Review: “What Hath Cambridge To Do with Azusa Street?” Part I

 Blog Signature

Smith, James K.A. “What Hath Cambridge To Do with Azusa Street?  Radical Orthodoxy and Pentecostal Theology in Conversation.” PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 25, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 97-114.

First, if you don’t already know, James K.A. Smith (PhD, Villanova University; associate professor of philosophy and director of the Seminars in Christian Scholarship at Calvin College) has become, in my opinion, the North American, Protestant “face” of RO.  His assessment of the Cambridge movement is not that of a total outsider, but there is certainly some reluctance in his appraisal of RO.  Nonetheless, he is shaping a presentation of RO that is less Anglo-Catholic, but not less liturgical; less politically liberal, but not less interested in social justice or cultural critique; and less continental, but not less skeptical of a secular framework so dependent on analytical philosophy.  His writing is erudite, but not as unassailable as Milbank and crew. 

Let’s just be honest, Milbank (especially) is to theological discourse what electronics manual writers were to VCR programming.  He has helped to produce a theological movement that is new and refreshing without being trite or kitschy, but his writing is so technical that it is likely to be out of reach for all but colleagues and graduate students (I don’t even know many advanced undergraduate students that could slog through it, if any).

Second, if you didn’t already know, he (Smith) is apparently a Pentecostal – a Reformed Pentecostal.  Here is an audio feed of Smith discussing being a Reformed Pentecostal, and a great article by Smith on “Thinking Pentecostals” where he characterizes Pentecostal theology as,

“Theology forged at the pulpit and in prayer, in the heat of revival and the swelter of the camp meeting—a theology that bears the stamp of its liturgical origins.”

His conclusion is that because of Pentecostalism’s origins it has not yet been given to academic treatments, but insists things should (and are about) to change saying, “Still, there is no denying that the early writings left most of Pentecostal thought entirely implicit. What has emerged in recent years is the attempt to make the ideas explicit.”  He, obviously, is one of those attempting to make Pentecostal theology “explicit.”

If you ask me, I think organizations like the Assemblies of God should immediately drop their courtship of individuals like Fee (who has been hugely disappointing to even the most “liberal” Pentecostals in his reluctance to embrace a full Pentecostal identity), and should immediately endorse Smith as next leader and scholar extraordinaire of the Pentecostal movement.

{Author’s Note – *RANT STARTS HERE* -But that still is not going to fly, because if you know anything about the “old guard” in institutions like the A/G you know they will not endorse anyone that will not get on-board with their characterization of tongues as a “Cardinal Doctrine” of the church.  Smith knows too much about theology to go down that road, and so Pentecostalism is going to remain “implicit” – to use Smith’s characterization – *END RANT*-}

 As a way to justify my rant, allow me to quote Smith’s article.  Please, forgive my anachronism.  On pages 109-110, Smith briefly proposes five key elements of a Pentecostal worldview and theology.  There are (1) A positioning of radical openness to God, and in particular, God doing something differently or new…(2)An emphasis on the continued ministry of the Spirit, including continuing revelation, prophecy, and the centrality of charismatic giftings in the ecclesial community…(3) a distinct belief in the healing of the body as a central aspect of the work of atonement…(4) because of an emphasis on the role of experience, and in contrast to rationalistic Evangelical theology, Pentecostal theology is rooted in an affective epistemology that seeks to undo dualisms…(5) a central commitment to empowerment and social justice, with a certain “preferential option  for the marginalized” tracing back to its roots at Azusa Street as a kind of paradigm of marginalization.

This all makes me wonder within what context Smith is a Pentecostal.  Frankly, I read his list and think, “Hey, that sounds really good,” and I almost want to be a Pentecostal again (These are almost certainly those elements of Pentecostalism that one of my current, Episcopal mentors warned me not to abandon).

