Experience in Community
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Christian Experience in Community

Huibert Zegwaart


            Christianity is a missionary religion. Pentecostals are keenly aware of the pivotal importance of the so-called Great Commission, the commission to missions as given in, for example, Matthew 28:16-20 and Acts 1:8. The Good News of God’s salvific acting in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has to be preached to all peoples, all nations. This commission has a universalistic as well as an eschatological ring: it is a standing commission till the end of the present world. Consequently, missions in the broadest sense requires a sustained effort on the part of the community of faith, the Church.[1]

            When the Great Commission is carried out well, it is only to be expected that this will lead to conversions.[2] The term is purposely used here in the abstract, for after all, it is not from the out-set clear whether one has to expect the conversion of individuals, groups of people or even whole ‘tongues’ and ‘nations’. Pentecostals will normally think first of all in terms of individuals. Only upon secondary reflection, will they acknowledge the possibility that whole communities can also be converted. Also, the way the word is used above it has statistical and sociological overtones; and this is hardly representative of the way Pentecostals typically speak about such events, for they speak of it in biblical terms[3] and view conversion[4] as a profound spiritual experience. When pressed to reflect on it some more, Pentecostals would be quick to point out that conversion is a highly personal and deeply existential experience. The Pentecostal conception of Christian initiation is best captured by describing conversion as a “crisis experience” by which one comes to the knowledge of salvation.[5]

            These conversion experiences are told and retold by Pentecostals, both within Church-walls and outside of them. Converts are encouraged to testify about what they have experien-ced. There are several reasons for doing that: 1. it is considered to strengthen the faith of the new convert when he or she testifies about what has happened to him or her; 2. the testimony of new converts usually builds up the faith of the congregation; 3. people often narrate their conversion-experience when they are baptized; 4. the testimonies of newly converted people are considered attractive to unbelievers, on account of their freshness. As a matter of fact, giving a testimony constitutes itself a religious experience.

            When Pentecostals speak of conversion, they will normally speak of regeneration in the same breath. Perhaps Pentecostal doctrine and praxis are not fully in harmony on this point.[6]                                                For whereas Pentecostals generally lay great stress on the importance of conversion, it would seem that regeneration is especially emphasized in the official dogmatic formulations issued by various Pentecostal denominations.[7] From these statements, it would appear that conversion is often regarded simply as a precondition for regeneration.[8]

            Be that as it may, no one who listens to Pentecostal testimonies will fail to notice that the two are often mentioned together. It will also be noticed, that certain phrases and expressions occur frequently in such testimonies. Such biblical metaphors as ‘coming to Christ’, ‘being born again’, and ‘being a new creation’ abound, as does the testimony of ‘having Jesus in one’s heart’. People will recount the fact that they were in the darkness, and that they are now in the light. They typically refer to their past state as ‘being lost’, ‘being in bondage’, ‘being without God’. All of these metaphors are derived from the New Testament.

            To be sure, for Pentecostals the experiential aspect of faith is not limited to conversion or to the stages of Christian initiation to the life of faith alone. The manifestations of the Spirit, for instance, as mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, are understood to be instantaneous, ‘supernatural’[9] workings of the Spirit of God in the individual believer (vs. 11). In principle then, they constitute real spiritual experiences, through which the community of the faithful are being edified.[10]

            But this is not the only thing that can be said in this connection. For many Pentecostals the life of faith is a life marked by stretching out to continued and more intense religious experiences.[11] Indeed, this hunger for religious experience, has led some Pentecostals on a road of seeking ever more sensational and fantastic experiences, such as enthusiastic worship of God which does not stop at loud, simultaneous prayer, but which may include ‘shaking’, ‘rolling’, ‘falling’, ‘dancing’, and ‘resting’. To these gerunds more often than not the expression ‘in the Spirit’ is appended.[12] On the other hand, there are Pentecostal groups that have resisted this temptation and stressed the importance of a life of faith that does not thrive on this type of experiences, but focuses on forms of faith-experience more in conformity with Christian tradition. Here the stress is more on such religious activities as private prayer and fasting; and partaking in Church-life: communal worship, the celebration of the ordinances of the Lord, prayer-meetings, Sunday-school, bible-studies, practical services rendered to brothers and sisters, evangelisation and Christian outreach to the un-Churched).[13]

            Obviously then, Pentecostalism is divided over the issue of religious experience(s),[14] on its exact significance, as well as on the range of experiences that are allowed as authentic expressions of the Biblical faith.

            Perhaps it is helpful before embarking on the discussion of the biblical and patristic materials, to disclose my own stance on the matter of religious experience(s). I have always had strong reservations in relation to what I consider extravagant religious experiences. To me this sort of experiences, which smack of sensationalism and ‘miracularism’,[15] look like spiritual fads that soon loose their appeal. On the other hand, I would not be a Pentecostal, if I did not consider the possibility that God can do things that lie outside of the ordinary, that exceed what might normally be expected. Without the experiential aspect of faith, it would soon become a mere philosophy of life. But I am adamant in insisting that what is exceptional be not declared rule, and what is extraordinary be not declared normal, even when there is a biblical precedent.[16] In my view, an important (but not the only) criterion for gauging the significance of all spiritual experience is  the way it functions within Scripture. Some activities (and it seems safe to assume that faith praxis generates religious experiences which are - to some degree or another - existentially significant) are spoken of as normal (such as preaching and teaching, baptizing, laying on of hands, healing, suffering for the faith, prayer and fasting, offerings, evangelizing and missionary activity),[17] while others are spoken of as peripheral (such as the baptism for the dead, or Paul’s extraordinary experience when he was caught up to ‘Paradise’).[18] There are other criteria for gauging the significance of spiritual experiences (such as repetition at will and, as a consequence, the moral responsibility on the part of the persons involved in the religious activity that causes the experience).

            Religious experience, then, is to be an integral part of the life of faith, but though extraordinary experiences may occur, they are not to be sought after as if they were a goal in themselves, and they are certainly not to be elevated to the level of normalcy. The religious life should thrive on faith, trust in God and in the salvation worked by Jesus Christ. Throughout Christian tradition, it is customary to partake in religious practices, that are designed to nurture the faith of both the individual and the believing community. These religious practices, such as hearing the Word, prayer, tongue-speaking, alms-giving, Christian fellowship, communion, etc., may be engaged in at will. Moreover, as faith is lived out in daily life, it may actually lead to profound religious experiences.

            The past has unmistakably shown that spiritual life is sustained by the religious experience these practices cause. To put it metaphorically, this form of religious experience is the bread that sustains the spiritual life; extraordinary experiences, that cannot be engaged in at will, may be likened to the caviar - not our daily food, nor even to the taste of each and every believer. Or (with an allusion to a question asked by Kilian McDonnell): living experience is an important ingredient of the Pentecostal life of faith, but many Pentecostals refuse to ‘succumb to the tyranny of experience’![19]

            Having clarified my own stance in relation to the significance of the experiential aspect of faith it is now time to see what insights could be gleaned from the Bible and the Fathers.

            In keeping with our point of departure (Christianity as a missionary religion which generates conversions), it seems proper to direct our attention to the religious experience of conversion.[20]


Conversion in the Bible

             The New Testament, in particular, furnishes Christians with key theological notions.[21] Of course, Pentecostals are no exception to this rule. For conversion the two verbs most used in the New Testament are ¦B4FJDXNT (‘to turn’) and :,J"<@XT (‘to repent’). The semantic fields of these words overlap.[22] A full-scale investigation clearly lies beyond the scope of this paper.[23]

            Forms of :,J"<@XT occur in some very important passages. In Mark 1:15, for instance, it is found on Jesus’ lips: “Repent (:,J"<@,ÃJ,) and believe in the Gospel.” The passage is well known for determining its exact significance for the message of the Jesus of history and for later Christian Theology.[24] It certainly was not a call to change allegiance form one religion to another. Much rather, the passage is a call directed at fellow-Jews, i.e., people who adhered to the monotheistic faith of Early Judaism, and who probably also were prone to come and listen to the charismatic preachers or messianic pretenders (to use Martin Hengel’s term), who in the 1st Century AD appeared in Galilee with some regularity.[25] The repentance called for, here, is a resolve of the will to turn to God (and so also to the keeping of the Torah), and apparently a call to expect that God will soon bring a turn in Israel’s plight and to prepare oneself for that event.


Conversion in the First Testament

            Mark 1:15 is much closer to the understanding of repentance found in the Hebrew Scriptures, than in (later) Christian use. The prophets incessantly, or so it seems, called upon the Israelites to return to their Lord.[26] With that they mean, that the people should put their trust on God and turn away from all evil.[27] Hence, they should become ‘good and righteous people’ (as is testified concerning Joseph of Arimathea in Luke 23:50). This model of repentance is mostly applied to collectives such as a whole nation (Jeremiah 4:1); a city (Jeremiah 18:11; Jonah 3:8,10); the remnant of the people (Isaiah 10:21-22; 31:6); but it is understood that this collective call is to be heeded by each and every individual at least from the time of Jeremiah onward (Jeremiah 18:11;[28] cf. 31:30 which has often been regarded as a charter for individual responsibility, especially in the form in which this motif is worked out by Ezekiel [18:1-32]).

