The Poverty of Pentecostal Theological Writing (Part 3)

This time I intend to get to the point. The point is this: many Pentecostal books are somewhat lacking theologically. I'm not talking about academic theology here; I'm talking about books written for Pastors and ordinary Christians. For some reason, there is a lack of books for ordinary pentecostals that are theologically strong.

One reason for this is what Hollenweger called the oral nature of Pentecostal theology. He meant that we tend to prefer sermons, hymns and testimonies as a way of passing on our distinctive theology, as opposed to books.

Another reason is the huge amount of pragmatism that can be found among Pentecostals. What 'works' (or gives the impression of working) is often deemed favourable. The quicker it 'works', the better. Theological writing takes a considerable time to bear fruit (and doesn't directly/immediately contribute to evangelistic programmes), therefore, pragmatically speaking, its not a priority. This means we get lots of 'How to..' without much theological underpinning.

What do I mean? Well, take the example of one of the books I read last weekend. Andrew Purves is a Presbyterian, a former minister and a professor of pastoral theology at a Presbyterian seminary. His book The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007) is a short, non-technical look at pastoral ministry written for the busy pastor. It has no footnotes or endnotes, so clearly this is not an academic work. It is a book of practical theology written for pastors.

Yet, it is also a deeply theological work. Purves' approach to pastoral ministry is not based on pragmatism or the latest fad. Rather, his entire approach is rooted in Christology. He demonstrates the importance of the doctrines of Christ's Vicarious Humanity and Union with Christ for the carrying out of pastoral ministry. He even draws heavily on Athanasius in a popular-style work of only 150 pages! In short he shows that theology governs ministry. The way to better understand and approach ministry is through a better understanding of the person and work of Christ, the true minister.

While I don't agree with everything that Purves has to say (evangelicals in the American Mainline are evidently somewhat different from British conservative evangelicals), I think its a marvelous book and far more helpful than the typical pragmatic approaches to ministry that seem to dominate today. Although he may be a mainline Presbyterian, Purves has something valuable to say to us Pentecostals.

However, the thing is, that Purves' approach doesn't come as shockingly new. Such concepts exist within Pentecostal theology, even if largely forgotten in contemporary writing. This is especially true of Apostolic theology, which points out that it is Christ who is the apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher, and that He expresses His ministry through His gifts of men to the Church. The theology is there, it just hasn't been written down for a while.

The other book I read last weekend was Sinclair Ferguson's The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996) in the Contours of Christian Theology series. Again the author is a Presbyterian (although of a somewhat more conservative variety). Yet, despite his extensive arguments against the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit and against the Baptism of the Holy Spirit being subsequent to conversion (on both of which points I clearly disagree), I have to admit that this is the best book on Pneumatology I have read in a very long time, if not ever!

What?! How can I, a lecturer at a Pentecostal theological seminary, give such high praise to a book that denies some of our most precious doctrines?! Well, quite simply because the rest of the book is so much better than our Pentecostal books on pneumatology. We tend to get so bogged down with subsequence, initial physical evidence and continuationism, that we neglect the rest of the Holy Spirit's work. Sinclair has excellent sections on the Spirit and Christ, the Spirit's application of Redemption to the believer, Union with Christ, Sanctification and communion with the Holy Spirit, among others. These are vitally important issues, yet sometimes we have a tendency to neglect them in our writing. Also, Ferguson is a brilliant writer; he can take substantial (even difficult) theology and make it understandable and accessible to his readers. Unlike some Pentecostal theological works, Ferguson's book is both rigorous and readable; you don't have to be a theologian to read it!

Remember, we don't have to agree with every word an author writes to benefit from his work. Only the Bible is inerrant. So Pentecostals can (and should) benefit from the work of cessationists.

Anyway, reading these two brilliant books drove me to lament the theological poverty of much Pentecostal writing. We too need our approach to ministry to be grounded in the person and work of Christ, the Good Shepherd. We too need to consider areas of theology beyond the distinctives we most need to defend. We too need to make theology accessible to busy pastors and interested layfolk.

Pentecostal theology should not be the special domain of a privileged few theologians. Rather, all Pentecostals should benefit from well developed and well presented Pentecostal theology that permeates all our writing, no matter how practical.