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    painting of a white dove

    The Spiritual Roots of Pentecostalism

    In his recent book, Pentecostal Orthodoxy, Emilio Alvarez urges believers to be rooted in the past with an eye to the church’s future.

    By Matthew Jordan

    June 6, 2023
    • Joel Webb

      Thank you for the invitation to see all of Christ's followers in the light of His glory and as the reward for His sacrifice. May we all be led into deeper engagement in what it means to be one Body under His headship.

    • Shirley Cooke

      A really articulate and thoughtful article. Well presented with plenty to meditate on as I pray for the future of the Church. Thank you Matthew. It's been a blessing to read your writing. Peace be with you.

    On an ordinary day, class would have ended an hour ago. On this particular evening in the winter of ’91, however, students of Crenshaw Christian Center’s Ministry Training Institute sat motionless and silent in their seats. Professor David Henry had begun his Ministry of Evangelism class in routine fashion but abruptly stopped forty-five minutes into the lecture. In a silence that can only be compared to that of Zechariah in Luke 1, the class was struck by the dense presence of God in the room. After an hour and a half, the class packed up, filed out of the room, and drove back home.

    More than thirty years later, my grandfather still tells the story of when the Holy Spirit stirred the hearts of an entire class with reverence and affection for God. This story, like many others told by my grandfather, shapes a rich spiritual inheritance that testifies to the holiness, greatness, and mystery of God. More than any physical inheritance my grandparents will someday pass on, I deeply treasure the meaningful heritage of these stories.

    A concern for spiritual inheritance is also at the core of Emilio Alvarez’s recent book, Pentecostal Orthodoxy: Toward an Ecumenism of the Spirit. However, the heritage that Alvarez has in mind is panoramic in character. Instead of focusing on a single family, Alvarez reflects on the past, present, and future of Pentecostals, the largest growing body of believers in the world at this time.

    Pentecostal Orthodoxy, at the very least, brings attention to a growing number of Pentecostals who are seeking “orthodoxy.” What, then, is this “orthodoxy” that Pentecostals are seeking? When Alvarez mentions “orthodoxy,” he is not referring to the Eastern Orthodox Church or even simply right teaching in the theological sense. Instead, a recovery of orthodoxy is a movement “away from a fundamentalist evangelical way of being in the world and shifting toward the faith and practice of a more liturgical, sacramental, and creedal Christianity.” But isn’t “Pentecostal Orthodoxy” a fundamentally self-contradictory term? How could a group of Christians known for their focus on the present and their unpredictable services devote so much attention to an ancient and liturgical experience of Christianity?

    Familial Faith

    My family has been acquainted with the charismatic movement for three generations and, by extension, the Pentecostal movement as well. It was as part of the charismatic movement that my grandfather served as a missionary, translator, and Bible teacher in Central America and the United States. While I do not wish to conflate the Pentecostal and charismatic strains, I think of Pentecostals as close cousins because of our mutual emphasis on the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and signs and wonders. In my high school years, I was glad to be part of a movement that brought a sense of vigor, enthusiasm, and awe to the global church. As time went on, however, I began to discover the riches that other denominations had to offer. They worshiped in beautiful cathedrals, we in nondescript buildings. They had fully developed liturgies, creeds, and theological systems while we often improvised. Call it a case of “low church complex,” but I felt as if I was on the outside looking in. I kept returning to the same question: Are we a people of shallow inheritance?

    It turns out that Alvarez has wrestled with this very question for years. In Pentecostal Orthodoxy, he answers this question with another: What would it look like for Pentecostals to trace their heritage from the primitive apostolic age, through the early church, and into the present day? Alvarez points out that Pentecostalism is “informed solely by the primitive church as described in the book of Acts.” This attraction to an apostolic faith is often supplemented by a distrust of “humanly made institutions, creeds, and traditions” which “diminished the Spirit’s power and presence in the church.” Since many Pentecostals believe that the Spirit’s power returned at the Azusa Street Revival of 1906, church history after the apostolic age and prior to the Azusa Street Revival is often marginalized. This distrust, says Alvarez, is not a feature but a bug to Pentecostalism. In an attempt to delineate “a new way of being pentecostal in the world”, Pentecostal Orthodoxy seeks to bridge the gap between Acts and Azusa.

