So, the dust has settled, and we are now on the far side of the Reformation anniversary. I spent so many years at the Institute for Ecumenical Research preparing for it that I’m still kind of in system shock that it’s all over. What next? Will anyone care about Luther in 2018?
Not being a prophet, I can’t say, though I do hope. But perhaps a look at one of the more interesting aspects of Luther research I’ve been engaged in during the past couple of years will point the way toward a possible future.
When I arrived in Strasbourg in 2008 I was immediately drafted to participate in a “proto-dialogue” the Institute had launched with assorted Classical Pentecostals. (“Classical” means their denominations arose in the early twentieth century, mostly as a result of the Azusa Street Revival.) To say I was ignorant of Pentecostalism at that time would actually be a bit too generous. As far as I remember, I’d heard the word “Azusa” exactly once—I had no idea what it referred to, only the weirdness the word made it stick in my mind—and I knew vaguely about TV evangelists, but not that any of them would qualify as “Pentecostal.” I had a great-aunt who was the sole defector from pure and unsullied Lutheranism in the family tree. One time she snapped at my dad, accusingly, “Do you know what we have in the Assemblies of God that you don’t?” and my dad shot back, “Yeah. Jimmy Swaggart” and that was the end of the discussion.
Well, lucky me, through my Institute work I landed amidst the most wonderful Pentecostals imaginable: generous, highly educated, committed to Christian unity, self-critical, and respectful in their criticisms of others. I start reading and drew up pages and pages of questions, which they patiently answered.
At the same time I was getting to know world Lutheranism quite a bit better, and it didn’t take long to figure out that the one place on the globe where Lutheranism is growing by leaps and bounds is in east Africa—a place where “Lutheran” and “charismatic” are not mutually exclusive terms, as I had come to believe in my own North American setting. To be sure, charismatic has a different flavor in Africa. There’s considerably less interest in speaking in tongues than was characteristic of American revivals, and—how shall I put this nicely?—the practice of exorcism seems a lot less shady there; likewise healing. But it’s certainly Charismatic.
The unavoidable conclusion was that there is not an airtight wall between Lutheran and Pentecostal, because in real lived Lutheranism there is a unity between the two, the practice keyed to Lutheran theology but nevertheless practice that has not been common in Lutheranism till recently (though here again, certain Pietist movements had “proto-Pentecostal” features). And Pentecostals, for their part, certainly saw themselves in the stream of Christianity that started with Martin Luther, even when they didn’t know his theology particularly well.
Needless to say, sorting out this unexpected entanglement led to a number of writing projects. (What’s an academic to do?)
The major one was a book, published last year by Wipf & Stock, called A Guide to Pentecostal Movements for Lutherans. Its genesis was simple: once I had realized a) that not all Pentecostals are scary and terrible sheep-stealers and dove-swallowers, and 2) that lots of Lutherans in the world are very Pentecostal in their practice, then 3) it would probably help both the cultured Lutheran despisers of Pentecostalism as well as the cheerful Lutheran adopters of Pentecostal practice to have a basic resource walking them through the issues.
The book begins with an overview of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, which started in 1906 and launched Pentecostalism as an international movement. The next chapter goes into a more detailed taxonomy of Pentecostals today—the Classicals, the Charismatics (those who stayed in historic churches but adopted Pentecostal practice, like Lutherans in Africa but also by now more than 10% of Catholics worldwide), and the Neocharismatics (independent start-ups beginning around the 1970s, and overwhelmingly more numerous than the other two categories). Collectively, now, these three groups are referred to in the scholarly literature as “the Renewal,” much the way sixteenth-century Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and even Tridentine Catholics together can all be called “the Reformation.”
The third chapter is on Lutherans. Why? Because, as I’ve learned in my ecumenical work, discovering the Christian other requires rediscovery of the Christian self. Ecumenism doesn’t undermine confessional identity but strengthens it, purged of false assumptions and accumulated hostilities. If Lutherans want to learn about Pentecostalism, it’s a good opportunity to learn more about themselves, too.
After this the book takes a turn for the more strictly theological. Two successive chapters deal with baptism—water baptism and “baptism in the Spirit.” The first analyzes the Book of Acts, from which Classical Pentecostals draw their doctrine of baptism in the Spirit, and its relationship to water baptism. The second baptism chapter takes up practical questions of interpretation and application of the findings on baptism. If I do say so myself, I think these two chapters are the most important in the book and offer a new reading of the evidence in Acts. (Teaser: the critical issue is John the Baptist.)
