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Frank Macchia: Tongues of Fire

Frank D. Macchia, Tongues of Fire: A Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Word & Spirit: Pentecostal Investigations in Theology and History (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2023), 458 pages, ISBN 9781666730227.

Frank Macchia is one of the most recognizable Pentecostal theologians well-known for his advocacy of Spirit baptism. Far from engagement with insider concerns that are of interest only to Pentecostals, Macchia is a constructive and ecumenical thinker with particular emphasis also on the doctrines of the Trinity and the kingdom of God. Along the demands of this broader theological engagement, his latest works have taken the theme of Spirit baptism as the basis for constructing works on Justification (Justified in the Spirit), Christology (Jesus, the Spirit Baptizer), and ecclesiology (The Spirit Baptized Church). With Tongues of Fire, Macchia now offers a comprehensive systematic theology—albeit not explicitly under the theme of Spirit baptism but under the scandalous expression of this theme taken from the “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3) in the biblical story of Pentecost. “Tongues of fire,” writes Macchia, “ultimately define our capacity to experience God” (p. 88). Still, apart from a dozen or so references throughout the text, the book has far more to say about Spirit baptism, including a dedicated section (pp. 299-317), than about “tongues.” Even the publisher’s description suggests that the book was “written with Christ’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit from the heavenly Father at Pentecost as its dominant motif.” This observation is not insignificant to a reviewer who has always encouragingly reminded Macchia that his early work on tongues will be remembered as his most evocative theology. But with the obvious reference to Spirit baptism already taken by one of Macchia’s other books (Baptized in the Spirit), the choice of title is undoubtedly a well-considered reflection of his life-long work and the underlying intentions of this systematic theology. Tongues of Fire will attract Pentecostal readers and yet challenge them to “interpret” the “tongues” differently from what they might have expected. What the book promises as a theme all-too familiar to Pentecostals is transformed into a metaphor for Pentecostal scholarship that is far more provocative.

Writing and publishing a systematic theology as a Pentecostal scholar is no easy feat. There is still a persistent stereotype among some publishers about the theological contributions of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. On the other hand, many of the once thriving series dedicated to Pentecostal scholarship are no longer published, and publishers who were once able to sustain a larger body of Pentecostal literature are forced to direct proposals towards textbooks rather than research-based monographs. That this work is published in a bespoke series “Word & Spirit: Pentecostal Investigations in Theology and History” testifies to the dilemma that integrating Pentecostal works in the established theological publishing landscape remains difficult. The challenge is hidden on the first pages in the Library of Congress subject headings which identify the content as “Pentecostal churches–doctrines” yet also “Theology, Doctrinal” (p. iv). Macchia’s path is the ambitious road between, a trail all Pentecostal theologians have to navigate with far more care than many of the theologians of other traditions. This context places the achievement of the book in a different light. What Macchia proposes is not simply a Pentecostal version of traditional doctrines but a Pentecostal approach to theology as “tongues of fire” that represent “an overload of prophetic communication” where “the fire signifies the purity of truth” (p. xvii). What Macchia is after is a declaration of the wonders of God where the Pentecostal theological language is not an exception but can be understood in all the languages of the world. “Theology, as an academic discipline, joins the church’s speech,” Macchia proposes, “in a search for fitting understanding and declaration” (p. xviii-xix). Reading the book as just an attempt to interpret the spectrum of Christian doctrines from a Pentecostal perspective therefore diminishes its intentions. That Tongues of Fire is a biblical metaphor applied to an academic endeavor should alert Pentecostals to the possibility that the Spirit poured out on all flesh can indeed be received in academic theology and publishing.

The book is comprised of six parts: the first three chapters address (1) the task of theology, followed by four chapters on (2) God, and two chapters each on (3) Christ, (4) Holy Spirit, (5) Church, and (6) final purpose. With this outline, Macchia follows the organization of traditional evangelical systematic theology. About two decades ago, Pentecostal scholars held a prolonged discussion on the idea whether there could be a “systematic” Pentecostal theology in the first place. Macchia answers this question in the affirmative. A particular debate since then has been what that systematic theology would look like, whether it follows the traditional theological patterns, and what exactly it contributes to that tradition. Macchia’s project endorses the traditional order, and this choice has the advantage that his proposal will be familiar to a wide audience, allowing them to integrate the Pentecostal perspective into an already established way of thinking. Macchia is aware of the history of systematic theology (pp. 11-16) and views it as a discussion of “doctrinal proposals in a way that shows the coherence and unity of truth across the specific topics” (p. 11). Hence, he asserts that “the loci of systematic theology rightly put God first” (14) and “the first three loci of the Triune God have prime of place” (15) followed by salvation, church, and the perfection of new creation. In the larger historical tradition, Tongues of Fire joins the modern “struggle to understand the top loci of systematic theology” (61) in what may be described as a Pentecostal commentary on the articles of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. More specifically, the Pentecostal perspective engages with the core doctrines of Christology and pneumatology. Adapted to read through a Pentecostal lens, in this theology “Christ himself is present in the presence of the Spirit and it remains by the Spirit that we confess Jesus as Lord to the glory of the Father” (16). The greatest advantage of Macchia’s approach is that it allows Pentecostals to situate their place in the history of the theological tradition and to proceed from there as an original theological trajectory that can now be further developed.

