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Precedents and Possibilities: Pentecostal Perspectives on World Religions

Pentecostalism, caught in between fundamentalist-liberal hostilities, entered a kind of cultural captivity that inclined us in the direction of an extreme elitism toward all religious others. Often suspicion was even directed toward other Christians, much less adherents of other religions.5 Pentecostal commitments to literal biblical interpretation and global evangelism have also reinforced our inclinations to exclusivism.6 Though many Pentecostals are no longer as adamantly opposed to the idea of any goodness and beauty present in other religions, and more are likely to identify at least some (if not most) of their tenets as inaccurate or incomplete human responses to a universal religious impulse (vis-à-vis God’s full and final revelation or disclosure in Jesus Christ). The overall Pentecostal movement is therefore still probably best described as quite cautious regarding relations with other religions.

A small strand of openness to others has nevertheless existed almost unnoticed in Pentecostal attitudes toward the religions. For example, fairly early in our history Pentecostals recognized the sincerity of adherents of Hinduism even while offering disagreement. Some Pentecostal writers also noted with approval that the Golden Rule of Christ had appeared in various versions in other religions (e.g., Buddhism, Hebraism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism). Also, the life and work of Hindu leader and reformer Mahatma Gandhi had at times been lifted up as a positive moral and spiritual example. Particularly striking is Pentecostal efforts to understand other religions on their own terms, even in official denominational publications like Is Christianity the Only Way?7 In addition, the disciplined life of Gautama Buddha and his disciples and their concern and compassion for others has been candidly appraised and applauded by a few Pentecostals. True, these statements do not address issues of salvation but they do show an astounding openness to others among some Pentecostals.

Amazingly enough, some important early classical Pentecostal pioneers exhibited openness on the idea of religious others. For example, as Douglas Jacobsen points out in his enlightening overview and analysis of early Pentecostal thinkers and their theology, Bishop J. H. King (1869-1946) articulated an optimistic theology of religions.8 King’s work on religions is characterized by compassion and sophistication. Well educated and widely traveled, King connects a high Christology and an especially strong doctrine of the eternal and temporal character of the atonement with a positive view of general revelation in natural creation and in human conscience to suggest the possibility of at least some heathen coming to know Jesus Christ implicitly if not explicitly.9 King’s example confronts contemporary Pentecostal theology of religions with the challenge of reclaiming and renewing an unknown or ignored element of Pentecostal heritage and experience.

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Category: Ministry, Spring 2006

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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