Signs, wonders, and patchwork theology

I just read the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark – an impressive witness of Jesus’ ministry. His teaching was specifically noticed for its authority, which, of course, was further proven by the accompanying miracles. Thinking ahead to the final chapter of Mark, the famous, disputed long ending has Jesus’ promise that the same kind of authoritative signs would accompany the preaching of his disciples (which, we remember from Acts, they did throughout the first generations). But what about today? Where are the signs and wonders? As a Pentecostal, I need to ask myself this question even louder than my brethren in the other denominations, who simply might not believe in the possibility of something like this happening at all in our age. But I do. And I expect it. What has happened so that nothing happens?

Trying to assemble some answers, we need to acknowledge first of all that Western Pentecostalism isn’t as Pentecostal as it used to be any more – which means, the use of the Spiritual gifts in our services (and, I assume, in our private lives, too) is drastically declining—most interestingly, while it is at the same time on the rise in other churches. A visit to the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit in Leuven sometime last year confirmed to me that there’s a good chance of other denominations becoming much more Pentecostal than the Pentecostals (in relation to spiritual gifts) in a short time. Why is that?

Of course, the theologian in me is pushed towards theological conclusion. One of the things that I have been observing in Pentecostalism for quite a long time, especially on the church level, is a dramatic confusion when it comes to solid teaching. Some of the theories I have heard during the last years (which are actively taught in some churches) just left me open-mouthed and gasping, unable to believe what I just heard. A long-standing anti-intellectual stance, the much-praised orality of Pentecostalism, is paying out. But not cashing in.

Of course, I might just be too pessimistic, and, fortunately, many positive things are happening in Pentecostal ministerial education. I have witnessed outstanding academia, which will hopefully translate into local church ministry within a short time and with efficiency and success. I pray. I hope. I long for it. But in the meantime, the dramatic gap between the solid teaching of the academy and the confusion of the churches remains.

Even in the academy, things are not as clear-cut, however, as they might be. First of all, where there is systematic teaching of doctrine, it is mostly borrowed from non-Pentecostal Evangelicals, augmented here and there (mainly in the department of Pneumatology). Of course, this would not be a fundamental problem (We share so much with the Evangelical mainstream), were it not for the lack of system and consistency in this augmentation process. Oftentimes, what has been a consistent Evangelical dogmatic has been made into a very eclectic selection of different bits and pieces from here and there. We use Henry Thiessen’s Lectures in Systematic Theology for its well-structured outline, which we fill with our own content. We employ Millard J. Erickson’s Christian Theology almost as a second Bible for our systematic theology classes, but we skip his pneumatology and patch in some stuff that isn’t consistent at all with the rest of his work. We augment the eschatology section with anything any Dispensationalist might have written anywhere, without realizing that Dispensationalism is fundamentally incompatible with the very basics of Pentecostalism.

So we end up with patchwork theology – a quilt of multi-colored pieces in different forms and colors. And no one stops to ask whether they even fit together.

Is patchwork theology dangerous? In my master’s thesis, I postulated three important criteria for systematic theology: (1) Compatibility asks whether any particular doctrine does not run contrary to the contents of the Bible. (2) Conformity asks, whether this doctrine is a necessary consequence of the Biblical text. (3) Consistency asks, whether this doctrine is compatible with other doctrines within the same system. It is this last test that is most direly lacking in Pentecostal theology.

The farther this goes, the more it becomes like constructing a house out of arbitrary pieces without any sensible connection. The more you advance, the less anyone can estimate how much damage will be done to the house if one single component fails. You could even compare it to a house of cards: Shake it a bit, and the whole thing will go down in shambles.

I fear, there are times, where this has already happened – at least on a local level – in Pentecostal teaching. And this might be the reason why people shy away from it. Bad experiences never make you eager to get more.

If this is the case, the solution has to be found in solid dogmatic work. Of course, the place for this to happen is the Academy. But with modern structures of ministerial education in place, the Academy can and must use its new-found weight to push good theology into the churches. The gap must be closed. And a lot of work must be done on both sides.

Über Christoph

Christoph Fischer (* 1978) ist Pfarrer der Evangelischen Landeskirche in Württemberg auf der Pfarrstelle „Erlöserkirche“ in Albstadt-Tailfingen.

Christoph ist verheiratet mit Rebecca. Gemeinsam haben sie drei Töchter.