The Origin, Development, and Future of Assemblies of God Eschatology: A PhD Thesis

Last May I completed a my journey through my PhD program.  For 10 years I have immersed myself in the world of Assemblies of God history and doctrine in order to produce the first comprehensive study of AG eschatology that looks at 100 years of official, popular and scholarly expressions of the AG’s position on the second coming of Jesus.  It was a joyful journey with may twists and turns. But in the end, I feel proud of the work I did and the contribution I made to the field of Pentecostal History and Theology.

Today, that thesis is available to the public for the first time.  My school, Bangor University (Wales), publishes all of their dissertations freely online through their open-source digital repository. Unlike Proquest, or other dissertation services, that are only available by subscription to academic libraries, Bangor believes in the value of information justice and sharing research with the world. Anyone can download it free of charge here:

https://research.bangor.ac.uk/portal/en/theses/the-origin-development-and-future-of-assemblies-of-god-eschatology(9d6fbc67-9a5e-47d5-8226-c7c62e24f609).html (warning, it takes a while to download)

A published print version of this thesis is in the works with ORU Press, which will hopefully be available later this year.

As I say in the dedication: ” I pray this study honors the past, encourages the present, and shapes the future.”

 

The Future of AG Eschatology

On May 16th I successfully defended my dissertation and was awarded the degree of PhD in Pentecostal Theology from Bangor University (Wales, UK). I was examined by Dr. Robert Pope of Westminster College (Cambridge, UK) and Dr. Andrew Davies of University of Birmingham (UK).

 

The Viva (so called in the UK) took about an hour and it was a wonderful conversation about my research and my conclusions. After about five minutes of deliberation they announced that I passed with only minor corrections to be made in the days ahead. I never imagined that defending a thesis would be so enjoyable. Ten years of work and research came together in that one hour meeting.  I look forward to the corrected version being available to the public in the months ahead so people can read my work.

An Overview of My Research

Now that it is complete, I feel I can share more about my research. This this study sought to retrieve and interpret how the AG has understood eschatology over the past century. In order to understand how the AG expressed itself, I explored the various voices that have expressed AG beliefs over the past century.

First, the review of scholarly literature contains the most comprehensive survey of studies of AG eschatology and eschatological research by AG scholars. It revealed that AG scholars universally recognize the central role that eschatology has played in the fellowship but are uncomfortable with the fundamentalist dispensationalism expressions that have served as the primary orientation of its doctrine. Because of this, many Pentecostal and AG scholars have sought to argue for alternative models, which are thought to be pneumatologically compatible with the distinctive characteristics found in Pentecostal theology.

In order to test these conclusions, Chapters 3 and 4 sought to engage in a survey of the primary resources of the fellowship. Chapter 3 offered the first survey of official eschatological doctrine of the General Council expressed through the SFT. This chapter revealed multiple revisions have occurred with have led a gradual shift in emphasis during each period from a general expression of eschatological images toward a more specific linear chronology, subtle changes to the millennial position centered around the changing dynamics concerning the nation of Israel, and a noticeable reluctance to articulate a precise tribulational position in the SFT that denominational leaders made explicit in the position papers and supplemental statements.

In Chapter 4, over a century of articles throughout the 5,000 issues in Pentecostal Evangel were surveyed to produce the most comprehensive theological analysis of AG eschatological beliefs. The number and diversity of voices provided a richer and more nuanced narrative of the types of eschatological understandings that have been held in the AG.

In Chapter 5, I summarized the essential elements that make for an AG eschatology. And in Chapter 6, I attempted to construct a pneumatological eschatology based on those essential elements.

A Summary of Conclusions

This study reveals despite this strong pneumatological orientation when the AG began, over the last century AG eschatology has vacillated back and forth between distinctly Pentecostal expressions and those indistinguishable from fundamentalist dispensationalism. I assert that there were two parallel trajectories in the AG’s pneumatological orientation. When emphasis was placed on interpreting world events as the signs of Christ’s coming, the AG was more dispensational, pessimistic, and speculative. When the AG focused on the Holy Spirit as the sign, the AG was more hopeful, pneumatic, and focused on the four eschatological images rather than the chronology, which encouraged speculation.

