A Puzzling History
Pentecostal biblical scholar French Arrington details the popularization of dispensationalism by John Nelson Darby and by C. I. Scofield. Arrington describes dispensationalism as “an interpretive scheme grafted onto the traditional body of Christian doctrine.” He defines it more specifically as a “basic assumption that God deals with the human race in successive dispensations.” A dispensation is a period of time marked by a beginning, a test, and termination in judgment through human failure or sin.
Though dispensationalism has influenced Pentecostal theology, probably because of the avid attachment of both to eschatology, “the earliest Pentecostal teachings were not tied to directly to dispensationalism.” In Arrington’s opinion, the statements of faith of major Pentecostal denominations do “commit them to premillennialism but not necessarily to dispensationalism.”
But many Pentecostals have indeed adopted a dispensationalist paradigm. He links the appeal of dispensationalism for many Pentecostals to its being a convenient but complicated puzzle that organizes biblical history and prophetic Scripture. Arrington openly assesses the “marriage of the pentecostal emphasis to dispensationalism” as “strange” because of the latter’s denial of the continuing validity of spiritual gifts (cessationism) such as divine healing or speaking in tongues—important practices for Pentecostals.
Nevertheless, Arrington admits the influence of dispensationalism upon Pentecostalism has not been negligible. Yet Pentecostal writers using dispensationalist paradigms have not usually done so uncritically or unequivocally, and the movement’s recent scholars increasingly show still less dependency on dispensationalism. Continuing Pentecostal attraction to dispensationalism becomes even more puzzling in light of explicit and even acidic rejection of Pentecostals by dispensationalist fundamentalists.
Dispensationalism, especially of the popular Darby-Scofield type, evidences innate elements essentially at odds with the authentic ethos of Pentecostal spirituality and theology. Pentecostalism is not dispensationalist. Elements of dispensationalism militate against Pentecostalism. An unfortunate fact is that Pentecostals allowed themselves to be lured into accepting a dispensationalist theology that literally by definition undermines their own identity. An important challenge of the maturing movement is straightening out this error and its implications.
If we deem dispensationalism deficient, then what are appropriate alternative approaches to interpreting biblical history and addressing current and future events from a point of view affirming scriptural inspiration and authority, including its prophetic or predictive elements, but avoiding esoteric and exclusivist hermeneutics and ideology (see below)?
A Promiscuous Spirituality
Before discussing an adequate alternative for Pentecostals to fundamentalist dispensationalism, showing that the Pentecostal movement has had a tendency toward a spirituality overflowing the banks of expected (respectable!?) boundaries may be helpful. This overflowing energy is particularly indicative of Pentecostalism’s innate ability to mitigate the harshness and narrowness of the typical dispensationalist mindset, and illustrates an incompatibility of its authentic and original ethos with obvious exclusive and reclusive tendencies in dispensationalism.
In spite of some sharp history to the contrary, Pentecostalism at times displays a surprising and delightful tendency to be ecumenical and inclusive. For instance, the Azusa Street Revival and Mission clearly incorporated several streams of spirituality in an eclectic (and electric!) energizing force. African-American and Wesleyan-Holiness spiritualities met and meshed with American revivalism and Southern mores to produce a potent form of pragmatic biblical primitivism and restorationism. Eclectic and ecumenical tendencies are further exemplified in the rise and reach of the mid-twentieth century Charismatic Renewal, and in the vitality of current non-Western (Africa, Latin America, and Asia) varieties of Pentecostalism.
In fact, in a discussion of the eclectic and ecumenical nature of Pentecostalism titled “Three Streams—One River”, historian and analyst of Pentecostalism Vinson Synan predicted that “the future of Christianity will be molded by the developing Third-World, indigenous pentecostal churches interacting with the vigorous charismatic elements in the traditional churches.” These words now seem almost prophetic nearly twenty-five years later. Clearly an argument may be made that Pentecostalism cannot be strictly contained within the restrictive confines of dispensationalist ideology.
Therefore, though some, or even many, Pentecostals have been and are dispensationalists, Pentecostalism itself refuses to be bound to or by dispensationalism. The overflowing energy of Pentecostal rivers of the Spirit (cf. John 7:37-39) reaches fertile fields in all kinds of surprising places and doctrinal paradigms. Therefore, being a Pentecostal and not being a dispensationalist is not only possible but perhaps quite preferable. The freedom of the liberating presence of the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Co 3:17) breaks the bands of arid dispensationalist dogmatism.
Doors and windows are opened for the Spirit’s blowing wind (cf. John 3:8) to breathe fresh air into all the halls, rooms, and corners of the Pentecostal household. Without denigrating Pentecostals who see dispensationalism as integral for their world outlook, Pentecostalism itself will not be denied a wider reach.
Bishop Tony Richie (D. Min., Asbury Theological Seminary/D. Th. Candidate, UNISA), Senior Pastor, New Harvest Church of God in Knoxville, TN, is also a missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and does adjunct teaching at the Church of God Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). He serves the Society for Pentecostal Studies as liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission (IRC) of the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the IRC as liaison to christianzionism.org.
5 F. L. Arrington, “Dispensationalism,” NIDPCM, pp. 584-86 (585). Cf. Gerald T. Sheppard, “Pentecostalism and the Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism: The Anatomy of an Uneasy Relationship”, Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 6 (Fall 1984), pp. 5-34.
6 Cf. H. V. Synan, “Evangelicalism,” NIDPCM, pp. 613-16 (615) and “Fundamentalism,” NIDPCM, pp. 655-658 (657-58).
7 A sort of general dispensationalism identifying the present ‘Age of the Spirit’ including eschatological and prophetic elements may indeed be intrinsic to Pentecostalism, at least in its early, North American, classical form. See M. D. Palmer, “Ethics in the Classical Pentecostal Tradition,” NIDPCM, pp. 605-610 (606). If so, distinctions between fundamentalist dispensationalism are still sharp.
8 See Tony Richie, “‘The Unity of the Spirit’”: Are Pentecostals Inherently Ecumenists and Inclusivists”? Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association, 26.1 (2006), pp. 21-35.
9 Cf. Cecil M. Robeck, Jr. Azusa Street Mission & Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement (Nashville: Nelson, 2006), Douglas Jacobsen, Thinking in the Spirit: Theologies of the Early Pentecostal Movement (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003), Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (London, Eng: Harvard University Press, 2001).
10 Cf. Harold D. Hunter and Peter D. Hocken, editors, All Together in One Place: Theological Papers from the Brighton Conference on World Evangelization (JPTSup 4, Sheffield, Eng: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993) and Allan Anderson and Walter J. Hollenweger, editors, Pentecostals after a Century: Global Perspectives on a Movement in Transition (JPTSup 15, Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).
11 Vinson Synan, In the latter Days: The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Twentieth Century (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1984), pp. 135-46 (145).