Pentecostalism’s Wesleyan Roots & Fruit

Pentecostalism’s Wesleyan Roots & Fruit

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Contemporary Pentecostalism is in many ways an offshoot of Wesleyan-Arminian spirituality and theology via the American Holiness movement.[1] John Wesley’s emphasis on sanctification as a deeper experience beyond justification and on the agency of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life not only resulted in the founding of Methodism and contributed to the Holiness Movement but eventually “became a major factor in the rise of Pentecostalism”.[2] Different contemporary Pentecostal organizations may continue to claim this heritage to varying degrees, and global Pentecostals are certainly diverse and distinctive in their own identities. Nevertheless, the significance of this historical trajectory is nearly universally acknowledged. This affirmation in no wise lessens Pentecostal indebtedness to or interaction with other branches of the broader Christian tradition. On the contrary, it tends to open up such possibilities; but, it does so from a particular perspective.

John Wesley’s chief distinctive was Christian perfection, or “the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers whereby they are enabled to love God with all their hearts, souls and minds, and their neighbors as themselves”.[3] Pentecostals specifically identify conversion, sanctification, divine healing, and the premillennial second coming of Jesus as Wesleyan-Arminian-Holiness themes that particularly impacted the formative stages of their movement’s development.[4] With Wesley Pentecostals also affirm the understanding of seventeenth century Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius of divine sovereignty and human freedom. With Wesleyan-Arminians, we reconcile these apparent polarities by viewing election as contingent upon divine foreknowledge of human free choice (contra Calvinism).[5] The Wesleyan-Arminian tradition constitutes an overall approach to doing Christian theology with interlinking components vital for a coherent system of thought and practice.

However, the Wesleyan doctrinal tradition is broad and deep. I suggest contemporary Pentecostals need to expand our perception to embrace its panoramic vision. Wesleyan theology emphasizes themes of God as holy love, the primacy of Scripture, the prior agency of God’s grace, the image of God and salvation as the restoration of God’s image, the gospel for the poor, the wisdom of God in creation, the renewal of the Church, and the restoration of all creation.[6] Furthermore, the contemporary relevance of Wesley’s theology includes implications of his doctrine of prevenient grace for missiology, his pneumatology in light of contemporary Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, therapeutic view of salvation (as healing from the disease of sin), and applications of his doctrine of creation to environmental ethics.[7]

What would a possible portrait of a Pentecostal theology comparably broad and deep in the aforementioned Wesleyan sense look like? At this point I am only able to sketch a few brief observations. Yet I hope it is sufficient to suggest the fertility of an expansive approach.

Of course, continuing need exists for intentional integration of character, or fruit of the Spirit, and charisma, or gifts of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-25; 1 Co 12-14). Also, an integration of ecclesial and individual piety with communal and social aspects of Christian mission continues to be a need too (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). So far there’re no new surprises here. Possibly my third suggestion presents more of an obstacle—or opportunity. I suggest that our Wesleyan heritage can help Pentecostals advance boldly and bravely in our doctrinal development. Admittedly, launching out into new areas or insights requires courage and commitment (Gal 1:10-24).

I sense that we’ve been in a defensive posture for far too long. From our beginnings we’ve tried to convince critics that we’re not fanatics or heretics after all. And we’ve long tried to establish biblical, theological, and historical foundations for our distinctive beliefs and practices. That’s all well and good. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I think we’ve at least gained an honest hearing among most fair-minded folks. Isn’t it time to forge ahead? Let’s expand our horizons! What does the image of God (Imago Dei) in all humans say to us about abortion, human sexuality, gender and race, or cloning? How might prevenient grace affect Christian mission to the unevangelized or non-Christian religions? What kind of ecotheology emanates from our doctrine of creation? How does eschatological restoration inform contemporary social activism? How might a self-consciously Wesleyan-Pentecostal spirituality and theology speak specifically to these and other such subjects?

I want to move beyond where I am without leaving behind where I’ve been. The Wesleyan doctrinal tradition provides Pentecostals with an inclusive and expansive yet solid and substantive paradigm for doing theology in today’s world. It’s not the only model. However, we’re already at home with this theological tradition. And it offers, I think, a clear, consistent, and coherent trajectory.

