Pentecostal anti-intellectualism, tongues, and interpretation

David Hymes at the Hebrew Scriptures & More blog has a great post on the anti-intellectualism that has often characterized Pentecostalism. He provides a few entertaining quotes from Charles Parham that indicate a love/hate relationship with theological education due in part from the criticism of the Pentecostal movement that came from educated scholars and pastors.

I believe that there are other reasons for our anti-intellectual tendencies.

While Pentecostal anti-intellectualism is often a reaction against criticisms that came from the “Greedy/Dumb Dogs” with degrees, it can also be an understandable reaction against those who originally come from the Pentecostal camp, but then starts to question pet doctrines or practices as a result of their new theological education. (Often this ‘questioning’ comes with an arrogant flair, that unfortunately, I’ve been guilty of myself). While I think that Pentecostal pet doctrines and practices are in need of critique, at least in this case, the suspicion of education is certainly understandable.

Seminaries are labeled “cemeteries” and diplomas labeled “die-plomas” sometimes by folks who are truly concerned for the spiritual welfare of their friends who leave church and home for the sake of an education. Some come back without the fire or intense calling that they had before their education. (Unfortunately, this has been my story as well [at least after Bible college]. Thankfully while in Seminary I became “more Pentecostal” with a much more robust pneumatology in no small part because of the education I received – from non-Pentecostals!)

I also think that there is an issue of contextualization (or the lack thereof). A young person with God’s call on her life leaves for Bible college or seminary. While at school she learns a new vocabulary, a new way of speaking and thinking. She spends hours in class and in books. She spends lunch and dinner hours informally discussing theology with other students. Then she returns home. She attempts to teach what she’s learned, but she forgets that she’s learned a new language while she was away, and many of the folks at home don’t speak that language. Its understandable that friction can arise in this situation. One fellow at the AG church I attend will tell the seminary grads to “Say it in English.” It seems that we learn to speak in other tongues during our theological education, but Paul says that public tongues are for the edification of the body and must always be interpreted!

One of the most valuable books I’ve read during my time in Bible college and seminary was Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. I heartily recommend it to every seminary and Bible college student out there. Chapters 3 & 4 are particularly appropriate here. At the end of ch. 3, Thielicke describes a young Christian who enters theological education with spiritual vigor but returns home quite different:

Under a considerable display of the apparatus of exegetical science and surrounded by the air of the initiated, he produces paralyzing and unhappy trivialities, and the inner muscular strength of a lively young Christian is horribly squeezed to death in a formal armor of abstract ideas. If something more had been expected from the discussion afterward, even here, too, he develops an astounding talent for jabbing paralyzing injections of ideas into a lively, free and easy conversation.

It is understandable that many churches are not encouraged by such experiences to set great store by theology as taught at the university (page 8).

I certainly dislike the anti-intellectual bend of Pentecostalism, but I’ve been guilty of perpetuating it by speaking in the “other tongues” of academia without an interpretation. Like Paul, I should “rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor. 14:19).

Anyways, thanks David for posting the Parham quotes!

2 thoughts on “Pentecostal anti-intellectualism, tongues, and interpretation”

  1. I have also found that my ‘Pentecostal-ness” became more grounded while studying under non-Pentecostals and that I began to gain an interest in Pneumatology. Interesting experience, isn’t it?

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