Here are a number of interesting findings are worth mentioning:

  1. Despite the dispensational influences that often emphasize pessimistic views of the future, the AG managed to maintain a hopeful orientation toward their view of the return of Christ. It was called a “blessed hope” and the Spirit was the spirit of hope that fueled their expectation of Christ’s coming.
  2. The AG was highly committed to premillennialism because it was the only view that affirmed the OT prophecies about the coming messianic kingdom, which prepares the earth for the renewed earth.
  3. The commitment to the “salvation of national Israel” was eschatological, not political. Any theology of Israel they held was contingent upon the return of Christ. In this way they made a distinction between present/political/geographical Israel and the coming messianic restoration of Israel in the millennium that kept them from whole-heartedly affirming the present state of Israel.
  4. The AG was committed to dispensationalism, but managed the tensions by emphasizing the “latter rain” orientation in which they expected the Spirit to be the primary sign of the return of Christ. Therefore, the type of dispensationalism the AG affirmed was not that of J.N. Darby, C.I. Scofield or other fundamentalists; it was a uniquely pentecostal form of progressive dispensationalism fueled by the latter rain metanarrative.
  5. The official eschatological statements do not affirm any tribulational position.  It is assumed that the AG is pretribulational.  That is not true. I show  that several times AG officials had the opportunity to change the language to be pre-tribulational and declined. It is, in fact, permissible in the AG to hold pre, mid, post or even “a-tribulational” positions as licensed minister of the AG. Several denominational leaders, even those who created the official statements, held mid-tribulational or multi-rapture views.
  6. This study casts doubt on assumptions that the AG was not particularly engaged in social or ecological concerns. AG writers consistently wrestled with various social and geo-political realities such as poverty, social changes, and ecological issues. Furthermore, this study found no indication that AG eschatology advocated a reckless attitude toward the environment; rather they consistently supported the continuity between the first creation and the new creation.

This thesis makes several significant contributions to the study of the field of Pentecostal history and theology.

  1. First, this is the first analysis of periodical literature for the entire life span of a particular denominational periodical within the Pentecostal movement. The nuances that were brought out concerning AG eschatology were only possible by expanding the breadth of sources to include the entire lifespan of the community.
  2. A second contribution is by expanding the scope of the study to a full century, I was able to cast doubt on the assertion that the dispensational orientation was detrimental to the AG’s pneumatological orientation. Those who study Pentecostal eschatology now have a more nuanced account of the role dispensationalism has played in how Pentecostals have expressed their eschatology. For the AG, it is more accurate to characterize their eschatology as progressive dispensationalism, or even perhaps Pentecostal dispensationalism, rather than fundamentalist dispensationalism.
  3. A final contribution of this thesis is that it is the first attempt at constructing a comprehensive AG eschatology oriented in the concept of the pneumatological imagination. While other studies have offered alternative visions for Pentecostal eschatology, this study offers suggestions for actual revisions to present doctrinal formulations. Not only were specific recommendations made toward revising the SFT, a methodology of how to implement these changes was also suggested.

I look forward to sharing my work with the world in the months ahead.

 

The Assemblies of God and Varieties of Pentecostal Theology

20160523_092405This past week was my latest doctoral seminar for my PhD at Centre for Pentecostal Theology in Cleveland, TN. Every time I go to these meetings I am so very encouraged not only as a scholar but also by the way in which the individuals take seriously the pursuit of articulating a truly Pentecostal theology.  Anyone who attends a Pentecostal or Charismatic church knows that Spirit-filled people just have a different perspective on spirituality and theology. The Spirit plays a large role in how we worship, how we read the scripture and how we do theology.  Those essential differences is what the CPT is trying to explore.

For my part, I am researching Assemblies of God eschatology and asking the question, “Is there anything uniquely “Pentecostal” about AG doctrine?  My chapter I submitted for this seminar was building the case that there are two approaches to Pentecostal theology that affect the way in which the AG does Pentecostal theology.

The first approach is the historical AG position.  It sees Pentecostalism as a stream of Evangelical theology that has experienced Spirit baptism.  This model was adopted very early.  As early as 1919, J. Roswell Flower commented that the AG was ‘just like all other Evangelicals’ but believed in the additional doctrine of Spirit baptism.  Later, a group of presbyters who were charged with re-writing the constitution proposed that the AG change its name to “Pentecostal Evangelical Church.”  The measure was not adopted.  Yet, this way of seeing ourselves as essentially the same as Evangelicals except we believe in the Pentecostal experience of the Spirit has been the way the AG has seen itself for the past 100 years.

