Theological Dialogue with Classical Pentecostals

Challenges and Opportunities

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Jelle Creemers
Ecclesiological Investigations
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , September
     2015.
     336 pages.
     $120.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567656988.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jelle Creemers’s 2014 doctoral dissertation, recently published as part of the Ecclesiological Investigationsseries with Bloomsbury T&T Clark, represents the first comprehensive and systematic analysis of thirty-five years of international ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and (some) classical Pentecostals, which convened in five phases of five to nine years each between 1972 and 2017. It is an exhaustive and definitive contribution to both ecumenical and Pentecostal studies. 

Although the Pentecostal movement was effectively—if unintentionally—ecumenical from its origins, emphasizing the unity that all believers share in Christ, it is fair to suggest that they have not been the most enthusiastic supporters of the classical forms of ecumenical dialogue, including “conciliar ecumenism.” Some Pentecostals fear that merely human efforts at ecclesial unity will somehow obscure or compromise “the Truth”—one not unfamiliar to Catholic ecumenists among critics within our own tradition.

The Catholic Church is by far the largest single communion of Christians (1.2 billion) in the world, and the broadly-defined Pentecostal movement arguably counts as the second-largest (680 million, at most generous estimates). It is unthinkable that there not be some serious effort at mutual understanding, disabusing each other of erroneous presumptions, and asking hard questions of each other.

The first part of Creemers’s book begins by defining Pentecostalism and identifying its ecumenical profile. Theologically, Creemers situates Pentecostalism in a convergence of conversionist, revivalist, and restorationist movements; addresses the early Trinitarian/Oneness schism within the movement; and explores the challenges of Pentecostal free church ecclesiology and the associated mentality that has made it suspicious of, and less likely to engage in, ecumenical dialogue. The reasons for limiting the dialogue to first wave, or “classical” Pentecostals (150 million), are addressed thoroughly.

In the second part of the book, Creemers spends considerable time unpacking the overall method of the international dialogue, dubbed the “hard questions method,” through each of the five phases of Catholic/Pentecostal engagement. This includes the dialogue process of the meetings and the formulation of the final reports with extensive detail on the practical formation of the dialogue participants and observers and an in-depth look at one week-long session in the second year of each phase, when the hard questions were engaged. 

The dialogue itself begins with two rounds (1972-1976 and 1977-1982), largely consisting of what has elsewhere been called the dialogue of charity, a “getting to know each other” phase. Often introducing observers and one-session participants, the method is designed in part to get as broad a sampling of Pentecostal leadership comfortable with the very idea of dialogue in the first place. It is fair to be said that the first phase was more exploratory and the second more confrontational. The third phase (1985-1989) was the first to focus on a single theme (koinoniaand the nature of the church). The fourth phase (1990-1997) focused on evangelization and proselytism and represented a growth out of confrontation into more constructive comparison—made easier by previous engagement in the “rude questions.” The fifth phase (1998-2006) focused on Christian initiation, the process and experiences by which one becomes a Christian.

Creemers then explores the “theological method” of the dialogue by using a “common sense approach,” asking: 1) What are the theological aims the dialogue partners are trying to achieve? 2) What sources of theological knowledge are considered in view of this and how are they being used? and 3) Which approach has been used to achieve this goal? (194).

Creemers’s overall conclusions are basically positive, noting the evolution of “not only mutual recognition and respect” in the dialogue teams, but also of increasing “enthusiasm for continuing dialogue” (281). As demonstrated in the conclusions of each final report, continued dialogue grows from the “option” (1976), the “hope” (1982), and the “recommendation” (1989) to “the conviction that the Spirit is calling us to move beyond our present divisions” (1997) and requesting God’s blessing over further dialogue (2007).

Creemers stresses more than once the unique nature of this bilateral dialogue, disabusing ecumenists of the temptation to brush all such endeavors with methodologically too-broad strokes. Its goal has been consistent: the “mutual exchange of information” with the purpose of distinguishing between “real disagreements” and “imagined difficulties,” in the process discovering sometimes-surprising “points of agreement” (253). 

It is in fact in spirituality—the defining characteristic of Pentecostalism—that the heart of the Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue lies, in Creemers’s estimation: “Rather than being a soft ecumenical format that thrives on the experience of togetherness, spiritual ecumenism serves the [international dialogue] as a strong foundation for a confrontational dialogue method that facilitates in-depth discussion of topics considered essential by each team” (271). This dialogue shows that more than systematic theological interaction is needed for “a full ecumenical dialogue experience … in which confrontation, spirituality, and slowness have equally important roles to play, and in which common witness is not only aimed for but also made use of” (281).

For Catholics and classic ecumenists, this volume is a necessary addition to their collection of dialogue anthologies—though dense and heavily footnoted, appropriate to a dissertation—as the Pentecostal movement has often been overlooked in favor of more definable denominations or efforts toward the resolutions of more ancient apostolic schisms. 

For Pentecostals, it will be helpful in understanding both what ecumenism is really about and why Pentecostal Christians should be engaged in it—to say nothing of the fact that they will discover that they already are engaged in ecumenism, and why that merits serious and receptive attention.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew James Boyd is Lecturer in Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue at Pontifical Beda College in Rome.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jelle Creemers is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit in Leuven, Belgium. 

Keywords: 

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