Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Charismatics: A Difficult Relationship or Promising Convergence?

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A difficult relationship? Indeedif for no other reason than each of these terms is complicated, if not also contested. To struggle with the difficulties of these relationships is to wrestle with the nature of the church in the twenty-first century and perhaps to discover exciting and important opportunities for Christian mission and theological education today. How then do we enter into the challenges at this nexus?


I will start by diving into the difficulties in the evangelical-Pentecostal relationship. Some insist that Pentecostalism is a subset of evangelicalismespecially those who understand the evangelical tradition’s genealogy as stretching back to the Reformation churches of the sixteenth century, including those who identify John Wesley as the “grandfather” of Pentecostalism (through the Holiness movement of the nineteenth century), or who view continental pietism and even Puritan revivalism as contributing to the Pentecostal DNA. Others say that in a more technical sense Pentecostal origins in the early twentieth century—whether at Azusa Street or at Topeka, Kansas, disputed among historianspreceded that of the formal organization of modern (at least American) evangelicalism, particularly as initiated by the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942.

At issue are a plethora of disputed matters. How do we understand either movement, at least historically, and how are they related, if at all, in the present time? Whether Pentecostal believers are also or always evangelicals depends on how either is defined. How to count evangelicals and Pentecostals also may have political if not economic consequences, especially in democratic and market economic contexts wherein the freedom of religion spawns also competition among churches and religions. Would some Pentecostals wish also to be accepted as evangelicals because of the respectability that comes with such designation and in order to escape the opprobrium that still might tar the Pentecostal label? On the other hand, might some evangelicals think that the pentecostalizing and charismatizing nature of global Christianity renders the Pentecostal label more advantageous in at least certain contexts? And none of the preceding engages the central theological and doctrinal issues in the balance.


There are too many theological controversies to treat adequately. While few Pentecostals would disagree with the Bebbingtonian definition of evangelical theological commitment—the centrality of Jesus’ vicarious suffering for the salvation of humanity, the authority of the Bible, the necessity of a born-again conversion experience, and an evangelistic and activistic living out of the gospel—not a few evangelicals would balk at what has been called the crown jewel of Pentecostal doctrine: that speaking in tongues signals or evidences baptism in the Holy Spirit. Beyond this point there is the more important doctrinal question concerning the Nicene confession: although many Pentecostals are trinitarian believers, a not insignificant number in the Oneness tradition reject the doctrine of the Trinity as unbiblical and tritheistic, not to mention asserting also that glossolalia evidences full salvation (so that those who do not speak in tongues are not fully saved).

Another way to parse these theologically contentious matters is to note that the Pentecostal fivefold gospel—of Jesus as savior, healer, sanctifier, Spirit-baptizer, and coming king—emerges precisely through the addition of the doctrine of Spirit baptism to the fourfold formula popular across large swaths of the conservative Protestant world at the end of the nineteenth century—crystallized by Presbyterian minister and founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance A. B. Simpson (1843–1919). This points to interesting turn-of-the-twentieth-century connections and raises interesting questions. On one side, Simpson’s Presbyterian formation constituted one thread of the Reformed tradition’s influences on the nascent Pentecostal movement. This has ecumenical potential even if this Reformed element of the Pentecostal tradition has been relatively underdeveloped at least at the theological level. On the other hand, the fourfold motif was propagated in part through the Holiness movement, and it is this Wesleyan stream that has grown in the last generation among Pentecostal theologians in quest of ecumenical conversation partners. The result, however, is that contemporary Pentecostal theology has more clearly identifiable affinities with Wesleyan than Reformed traditions. We will unpack various aspects of these developments going forward.


Arguably, Pentecostalism is deeply evangelical in its pietistic, Holiness, and evangelistic/missionary spirituality. In Anglo-American contexts shaped by conservative Protestantism’s biblicism (not to mention the Wesleyan commitment to scriptural authority, Wesley being known as a man of one book: the Bible), Pentecostals are lovers of and believers in the Bible as much as anyone else. In Global-South contexts, however, where literacy is less pervasive and where oral cultures predominate, the reception of “biblical Christianity” takes on a different form. Pentecostal movements have been especially vibrant in these majority world contexts not because of their high views of Scripture (although these have certainly been present) but because of their pneumatic spirituality. Amidst cosmological worldviews populated by many spiritual entities, not to mention layers of spiritual realities, Pentecostalism’s pneumacentric religiosity interfaces more organically with indigenous beliefs, practices, and sensitivities. Global Christianity is exploding especially among Pentecostal  and charismatic churches and movements in part because of this convergence of spiritual instincts and sensibilities.

