Gutierres Siqueira is Brazilian and the editor of the Brazilian “Pentecostal of Theology” website, which is of course in Portuguese. You can check out the website at www.teologiapentecostal.blog.
Gutierres asked if he could interview me, Robert Menzies, for their website. He sent me nine stimulating questions and has translated my responses into Portuguese for their website. I offer the English language version of this interview below.
- Faced with so many different concepts, how do you define Pentecostalism?
A proper understanding of the term, “Pentecostal,” must be historically informed. That is to say, it must be consistent with the key truths affirmed by the early leaders of the modern Pentecostal movement that is traced back to the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles. Additionally, this definition must also be consistent with the biblical account of Pentecost that we find in Acts 2.
In my book, Pentecost: This Story is Our Story (GPH, 2013), I argue that the modern Pentecostal movement has been shaped by three distinctive convictions: (1) Pentecostals read the New Testament, and especially the book of Acts, as a model for our lives and ministry; (2) Pentecostals affirm that Baptism in the Holy Spirit is an empowering experience theologically and often chronologically distinct from conversion; (3) Pentecostals also affirm that this Baptism in the Holy Spirit is marked by speaking in tongues.
A definition of the terms, “Pentecostal” or “Pentecostalism” should include these three elements. Groups that affirm some but not all of these convictions may be described as “Neo-Pentecostal” or “charismatic.” For a full description of these terms and groups see the definitions I offer in Pentecost: This Story is Our Story.
I would also note that we Pentecostals also affirm with our Evangelical brothers and sisters the central convictions of the Evangelical movement. Of course these are not unique to the Pentecostal movement, but they are crucial if one is to understand the true nature of the Pentecostal movement. These foundational commitments are: (1) The Bible is the Word of God and our authority; (2) Salvation is found only in Jesus; (3) Therefore, we must share the “good news” of Jesus with others. These foundational convictions can be seen in the early Pentecostal emphasis on the four-fold gospel: Jesus is (1) the Savior; (2) the Healer; (3) the Baptizer in the Holy Spirit; and (4) the coming King.
- His work specializes in the theology of the Holy Spirit present in Luke. Why is this topic important to Pentecostals?
The modern Pentecostal movement that flowed from the Azusa Street Revival was founded on an experience that is described by Luke in the book of Acts, the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). So the writings of Luke (the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts) are crucial for Pentecostal theology. Paul and John assume and draw upon this understanding of that first Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, but Luke is the only biblical author who actually describes this event and experience. So, when we Pentecostals highlight that the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” described by Luke in Acts 2 is available to believers today, we point to Luke’s narrative in order to support this claim.
Luke’s theology of the Spirit, rooted as it is in the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), is also uniquely missiological. It gives the church a much-needed outward focus. Pentecostals, I would argue, by highlighting Luke’s unique emphasis at this point, are actually helping the broader church affirm the full breadth of the New Testament teaching on the work of the Spirit; and in this way, they are helping the church recapture its true apostolic calling and power.
The Reformation celebrated the central truths of the gospel (justification by faith; salvation through Christ’s atoning work on the cross) and drew mainly from Paul’s epistles. Thus, the theology of the Reformed tradition is essentially Pauline theology. Pentecostals are reforming the Reformation with their call to also affirm Luke’s important theological contributions, particularly with reference to the work of the Holy Spirit and the nature of the church’s mission.
- Brazil has one of the largest Pentecostal churches in the world, but the study of Pentecostal theology is still small. What advice do you give to the beginning Pentecostal theologian?
First, let me offer a word of encouragement. We need Pentecostal theology and thus we need theologians. We need sound theology rooted in the clear exposition of Scripture. Our churches need this so they don’t drift off into false teaching and harmful practices. They also need this so they can pass their experience on to the next generation. We have a rich legacy and this needs to be passed on. As Douglas Jacobsen notes, “…religious experience alone does not produce a movement. A movement requires words to define what it stands for and words to describe itself to others” (A Reader in Pentecostal Theology, p. 5).
