Strange Fire

by Fr. Barnabas Powell

In this, the first of a series of four articles on Pentecostalism and his journey to the Orthodox faith, Fr. Barnabas Powell sets the stage for his own spiritual odyssey.

STRANGE FIRE

Recently, Dr. Vincent Synan, Dean of the Divinity School and Regent University and long time historian of the Pentecostal and Charismatics movements, commented on the explosive growth of the Pentecostal movement across the increasingly Christian Southern Hemisphere by saying that those who want to deal with Christians will not be able to ignore the Pentecostals since they are on track to become the predominant expression of the Christian faith in this growing part of the world.

Just a few days ago the New York Times published a story concerning a recent scientific study on the brain activity of someone while they spoke in tongues. As an aside, one wonders why the Times cannot hire an editor who knows enough about the religious world to know that Pentecostal is not spelled “Pentacostal!”

As a former Pentecostal pastor, I was once asked if I still speak in tongues now that I have converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Having been raised in this sub-culture of the Christian faith, I was blessed to be pastored by a Pentecostal pastor who was also open to the wider Evangelical movement. He taught us to value education (not a widely held opinion in the older versions of Pentecostalism) and he taught us to learn from the wider Christian world. While he regrets my conversion to Orthodoxy, he has never treated me with anything less than love and respect.

Oh, and as for the question mentioned above, the answer is “no” I no longer speak in tongues, unless you consider liturgical Greek a gift of the Spirit.

I contend that the growth of Pentecostalism and the less strident Charismatic movement is a result of a theological poverty in Western Christianity that can be seen as early as the “filioque” controversy and the unintended theological consequences that followed. The emphasis of the West on rationalism and the weak and sometimes bizarre forms of mysticism that developed in the West gave rise to both the over reaction and sad necessity of the Reformation which gave rise to the even more rationalistic movements of Calvinism and legalistic, sterile, piety of the 1st and 2nd so-called “Great Awakenings.”

All of this led to the subsequent Holiness movements of the 19th century along with the multiplying of Christian “denominations” on the American continent, and eventually led to the outbreak of the Pentecostal movement at the turn of the 20th century.

The human longing that gave birth to the Pentecostal movement is not bad in itself. The fundamental and basic hunger that is addressed by Pentecostalism is a desire for intimacy with the Uncreated God. This is good and God-given. We were meant for intimacy with the Divine.

But the theological poverty that was the atmosphere of the birth of Pentecostalism guaranteed that the very good desire would be quickly corrupted by weak theological support. And the movement bears this out. All one has to do is turn on religious TV to discover both old and new heresies finding fertile ground in the hearts of ungrounded and disconnected Pentecostal believers.

One of the earliest heresies was the so-called “Oneness” heresy concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. Once again, the weak theological grounding of Western theologies concerning the Trinity produced the natural over reaction of some in the young Pentecostal movement to receive the “revelation” of the oneness of the Godhead. They began to teach a form of “modalism” and insist that God is not a trinity of Persons, but only One Person – Jesus. Beginning with the “new issue” of baptism only in the name of Jesus, these often sincere and fervent believers, cut off as they were from the wise theology of centuries of Christian theology, made it up as they went along.

One might have hoped that as the movement matured it would outgrow the excesses of its past, but the Oneness Pentecostals actually make up a third of all the Pentecostals in the world. The recent movie “Jesus Camp” is an example of both the biased view of the secular world toward people of faith and the easy target Pentecostals make of themselves by due to their being cut off from the wise and sobering theology of the Orthodox Christian faith.

But weak theology on the doctrine of the Trinity is not the only “strange fire” that burns in the fields of Pentecostalism. The so-called “Prosperity Gospel”, the hyper-individualism that seems to reign within the movement and all its offshoots, the emotionalism that leads to nothing more than religious sentimentalism, and even the weakness of dependence on ecstatic experiences that even seem to feed a tendency toward sexual immorality, can all be found in abundance in Pentecostal movements.

Reading this you may wonder if I see any good in my former Pentecostal roots. You may be surprised to read that I consider Pentecostalism the greatest hope for Western Christianity to correct the theological mistakes of its past. I am convinced that Pentecostalism is God’s gift to the West to draw Western Christianity back to a more ancient and healthier theological experience with God.

Pentecostalism is the poor man’s mysticism, and, as I said above, a clear cry for intimacy with God. I am indebted to my Pentecostal roots for fanning the flames of this desire for intimacy for God and for an experience in Christian community I cherish to this day. It eventually led me home to the Orthodox Church where, instead of burning my spiritual house down with “wild fire”, I found a wise fireplace for the fire kindled in my heart by my Pentecostal upbringing. Thank you, Brother Holder and Open Bible Tabernacle. I shall be in your debt forever.

But the only remedy for the spiritual sicknesses that pervades Pentecostalism is a return to, or perhaps a discovery for the first time of, the wisdom of the Undivided Church.

This must include rigorous theological work that take seriously the truth that we cannot truly understand what the Holy Spirit is saying to His Church today unless we understand what He has said to His Church in the past.

The foolish behavior of making final choices about deep theological truths before we have gathered all the relevant theological evidence has produced too many spiritual casualties to be allowed to continue.

Pentecostalism is not going away. Christians from the more ancient traditions of the Church had better become well acquainted with this religious movement because societies are increasingly affected by this religious phenomenon. Pentecostals must abandon the prideful notion that their movement dropped out of heaven completely disconnected from the historical realities around them. The shallow “me and Jesus got our own thing going” mentality will never lead to anything more than a perpetual spiritual kindergarten.

In the end, Pentecostalism may find itself increasingly dissimilar from Christianity.

Finally, as history shows, the Church eventually comes to grip with theological truths in the face of heretical threats. May the blessed and live-giving Holy Spirit give courage to the hearts of His people to pas on a robust and healthy Christian faith to future generations. The souls of precious and God-loved persons are at stake here.

Part Two of Fr. Barnabas’ story can be found by clicking here.

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