What is Pentecostal Christianity?
There are a number of ways to answer that question. As a historian, one could outline the origins and worldwide growth of the movement over the last 100+ years of its existence. As a sociologist, one could analyze the spiritual experiences, forms of life, and social influence of Pentecostals in their various global contexts.
Admitting the value of history and sociology, Robert P. Menzies nonetheless answers the question as a theologian, averring that the other approaches de-emphasize “what really makes us tick, our beliefs” (p. 16). So he goes on to offer, explain, and defend a theological definition of a Pentecostal:
a Christian who believes that the book of Acts provides a model for the contemporary church and, on this basis, encourages every believer to experience a baptism in the Spirit (Acts 2:4), understood as an empowering for mission, distinct from regeneration, that is marked by speaking in tongues, and affirms that “signs and wonders,” including all of the gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10, are to characterize the life of the church today (p. 13).
By contrast, a neo-Pentecostal believes all the above but denies that “speaking in tongues serves as a normative sign for Spirit baptism,” a charismatic agrees that the Corinthian gifts are operative but denies that Spirit baptism is “an empowering for mission distinct from regeneration,” and a non-charismatic further “rejects the validity of at least one or more of the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10 for the church today” (p. 13).
Menzies’ definition of Pentecostal includes three crucial elements that he explains and defends in successive chapters of the book:
- The Book of Acts is a model for the contemporary church (chapter 1).
- Spirit baptism is an empowering for mission distinct from regeneration (chapter 2).
- Speaking in tongues is a normative sign of Spirit baptism (chapter 3).
Chapter 4 address a question that naturally arises from a Pentecostal reading of Scripture, namely, “Should every believer expect to see ‘signs and wonders’ as a part of his or her Christian life and witness?” (p. 111). In dialogue with Keith Hacking, Menzies answers affirmatively. Chapter 5 offers five theologically-oriented reasons for the unique and rapid growth of the modern Pentecostal movement” (p. 117): “missional DNA,” “a clear message,” “signs and wonders,” “limited church structure,” and “an emphasis on experience” (pp. 117–138).
As interesting as chapters 4 and 5 are, chapters 1–3 constitute the core argument of the book and merit further discussion.
Chapter 1: Unlike Evangelical theologians, many of whom view Pentecost (Acts 2) as “a unique and unrepeatable event” (p. 26), Pentecostals view Pentecost as “a model for our lives” (p. 21). More generally, they also view Luke-Acts this way. Menzies writes: “The hermeneutic of the typical Pentecostal believer is straightforward and simple: the stories in Acts are my stories—stories that were written to serve as models for shaping my life and experience” (p. 23). Menzies argues that this hermeneutic is warranted for three reasons: First, “Luke structures his narrative [in Luke-Acts] in order to highlight the fact that just as Jesus’ experience of the Spirit at the Jordan serves as a model for the experience of the disciples’ on the day of Pentecost, so also the disciples’ experience at Pentecost serves as a model for subsequent Christians” (p. 31). Second, the “reference to the Seventy [in Luke 10:1–16]…foreshadows the outpouring of the Spirit on all the servants of the Lord and their universal participation in the mission of God (Acts 2:17–18; cf. 4:31)” (p. 34). Why? Because the commissioning of the Seventy, which is unique to Luke, is best interpreted as the fulfillment of Moses’ wish in Numbers 11:29 that “all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them.” Third, in Acts 2:19, Luke edits Joel 2:30, adding the word signs so that the verse speaks of both signs and wonders. Menzies writes: “by skillfully reshaping Joel’s prophecy, Luke links the miracles of Jesus and those of the early church together with the cosmic signs listed by Joel (Acts 2:19–20). These miraculous events are ‘signs and wonders’ that mark these ‘last days’” (p. 36) He goes on: “We, too, live in the ‘last days,’ that epoch bracketed by the first and second comings of Jesus” (p. 36). Consequently, Pentecostals expect that Joel’s prophecy and its fulfillment at Pentecost continue to apply to them. “Pentecost,” he concludes, “is a paradigm for the mission of the church” (p. 38).
