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Starting from the Spirit  

13 May 2016

John Saxbee considers a Pentecostalist model for theological inquiry

Elizabeth Steele Halstead, 2013

Innovative church analysed: a view of St Peter’s Lutheran Church, Manhattan, showing the paschal candle, and the Vignelli vase and large Caledonia-granite font, the Klais Orgelbau organ, and musicians rehearsing for the liturgy. From Religion and Art in the Heart of Modern Manhattan, edited by Aaron Rosen: illustrated essays on a 1970s church notable for its modern design and cultural life, particularly its jazz ministry (Ashgate, £65 (£58.50); 978-1-4724-2473-0)

Innovative church analysed: a view of St Peter’s Lutheran Church, Manhattan, showing the paschal candle, and the Vignelli vase and large Caledon...

The Dialogical Spirit: Christian reason and theological method in the third millennium
Amos Yong
James Clarke & Co. £25

The Missiological Spirit: Christian mission theology in the third millennium global context
Amos Yong
James Clarke & Co. £20


AMOS YONG is a Pentecostal theologian. For many people, what is remarkable about Pentecostal theology is not when it is done well, but that it is done at all. Yong himself acknowledges that, in the recent past, the notion of a Pentecostal theology was somewhat of an oxymoron. Pentecostalism was considered more a spirituality and a missionary movement than a theological tradition.

That is, until Yong, as an Assemblies of God minister, reared by Malaysian missionary parents, and now teaching in the United States, applied himself to formalising a systematic “Third Article” theology predicated on the third Article of the Creed — belief in the Holy Spirit.

His prodigious output of books and articles testifies to his enterprise and ambition. He quotes with approval David Bundy’s contention that “the creative potential, energy and viability of Christian theology in this new century belong to Pentecostalism.” This is a claim that many may find surprising or even alarming, but, if tempered by the hospitable and dialogical spirit espoused by Yong, it deserves to be taken seriously.

These are companion volumes, collating essays and articles previously published elsewhere. This inevitably results in some repetitions and an indistinct line of argument. But the newly minted introductory and concluding chapters help to give the disparate material some clarity and coherence.

The Dialogical Spirit seeks to demonstrate that “a pneumatological starting point provides the needed theological platform to enable both retrieval and renewal of historic Christian faith on the one hand and authentic engagement with the many voices across the contemporary global landscape on the other.”

These voices are classified as Postfoundationalist, Post-Christendom, Postsecular, and Postmodern, and on that basis the book is divided into four parts. Each part contains three chapters in which Yong engages with a range of interlocutors who have stimulated his own theological autobiography. Some are themselves Pentecostalists, but many are not, including the Jesuit Donald L. Gelpi and the C of E’s John Polkinghorne.

This approach itself models the dialogical spirit that Yong sees as vital in this globalised and pluralistic 21st century. His key biblical text is, unsurprisingly, Acts 2, with especial emphasis on verse 17, where the Spirit is poured out on all flesh. Dialogue with people of other faiths and none enables mutual understanding, and takes seriously the possibility that our own Christian faith might be informed or even transformed by what the Spirit reveals to us through such encounters.

By no means least, this dialogical spirit helps to formulate a topical and relevant “pneumatological mission theology” leading to ever more effective missiological praxis. This “missiological spirit” is the subject of the second volume, which in shape and methodology mirrors its companion, i.e. four parts, each of three chapters.

Again, they trace his own journey from theology of mission to mission theology. Instead of formulating a more or less non-negotiable theology and then applying it in missiological practice, he starts with the contextual realities of mission in a post-modern, post-Christendom, post-Enlightenment, and post-Western world, so as to fashion theology informed by the Spirit poured out on all flesh.

That such a Pentecostal mission theology is plausible and serviceable in today’s world Yong establishes beyond doubt. His readiness to be more hospitable to other faiths and world-views than fundamentalist and exclusivist stances associated with Assemblies of God churches might lead us to expect is welcome. Indeed, it is on all fours with much mainstream missiology across the denominations.

And surely that will make this project distinctly suspect in those places where Pentecostal renewal ministries are far less hospitable to contemporary world-views and inter-religious dialogue. For example, his liberalising approach to demonology will be as a breath of fresh air to some Pentecostalists, but many will detect a whiff of sulphur.

Yong likes to work backwards: from missiology back to theology; from current context back to scripture; from Acts 28 back to Acts 2; from Holy Spirit back to the Son and the Father. The result is a surprisingly forward-facing theological adventure with which non-Pentecostalists can profitably engage.

We are still left, however, to ponder whether dialogue promoted as a tool of mission and evangelism rather than as a self-justifying and open-ended partnership in the search for truth effectively limits the potential for God’s Spirit to blow where she wills.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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