Following logically on the baptism chapters is one on charismata, or spiritual gifts, since Pentecostals generally link the release or bestowal of spiritual gifts to the experience of baptism in the Spirit. I should mention here that in my various speaking engagements, whenever I’ve let on that I work on these issues and do not immediately condemn people who believe they have spiritual gifts, inevitably afterwards several Lutherans will sneak up to me and say, very quietly, “I speak in tongues!” By now I wonder how many spiritual resources Lutherans are missing out on because of rejecting or neglecting the charismata. Yes, of course, they can be abused; but they have to be used before abuse is even an issue!
The next four chapters take up topics that maybe don’t seem immediately obvious as urgent issues to be addressed between Lutherans and Pentecostals but that I have found, through my studies, to lie at the substrate of a lot of misunderstanding and contention. “History” begins the lot: how theories of history, both ordering the past and prognosticating the future, silently control a lot of church theology and practice. Then comes “Power,” of both the spiritual and ecclesiastical type. “Prosperity” disentangles Pentecostals from the Prosperity Gospel, as Lutherans (and others) are prone to conflate the two. And again, yes, there are Pentecostals who are enthusiastic proponents of the worst kind of Prosperity Gospel, but I’ve heard upscale, sophisticated versions of it among mainline Christians too, so all of us could use the theological reality check. Finally, “Experience” takes up the assumed Lutheran hostility to experience and the assumed Pentecostal enslavement to it and, as you might expect by now, significantly complicates the issue.
My other big project was a contribution to this massive and impressive collection:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Martin Luther is a three-volume set of essays on all kinds of awesome topics related to Luther’s theology, not just mapping out the past but charting a research course for the future. (Full disclosure: one of the editors is my dad, Paul Hinlicky. If you’re going to let clergy marry, you have to expect a little nepotism here and there.) For instance, along with classic topics like faith, grace, sin, and vocation, there are articles on Christian Hebraism, “Body, Desire, and Sexuality,” Islam, “Luther in Marx,” “Luther’s Influence on the Rise of the Natural Sciences,” “Magic and the Occult,” mysticism, and “Relational Thinking.”
I contributed a piece on the reception of Luther in global Pentecostalism (and also one on the reception of Luther in the modern ecumenical movement). My research turned up all kinds of interesting things. For one, the earliest Pentecostals across the board spoke of the “restoration” of the church after a long period of falling away from the “full gospel,” and in every single instance Martin Luther was the first figure in restoration. I discovered theologically rich and impressive efforts on the part of American Lutheran Charismatics to integrate their practice with Lutheran theology for the purpose of strengthening confessional Lutheranism, not undermining it. (I also discovered lots of American Lutheran efforts to suppress the Charismatic movement completely; it seems they have won.) Not surprisingly, the absolute best work on receiving Pentecostal practice for Lutheranism comes from Africa, with a statement by the Mekane Yesus church in Ethiopia that embraced the revival with appropriate teaching and oversight—and since that time, Ethiopian Lutheranism has grown from 200,000 members to over 8 million. And finally, I found contemporary Classical Pentecostals beginning to read and reflect on Luther directly, with fascinating results. So far the best are David Courey’s What Has Wittenberg to Do with Azusa? Luther's Theology of the Cross and Pentecostal Triumphalism and Miroslav Volf’s Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Unfortunately, I discovered the latter only after the ORE was published, but I was able to take it up in a lecture on “The Reception of Luther in American Pentecostalism” at Yale Divinity School earlier this fall.
What’s the upshot of all this? For one thing, it’s urgent for Lutherans to take the Renewal seriously. It is part of our own church community already, and there is simply no denying how many people around the world have been brought to hear the good news of salvation in Christ through it. And, I daresay, it’s urgent for the Renewal to take the Reformation seriously, learning from both its rich and wonderful theology but also from its terrible mistakes. (For that matter, we should all take medieval and patristic theology seriously too! But I’ll save that for another time.) Both Reformation and Renewal have been massive, continent-spanning, life-politics-and-economy-changing movements centered around faith in Jesus.
And one final note. One of the most striking findings of my studies is that, if a revival arises and the church rejects it, both end up worse than before. The revival gets crazy, and the church gets authoritarian. Both point at the other and say, “See? See? I told you!” and neither takes responsibility for the mutual failure. But when the revival is accepted by the church—such that the revival accepts discipline in theology and practice, and the church accepts critique and change—then both get stronger. You can see examples of both scattered across history, and there’s no doubt which is better. Attention to both the Reformation and the Renewal will increase our chances that we get it right next time around.