“This is what we mean when we say that the Bible is good to us. It is not so much that we interpret the Bible, as that the Bible interprets us in a radically new and ultimately affirming way! The Bible tells us no matter how crushed we might be, that we are a royal priesthood! The Bible tells us no matter how rootless and homeless society might make us feel, that we are part of God’s own family, and of the great home that God is building. The Bible tells us, no matter whether we have green cards or not, that we are citizens of the New Jerusalem. Thus, when you see us walking to church early on a Sunday morning, and wonder at the loving tenderness with which we cradle our Bibles in our arms, know that we do this not out of some fanatical bibliolatry, but simply out of love and gratitude, because indeed the Bible has been good to us!”

+ from Justo L. Gonzáles in Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes. Organizers of the 40th anniversary of Fuller’s Centro Latino welcomed Cuban American historian and theologian González as special guest. He is a leading voice in Hispanic theology, known for his ecumenical work unifying churches of different denominations. Videos of the 40th celebration can be seen here.

Pentecostal spirituality, however, challenges evangelical commitments especially on this register. It is not so much that biblical authority is minimized as it is that Scripture’s normativity is received and adhered to pneumatically, or pneumatologically, through the ongoing manifestation, presence, and activity of the Holy Spirit. While Reformed defenders of sola scriptura might consider such pneumaticism as competing against and subordinating the Word, Pentecostals presume these in tandem, convinced that the living potency of the Bible is pneumatically mediated. So if the latter do not doubt that the Spirit empowers contemporary believers to both believe in and follow in the footsteps of the apostles, including imitating the apostolic subservience to the leading of the Spirit, then the former believe that such irrevocably leads Pentecostals down the path of embracing “new revelation” and that this inevitably misleads the faithful beyond the confines of Scripture. If Pentecostals think themselves more fully trinitarian on this score because of a more robust pneumatology, evangelicals worry about an errant pneumato-monism instead. Conversely, Pentecostals decry at least some expressions of evangelicalism as lifeless (i.e., Spirit-less), biblicistic, and even bibliolatrous.


Things do not get any easier when charismatic renewal is factored into the discussion. On one hand, there is no denying that charismatic renewal across the Protestant spectrum has played an instrumental role in the last 50 years in promoting ecumenical goodwill and collaboration. If ecumenical meetings can go only so far toward bridging doctrinal gaps between confessions and denominations, then the renewal has provided a common spirituality of scriptural reading, praise and worship, charismatic gifts, and personal and congregational reinvigoration that has brought Protestants together “in the Spirit.” This pertains not only to the “offices of renewal” that have been implemented in many of the mainline Protestant denominations, but includes the more congregational churches and networks bound together in the Spirit with others including mainline churches.

It might be counterargued that charismatic renewal has subordinated doctrinal confession, which has contributed to an emerging post-denominational landscape. It’s not just that denominations might be dying or fading away, but that a proliferating independency is dawning: individual congregations, megachurches, seeker-churches, and others are displacing those bound by doctrinal commitments. Critics of the renewal are likely to identify a theologically or dogmatically untethered pneuma-centric spirituality as being part of the problem. The post-denominational age is seen as part and parcel of a post-Christendom if not also post-Christian society, one open to various spiritual expressions but lacking fundamental theological moorings. Is it ecclesial vitality for the present time or congregational chaos on the heels of renewal run amok?


Observers both inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church have suggested that the dawn of the charismatic renewal in that communion was precipitated partially by the aggiornamento of Vatican II. Since 1967, charismatic renewal in the Catholic Church has spread around the globe. By clearly embracing the renewal, the Catholic Church has staved off losses to Protestantism, and Pentecostal churches in particular, but some Catholic scholars hypothesize that the renewal has played a crucial role in the regenerating of Catholic Christianity in the majority world, especially in Latin America. In many respects, charismatic renewal has provided formal and informal ecumenical bridges for crossover and return between Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal churches. To a lesser but not insignificant extent, charismatic renewal across the Orthodox world has spurred ecumenical interaction and built ecumenical relationships.

Catholic and Orthodox faithful do not abandon their beliefs and practices wholesale upon encountering charismatic renewal. Pentecostal or charismatic spirituality in a Catholic or Orthodox domain is deemed compatible with Marian forms of piety, papal leadership, sacramental theology, and continuity with the Great Traditions of the Latin and Eastern churches. Pentecostal and evangelical charismatics with their biblicism are often confounded by charismatic spirituality as practiced in Roman Catholic and Orthodox communities. Can charismatic renewal open new doors for evangelical and ecumenical theology and mission in the twenty-first century or is it bound to merely initiate new orthodoxies that find themselves finally bereft of the Spirit?


“We now face a new form of Latin American/Latino evangelicalism rapidly growing and going global. . . .the missiological shift that took place in global Christianity, which moved the center of Christianity from the North Atlantic to the Global South, has facilitated a Latin American’s sense of manifest destiny.”

