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!

Pentecost Sunday

My pastor, Jim Williams of Gloucester Assembly of God, preached a fantastic sermon today on Acts 2. It was perhaps the most refreshing sermon I’ve ever heard on the chapter. Being a Pentecostal, I can assure you, I have heard many a preacher wax eloquent on this passage! For the most part, they’ve tended to focus on things like “tongues” or “power” or “witnessing” or some other kind of phenomenon having to do with the Pentecostal distinctives of today, but rarely have I heard a sermon that actually “agrees” with Peter’s own explanation of the events of Pentecost. The mighty rushing wind and the tongues of fire were not merely manifestations geared towards producing goosebumps on the backs of the people of Judea and beyond!* The proclamation of the “wonders of God” in other tongues (v. 11) was not meant to serve as a mere precedent for Pentecostal prayer. (There are other places in Scripture that support that!) No. The manifestations of Pentecost pointed to the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father. My pastor’s homiletical point was that “believers are to be compelling evidence that Jesus is Lord and Christ.” Jesus’ status is made explicit in Luke’s account of Peter’s sermon:

God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,
   ” ‘The Lord said to my Lord:
     “Sit at my right hand
   until I make your enemies
     a footstool for your feet.” ‘
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

The manifestations of Pentecost were evidence of the inauguration of the risen and exalted Christ. In today’s Pentecostal circles (at least the circles where I’ve grown up), the issue of “evidence” is very important. For instance, the Assemblies of God “Statement of Fundamental Truths” (our “creed”) states that speaking in tongues is “the initial physical evidence of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit.”** Of course, I know that this point causes a bit of a interpretive hiccup even among many professed “Pentecostals” (myself included). That’s not the point of this post, though. What strikes me about Acts 2 (coming away from my pastor’s sermon) is that the phenomena that attended that first Pentecost does serve as evidence – not primarily of “Spirit baptism” (at least in “Pentecostal” terms) – but rather as evidence that the once crucified Jesus was now the exalted Messiah of Israel. He was not only the promised Messiah. He was also exalted as Lord. This is a scandalous statement for a sect birthed out of monotheistic Judaism given that kurios (the Greek word translated as “Lord”) is the the word often used in Greek translations of the Old Testament to translate the Hebrew name of God – Yahweh. Jesus, the exalted Messiah – Jesus, the exalted Lord, poured out his Spirit on the church that was to stand as evidence of his status at the right hand of the Father.

Well, I’ve rambled long enough. All that is to say that I very much appreciated my pastor’s sermon this Pentecost Sunday!

* Note that Michael Barber at “Singing in the Reign” recently posted an interesting explanation of the “tongues of fire” phenomenon in Acts 2 [HERE].

high-octane low church

NBC Nightly News recently aired Rev. Eugene Rivers‘ description of Pentecostalism and its appeal to the poor. Rev. Rivers is pastor of Azusa Christian Community in Boston. While I do not accept his emphasis on movement from “poverty to prosperity”, I understand that as a white middle-class AG Pentecostal I have my own biases when it comes to the social implications of Gospel. I would like to think that Pentecostalism can be socially-concerned without being “prosperity” driven. I cannot endorse a prosperity-Gospel in the vein of Osteen or Roberts, but I do believe that a Spirit-driven Gospel must confront materialism and the systemic oppression of the poor.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Luke 4:18-19

HT: Paul Grabill of Beside the Point & Jeff Leake of FutureAG.

Assemblies of God at the Crossroads

Fearful of incurring the wrath of the Grand Lord of Biblioblogdom, I have been hesitant to overtly mention my ecclesiastical affiliation on this blog. Still, I cannot deny my true identity. I am . . . (brace yourself) . . . a Pentecostal, and . . . (gasp) . . . a member of an Assemblies of God church.

Anyway, the Assemblies of God General Council will be held August 8-11, 2007 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Recently Rev. Thomas E. Trask stepped down from his position as the General Superintendent of the denomination.* So, this year’s meeting is particularly important, as we will be choosing a new General Superintendent.

The gravity of this situation has caused a few blogs to form. Both Future AG and AG Leadership Change are worth checking out if you’re curious.

I write this post to express our need for prayer.** The AG needs wisdom in choosing who will fill this important position.

PS: I reserve the right to speak tongue-in-cheek. If we can’t laugh about doctrinal differences, then we are taking ourselves too seriously!