Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition

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Daniel Castelo
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , March
     214 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Within academia, a prominent debate persists concerning how to classify Pentecostalism as a movement. Some argue for its Evangelical orientation; others proclaim that the essence of Pentecostalism is suppressed by Evangelicals; and others fall in between these two poles. In Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition, Daniel Castelo argues that Pentecostalism is best understood as a modern mystical movement, and he examines Pentecostal theological method, classic mysticism, and Pentecostal practices to stake this claim.

Castelo begins this text by examining various methods employed by contemporary Pentecostal theologians including—but not limited to—Steven Land, Terry Cross, Amos Yong, and Cheryl Bridges Johns. Given this survey, Castelo argues that Pentecostal theologians have not reached a consensus concerning theological method, yet many of them prioritize formal theologizing over narratives and testimonies. Castelo criticizes this prioritization. For him, theology cannot follow the same mold used in other academic disciplines; theology is not merely rational reflection upon an object/subject. Rather, theology includes both first-order and second-order operations. It must encapsulate engagement with God as well as reflection upon this engagement.

Provided that Pentecostal theology is largely an encounter with God, Castelo proceeds to show its relatedness to classic mysticism. Not only have scholars within and outside of Pentecostalism labeled it as mystical, for example James K.A. Smith and Harvey Cox, but Castelo argues that there are strong theological similarities between them. Castelo suggests that Pentecostalism shares a “family resemblance” with mysticism given their emphasis upon purgation, illumination, and union. In these ways, and for both traditions, God encounters individuals and transform them.

Castelo also attempts to distance Pentecostalism from Evangelicalism. He proposes that the latter is principally based upon rationalism and allows little space for mysticism. For him, this type of Evangelicalism is incompatible with Pentecostalism, given its mystical bent. He traces the roots of American Evangelical theology to Scottish common sense philosophy and discusses its development by the Old Princeton theologians, especially Charles Hodge. Castelo maintains that Hodge’s high regard for rationalism and disdain for mysticism continue to provide the foundations for much of Evangelical thought, and these very traits challenge Pentecostal hermeneutics, which stresses divine encounter and embodiment.

In chapter 4 Castelo begins his move toward constructive theological reflection and addresses Pentecostal understandings of Spirit baptism. In short, he argues that Spirit baptism is a mystical event inasmuch as it is an experience of God. Here he dialogues with Pentecostal theologians Frank Macchia and Simon Chan. According to Castelo, Macchia views the charismatic gifts as sacramental in nature, while Chan claims that glossolalia functions to facilitate intimacy with God. For both, these gifts are nothing less than encounters with God. This means that tongues should not be reduced to mere signs of Spirit baptism, as some Pentecostals have previously claimed. As argued by Castelo, Spirit baptism is a continual mystical event; it is an enriching spiritual practice that Pentecostals offer to the Church catholic. Additionally, he is concerned that the future vitality of Pentecostalism depends upon its own embrace of these mystical features.

I am predominantly supportive of Castelo’s overarching thesis. Generally, his book is clearly argued, well researched, and cogent. Nevertheless, I believe that there is room for constructive criticism. I will mention four. First, Castelo, in my opinion, tends to downplay the role of experience and encounter within the writings of some contemporary Pentecostal theologians. Space does not permit a full analysis here, so I will focus upon his treatment of Amos Yong. Concerning Yong’s definition of systematic theology, Castelo writes, “It grants a place of privilege to the systematician to encompass, comprehend, get accurately at the realities in questions, articulate, synthesize, integrate, and make coherent the sum of Pentecostal life—all without much by way of accounting for how or on what grounds the systematician does so” (20). This evaluation diminishes the fundamental components of Yong’s theological method, which is based upon Peircean pragmatism. In my reading of Yong, theology is a continual process of hearing, discerning, and evaluating the many voices of truth, even from manifold origins. Thus mystical encounters with God are an integral part of Pentecostal life and theology. The goal of believers is to make these encounters intelligible and conveyable; otherwise, we are selfish in our meetings with the divine. Nevertheless, this does not prioritize the second-order theologizing over the first-order encounter.

Second, Castelo principally appraises one strand of Evangelical theology and its restrictive effects upon Pentecostalism, despite the diversity found across the Evangelical spectrum. He is forthright about his method on this matter, but merely acknowledging this does not alleviate my concerns. Such a limitation is problematic for several reasons. First, it ignores pietistic strands of Evangelical theology that are likely more accommodating of mysticism and constructing theology form such experiences. Second, and as a related point, Castelo emphasizes a desire to show Pentecostalism as “a mystical tradition of the church catholic.” He hopes to strengthen the larger Church, however, a one-dimensional treatment of Evangelical thought risks pitting Pentecostalism over and against it. Attention to pietistic forms may help to bridge that gap.

I will mention my final two thoughts briefly. When discussing Pentecostal tensions with modernity, I was surprised that Castelo did not say more about the work of Pentecostal theologian Kenneth Archer who argues that Pentecostalism is a paramodern movement, meaning that it maintained both modern and premodern sensibilities. Finally, I would have appreciated a more sustained treatment of the similarities between classic mysticism and Pentecostalism. Here Castelo briefly discusses purgation, illumination, and union, but a deeper look into the classic mystics would strengthen his argument.

Among Pentecostals, I am fairly certain that this text will facilitate continued dialogue over these important issues, and as a Pentecostal myself, I will be interested to see how others within our movement receive his thesis. Beyond insiders, however, non-Pentecostals also may find this text insightful for understanding many of the key, ensuing debates within the Pentecostal movement. Nevertheless, Castelo’s text is a valuable resource concerning contemporary Pentecostal theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Bradnick is an instructor in philosophy at Harrisburg Area Community College.

Date of Review: 
July 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Castelo is professor of dogmatic and constructive theology at Seattle Pacific University and Seminary. He is also the author of Pneumatology: A Guide for the Perplexed.


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