Chapter 2 opens with a concession: “The Pentecostal understanding of Spirit baptism as an empowering for service distinct from conversion has not been accepted by many from various traditions within the Christian church, including the majority of Reformed scholars” (p. 43). Instead, those traditions, usually following Paul, have interpreted Spirit baptism as regeneration. Menzies thinks this is mistaken. “Luke’s theology of the Spirit is different from that of Paul” (p. 47). Paul’s pneumatology is soteriological, pertaining to salvation, whereas Luke’s is charismatic, pertaining to mission and ministry. Indeed, drawing on select passages in Luke-Acts—especially Luke 3:16–17; 4:17–19; and 24:49; Acts 1:4; 2:33, 39—Menzies argues that “Luke consistently portrays the gift of the Spirit as a prophetic enabling” (p. 49). Failing to differentiate between Luke’s and Paul’s pneumatologies by reading the former through the lens of the latter “effectively blunts the sharpness of Luke’s message. When the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit is understood in soteriological terms, Luke’s missiological focus and our expectation of it is lost” (p. 63).
If the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 is a model for contemporary Christians, then one must inquire into “the role of tongues in the life of the church and the individual believer” (p. 69), for tongues played a crucial role in Luke’s narrative. Before doing this, however, Menzies defines what “tongues” is. Following Jenny Everts, and admitting that his is a minority interpretation, Menzies argues that “tongues” in Acts 10:46, 19:6 and possibly 2:4 is “unintelligible utterances inspired by the Spirit rather than the speaking of human languages previously not learned” (p. 74). This doesn’t preclude the possibility that people in languages not previously learned, of course. (For anecdotal evidence of precisely that, see Global Witness to Pentecost: The Testimony of ‘Other Tongues’ by Jordan Daniel May.) However, it allows Menzies to link contemporary Pentecostal practice with precedents in Acts. (Following Gordon Wenham, he also believes the prophecies of the seventy elders in Numbers 11:24–30 were “unintelligible ecstatic speech” [p. 81]). Further, Menzies argues that Luke interprets speaking in tongues as “a special type of prophetic speech” (p. 74). This is, he says, explicit in Acts 2:17–18 and 19:6. Intriguingly, Menzies suggests that Luke 10:21 “sees this form of exuberant, inspired speech modeled in the life of Jesus” (p. 81). Finally, he argues that there are “several texts in Luke’s gospel, all unique to Luke or uniquely shaped by him, that reveal a clear intent to encourage his readers to pray for prophetic anointings, experiences that will inevitably produce bold witness and joyful praise” (p. 85). These include Luke 19:39–40, 10:1–16, and Luke 11:9–13. Menzies’ exegetical argument here may strike many readers as odd since these passages do not explicitly mention speaking in tongues. The classical Pentecostal defense of tongues as initial physical evidence focuses on four passages in Acts where the link between Spirit baptism and tongues is explicit (2:4; 10:46; 19:6) or strongly implicit (8:14–19). Menzies affirms this classical Pentecostal exegesis. However, his larger purpose is to connect Spirit baptism and with the prophethood of all believers, thus linking Moses’ wish in Numbers 11 with Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2 and the beginning of their fulfillment at Pentecost in Acts 2. “Luke encourages believers to pray for a prophetic anointing,” Menzies writes, “which he envisions will include glossolalia” (p. 97). By characterizing glossolalia as a “special type of prophetic speech,” Menzies keeps Pentecostals missionally minded. “[T]ongues reminds us of our true identity: we are to be a community of prophets, called and empowered to bear bold witness for Jesus and to declare His mighty deeds” (p. 97).
As a Pentecostal—and an Assemblies of God minister to boot—I found Menzies’ argument both persuasive intellectually and challenging personally. The most persuasive elements were the arguments that the Book of Acts is a model for the contemporary church and that Spirit baptism is an empowering for mission distinct from regeneration. The most challenging element was his argument that speaking in tongues must be understood under the category of prophetic speech. It is not enough, in other words, to speak in tongues for personal edification (1 Cor. 14:4). As a Pentecostal, I must be a member in good standing of the “community of prophets,” spiritually empowered and joyfully bearing “bold witness for Jesus.” A non-missional Pentecostal, in other words, is a contradiction in terms, no matter how often he or she speaks in tongues.
Full Disclosure: I am an employee of the Assemblies of God, which is the parent company of Gospel Publishing House. I do not work for GPH, however. As editor of Enrichment journal, I have published an excerpt of this book in the fall 2013 issue. Finally, my father, George O. Wood, wrote the Foreword to this book.
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