+ Oscar García-Johnson, reflecting on new forms of evangelicalism in a global context. Read his reflections here.


If world Christianity in its Catholic, Protestant, and evangelical forms is expanding because of pentecostalizing and charismatizing trends in their midst, as many social scientists and demographers suggest, what of the potential of Pentecostal spirituality to empower Christian mission and forge new evangelical pathways for ecumenical partnership? Networks of churches and coalitions are emerging that are united not by any confessional stance but by a spirituality and piety that is practicallyif not by intentional self-identificationPentecostal or charismatic. Thus have not a few scholars urged usage of pentecostal less as a noun (referring to a denominational or formal type of church) than as an adjective, as descriptive of a type of Christianity more conducive to the dynamic, globalizing, and pluralistic third millennium.

Yet if such a Pentecostal or charismatic label might well be embraced by those who nevertheless accept the Nicene or Apostles’ creed, there are challenges with the Oneness segment. Further, in the majority world, the emergence of indigenous and independent churches that are often charismatic in orientationbelieving in and practicing the full range of the spiritual giftscomplicates any typology since these are often decidedly anti-creedal. There is intense debate about whether their ways of life are expressions of theological inculturation (positively understood in terms of how the gospel is contextualized in local idiom) or mistaken developments of religious syncretism (negatively viewed in terms of how the gospel is accommodated and compromised by synthesis with native elements). In these contexts, the question of discernment of spirits is profoundly important: when is “contextualization” the work of the Spirit of Christ and of God and when is it inappropriate entanglement with other religious, cultural, or spiritual realities?


As one of the leading evangelical-ecumenical institutions of theological education over the last half century, Fuller has been no stranger to many of these discussions and debates. Though firmly planted in the Reformed tradition, the seminary has always been open to students from both evangelical and ecumenical traditions. Over the last generation, there has been a steady increase in Pentecostal and charismatic faculty members. In the mid-1980s, the C. Peter Wagner and John Wimber Signs and Wonders course was controversial and did not end as well as might have been hoped. Even then, Fuller must be applauded for being willing to raise the questions, engage the issues, and explore what was or is at stake.

In some important respects, the signs and wonders initiative was ahead of its time, but provides us with valuable perspective for observing the road ahead 30 years later. The demographics for Christianity are changing, not only through the further “browning” of the church in North America but through the shifting of its center of gravity from the Euro-American West to the Global South. In this fluid context, there is no question that Pentecostal and charismatic churches, congregations, and networks are at the vanguard of the world Christian movement. Fuller is well-poised historically, with the faculty leadership to theologically engage Pentecostal/charismatic realities with the evangelical-ecumenical tradition broadly understood.

If seminaries are supposed to build up the church, then Fuller is in a good place to serve the global church in which Pentecostal and charismatic currents are looking not necessarily to develop sectarian identities but to connect with the broader Christian tradition. In this scenario, Fuller can lead the church catholic in important conversations bridging these various movements. On the one hand, such discussions will strengthen ecclesial identities as they seek to understand themselves theologically; on the other hand, Fuller offers the opportunity for particularity to map onto catholicity, bringing churches from across the Christian spectrum into solidarity with others. Such a shift is imperative for Christian renewal in the twenty-first century.

Ecclesial revitalization can only empower Christian mission. Christian mission is carried out not generically by “Christians” in the abstract but by specific Christians shaped by particular traditions of beliefs and practices. Yet what has hindered Christian witness is precisely the fragmentation of the church. Seminary education can invigorate Christian mission by nurturing the witness of specific churches while also enabling such to go forth as representative of the one body of Christ and the one fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Fuller’s ecumenical faculty can reach deep into ecclesial tradition to cultivate a unity of witness, even as Fuller’s globally attuned faculty can draw from the resources of the church catholic to enable a diversified but harmonious Christian mission in a pluralistic world.

Beyond renewing the church and empowering its mission, theological seminaries have also always been at the forefront of enabling self-critical reflection on Christian self-understanding in ever-changing times and contexts. How might faithful and yet creative Christian theologizing proceed in the twenty-first century? It is precisely Fuller’s evangelical-ecumenical identity that can nurture substantive interaction and engagement with the burgeoning Pentecostal/charismatic world in order to revitalize the Christian theological tradition as a whole. Such will involve both a recovery of the depths of the great ecumenical (Roman Catholic and Orthodox) traditions that emphasize God as Creator and a retrieval of the magisterial Reformation traditions that lift up Christ as Redeemer. This will foster faithful and yet contextually constructive theological self-understanding with Pentecostal/charismatic movements and their focus on the Holy Spirit as sanctifying empowerer in today’s post-Western, postmodern, and postcolonial world.