Tag Archives | history

Pentecostalism | Walter J. Hollenweger

The cover of Hollenweger's PentecostalismWalter J. Hollenweger (1927-1916), an ordained minister with the Swiss Reformed Church, book-ended his academic career with large works on pentecostalism. His ten volume (!) doctoral dissertation, Handbuch der Pfingstbewegung, was condensed then translated into The Pentecostals—a highly readable and insightful book on the origins of the global Pentecostal movement.

Pentecostalism is more than an update to The Pentecostals. In his earlier work he privileged history over theology. Pentecostalism, on the other hand, is “a thoroughly theological book” (92) in which he traces the diverse roots of global pentecostalism. Hollwenweger identifies five theological roots which have fed the movement we see today:

  1. The Black Oral Root. While in the West today, “Pentecostalism is fast developing into an evangelical middle class religion” (19), things were different in the beginning. Hollenweger shows how pentecostalism is thriving in Africa, even if sects like the Kimbanguists of Zaïre make Western theologians nervous!
  2. The Catholic Root. Pentecostalism was heavily influenced by the Wesley brothers, who were in turn influenced by Roman Catholicism. Hollenweger traces the uneasy but definable influence of Roman Catholic theology on the pentecostal movement.
  3. The Evangelical Root. In this slim section, Hollenweger follows “the traces of Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification through the American Holiness movement” (181). His discussion of the relationship between pentecostalism, fundamentalism, and evangelicalism (ch. 15) is particularly insightful.
  4. The Critical Root. In this disproportionately large section of Pentecostalism, Hollenweger reviews the numerous critical issues which pentecostals are beginning to face. Fortunately, pentecostals can no longer be described as “anti-intellectual, evangelical-fundamentalist and anti-ecumenical” (van der Laan in Hollenweger 201)! Pentecostal scholarship has started to rigorously address broader theological issues such as liberation theology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and post-colonial missions. From my perspective studying at McMaster Divinity College, the two decades of pentecostal/charismatic scholarship that followed the publication of Pentecostalism have added immensely to all the areas which Hollenweger surveys.
  5. The Ecumenical Root. This is Hollenweger’s wheelhouse. In both of his books on pentecostalism he repeatedly laments pentecostal disengagement with the ecumenical movement. In Pentecostalism he is cautiously optimistic that pentecostals are now engaging with the universal body of Christ as expressed by the World Council of Churches.

In Pentecostalism, the “elder statesman of Penteecostal studies” (Cox), shows the astounding breadth of global pentecostalism. Though technically an outsider, Hollenweger handles the diverse issues of this massive movement with critical sensitivity. I only wish he had a chance to update his work one last time before his passing.


Hollenweger, Walter J. Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1997.

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.

Heaven Below | Grant Wacker

The cover of Wacker's Heaven BelowHistory slides quickly into myth and legend.

In 1901, Agnes Ozman received the “baptism with tongues” in Charles Fox Parham’s school in Topeka, Kansas. Parham’s own baptism followed quickly. Two years later Parham took his school on the road to Houston where he taught William J. Seymour. Seymour took the message to California where the new movement exploded in 1906.

In Heaven Below, Grant Wacker tells the story of that first generation of American pentecostals. Since almost every new expression of pentecostalism had its corresponding magazine and mailing list, Wacker mined a mountain of primary material to arrive at his nuanced understanding of the pentecostal movement.

Wacker described his overall thesis in one sentence:

The genius of the pentecostal movement lay in its ability to hold two seemingly incompatible impulses in creative tension. (10)

Wacker shows how through a variety of topics (women, tongues, worship, war, testimony, etc.), pentecostals were able to be both primitivists (people who returned to what they considered the New Testament faith) and pragmatists (people who thrived in the world).

Context always influences research and Wacker is up-front with his. He was raised pentecostal but now identifies more broadly as an evangelical Christian. He confesses, however, that “in many ways my heart never left home” (x). He is neither a dispassionate sceptic nor a fawning hagiographer.

Now, a word about the context of this reviewer. I too was raised as a pentecostal and still identify as one—I pastor a Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada church. Wacker’s research opened my eyes to the origin of many of the quirks I have encountered over the years.

While reading Heaven Below, I was alternately inspired by my spiritual ancestors who bragged that “the color line has been washed away in the blood,” and disgusted at Parham’s racist insistence that black evangelist William Seymour sit outside the school by the open window so he could get the teaching without mixing his race with the whites inside. The same feelings held true with many other issues: women in ministry, poverty v. wealth, and pacifism v. war to name a few.

That God did something world-shattering in the early pentecostal movement is beyond question—its effects are still resonating throughout the entire word. I hope pentecostals of our day can take inspiration from our mothers and fathers in the faith while at the same time repudiating the errors that have become clear with the benefit of hindsight.