The second approach is a recent move among Pentecostal scholars who appreciate the Protestant/Evangelical heritage, but argue that Pentecostalism has its own unique way of seeing theology.  The Spirit not only effects a Pentecostal view of Spirit baptism, but it also effects our view of Salvation, sanctification, healing, the Lord Supper, Baptism, ecclesiology and eschatology.  Not to mention the ways in which Pentecostals practice community, gifts, worship, and prayer are all effected by the role of the Spirit.  Evangelical theology is not sufficient to express Pentecostal Theology.  Pentecostal theology is more than just Baptist or Reformed theology plus an openness to the Holy Spirit.  It is a complete foundational orientation in both thought and practice.

Just to give you an idea of how this works out, my fellow PhD students are studying the following topics:

What is a Pentecostal understanding of water baptism?

What is a Pentecostal understanding of sanctification?

How does the the Spirit effect the reading of the Torah?

How does the Spirit effect the reading of Jeremiah’s lament passages?

How does the Spirit effect the reading of Ezekiel’s visions?

How does the Spirit effect the way in which Pentecostals worship?

How does the Spirit function as one reads the Spirit passages in Judges, Kings and Samuel?

How does the Spirit help with the memories of terror and the ways in which that effect society?

As you can see from this list, the role of the Spirit is vital as an orientation for the ways in which Pentecostals are reading, thinking, theologizing, expressing doctrine and relating to society.  This is Pentecostal theology.  It is a Spirit-oriented expression of every area of faith and practice.  It recognizes that we as Pentecostals do theology from our experience with the Spirit. Its more than just Protestant theology plus speaking in tongues.

This is what I love about this program. I am so blessed to be a part of it. I am excited about the future of theology for the AG as we join in the conversation and look at our own doctrine.  There is so much more than needs to be done to express AG theology in ways that capture that Spirit-orientation toward a unique perspective on theology.  Spirit baptism has been a hallmark of our theology. But we still need the Spirit to inform our whole theology so that we are Pentecostal from first to last, rather than just adding on a Pentecostal doctrine to someone else’s theology.  I am hoping my contribution to that conversation will spur on others to join in the conversation.

 

Pilgrimage Into PhD Studies Pt. 2


20150519_121041This past weekend I went to my first PhD seminar at the Centre for Pentecostal Theology in Cleveland, Tennessee. It was an amazing experience.  I am so excited to be part of the Bangor University (Wales) PhD program.  I was so impressed with the environment of great scholarship and warm hospitality.  I was able to sit around a table with 15 other future Pentecostal scholars and discuss issues important to my research.  And the scholars who lead the program are not only brilliant, but were also very kind and encouraging.   For my pursuits in Pentecostal Theology, I don’t believe there is a better program.  But Bangor was not my original plan when I set out to get a PhD nearly a decade ago.

In 2007, when I graduated with a MA in Theology from ORU, I began to make plans to apply to PhD programs.  My wife and I had always wanted to live in Great Britain.  Doing a PhD there was the perfect way to see that dream come true. My ORU advisor, Dr. Daniel Thimell had studied in Scotland at the University of Aberdeen and his friend and fellow PhD student Trevor Hart was now a professor at St. Andrews in Scotland. Dr. Hart had published a work on eschatology and his colleague, Richard Bauckham is one of the foremost experts on the Book of Revelation.  Bauckham’s book The Theology of The Book of Revelation was one of the reasons I wanted to study eschatology in my PhD. It seemed like the perfect fit for me.

I applied in 2008 to St. Andrews and was accepted into the PhD program.  However, we found out that St. Andrews also wanted me to do a MPhil (which is very common) before entering the PhD program.  That meant I would have to add another year to my study there.  Not long after, we found out we were pregnant with our first child.   I didn’t see how I could move my wife and new-born child to Scotland and have no way to provide for them for 5-6 years.  We discussed it, prayed about it and I decided to decline my acceptance to St. Andrews.  It was very hard to do because it had been a dream for so long.  But God had a plan to fulfill that dream in a different way than I thought.