    What kind of gap is this and how can it be bridged? On this subject, Alvarez turns to theologian Robert Webber, who describes his recovery of the post-apostolic traditions as three distinct stages of faith: familial faith, searching faith, and owned faith. Alvarez sees these three stages as helpful tools for recovering “orthodoxy.” First, a person’s “familial faith” must be explored to determine what one’s social, theological and ecclesial starting point is. When an individual is situated in a specific faith family, she can practice “searching faith,” whereby she identifies good and true characteristics from other families in Christendom. Finally, “owned faith” gives an individual the chance to implement these characteristics into her own family if she chooses to do so. As such, I have attempted to chronicle my own faith journey with Webber’s terminology.

    Searching Faith

    In my senior year of college, I found myself sitting in a Bible class discussing the Lord’s Supper. On this particular day, the professor asked students to indicate how often their churches offered the Lord’s Supper. To my surprise, I was the only one in the class used to partaking of the Eucharist weekly. I was used to being the low-church Christian in any given room and marveled at the shift that had taken place in me. It seems that I had begun seeking the sacraments without knowing it.

    Before coming to college, I had attended a church that administered communion once a month at the beginning of the service, although I was often late to church and missed it. Despite my tardiness, this church fostered immense spiritual growth in my life. When I came to college, however, I began to attend a different nondenominational church and was shocked that it offered communion every Sunday. In the nearly five years I have spent in this church, a weekly reliance on the Lord’s Supper has given me new ways of experiencing God’s presence.

    Around the same time, I read Gordon T. Smith’s Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three. Smith’s framework helped me to see that my previous church had been strong on the evangelical and pentecostal front, but wanting in their emphasis of sacraments, specifically the Lord’s Supper. As I read, Smith put words to my unrealized longing to gather at the table of God with baptized brothers and sisters. Smith’s words are a helpful reminder to all churches to be evangelical, sacramental, and pentecostal in character. Alvarez’s work in Pentecostal Orthodoxy effectively applies Smith’s principle to Pentecostals, urging them to incorporate sacramental theology and practice into their services. Not only praise and worship, but also the Eucharist can confront believers with the “real presence” of God, reassuring and warm as “a coat in the midst of a brutal winter.”

    Dr. Alvarez pastors a Pentecostal nondenominational church and is the presiding bishop of the Union of Charismatic Orthodox Churches, an association of churches that seeks to advance “pentecostal orthodoxy.” Even though Alvarez has continually sought to promote a proper understanding of the Lord’s Supper in his congregation, he describes that this has often been met by apathy. Despite his best efforts, Alvarez notices a tendency for his congregants to be engaged during the singing and preaching of the word but uninterested or absent during the Eucharist. It is sobering to acknowledge that a movement of Pentecostals toward “orthodoxy” will not happen overnight, and yet I commend Alvarez for continuing to connect the dots: Pentecostals truly concerned with experiencing God should naturally desire to seek him through word, sacrament, and Spirit.

    painting of a white dove

    Anonymous, Holy Spirit, mural, chancel of Saint Paul Church, Yellow Springs, Ohio. Photograph by Nheyob. 

    Perhaps it is harmless to encourage Pentecostals to be more “aware” of other traditions. But does the fusion of contemporary Pentecostalism with ancient apostolic tradition have its drawbacks? I see two reasons why this recovery of tradition can be problematic, the first of which is directed at the “why” of this recovery. Benjamin Vincent identifies a rise in “aesthetic converts,” lovers of liturgy and creed who are prone to “separate the doctrinal and historical content of a church’s worship from its external and artistic expressions.” It behooves those seeking “orthodoxy” to ask whether they are seeking the truth stored in these historical liturgies. When a believer ceases to ask this question, they can backslide into forms of idolatry where they love an image more than its referent or worship a liturgical expression instead of the God to which it testifies.

    Alvarez shares a similar concern for the rise of “aesthetic converts” and maintains that converts must encounter the substance and truth of tradition. Alvarez describes an encounter with a young Pentecostal bishop in an airport. On this particular day, Alvarez, dressed comfortably in street clothes, noticed a young man who wore all-black clerical garments and a large episcopal ring. Alvarez began a conversation with the man, asking about his schooling and life. He found that the young man belonged to a similar Pentecostal movement to him, but that his knowledge of other denominations was lacking. All of a sudden, the two men witnessed a fellow traveler slump to the ground, presumably due to a heart attack:

    The woman, seemingly in pain, was holding her chest with her hand, which had her crucifix in it. She looked directly at the one person at the gate with a collar on and began to mumble words toward the bishop. Her voice must have been heard by the gentleman that was closest to her because he looked up at the bishop and said, “Prayer! Last rites!” The bishop sitting next to me looked at me as if he were a deer caught in the headlights – frozen. As I looked at his face of bewilderment, it was clear that he did not know what to do.

