Pentecostalism is one of the fastest growing denominations in Christianity. It has many thoughts, ideas, philosophies, theologies, and even denominations within itself. Of the many philosophies that impact the church, two can be narrowed down as the most influential: modernism and postmodernism. Modernism predates postmodernism, but both seem to be evident in today’s Pentecostal movement. This article will discuss how both modernism and postmodernism have shaped Pentecostalism.
Before understanding the comparison of these two philosophies they must be defined. Modernism must be defined by which ‘modern’ point we are spectating. Many historians believe that modernism began with the French philosopher René Descartes. He gives the beginning of modernist epistemology by stating, “I think therefore I am” (Newman). This philosophy birthed the beginning of not only advances in the philosophy of science but also in the philosophy of spirituality.
Postmodernism in is the forefront of many philosophers today. G.Spearritt says, “The prophets of postmodernism need to be taken seriously. Since they include some very influential thinkers – philosophers such as Foucault and Derrida and architects, artists and writers such as Michael Graves, Phillip Gladd and Umberto Eco – their prophecy is likely to be self-fulfilling to some degree…” (Spearritt 68). This paper will be following philosophies of postmodernism instead of focusing on all aspects of it. Though postmodernism is broad, it will also be defined and simplified as ‘after modern’ in this paper. So postmodernity is the philosophy that comes after modernity.
Pentecostalism began in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In comparison to other denominations, it is quite young. Though it seems to be a new form of Christianity, Pentecostalism did not begin as a fundamentalist movement, but it did adopt modernism in its early stages. Modernism predates Pentecostalism, so it makes sense how it would give into an already used philosophy. Modernism itself stretches from the early 1600’s until the mid-1900’s (McLaren, 22). Steven Jack Land suggests that Pentecostals adapted modernism in the 1920’s by stating, “The holiness connection is important for Pentecostals because it carries with it the nineteenth-century concern for abolition, prohibition, women’s rights, and the reform of society according to the righteous standards of God” (Land 41). He then states shortly after, “they were forced to choose between fundamentalism and modernism” (Land 41). Now, the modernism that is suggested by this paper isn’t the modernism that Land is speaking of. Land is speaking of the liberal ideas of the time: woman’s suffrage, alcohol, liberal social gospel, etc. Instead, Modernism is a lens from which Pentecostals adopt fundamentalism as their epistemology. Modernism, as described by Land, was “contemporary” or “current”. These Pentecostals chose to take the Biblical canon at face value. I’ll discuss this later in the article.
The beginning of the Pentecostal movement seems to have aligned more with postmodern thought, rather than modern thought. Like previously stated, Pentecostalism seemed to follow postmodern pneumatics. They were postmodern before postmodern existed. Land supports the postmodern pneumatics of Pentecostals by saying “The Spirit does not contradict the Scriptures but his job is more than just repeating what we can find by reading there… John indicates that the Lord expected the Spirit to direct the church in those areas not covered by Jesus’s teachings” (Land 29). He also seems to show this pneumatics by stating “Those who see Pentecostalism as essentially fundamentalism Christianity with a doctrine of Spirit baptism and gifts added on will be disappointed, as will those who see Pentecostalism as an experience which fits equally well in any spirituality or theological system…” (Land 18). This statement suggests that Pentecostalism is not fundamentalist by nature. In fact, Land stated that those seeking fundamentalism will be disappointed. It’s quite ironic seeing that Pentecostals chose to change to a fundamentalist doctrine due to the surrounding political ideas.
Here is a better way to explain the difference in these two philosophical and theological perspectives. In modernism, there is a mindset of “set in stone” or “black and white”, just as the Pentecostals chose to adapt in the 1920’s. This can be very valuable and helpful, but when considering what postmodernism is, the church could benefit from a postmodern perspective as well. Postmodernism’s meaning can be simplified to “after modern”. So in other words, how does society look at philosophy, theology, science, architecture, and itself after it has advanced past modernism? Postmodernism takes a perspective that knowing the absolute truth is unreachable. Taking that into a theological context, the church could allow this to grow their grace. If God reveals himself to each individual differently, then how can a person ever know the fullness of the almighty God?
Land seems to give an answer to the postmodern Pentecostal pneumatic experience by saying “There are, of course, attendant feelings or emotions that come and go and intermingle in the affections over time. Unlike ‘feelings’ these affections are distinctively shaped and determined by the biblical story and evidence the marks of particular communal and historical location” (Land 34). These ‘feelings’ that Pentecostal have during their worship are a postmodern spirituality that seems to contrast the fundamentalism that was adopted. To a fundamentalist, worship is a repetition of events. You can find this sort of worship in the liturgy of Catholics, Episcopal, Anglicans, Lutherans, and any other denomination that falls on the more ‘catholic’ side of Christianity. There are postmodern movements in the classical liturgical side of the Christian faith. There’s nothing wrong with liturgy, but when you lose the mystical feelings and expressions, it becomes a lifeless repetition of religious duty. That’s where the postmodern lens that Pentecostalism offers differs in the expression of it’s worship to that of more traditional liturgies.
Throughout Pentecostalism, we find traces of both modernism and postmodernism. The church can learn a lot from both of them. Though Pentecostals seem to have started postmodern, they changed. Though society has come out of modernism, the church is still stuck in it. The world has approached postmodernism, and the church is little by little changing. Authors like James K. A. Smith, Steven Jack Land, and many other theologians are impacting the church, seminaries, and Christian colleges around the world. In a world that’s everchanging, the church is on the brink of radical change.
“Fundamentalism.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2017. <http://www.dictionary.com/browse/fundamentalism>.
Land, Steven Jack. Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom. Cleveland, TN: CPT,
McLaren, Brian D. A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey. San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001. Print.
Newman, Lex. “Descartes’ Epistemology.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 03 Dec. 1997. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
Spearritt, G. “Christianity: From Modernism To Postmodernism.” Colloquium 24.2 (1992): 67-81. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.