“The tongues of Pentecost represent a chorus of praise on behalf of the entire creation.”

The disadvantage of this endorsement of the tradition is that it does not question whether Pentecostal theology resists the traditional order in the first place. Macchia’s early work speaks of tongues as sighs and groans too deep for words, as a sacramental understanding of Pentecostal experience, a metaphor for a distinctly Pentecostal reflection, a free response to the free self-disclosure of God, and most importantly as a critical instrument in relation to the adequacy of established religious symbols. In this volume, a mature Macchia traces the modern critical endeavor of systematic theology in the proposals of liberal, neo-orthodox, liberation, contextual, and postliberal theological methods (31-89) before adding his own voice. His methodological concerns evoke most deliberately the voices of Schleiermacher, Barth, Tillich, Gutierrez, Cone, Williams, Koyama, and Lindbeck before highlighting the primacy of the biblical text and the experience of God as an entrance to the Pentecostal investigations. The theological loci follow the traditional questions of God’s existence (93-121), God and suffering (122-44), the Trinity (145-73), God’s perfections (174-194), Christ’s incarnation (197-226), death, resurrection and Pentecost (227-54), the Spirit and humanity (257-83), salvation (284-318), church and election (321-41), models, marks and practices of the church (342-73), life after death and resurrection (377-400), and the last days (401-24). Tongues of Fire sparks amidst this traditional conversation with a pneumatological imagination that asks why Pentecost requires the incarnation (197) and insists that Christ’s death and resurrection lead to Pentecost (227) because they find their fulfilment in the outpouring of the Spirit (253). In Macchia’s own words, “the tongues of Pentecost are the only fitting response” (257). Yet, within this traditional conversation, does Pentecostal theology kindle a new fire or question the adequacy of the traditional religious symbols? Is Pentecost the continuation and conclusion of Christ’s incarnational mission (as posited by the tradition) or might Pentecostals be empowered to ask more provocatively whether the incarnation requires Pentecost, whether Pentecost leads beyond the Christ of the Incarnation to the Christ of the Spirit, and whether the outpouring of the Spirit is so radically different, that the church as its product is the unexpected and scandalous symbol of a new humanity. These tongues still speak to the tradition but also challenge it with the new experience that may require a re-evaluation of the prophetic capacity of the traditional loci. Admittedly, this kind of work would differ from, even challenge what is intended with Tongues of Fire, potentially limiting its broad appeal and cast Pentecostal theology in the role of the rebel and outsider, far from Macchia’s intentions.

Is the outpouring of the Spirit on the church the unexpected and scandalous symbol of a new humanity?

Tongues of Fire is undoubtedly the carefully crafted culmination of a lifetime of theological scholarship that is both Pentecostal and ecumenical. The book shines with a heartfelt discussion of the mind of Christ, a provocative joining of the resurrection and Pentecost, a beautiful elaboration of the deity of the Holy Spirit, and an honest evaluation of the Pentecostal perspectives on Spirit baptism. But the climax of the book are its final chapters on God’s church and kingdom. Here it becomes apparent that “the tongues of Pentecost represent a chorus of praise on behalf of the entire creation” (321), so that what Macchia offers is still only a snapshot of what must be said regarding Pentecostal investigations in theology and history. There are many provocative statements that should be taken up by others (not just Pentecostals) for further study and elaboration. For example, not all readers will agree that “God’s eternal omniscience does not determine all things in history” while insisting that for creatures “God’s purpose and involvement in their life decisively shapes what they do” (341). Others (including Pentecostals) will question why eschatology finds its place at the end of the book rather than its beginning. There is room for this debate, including space for disagreement, as long as the conversation is carried out in the spirit of Pentecost and its tongues of fire with the possibility that the voices of the tradition and the rebel will join eventually in a mutual chorus of praise.

Reviewed by Wolfgang Vondey


Further Reading

Frank Macchia’s webpage:

Tony Richie’s review of Baptized in the Spirit: A Global Pentecostal Theology


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Category: Fall 2023, In Depth

About the Author: Wolfgang Vondey, Ph.D. (Marquette University) and M.Div. (Church of God Theological Seminary), is Professor of Christian Theology and Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. He is an ordained minister with the Church of God (Cleveland, TN). His research focuses on ecclesiology, pneumatology, theological method, and the intersection of theology and science.

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