So Who Really Are the Pentecostals?

Author: Fr Juan Usma Gomez

So Who Really Are the Pentecostals?

Fr Juan Usma Gómez
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

One of the characteristics of Pentecostalism which has exercised a strong attraction since its beginning is the emphasis placed on healing. Preaching a message that promises solutions to concrete needs in a precise moment of life is a powerful tool for Pentecostals to reach even the "non-evangelized".

Nevertheless, this practice is perceived by other Christian communities as a deceptive and proselytizing strategy, a strategy of "conquest".

On radio and television, on city bill-boards and posters, the announcement is frequently found that "the Holy Spirit will descend" on such a day and in such a place, with all invited to participate and benefit from this event: "Come and see signs and wonders". "The Holy Spirit will work the miracle you need so much"; "Health problems? Depression? Difficult family situations? Come. We will pray for you, we will lay hands on you, and you and your loved ones will experience the 'divine power of healing'".

Perceptions vs reality

It could easily be concluded from this that Pentecostals are "powerful" people, able to make miracles happen, efficacious and direct intermediaries of special graces, prophets and exorcists whose prayer is automatically granted by above, by the Holy Spirit; they can thus be seen as special people who not only have been "touched by God" but who can make those who draw near to their group "touched by God" as well: "Those present will be 'baptized in the Holy Spirit' and will experience the divine power in their own flesh".

This is certainly the way in which Pentecostals are perceived. But does this correspond to reality? Would they describe themselves as simple dispensers of particular graces, people who have received power from the Spirit and who thus exercise it?

It is true that certain groups seem to base all their activity on these presuppositions, but the greater part of Pentecostals would not recognize themselves in this description and would consider it a dishonest caricature.

So who are the Pentecostals? Is it true that they insist on the power of healing and on the proof of charisms? Do they not proclaim "baptism in the Spirit" as an experience which all people must have? And do not some of them act as if they had power from the Spirit itself [sic]?

I am certainly not mistaken when I say that the first answer a Pentecostal would give to the question of his or her confessional definition would be: "I am a Christian. Jesus Christ is my Lord and Saviour, He is the only mediator: I believe that the Bible is the Word of God and am convinced that no authority greater than this exists; I recognize myself as a part of the Body of Christ, and our congregation is an extension of the Church of God".

Regarding the nature of their congregation, Pentecostals certainly would speak of a community of believers who were profoundly marked by the experience of the Holy Spirit, in the way in which Pentecost was originally experienced and with the signs that accompanied that event (cf. Acts 2).

The preceding description, certainty brief and incomplete, can be directly applied to the groups of classic Pentecostalism and of non-confessional Pentecostalism, which, while having their roots in the Reformation, emphasize the experience of the Spirit that for many authors goes beyond the classic concept of faith alone (solafides).Certainly it is to be remembered that the Charismatic Movement present within the churches, even within the Catholic Church, maintains the characteristics of the ecclesial tradition to which it belongs.

Sanctification through conversion

We return, however, to the Pentecostal phenomenology with which we began this article. It is certain, that, since the beginning, thousands of Pentecostal preachers have emphasized that divine power is manifested through healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues (glossolalia) and the other expressions of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the Bible (cf. I Cor 13-14).

But many Pentecostals also insist on what they call the "Full Gospel": the preaching of the Word which must be accompanied by signs and wonders. In this context, divine healing is considered an integral part of the "evangelistic Pentecostal methodology".

The fundamental mark of the Pentecostal is therefore not "being healed", but sanctification through conversion, the personal profession of the faith which implies adherence, and the use of the spiritual power given in the "Baptism of the Spirit" for evangelization.

In the light of the above and as we compare the "Pentecostal publicity" with the way in which Pentecostals describe themselves, we realize that substantial differences exist. Pentecostals would not consider themselves the patrons and dispensers of spiritual grace, even if in this area, it is true, abuses are noted. It is thus important to know how to discern. Pentecostals do not own the Spirit,but have had an "experience of the Holy Spirit": described in their own words, they "have experienced a personal Pentecost". An even more important fact which must be remembered is that the "signs and wonders" are not worked by themselves (often, in hearing of them one has the sensation of dealing with an offering of religious merchandise). In fact, according to almost all Pentecostal theologians, and according to the practice of the Christian Pentecostal community, the signs and wonders "accompany (must accompany) the preaching of the Word, which is effective in a particular way if the one who announces has been baptized in the Spirit".

New dilemmas are here presented for those who do not belong to these groups. What happens when these signs and wonders do not happen? In these cases, is the proclamation of the Word invalid?

These and other questions are not foreign to Pentecostals themselves, who do not reduce their Christian life to a perpetual succession of miracles.

It is true that the holistic dimension, according to which it is profoundly hoped and expected that a spiritual good also has tangible consequences, continues to be an important characteristic (during Sunday worship it is normal that there are prayers and a laying on of hands for divine healing).

Nevertheless, there is not always, nor can there be, healing. The proclamation of the Gospel therefore remains essential for salvation, and on this point Catholics and Pentecostals fully agree.

For Pentecostals, Christians must profoundly "experience the Holy Spirit", an experience which unquestionably has a strong emotional character but whose reality is theologically defined by "gifts of the Spirit" (charismata), whose presence reveals in turn the nearness of the Second Coming of Christ, the just judge. This imminence is translated into urgency, since one is responsible for those who have not met Jesus, have not heard the Gospel and thus "will not be saved".

