Film / Book Reviews

Explanations needed for Pentecostal experience

Nov 2002    

Pentecostal Theology and the Christian Spiritual Tradition
Author: Simon Chan

IN THIS book, the Rev Dr Simon Chan has given a highly academic and technical study of Christian spirituality. It is his contribution to the scholarly Journal of Pentecostal Theology known as the Supplementary Series of major theological explorations by leading Pentecostal theologians.

Chan, who teaches Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College, is a member of the Assemblies of God. He has made a critique of Pentecostal spirituality and has entered into a dialogue with renowned scholars in his own Pentecostalist tradition. He has also analysed the wider Christian spiritual tradition beginning from the Greek Fathers, including the Wesleyan tradition. It is to be noted that the present charismatic movement depends to a great degree on Pentecostal theology.

Pentecost reality is defined as “a certain kind of spiritual experience of an intense, direct and overwhelming nature centring in the person of Christ which they schematise as ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’.” This seems to be distinctive for Pentecostals and charismatics. For fear of losing its uniqueness they tend to isolate themselves from mainstream Christian spiritual tradition. Chan argues that they must view their distinctiveness as part of the wider spiritual tradition.

Surveys show that the Assemblies of God churches in the United States show no growth and suffer from what Max Weber calls “routinization of charisma”. A good number of members do not speak in tongues or decided to stop speaking in tongus. In looking for novel spiritual experiences they turn to charismatic churches and take in the latest fad.

Chan says: “Spiritual power is being manipulated by charismatic Gnostics and magicians who seem to have access to privileged information about principalities and powers and how to outmanoeuvre them. Instead of serious discipleship we have virtual fan clubs revolving around the mega-church leader. Seldom is worship an encounter with the awesome God; it has become an occasion for cheap thrills and continuous festivity dubiously called ‘praise and worship’.”

May I add that there is far too much celebration in contemporary worship which displaces entirely the solemn traditional worship. We need to strike a wholesome balance and worship with heart and mind and soul.

Chan laments that the Pentecostal experience lacks explanation. The emphasis is on experience without providing fuller interpretation and explanation to others. There is a failure to recognise that the experience is part of the larger Christian spiritual tradition. The basic concepts of Spirit-baptism and glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, are not new but have their early beginnings in Christian history.

The very concept of Spirit-baptism in contrast to baptism needs further elaboration and explanation when Pentecostals claim it to be a distinctive mark of the movement. Is speaking in tongues the essence of Christian spirituality? What is spirituality for those who cannot honestly claim to have the experience of Spirit-baptism and glossolalia? These are some questions that Chan needs to elaborate further.

Chan describes the experiences of “pastors in Singapore who went to Toronto hoping perhaps to get something to kick-start their own church into some kind of revival. The net result of a Toronto pilgrimage is usually two to four weeks of ‘holy laughter’ and then back to exactly where they had been before they began. There is a real danger for Pentecostals to latch on to a questionable tradition and further dissipate the Pentecostal heritage”.

Worship in church is an important aspect of spiritual life and the primary act of passing along the Christian tradition. In looking at the churches at worship, Chan levels this criticism: “Current models of worship in charismatic and evangelical circles reveal their respective inadequacies. The charismatic model is usually organised around the singing of praises, as seen in the way the contemporary worship service is called ‘prayer and praise’ or ‘praise and worship’. When worship is largely reduced to a string of praise ditties the aim of worship shifts from encountering God (the ‘internal goods’) to mood creation and possibly psychologically manipulation (the ‘external goods’) …The evangelical model, on the other hand, sometimes suffers from a different kind of reductionism. Here, worship is reduced to preaching. Singing is only a preparation to hear the sermon.”

Historical evidence and biblical precedents do not support the Pentecostal-charismatic belief that glossolalia is the initial evidence of Spirit-baptism. Spirit-baptism itself has more to do with revelation and intimacy than with empowerment for mission. It is revealing that both speaking in tongues and silence are related to intimacy with God. For in mystical tradition the communion with God is such that it is beyond words. This is contemplation and union with God.

As non-Pentecostals listen in to the debate, we have much to learn in the way we understand our own spirituality and the spirituality of our churches..

Every responsible church leader, clergy or lay and respectable theologian, Pentecostal or non-Pentecostal, ought to devote time for a serious and careful study of this thought-provoking book with all its richness of theological insights. It will challenge everyone to re-appraise the practice of worship, prayer, church and sanctification.

The Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao, a member of the Editorial Board, was the first Asian Bishop of The Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore.

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