At that moment, the dream of doing a PhD in the UK was over. I needed a new dream now. I knew I had to go back to the basics of what I knew for sure.  I knew I wanted to get a PhD. I knew I wanted to write about Pentecostal Eschatology.  I knew I wanted my PhD to be from a UK University. PhD programs are different in the UK than they are in the US.  The US system begins with a couple of years of classes before you begin doing your research and writing.  The British PhD is purely research and writing. That sounded much better to me.

While I was preparing my thesis proposal for St. Andrews, I contacted Dr. Peter Althouse, a Pentecostal scholar at Southeastern (Assemblies of God) University.  Dr. Althouse had just published a work on Pentecostal Eschatology and I wanted to find out what he thought of my thesis idea.  Peter told me that if I ever changed my mind about St. Andrews, that Southeastern was offering a PhD through Bangor University in Wales.   He thought my research interests would be perfect for the new program. Months later when I made the decision to decline acceptance to St. Andrews, I knew I had another option that could fit my research.  So I decided to join the Bangor program at Southeastern.

Bangor_UniversityThe Bangor PhD in Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies was founded at Bangor University in Wales by Pentecostal Scholar and Educator, William K. Kay.  Professor Kay began this program to offer PhD opportunities to students interested in Pentecostal theology and history.  Dr. Kay began working with Southeastern University in Lakeland Florida to offer the PhD to American students.  Dr. Kay, Dr. Althouse and several others would supervise students in this program and students only had to come to SEU twice a year to fulfill the residency requirement for a UK PhD.  I decided to apply, was accepted and began my new journey to PhD in Pentecostal Eschatology in 2009. William Kay and Peter Althouse agreed to supervise me and I began working on my thesis.

In March of 2010 when I came to New Life Center to be the lead pastor I decided to drop out of the program for a while. I didn’t have the emotional energy (or monetary resources) to pastor my first church and work on my PhD.  Plus, the program went through some changes that resulted in Dr. Kay moving to another university in Wales.

20150518_154721Five years later, I am back in the program.  Bangor’s  Centre for Pentecostal Theology is now operating out of the campus of the Church of God Seminary in Cleveland Tennessee.  The new director is John Christopher Thomas, a well-known NT scholar in the area of Pentecostal studies.  CPT has grown in its influence in the past 5 years.  This Bangor PhD is producing many great Pentecostal scholars.  CPT has its own journal (Journal for Pentecostal Theology) and its own academic press (CPT Press).  Most of the dissertations done at CPT have the opportunity to be published after graduating from Bangor.

As I look back on this pilgrimage into my PhD studies, the move to the Bangor Program was very important for me in several ways:

1.  Bangor is a Pentecostal PhD.  My PhD at St. Andrews would be in Theology, but at CPT I get to do my best work in the area of my own Pentecostal tradition with the input of Pentecostal scholars.  Being at Bangor has helped me realize that what is most important to me is to contribute to Pentecostal theology. That is where I want to make my mark.

2.  My supervisors at Bangor are experts in my field of Pentecostal Eschatology.  William Kay is a prolific scholar in the areas of Pentecostalism, the Assemblies of God, and Eschatology.  J.C. Thomas is a Biblical scholar who has written about Pentecostal History, Eschatology and the Book of Revelation.  And Peter Althouse is a expert in Pentecostal Eschatology and is an example of how an AG professor can make a positive contribution to the conversation about current AG doctrine.  I couldn’t ask for better theological mentors than these.

3.  Bangor has allowed me to stay where we are, raise our family around our extended family, and pastor a wonderful AG church. Choosing Bangor gave me opportunity to do ministry, provide for my family and gain experience in being a Pentecostal Pastor, not just a Pentecostal scholar.  This would not have been the case most likely in Scotland.

4.  Bangor will provide many more opportunities for my work.  I have better access to opportunities to publish in the JPT journal and my dissertation will get published with CPT Press when I am finished.  Plus, CPT is where Pentecostals are doing research right now. This center is growing in its reach and influence.

We didn’t get to live the dream of living in the UK.  But God is fulfilling that dream in a different way through this Bangor PhD from CPT.  I am so blessed to be part of the outstanding scholarship, nurturing peer relationships and accessibility provided in this program.  I am right where God wants me to be.