Sacred Texts

Pentecostalism, like other Protestant communities, embraces the 66 books of the Bible as a guide to faith and practice.  It relies heavily, however, on the Book of Acts as a blueprint for the Pentecostal experience.  Other foundational scriptures include Paul's first Letter to the Corinthians, especially chapters 12-13 where the gifts are discussed. Some sections of the Hebrew Bible, like Joel 2: 28-29, receive much attention. 

Since there are no other scriptures that Pentecostalism adheres to, it may be helpful to briefly examine two foundational texts and draw some comparisons between how Pentecostals and other conservative Protestants interpret them. It will also be helpful to discuss how Pentecostals interpret certain passages differently amongst themselves.  From the movement's earliest days, schism has been an option for Pentecostals who have described their disagreements as part of a revelation from God rather than as mere differences of interpretation.

Taking the foundational text first, Acts 2:4, Pentecostals place most of their theological emphases on this scripture, which describes a meeting that Jesus' followers had in Jerusalem when the tongues of fire appeared over their heads, the Holy Spirit filled them, and they began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.  This description, along with a few others (especially Acts 10:10), gives Pentecostals the theological support for adhering to the doctrine of initial evidence, that Spirit baptism is demonstrated by speaking in tongues (though as we shall see later, most Pentecostals loosely adhere to that doctrine as a matter of faith and practice). 

The story in Acts is important not only for its experiential description, but also for what it says in terms of Pentecostal theology.  Jesus' admonition that he would not leave his followers without an advocate, a comforting presence (John 14-16), is seen as fulfilled in the Acts passage.  These sections that fulfill the prophetic nature of Jesus' words, and especially the Old Testament passages that, for Pentecostals, foreshadow the Pentecostal movement (e.g., Joel 2:28-29), are particularly important.  They place Pentecostalism squarely within the Christian tradition, legitimating its existence regardless of whether other Christian bodies agree with the experiential nature of their faith. Because Pentecostals are as rooted in the scriptural texts as other evangelicals, arguing with the text become a self-defeating exercise.

Passages such as Joel's are always subject to interpretation and revision based on one's social and cultural lens; the Joel passage has always been a kind of theological double-edged sword.  Joel 2:28-29 reads:


28 And afterward,

       I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

       Your sons and daughters will prophesy,

       your old men will dream dreams,

       your young men will see visions.


 29 Even on my servants, both men and women,

       I will pour out my Spirit in those days.


These two passages contain many problems for Pentecostals, problems that they have still not fully resolved.  Pouring out the Spirit on all people, for some Pentecostals, is a universal statement, meaning that believers and non-believers alike will somehow be touched by this most supernatural of experiences, which leads to prophecy, dreams, and visions.  So, does that create a pathway for universal salvation in Pentecostal theology?  Such talk has been heretical for some time, but serious theological discussion on what that sentence means has begun to slowly unravel the exclusive claims that the Spirit is poured out only on those whom contemporary Christians believe are worthy. 

Another major issue in this passage is the gender equity explicitly guaranteed in the text.  If both sons and daughters will prophesy, and all of the servants of God will have the benefit of having the Spirit poured out on them as a sign of the last days, it follows that there are definite roles for women in ministry.  As such, women have had authoritative roles in Pentecostalism that they have not had in other branches of Christianity.  The idea that women are endowed with the capacity to prophesy (according to Paul, prophecy, not tongues, is to be the most sought-after spiritual gift) means that their words, their ability to speak on God's behalf, offers them an entryway into Church leadership.   Many Christian communities, both historically and today,  have made attempts to wrest that power away from women, viewing the prophetic role of women as secondary to the priestly role of men.

Finally, the spiritual gifts mentioned in this passage-prophesy and visions, and tangentially, dreams (never viewed as a spiritual gift per se, but definitely a supernatural occurrence that most Pentecostals would not deny exists)-have,  historically, been some of the most controversial and unregulated experiences.  Many heterodoxical expressions, misguided schisms, and tragic personal crises have begun with and been supported by individuals believing that they had received a prophetic word, either for the Church at large, or for one person.  Because of the nature of Pentecostalism, questioning the trustworthiness of prophecy or visions has not been something Pentecostals have wanted to engage in, though it has not stopped them from viewing prophecy and visions outside their faith community to be aberrant.

Non-Pentecostal opinions on the claims to such experiences vary from merely skeptical to the starkly condemning. Pentecostals have engaged in a centuries-long dance on the edge of credulity, where other Christians admire their passion and claims to power as long as that power does not veer into the bizarre.

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