Clark H. Pinnock
This article is reproduced here with the permission of Worship Leader Magazine. It was published by them in their November / December 2000 issue.
How the Pentecostal Theology of Experience is Changing Our Understanding of God
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must be distinguished from the god of the philosophers. Blaise Pascal, seventeenth century philosopher, mathematician and mystic, drew this distinction from an encounter which he had with God and which he described simply as “Fire!” From this experience he learned that the God of the biblical revelation was not the god of the intellectuals who had, quite unfortunately, created God out of their own (supposedly) rational musings. From the experience Pascal gained the insight that the true God is not the wholly Other, unyielding, unfeeling and utterly remote, but the living God who acts in history, responds to our prayers, and can be touched by the feelings of our infirmities. Pascal’s encounter with God led him to theological insight as well as transformation. Before that, he had been experientially challenged and blind to God’s deeply personal nature.
Today’s worship revolution, which likewise is experientially enriched, holds promise for theological insight and reform. From my own experience, I have encountered God and learned that he is not an isolated, unrelated, impersonal Being, but a present, interactive, relational Person. I have come to know God as a dialogue partner who values our relationship as much (or more) than I value it myself.
It is an unfortunate reality of our day that theological tradition tends to magnify God’s distance at the expense of his nearness. But an experience of the Holy Spirit brings the intimacy and warm divine-human embrace into view. It takes you in worship beyond just learning about a God who is out there to an encounter with God who is down here in the thick of life. Renewed believers experience real give-and-take and genuine partnership with God where they have a voice in genuine dialogue. We experience God as being involved in their lives and responding to events in their world. When we meet to praise and worship him, we expect God to show up and, when we cry out, we expect God to respond. Increasingly, as we become more and more open to the “already” of salvation, we thirst for more and expect God for the “not yet.”
Of course, it would be wonderful enough if what we are seeing were only the revitalization of believers, even if it had no theological payoff. But, thanks be to God, there is this added dimension as well. We are witnesses to a measure theological reformation as well. After all, reformation is an ongoing process. What I am sensing is a recovery of the dynamic, biblical portrait of God and a better understanding of the divine perfection. And I am sensing this primarily within the Pentecostal movement.
God of the Philosophers
In the ancient world in which Christian doctrine was formed, there was a struggle over the nature of divine perfection. The Greek philosophers who carried intellectual weight held that divine perfection would have to understand God as never changing. For both Plato and Aristotle, God must be totally unyielding in every respect. Obviously they thought of God as an absolute being, not as a person with whom one could interact. Aristotle even spoke of God as an “unmoved mover” which could move things without being moved or feeling anything itself. Aristotle’s notion of God could move others by being an object of thought and could function as a final cause of worldly events, without changing in any respect itself. The only real activity that this God could engage in was the immobile “activity” of self-contemplation. God could only think about himself because, if he thought about the world, for example, he would be affected by it and be changed. And so, Aristotle thought that God must be independent of everything and dependent on nothing. God must be superior, meaning that he must be free of relationships that might involve response and interaction. To be perfect, God must be pure actuality, possessing no potentiality. God must be incapable of being affected by any other being because that would involve a kind of changing. Thus God cannot even know the world as a changing reality because that would change God in the knowing of it. The Greek philosophers held to what we could call the dogma of God’s absolute unchangeableness.
It is not hard to grasp then why it was so difficult for early Christians to do theology in dialogue with this way of thinking about God. Christianity had come into the world with a very different model of the divine perfection. How could one possibly combine the picture of God as a passionate person (the biblical tradition) with God as a metaphysical iceberg (Greek philosophy)?
Tertullian warned against having anything to do with a synthesis of this kind, but some of the most respected theologians went ahead anyway. Especially in the work of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas you can see the pagan/Christian synthesis being concocted. They took the pagan legacy of utter unchangeability in God and merged it with the biblical teaching. It resulted in a definite onesideness in favor of God’s distance over God’s nearness and introduced distortions into the definitions of many of the attributes of God. There was lots of emphasis placed on God’s transcendence, but much less on God’s involvement with us. It left us with the lifeless picture of an immutable and unchangeable, timeless and completely actualized God and saddled us with numerous self-contradictions.
It meant, for example, that God had to know a changing world in an unchangeable way, that God had to act in history in a timeless way, and that God had to deal with the past, present, and future simultaneously rather than successively. None of these ideas and none of these problems originated in the Bible-all of them were generated by the biblical/Greek synthesis. They were not extracted from the biblical text. They were read into it.
The Bible Tells Me So
Deity in the Bible is not presented abstractly as absolute being or un-changeable substance but is depicted concretely as a person with a name. We encounter Yahweh, who is a person who plans and wills, acts and creates, loves and interacts. In the light of the Incarnation and Pentecost, we even glimpse the triune identity of God which represents a model of dynamic interpersonal relationships. God is humanity’s enthusiastic lover and, although transcendent as creator, God chooses (by grace) to be bound to us and involved with us in this changing world. Though not changing in His own essential being, God nevertheless is flexible and changing in His dealings with us and in His experiences of history. God changes in the way He feels and acts in response to our input and is free to alter His plans in relation to what we decide. God is not a control freak but encourages us to participate in our own destiny. God is unchanging in His love but ever changing in the ways in which He cares for us. Not only does He get involved with people, God even suffers on their behalf.
