What is the essence of Pentecostalism?

What is your understanding of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement?

My conversation with Steve Hayes last year highlighted for me that even in the world beyond America our understandings of Pentecostalism can differ.

If the Evangelical movement is characterized by conversionism, activism, biblicism and cruci-centrism (ref: David Bebbington) and the Anabaptist movement is characterized by Christo-centrism, communitarianism and pacifism (ref: Becker and Bender) then what would you say are the distinctive features of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement?

In my experience it would be an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts (especially tongues, prophecy and healing) and heart-filled worship. Flowing from the emphasis on Spiritual power and healing is also an emphasis on prosperity and entrepreneurialism. How does that gel with your experience? Know of any definitions widely accepted by Pentecostals and Charismatics from multiple traditions?

26 thoughts on “What is the essence of Pentecostalism?

  1. We looked at Pentecostalism in History of Evangelicalism at Ridley last semester. Bebbington’s definition is quite popular but I feel that it misses the experiential nature that evangelicalism (at least historically) has had. We looked at evangelicalism as “heart religion” or the pursuit of “vital piety”.
    Viewed in historical context, Pentecostalism can be seen as arising out of the Second Great Awakening, which came from the first Great Awakening, both part of the great evangelical revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries. While Pentecostalism became a movement in and of itself, there’s more commonality between the two than is commonly thought!

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  2. Following on from that same history class… 😀
    William K Kay has a good discussion in Pentecostalism (SCM Core Text).
    Kay’s starting definition: pentecostalism = evangelical doctrines + spiritual experience (which is referred to as ‘baptism in the Spirit’, and which is especially evident in energetic corporate gatherings).
    Kay discusses three definitions that are successively more general.
    1. Walter Hollenweger’s initial, discarded definition: pentecostalism = those who believe in first & second Spirit baptism.
    2. Kilian McDonnell: pentecostalism = stress on the power, presence, and gifts of Spirit for proclamation.
    3. Eldin Villafañe: pentecostalism = spiritual gifts for ‘now’.
    Kay finds these definitions to be too broad, but he still wants to arrive at an inclusive definition, so he works from Hollenweger’s improved definition: pentecostalism = a way of doing theology that:
    – is related to experience,
    – depends on oral rather than written communication,
    – is ecumenical because of its plurality, and
    – expresses itself in pneumatological terms.
    He adds that:
    • Pentecostalism combines both belief and practice so that practice is theology (ie, a habitus or life-world).
    • Pentecostalism is a lay movement based on testimony, rather than a clerical movement based on learning. However, this is particularly descriptive of majority world pentecostalism, whereas pentecostalism in the West has ‘magisterial’ as well as ‘folk’ expressions, and is also particularly adaptive to technology.

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  3. I would define Pentecostalism as the conviction that nothing in the New Testament has ceased to occur except by human neglect. So I’d modify Kay’s definition (above) by saying that pentecostalism is the understanding that evangelical doctrine (usually Wesleyan/Holiness or otherwise Arminian) *entails* spiritual experience if it is to be faithful to scripture.
    There have been plenty of reasons not to notice this, because of more visible issues like the second-blessing or prosperity teaching, and various kinds of revivalism. These can be seen to be accidental correlations because they are easily removed when transitioning to the charismatic movement or third wave theology; or when crossing denominational barriers.

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  4. Kalessin’s comments prompt this observation. I’ve encountered numerous Calvinist-leaning Evangelicals who would stridently challenge “pentecostalism = evangelical doctrines + spiritual experience” on the basis that Arminianism deeply conflicts with their understanding of evangelical doctrines. Which raises a further question. What do we mean by evangelical doctrines?
    As for Bebbington’s definition, though I’m no expert, I understand that what he labels “conversionism” includes what has been labelled the born again “experience”. So I don’t understand his definition as neglecting the heart by any means.

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  5. Yep, Bebbington does include experience in conversionism but I’m still not convinced because at least two of his other characteristics (biblicism and crucicentrism) are doctrinally driven. Yet evangelicals have often avoided doctrinal definition. The very idea of ‘evangelical doctrines’ may be somewhat oxymoronic!
    I’m reasonably Calvinist myself but have complete confidence that you can be both Arminian and evangelical – like Wesley himself for example!

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  6. I met Bebbington in a graduate history class at Morling a few years ago; he was not disagreeable to my suggestion that ‘populism’ would be a sensible ‘fifth pillar’.

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  7. I reckon it helps to come back to historically-driven definitions. Phrases like “second blessing” or “Spirit baptism” are significant insofar as they were used by early pentecostals.
    I agree with your PS, Matt — pentecostalism being the second expansion of evangelicalism. Here’s Kay again: “‘There were two lines of holiness teaching that converged into eventual Pentecostal doctrine. A Wesleyan line ran through John Fletcher to Phoebe Palmer and a reformed line ran through Charles Finney and W.E. Boardman to Keswick”. Kay argues that these two lines created a shift within the holiness movement, turning the focus from soteriology to pneumatology, from “sanctification” to “Spirit baptism”. Holiness didn’t itself become pentecostalism, but formed the frypan in which it came to the boil.