            In 2 Chronicles 33:10-13 the conversion of Manasseh, one of the longest reigning Kings of Judah before the Exile, is described. In the preceding verses a long list of his evil doings is drawn up, and his conversion is summarily mentioned in vs. 12, which simply says that he “humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers.”[29] In the Prayer of Manasseh, an apocryphal writing, the model of conversion is instructive. Here is a repentant sinner who throws Himself at the mercy of the Lord God (11-15). His prayer bespeaks a contrite heart, contains multiple confessions of sins. Moreover, doing penance is seen as a way to express the heart’s contrition (verse 8).

            Overlooking the data gleaned from the First Testament, a few things can be observed. First, the Priestly conception of conversion appears to have become the paradigm for conversion in Earliest Christianity. Second, the theme of conversion/repentance occurs in the context of the people of God.


            There is one particular story that deserves mention here, namely the story of Jacob in Penu’el (Genesis 32: 22-31). In this story, which is so full of mystery and which suggests so much more than it actually says, Jacob is portrayed wrestling with a ‘man’, who to him represents God. From this struggle, which he seems to be loosing, he paradoxically comes out victoriously. It changes his life thoroughly. Subsequent to this episode, there is nothing comparable to the devious ways so characteristic for his former walk of life. Jacob has ‘returned’. Though perhaps the story cannot be called a ‘conversion story’ the motif is not absent from this narrative either. 

            When it comes to conversions of Gentiles, there is no incontestable description of a conversion of a non-Israelite. The context of the tale of Jonah is clearly that of the people of God. The book seems to owe its place in the canon of Scripture, in the heart of the prophetic books, to the contrast it offers to the refusal of the Israelites to convert themselves and comply to the Torah. As it is, the book does relate the conversion of the inhabitants of Nineveh. But the element of experience of this tale, does not lie there. It rather lies rather in the life of the disobedient prophet, who must repent from his hardness of heart.

            The queen of Sheba who visits king Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chronicles 9), comes to test his wisdom. Though it is sometimes claimed that she brought faith in the true God to Ethiopia, such claims cannot be substantiated, neither from the biblical account, nor from history.

            Perhaps, the story of Ruth, the Moabite, could be read as a conversion-story, but then conversion must be very broadly understood. Out of love for Naomi she embraces the land, the people and the God of her mother-in-law (Ruth 1:16-17a).[30]

            However generous one would be in trying to read these stories as instances of conversion, the fact is, that none of these stories can be seen as genuine parallels to the conversion-narratives of both Jews and Gentiles in the New Testament.


Conversion in the New Testament

            There is no need to treat the subject of conversion (and initiation) in the New Testament here as this was adequately done by Matthias Wenk.[31] There is only one aspect that needs to be surveyed here is the experience of conversion. The passages treated by Wenk exhibit a variety of conversion-models. Thus, Luke primarily juxtaposes a passive and an active model.

            On the one hand, for him conversion is rooted in the experience of “being embraced by God’s goodness” (see, e.g., the story of the repentance of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9).[32] The other model, in which the convert plays a more active role, is that of “turning towards God”. This model, which is consonant with the paradigm that dominates in the First Testament is used exclusively in relation to Jewish converts. Whatever they might have experienced existentially, they were convinced that they needed to embrace this particular variant within 1st Century Judaism (‘the Way’ - Acts 9:2; 19:9). The third model Wenk finds in Luke’s writings is that of conversion as an ongoing process.[33]

            The conception of ‘conversion’ in Mark and Mathew is generally close to that of the Hebrew Scriptures. Conversion is a call to repent and to obey God’s commandments. That this is the case is hardly surprising in view of the fact that this notion is primarily used in connection with the ministry of John the Baptist.

            While there are no real stories of conversion, the Gospels abound with narratives that have become paradigmatic for later Christian practice: teaching, prayer, healing, miracles, calls to ministry, suffering, etc. Again the picture that emerges from reading the Narrative parts of the New Testament is that of intense practices of a religious nature, that necessarily evoke intense religious experiences, and which is highly relevant on the level of personal existence.  


Paul’s conversion: a model for revivalist movements

            Paul’s own conversion, it would seem, falls into the pattern of being embraced by the goodness of God in Christ. Of course, the Christophany that was his part on the road to Damascus is described in vivid colors by Luke in Acts 9:1-9; 22:3-11; and 26:9-18.[34] Paul himself is much more restrained in his description of this event. In Gal. 1:13-17[35] he simply mentions that God chose to reveal his Son to him, “in order that I might preach Him to the gentiles” (vs. 16).[36] In Philippians 3:4-11 Paul sketches his life in terms of ‘then’ and ‘now’. In light of the revelation of Jesus Christ and the new existence (understood in line with 2 Corinthians 5:17) his former way of life, though he excelled in it and strove after perfection within the parameters of Pharisaic Judaism, he now came to view it as ‘refuse’ in comparison with the surpassing worth of knowing Christ (vss. 7-8). Though we should beware of naively reading our own experiences in Paul’s words, it seems fairly safe to conclude from the statements that follow about knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection, that Paul is here referring to a life-changing experience, not sought for, but that came to him as a part of the grace experienced in his encounter with Christ. Note also the reference to sharing in Christ’s sufferings. It goes without saying, that any qualification of life’s events as ‘suffering’, speaks of experiences that usually strike deep layers in a person’s life. 

            Here is a man, who is very religious, but whose encounter with Christ led to a ‘conversion’, that is, he left his former walk of life to embrace a far better way of life (in sociological terms: the Pharisee became a Christian). Apparently, a deeply felt emotional experience, lies beneath his ‘conversion’, which was so profoundly developed by Paul on the intellectual level, as is evident from his letters, in which the argumentation may not always be logically impeccable,[37] but which have a unmistakable ring of authenticity to them so that they continue to speak with great force to believers throughout the centuries.[38]

            His conversion follows the Old Testament pattern in significant ways and becomes in its turn a paradigm for later revivalist movements. These movements usually brought about the ‘conversion’ of people who were in some way or other connected to the Church. They could be people seeking a deeper knowledge of God, a deeper experience; or they could be people who were reared in Christian homes, but who lived worldly lives, or were for some time antagonistic to Christianity. Think of people like John Wesley, Charles Finney, Dwight Moody and Evan Roberts. But also the founding fathers of the Pentecostal movement were all Christians: Charles Parham, William Seymour, Frank Bartleman, Carrie Judd Montgomery, J. Roswell Flower and his wife, Alice Reynolds, etc.[39] The pattern can be established in The Netherlands as well.[40] Something similar can be said about the founders of the Charismatic Movement, both Protestant and Catholic.[41] In all these cases ‘conversion’ is either a return to God, or a radical dedication to the person of Jesus Christ, which results in a profound renewal of their (spiritual) life and in being Baptized in the Spirit. 

The Pauline paradigm: a model for the missionary activities of the Church

            On the pages of the New Testament yet another model can be found, and this is related  Paul’s missionary activity among the Gentiles. In his earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians, he relates to his recent converts, that others tell him how the Thessalonians ‘turned to God from idols’ (1:9).

            The Book of Acts tells us about Gentiles getting converted. In 11:19-24 for the first time the Gospel is preached to Gentiles, who were not Jewish proselytes, or so-called God-fearers. These people were not related to Judaism in any way, but they accepted the Gospel and Barnabas was send from Jerusalem to check out what was happening there. In vs. 23 it says that he saw the grace of God.

            Acts 14:8-18 relates an incident in the town of Lystra, where Paul heals a lame. These Gentiles immediately turn to Paul and Barnabas, thinking that they are Zeus and Hermes. The narrative somewhat parallels the story of the healing of Naaman in the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 5;1-19 - see note 30 above). Here too, misapprehension reigns, and nothing is said about their conversion. However, that there were some converts and that a Church was established there may be inferred from Acts 16:1-2.

            When Paul and his team cross over to Greece the number of gentile converts increases: Acts 16:27-34 (the jailer in Philippi); Acts 17:4 (‘devout’ Greeks, i.e. probably God-fearers, and leading women); Acts 17: 34 (some inhabitants of Athens, among whom Dionysius, the Aereopagite); Acts 18:4 (some Greeks and Gentiles, among whom Justus); Acts 19: 18-19 (Jews and Gentiles; magical books are being burned by the converts). For Paul’s gentile converts ‘conversion’ is not so much truly turning to God, but turning to the true God! 

            Obviously, the paradigm set here, is particularly relevant to Christian missions in heathen  surroundings. 


Gleanings from the Patristic writings

            A few words need to be said about the writings belonging to the post-apostolic and patristic periods.