I have to take issue with Smith’s list, though.  I don’t take issue with the list for any academic reasons, but for pragmatic reasons.  Where is there a Pentecostal church in America that lives out this worldview?  Sure, there may be charismatic Catholics, Reformed Pentecostals, Spirit filled Anglicans, and the like that live out this worldview, but where are there self-professing “Pentecostal” churches that could even articulate any of these points (outside, perhaps, of the first three – and only then in the scope of such A/G abominations as Bible Doctrines: A Pentecostal Perspective, and “Where We Squat” – which doesn’t amount to much more than propaganda )? 

 In fact, my experience has been that most Pentecostal churches believe that #2 is the lense through which all others should be viewed, but only as #2 is rightly articulated through the initiating experience of IPE.  A more recent development among conservative evangelicals, you know – how the “religious right” has been co-opted by the GOP, causes me to doubt seriously that #5 is even plausibly a concern outside of “getting people in the door” of Pentecostal churches.  Finally, I think Smith forgot #6.  He forgot to mention the extreme Pre-Trib rapture, millennial reign, it’s all going up in an apocalyptic fireball eschatology that pervades Pentecostal theology and dampens any affect #4 might have on Pentecostals’ thinking.

{Author’s Note: I should also point out, in fairness, that Smith calls his list “certainly debatable and incomplete” in the very next paragraph}

Your thoughts?



  1. Smith can be frustrating for me sometimes. Other times though I quite appreciate what he works toward. He is a synthesizer and populist (generally, obviously he has some great professional work) when it comes to RO and he regularly transgresses the “catholic” / “protestant” divide in the “movement.” I’ve seen him disagree with this recent obsession with “apocalyptic” mostly Reformed theology.

    And I think he’s right to insist on reading Plato well. I think Pickstock and Milbank are prone to be too easy on Plato when they should in effect be easier on neo-Platonists.

    But at the same time I look at his ‘definition’ of “Pentecostalism” above and I think that it is almost completely disconnected with what “Pentecostalism” means historically. It’s far more “charismatic” than “Pentecostal.” Which, I’m all about by the way, but I think his using Pentecostal in such a way transgresses how the word is usually meant and also disconnects it with historical Pentecostal churches.

    I don’t think you’ll see the AG courting him though. He used to be an AG elder but now regards that as his past in “fundamentalism.”

    I think he’s done a lot of good diffusing RO but I don’t think his contributions to the RO academically speaking will be as influential as the “catholics.”


  2. Tony,

    What I really appreciate about Smith as a synthesizer and populist is that he really does offer a fair, academic critique. His writing is comprehensive, and he can handle the philosophical elements.

    I couldn’t agree more about RO paying more tribute to the Neoplatonists, but I was thinking that was just my penchant for Negative Theology and Mysticism rearing its head again.

    Nonetheless, I am glad to have some agreement on this, because I couldn’t help reading his description of Pentecostal theology and thinking, “No, no, no – I wouldn’t have left that church. That is not the Pentecostal church that I left.”

    As far as the A/G courting him, I know they won’t (for reasons I gave in my post, and more), but they would be smart to do so.


  3. I still think, learning more and more about the contemporary theological discussions every day, that though there are “post protestants” who are more and more incorporating the Fathers into their work, generally speaking, RO and other generative “catholic” theologies are in fundamental ways opposed to “protestant” and especially “reformed” theologies.

    Apart from the problem of puritanism, most non-“Reformed” protestants can become reconciled to the larger “catholic” tradition, influenced as they are by Weslyanism and Pentecostalism; but the sort of neo-Barthinians and Yoderians are too concerned to maintain an unfathamable gulf between Christ and his Church.


  4. “(2)An emphasis on the continued ministry of the Spirit, including continuing revelation”

    Can you clarify this one for me. Revelation as in general or specific to the individual who receives it. I wouldn’t have an issue with the latter. If the position is the former I’d reject it out of hand.


  5. That’s a good question Quickbeam, and not one I’ve read Smith himself directly address. There really does have to be something akin (not, mind you, necessarily the same as in all respects to the Roman Catholic one) to a “Teaching Magisterium.” I’d call it a bit more generally, “Authority in or of the Church.”

