Are Pentecostals Evangelical? (A Few Brief Thoughts)

I suspect most of you know the answer to this question. Some of you are saying, ‘Obviously, yes!’ and some are just as convinced that the answer is ‘Obviously, no!’

And (unless you've just stumbled across this post randomly), you can probably predict that I'm in the ‘Yes’ camp. I agree with Robert Menzies that ‘the term, Pentecostal, is not only compatible with the adjective, Evangelical, but incomprehensible apart from it. Thus, to be Pentecostal is, by definition, to be Evangelical.’

But, I also know that lots of my friends and colleagues in the academy disagree (as they keep telling me so any time I mention being evangelical, ha!). Now, partly, for some people this might be a matter of geography. (My newly arrived colleague from across the Atlantic has been telling about the sometimes quite different associations the word evangelical can have over in America that it hasn't got here in Britain.) But there are other reasons as well. 

On Twitter, Dr David Harvey kindly summarised a few significant concerns for me. And I wanted to take them sufficiently seriously and give them a bit more thought than I could manage in 280 characters (hence I thought it would be better to write about them here rather than on Twitter). I'd just like to say that I really appreciate David's interaction on this. Twitter gets a bad rap for nasty disagreements, but in the main I've found it a wonderful place to have my thinking stimulated and challenged in good ways by kind people in the theological world who make thoughtful observations and ask good questions. (So, thank you David.)

So, here are David's concerns from Twitter about my claim that Pentecostals are Evangelicals, with a few words of response to each.

1. ‘I don't think the claim reflects what you see in early American Pentecostalism.’

I know much less about early American Pentecostalism than British Pentecostalism. I think it does reflect what you see in the early days over here in the UK (e.g. the early leaders in Confidence Magazine, and then in the Apostolic Church, Elim, and AoG all understood themselves to be Evangelicals, and their roots were all firmly grounded in mainstream British Evangelicalism, such as Keswick). But I have to rely on the work of others for the American situation. I think Robert Menzies (in his book Christ-Centered: The Evangelical Nature of Pentecostal Theology) has helpfully demonstrated the connections between R.A. Torrey and key figures in early American Pentecostalism (several having studied under him at Moody), as well as the connections between his theology and American Pentecostal theology. And Daniel Isgrigg's research has established that for the American Assemblies of God, there is no evidence of being ‘“co-opted” by evangelicalism ... in order to take on a character contrary to its original Pentecostal identity. They saw themselves as a subset of a larger evangelical family that believed in an additional doctrine of the baptism in the Holy Spirit.’ (You can find Isgrigg's full paper here.) In fact, at one stage the American Assemblies of God considered changing its name to the Pentecostal Evangelical Church, and J. Roswell Flower (one of the founders of the Assemblies of God and its first general secretary) insisted that they were ‘just like all other Evangelicals’ with the addition of the doctrine of the baptism in the Spirit. 

Beyond that, early American Pentecostals (like their British counterparts), appear to fit happily into the Bebbington Quadrilateral and also into Menzies’ definition of Evangelicalism.

2. ‘I think it's a western whitewashing of history.’

I suspect this might come down to what we mean by Evangelical. If we were defining it in terms of a particular grouping of Western figures or organisations, then maybe. But if we're defining it in theological terms, or simply using the Bebbington Quadrilateral, then there were and are plenty of non-western, non-white evangelicals. Certainly in my experience with Nigerian, Cameroonian or Congolese Pentecostals, a high regard for the authority of Scripture, the centrality of the cross of Christ, the need for conversion, and the desire to actively take the gospel to others has always been strongly evident. 

3. ‘I don't see early Pentecostals defending key evangelical doctrines (e.g. inerrancy).’

The inerrancy debate didn't really blow up among American evangelicals until the 1970s. In Britain it didn't really blow up in the same way at all (and we've tended not to use the word inerrancy over here, but usually stuck to the older language of infallibility, with the meaning ‘without error’ as it's put in the Elim Statement of Foundational Truths). 

In the earlier part of the 20th century, the debates were generally about modernism. And on that early Pentecostals had plenty to say, falling on the same side of the debate as their Evangelical brothers and sisters in other denominations. Inerrancy wasn't the language of the debates, but it was pretty much the substance. And the Pentecostals were firmly on the Evangelical side. 

4. ‘I don't quite follow why we'd double down on this idea now, even if it was historical.’

Again, I wonder if this is down to definitions of Evangelical and geographic issues. Perhaps at this present cultural moment in parts of North America where people might be associating the word ‘Evangelical’ with politics rather than theology, it might not be the most helpful term to use. But in many other countries that's not really an issue.

My concern, though, isn't so much with the word ‘Evangelical’ as with the theological position it represents. It might not always be the greatest word contextually, but I want to hold onto the substance of being evangelical with its high regard for the authority of Scripture, its focus on the atoning death of Christ, its recognition of the need for personal conversion, and its desire to take the good news of Jesus to the world.

5. ‘Pentecostal Catholics amongst others exist and have done for long periods of time and need to be welcomed within the fold, not to mention “Pentecostal” traditions that predate Azusa.’

Now, here I think we're getting to something key. Are we talking about Pentecostal as an umbrella term for all charismatic/renewalist/continuationist Christians, or are we talking about Classical Pentecostals? I actually think it helps us to distinguish Pentecostals from Charismatics (and Neo-Charismatics) here. (But note, I'm not saying divide, just distinguish.)

Charismatic Catholics or Charismatic Anglicans or Charismatic Presbyterians have their own theology to combine with a ‘Pentecostal’ (or as I'd prefer to put it, Charismatic) theology. But (Classical) Pentecostals don't. We're just Pentecostal. And trying to find a definition of ‘Pentecostal’ that will encompass all continuationists can end up either reducing Pentecostal theology just to continuationism (and thus setting it badly off-balance), or forcing it into new directions that are quite alien to the historic Classical Pentecostal tradition. 

Not all Charismatics are Evangelical, but Classical Pentecostals would need to dramatically reinvent themselves to get rid of their high view of Scripture, their crucicentrism, their conversionism, and their activism. 

I think Menzies is quite helpful here in attempting to define and distinguish among Pentecostals, Neo-Pentecostals, and Charismatics (in both Christ-Centred and Pentecost: This Story is Our Story), although his precise definitions are too American Assemblies of God-centric (e.g. only one of the 3 old UK Pentecostal denominations would even meet his definition of Pentecostal!). 

Some Final Thoughts

I think all these concerns are important to consider. We don't want to ignore our connections with non-Western Pentecostals and their contribution to Pentecostal theology and spirituality. Nor do we want to close our eyes and pretend the Charismatic movements in other traditions don't exist, and refuse to learn all that we can from them. We need to pay attention to our context and discern when and where using words like Evangelical is helpful and when and where it isn't. But we also don't want to lose our connections to our Evangelical brothers and sisters in non-Pentecostal traditions and what we can learn from each other either. But most of all, from my perspective, I want to make sure we keep, Christ, His Cross, His Word, and the call to ourselves and others then through us to come to Him for salvation at the centre of our tradition.