Wacker, Grant. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Fire from Heaven | Harvey Cox

The cover of Cox's Fire from HeavenFire from Heaven is one massive mea culpa! In 1965 Harvey Cox released The Secular City where he presupposed the arrival of a post-religious age. In the preface to Fire from Heaven, Cox acknowledged that now it is “secularity, not spirituality, that may be headed for extinction” (xv). The growth of worldwide pentecostalism is a major factor in this flip-flop of opinion.

For Cox, pentecostalism represents an outbreak of primal spirituality that had been repressed by the formalism of religion. Through the recovery of primal speech (glossolalia), primal piety (signs and wonders), and primal hope (endtime eschatology), pentecostalism has proven to be the form in which humanity’s latent spiritual desires took shape.

As a container for primal spirituality, pentecostalism is exceedingly adaptable. Cox shows how pentecostalism welcomes liberation theology in Latin America, shamanism in Korea, and even tribal healing practices in Zimbabwe. Far from being an achilles heel, Cox understands this tendency toward religious syncretism as pentecostalism’s great strength.

Fire from Heaven is part spiritual autobiography and part history. Cox’s willingness to pen his own thoughts adds a sense of genuineness to the story. This same autobiographical sense also colors his interpretation. In the chapter “Music Brought Me to Jesus,” Cox developed an extended analogy between jazz music and pentecostalism (Cox is a jazz saxophonist). While some of the points are fitting, there are a couple major flaws with this argument. First, the actual music of pentecostalism has always tended toward simple folk, roots, and rock styles. More importantly, jazz is highly a sophisticated form of music—an ethos in direct contradiction with pentecostalism’s underprivileged roots.

Another obvious flaw in Cox’s book is the way he only criticized North American pentecostalism. His examples deserved the criticism he delivered, but surely a more unbiased view might find reason to critique other expressions of pentecostalism outside the author’s continent.

Cox has delivered a highly readable interesting analysis of global pentecostalism. His central thesis, that pentecostalism is the vehicle for an outburst of primal spirituality, is thought provoking and could very well be true. Time will tell whether his conclusions in Fire from Heaven weather better than Secular City.


Cox, Harvey. Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1995.

The Pastor as Public Theologian | Kevin J. Vanhoozer & Owen Strachan

The cover of Vanhoozer & Strachan's The Pastor as Public TheologianFor centuries, the local pastor was a public theologian. The pastor was a peculiar kind of intellectual (not an academic specialist) who “opens up the Scriptures to help people understand God, the world, and themselves” (1).

Today, this classical vision of the pastorate is all but lost. The revivalist movement of the nineteenth century exchanged the thoughtful messages of the Puritans for “the freewheeling pulpiteer, master of the homespun story” (88). This devolved to the place where a person like Billy Sunday could boast that “he knew as much about theology as a jackrabbit knows about Ping-Pong” (90)! The movement of theology from the church to the university also undermined the pastor’s theological role. Where Luther and Calvin were the leading pastor-theologians of their day, pastors are now pressured to take on a host of church-growth leadership roles while they leave theology to the experts in the academy.

In The Pastor as Public Theologian, Vanhoozer and Strachan passionately call for a return of the pastor-theologian. Pastors have a ground-level knowledge that academics will never have. Pastors are called by God to guard their flocks by challenging and weeding out false teaching.

Methodologically, Vanhoozer and Strachan divide the book into four sections, following the classical division of theology:

  1. Biblical Theology: The Old Testament roles of prophet, priest, and king are examined in light of Jesus and their significance for pastoral work.
  2. Historical Theology: The history of the church is reviewed and the devolution of the pastor’s role is charted.
  3. Systematic Theology: The moods of the Greek language (especially indicative and imperative) are used as a framework for examining the intersection between biblical and cultural literacy in the pastorate.
  4. Practical Theology: The various biblical roles of the pastor are reviewed to see how they contribute to the health of God’s house.

The chapters in this book are interspersed with twelve short essays from pastors who show how assuming the role of pastor-theologian has benefited their own congregations. The book then ends with “Fifty-Five Summary Theses on the Pastor as Public Theologian” (183). These theses condense the message of the book into six pages.

I would encourage every pastor to buy and read this book. It is not only an accurate diagnosis of a modern illness—it offers motivation and the first steps toward a cure.

—Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015).

Stranger Than We Can Imagine | John Higgs

The cover of Higgs' Stranger Than We Can ImagineThe twentieth century can be understood as the loss of all omphaloi.

What are omphaloi, you might ask? An omphalos is the central hub of something. For ancient Israel, for example, the Holy of Holies in the Temple on Mount Zion was the omphalos of the world. It was the place where heaven connected with earth. The twentieth century is littered with fallen omphaloi.

