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Participating with God

The Orthodox have generally tended to discount the Reformation as largely a squabble within the “Christian West.” For the Orthodox the earlier schism between Rome and Constantinople was the greater tragedy. Seen in the light of what happened in the West throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Orthodox historian . . . cannot avoid considering the schism . . . as the fundamental, the basic tragedy in the history of Christianity through which the whole of the Christian West lost its theological and spiritual balance.14

This is the theological thought context in which Western Pentecostal/Charismatic theologians must labor today. It glorifies the intellect and the faculties of reason. Much is written “about God and His ways (and they could even seem to be adequate and true),” Williams reminds us, “but without participation there is inadequate grasp of what it is all about.” The lack of thoroughly participative theology in the West, while producing a climate of great need for the same, has fostered an environment which might be bankrupt to either produce or receive it. While studying in Europe I enjoyed a visit to Neues Leben Zentrum in Altenkirchen, Germany, where in 1984 the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians met to discuss ‘Christian Experience in Theology and Life’. One scholar concluded, “We desperately need to consider the theology of experience. Our heritage from the Reformation onwards, through the Enlightenment and into the twentieth century has led us to emphasize the word, doctrine, right belief, and cerebral aspects of the faith. Little attention has been paid to the theology of experience except by those such as Harvey Cox or Morton Kelsey who do not have an evangelical concern for Biblical truths.”15 With experiential appreciations for life in the Spirit, perhaps Renewal theologians stand to make important contributions to such a unified theology-spirituality.

But how shall this be? Lest Pentecostals/Charismatics be vulnerable to Calian’s criticism, they should not proceed haphazardly. Many Westerners, Calian observes, have produced

ad hoc theologies in a search for relevance without taking a realistic assessment of the complex market-place. As a result, theologians have become theologically bankrupt, with almost no influence beyond the halls of our theological ghettos. We no longer find ourselves articulate witnesses to the sense of transcendence; our past experiences have been depleted of all content without being replenished. When, at times, we find a colleague with a recent experience of divine encounter, we are more suspicious than grateful. As a consequence, we have created distance between ourselves and the vitality of the biblical witness to the power of the living God. We have been too preoccupied with talking about theology without experiencing the Subject of our theologizing. What we need is a new spirituality to unite with our theologizing.16

A realistic assessment of the complex market-place necessarily includes thoughtful appreciation for the rich theological heritage of the East. Anything but this is plain arrogance. Pentecostals/Charismatics are in a critical place in the development of their theologizing. They are still young enough to make fundamental distinctions that can guide them in the years to come. What is at stake is the critical need to move forward responsibly and pro-actively in relationship with the Spirit, as opposed to irresponsible theology that leads to fragmentation of thought and praxis as well as the unity of the catholic Body.  

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Category: Fall 2016, In Depth

About the Author: Brian C. Smith, M.A. (Regent University), already had extensive ministry experience before pursuing his Ph.D. studies. Brian is a U.S. Army veteran and has been involved in refugee outreach, harbors ministry, prison outreach, kids crusades, preaching and evangelism in the USA and in eight countries in Western and Eastern Europe.

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