Perspectives on the New Pentecostalism

Written by Russell P. Spittler Reviewed By Alfred A. Glenn

Ask an Orthodox priest (Athanasios Emmert), the Dean of Harvard Divinity School (Krister Stendahl), a Benedictine priest (Kilian McDonnell), a Reformed theologian (J. Rodman Williams), and twelve other persons of diverse backgrounds to write an essay on Pentecostalism. The result? Radical heterogeneity? No. A remarkably high degree of unanimity of sophisticated theological and biblical reasoning.

Russell Spittler, Assistant Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, has compiled sixteen articles on the New Pentecostalism. The editor’s purpose is to bring together in one volume several essays that all Christians could read with profit, moving beyond superficial stereotypes to an understanding of the theological basis and ecumenical scope of a profoundly influential movement in our day. He divides the book into five parts comprising five perspectives on the New Pentecostalism: 1. historical, 2. theological, 3. analytic assessments, 4. personal reflections, and 5. two concluding articles on the future prospects of the movement. After reading this book, one comes away with a fresh understanding of the rich pluralism extant within world-wide Pentecostalism. These essays present questions, insights, even a few constructive answers to the many issues involved. Just as the theological hues of the New Evangelicalism become more subtle with maturity, so also do the nuances of the New Pentecostalism.

This volume offers much to one just beginning to reflect on the salient questions of Pentecostalism and even more to the knowledgeable reader assessing the theological significance of the movement. For example, Clark Pinnock’s article, ‘The New Pentecostalism: reflections of an evangelical observer,’ is a candid introduction to potentially divisive issues. R. Hollis Gause helpfully defines seemingly synonymous terms: Pentecostal, New Pentecostal and charismatic. William Samarin, in a well-documented analysis, disembues the reader of any notion that Pentecostals represent one particular personality type or socio-economic class. There is much more introductory material in other articles.

For the advanced reader who may think he or she ‘knows’ the issues and answers, there are more than a few surprises to dispel such an intransigency. The book as a whole becomes a strong apologetic for an ecumenical Christianity based on Pentecostal experience. Krister Stendahl writes in ‘The New Pentecostalism: reflections of an ecumenical observer’, that Pentecostalism is one of the saving features of Christianity on the mission field (p. 206). One wonders if even that is provincial. Could it be the New Pentecostalism may be ‘saving’ for the whole church? J. Rodman Williams contributes a brilliant theological synthesis of Pentecostal, evangelical and sacramental perspectives on the work of the Holy Spirit in becoming and being Christian. Gordon Fee has a concise, scholarly article on hermeneutics and the Pentecostal use of historical precedents in Acts for a definitive theology. Professor Fee constructively deals with the repeated adage that didactic portions of Scripture take precedence over historical portions in the formulation of Christian doctrine.

All of the writers are open in admitting there are problems and issues not yet fully answered. In particular, William MacDonald lists five problem areas; R. Hollis Gause cites six issues yet to be resolved. Consider one question: ‘What is the nature of modern “tongues” if considered a valid manifestation of the Holy Spirit?’ Is it xenolalia, speaking in a foreign language unknown to the speaker, heteroglossolalia, a phenomenon in which each person hears his own language when the speaker is communicating in his native tongue; or glossolalia,as ecstatic utterances in an unknown tongue?

Among those contributors to this volume who are firsthand participants in the New Pentecostalism, there emerges a consensus on several issues. Most agree that a two-stage model of experience is normative for Spirit-filled Christians: the baptism in the Holy Spirit is a distinct experience from regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Second, most agree that the likely consequence of baptism in the Holy Spirit will be the experience of glossolalia. Third, experience must be rooted in an articulate biblical theology. And fourth, the Pentecostal movement is in its essence Christ-centred. Jesus Christ is not to be diminished with an emphasis on Holy Spirit experience.

Finally, Morton Kelsey, in one of the concluding essays, persuasively argues that the central problem of the church today is a theological problem. Kelsey states that the immediate future of the church is dependent upon developing a theology of experience rather than a rational theology. His argument is quite compelling. This is an exceptional collection of essays on the New Pentecostalism. There is something for everyone here.

Alfred A. Glenn

Professor of Systematic Theology, Bethel College, St. Paul, Minnesota