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Fire From Heaven: an interview with Harvey Cox

Harvard Divinity School offers a course on Pentecostalism. Can you tell us how that came to be?

It came to be because I decided to offer it. In my conversations with Eldin Villafane, I almost kiddingly said about four or five years ago, “Look, we’ve been giving this course on urban ministry. We’re both interested from various angles in Pentecostalism. It seems natural to think about giving a course together on this subject.” We differ on certain important points, but we love and respect each other and can convey that to students. So, since I’m a tenured professor at Harvard, I can offer a course on any subject I want. We had only then to find a way in which Eldin and I could give it together. Eldin listed a course on Pentecostalism at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and at the Center for Urban Ministry. I listed a course on Pentecostalism at Harvard. What we were careful to say was that these two courses meet in the same room simultaneously, and we join each other. He grades the students who enroll through his path, and I grade the ones who enroll through mine. Everything works out fine. We have a nice mix of students.

I thought the mix of Pentecostals taking the course would most come through Eldin’s route. I was wrong. Listing this in the catalogue flushed out a lot of Pentecostals who suddenly felt they had been legitimated because it appeared in the Harvard catalogue. They “came out of the closet.” Many of the Harvard students were from one of the Pentecostal churches: Church of God in Christ, Assemblies, Pentecostal Fellowship, Apostolic Church—we had them all.


What are some of the topics that are discussed in the course?

Well, Eldin and I decided right away that we would not avoid topics that have proved to be controversial. We would take them head on. So we have a whole session on signs and wonders and speaking in tongues. What’s the point of having a whole course on Pentecostalism where you don’t deal with that?

We have a session on the early history of Pentecostalism where we both show that Pentecostalism did not fall out of the sky, and there were movements which fed it into American religious history. This goes against the grain of some Pentecostal thinking where any suggestion that there were predecessors or historical currents that lead to the Azusa revival, for example, were looked at askance.

Harvey Cox: Whatever happened to the latter rain?

We also deal with the theology, especially the theology of the Holy Spirit. We have a whole session on healing. Healing has been very central to Pentecostalism. In fact, my view is that healing was one of the major pioneering contributions of the Pentecostal movements. Now many more churches and indeed the Harvard Medical School have an awakening interest in spiritual healing. Pentecostal belief in this was not only bold, but it was something they were severely criticized for in their early history. We deal with race, a hard issue to deal with. Pentecostals, although they started with this vision of a restored church in which racial divisions were broken down, quickly became segregated in some ways. We confront that head on. We talk about worldwide issues of Pentecostalism. In Africa and Asia, the Pentecostals tend to incorporate elements in their worship which cause some uneasiness to North American Pentecostals. We deal with those.

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Category: Church History, Summer 2015

About the Author: John P. Lathrop is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister with the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies. He has written for a number of publications and is the author of four books Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers Then and Now (Xulon Press, 2008), The Power and Practice of the Church: God, Discipleship, and Ministry (J. Timothy King, 2010), Answer the Prayer of Jesus: A Call for Biblical Unity (Wipf & Stock, 2011) and Dreams & Visions: Divine Interventions in Human Experience (J. Timothy King, 2012). He also served as co-editor of the book Creative Ways to Build Christian Community (Wipf & Stock, 2013). Amazon Author page. Facebook

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