The Pentecostal as Mystic

Pentecostal_storefrontI’m not a Roman Catholic. If you are friends with me on Facebook, though, you might wonder sometimes. In the past half-year I’ve paid more attention to the actions and words of the Pope than ever before. While not in preparation to bend my knee towards Rome, this action on my part does represent a real admiration for a lot of what I have seen from Francis. It seems that nearly every week he is doing or saying something worthy of profound reflection.

So it was that yesterday a published interview contained the following line from the Pontiff:

“A religion without mystics is a philosophy.”

Short, simple, and catchy, it had all the hallmarks of an immediately classic quotation. So perfect it was in its construction and truth, I thought, that he must have been quoting someone else. After a quick search, however, it seems that the words are his and his alone.

I like the idea of the mystical being a constituent part of what differentiates pursuits of the mind from pursuits of the soul. I think Francis is wise to remind us of this. The thought also dovetails nicely with a topic I was already considering: Pentecostalism’s approach to biblical interpretation.

When it comes to Pentecostal spirituality, many scholars admit that there is a tension in the movement surrounding the skd249086sdcplace of (for lack of a better word) mysticism. Pentecostals, as a group that asserts the deep and powerful place of sometimes extravagant spiritual experience, the role of the Holy Spirit in speaking to and through them, and the ongoing use of spiritual gifts, are by their very orientation focused upon union with God and other ineffable realities. And yet many of us within the movement, itself having grown up–especially in America–in the midst of a very scientific and modernist world, are tempted to leave this mystically complicated and messy spirituality for the clean lines of evangelicalism.

One of the places this evangelical influence upon Pentecostalism is felt most strongly is in the area of biblical interpretation. As one scholar has said, the Pentecostal approach to reading the Scriptures has often been a very experiential one. They feel out, in other words, how God is speaking to them through it. This might mean appropriating a biblical story as their own, adopting the words of the Scripture as God’s personal message to them, or simply saying that “God gave me this verse.”

pentecostalSuch an approach, while deeply coded within Pentecostalism, is not at all the evangelical approach.  As the two groups have often aligned in common cause in the past few decades, some say that Pentecostals have perceived the need to move towards a different style of Bible reading.  I feel this tension when I teach the course Biblical Interpretation here at my university. We use an evangelical textbook that seeks to have students engage in a logically progressing scientific study of the Bible, along the way asserting that the meaning of a passage is found in original authorial intent and, basically, that the text cannot mean what it never meant.

As someone who has had a not insignificant amount of training in the Bible, I accept the hallmarks of this approach and I teach it to my students. And yet as a Pentecostal I can’t help but feel there is something wrong with it. That the Holy Spirit can speak to us through the Scriptures in ways unexpected. That scientific exegesis does not exhaust what is happening here. That revelation from the Lord has not completely ended in the cold lines of the printed page. I’m wise enough to know that the contents of any continuing revelation cannot be in contradiction to the rest of the Scripture nor be used to create teachings unknown from the rest of thehn4f3db1f6 Bible (no Joseph Smith here, thank you very much!), but I do want to remain open to the possibility that God can communicate otherwise. I’m willing, therefore, to say that we start by analyzing the Bible carefully, but do not necessarily end there.

To be a Pentecostal “mystic” would seem to require an approach of this sort, despite the dangers our evangelical friends might see. Pentecostals the world over do read the Bible experientially and immediate to themselves. They inhabit its story, and in the midst of that story the Spirit of God inhabits them, even from time to time speaking through them to the congregation. If all of this isn’t a kind of mysticism, I don’t know what is.


2 comments on “The Pentecostal as Mystic

  1. anonymous says:

    I think I understand what you are saying (correct me if I’m wrong): that having a sort of mysticism is a good way (better way maybe?) to approach religion because it allows the believer to understand the Bible in a more expanded light than someone who is interpreting the Bible in a scientific way. You’re say that through this way of interpreting scripture, you “remain open to the possibility that God can communicate otherwise.”