            In the Shepherd of Hermas conversion is mentioned in connection with Gentiles (e.g., Vis. II.5), but the author mostly speaks of conversion in connection to Christians. For them he rings a warning note: only so long as the tower (the Church) that is being built is not yet finished, there is time to convert oneself (Vis. III.5).[42] Christians who live a worldly life may still repent, but they will not be used as building-blocks for the tower (Vis. III.7.5). Officers of the Church also need repentance (e.g., Sim. 9:26:3 [deacons]). Much is said about the need to repent and to convert oneself, but very little is said about the experience of conversion. In connection with religious experience the book bespeaks the moral rigor that characterizes so much of the post-apostolic era. For gaining more insight about the experiences  connected to conversions, we will have to turn to later Church-fathers, such as Augustine and Jerome. 

            Aurelius Augustine (354-430 AD) is reared in a Christian home. When he is very ill at a young age, he longs to be baptized, but this is refused by his mother, with the argument that he will still sin later in his life (Confessiones I.11). There can be no doubt that behind this decision is the fear for the rather rigorous moralism of the Church at the time. In Augustine’s youth deathbed conversions were not uncommon (Constantine). The chance that they committed serious sins on their deathbed was small. In this way people tried to circumvent the rather severe practice of (public) penance that existed in the Church.[43] Though brought up as a Christian Augustine, could not control his passions and lived a life in sin. For nine years he was attracted to Manicheism, a rigorously ethic form of Gnosticism. He is saved from that by the influence of the neo-Platonic philosophers, which led him to reading the New Testament, especially the letters of Paul (Conf. VII.21). In Book VIII Augustine records the conversion story of the Roman Orator Victorinus, told to him by Simplicianus (2). Victorinus is a secret believer, who fearing that ‘Christ might deny him before the angels’ (see Luke 19:9) finally enters the Church, is baptized and confesses Him publicly. Conversion here includes the element of joining the Church. Thereupon, he has to leave his profession (because Emperor Julian, nick-named ‘the Apostate’ had forbidden Christians to teach Rhetoric), and forsook the world, in order to be fully dedicated to the Lord.[44] This story and that of the two imperial couriers, who entered the monastic life (Conf. V.vi) awakened in him the desire to fully dedicate himself to God. In V.viii he describes his agony, which is followed by the description of his conversion in V.xii. Note the mantic significance of the accidentally overheard words of a child who repeatedly said in a sing-song manner: “take, read; take, read”.[45] When he heeds these words, he reads the words Jesus spoke to the rich young man (Matthew 19:21) and Romans 13:13-14 about leaving behind all debauchery and putting on Christ. This experience becomes the decisive turn in his life.

            Augustine’s great contemporary Eusebius Hieronymous (349?-420) was also reared in a Christian home. He too experiences a conversion, which brought him to full surrender to the will of God. He experienced it subsequent to a serious illness, which appeared to be deadly. During that illness he dreamed (caused by the fever?) that he was before the judgment-seat. Though he professed to be a Christian, he was repudiated as a follower of Cicero rather than of Christ. He then took an oath to never read a worldly book in his life again. Thus, he forsook the world and devoted himself to expounding the Scriptures.[46]      

            These stories are quite pronounced. Both doctors of the Church had a Christian background. In both cases conversion means making a clean break with an existence in the world, and dedicating oneself to the life of faith.

            But there are also figures in the post-apostolic and patristic periods, who were converted from a pagan background: In the second century Justin;[47] Tatian;[48] Theophilus of Antioch.[49] In their accounts they stress the intellectual aspect of their conversion. They became convinced of the truth of Christianity.


Pentecostal spirituality: Conversion as a personal act of faith

            For Pentecostals the act of conversion entails a decisive break: there is - or should be - a clear ‘before’ and ‘after’ in the biography of the convert. Thus, conversion-regeneration constitutes a very real experience for the Pentecostal. Many a Pentecostal believer can pinpoint the moment when and where he or she was converted,[50] when and where he or she was baptized; and when and where he or she was baptized in the Holy Spirit. Ideally, all these phases of Christian initiation are consciously experienced and so become  existentially highly significant.

            To the ‘before’ belongs the experience of sin, to the ‘after’ the awareness of being justified. To be sure these notions are essentially theological, just as the categories ‘old man’ and ‘new creation’ are.[51] But in testimonies of Pentecostals, the distinction between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ is also articulated in psychological terms: One testifies of a sense of being ‘unfulfilled’ and now one has found ‘fulfillment’; before there was distress, but now there is a feeling of happiness. Very common is the classical distinction between lack of inner peace before conversion, while after conversion, a sense of peace with God began to reign. In circles of the Pentecostal ‘Latter Rain’ and the ‘Faith’ movements, the distinction between ‘before’ and ‘after’ conversion may also be sketched with the help of the contrasting notions of ‘being ill’ and ‘being healed’; respectively ‘being poor’ and ‘being rich’.

            The ‘before’ and ‘after’ conversion is lived reality to many Pentecostals.[52] Saying this does not cancel out the fact that Pentecostals usually recognize that the true nature of the life ‘before’ conversion is only understood in the light of the new life ‘after’ conversion and regeneration.[53] However much the experience of conversion is articulated in traditional terms (the models being provided by the New Testament) Pentecostals will insist that conversion has to be an existential experience of some sort.

            Old life versus new life - to Pentecostals this distinction is all important. The validity of the ‘before-and-after’ pattern will be affirmed by all Pentecostals, irrespective of the checks and balances that they may bring to bear upon it. 


            In the early decades of the Movement, conversions were often spectacular in the sense that they led to a change of Church-affiliation. It occurred frequently that believers, who had come to embrace Pentecostal doctrine, tried to infuse their new found belief into the community they belonged to, or because they insisted on being baptized by immersion, were forced to leave their Churches. Their conversions were not only highly visible, but the emotional experience was intensified because of the ‘persecution’ that was their fate. When the movement became more established the number of conversions surrounded by such controversy decreased but ‘spectacular’ conversions nevertheless continued to happen. Pentecostals will rejoice most over ‘conversions’ of un-Churched people, or people who have no Church-background at all.

            This model of sudden conversion now exists side by side with another model which is recognized as valid especially for young believers who were reared by parents who were themselves Pentecostal believers. When these young people reach the age of adolescence it is expected - though never taken for granted - that one day they will choose to follow Jesus. As Sunday-school children they have frequently accepted Jesus into their hearts, but when they approach adulthood, a choice has to be made. Will they live in the faith they inherited from their parents and will it become their own faith? If so they will choose to follow Jesus, and they will want to be baptized. In the perception of Pentecostals, the choice is unavoidable, for never making a choice for Jesus is understood as a “choice against Him”.

            The conscious choice to follow Jesus constitutes a valid conversion experience, and when the conversion is real, the life of faith that follows will generate a spiritual life that shapes one’s existence. It stands to reason that this model of conversion by internalization of the faith taught by parents, Sunday-school teachers, youth-pastors, etc., will not normally produce the sensational conversion stories of criminal youths and drug-addicts as related in the books of David Wilkerson.[54] Even though conversion stories such as those of Nicky Cruz and others,[55] were widely publicized, they are hardly representative - and certainly not for young people who were reared within the sphere of influence of Pentecostal Churches, i.e. in Christian homes. When this upbringing has some measure of positive effect on these youths, coming out of a life in crass sin (violence, crime, drug-abuse, licentiousness, debauchery, etc.) is not the most likely testimony of such converts. Indeed, many of those youth would take some pride in the admittedly unspectacular testimony I once heard of an Assemblies of God missionary, whose commitment to Christ was beyond questioning: “I have never known the world,” meaning “I have never lived a worldly life, a life without Christ.” This represents the other end of the spectrum. Nevertheless, Pentecostals will want to hear him or her add to such a testimony: “but I made a choice to follow Jesus in my own life!” That, and a declaration of personal surrender to the will of God are the two most important things for a Pentecostal in relation to conversion and personal faith. This is important for Pentecostals, much more important than Church affiliation, or the precise content of faith (though it should not be too far off the mark). Generally, assent to certain dogma’s is not the most important thing to Pentecostals, though one cannot say that it is considered unimportant either. Often, it is simply assumed that the shape of the faith of the new believer, who has come into a relationship with Christ and become part of a Pentecostal congregation, will be that of the Pentecostal tradition of that particular congregation. Quite a lot of congregations have some form of catechuminate prior to baptism. It is at this point that these congregations want to ensure that the baptismal candidates at least know the basics of the faith. But Pentecostal spirituality does not have the intellectualist stamp that can be found in the Churches of the Reformation. Clearly, an experiential knowledge of Christ and of the things of God is valued more than knowledge of doctrine.