  • Einstein’s relativity theories destroyed the omphalos of a fixed place.
  • War destroyed the omphalos of national emperors.
  • Freud’s psychology destroyed the omphalos of the rational mind.
  • The sexual revolution destroyed the omphalos of traditional morality.

John Higgs is equally adept at explaining quantum mechanics as he is with evaluating the impact of Super Mario Bros. on Postmodernism—and he does all of this with a great sense of humour. Here’s how he explains the counter-intuitive laws of the quantum world:

The quantum world is like the fun your teenage children and their friends have in their room. You know it exists because you can hear the shrieks and laughter throughout the house, but if you pop your head around the door, it immediately evaporates and leaves only a bunch of silent self-conscious adolescents. A parent cannot see this fun in much the same way that the sun cannot observe a shadow. And yet, it exists. (119)

Stranger Than We Can Imagine is a brilliant analysis of the twentieth century. For me, Higgs only runs into trouble when he gets to the present. With all the traditional omphaloi fallen, we are at the risk of tragic individualism. Higgs views the emerging social networks as a solution that provides social responsibility while not limiting personal freedom. Selfies are not symptoms of narcissism—they are ways to strengthen the nodes of the emerging network.

I don’t think we can live without omphaloi. As a Christian, I hold the Creator of heaven and earth as my centre. Higgs would likely view this as an antiquated hold-over from the twentieth-century, something that will be outmoded by personal freedom expressed in networked society. I see the network, with all of its mixed impact social impact, as yet another type of omphalos in a long line. We will always worship something.

—John Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century (Toronto, ON: Signal Books, 2015).

The Rise of Christianity | Rodney Stark

The cover of Stark's The Rise of ChristianityThis book destroyed one of my cherished apologetic views. I have always understood the rise of the early church as pure miracle. After all, how could a group of persecuted people following a crucified “criminal” become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire in a mere three centuries? The only comparable phenomenon I knew of was the rise of Islam, but it grew because of military conquest.

It turns out that there are good logical ways to understand the rise of Christianity in those early years. Rodney Stark, using his sociology toolbox, turned his attention to this phenomenon in the aptly titled, The Rise of Christianity.

Stark begins with basic growth arithmetic. Numerically speaking, Christianity grew at 40% per decade, which is similar to the growth of Mormonism. For those first years (when the New Testament was written), it would have looked painfully small and inconsequential. However, 40% growth per decade creates an exponential curve.

After justifying the overall growth trend, he turns his eye to the factors which led to such growth. Here a few of the causes that stood out:

  • The incredibly strong social networks of the Jewish people, the source of Christianity’s first people, empowered the spread of the good news. There was a reason even Paul started his ministry in local synagogues.
  • Christianity developed a surplus of women due to the prohibition of female infanticide and abortion. This increasing number of women would have married and brought men into the faith, swelling their numbers.
  • Ancient cities were horribly overcrowded and dangerous places that bred disease. Christians offered a vision of hope to the oppressed and, through selfless care during times of epidemics, saw more of their sick live.

It turns out that the growth of the early church is the natural effect of living the sort of eternal life that Jesus both taught and lived. While I would be the last person to deny the effective work of the Holy Spirit (after all, that’s how every person comes to Jesus), it was moving for me to see the way that God’s Kingdom grew in the midst of the kingdoms of the world.

The early growth of Christianity is a deeper sort of miracle than I had realized. Rather than relying some deus ex machina, the early church grew by embodying (incarnating) their self-giving Saviour in the midst of a depraved and crumbling Empire. Many parallels can be drawn between the Roman Empire and Western culture. Perhaps the church is poised for a new burst of life!

—Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (New York: HarperOne, 1996).

A Brief History of Infinity | Brian Clegg

The cover of Clegg's A Brief History of InfinityFor a theologian, infinity is an important thought. Typically, we consider God infinite and his creation (i.e. us) finite. This has serious implications concerning our relationship to him. How can the finite approach the infinite? Consider these words from the prophet Isaiah:

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(Isaiah 55:9 ESV)

In A Brief History of Infinity, Brian Clegg surveys how people have tried to understand the idea of the infinite from the ancient Greek philosophers through 20th Century mathematicians (and everyone in between). It turns out that pagan and religious thinkers alike have wrestled with the paradoxes of infinity for centuries.

Consider this frustrating thought experiment. Take a series of fractions. The numerator is always 1. The denominator doubles each time. With each fraction you list you get closer to 2, but never quite there. There’s an infinite space between the simple integers 1 and 2. How can this be? It’s no wonder some of the people to wrestle with infinity have lost the match and fell into madness!

Infinity (the book) is a satisfying mix of history and mathematics.

—Brian Clegg, A Brief History of Infinity: The Quest to Think the Unthinkable (London: Robinson, 2003).

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