case of Pentecostals a thing found in the experience of tongues speaking.  Historians Donald Dayton and William Hollenweger have spent time discussing said roots and are worthwhile to consider regarding these points.

The Pentecostal movement began with the linkage of pre-existing Holiness doctrine of Spirit baptism to the “evidence” of speaking in tongues.  Pre-Pentecostal experiences and developing theology had arisen in late 19th century Holiness revival movements, but it is the particular linkage with glossolalia which is often the key marker for those looking for the genesis of the movement.  Much prevailing thought points to the ministry of Charles Parham in Kansas City ca. 1900-1901 as the beginning of a Pentecostalism that would come to powerfully coalesce in the 1906 Azusa Street Revival (Los Angeles), but more recent scholarship has encouraged attention to other places like the pre-Azusa Welsh Revival or the work of Pandita Ramabai in India as worthy of attention.  While I appreciate attention to the multivariate beginnings of Pentecost, I will say this: Azusa Street is still pretty important.

There could be a long discussion of why Pentecostalism gained and continues to gain such momentum.  I’ll just say this: I think it has been successful in part because it leads with experience rather than doctrine and that, because of this, it is more quickly apprehended and translatable than other forms of the Christian faith.  I’ll also add that as a practicing Pentecostal minister, I also believe that the Holy Spirit is certainly at work in the preeminent revival movement of our time.

 SV: Pentecostalism sometimes has a stigma attached to it of being overly emotional or even anti-intellectual. How accurate is this understanding and what might you say to someone who wanted to dismiss Pentecostalism simply as hysteria? 

JZ: To a point, both over-emotionalism and anti-intellectualism are accurate descriptors of aspects of Pentecostalism.  Both derive, I think, from the same thing that has given the movement such popularity around the world.  Further, such things can be unfortunate tendencies of which its adherents should always be aware.  

Spiritual experience is foundational for Pentecostalism, and as such it connects deeply with the emotional aspects of our being.  I fully accept and endorse this.   Humans were created with emotions, so embracing those is simply being honest about who we are.  I reject the assumption that emotions are weak or foolish, which is unfortunately a part of our modern Western tradition.  But at the same time emotions are tricky things, and for some the embrace of emotions can serve to displace other important parts of the Christian life. 

With regard to anti-intellectualism, it is true that Pentecostalism has never been marked by a deep embrace of the life of the mind.  At times it has looked askance at it.  Some of this has to do with the fact that Pentecostals really believe that God’s Spirit is at work in their lives, calling and empowering them for ministry and service.  A natural conclusion for some is that because of this divine work, further education is not needed.  Further, because most education is felt to “liberalize” a person and—in the grip of modernity—downplay emotional experience, it has been questioned by Pentecostals.

A movement should never be defined by its excesses, though.  There are some very anti-intellectual and over-emotional Pentecostals, to be sure.  But there are many who are much more balanced in their emotions and an increasing number who are embracing education as much as they do the miraculous work of Spirit.  Dismissing Pentecostalism in toto as hysteria caricatures the movement and fails to take in place its complexity and development over time. 

SV: What is the current state of Pentecostalism today, in North America and also around the world? 

JZ: In brief, the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement is the greatest Christian revival of our time.  Perhaps of all time. Beginning from nearly nothing in 1900, it today comprises a significant—and growing—expression of world Christianity.  Two Pentecostal groups (the Church of God in Christ and the Assemblies of God) are in the top ten denominations in the United States, and in the Majority World (especially Latin America and Africa) the movement has grown by leaps and bounds.  With this growth comes an increasingly complex and diverse new style of faith that shares, at its core, a deeply ecumenical experience of God’s own Spirit.  The effects of this continuing revival is having and will continue to have transformative impact upon the shape of 21st century Christianity.

Joshua Ziefle earned his Ph.D. in Church History from Princeton Theological Seminary. He currently teaches history and youth ministry at Northwest University.  

Faith Colloquium : A Blog about Theology, Philosophy, Church, and Culture

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