Archive | Theology

Catch the Fire | Michael Wilkinson and Peter Althouse

The cover of Wilkinson and Althouse's Catch the FireSoaking prayer is a relatively new phenomenon. Participants are brought together in a worship setting. They then lie down, often with pillow and blanket, as worship music is played. During this time they rest—soak—in the Father’s love. Leaders of the meeting don’t pray verbally, although they may lay hands on the soakers for a time.

Soaking has a purpose beyond the appeal of a new spiritual experience. Those who soak believe that they are being filled with the Father’s love in order to  express that love to others. Soaking has an altruistic motive which aligns with the vision of Catch the Fire churches: “… to walk in God’s love and give it away, until the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.”

There are two roots to soaking prayer. Classical Pentecostals spoke of being “slain in the Spirit.” This occurred when someone receiving prayer fell over under the Spirit’s power. The Catholic tradition, especially with Francis McNutt, rejected the violent language of Classical Pentecostals and preferred to speak of “resting in the Spirit.” This aligns with Catholic contemplative tradition. The purpose of resting in the Spirit is to receive healing.

In Catch the Fire, sociologist Michael Wilkinson and theologian Peter Althouse share the results of an extensive study of the soaking phenomenon. The book is methodologically rigorous and theologically generous. It was written not to support or criticize, but to understand and explain.

If you are interested in what is happening in the charismatic renewal, this is your book.


Wilkinson, Michael and Peter Althouse. Catch the Fire: Soaking Prayer and Charismatic Revival. DeKalb, IL: NIU Press, 2014.

Paul and His Letters | John B. Polhill

The cover of Paul and his LettersIt’s safe to say that the church wouldn’t exist in its current forms without Paul. Although the Spirit worked through many characters hinted at tangentially (Apollo, for example), Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. His complex background, dramatic conversion/commissioning, zealous missionary work, and extant letters have been a puzzle tackled by Pauline scholars throughout the ages.

Polhill’s book begins with about a hundred pages of introductory material on Paul before giving way to chapters about his key letters. Chapters about his travelogue are interspersed amongst the letters. Polhill presents a conservative view of Paul, assuming the Pauline authorship of the thirteen epistles that bear his name. At the end of each chapter a helpful bibliography for further investigation is included, divided into Greek-based and English-based sources.

I struggled with Polhill’s lack of subtlety in handling Paul’s motives and actions. For example, Polhill notes how “Paul remained a Jew even as a Christian . . . [h]e maintained Jewish practices, like taking a Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18) and participating in the vows of others (Acts 21:26)” (26). While it’s a given that Paul remained an ethnic Jew while following the Jewish Messiah, Polhill oversimplified the situation. Paul’s participation in the vows of others was conceived by James and company and implemented as a tactic to avoid a religio-political confrontation. (The ruse failed!)

Current issues in Pauline scholarship were undertreated. The “new perspective,” for example, receives a one page overview with the following summary statement: “The debate on Paul’s view of the law is far from finished and promises to continue for a long time to come” (297). Again, this statement is true but unhelpful. Such a major interpretive issue should be more thoughtfully handled. In these cases Polhill always assumes a traditional conservative view.

Paul and His Letters is a solid overview of the life of Paul. For a fuller picture of the enigmatic apostle, this volume should be supplemented by more current scholarship and divergent viewpoints.


Polhill, John B. Paul and His Letters. Nashville: B&H Academic, 1999.

Practical Theology | Mark J. Cartledge

The cover of Cartledge's Practical TheologyEmpirical and Theology are unlikely partners. Empirical refers to that which is verifiable through observation. Theology (at least in the more conservative traditions) is rooted in revelation and textual studies. In Practical Theology, Mark Cartledge demonstrates how these two ideas play well together in a Charismatic milieu.

Practical Theology is written in two parts. In the first three chapters, Cartledge explains his methodology along with a variety of research methods that suit. Particularly enlightening is the way he weaves contemporary philosophy and charismatic scholarship together to define truth.

The chapters in the second half of Practical Theology illustrate the methodology of the first half. Cartledge has used both quantitative and qualitative research methods in his career. He uses the data he gathered throughout his research to demonstrate various ways of doing sociological studies. These chapters are interesting on two levels. They illuminate some key ideas in charismatic theology: prophecy, the role of women, and glossolalia to name a few. At the end of each study Cartledge offers a reflection on the methods used to interpret the data.

Practical Theology should be read by anyone interested in doing sociological research from a charismatic perspective.


Cartledge, Mark J. Practical Theology: Charismatic and Empirical Perspectives. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2003.

