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Monday, January 14, 2013


Pneumatology is the study of the Holy Spirit.  This, too, has until recently been a little-explored backwater of Christian theology, left mostly to the Pentecostals and the Charismatics, by which we usually mean those who favor speaking in tongues and who like to talk about the Holy Spirit and who make the rest of us uncomfortable.

In the first 400 years after the Protestant Reformation, the epistles of Paul -- especially Paul's letter to the Romans -- were the reigning monarchs of Scripture.  These were the documents by which we assessed and filtered everything else in the Bible.  We based our faith on Romans and fit everything else into that structure.  One of the main divides within Christianity in the 20th century grew out of the fact that the epistles of Paul give little emphasis to the believer's experience of the Holy Spirit.

When, in 1906, a group of Christians on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, CA, experienced speaking in tongues and other supernatural phenomena, a wave of Christian expression broke out that was radically different from the Enlightenment-based Protestantism that had dominated Western Christianity for the previous four centuries.  The "Azusa Street Revival" spawned what have come to be called "Pentecostal" churches.  Pentecostalism, however, is more than just an emphasis on speaking in tongues.  It has much more to do with our expectations of whether and how God will act in the present.

In a fascinating lecture (click on the link and scroll down the page to Mark Noll's talk; this portion of the talk starts around 45 minutes into it) on the expansion of Christianity in the world of the 21st century, Mark Noll makes this observation (I am quoting at some length):

The simple demography of the world situation today forces -- or should force -- Christian believers in the West to reexamine questions that they may not have thought of for quite some time.  
I'm a Presbyterian.  Presbyterians are defined by:
A. Resistance to change,
B. A desire to have lots of committees, and
3. An inability to move past a mile or two an hour on any kind of conceptual issue. 
The world -- the Christian world we live in today is not a world made for Presbyterians.  It is a world changing fast, that's demanding Christian and theological reconsideration.
For example, how close is the world of spirits to the world in which we live?  In other words, what is to be made practically of the traditional Christian belief in the supernatural?  All Christians in one variety or another believe in forces beyond nature, in a God who acts for his own purposes when he wishes.  In most of the Christian world today, however the abstract belief in God's ability to act supernaturally is connected to a strong belief that God acts supernaturally, practically, in the world almost all the time ...  
[Noll describes a work by a Canadian author on images and experiences of Jesus in West Africa, and the sophisticated theological reflection that grows out of these images and experiences.]  What I was impressed by was how standard, how ordinary, the expectation that God would normally, often, in the regular course of things, act for his own purposes, to bring about physical healing ...  
[Noll next describes a friend of his who leads seminars in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world on Bible reading.]  I asked John, "Now, how many of the people who come to your seminars -- and they would be Baptists, they would be Presbyterians, they would be Nazarenes, they would be Catholics, as well as many from independent churches -- how many of these people would be Pentecostal and charismatic?" He shakes his head and he says, "Every single one."   
They all are.  They all are expecting God to act immediately. 
Well, I don't.  I'm an academic Christian who thinks through things, and I want the Lord to kind of take his time.  But on such questions, it actually might not mean a whole lot what I think, very very soon.
Mark Noll has his finger squarely on one of the most important divides in Christianity today.  Christianity is not divided so much between Catholic and Protestant, or rich and poor, or Arminian or Calvinist.  Those divisions are real, but less important than this simple question:  Does God act freely, commonly, often, even daily, by his Spirit, to intervene for his own causes in the created world?  Those Noll labels "Pentecostals" would say a firm "yes!" to this question.  The rationalist protestantism I grew up with might more likely say a cautious, "Maybe."

Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds across the globe.  Much of this growth is happening in Africa and in China.  The growth that is happening, whatever denominational label it has, is a "Pentecostal" kind of Christianity in this specific sense: It is a Christianity that expects God to act immediately, supernaturally, in tangible ways.  It is a Christianity that is filtered more through the book of Acts than the book of Romans.

In 2011 Pastor Paul Johansson from Central spent some time in Ethiopia and Tanzania as part of his sabbatical.  One of the conversations he had during that time included observations about the Lutheran churches in Kenya and Tanzania.  In the 1960's, a charismatic revival broke out across the globe, including East Africa.  The Lutherans in Kenya discussed the revival and said, "This is not what our Lutheran churches are about."  They rejected this revival, and the Lutheran church in Kenya today has a few hundred thousand members, much the same size today as it was in the 1960's.  Next door in Tanzania, the Lutherans -- about the same size in the '60's as the church in Kenya -- embraced this charismatic revival as a legitimate work of the Holy Spirit.  The church began to grow by leaps and bounds, and today there are more than five million Lutheran Christians in Tanzania.  The Lutheran church in Tanzania continues to be Pentecostal in its expectation that God will act in a daily, supernatural way.  It continues to grow like mad.

Those who are doing cutting edge work in theology today have to speak about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the church and in the world.  We cannot cling to a rationalistic, Enlightenment-based distortion of Christianity that we think somehow reflects the Protestant Reformation, but that loses the heart of the New Testament.  Theology today must find a way to speak with clarity about this kind of expectation, this kind of Pentecostal expectation that God will act.  This is pneumatology, the study of the ways of God's Spirit and the difference that this Spirit makes in the life of the believer and of the church.  If Noll is right -- and I believe he is -- then this expectation cuts across every denomination, every tradition.  Expectant Lutherans have far more in common with expectant Catholics than they do with more rationalistic Lutherans.  This Pentecostal expectation has not exactly undone the Protestant Reformation, but it has certainly created a new watershed within Christianity.  On one side of the divide, the church is growing deeper and wider.  On the other side it is shrinking.

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