[1] See H.V. Synan, “Classical Pentecostalism,” New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, 553. Cp. Howard A. Snyder, “Wesleyanism, Wesleyan Theology,” Global Dictionary of Theology, eds., William A. Dryness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, et al, 931.

[2] Snyder, “Wesleyanism,” 936.

[3] Snyder, “Wesleyanism,” 935.

[5] Sims, Our Pentecostal Heritage, 69.

[6] Snyder, “Wesleyanism,” 932-35.

[7] Snyder, “Wesleyanism,” 936.


14 Responses

  1. Thank you Dr. Richie for this article. I was raised as a Pentecostal, and currently I am part of a Methodist community, so dialogue between these two traditions interests me. I am especially intrigued by the connection between pneumatology and prevenient grace. Have you read much of Amos Yong’s work on the Spirit outside of the Church? If so, are there touch points between Yong’s Pneumatology and Wesleyan Pneumatology that you’d like to see developed further?

    1. Hi Brian! Yes, I am familiar with Amos Yong’s work in this area. Also, even earlier was Clark Pinnock in A FLAME OF LOVE. Along with such as these, I recognize that prevenient grace involves the work of the Spirit in the wider world. I develop this trajectory a little in my own TOWARD A PENTECOSTAL THEOLOGY OF RELIGIONS (CPT Press). God bless!

  2. Of course Don Dayton was a precursor in “Discovering an Evangelical Heritage” weaving together Wesleyanism, the Great Awakenings, Azusa St. and the neo-Evangelcals as a middle way between the Fundamentalists and the Liberals. And yes our challenge today is discerning the streams that will provide a relevant witness to the Faith for the XXI century.

    1. Yes, Don Dayton is a an excellent resource in this regard as well as in many others. I’m indebted to his work.

        1. I’m glad the article is helpful, especially for such an important decision! Thanks also sharing the links, which I enjoyed reading. God Bless!

  3. Professor Richie, this is a very helpful post both in pointing to the Wesleyan heritage for Pentecostals and suggesting directions that Pentecostals should reflect on and develop. I’d like your thoughts on one point where I’m not sure that the Wesleyan heritage has been carried forward as well. It seems like, in Pentecostal churches of which I have been a part, and other Holiness denominations, that sanctification, while not explicitly stated this way, has been reduced to avoiding a small group of “don’ts”: don’t drink alcohol, don’t dance, don’t smoke, don’t gamble, and so forth. I remember vividly an AG pastor telling about his experience as a teen. he went once on his own to the theater to see the Disney animated feature “Bambi.” He said that the whole time he was watching it, he feared that the Rapture would take place and he’d be left behind.
    My impression is that this sort of Holiness Movement perspective that narrows down sanctification to this small set of behaviors (and seemingly ignore other things that one could easily argue are more significant) would not be a positive development of Wesley’s idea of sanctification. What do you think?

    1. Hi Ken! Thanks for your positive responses. Yes, I also have encountered legalistic and, mostly, negative versions of Holiness and Holiness-Pentecostal movements. I agree that this approach is not “a positive development of Wesley’s idea of sanctification.” In Wesley, and in Wesleyanism, in both non-Pentecostal and Pentecostal expressions, more faithful to his vision, I find that there is more of an emphasis on relational holiness (love of God and neighbor) and formational holiness (conforming to the image of God in Christ). Of course, this still involves some prohibitions, or “don’ts” if you will, but I think there is more balance with sanctification as a positive expression of Christian faith and practice. Unfortunately, many have rejected holiness and sanctification because of negative encounters with versions that didn’t represent the biblical reality at its best. To be truly holy is to be what God created human beings to be in reflecting the character and nature of the one who is the center and circumference of holiness–our Lord Jesus Christ!
      God bless,

  4. Thanks for this article. I am seeing a “u-turn” happening in Pentecostal scholarship to head back to our Wesleyan roots. I, for one, would like to see a more sacramental side to Pentecostalism, and a departure from Evangelical Zwinglianism which, when you think about it, doesn’t really align with a movement based around the Holy Spirit.
    I would also like to see some deeper digging into Wesleyan themes so the Pentecostal church can find its own identity while retaining “some” evangelical influences that happened very early.

    1. Yes, Dan, I agree with you. I might call it more a re-appropriation than a “u-turn” because important elements have always been notable but the appropriation is now become more consistent and more substantive (including expansive). The area of sacraments, as you mentioned, is a significant example.

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