What Has Wittenberg to Do with Azusa?
Luther's Theology of the Cross and Pentecostal Triumphalism
Anyone who has traversed Pentecostal circles long enough is familiar, at least conceptually, with Pentecostal triumphalism. Whether it is an evangelist guaranteeing healing, only then to castigate the ill for a lack of faith when it does not materialize, or a claim to undaunted success over sin and any other evil, Pentecostalism can, at times, promise unremitting triumph, only to give way to the harsh realities of a fallen world. It is this notion of the “promise of power, and frustration of disappointed experience” (16) which David J. Courey aims to correct through an astute application of Martin Luther’s theology of the cross, thus balancing the Pentecostal faith with the frailty of the human condition.
The introduction and chapters 1-2 assess the current state of Pentecostal affairs, looking to its historical antecedents and the emergence of the particularly Pentecostal brand of triumphalism. In discussing its origins, Courey places Pentecostalism within the larger Evangelical movement as a whole and argues that Pentecostalism’s triumphalism is merely an extreme version of the triumphalism which plagues the Evangelical movement (25). Courey points to the two trends of thought current in nineteenth-century evangelicalism of restorationism—recovering the pristine practice of the apostolic church for today—and perfectionism—the ability for believers to live wholly sanctified lives in the here and now, not simply in the eschaton. Both of these trends were present in various Evangelical groups from the Healing Movement to the Holiness Movement, but they took on more potent forms in Pentecostalism. This was due to a hermeneutic consisting of a one-to-one applicability of the biblical text to the present, and a view of the immediacy of the eschaton (78-82). This hermeneutic was subsequently revised in the institutionalizing period of the movement into a form which, in part, relocated triumph in the institution as it looked towards ushering in an even greater end-times outpouring of the Spirit.
The benefit of this assessment is that it places Pentecostalism—not as some type of tertium quid vis-à-vis Evangelicalism or Fundamentalism—but as a historically grounded and theologically related movement, not simply one which came into existence ex nihilo. Where the Pentecostal reader may cringe at Courey’s reading of Pentecostal origins however, is in that no place is seemingly given to God’s action in creating the movement but can, in fact, be explained by these historical, theological, and even sociological factors.
In chapter 3, Courey advances to the discussion to Luther’s theology of the cross by demonstrating the resonances between Luther and Pentecostal theology. Chapter 4 then defines the theology of the cross and how, contrary to triumphalism of any sort, God is revealed in the Christ’s suffering for sin; that there can be no Easter without Good Friday (175). In demonstrating the areas of agreement between Pentecostals and Luther—primacy of the written Word, experiential faith, and the possibility of miracles—Courey dismantles the modern polemic comparing Pentecostals to the Enthusiasts whom Luther contended with. This opens the way for the theological dialogue which Courey engages in, and places Luther and Pentecostals as friends, rather than foes separated by time.
The strength of Courey’s argument is that at its most basic level, God is known through suffering, something which Pentecostals at large are often unwilling to discuss at length. But, it is this debasement of the Son that the promises of victory and resurrection are predicated upon. The death of Christ secures the defeat of sin, death, and the devil, which Pentecostals are naturally bent to emphasize (174). Courey’s application of Luther’s theologia crucis is to remind Pentecostals that suffering and descent precede resurrection and victory thus creating the space to admit human frailty into the Pentecostal discussion.
Chapter 6 then directly applies the theologia crucis to Pentecostal spirituality—particularly the experience of Spirit Baptism. In doing so Courey replaces the foundations of backward-looking restorationism and forward-looking perfectionism with a pneumatology informed by the cross, and an eschatology which looks forward to its ultimate victory (195). A theological and practical gem is found here in his articulation of a pneumatologia crucis. Courey confronts the Pentecostal disavowal of suffering arriving simultaneously with the Spirit though ample biblical data. This reiterates, in pneumatological terms, the basic notion in Luther’s theologia crucis that God is found in suffering, not in unabashed victory. However, in his use of Jürgen Moltmann and the discussion of a ‘kenosis of the Spirit’ it is unclear whether Courey maintains divine impassibility, or instead, follows Moltmann in allowing suffering to take place within the Godhead. This ambiguity would need to be resolved, or more clearly discussed, lest the discussion devolve at that one point.
Chapter 7 then moves to situate the miraculous and, speaking in tongues in particular, in an eschatological framework in which they are foretastes of the eschaton. For Courey, in Pentecostalism the miraculous is seen in restorationist terms—validating the Pentecostal experience—and perfectionist terms—demonstrating the full victory of Christ in the present (238). By replacing these foundations with a theologia crucis, these triumphalistic motifs successfully give way to a view of the miraculous as gifts of the cross to aid a suffering people in the present and pointed towards the end. One practical effect is to rescue tongues from the intra-Pentecostal debate over initial-physical-evidence by adding a richer, sacramental nature to the experience which results in a greater significance for the life of the believer.
Ultimately, Courey successfully manages to weave history, theological explanation, and a constructive proposal into a cogent argument for using Luther’s theology of the cross as a moderating force against Pentecostal triumphalism. It is hoped that this argument would gain wider readership amongst Pentecostal leaders, as the collateral damage of its triumphalism can only increase if Pentecostalism does not address this perennial problem.
Brendon Norton is a graduate student in biblical and theological studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
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