Second, let me offer a few words of advice. Keep your focus on the Bible and don’t lose sight of the very things that have produced the remarkable revival that has so greatly impacted Brazil, especially the power of the Holy Spirit. What is often understood as “Systematic theology” in the West, especially in Europe, made a bad turn about 150 years ago. Theologians began to see their task more broadly as engaging in social, political, and philosophical reflection rather than communicating the meaning of God’s revelation in the Bible for their generation. A more humanistic understanding of the theological task took hold and thus theologians began to draw upon a wide range of sources other than the Bible. This resulted in a diminished view of the significance of the biblical message. I would encourage you to resist this development. Remain centered in the Bible and see your work as above all seeking to clarify the significance of the biblical message for our generation.
I would also note that there will always be pressure to lay aside the unique aspects of our Pentecostal theology and experience in order to fit more easily into existing theological traditions or frameworks and to gain respectability. Resist these pressures. The church desperately needs to hear the Pentecostal movement’s distinctive voice. Our own churches need to hear and understand what has given birth to this incredible revival so that we might pass on the message and our experience to the next generation.
I would add that we also need to understand our own history, both the broader history of the modern Pentecostal movement and also our unique, local history: in this case, the incredible story of the rise of the Pentecostal movement in Brazil. Let’s see our task as seeking to encourage the Pentecostal churches in Brazil by providing a clear message – a message that flows from our experience as it is examined in light of the Bible. This message will also be clarified and sharpened as we understand our own history and the important themes and questions that it has generated.
- Your father, William Menzies, was an important name in the dialogue between Pentecostals and Catholics. What are the opportunities and dangers of this dialogue?
Dialogue can be instructive and helpful if we first know who we are. The danger is that if we enter into dialogue without a clear self-understanding, then we can become confused and be manipulated. My father always highlighted the centrality of the Scriptures and Christ for an understanding of who we are as Pentecostals. While Pentecostals think spiritual experience is important, my Father insisted that all spiritual experience must be judged by the standards of Scripture. He was also skeptical of any emphasis on the Spirit that minimized the importance of Christ. So, as Pentecostals enter into dialogue, we must never lose sight of our biblical and Christocentric identity.
The benefits of dialogue with those from other Christian traditions are that we can better understand our dialogue partners and enable them to better understand us. Hopefully, this will help us all see the richness of His revelation and His body more fully and more clearly.
However, I should note that I am not very interested in engaging in dialogue if the goal is to establish some kind of structural or organizational unity. The history of the church, in my opinion, does not suggest that large, hierarchical church structures foster true church growth or deep spirituality (for example, observe the state churches). I am convinced that the richness of the body of Christ is reflected in the beautiful diversity we find in His body around the world.
So, I am not particularly excited about structural unity on a large scale, but I do feel that we need to strive for a spiritual unity in the midst of our diverse expressions of the church. We need wisdom and understanding to be able to discern what matters are crucial (NT boundaries for the faith) and what matters are of lesser importance. While our various church traditions may highlight significant matters, we need wisdom to be able to affirm the common bounds that we share with others in the faith and to be able to learn from one another.
May the Lord help us to be generous in spirit, but also committed to the apostolic faith. As one Chinese house church leader put it, “Acts is the pattern for the mission of the church. If the church does not follow the path of the early church, we will lose our way.” I do pray the Lord will help us navigate our relationships with Christians from other traditions so that we might combine a commitment to the apostolic patterns with a generosity of spirit.
- What authors do you recommend for an in-depth study of Pentecostal theology?
