Dialogue With Pentecostals

Author: Fr Juan Usma Gómez


Fr Juan Usma Gómez
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Spirit calls us to move beyond divisions

Today it is rare to come across someone who has never heard of Pentecostals. In fact, Pentecostal communities have experienced an exceptional growth since they appeared in the first decade of the 20th century. In the course of the past 90 years what had been a small community of Christians who experienced a reawakening (revival) has become a real Christian force of about 450 million faithful.1

First of all, it should be noted that Pentecostalism does not follow as the result of an internal split or the division of a Church or Ecclesial Community. It arises, in an Evangelical context and in that of the so-called Holiness Movement, as a movement marked by a spiritual experience, whose marks and signs reflected and/or recalled the biblical description of Pentecost (Acts 2); as a movement with those charismatic expressions particularly mentioned by the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 12).

The "New Pentecost" was the name first used to describe this "outpouring of the Spirit" in some Protestant Christian communities of the United States and England. It was not long before the movement and its followers became known as "Pentecostals".

The movement that presented and considered itself as a movement of renewal within Christianity was viewed by Christian communities with suspicion. Suspicion, ridicule and rejection, as well as doctrinal disputes within the Pentecostal groups, "forced" them to break off and to distinguish themselves from others.

This distinction and division was based on what has been called "baptism in the Spirit", an experience which still has no precise, commonly accepted theological formulation, but which we can describe as the outpouring of the Spirit in the life of someone converted to Christ, giving him the strength to bear witness to the Lord Jesus in the world. However, this did not produce a specific Pentecostal vision of the Church. For the principal and almost exclusive interest of Pentecostals is "to see that all are saved". The eminently missionary nature of Pentecostalism is influenced especially by a feeling of urgency about the imminent call of the kingdom of God. It is a radical eschatology, which stresses the spiritual power given to the believer "baptized in the Spirit". The charismatic expressions that accompany baptism in the Spirit (glossolalia, healing, prophecy, etc.) are not seen as the expression of the individual's abilities, but only as new possibilities given by the Holy Spirit in these times, since we are "at the end time".

The experience of this new "outpouring of the Spirit", this "being filled with the Spirit", this "personal Pentecost" unfortunately seems to be considered by some Pentecostals as an experience of the Holy Spirit which goes well beyond the person of Jesus.

What arose as the specific spiritual experience of a small group began to make headway in Protestant and Anglican communities in the '50s, and in 1967 also appeared in the Catholic Church (charismatics). This "interconfessional" or "transconfessional" character makes Pentecostalism one of the most important missionary and spiritual movements of the 1900s. It is clear that by remaining in their communities of origin the Catholic faithful who have had a similar experience maintain full communion, while living it in a particular spiritual dimension. However, many Catholics have left and continue to leave their Church to join Pentecostal groups.

The experience of "baptism in the Spirit" in the Churches and Ecclesial Communities has opened the door to rapprochement and dialogue. So far, however, this has not led to visible unity among many of the original Pentecostal groups, called "classical Pentecostals", nor has it prevented the rise of a new wave known by the generic name of "non-denominational Pentecostals or Neo-Pentecostals", who consider themselves different from the classical Pentecostals and differ from the denominational Pentecostals, since they do not belong to a specific Church or Ecclesial Community.

Hence we can understand that Pentecostalism is an extremely heterogeneous movement from the ecclesial and theological standpoint. However, it is rooted in Catholic spirituality, mediated by a Wesleyan current, with a strong oral tradition centred on "spiritual experience", the quid of faith.2

It is important to note that in the course of its history the eschatological approach of Pentecostals has also underlain their tensions with fundamentalists, in friction with the inconsistencies and theological problems and their consequences regarding the pastoral reality. If, at the start, controversies and divisions occurred principally between Pentecostals and the historical Churches, as time passed clashes and disaffection also arose between Pentecostals and Evangelicals, and between Pentecostals and fundamentalists. Pentecostalism, with its insistence on the imminence of the kingdom and on experiencing the vitality of the primitive apostolic Church, speaks of discontinuity. between authentic Christian history and renewal, on the one hand, and the movement of restoration, on the other. Among Pentecostals there is a more or less widespread opinion that their specific case is a totally new experience based on biblical witness.

At the beginning of the International Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue in 1972, the group of Pentecostal representatives had no theological formation, nor did they desire any. In fact, as a consequence of the emphasis on the experience of faith and on witness as a source of the community's faith life, a distrust developed regarding theology, which was considered a purely speculative exercise that in a certain sense replaces the faith professed and lived. For this reason, during the First Quinquennium of the Dialogue (1972-76),3 Pentecostals turned to a group of Protestant and Anglican charismatic theologians who helped them formulate some of their ideas.

It is important to stress that before initiating formal conversations, it was decided that "dialogue would not focus on problems of structural unity, but only on issues concerning unity in prayer and common witness".4 The intention, then, was to explore the spiritual and theological dimension of the fullness of life in the Spirit, and to grow in mutual understanding and respect. This objective has remained fundamentally unchanged throughout these years.