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  8. @Tamie. I agree that Evangelicalism defies strict doctrinal definition, and shelters both Calvanists and Arminians under it’s umbrella.
    But I think biblicalism is a fair way of contrasting Evangelicalism to other Christian traditions, like Catholicism for instance. In Evangelical churches there IS much more emphasis on bible study as a form of devotion, the bible alone as authoritive for teaching, preaching of the word as the climax of the worship service, etc, etc. Churches can be bible focussed and anti-intellectual simultaneously. Biblicalism need not imply doctrinalism.
    In a similar fashion, the Evangelical take on the gospel is far more cross-centered than I find amongst Orthodox priests and fellow Anabaptists. For instance, the blogosphere is rife with Anabaptists advocating Christus Victor and the gospel of the Kingdom over Substitutionary Atonement and the gospel of justification, and Calvinist denunciations of the same. Even where this is not preached in doctrinal fashion, doctrinal difference lurks under the surface.

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  9. @Arthur. Interesting suggestion. I sense another shift too, from guilt-innocence culture to fear-power culture if you’re familiar with the anthropological theory).
    Here’s another question, are there any ways in which it might be said that Pentecostalism broke from Evangelicalism rather than merely extending it?

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  10. I grew up as a kid in a very moderate and western white form of pentecostelism here in Belgium, and later as a teenager became part of the vineyard. Later on I became more careful with the supernatural claims and worldview some pentecostels and charismatics have, even though I’ll still call myself a charismatic of some sorts.
    What I only discovered a whole lot later when I was ‘grown-up’ and trying to find out what the difference was between all those evangelicals, was that my basic understanding of Christianity is deeply Wesleyan (I hate the word Arminian, that guy was jus a calvinist at odds with his forming tradition, not a qualifier for all things non-calvinist)
    So I would think that the core of pentecostelism is formed by Wesleyan revivalism, with an enormous emphasis on the charismatic aspect (which was also there with older revivalism, but not in the same degree)
    I don’t see pentecostelism as broken away from evangelicalism here at the moment, but I remember when I was a kid hearing people say that ‘we’ were the only Christians and that the others didn’t have the Spirit. I’ve noticed the same with third-world pentecostels, so that might be true in some circles, when for example the litmus test for being a Christian seems to be if you’re able to speak in tongues. But some corners of evangelicalism don’t seem to like it. Cessationist dispensationalists see it as demonic, and some evangelical calvinists see it as even worse: arminian…

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  11. I’d say traditional pentecostalism would be characterised by
    * signs and wonders (incl. baptism of the Spirit)
    * wesleyan holiness
    * exuberant worship
    * biblical literalism
    However, in the past several decades there has been tremendous divergence, so that it becomes difficult to talk of pentecostalism as a single monolithic entity. Rob McAlpine summarises it well in his book Post Charismatic when he refers to:
    * The Latter Rain Movement (examples being Kansas City Prophets and Todd Bentley)
    * Prosperity and Healing (Hagin, Copeland + many more)
    * Covering and Authority (Derek Prince, John Bevere)
    And I would add:
    * Neo-Hillsong (massive here in the UK, interestingly very very little use of tongues, the original mark of pentecostals)

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  12. @Carlo, I think the word you need for “neo-Hillsong” is “technocostal”. Pentecostals with absurdly high technological proficiency…

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  13. @Brambonius. “I hate the word Arminian, that guy was jus a calvinist at odds with his forming tradition, not a qualifier for all things non-calvinist” LOL. I may have to quote you in future. I’ve wrinkled my nose at Reformed preachers mislabelling Anabaptists as Arminians more than once. Seems I’ve got more baggage from my Sydney Anglican years than I realised. I’ll be more careful with Wesleyan = Arminian correlations as well.
    To clarify, I don’t see Pentecostalism as having “broken away” from Evangelicalism. I see the situation more in terms of two overlapping circles. I think it’s fair to say there are non-Pentecostal Evangelicals (old style Calvinists for instance) and non-Evangelical Pentecostals (charismatic Catholics for instance) but without doubt there are huge numbers of Charismatic Evangelicals and Evangelical Pentecostals. What this suggests to me is differing centres of gravity rather than strict separation.
    The same could be said for Anabaptists and Evangelicals. Think centred set rather than bounded set.
    Neither would say that biblical authority or heart-filled worship is unimportant, but they differ in how much weight they place on each. So, strictly speaking, these movements are not centred in quite the same way. But the centres are not so separated that the boundaries part company completely.
    @Carlos. Following this, if we identify Spiritual gifts (especially tongues, prophecy and healing) are one of the gravitational centres of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, we should be able to tentatively chart how each of these sub-movements are in their orbit. Latter Rain Movement ~ gift of prophecy, Prosperity and Healing ~ gift of healing, old style Pentecostalism ~ gift of tongues, it’s all variations on a theme. Hopefully you get the drift. I’m not talking about fixed locations, I’m talking about about movement tendencies. The pneumatological leanings of the Pentecostal movement are not in strict conflict with Evangelicalism, but gravitational shifts are discernable.

