Pentecostal Theology: A Brief Description
Roger E. Olson
The modern Pentecostal Movement began during the first decade of the 20th century. Some who need a date for its birth choose 1906—the year of the “Azusa Street Revival” in Los Angeles. However, the movement has older roots and really became organized later as denominations and institutions were formed. Most of the first modern Pentecostals were members of so-called “Holiness” churches such as the Church of the Nazarene and other Wesley-inspired revivalist groups. However, some were Baptists and Methodists.
Long before the modern Pentecostal movement began many Protestant Christians, especially in Great Britain and America, believed in, sought, and experienced something variously called the “second blessing” and “baptism of the Holy Spirit”—subsequent to conversion. Evangelist D. L. Moody, for example, preached this message and experience before Pentecostalism adopted it and added speaking in tongues as its “initial, physical evidence.”
Also, long before the modern Pentecostal movement began many Protestant Christians in Europe and America believed in and experienced divine healing through prayer—a special “kind” of prayer called the “prayer of faith” which did not just ask God to heal but called on God to for bodily, physical healing. The “healing movement” arose during the 19th century and was already going strong when Pentecostalism arose and added the idea that healing is provided for “in the atonement.” That is, Pentecostals traditionally believe that “by his stripes we are healed”—that bodily, physical healing is always God’s will and provided for by Christ’s death on the cross (just as salvation is provided for there).
The modern Pentecostal movement, with some inner variations, shares in common several distinctive teachings/doctrines. First, that speaking in tongues is the “initial, physical evidence” of the second blessing, a distinct work of grace subsequent to conversion, called the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The purpose and effect of this experience is power for holy living and for service to God. With it normally comes one or more supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is possible for every true Christian and every true Christian should “tarry” for it (seek it with fervent prayer). It is his or her own, personal “Pentecost.” However, most Pentecostal churches require it only of church leaders, not every member.
Second, Pentecostals (generally speaking) share in common belief in the contemporary relevance of the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” including those of supernatural utterance and miracles—those mentioned specifically by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. There is variety in the interpretation of these gifts, but all Pentecostals believe all the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the New Testament are to be sought for and manifested within the church today (as opposed to cessationism” which denies the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit are for the church today).
Third, Pentecostals share among themselves a special emphasis on divine healing through prayer—that bodily, physical healing is provided for in the atoning death of Jesus Christ. A few non-Pentecostal “Holiness” churches have traditionally believed that as well, but most have dropped it.
Fourth, Pentecostals share with other fundamentalists strong belief in the premillennial return of Jesus Christ, the verbal inspiration of the Bible, the “rapture” of the church before the “Great Tribulation” at the end of history, before Christ’s return, etc., etc. In many ways Pentecostals are fundamentalists without the typical fundamentalist cessationism with regard to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In other words, typically, they are fundamentalist Protestant Christians who, unlike others, believe in and practice the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit and worship in a spontaneous, often exuberant manner (depending on the denomination and church).
Fifth, and finally, the Pentecostal ethos is one of power and joy more than the normal “peace with God” emphasis of mainstream evangelicalism. Pentecostals are evangelicals, but unlike typical “Billy Graham” evangelicals they emphasize power and joy as marks of Spirit-filled Christian life. “Power” is for service; “joy” is a mark of Spirit-filled life. “Peace with God” is basic and comes with conversion to Christ through repentance and faith. “Power and joy” are added at Spirit-baptism after conversion.
Most Pentecostals believe in the Trinity; some do not. Modalism is the common view of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit among “Oneness Pentecostals.” They are typically shunned by Trinitarian Pentecostals who are orthodox with regard to the Trinity.
Of course, all this is Pentecostal theology. Many Pentecostals know little about theology and both theology and practice vary a great deal between Pentecostal churches. The above is what Pentecostal leaders believe; it’s impossible to generalize about what Pentecostals in the pews (and even in the pulpits) believe. Typically, especially in the past, Pentecostals have not promoted theological education except in their own Bible colleges. (In recent decades, however, some have begun to earn masters degrees in evangelical seminaries such as Fuller Seminary. There is also a scholarly Society of Pentecostal Studies which consists of highly educated Pentecostals with doctoral degrees. They publish a scholarly journal called Pneuma.)
Now, some “footnotes.” The term “Pentecostal” is being used by sociologists of religion for many charismatic-style churches in the Global South that have no historical or theological connection with classical Pentecostalism. It is impossible to say what they all have in common beyond strong belief in the supernatural and exuberant worship.
Being Baptist and being Pentecostal are not mutually exclusive. There are several denominations that are both. For example the Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church headquartered in North Carolina and the Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship headquartered in Florida. Many Baptist churches are charismatic…
“Charismatic” is a different designation from “Pentecostal.” Generally speaking “charismatic” designates a non-Pentecostal person, church or ministry that does not require belief in speaking in tongues as the “initial, physical evidence” of the baptism of the Holy Spirit but does believe both (baptism of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues) are relevant for Christians today. Generally speaking, charismatics are less fundamentalist and legalistic than classical Pentecostals. Many are Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, Lutheran or Methodist.
The Pentecostal movement has developed a large and well-known “lunatic fringe”—just like every religious movement. (Baptists have their own!) Classical Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, etc., reject these independent evangelists and ministries that specialize in things like the “Prosperity Gospel” (otherwise known as the Gospel of Health and Wealth). These extremists are Pentecostals, but they are considered by Pentecostal leaders a scourge on the movement as a whole. Unfortunately, they have grown and are often better known than the classical Pentecostals because of their prominence on television and in mass meetings where they promise financial prosperity based on “positive faith.”
Finally, beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, another movement known as the “Third Wave” began with the Vineyard Fellowship of Churches which created “contemporary worship.” The Vineyard and other “Third Wave” groups believe in and practice speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy, but do not believe speaking in tongues is for everyone or a sine qua non of being “Spirit-filled.” The Third Wave groups and churches emphasize “power encounters” and “spiritual warfare,” etc. Antioch Community Church in Waco belongs in this category—as do many churches not formally associated with the Vineyard.
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