My father, William Menzies, has exerted the greatest influence on my life and theology, both through his writings, his teaching, and his godly example. I would not trade my conversations with him for any academic degree or course of study. In addition to my father’s influence, I have been greatly blessed by the writings of Roger Stronstad, particularly his work in Luke-Acts. Craig Keener is also a very gifted scholar and I have appreciated his writings. I have also found Gordon Fee, when it comes to Paul’s writing and his discussion of gifts of the Spirit, to be helpful. Chris Thomas, another fine Pentecostal author, has produced some great essays and books on John’s writings. I would also note that Max Turner has been a very sympathetic and encouraging dialogue partner through the years. Max is a fine New Testament scholar and a wonderful Christian brother. I was privileged to study at the University of Aberdeen when Max was serving on the faculty there and always look back to those days with great fondness and thanksgiving.
In terms of books on Pentecostal theology, I would recommend the following:
- Roger Stronstad, The Charismatic Theology of St. Luke (Peaboby, MA: Hendrickson, 1984).
- William Menzies & Stanley Horton, Bible Doctrines: A Pentecostal Perspective (Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 2001).
- William Menzies & Robert Menzies, Spirit and Power: Foundations of Pentecostal Experience (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).
- Robert Menzies, Pentecost: This Story is Our Story (Springfield, MO: GPH, 2013).
- Douglas Jacobsen, ed., A Reader in Pentecostal Theology: Voices from the First Generation (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006).
- Donald W. Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism (London: The Scarecrow Press, 1987).
- Vinson Synan, The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001).
- Today it is possible to see in Brazil an advance of theological liberalism, even among Pentecostals. What danger does theological liberalism pose to Pentecostalism?
Since the beginning of the modern Pentecostal revival, Pentecostals have been rooted in the Word of God and centered on Christ. In other words, Pentecostals are bibliocentric and Christocentric. The Word-centered nature of the Pentecostal movement is reflected in the fact that it started in a Bible college. Most historians point to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Charles Parham’s Bible school in Topeka, Kansas on Jan. 1, 1901 as the beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement. The Christ-centered nature of the movement is evidenced by the missionary impact of the movement. Missionaries traveled around the world from the Azusa Street Revival to declare the message that Jesus is the Savior, Healer, Baptizer, and Coming King. Yes, we Pentecostals emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit. However, this is because we see the Holy Spirit’s work in the New Testament and are encouraged to experience His power in our own lives (Luke 11:9-13). We also recognize that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus. Jesus pours out the promise of the Father (Acts 2:33) and the Holy Spirit seeks to bring glory and praise to Jesus (Acts 4:31; 10:39-46). So, the danger that we face from the influence of theological liberalism is thus two-fold. Liberal theology, which tends to elevate contemporary culture above Scripture and depart from apostolic teaching, can distract us from our commitment to the Bible and can also cause us to lose sight of our focus on Christ.
As I noted, “Systematic theology” took a wrong turn in the latter part of the 19th century. Theologians began to lose sight of the reality of God’s presence in our world and the power of the gospel. Thus, they lost confidence in the Bible as the Word of God and began to highlight humanistic approaches to the problems of our day, stressing social programs and political action above proclamation of the gospel. This humanistic understanding of the theological task also encouraged theologians to draw upon a wide range of sources for knowledge other than the Bible. Apostolic truth was jettisoned in favor of social analysis and political strategies. The result was a powerless church divided by the various social and political agendas its leaders espoused. I would encourage you to resist this trend. Remain centered in the Bible and rooted in the apostolic message. Let us recognize that the calling and the power of the early church as recorded in the book of Acts remain valid for us. Their calling is our calling. Their message is also our message.
Some feel that Pentecostals, because we highlight experience and the work of the Spirit, are especially vulnerable to the influence of liberal theology. The thought here is that faith that is grounded in experience rather than the Word of God is easily lost or led astray. However, I think this picture of the Pentecostal movement is not accurate. It is a caricature. As I have noted, Pentecostals have always been “people of the book” and our experience, I believe, encourages us to see the reality of the power of God at work in our lives. Our experience, then, is actually a powerful antidote to theological liberalism. The answer to theological liberalism is not a rigidly cognitive approach to the faith; rather, the answer is precisely what we find in the vast majority of Pentecostal churches: we encounter the living God through powerful experiences that are encouraged and guided by our reading of Scripture. The shallowness of liberal theology is exposed when compared with the glory of entering into God’s powerful presence.