The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon | James D. G. Dunn

The cover of Dunn's The Epistles to the Colossians and to PhilemonColossians is a stunning letter. Written near the end of Paul’s life, his message to the church is rooted in a profound understanding of Jesus Christ and the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection for both the universe and individual believers. Consider the epic vision of Jesus portrayed in the Christ Hymn:

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation
For in him were created all things
in the heavens and on the earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions
or principalities or authorities;
all things were created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things,
and all things hold together in him;

and he is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
in order that he might be in all things preeminent.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile all things to him,
making peace through the blood of his cross (through him),
whether the things on the earth or the things in the heavens.
(Colossians 1:15-20 Dunn)

In other words, “Christ is all and in all” (3:11 Dunn).

Having studied Dunn’s Theology of Paul the Apostle in detail (check it out here if you’re interested), I am always eager to read another of his commentaries. His NIGTC entry is detailed without feeling ponderous. Dunn brings out the meaning of the Greek language with clarity. He brings the perceptive reader to the point where the implicit relevance of the text shines through the exegesis.

The NIGTC series is written for the study of the Greek text. However, you don’t have to be a language expert to follow Dunn’s arguments. This commentary should appeal to any thoughtful Pauline exegete.


Dunn, James D. G. The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. NIGTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

Practicing Theology | Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass, eds.

The cover of Volf and Bass' Practicing TheologyWhat does theology have to do with the so-called real life? Are theologians doing anything other than splitting hairs? Volf and Bass, along with all the contributors to this volume argue that theology is intimately connected with life. This connection is discerned through the concept of practice.

In general use, a practice is a dense cluster of ideas and activities that are related to a specific goal and shared by a social group over time. . . . Christian practices are patterns of cooperative human activity in and through which life together takes shape over time in response to and in the light of God known in Jesus Christ. (3)

By engaging in theological reflection on Christian practice, the contributors to this volume—all academic theologians—demonstrate how important theology is for living faithfully in a changing world.

The various essays in this volume reflect on a diverse range of practice including healing, hospitality, theological education, and worship. Tammy Williams is particularly insightful in her essay, “Is There a Doctor in the House? Reflections on the Practice of Healing in African American Churches.” By examining the practice of African American churches, she uncovers three models of healing: care, cure, and holism.

Volf closes the book by arguing that while “Christian beliefs normatively shape Christian practices, and engaging in practices can lead to acceptance and deeper understanding of these beliefs,” beliefs take logical priority.

Since we identify who God is through beliefs—primarily through the canonical witness to divine self-revelation—adequate beliefs about God cannot be ultimately grounded in a way of life; a way of life must be grounded in adequate beliefs about God. (260)

Practicing Theology functions on two levels. On the ground level, each article has something insightful to say about Christian practice. On a higher level, the book shows that theology is not a withdrawal from the world but a way to engage the life and practices of the Christian community more deeply.


Volf, Miroslav and Dorothy C. Bass, eds. Practicing Theology: Beliefs and PRactices in Christian Life. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

The Pentecostals | Walter J. Hollenweger

The cover of Hollenweger's The PentecostalsIt was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I laughed and cringed—often during the same page. With the passion of a genealogical researcher, Hollenweger uncovers the history of our pentecostal ancestors in all of its glory and absurdity, its passion and pragmatism.

Hollenweger has been viewed as the granddaddy of Pentecostal research for good reason. His doctoral dissertation, Handbuch der Pfingstbewegung, was a ten volume study of global pentecostalism, the first of its kind. Yes, you read that correctly. Ten volumes! That is what makes The Pentecostals so great.

Perhaps aware that not many people would read his ten volume German dissertation, he condensed his findings into a 500 page Enthusiastisches Christentum: die Pfingstbewegung in Geschichte und Gegenwart which appears in English translation as The Pentecostals. Hollenweger is generous while remaining appropriately critical. Through judicious quoting of source material (the early Pentecostals were know for their prolific production of journals), Hollenweger allows the reader to feel the ethos of the early Pentecostals. He approached his work in two ways.

First, Hollenweger traces the history of pentecostalism. He begins in the United States with the story of Parham and Seymour which most pentecostals are aware of, but he does not stop there. The first half of the book explains how pentecostalism broke out worldwide, from the United states to Brazil, South Africa, and various countries in Europe.

Second, Hollenweger looks at the theology of the diverse pentecostal movement in appropriate categories such as the understanding of scripture, the Trinity, and demonology. This is where Hollenweger applies a more critical lens to the movement. Consider his insight on the gifts of the Spirit (and remember, he wrote this in 1969):

We must look beyond the gifts of the Spirit which are manifested in the Pentecostal movement to find modern gifts of the Spirit: the gifts of service to society and science. That is, we need gifts that will help us to understand better our sick world of politics, economics and science and to contribute to the task of healing it. (373)

I was raised in a small-town Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada church. In reading Hollenweger’s account I finally understood many of the odd theological quirks I grew up with. This not only helps my self-understanding—it enables me to see the doctrinal roots of my own congregants.

The Pentecostals was as compelling as it was informative. My next task is to read his work on pentecostalism that he wrote at the other end of his career: Pentecostalism. A man who bookended his career with in-depth studies of pentecostalism should be read and valued by thoughtful pentecostals today.