            To sum up: though the expectations of Pentecostals concerning the conversion of people who were brought up in committed Christian homes may lack the spectacular element of the popular conversion stories that are publicized and televised, the experiential aspect of conversion is stressed for this model of becoming a Christian as well. Becoming a Christian is more than simply being a believer. It is a personal act of faith by an individual, who not only believes that God has sent his Son to save all humankind, but who died for ‘his/her sins’ as well. In response to the grace received, the believer commits him/herself to Christ, i.e. to a life under His Lordship. This is the same for all converts whether they grew up within the Church or not.[56]

            The pattern ‘old versus new’ has a slightly different ring in comparison to such polarities as ‘in bondage versus freed’, ‘ill versus healed’, and especially ‘depressed versus happy’, or ‘poor versus rich’. The last group of comparisons, have been used in evangelisation to appeal to human desire. This has not always been done wisely or in a way that shows a keen insight into the nature of the spiritual life. Sometimes these polarities are used in a way that smacks of commercialisation of the goods of salvation. Not only does this involve the risk of a category mistake (the metaphor being treated as a reality), but it also turns what at most would be the by-product of salvation into the end of conversion. This mistake would be fatal. This not only reduces the Gospel to a commodity, it also reduces evangelisation to the level of advertising. The converts that this sort of evangelisation makes are, from the outset focused on the ‘pro me’ aspect of the faith. Consumerism looms large here. To be sure, this is not to deny that there is a link between salvation and the well-being of believers, but the life of faith does not revolve around the benefits, the blessings. It revolves around the One who blesses. People thus ‘won for Christ’ are prone to be disappointed, for the life of faith does not at all times deliver the ‘goods’ promised by this sort of evangelisation. It usually also brings a portion of suffering. And the life of faith is definitely misconceived when it is seen as an insurance against the frailty of life within the present. Within the New Testament the life of faith is typified as a struggle, as a course to be run in order to obtain a prize. The New Testament lays heavy stress on the virtue of perseverance. Responsible evangelisation should strive to be balanced in relation to this aspect of the life of faith.

            It would seem, then, that the genuine self-understanding of the newly converted person, whose biography is captured in a period ‘before’ and ‘after’ conversion, and to whom polarities such as ‘old and new’, ‘being blind and having come to see’, ‘being ill and being healed’, are meaningful categories and are, as such, valid and of great value in an age in which experience is sacrosanct. On the other hand, these polarities should be handled wisely and with prudence in a cultural climate that is permeated with commercialism’s easy slogans. Here lies a greater danger, I think, than the individualism for which Pentecostal evangelisation is often chided by

Roman Catholics.

            Undoubtedly there is some truth in this criticism as well, since the conversion model prevalent in Western Pentecostal Churches aims primarily at the conversion of the individual and not so much at the conversion of entire communities. However, the example of the conversion of the household of Cornelius in Acts 10 ensures that Pentecostals will not exclude this possibility and they will rejoice when they occasionally learn of similar occurrences on the mission-field. But Pentecostals will naturally assume that each and every person involved in mass-conversion committed themselves personally to ‘follow Jesus’. The group is dissolved into a number of individuals. Conversely, Pentecostals would feel most uneasy with the thought that the pater familias, or the head of the tribe or the king determined the faith of those who are under his authority.[57]

            In the same vain Pentecostals will reject the idea of ‘evangelizing space’, i.e. of establishing a Christian presence in the impersonal sphere, thus attempting to Christianize a culture in its entirety.[58] This does not mean that Pentecostals will dismiss the possibility of a “Christian culture” as a utopia, but they will be keenly aware of the tension that exists between the idea of building a “Christian culture”, with the basic model of conversion; the former being impersonal and the latter being highly personal. To the mind of Pentecostals, then, a Christian culture will be the result of the combined lifestyles of believers. Of course, one has to consider the fact that Pentecostal Churches hardly ever reached a position in societies in which they were forced to grapple with the idea of creating a Christian culture of their own.[59]

            Sociological entities, Pentecostals insist, cannot really convert themselves, unless it is the people who ‘inhabit’ them. Conversion is the sole prerogative of persons. What also makes Pentecostals feel ill at ease, is the way in which psychologists and sociologists describe conversion. There are a number of reasons for that. For one thing, Pentecostals feel that the description of such a highly individual and intensely personal experience as conversion of an inherently religious nature cannot be adequately be captured in psychological or sociological categories. The proper terminology, Pentecostals will insist, is religious, i.e. derived from the Bible. Moreover, where psychology will try to capture what is common in all conversion experiences (of all people, of all religions, and if that were possible also of all ages), Pentecostals will want to stress the uniqueness and the highly personal nature of this experience as a counterbalance.

            One last point has to be made in this connection. Pentecostals have often been criticized  by outsiders who have vented the idea that for Pentecostals faith revolves around the experience of the Baptism in or with the Spirit. As important as this experience may be as a distinctive feature, Pentecostals will insist that for them, it is not the most important experience. In their own perception, the Pentecostal mode of the Christian faith revolves on that experience that should be basic to all forms the Christian faith could take, namely the experience of entering into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The distinctive Pentecostal experience to their mind is clearly secondary to that.

            Admittedly, the charge that the experience of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit would be the most central tenet of the Pentecostal faith was not created out of thin air. Historically speaking the distinctive feature of the Pentecostal faith was on the one hand most noticed, on the other hand it was most advertised. The reasons for that are obvious. The early Pentecostals took their experience to the denominations they belonged to. Often they did not so much feel that their fellow believers needed to become Christians - they knew they were - but they wanted them to embrace the blessing they had experienced, the Baptism with the Holy Spirit. As we know the message with which they came and tried to revive their denominations was often not welcomed and not seldom they themselves were ousted, or made to feel that if they were not going to comply to the will of the community, leaving was the better thing for them to do. Thus the Baptism with the Holy Spirit was the most controversial - and therefore most pronounced - aspect of their faith even though it really was not the most fundamental. What is wrong here, is that the distinctive element of the Pentecostal faith is confused with what is essential: to enter into a personal relationship with Christ and to follow Him in the power of the Holy Spirit in order to fulfill the will of God. That captures what Pentecostalism is really about. Thus Pentecostalism may be seen as a form of Christianity in which the soteriology-pneumatology nexus occupies the central stage. Moreover, Pentecostals will insist that these realities have to be personally experienced.    

            If Catholics tend to view Pentecostals as being only interested in individual salvation and not in the idea of incorporation into a community of believers, they at once hit at the strength and the weakness of Pentecostal Christianity. Indeed, in comparison to the soteriology-pneumatology nexus that is personally experienced the idea of incorporation into a community of believers - though not absent - clearly has to take the back-seat when compared to Catholic teaching on this point. But then, Pentecostals will criticize Roman Catholics for often not being able to testify to a conversion experience they have had. And many Pentecostals will suspect that this is, because they have not had one.

            It has to be admitted, the individualism that is implicit in the Pentecostal position leaves the movement ill-equipped to ward off the danger of what might be called ‘solipsistic spirituality’ nourished by such media as television and the Internet. But then, since not attending mass is by individual believers no longer considered a mortal sin and confession is no longer mandatory, the Catholic Church in many Western countries at least has had to face a rather drastic decline in Church-attendance.

            But rather than charging one another with faults and weaknesses, it would seem more fruitful to try to focus on the possible causes for the differences between both traditions. It would appear that one of these causes lies in the different prisms through which Pentecostals and Catholics look at the reality of faith.


Roman Catholics and Pentecostals: ecclesiological versus soteriological prisms

            The focus of what follows will be on the relationship between ecclesiology and soteriology. In the previous phase of the Dialogue it was noticeable that the theological differences between the two parties involved in this dialogue in the area of ecclesiology, were muchmore profound than simply two opposing organizational models. In fact, they were even more profound than simply two alternative views on the essence of the Church.[60] In a number of discussions, for instance that on proselytism (1994-1995), but also that on evangelization and culture (1992) and evangelization and social change (1993) the theological outlook on these issues was clearly stamped by ecclesiological convictions on the side of the Roman Catholics. On the side of the Pentecostals, however, it was unmistakably stamped by Soteriology. In other words Ecclesiology and Soteriology function as a kind of theological prisms. The one for Catholics and the other for Pentecostals.

            This became abundantly clear each time the issue of proselytism was on the table. In the discussions about this thorny issue Pentecostals were prone to consider first of all the spiritual well-being of the individual, while Catholics were prone to consider first of all the spiritual well-being of the community. To be sure, the delegates of both parties would immediately claim that they would not loose sight of the other concern; and that their purview was in fact inclusive.[61] Granted. But the initial concern indicates where the emphasis really lies. If the parties at the table insufficiently recognize the prismatic significance of their respective points of departure, and that this point of departure affects the entire theological construct, they will inevitably misunderstand each other. If this analysis holds water, we would do well to do engender serious theological reflection on the relationship between Ecclesiology and Soteriology.


The Roman Catholic Perspective

            Traditional Roman-Catholic Theology, i.e., the type of scholasticism that came in vogue after the Council of Treant in the late 16th Century, is marked by a tendency towards coherence. In part this is to be attributed to one of its hall-marks: the deductive mode of thinking, which moves from general principles to the particular.[62] The resulting ‘thought-system’ of this mode of thinking is harmonious and possesses beauty. A drawback is the sometimes harsh connection with empirical reality (and with the findings of the Human Sciences, the method of which usually proceeds inductively). Also, the whole enterprise of doing Theology, is firmly embedded in the organization of the Church.[63] It is the teaching authority of the Church (which is concretized in the Congregation for the Faith in the Vatican) which oversees both theological education and theological endeavors within the Church of Rome. 