    While we’re on the “Radical Orthodoxy” topic I think that John Milbank is one of the only ones that I’ve read really address this and his favoring the operation of authority is something that I’d like to develop at some point.


  6. Well I don’t know if one is forced into a Catholic teaching magisterium par dictum, but certainly it would appear to me to open pandora’s box.

    If general revelation is open rather then the received closed canon; then isn’t Mormonism operative as well and Gnostics and Islam and anything else under the sun? However if he simply means that the individual receives guidance from God and makes that revelation operative in their own personal life, but not binding on others I don’t have any issues.


    1. Quickbeam,

      I was speaking of that more “general” revelation thing. Wouldn’t certain late RC Marian dogmas need to be accounted for in this way?


      I visit your site, I just don’t often comment.


  7. To an outsider, the blind reflexive impulse to protect the doctrines into which you were born or too which you have been longly committed is clear. It is understandable how and organism which changes willy-nilly with any new idea is unstable and will not prosper, thus the conservative reflex exists in most of the population. But over time, even conservatives slowly adapt to new ways that have been tested by the natural risk-takers who actually prospered over time. It is those that hold out inspite of the obvious time-tested improved accuracy of ideas that continually amaze me.

    In this story, it is Tongue-Centrists in the A/G movement when the likes of Smith offer new hope. But for me, it is the creedalist when methodologies have opened insights that are safe and more accurate.

    For this atheist, the influences of Smith on the Pentacostals seems laudable. But one could see why conservatives who fear him — the atheist lauds him.

    What do the Anglican RO folks think of this Pentacostal?

    Concerning point # 6, the pre-trib stuff: I did a post on Dayton’s book “Theological Roots of Pentecostalism” and then using insight from Dayton, did another posted (Making Millenialism work for you”) which contrasted the adaptive function of such beliefs (Dayton agreed) vs. the truth function. Do you think such a belief serves Pentecostals in a sociological niche fashion and thus their tenacity?

    PS- I am just visiting after you were kind enough to visit my blog (I shall not bother the other chaps)


  8. Sabio,

    “In this story, it is Tongue-Centrists in the A/G movement when the likes of Smith offer new hope. But for me, it is the creedalist when methodologies have opened insights that are safe and more accurate.”

    You know, I am just as perplexed by these kinds of people as you. Who are they in the atheism world? Who are the folks that just hold on to old “doctrines” and won’t let them go?

    “Do you think such a belief serves Pentecostals in a sociological niche fashion and thus their tenacity?”

    Absolutely, for one, it enables their brand of conservatism in politics to continue. I have often been astounded by the anti-environmental attitude that belongs to this brand of eschatology. I think, for another, it allows them (more innocently) to continue in their brand of Wesleyan perfectionism. There is almost a kind of personal dualism that it serves.

    Thanks for visiting.


  9. “Wouldn’t certain late RC Marian dogmas need to be accounted for in this way?”

    I think I may be missing something here. But if I understand you correctly Marian visions or apparitions and what have you are restricted to private revelation. The vision itself may emphasis some aspect of public revelation, but it can’t be added to it. Fatima and other visions aren’t required to be believed or supported by any given Catholic, but there isn’t anything wrong in believing it either. They are consider to be charismatic expressions of the faith.

    You also have things like “Our Lady of Bayside” which is condemned by the church. Its something that has to be reviewed to see if it conforms to what we already believe.

    If your referring to something like the Marian Dogmas that entirely different and is required to be believed like the Immaculate conception which Catholics believe is contained implicitly in scripture and Tradition.

    The church has dealt with charismatic expression of and on since the 2nd century with the Montanists. It has had mixed results over the centuries.


  10. Reed,

    Let me answer your questions in reverse order:

    I would be interested in seeing the treatment that members give N.T. Wright – it does look interesting.

    I would happily submit a paper for publication, but I haven’t been able to find out if they accept publications from non-members (thanks for the link).