    While Alvarez did not wish to embarrass the young man and last rites are traditionally associated with the Roman Catholic Church, he points out that the practice of anointing and praying over the sick and dying is not only biblical but also in keeping with much of church history. Alvarez himself went up to the woman, identified himself as a non-Roman Catholic bishop, and prayed and recited the Apostles’ Creed before the paramedics arrived on the scene.

    The rest of the young man’s story is not known, but this encounter can initiate further reflection on the misuse of aesthetics in tradition. Some aspects of “orthodoxy” may be appealing to the senses, but they are often tethered to real responsibilities. In the case of the bishop, Alvarez paused to reflect on “the very real public expectations that come with adopting a certain public dress or uniform.” While it is unrealistic to expect everyone who wears a clerical collar to understand the intricacies of last rites, Alvarez maintains that “there should have at least been the basic impulse on the part of the young bishop to join the woman in a word of prayer.” Individuals seeking to learn more about the aesthetics at play in their tradition may have much to learn, but it is noble to strive to develop these impulses and understand these responsibilities over time.

    A second obstacle to those seeking “orthodoxy” concerns the “how” of this recovery. Christians gleaning from the early and post-apostolic church will notice a church that was unified, at least politically, for its first thousand years. If “orthodoxy” is a worthy object to pursue, does this extend to church unity also? My fear not only for Pentecostals, but for any group seeking to recover “orthodoxy,” is that they will have trouble determining what unity means in a denominational Christian landscape. Should a truly “orthodox” Christian seek to tear down denominational divides in the global church? Ignore them? Clifford Humphrey speaks to this issue by pointing out a common misreading of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, in which essential Christian beliefs are made out to be the entirety of the Christian life. Humphrey is concerned with those who arrive at ecumenical dialogues with a decidedly non-partisan position, betraying “a naivety that we have reached such spiritual heights that we no longer need distinct, robust, thoughtful ecclesial identities and practices that accord with this embodiment and finitude.”

    With Humphrey, I agree that it is foolish to pretend that no divisions exist in the church or that those who belong to these traditions are misled in some way. While it is easy to ignore the existing divisions in the global church, it is hard but worthwhile to strive for Spirit-empowered unity. Humphrey’s words can teach all Christians an important rule about the past, present, and future of orthodoxy: a movement that seeks ancient wisdom at the expense of the present church might hinder unity for the future.

    Owned Faith

    Pentecostal Orthodoxy proposes that any attempt to construct “a new way of being pentecostal in the world,” then, must be rooted in the past with an eye to a better future for the global church. It envisions a future in which all churches would place value on being evangelical, sacramental, and pentecostal in character through the preaching of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and an attention to the person and the work of the Holy Spirit. This future would steer clear of aesthetic conversion or ignoring the denominational differences of contemporary Christianity.

    To this end, Alvarez concludes Pentecostal Orthodoxy on a hopeful note with his final chapter, “An Ecumenism of the Spirit,” which proposes a dynamic interchange of ideas between Christian denominations. Pentecostals seeking to promote unity in the global church for example, may not convert to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism, but instead seek to learn from the faith and practice of these traditions. In return, Alvarez points out that Pentecostals – known for their emphasis on the Holy Spirit – can initiate Spirit-led and relational dialogue between traditions. Alvarez claims that previous ecumenical dialogue “is only open to the Spirit insofar as the Spirit affirms, further develops, and brings together in greater visible unity the existing ecclesial structures …” but is not open to the possibility “that the Spirit is calling for the reshaping and refashioning of existing ecclesial structures.” If one were to understand ecumenical efforts in the twentieth century as a diplomatic conversation between countries, Alvarez envisions a “new ecumenism” that resembles a meal that celebrates “the already-existing unity occurring between Christians on a daily basis” and welcomes new members to the conversation at the table.

    To draw from C. S. Lewis’s metaphor in his preface to Mere Christianity, Alvarez imagines a future in which Pentecostals are not exiled to the hallway but have a room of their own. Pentecostals will always have their own defining characteristics and theological emphases, but this need not come at the expense of ignorance of other traditions. Instead, when a believer is at home in her own room, she can be free to have vibrant, honest, and Spirit-led fellowship in every room on the hallway. Pentecostal Orthodoxy leaves not only Pentecostals but every movement open to seeking “orthodoxy” with two important questions: what does my tradition stand to gain from and what does my tradition stand to give to the one holy and apostolic church?

    Contributed By MatthewJordan Matthew Jordan

    Matthew Jordan is a freelance writer in La Mirada, California.

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