A 'trans-confessional' reality

Another fundamental aspect of Pentecostalism, to which we have referred in mentioning the different typologies or "currents", is its character as a movement which transcends exclusive ecclesial divisions. This "trans-confessional" reality is something sui generis.

Some explain that Pentecostalism is a spiritual movement which restores a New Testament spiritual experience, an experience which can (and must) manifest itself in the entire Christian community since it has been part of the Church since its foundation, inserting itself in a specific ecclesial structure (described as "surprises of the Spirit", the same which have generated the different Charismatic movements, for example), elements of Pentecostalism are included in it, which seek to find a place within the Christian confessional tradition in which they are manifested.

This "crossing-over" was decisive to establishing stable relations among Pentecostal Christians of different Churches and Ecclesial Communities. It is noted that the existence of the Catholic Charismatic movement drove certain Pentecostal leaders to establish direct contacts with the Catholic Church (we are speaking of the 1960s, immediately after the Second Vatican Council, which was perceived by some Pentecostals as a manifestation of the Spirit).

Still today different groups of Charismatics and Pentecostals formed by members of various Churches and Ecclesial Communities meet regularly to pray, read the Word of God, share experiences and open space for theological reflections.

It is surprising to discover how the same expressions and spiritual forms are used by Pentecostals, Anglicans, Lutherans, Reformed, Evangelicals and Catholics. This reality of spiritual ecumenism and of ecumenical spirituality is strongly oriented towards projects of evangelization. But even if possible, not a few consider them risky because they ask themselves: how do we assure an exchange that avoids confusion, relativism, the loss of confessional identity?

And from a more constructive point of view, how can we be instruments of unity among Christians? Does this sharing of similar spiritual expressions impede perceiving the scandal of the divisions which exist among Christians?

The answers are varied.

Contact between Catholics and Pentecostals are such that, in certain places, they have a reciprocal influence. The results have been positive at times, sources of new worries at others.

One thinks, for example, of the appearance of a merely therapeutic typology of Christianity in certain places the exaggerated emphasis placed on the exterior dimension of the celebrations (giving them a style familiar to Pentecostalism) empties (or risks emptying) of meaning the very sacramental actions themselves, transforming them into a spectacle. It is vital to search for a new balance to ensure that the celebrative modes do not supersede the sacred actions.

This constant offering of good will has often led to the loss of the salvific value of suffering associated with the Cross; some speak of a "Jesus without the Cross". It is worth clarifying that this is a situation which also worries the Pentecostals.

Another approach which characterizes certain sectors of Pentecostalism and which is adopted also by other groups (and should be studied further) is the so-called "theology of prosperity" — difficult questions which today represent a challenge for all Christians, including Pentecostals themselves.

Finally, a last problematic aspect is the "open competition" assisted by the mass media and in which the protagonists are Pentecostal and Catholic tele-evangelists. Does such competition not gravely wound the proclamation of the Gospel? Is it evangelization?

Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue

Turning to another subject, it is important to recall that the International Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue has been established since 1972. This is a significant event. Through dialogue we have learned much and can learn still more about our respective traditions. Instructional courses have been established at all levels.

From a theological point of view, we have reached a greater understanding of the confessional approaches of our speakers and, at the same time, we have been able to explain our position. Logically, in this setting many "grey areas" still exist and remain unresolved aspects, serious questions for our communities.

On the other hand and as the result of greater reciprocal understanding and constant theological development, the Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue has benefited from (and has had to adapt itself to) the different theological approaches of each speaker. It is true that often the different approaches and languages have created not a few problems of understanding, which in their turn have become objects of dialogue.

In the spiritual realm, the exchange of gifts has been evident, even if we still do not feel at ease with certain celebrative expressions (it is enough to think of certain ways of conducting prayer). These difficulties, experienced by Catholics and by Pentecostals, are confronted by the conviction that dialogue is not a mere academic debate, but a dialogue of faith and a space for giving testimony.

The biggest problem comes up in the missionary sphere. The Catholic and Pentecostal missionary models at times are in open conflict. This situation is heightened by the lack of recognition of the Christian condition and of the ecclesial dimensions. In this sense, facilitating contact and communication among the different communities at a local level has been, and is, very important.

The affective and effective connections, far from being obstacles, have facilitated discernment. It is impossible to address certain arguments and reach certain conclusions if reciprocal trust is not established and a sense of familiarity among those who participate in the debate is not created.

Up to this point four Relations have been published which reflect the contents of the discussion and the conclusions which have been reached. The last two refer to the concept of the Church (Perspectives on Koinonia, 1990), and its mission (Evangelización, proselitismo y testimonio común, 1998). Since 1998 the question of Christian initiation has been studied as well as "Baptism in the Spirit", based on the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church.

It should finally be recalled that each of these documents seeks to be a useful instrument at the service of Catholics and Pentecostals, so that they truly understand one another and are able to overcome reciprocal diffidence and incommunicability, and so that they can, through an honest perception of one another in their confessional reality, newly discover one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, who himself prayed "that they might be one" (Jn 17:21).

To understand the Pentecostals, we must know them. Fundamentally, all of us, Catholics and Pentecostals, must be aware that the Gospel of Christ, our common treasure, is a treasure we hold "in earthen vessels" (II Cor 4:7).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 July 2004, page 8

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