Pentecostalism emphasizes the dynamic workings of the Holy Spirit. As a result, it often carries a reputation of being liberated from the dead hand of the past, rather than rooted in historic Christian orthodoxy. Emilio Alvarez, presiding bishop of the Union of Charismatic Orthodox Churches, looks to fuse his own Pentecostalism with the riches of church tradition in his book Pentecostal Orthodoxy: Toward an Ecumenism of the Spirit. Dale Coulter, a professor at Pentecostal Theological Seminary, spoke with Alvarez about forging a closer bond between Pentecostalism and the church throughout the ages.
Tell us about your journey into Pentecostal orthodoxy and what led you to write the book.
As a minister with the Church of God, a Holiness Pentecostal denomination based in Cleveland, Tennessee, I began to wrestle with certain questions: Why do we believe, for instance, that Catholics are going to hell? What are saints? And what is the Eucharist? As I explain in the book, I had an epiphany during a service as we celebrated Communion. As I stood there behind a makeshift table, I froze and wondered, Is this the body and the blood of Jesus Christ? It was like the Holy Spirit placed a yearning in me.
I started connecting with folks involved in what was called the Convergence-Worship movement. These were evangelicals, like Robert Webber or the theologians behind the Chicago Call of 1977, who were interested in recovering the Great Tradition of Christian faith in its historical and liturgical fullness. Meanwhile, I started reconstructing my own church’s worship around liturgical practices observed in other traditions, like Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Catholicism. I wondered whether I should change denominations, but I concluded that God was not calling me in that direction. Instead, I thought there might be a way of being Pentecostal while also recovering the classical Christian consensus and the liturgical and sacramental spirituality of the church.
While thinking this through, I had a conversation with my father, who is a bishop in the Church of God. We were discussing Brant Pitre’s book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. As my father was going into his house, he turned, shook his key, and asked, “Would you consider me orthodox?” This caused me to ask whether I even considered myself orthodox, in the sense of embracing a classical consensus around theology, liturgy, and sacraments. And that’s when I really started exploring whether there could be such a thing as a Pentecostal orthodoxy. This book represents an attempt to understand what it means.
So, you remained Pentecostal and asked, How can I bring orthodoxy to my Pentecostalism? With that in mind, define Pentecostal orthodoxy.
I define Pentecostal orthodoxy as a segment within the broader Pentecostal movement that is recovering the doctrinal consensus and the liturgical and sacramental worship of the early church. The exciting part about that definition is that it is incomplete if we do not retain our Pentecostal spirituality and theology. The consensus of the historic church and its liturgical and sacramental spirituality must be viewed through a Pentecostal framework.
In the book, I explore places like the Joint College of African American Pentecostal Bishops, where there are efforts at recovering base elements. What I mean by “base elements” is parts of historic liturgy or vestments. However, I don’t know of many self-identified Pentecostal congregations that have tried fully integrating these ancient elements. In the Convergence-Worship movement, you can find an integration between the evangelical, sacramental, liturgical, and charismatic, but I make a distinction between the charismatic movement and the Pentecostal movement. Aside from what we’re doing at the Union of Charismatic Orthodox Churches—where we celebrate the Eucharist every week, believe in the real presence of Christ, and follow the liturgical calendar—I haven’t found any places that embrace all of that while identifying as Pentecostals.
In the book, you explore the testimonies of those living out Pentecostal orthodoxy, much like John Wesley did in his book A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. How do these testimonies build a bridge between Pentecostals and Christians in other traditions?
I was thinking about how Wesley used spiritual biographies as tools for Christian formation. There are people who find themselves in other traditions who are saying, “We are Pentecostals. We just didn’t have a map. We didn’t know anyone who was doing this in the Pentecostal tradition.”
The decision to include testimonies was a way of saying I’m not the only one fusing Pentecostalism and orthodoxy, and that it’s happening more than anyone really knows. Within our own churches, this experience of looking at spiritual biographies—not only from Scripture but also from accounts of the saints and other historic Christian figures—gave us models to imitate. I wanted to bring all these pieces together and produce a kind of map for readers.
How do you address the perception, in certain Pentecostal circles, that being a small-c catholic Christian means being white?
The main issue people had with me when I began pursuing the idea of Pentecostal orthodoxy was, “Hey, that’s Catholic.” I kept trying to figure out what they meant by it. I realized that most of my Black and brown brothers and sisters saw it as equal to “That’s white.” Which meant colonialism, among other things. The dominant thought was that Christianity was the white man’s religion.
I use books from scholars like Antipas Harris and Vince Bantu to demonstrate that Christianity existed on the Western shores of Africa before colonialism. Also, the type of Christianity that existed in North Africa, Egypt, and Syria was a liturgical and sacramental Christianity that retained a rich ethnic diversity. I’m trying to tell my African American and Latino brothers and sisters that we are missing part of our heritage. There is also so much in the lives of African or Syrian saints that could enrich African American and Latino spirituality.
You criticize certain Pentecostal leaders for misusing elements of ancient church tradition. How do you believe they have erred?
My criticism is that instead of diving into this fullness of our Christian heritage, we engage in mimicry. We mimic and politicize. Part of that politicization has to do with the Black and brown experience of identity. For some, wearing a religious collar or vestments is more about having a rank or a title. The result is that we politicize titles and vestments as a way of making us feel like we are somebody.
In most of our African American or Latino contexts, we have people wearing chasubles—a historically Eucharistic garment—but without celebrating the Eucharist. Because we haven’t recovered the elements of the Great Tradition having to do with the church’s rich ethnic diversity, we’re left mimicking things. We don’t have to mimic. We can be fully Pentecostal, fully African American, and fully Latino while recovering the Great Tradition.
In the final chapter, you talk about an “ecumenism of the Spirit.” What do you mean by this?
What I mean is that we don’t do things together, as the church, and then invite the Spirit to join us. Instead, it is the Spirit who creates a yearning for unity, liturgy, sacraments, and the fullness of the Christian tradition. An ecumenism of the Spirit is when people from the orthodox tradition wonder, “What is Pentecostalism?” Or when Pentecostals ask, “What is orthodoxy?” This is a grassroots ecumenical movement occurring in parking lots, bodegas, and supermarkets, with Christians of all traditions coming together and sharing. The point is not to leave your tradition, but to come together with others on this wonderful journey.
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