Nevertheless, some theologians are attempting to emphasize experience of the Spirit as a bridge to other religions or religious experience in general. In order to to do this, they seek to separate the work of the Spirit from Christ. This is a dangerous and unbiblical way to think about the work of the Spirit. We only know that an experience or event is inspired by the Spirit if it produces or seeks to produce witness and praise to Jesus. This is an important aspect of biblical teaching that Pentecostals need to affirm. This affirmation, along with our emphasis on experience guided by the Word, will help us discern truth from error.
(For more on this topic see my recent article, “The Nature of Pentecostal Theology: A Response to Kärkkäinen and Yong” in the Fall 2017 issue of The Journal of Pentecostal Theology.)
- How is the advancement of the Pentecostal church in China? Can we say that China has a Pentecostal Christian population?
Since Mao Zedong and the communists took over China in 1949, the Church in China has grown by leaps and bounds in spite of significant persecution and opposition. Prior to 1949 there were less than one million Christians in China. Now, there are between 80-120 million followers of Jesus in China. And by all accounts, this dramatic growth has been fueled by the emergence of Pentecostal churches or groups with Pentecostal-style patterns of worship and outreach.
A survey of the larger house church networks in China reveals that a majority is Pentecostal in theology and practice. The Fang Cheng (or China for Christ) Church, the Li Xin (or Zhong Hua Meng Fu) Church, the Yin Shang Church (Anhui), and the True Jesus Church are all strongly Pentecostal groups. The China Gospel Fellowship should probably be categorized as Neo-Pentecostal, although it is home to many Pentecostals as well. The Wenzhou church established by Miao Zhitong might also be described as Neo-Pentecostal. Non-Pentecostal groups would include the Word of Life (or Born Again) Church, established by Peter Xu, and Watchman Nee’s Little Flock (Xiao Qun), as well as a number of smaller groups that are largely reformed in theology and follow the cessationist teaching of the Indonesian-based Chinese pastor, Stephen Tong.
None of this should surprise us. The fact remains that of the three largest independent Chinese churches that sprang up in the early part of the twentieth century prior to 1949 (The True Jesus Church, The Little Flock, and the Jesus Family), two were Pentecostal. And one of these Pentecostal groups, the True Jesus Church, was by far the largest single indigenous Chinese church group of that era. This fact, coupled with the significant impact of the Pentecostal form of revivalism that swept through China in the 1930s, indicates that the majority of Chinese Christians prior to 1949, when able to develop their own Christian identity, gravitated to Pentecostal forms of worship and doctrine. Indigenous Chinese Christianity was predominantly Pentecostal.
Today, the house church movement continues to flourish in China. As I have noted, the house churches, in contrast to the majority of the government-sanctioned or “official” churches, are largely Pentecostal in theology and practice. I would add, the Pentecostal character of the house church movement explains its missional nature. A good example of this missional impulse is the China Missions 2030 movement. Recently I met with Brother Zhang, a key leader in the China Gospel Fellowship network (CGF) and a major voice in the China Missions 2030 movement. He explained that the vision of the “China Missions 2030” movement (a Chinese house church initiative) is for the Chinese church to send out 20,000 missionaries to other nations (mainly the countries between China and Jerusalem) and to the unreached minority groups in China. Brother Zhang said that the Western countries sent 20,000 missionaries to China in the pre-Mao era and the Chinese church now wants to repay this debt by sending out 20,000 missionaries of their own. As Brother Zhang shared this vision, I was reminded that the house churches love to sing a song based on Acts 1:8. Surely the China Missions 2030 movement is a fulfillment of Jesus’ wonderful promise contained in this verse.
- There are countless works in Brazil on the sociology of Pentecostalism, but almost nothing on the theology of Pentecostalism. Is this phenomenon the same in the United States?