            In general, the importance of the Church for Catholics is hard to overstate: it is called “[...] the universal sacrament of salvation.”[64] This may be illustrated by briefly sketching two areas where the Church plays a major role in the economy of salvation (broadly conceived):

-           The Bible: For Catholics the Bible is the Church’s book.[65] This means, that the community of faith forms the proper context for listening to its message as the Word of God, and for obeying the biblical injunctions. There is a strong sense that the Bible is the product of the Church. Historically speaking the Bible is, of course, a literary production of the emerging Christian community. At the same time, however, the NT community may be seen as the product of the Hebrew Scriptures. The fact is that the community of faith throughout the centuries was nourished by the Scriptures and continues to be so. It is the Church that interprets the Scriptures and carries its message into the world. The conclusion is inescapable, Bible and Church belong together - almost in a symbiotic way.[66] If ‘Bible’ and ‘Church’ are set up as two poles of a continuum, Catholics will probably lean towards emphasizing the importance of the Church somewhat stronger, while Protestants (and Pentecostals even more so) are prone to stress the importance of the Bible somewhat stronger.

-           Another area where the importance of the community of faith clearly comes to the fore, is the whole area of the Sacraments. Pentecostals tend to underrate importance of the celebration of the Sacraments - and especially the Eucharist - for Roman Catholic spirituality. It is the Church that administers the Sacraments. On the other hand, the sacraments build up the Church, for it is through the sacraments of initiation that new members are incorporated into the body of Christ, and the believers receive the divine grace. In this conception the celebration of the sacraments and especially the Eucharist, may even be regarded as a form of evangelisation in its own right. After all, to Roman Catholics it signifies the real presence of (the body of) Christ in a given place. Finally, Sacramentology is firmly embedded in the hierarchical structure of the People of God. Only ordained priests are allowed to administer the sacraments.[67] It is through the partaking of the Sacraments (which always presupposes faith in Jesus Christ, and his salvific work) that salvation comes to believers.

            The crucial importance of the Church for salvation also follows from the fact that the Roman Catholic Church still regards herself as ‘Church’ in the full sense of the word.[68] For Roman Catholicism the people of God is the Roman Catholic Church plus other ecclesial bodies, that embody elements of the reality which is the Church.[69] In this way the Roman Catholic Church - while recognizing the existence of other Churches (and thereby their legitimacy) is able to maintain its place of primacy in her understanding herself.[70]

            ‘Primacy’ is, again, a notion that belongs to the texture of hierarchical thinking. Within this thinking it is important that the bond with the primus - the source of authority - is maintained. Within the context of the Catholic Church this means that the communion with ‘Rome’ is maintained and the primacy of the Pope is recognized.

            I am well aware of the fact that the way these things are formulated here is perhaps somewhat crude. The language in Roman Catholic documents usually exhibits a high degree of intellectual sophistication and theological refinement, expressing many shades of nuance. But underneath all that, there is a deep-seated and authentic conviction: the Roman Catholic Church is the mother-Church, and the other ecclesiastical communities are offspring.

            On balance, the conclusion seems unavoidable: Ecclesiology plays an important role in Catholic spirituality, and in Roman Catholic theological reflection it is prismatic, adding a marked ecclesiological coloring to many other areas of Theology.

            Within the previous phase of the Dialogue the place of the Church in the economy of salvation cropped up in relation to several topics: evangelization and proselytism.

-           In some of the discussions, the topic of evangelization turned out to be directly linked to the issue of territory, that is to say in relation to the presence of the Roman Catholic Church in certain areas where Pentecostalism is growing vigorously. In fact in some of these areas the Roman Catholic Church has formed the religious establishment for centuries. To Roman Catholics the mere visibility of the Church in those regions, and the influence she exercises upon culture and public life, are seen as a form of evangelization in their own right.[71] For Catholics it is evident, that people living in such areas, but who do not profess to be non-Catholics or conscious adherents of another religion, are given the benefit of the doubt and are usually regarded as Catholics, irrespective of non-attendance, and an ostensible lack of commitment. In principle (if not in practice) the Roman Catholic Church accepts pastoral responsibility for such people. At the root of this thinking lies a conception of the Church as a people’s Church. And the organizational form that goes with it would be the territorial division into parishes, dioceses, and archdioceses. Again this type of conception coheres well with hierarchical thinking.

-           Another context in which the place of the Church in the economy of salvation came to the fore is the question of proselytism. When Catholics change their affiliation from one denomination to another, and it is the result of an evangelistic effort by another Church such a move will always smack of proselytism. Irrespective of the level of commitment of the person involved, whether he or she is a devout Catholic, or - as Pentecostals would say - a nominal Catholic. The official line is clear: changing Church affiliation to a Church other than the Roman Catholic Church is wrong.[72] Of course. This logically follows from the Roman Catholic conviction concerning the nature of the Church.[73]


Pentecostal Perspectives

            Emil Brunner - not a Pentecostal of course, but a Reformed theologian - once said that the Church is the problem of Protestantism. Indeed, Protestantism orbits toward ascribing salvation to the faith of the believer without mediation by the Church.[74] The so-called Protestant Principle (sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura) would seem to make the Church somewhat superfluous within the economy of salvation.[75] We may add that this tendency is buttressed by modern individualism. Both tendencies strongly affect Pentecostals in their attitude toward the Church. And this shows in their ecclesiology. “An area of Christian Theology often minimized and taken for granted is the doctrine of the Church.”[76] Indeed, this would explain the lack of more or less integrated Ecclesiologies from a Pentecostal perspective, within Pentecostalism.[77] Sadly, Ecclesiology is often hardly more than a more or less systematically ordered collection of biblical passages.[78] It is also developed in connection to practical concerns over leadership, in connection with Church-growth theories, or to missiology.[79] Clearly, the development of a solid ecclesiology from a distinctly Pentecostal perspective is a theological desideratum.

            Thus, Pentecostal perspectives on the Church are many. Much ecclesiological reflection was carried out in connection to the question of authority in the Church. But the Pentecostal experience did not yield a single ecclesiological teaching. All traditional forms of Church government can be found among Pentecostals.[80] 

            Because of the strong restorationist[81] stance, there is an immediate reference back to the New Testament passages. Traditionally, ecclesiological reflection was far removed from the theological center of Pentecostal thinking. Instead, the overriding theological categories of Pentecostal Theology rather stem from Soteriology.[82] The salvation of (individual) believers is the central concern for Pentecostals. In this line the Church is typically seen as an assembly of ‘born-again’ (and preferably ‘spirit-filled’) believers. Accordingly, the reasons for organizing local assemblies were historically speaking more often than not pragmatic. They were founded, because the experience of the baptism with the Holy Spirit was not embraced by the existing denominations.[83] Congregations were formed for pastoral and practical reasons.[84] This pattern is also in evidence when it comes to the formation of national denominations. Practical concerns rather than theological ones dominate.

            Theologically, the positions adopted by Pentecostals are usually those current in Evangelicalism.[85] That means that the views of the Church current within Pentecostalism are mostly inherited, and not “homegrown”.[86]

            Having established the peripheral nature of theological reflection upon the Church within Pentecostalism and that its content is by and large inherited from elsewhere, we need not concern us here with specific contents. Instead, we can turn to issues connected to ecclesiology, such as evangelisation and missions; the stress on the invisible Church; and on the prieshood of all believers.

-           The question of evangelization and missions have from the earliest times onward ranked  high on the priority list of Pentecostals.[87] Unlike Catholics, who for a sizable part of their history, came on the bandwagon of conquerors and victors, Pentecostals often focused on the simple folk, working with individuals. Pentecostal missionary strategies often centered on individuals, or on a single family in what usually were hostile environments. These individuals or this family were typically regarded as the nucleus of a ‘congregation in becoming’ in a given city or village. Generally speaking, Pentecostals see evangelization not so much as a function of the establishment of a local congregation, but rather, the reverse is the case: Church planting is all too often seen as a function of evangelization.[88]

-           The soteriological bent of Pentecostal ecclesiology coheres with the Pentecostal predilection for the invisible Church. This stress on the invisible Church may serve as a safeguard against sectarianism for Pentecostals, since it enables them to affirm the presence of true believers in other denominations. On the other hand, it facilitates the easy acceptance of denominationalism. And this is an ambiguous factor when it comes to theological reflection on the Church. On the one hand, it leads to a positive attitude toward Christians belonging to other Churches, but it also lends a false aura of legitimacy to the many schisms and splits that exist within Pentecostalism.[89]

-           A last aspect to be looked at here is the stress on the priesthood of all believers, which is dear to all Protestants, but which is championed by Pentecostals, it would seem. This notion harmonizes well with the Pentecostal stress on individual salvation and with the conception of the Church as an assembly of true believers. This in turn squares well with the egalitarian note of the baptism of the Holy Spirit as equipment for the saints for living a Christian life in the present world. 