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  14. I don’t know anything about Pentecostalism, but from my perspective (brought up Methodist, then went Baptist, now theologically very anabaptist, charismatic experiences en route, ‘Toronto blessing’ etc) I would say a ‘charismatic’ is someone who knows God acts directly in the here and now.
    Many evangelicals seem to think of the Bible as the ultimate authority and the rulebook of how to do stuff, and the only way in which God acts here and now.
    I think a charismatic is someone who has experience of God acting directly here and now, and doesn’t think it’s weird (or not that weird!)

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  15. @Kalessin “technocostal” LOL. You’re right there.
    Matt – yep 100% – spiritual gifts (signs and wonders) is definitely at the heart of pentecostalism/charismatic movement. The big exception seems to be the neo-Hillsong gang – their roots are Assemblies of God, but you’ll see only minimal (or no) tongues, prophecy and healing. I wonder to what extent are they still pentecostal? Perhaps it’s in the worship.

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  16. @pastasmissus. I sorta agree but sorta not. I mean, I can see your point, but the problem with using ‘charismatic’ as a generic label for non-cessationists is that there are several non-cessationist streams of Christianity that have nothing whatsoever to do with Pentecostalism or even Protestantism. The language becomes most acute with Pentecostal influenced “Charismatic Catholics” given that regular Catholics are hardly cessationist either. For instance, regular Catholic emphasis on miraculous healings by saints. Healing gifts are nothing new for them. What sets self-identified Charismatic Catholics apart from regular Catholics is far more than just an “experience of God acting directly here and now.” Tongues, exuberant worship and pneumatological teaching need to be mentioned specifically here. So, in the same way we’re urged to be wary of identifying all non-Calvinists as Arminians I think we need to be wary of identifying all non-cessationists as Charismatics. I feel this acutely myself given I place much value the experience of God acting directly here and now but owe much more to the Mystic/Contemplative tradition than the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition. Notable here is Richard Foster’s book, “Streams of Living Water”, where he clearly differentiates between the Contemplative and Charismatic streams, but not on the basis of experientialism.

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  17. Carlo, very familiar with Hillsong. I grew up in the Hills District and the Hillsong mother church is just a short drive from me here. Have personal connections there too. They’re part of what prompted my original question, as they’re the premier expression of Pentecostalism locally but a bit of an aberation globally. Though tongues is not emphasized much these days, exuberant worship, empowerment talk and can-do entrepreneurialism definitely is. So I’m looking for definitions that are broad enough to include them but not so broad as to include, say, Catholic mystics.

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  18. I go to the flagship Bible college of the Assemblies of God and in my AG History and Polity class my professor said that Pentecostals are “believers who believe we are in the end time (or last) harvest (like the original festival of Pentecost celebrated) and that the supernatural gifts often spoken of are being ramped in anticipation of this last great harvest before the Last Day.” His emphasis is that we are are world evangelism focused and supernatural focused. I’m not that good of a Pentecostal to be honest, the Great Tradition of the Church has kind of ruined me from my past thinking that what Pentecostals have discovered is sooooo superior to what Christians have had for the past 2000 years but nonetheless I am a Pentecostal. These are his words though not mine as I’m not a dispensationalists and that kind of make a black sheep at times. I earnestly believe that we’ve been in the Last Days since the original day of Pentecost 2000 years ago.

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  19. Hmmm. I don’t know much about Julian, Teresa and the gang so can’t comment much on catholic mysticism. Perhaps the pentecostal/charismatic definition then needs to include something about common history. My guess is that one way or another, whether 1st, 2nd or 3rd wave pentecostal, they all go back to Azuza Street.

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  20. Hmmm, you’ve got me thinking about taxonomy and evolutionary trees. Species identification in the field involves looking for certain features. For example, when coming accoss mammals, finding pouches suggest you’ve found a marsupial.
    But it’s not always that conclusive. Some features carry across species. For example, fur is a feature of all mammals – marsupials (eg. kangaroos), monotremes (eg. platypus) and placentals (eg. dogs). So you’re generally looking for a unique cluster of features when identifying species.
    Now we get to consider convergent evolution. Sometimes very different species, with very different histories, can have very similar features. For examples, birds and bats both have wings. So history and features are both important. But in the field the history may not be immediately apparent. So that’s why I’m more looking at features here. If history is known, it tells me what cluster of features to expect. If features are known, it may tell me what history to expect. Catholic mysticism shares some features with Pentecostalism but not others. Some features are very different (such as noise level). I suppose what I’m trying to tease out are the unique combo of features that help identify Pentecostal/Charismatic influence in a given group.

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  21. Hi Matt
    Yeah, I’m sure that pentecostalism’s (built-in?) connection with fear-power culture is a big part of why it has taken off in non-Western settings and become such a significant element in world Christianity…

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