Hollenweger, Walter J. The Pentecostals. Translated by R. A. Wilson. London: SCM Press, 1972.

Transforming Practice | Elaine L. Graham

The cover of Graham's Transforming PracticePostmodernity has challenged modernism in every area. Positivist views of reality are being replaced by constructivist views. Modernity’s emancipatory mission to bring humanity out of superstition is now criticized as a new totalitarianism. Industrial capitalism is giving way to design flexibility. Universalism and metanarratives are being rejected in favor of fragmentary worldviews. How can pastoral theology exist in such an age? Is it possible to ground theology in something other than traditional metanarrative?

Using Gadamer’s practice theory, Graham argues that pastoral theology can be grounded in an understanding of faithful practice. She uses Gadamer’s habitus to describe “not merely ‘rule-governed behaviour’, but symbolic, purposeful strategies with many layers of meaning” (101). Habitus accounts for both human agency and cultural conditioning.

Practice thus emerges as the process by which social relations are generated . . . as purposeful activity performed by embodied persons in time and space as both the subjects of agency and the objects of history.” (110)

Graham uses feminist criticism to show how foundationalist understandings of theology rooted in modernism do not account for the heterogeneous experience of gendered people. In the end, Graham roots her pastoral theology not in a text or a tradition, but in the habitus and orthopraxis of the faithful community. Therefore, pastoral theology is not a “legislative or prescriptive [discipline, but an] interpretive” (208) task.

Elaine Graham is flat-out brilliant. She not only articulates her own views, she brings an encyclopaedic knowledge of various ethical, sociological, philosophical, and theological fields to the task. Her interpretation of Habermas’ Critical Theory in particular was incisive without being reductive.

I do fundamentally disagree with Graham’s conclusions, however, due to ontological and epistemological differences. When Graham roots pastoral theology in a hermeneutic of the situation, she removes it from the scripture and any historic understanding of God. For Graham, “not even the canon of Scripture thus inspired is definitive for all time, . . . no text embodies the truth absolutely and finally, but is merely a blueprint for, and prefiguration of, a reality still to come” (197). While I would agree that no text can embody truth absolutely, I do believe that God has chosen to reveal himself through text-as-inspired by the Spirit. If I understand Graham correctly, the normative role of scripture is gone with modernism and “the only vocabulary available to Christian communities in articulating their truth-claims is that of pastoral practice itself” (203).

Graham’s Transforming Practice has accurately described the uncertain state of theology as it tries to reformulate itself in a postmodern context. Her use of Gadamer’s practice theory enables her to accurately and faithfully observe and interpret the community of faith. Ultimately, however, her grounding of theology exclusively in the situation is unconvincing for me. My task moving forward will be how to relate the normative influence of scripture to a hermeneutic of the situation in a way that is dialogical and fruitful.


Graham, Elaine L. Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1996.

Practical Theology and Qualitative Research | John Swinton & Harriet Mowat

The cover of Swinton & Mowat's Practical Theology and Qualitative Research

Practical theology and qualitative research are two very different disciplines. Neither are easy to summarize, let alone define.

Swinton and Mowat begin with with practical theology:

Practical Theology is critical, theological reflection on the practices of the Church as they interact with the practices of the world, with a view to ensuring and enabling faithful participation in God’s redemptive practices in, and for the world. (7)

The church reflects copiously and rigorously on the interpretation of scripture. Practical theology offers rigorous theological reflection on the actual practices of the church.

Next up: qualitative research. Swinton and Mowat survey a few definitions before settling on McLeod’s:

Qualitative research is a process of careful, rigorous enquiry into aspects of the social world. It produces formal statements or conceptual frameworks that provide new ways of understanding the world, and therefore comprises knowledge that is practically useful for those who work with issues around learning and adjustment to the pressures and demands of the social world. (30)

Qualitative research is rooted in rooted in a methodology, typically constructivism, that views reality as constructed by the subject. Qualitative research with a constructivist ontology and epistemology then uses various methods, “specific techniques that are used for data collection and analysis” (69).

There is a key tension between the worlds of practical theology and qualitative research. Many theologians hold a view of ontology and epistemology (i.e. God exists outside our sensory world and makes himself known through revelation) that contradicts the constructivist foundation of qualitative research. Swinton and Mowat acknowledge this tension and attempt to demonstrate, through definitions and case studies of specific theological qualitative research projects, how these tensions can be resolved.

Our task has been to lay down some foundational understandings of how Practical Theology can utilize qualitative research in a way that retains the integrity of both disciplines and allows theology in general and Practical Theology in particular to remain faithful and confident in its identity and task. (265)

In the end, qualitative research is a tool to help theologians discern and interpret situations rigorously and faithfully.


Swinton, John and Harriet Mowat. Practical Theology and Qualitative Research. 2nd Ed. London: SCM Press, 2016.

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