Concluding remarks: Room for convergence?

            In view of the enormous differences that exist between Roman Catholic and Pentecostal conceptions of the Church, any room for rapprochement?

            It would seem so. Serious theological reflection on the Church - in relation to other areas of Pentecostal reflection is still in its infancy. This means that Pentecostals will have to put up a sustained effort to develop an ecclesiology which is faithful to the biblical record, to the various theological traditions within Christianity, to the experience of the Spirit in the lives of the individual believer and in the people of God, to the original vision of the Founding Fathers and Mothers of the Movement. It may be clear that this calls for a sustained effort, not of one or two ecclesiologists, but of a whole group of Pentecostal theologians in various denominations, who interact with each other intensively.

            In his contribution to the issue of Concilium dedicated to Global Pentecostalism, Harold Hunter[90] lays down what he feels should be the basic tenets of a Pentecostal ecclesiology. And these sound surprisingly Catholic. A reliable ecclesiology, he thinks, must be in line with the characteristics laid down by the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon, which saw the Church as One, Catholic, Holy and Apostolic.[91] 

            This brings the International Roman Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue within view once more.[92] Precisely because the Roman Catholic Church is so strong in the area of ecclesiology, Pentecostals - despite the fact that the overriding theological categories stem from Soteriology, can listen critically to what Catholics have to say about this matter and learn from them.

On the other hand, Catholics would do well to take the Pentecostal insistence upon the experiential aspect of Christian initiation more seriously. Perhaps a liturgical revision of the rites of baptism and confirmation, designed to be a more existentially relevant experience for the person who is so incorporated into the community of faith might be undertaken.



            The importance of religious experience for Pentecostals is hard to overrate. We Pentecostals, speak freely, even boldly (sometimes even at the risk of being presumptuous) about what the Lord has done for us. He wrought salvation, then and there, and we experience that salvation now in our very own existence. Of course, the degree to which this salvation is experienced varies from person to person, bur no Pentecostal will deny its importance.

            On the other hand, Pentecostals are well aware, that experience is not primary. All religious experience must be rooted in faith in Jesus Christ and His salvific work. Without Christ there is no authentic religious experience that is Christian. In that sense Pentecostals are radically Christo-centric. But normally, believers will  also experience the fruit of conversion, regeneration[93] and the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Moreover, when they seek divine guidance, they will experience the urgings of the Holy Ghost. The charismata - the proper locus of which is the body of believers, rather than the individual believer[94] - when they are sought after and allowed to function ensure ongoing religious experience.

            This brings the community of faith into view. It is in ‘Church’ (the common celebration of the faith) that the presence of the Lord is experienced, as it is in personal prayer and meditation over Scripture. It is here that the life of faith is being nourished though songs, Bible-readings, sermons, testimonies,[95] common meals (agapé-meals), the Lords-supper, words of prophecy, visions, and the like. Ideally, this would equip them to live a Christian life in the world, to withstand the wiles of the Devil and to testify about their personal life. Also it will enable them to engage in charitable works.

            What is primary, however, for Pentecostals is faith in Christ, Who according to God’s plan for the redemption of man, gave His life for man’s salvation. Faith, in this boundless free gift of God, which is brought home to man by the working of the Holy Spirit is the sole foundation of all Christian religious experience, whatever the level of intensity.


May 2001

Huibert Zegwaart

General Secretary Broederschap van Pinkstergemeenten (The Netherlands)


[1]           A corollary of missions is, of course, evangelization. But since this topic was extensively treated in the previous phase of the Dialogue, this will be left aside. See “Evangelization, Proselytism and Common Witness; The Report from the Fourth Phase of the International Dialogue 1990-1997 Between the Roman Catholic Church and Some Classical Pentecostal Churches and Lea-ders”, in: The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity Information Service 97 (1998/I-II): 38-56, passim; and Pneuma, 21/1 (1999): 11-51. That whole issue, edited by the Pentecostal co-chair of the Dialogue, is devoted to its 4th Phase and its significance.  

[2]           Matthias Wenk, “Conversion and initiation: Biblical and Patristic Perspectives”, July 1999, 2 and note 6, uses a comprehensive (and therefore quite abstract) working definition of conversion which has sociological overtones: Conversion is a “[...] reorientation of a person’s life from a pattern of attitudes, beliefs and practices judged to be wrong or inferior to another judged to be right or superior.”

[3]           The Bible provides the hermeneutical and linguistic models with the help of which this experience can be understood and articulated. Seeing the fact that the language of the Bible is metaphorical rather than conceptual, Pentecostals will usually speak about their experience of conversion in the form of a narrative, using the biblical metaphors - assuming that what they have experienced is the same as what is described by the biblical metaphors.

[4]           In the Systematic Theology edited by Stanley M. Horton (published in 21998 [11994] by Logion Press in Springfield) the word ‘conversion’ is not found in the index. The only word indexed is its virtual synonym ‘repentance’. According to Daniel B. Pecota, “The Saving Work of Christ,” 361, “Repentance and faith constitute the two essential elements of conversion. They involve a turning from, i.e. repentance, and a turning to, i.e., faith.” See below.

[5]           To be sure, for Pentecostals the baptism with the Holy Spirit constitutes a second crisis experience. This ground was covered by Dr. Ronald Kydd, “Christian Initiation and the Baptism in the Holy Spirit: A Pentecostal Perspective,June, 1998.

[6]           W.J. Hollenweger, Pentecostalism; Origins and Developments Worldwide, Peabody: Hendrickson, 1997, 246, points out that the theoretical statements on salvation in Pentecostalism and the actual experience of salvation within Pentecostalism are at variance with each other. Also referred to by Wenk, “Conversion”, 27.

[7]           Somewhat exceptional in this regard is the small Pentecostal group “Ekklesia” in Germany and the Netherlands (a fruit of the labors of the German utensils manufacturer and evangelist Hermann Zaiss from Solingen - and not a formally organized denomination). This tiny Pen-tecostal group laid great stress on repentance, a contrite heart and humiliation before the Lord.

[8]           See the Statements of Faith of several Pentecostal denominations in W.J. Hollenweger, The Pentecostals, London: SCM Press, 1972, 514-521. Not all these declarations mention both con-version and regeneration. Among those who do, are the Assemblies of God (514); and the Church of God [Cleveland, Tn] (517), the Apostolic Church [Great Britain] (518). The Elim Pentecostal Churches in Great Britain do not speak of conversion and speak of regeneration in relation to the Church. About this the document states that “[t]he Church consists of all persons who have been regenerated by the Holy Ghost, and made new creatures in Jesus Christ (519).” The Assemblee di Dio in Italy also only mention regeneration, and do so in connection with faith in Jesus Christ. The denomination to which I belong, the Broederschap van Pinkstergemeenten in the Netherlands (whose Fundamentele Waarheden is dependent upon the Fundamental Truth of the Assemblies of God), mentions repentance and regeneration in the same article. See J.W. Embregts, Geloof om op te bouwen, Houten: Ezra, 1992, 51. 

[9]           Philosophically speaking this notion is fraught with difficulties, but it continues to be widely used (and that not just in Pentecostal circles!). Here its meaning is roughly that of ‘superhuman’. 

[10]          Often people say that these experiences are ecstatic in nature. But this is not necessarily the case. It would seem that the psychological make-up of the person is an important factor here.

[11]          Russell P. Spittler, art. “Spirituality, Pentecostal and Charismatic”, in: DPCM: 804-809, 804-805, mentions individual experience as the first out of five characteristic values of Pentecostal spirituality. The other four are orality, sppontaneity, otherworldliness, biblical authority.

[12]          This is not to suggest that these experiences are wrong in themselves. On the contrary, in and of themselves they may constitute genuine religious experiences. What I would like to submit here is that an inordinate emphasis on ecstatic experiences may lead to religious thrill-seeking. In the eyes of many Pentecostal leaders this seems a dead-end street. See the position-paper on the “Toronto-blessing” issued by the Broederschap van Pinkstergemeenten, in: Parakleet, 57 (1996), 3-4.

[13]          For the sake of argument a polarity is set up here. But I do not want to suggest in any way, that these lists are mutually exclusive.

[14]          The ‘s’ is bracketed since the issue may be approached on two levels: 1. the significance of particular religious experiences, and 2. (on another level of abstraction) the significance of religious experience vis-à-vis faith. 

[15]          Perhaps some would prefer the term ‘supernaturalism’ to the neologism coined here, but I have avoided that word and its cognates on account of the confusion surrounding it. If Pentecostals are susceptible to experiences of an apparently miraculous nature, so are Catholics: much of the cult of the saints and of devotion to Mary thrives on miraculous events.