Another characteristic element of the Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue is the status of the Pentecostal members; since they have no representative international body of their own, at times they take part in the Dialogue on behalf of the communities to which they belong, and at others participate in it with the permission of the former but in a personal capacity.

The FirstQuinquennium showed that theological convergence was possible on certain aspects of Christian life and faith, and, at the same time, identified the critical points of division. Before this phase ended, the decision was made to hold another round of discussions over another five years. In this Second Quinquennium (1977-1982),5 the Pentecostals, without relying on the help of the charismatic Protestants and Anglicans, treated topics of vital importance with Catholics, such as the relationship between Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium; the interpretation of the Scriptures; the role of Mary and ministry. Various historical events, along with the publication of some reports about the Mariological character of Pentecostals, an issue which is still a source of division, led to a suspension of the commission's work as such.

In 1984 contacts were resumed and a Third Quinquennium (1985-89) was planned, in which the ecclesiological question about the basis of the biblical concept of koinonia was discussed. It should be noted that in this period the Pentecostal group included several theologians, despite a persistent suspicion in their communities of theological study and formulations (which did not mean being less faithful to doctrine). The results of the discussions of the Third Quinquennium werepublished in the Final Document, entitled Perspectives onKoinonia.6This report emphasizes the growing convergences and, at the same time, clearly shows the existence of a substantial difference between Catholics and Pentecostals on what is claimed to be their common basis. In fact, "for Pentecostals, the foundation of unity [with Catholics] is a common faith and experience of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, through the Holy Spirit"7 On their part, Catholics say that it is possible to admit the existence of "a real, though imperfect, koinonia"betweenCatholics and Pentecostals thanks to Baptism and faith in Jesus Christ.8

If during the first two quinquennia the main concern was to recognize each of the two traditions involved in the dialogue in their respective confessional dimensions, the Third Quinquennium addressed the question of ecclesial identity.

On the basis of the results obtained, the Fourth Phase (1990-97)concentrated on the Church's mission, evangelization. This included not only the study of the biblical and systematic foundations of evangelization and its relationship with culture and social justice, but also required an examination of the question of proselytism (a topic on the agenda since 1972)and the possibility of a common witness. The Final Document, entitled Evangelization, Proselytism and Common Witness,9 identified a common area of work and formulated certain proposals to be evaluated by the local Churches, always with a view to overcoming proselytism and bearing common witness. The Final Document also stressed the fact that the missionary mandate cannot be fulfilled without considering the ecumenical imperative. It is undeniable that one's ecclesial tradition is reflected in evangelization. However, if missionaries do not recognize others as Christians and deny a priori the validity of a faith experience different from their own, their proclamation itself can be perceived as, or actually be, proselytism. In this regard, "it is necessary to distinguish clearly between Christian communities [including Pentecostals), with which ecumenical relations can be established, and sects, cults and other pseudo-religious movements".10

In 1998the Fifth Phase began on the theme: "'Baptism in the Spirit' and Christian Initiation: Biblical and Patristic Perspectives". This theme not only addresses the principal characteristic of the Pentecostal Movement and the Catholic sacramental structure, but concentrates on the very sources of faith. On the basis of this first joint study of the witnesses of Christianity in the early centuries, new insights are desired to give a greater impulse to Catholic-Pentecostal relations.

However, I cannot conclude without first pointing out that serious, tensions and strong disagreements between Catholics and Pentecostals still exist in various parts of the world, which "openly contradict the will of Christ, scandalize the world and damage that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature".11 Aware of the distance between the two parties, the same commission states: "In reality, what unites us is far greater than what divides us. Though the road to that future is not entirely clear to us, we are firm in our conviction that the Spirit is calling us to move beyond our present divisions".12


1 Cf. D. Barret and T. M. Johnson, "Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission: 2000"in International Bulletin ofMissionary Research 1 (January 2000), vol. 24, pp. 24-26.

2 Cf. W. Hollenweger, Pentecostalism: Origins and WorldwideDevelopment, Peabody 1997.

3 "Final Report of the Dialogue (1972-1976)",in Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Information Service 32 (1976/III), pp. 32-36.

4 "Relations with Pentecostals: Press Release, Rome, 26 October 1971",in Information Service 16 (1972/I), p. 23.

5 "Final Report of the Dialogue (1977-1982)",in Information Service 55 (1984/II-III), pp. 72-80.

6 "Perspectives on Koinonia: Final Report of the Dialogue (1985-1989)", in Information Service 75 (1990/IV), pp. 179-191.

7 "Perspectives on Koinonia", n. 55.

8 "Perspectives on Koinonia", n. 54.

9 "Evangelization, Proselytism and Common Witness: Final Report of the Dialogue (1990-1997)",in Information Service 97 (1998/I-II), pp. 38-56.

10 John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America, n. 49.

11 Cf. Unitatis redintegratio, n. 1.

12 "Evangelization, Proselytism and Common Witness", n. 130.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 March 2001, page 10

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