This is a trend throughout the world. Due to its incredible growth, the Pentecostal movement is now receiving a lot of attention from scholars in a wide range of fields, but especially from sociologists. One scholar, Philip Jenkins, describes the Pentecostal movement as the most successful “social movement” of the twentieth century. This success has generated significant interest, and this interest has stimulated a number of studies on the Pentecostal movement by sociologists. Since sociologists are associated with academic communities and not necessarily the church (indeed, many operate with a worldview and related biases that allow no room for God’s intervention in our world), they often struggle to understand the true dynamics that shape Pentecostal faith and communities.
A good example is Lian Xi’s book, Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). In this book, Xi speaks of “Pentecostal ecstasies” with disdain. His reductionistic perspective blinds him to the incredibly positive legacy left by a century of Pentecostal pioneers. According to Xi, Pentecostal manifestations such as healings, exorcisms, visions, and tongues are symptoms generated by a life of deprivation and impoverishment. But this judgment, which was often championed by a previous generation of sociologists, is now tired and outdated. It has been proven to be based on faulty premises (these experiences are the result of poverty and oppression) and simply does not accurately reflect the current data available. For example, Max Turner writes, “Contrary to earlier claims, there is no evidence that ‘tongues speech’ is correlated with low intellect, education, social position or pathological psychology” (The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts: Then and Now, 305). More importantly, this judgment misses the incredible impact that the Pentecostal faith is having on the faithful around the world. As sociologist David Martin notes, Pentecostals are having a tremendous impact among the poor of Latin American precisely because of the clarity of their message, rooted in the Bible. With reference to the challenges facing poor families in Brazil, which are often ravaged by the pull of “a culture of machismo, drink, sexual conquest, and carnival,” Martin writes: “It is a contest between the home and the street, and what restores the home is the discontinuity and inner transformation offered by a demanding, disciplined faith with firm boundaries” (Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish, pp. 105-106).
Sociologists can observe and comment on external realities. Rarely, though, do they have the ability to probe deeper and to see the underlying spiritual realities that are at work. This is one of the reasons why theology, which is an attempt to describe God’s revelation, God’s explanation of His deeds, is so important. It takes us to the heart of the matter. The Pentecostal movement cannot be understood apart from its theological convictions which flow from the Bible.
Hopefully, we will see more and more Brazilian Pentecostals writing about their faith, their experiences, their churches, and their theology. Only then will we really be able to understand the true nature of the Pentecostal movement in Brazil. These accounts will help us move beyond the often superficial and strongly biased assessments provided by the sociologists. Although perhaps I should add that many sociologists, such as David Martin, have actually done a very good job of chronicaling the positive impact of Pentecostal churches in various parts of the world. Nevertheless, we need to hear from Pentecostals writing about their own experiences and their theological reflection based on these experiences.
- How do you see the future of Pentecostal faith?
I believe that historians will look back on the Azusa Street Revival and the emergence of the modern Pentecostal movement as one of the great moments in the history of the church. I write these words on Oct. 31, 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Just as today we look back on the Reformation as one of the great events in the life of the church, so also future generations will look back on the emergence of the Pentecostal movement. Of course, for this to be the case, the Pentecostal must continue to flourish.
And flourish, I believe it will. Why? Because it is a movement, like the Reformation, rooted in a fresh appropriation of the truth revealed in God’s Word. Luther and the Reformation called us to see once again the true nature of the gospel. The Pentecostal movement calls us to see once again the present reality and power of God’s Spirit, who delights to inspire bold witness and praise for Jesus.
As long as we follow the apostolic pattern, God will build His church. My Chinese friend stated the matter powerfully, “Acts is the pattern for the mission of the church. If the church does not follow the path of the early church, we will lose our way.” Yet, the converse is also true, “If we do follow the path of the early church, we will not lose our way.” That is my prayer for the church in Brazil, in China, and around the world.