    Honestly, I don’t know if I could be a member. There are a couple of statements in their by-laws that I would seriously have to mull over AND I would be very leery about signing up with a group that might narrow my chances for admission to a PhD program at this point in my life – I fully intend to participate in scholarly organizations after I finish my PhD (I’m currently a member of the SBL), but I just don’t know how that would impact (if at all?) this next crucial juncture in my professional development.


  11. I heard Milbank say last year that one of the most important developments in the western church over the last century has been the ‘charismaticization’ (sp?) of the faith. I don’t think he was really talking about American pentecostalism, which I’m pretty sure he knows next to nothing about, but it’s still interesting. I think Smith’s right that there is some room for dialogue area, even if that’s just insofar as a ‘charismatic’ worldview entails a rejection of both theological liberalism and conservatism (and hence a kind of re-enchantment, or a new understanding of the natural/supernatural relation). From my limited experience, though, I’m not sure how far this could extend to actual co-operation between, say, Anglicans or Catholics and the pentecostal denominations. That seems almost impossible on so many levels.


    1. Tom,

      I’m not referring to Marian apparitions; I was more referring to, for instance, the Immaculate Conception and Assumption. I wasn’t trying really to get into their foundations but more just that, being so late, they seem to need something to account for their solidification to dogma in RC’ism.


      Charismatic Catholicism has grown just as fast as Pentecostalism. I for one hope to God that they aren’t incommensurate. Indeed, I think that it will be the ‘downfall’ of Churches to not incorporate the charismatic movement into their body.


  12. I’m interested in his statement #5… “a central commitment to empowerment and social justice, with a certain “preferential option for the marginalized”… having been among the pentecostals for years i’m not seeing this at all except in that many “members” of the small “off-the-grid” pentecostal churches I visited were working class people who were also under or uneducated. I’m not sure what he means by “empowerment” and “social justice”. Empowerment over the “forces of evil” but not in terms of “temporal” issues in anyway that I ever heard from pulpit or table sharing… of course there was the “prosperity gospel preached by the Tulsa crowd… I guess that’s maybe a form of empowerment… and social justice?… sorry, again, I didn’t hear it. The charismatic movement of the 60s and 70s was much more progressive, personally empowering, and concerned with social justice… but my experience with that was somewhat short lived… the groups that I worshipped with quickly left that behind in the 80’s.


  13. John,

    It has developed that way in the US but in many other parts of the world “social justice” is something that Pentecostals are particularly good at. And even in the US it’s slowly, slowly, starting to shift again. I know that the General Superintendent of the AG is anxious to emphasize the wholistic approach to evangelism which must include care for the “poor.”


  14. John,

    It should also be pointed out that, in many contexts outside of the United States – Pentecostalism is the fastest growing Christian sect, presumably because of things like #5 on Smith’s list.

    However, I will certainly agree with you, my experiences in US Pentecostal churches were similar.


  15. adhunt and shawn.
    thanks for your perspective… i realize mine was/is fairly narrow. I like that the general superintendent is anxious about the poor. I fled the groups that I was with for a number of reasons although I maintain a connection with many friends that I knew then. I was a lone voice at the time I left (with sadness as well as anger).


  16. Google “Copy of MacDonald’s Handwritten ‘Pretrib Revelation’ is Found!” And Joe Ortiz’s “End Times Passover” blog (3/9/10) is the first to air a facsimile copy of any part of it!
    If you are looking for arguments used by pretrib rapture teachers, Google “Pretrib Rapture Secrecy.”


  17. With respect to statement no. 5, I can attest that with the intermingling of Pentecostal and Evangelical/Baptist tendencies in the Philippine scene, it is increasingly becoming true.

    I think, Anthony, that this intermingling has allowed Pentecostals to start emphasizing “integral mission” (yes, it’s a buzzword I hear in the circle I work with) and seeking help from organizations who are concerned with that. The idea of integral mission is primarily one from the Evangelical tradition, and it is an attempt to articulate a more social justice oriented approach to theology without some of the unfortunate baggage of “liberation theology” (whose suppression, one friend suggests, led to the collapse of Latin American Catholicism).


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