[16]          In some American Pentecostal denominations this happened to the practice of snake handling. From a purely biblicistic point of view there would be a biblical precedence for this practice (in the so-called ‘longer ending’ of the Gospel of Mark [16:18]). On its place in the Pentecostal movement, see Harold D. Hunter, “Serpent Handling” in: Stanley M. Burgess, Gary B. McGee, and Patrick H. Alexander (eds.), Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, [= DPCM], Grand Rapids: Regency, 1988, 777-778. This practice - which is condemned on ethical grounds by all major Pentecostal denominations is - really a fringe phenomenon, primarily found in the mountainous areas of the Appalachians.

[17]          E.g., John 13:2-15; Acts 2:42; 8:4, 7, 12, 14-17; 13; 13: 1-3; 19:8-9. On the importance of the practice of casting out demons (exorcism)  within Pentecostalism, see the article on the topic by L.G. McClung, Jr. in: DPCM, 290-294. This practice, which is frequently mentioned in the Gospels and the Book of Acts, and which was very prominent in earlier years, is now approached with greater reluctance by many Pentecostal churches. This is partly due, to past and present abuses of the practice in other Pentecostal circles, its all too frequent application to trivialities, the greater influence of pastoral care that takes into account the findings of both medical science and psychology. A similar remark applies to ‘divine healing’.

[18]          Respectively 1 Corinthians 15:29 and 2 Corinthians 12: 2-5 (the latter passage is phrased in such a way that it is at once reminiscent of one type of Jewish apocalypticism (‘of the ‘tours of heaven’-type), while the restrained character of this report stands in stark contrast to the fantastic and elaborate descriptions found in many apocalypses.

[19]          “The Pros and Cons of Dialogue with Roman Catholics”, JPT 16 (2000): 90-101, 93.

[20]          Within a Roman Catholic perspective, partaking of the Eucharist constitutes the third and final stage of initiation. See the papers written by Kilian McDonnell, “The Experience of Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit in the Early Church” (June 1998); and by William Henn OFM Cap., “Faith and Christian Initiation: Biblical and Patristic Perspectives,”, July (1999); Cf. Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Christian Church, London: SCM Press, 1981, 161-306.

             Though Pentecostals - as far as I am aware - will not take issue with the thesis that the “Lord’s supper’ constitutes the final stage of Christian initiation, they will concentrate on conversion (which is celebrated in the baptismal rite) and the baptism in the Holy Spirit (which for all practical purposes may be regarded as the Pentecostal counterpart of the Catholic sacrament of confirmation).

[21]          The New Testament in its turn taps into the First Testament for the meaning of its key-notions. Thus, behind the New Testament notions used for ‘repentance’ and ‘conversion’ (¦B4FJDXNT and :,J"<@XT) and their cognates, lie Hebrew notions that mean ‘to turn back, return’ ("{�), and ‘to be sorry’ (.H(E1).

[22]          In Acts 3:19 (one of Peter’s speeches on the Temple premises in Jerusalem) they occur together: “Repent (:,J"<@ZF"J,) therefore, and turn again (¦B4FJXR"J,), [...].“ These words are part of a call to faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah which is addressed to Jewish worshipers (“men of Israel” [vs. 12]).

[23]          See the relevant articles in TDNT, vol. IV: 975-1008 (conversion and repentance); and VII: 722-729 (conversion); IV: 626-629 (repentance).

[24]          Note the eschatological ring of this much discussed passage. For a treatment of the passage, pace Joel Marcus, “‘The Time has been fulfilled!’ (Mark 1.15)”, in: Apocalyptic and the New Testament (Festschrift J. Louis Martyn), edited by Joel Marcus and Marion L. Soards (JSNT, Suppl. 24), Sheffield, 1989, 49-68.

[25]          Josephus, Bellum II: 60-65.

[26]          Amos complains that the people did not convert itself to the Lord (4:6,8,9,10,11); and especially the prophet Jeremiah speaks often about conversion or the unwillingness of the people to do so (e.g., 3:1; 5:3;18:11; 24:7).

[27]          The model, with its dual emphasis, is found in 2 Chronicles 6:24-27.

[28]          The context of this verse is the famous potter’s parable, which declares God’s sovereign rule, not just over Israel, but with distinct universalistic overtones. In verses 8 and 10 there is a reciprocity between the conversion of the nation and God’s own ‘repentance’.

[29]          In the parallel passage in 2 Kings 21:1-18 not a word is said about Manasseh’s conversion. The judgement upon Jerusalem is directly linked with his idolatrous behaviour and unrighteousness. His conduct becomes paradigmatic for the whole of Israel, “since the day their fathers came out of Egypt” (verses 11-15).

[30]          Of the story of the healing of Naaman the leper (2 Kings 5;1-19), one might say that this heathen came into contact with the faith in the God of Israel, but it hardly recounts his conversion, since the biblical writer stresses the ignorance and pagan structure of his thinking in this matter.

             Though the story of the punishment and restoration of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:28-37) is in many ways problematic, one could argue, that a model of conversion can be found in it. The structure is: human hybris - humiliation of the subject by God - acknowledgment of one’s creaturely status - restoration - honoring the God of Israel.

[31]          Wenk, “Conversion”, 3-22.

[32]          Clearly, the person involved is not entirely passive. Luke portays Zacchaeus as going out to see Jesus, and as actively responding to Jesus’ goodness.

[33]          Luke 22:32, a text which deals with Peter’s ‘conversion’.

[34]          Paul himself occasionally refers to this experience in his letters. These references - as with most of Paul’s references to his own life - are scanty and restrained, but they enable us to form a picture of his personality, as well as his motivation. But personal references are never made for their own sake. They serve his theological argument and his paraenetic concern.

[35]          Note that the rhetoric of the passage is not really about his conversion, but about establishing his apostolic status for the sake of the Gospel itself.

[36]          The same can be said about “paul’s defence in 2 Corinthians 10:13-12:13, which includes some biographical data (11:30-12:10) and the famous list of his inflictions for the sake of Christ (11:21b-28).

[37]          Examples are given by E.P. Sanders, Paulus, Kampen: Kok, 200, 51-52 (= Paul, Oxford/New York: O.U.P., 1991). But, then, informal logic was not the fianl standard for Paul, whose reasoning has much more affinities, with that of the Jewish Rabbi’s of his days.

[38]          The letter of Paul to the Romans in particular has spoken forcefully to such towering figures as Martin Luther and Karl Barth.  

[39]          See, for instance, Edith L. Blumhofer’s anthology, “Pentecost in My Soul”; Exploration in the Meaning and Experience in the Early Assemblies of God, Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1989.

[40]          Gerrit Polman and his spouse; Margaretha A. Alt, etc.

[41]          See chapter One of Peter Hocken, One Lord, One Spirit, One Body, Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1987.

[42]          Note the active role of the converts.

[43]          See Martos, Doors, 315-328.

[44]          In later times the language of ‘conversio’ is used to describe the entering of the monastic life. See Gregory the Great, Epistel V.53a. Could it be that Augustine prefigures this kind of usage here and in Conf. V.vi? And what ramifications would that have for our understanding of his own ‘conversion’-experience in the garden (Conf. V.viii and xii)? Should we not rather think of it in terms of ‘full surender’, or call to the monastic life, rather than being converted from non-christian to Christian? Is would appear that there is a certain ambiguity here. 

[45]          In the hellenistic world (both in Pagan contyexts and in Jewish and Christian contexts) it was not uncommon to regard accidentally overheard words, and especially the words of Holy Scripture read aloud thus overheard, as having a revelatory, guiding signficance. The phenomenon is known as cledolomanticism.

[46]          The letters of St. Jerome, Letter 22.30 (Letter to Eustochium).

[47]          Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 3.

[48]          Address to the Greeks, ch. 29.

[49]          Theophilus to Autolycus I.14. (cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History IV.20). Minucius Felix was a lawyer in Rome before his conversion to Christianity, but no details about his conversion are known. The same is true for Cyprian.

[50]          Though this is not regarded a conditio sine qua non for accepting a person as a baptismal candidate.

[51]          See 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come.”

[52]          Sociologist Peter L. Berger, Invitation to Sociology, Harmondsworth: penguin, 1966, 76, aptly puts it like this: “Conversion introduces a new periodisation in one’s biography - BC and AD, pre-Christian and Christian, [...]”

[53]          Peter L. Berger, whose sociological theory is called the sociology of knowledge, points out that a conversion experience normally leads to a reinterpretation of one’s biography in the light of the new religious Weltanschauung (ibid.). 

[54]          E.g. in The Cross and the Switchblade, n.p.: Teen Challenge, 1963.

[55]          Think of the conversion story of former Whitehouse advisor Charles Colson, Born Again, Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1976.

[56]          The question is treated by Hollenweger, Pentecostalism, 246-257.

[57]          The principle of cuius regio eius religio that was used in post-reformation Germany directly goes against the grain of true Pentecostalism.

[58]          See Gabriel Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years Loneliness. In his novel the author describes the building of a big church in an area in which there are no converts yet. But since the Eucharist  is celebrated and there is a priest representing the bishop’s presence, the area is considered as incorporated into the realm of the Church.   