Fortunately there have always been theologians who did not buy into the immobility package of divine attributes entirely and there are signs today that God’s people are growing as hearers of God’s word in this matter. Theologians before Augustine held strongly to human freedom and genuine relationality and the Church after him never accepted his theological determinism. Leaders like Menno Simons and the pietists, Jacob Arminius and John Wesley stood up against these tendencies within Protestantism. These men affirmed genuine human freedom and the truth that God can be and is affected by creatures and genuinely responds to them. This is one of the most important issues in theology as it moves into the new millennium. We need to clarify how God relates to the world and Pentecostals are making an important contribution.
The Pentecostal Influence
Pentecostals are making this contribution because they are strongly relational in their interaction with God. These are not people who treat the Bible as a book of concepts only but as a narrative of ongoing divine activity. They don’t just read the Bible, they inhabit the story which it tells. They engage the narrative literally and existentially, believing God is with them, and expecting to see the surprising works of God in their day. When they read that God interacts with people of faith, they do not dismiss such language as something to be transcended-they take it seriously.
Pentecostals are not only interested in the concepts of Scripture but are sensitive to dynamically historical and experiential aspects of the text. They are like people caught up in the story of God and in the momentum of the Spirit. They delight in a God who is personal and who responds to them in surprising and unpredictable ways. They exist spiritually in the ethos of God-with-us.
Relationality is the key issue and it surfaces in other aspects of renewal spirituality as well. Not only do we read the Bible as a life-changing narrative, we experience the covenant partnership with God as genuinely bilateral, not unilateral. For example, whether someone is saved or not, or whether someone is baptized in the Spirit or not, these are not foreordained events that nobody can do anything about. Human response is involved in these matters. God does not force people into the kingdom. God does not jam the Holy Spirit down their throats. The human response to God’s grace, whether affirmative or negative, matters and affects God’s plans for us.
Similarly, answers to prayer are linked to faith. If faith is not present, miracles do not happen. God heals when we ask him to heal and thus makes his actions dependent on our prayers. Though unheard of in classical theism, God actually allows us to condition Him. Prayer can change things because everything has not been decided. If things have been decided, why pray? This common sense attitude which the Bible displays and which is so noticeable in charismatic spirituality underlies the holy boldness which is so evidently a feature of the Pentecostal renewal. Passive faith-the faith that just says “Thy will be done” is not enough for people in renewal. Active faith-faith that engages God-that is what delights God’s heart. That is what God loves to respond to. He loves the faith of the widow who pestered the unjust judge for justice and got what she asked for (Luke 18:1-8). God wants us to be willful in a good sense-that is, to be people determined to count for God with a willingness to go for it. God loves a faith that takes authority, a faith that demands the gifts that we already know God wants to have operating among us. God wants us in worship to expect Him to move and manifest Himself, to call down the fire and the blessing. God loves your openness to Him. God loves it that you recognize Him as a living God and not, as Dallas Willard says, an unblinking cosmic stare. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not an unmoved mover-He is the most moved mover.
Genuine Dialogue with God
The Pentecostal pattern of thinking strongly supports a relational model of God. They do not see God as all-determining or totally immutable. Rather they see God as a loving person, who acts and interacts, who initiates and responds. God is not all-controlling or unconditioned. God is not timeless or passionless. God is a living God who gives us room to be and who delights in covenant relationships. God is one who loves us so much that He is willing even to undergo suffering on our behalf.
Relationality is a model of God which represents the God of incarnate love. It affirms that God has real relations with human beings and that there are genuine give-and-take interactions between God and creatures. It holds that God acts and reacts, that God allows himself to be conditioned by creatures, that God acts in the light of what humans decide and not only unilaterally. It holds that God in grace grants us significant freedom to cooperate with or to work against God’s will for our lives.
This arrangement involves risks for God but God is resourceful enough to work toward His goals in spite of everything. Sometimes God alone may decide what to do, while on other occasions God may work with human decisions, adapting His plans to the changing situations. God invites us to participate with Him in bringing the future of the world into being. This is a precious vision and it is so important not to let philosophical categories get in the way. It is so easy to create conceptual idols. And it has happened all too often. Pentecostal practice can act as a corrective by revealing the heart of God through their experience-oriented framework. Pentecostals seem to understand this relational notion about God implicitly, even if their theological underpinnings have not yet found solid footing.
The early church fathers were relational in their understanding of God. The Reformers did not correct the situation, though Wesleyans and Arminians helped to bring about reform. The Pentecostals stand in this tradition, and I hope that they would stand tall. Though Pentecostalism has much to offer, there is a danger as the movement seeks to gain the respect of their elder Evangelical brethren. It is possible that the unhelpful influences of classical theism which are alive in the Evangelical coalition may affect the openness and fluidity of the Pentecostal paradigm adversely. Pentecostalism, after all, is still very open theologically and is beginning to reflect upon its convictions. Pressure from non-relational theists (strict determinists) to adhere to inflexible characterizations of God will ultimately betray their dynamic approach. I am afraid that if Evangelicals sneeze, Pentecostals might catch a cold.
Pentecostals experience God as a dynamic person and have a strong relational model of God. They know God as a loving person who acts and interacts, initiates and responds. This helps explain not only why God uses them so mightily in mission but also why He is using their movement to bring reform to the doctrine of God. May they continue with this witness.
Clark H. Pinnock is professor of theology at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.
© 2000 Worship Leader Magazine