    I understand this point of view, having grown up in a Pentecostal church, but I am wary of what this might mean. The Pentecostal spirituality can have negative effects on the way scripture is interpreted, especially if it is interpreted on the individual level. Take the Psalms, for instance. These songs can be beautiful and moving, and can even be personal prayers, but when read on the individual level, they can be dangerous. Many Psalms pray for the death and destruction of the speaker’s enemies, and a person who is reading these passages can use them to justify violence toward other people. Although this is a pretty extreme example, I am wary to accept that the Bible can be interpreted by mysticism, and that God ‘gives’ people verses that they can use in their daily lives.

    I struggle with this a lot because when I was growing up at church, I was encouraged to ‘let the Word of God speak to me’ and to ‘hear what the Holy Spirit is saying in my heart.’ I tried to get into the music and let the Holy Spirit speak through me, but I never felt that God was speaking to me directly. The guilt that came along with this made me shy away from Christianity even more. However, my worldview was expanded when I was told by another pastor that being a Christian did not mean that Jesus ‘lived in my heart’, but that His sacrificial death–brought about, not by my doing at all, but by a God that loves us unconditionally–is what brings life. After realizing Grace that Jesus showed on the cross and having it pounded in my head week after week is what truly solidified my Christianity and not the fact that I was able to (or not able to) speak in tongues or have an “extravagant spiritual experience.”

    I tend to shy away from that mysticism now because of the guilt I felt in a church that worshiped mysticism (probably not the same kind of mysticism you are talking about or that Pope Francis is talking about) and preached that if you are having doubts about major or minor life decisions, pray about it and God will tell you an answer, but never getting an answer. Sorry for this rambling, but I think I’m just confused about what your view is on how God ‘speaks’ to you and the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical interpretation specifically and in our daily lives in general.


    • Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate you taking the time to work through explaining your spiritual journey with me. You raise some valid concerns here, including the dangers of open-ended interpretation of the Scriptures and the potential for overemphasis upon the “extravagant” work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, so much so that someone not so affected may feel rather excluded or ashamed.

      Both things are some of the dangers of excess in the Pentecostal movement. I’ve seen them and felt them myself.

      David du Plessis, the subject of my doctoral dissertation and Pentecostal hero of mine, would describe the presence of the Holy Spirit as “fire.” He of course didn’t invent this metaphor but simply borrowed it from the gospels. Fire is a unique thing here, because it is good in many ways–heat, light, etc. But it is also fire and burns…sometimes out of control.

      Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals, in some sense, have had to reckon with the question of fire. Some would rather not allow the potential for wildfire, and so limit the Spirit. Others bring it on, pell-mell, and so burn many others. I believe that the best way forward is somewhere in the middle. (the fire in the fireplace, as someone as said)

      I do believe in the mystical work of God’s Spirit in our lives, and do so as a Pentecostal. I believe in the power of spiritual experience. All the same, I’m sorry for those times that have used their experience to make others feel excluded, or some have taken advantage of this teaching to do not what the Spirit says, but rather to follow their own inner imagination, will, or desires in the name of God.

      I don’t think I’m saying that you need mysticism to understand the Bible. But I am saying that a more “scientific” approach to Bible study that excludes the potential for the Holy Spirit speaking to us some new/personal meaning may miss something important. It may be that is is the exception to the rule.

      The grace of Christ, as you have said, is vital. But we know as well that the Holy Spirit is alive in the life of the believer. I don’t worship mysticism, but I do worship the Holy Spirit who is God…the Father who is God…and the Son who is God.

      I do, in the midst of all of this, want to admit the possibility that the Holy Spirit can speak in unexpected ways. That God’s Spirit can bring fire. I’d rather have this fire than none at all. I know that some Christians, trusting in Christ just as much as I do, think otherwise. This I understand. But it is a difference, I think.

      See, now I’ve been rambling a bit myself. Bottom line is, in my study of Scripture I pay attention to the “evangelical” method of Bible study, even as I allow that God may speak beyond just the author’s intended meaning. If it is from the Spirit, it is God. If it is not, it is wrong.

      I don’t know if this helps. Feel free to ask some other questions if you’d like.

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