[59]          It would be interesting to speculate about what would happen if (or ‘when’ seeing the present growth-rate) Pentecostals will be in a position in which they could transform a culture. Will they ‘baptize’ certain elements; and which ones would that be? Will they abolish things, and what would they abolish? Will they radically transform the cultural goods? Is Pentecostal Theology sufficiently articulated and coherent enough to form a basis for building a “Christian culture” and distinctively shaping a society?

             It seems to me that it is time for Pentecostals to seriously start pondering these issues.

[60]          See also “Perspectives on Koinonia”, the report of the 3rd phase of the Dialogue between the papal council  for Promoting Christian Unity and some classical Pentecostal denominations and leaders, 1985-1989, Pneuma 12:2 (1990): 117-142.

[61]          In that line Cardinal Cassidy said: “Every church [...] should have the right to accept into its membership those who in conscience decided that they belong there [...]. It is, after all, much more important that a person find salvation in Christ than that he or she belongs without conviction to any particular community” (quoted by McDonnell, “The Pros and Cons of Dialogue with Roman Catholics”, JPT 16 (2000), 90-101, 99).

[62]          Granted, comtemporary Catholic Theologians have by and large abandoned the scholastic method.

[63]          This is not to suggest, that the Magisterium has tight reigns on each and every theologian, and that they curb all room to explore new ways of theologizing. Nevertheless, the teaching authority of the Church is sometimes experienced by thinkers as a hindrance for intellectual freedom. 

[64]          So the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) § 48; and the Decree of the Church’s missionary activity (Ad Gentus Divinitus) § 1. See also §§ 17-28 (esp. 20 and 21) of “Perspectives on Koinonia”.

[65]          See the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation [Dei Verbum], § 23; and the Decree on Ecumenism [Unitatis Redintegration], § 21

[66]          See the Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity [Ad Gentus Divinitus], § 6.

[67]          In extreme situations of emergency, there is room for lay-people to administer baptism.

[68]          The triumphalistic terminology of the ‘true church’ is avoided since Vaticanum II. Instead the documents of Vaticanum II recognize the legitimacy of other (separated) churches and communities (see Lumen Gentium,  §§ 8, 15; and Unitatis Redintegration, §§ 1,2,3, 22 23.

[69]          Unitatis Redintegration, § 3. See also § 34 of “Perspectives on Koinonia”.

[70]          Lumen Gentium, § 8 and Unitatis Redintegration, § 3.

[71]          Cf. “Perspectives on Koinonia”, 91-93.

[72]          But note, what Cardinal Cassidy said in this connection: “Every church [...] should have the right to accept into its membership those who in conscience decided that they belong there [...]. It is, after all, much more important that a person find salvation in Christ than that he or she belongs without conviction to any particular community” (quoted by McDonnell, “Dialogue”, 99).

[73]          With their soteriological bend Pentecostals would with the angels simply rejoice over the step of faith (the fides qua) taken by the individual and they would look upon the matter of the truth of content of faith (the fides quae) - provided they recognize the essentials of the Christian faith - rather pragmatically.

[74]          Of course, this statement presupposes that this faith is faith in Christ and the atonement on the cross.

[75]          This attitude is sometimes fostered by the appeal to a rahter individualistic understanding of 1 John 2:27.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

[76]          Michael  L. Dusing, “The New Testament Church”, in: Horton, ed., Systematic Theology, 525-566, 525. Peter D. Hocken, “Church, Theology of the”, in: DPCM: 211-218, does not fail to note the peripheral position of ecclesiology within Pentecostal confessions of faith (211-212).

[77]          According to David D. Bundy (EPTA Bulletin IV/2 (1985), 56-58) probably the best the treatment of ecclesiology from a Pentecostal point of view is Pavel Bochian’s Biserica lui Dumnezeu Õi aspecte din viaÛa ei (BucareÕti: Cultul Penticostal, n.d.). According to the reviewer, the author of this work does not just take into account the New Testament data, but also what he finds in his own tradition. The faith of the community and the liturgy he sees in a pneumatological context which legitimized them as sources for theological reflection. Bochian has eye for the eschatological dimension of the Pentecostal faith. Finally, he manages to avoid the individualism that often marks Pentecostal exposé’s on the Church. 

             Klaas van Balen, Geboren uit de Geest, Ridderkerk: Van Meurs, 1995 (11991), 11-62. Here an ecclesiology is developed from the perspective of Jesus’ announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of God. This ensures a link with eschatology. Van Balen’s ecclesiology revolves around diakonia (38-39); and in relation to church-government he stresses the fact that the Pentecostal form of would be charismatic (48-50). But here too the author does not fully develop his views - and so it remains a matter of hinting at. Moreover, church-practice and cultural context are not taken up in his considerations; nor is there any real dialogue with other theological views. Thus, the book remains within what could be called a biblicistic framework.

             Promising is the recent work by F.R. Möller, Kingdom of God, Church and Sacraments (Words of Light and Life, vol. 4), Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik Publishers, 1998).

             Some of the most penetrating thinking about the church was developed, within the context of the International Roman Catholic/Pentecostal Dialogue. An example would be the paper on,  “The Ecclesiology of KoinÇnia and Baptism: A Pentecostal Perspective”, by Cecil M. Robeck, jr. and Jerry L. Sandidge, (59 pages) for the 1988 venue. See also “Perspectives on Koinonia”, Final Report of the International Roman Catholic/Pentecostal Dialogue (1985-1989), Pneuma, 12:2 (1990): 117-142.

[78]          An example: In a book published by my own denomination in 1992, the chapter on ecclesiology opens with the question “Why is the Church so important?” However, the whole chapter consists of a meager 7 pages, of which at least 60% are bibleverses printed in full. J.W. Embregts, Geloof om op te bouwen, Houten, Doorn: Ezra, BPG, 1992 (pages 99-105).

[79]          Melvin L. Hodges, A Theology of the Church and its Mission; A Pentecostal Perspective, Springfield: GPH, 1977.

[80]          See Hocken, “Church”, 213.

[81]          Also noted by Hocken, “Church”, 212-213.

[82]          Pneumatology in this connection does not seem to have this prismatic place. Rather, Pneumatology is built upon a Soteriological foundation.  It would seem proper to speak of the Soteriological-Pneumatological nexus.

[83]          The exception would be the Church of God and the Church of God of Prophecy both of which have their headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee.

[84]          Thus, in Amsterdam Gerrit Polman postponed the introduction of church-membership until 1925, that is some twenty years after the formation of the congregation. See Cees van der Laan, De Spade Regen, Geboorte en groei van de Pinsterbeweging in Nederland, 1907-1930. Kampen: Kok, 1989, 158-159.

[85]          Thus, Dusing, “New Testament Church”, refers most often to Millard J. Erickson’s Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985).

[86]          Hocken, “Church” 212, notes that it is in situations of oppression that Pentecostalism produced its most original ecclesiological reflections.

[87]          Charles Parham saw the gift of tongues as a way for missionaries to circumvent the period of arduous language-training. See Cees van der Laan, “Honderd jaar Pinksteren?”, Parakleet 77 (2001), 3-9.

[88]          This is evident in the statement of purpose of D.A.W.N. (discipling a whole nation). Through Youth with a Mission, this organization has its roots in Pentecostalism.

[89]          I once witnessed a crass example of what denominationalism leads to. In the wake of the John Wimber campaigns in the Netherlands, eight years ago, despite disclaimers Vineyard was introduced in the Netherlands as a denomination. I was present when this was done, one of the main speakers of that conference managed to present the introduction of yet another ecclesial group in the Netherlands as an opportunity to celebrate the many facets of God’s love. He admonished the existing denominations to welcome the newcomer, and he added that if they would not, they would actually limit God in the many ways he wants to manifest his love toward people.

[90]          Jürgen Moltman, Karl Josef Kuschel, (eds.), Pentecostal Movements as an Ecumenical Challenge, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996. Hunter’s article bears the title “’We are the Church’: New Congregationalism: A Pentecostal Perspective”. Refences here are to the Dutch edition: Harold D. Hunter, “’Wij zijn de kerk’: nieuw congregationalisme. De visie van de pinksterbeweging”, Concilum 1996-3, 21-26, 22.

[91]          Hunter, “’Wij zijn de kerk’”, 26.

[92]          It would seem to me that the International Roman Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue would benefit from a separate round on the place of the Church in the economy of salvation, as it will provide a good context for articulating some of our most fundamental differences.

[93]          “Perspectives on Koinonia”, § 96 (reflecting the Pentecostal stance), speaks of regeneration as a pre-sacramental experience.

[94]          Cf. Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-31.

[95]          J.-D. Plüss, Therapeutic and prophetic Narratives in Worship: A Hermeneutic Study of Testimonies and Visions; Their Potential Significance for Christian Worship and Secular Society (Studies in the Intercultural History of Christianity, 54), Frankfurt, etc.: Peter Lang, 1988, e.g. 147-159; and 194-195; 274-291.

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