A Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper[?]: A Review

Tony Sig

If we have any long-time readers, they will surely recall that there was a time when we talked much more regularly about Pentecostal matters. All the writers past and present have been Pentecostal at one time or another and two of us are proud sons of Assemblies of God pastors. But that aspect of our blog identity has largely faded. Here I would like to make another contribution our forgotten past by talking about Dr. Chris Green’s book Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper. I should confess up front, though, that I am friends with Chris, I like him a lot, agree with him most of the time, and he gave me the book. I should also say that I do not plan to systematically review the book in light of the rather extensive review a mutual friend of ours, Jason Goroncy, wrote. Do please give his a look.

This book is a modification of Green’s thesis and thus includes what is customary for such works: A history of research section, a section of historical theology, constructive work, and suggestions for further research. At Chris’s own instigation, I skipped ahead of the history of research chapter and dug right into the surprising and energetic chapter three, a (revisionist) historical account of the Lord’s Supper in the primary works of early Pentecostalism, including both the Weslyan/Holiness and Finished Work veins. Contrary to received opinion, Chis shows time and again how central the practice of communion was in early Pentecostalism. In the practice of the Lord’s Supper many testified to healings, many experienced affective intimacy with the Lord, and many even spoke of the Supper as a sharing in Christ’s very life. They were able to talk about the Supper in a way that was far more ‘metaphysically suggestive’ than their universally explicit denial of baptismal efficaciousness.

I found this section to be entirely fascinating. Growing up, there was little to nothing that we ever learned about the early Pentecostals. Ironically, I have learned more about Pentecostal history after becoming Anglican than I did before. Like learning that early Pentecostals were mostly pacifist and that they overcame (however temporarily) racial and gender boundaries in worship and ministry, learning about this persistent reflection on and experience of the Eucharist was a delightful surprise. One thing to note, though, is that there remained a strong resistance to suggesting grace was mediated by practices. Grace just sort of floated around while things were going on. In this way, Pentecostals still remained anti-sacramental in thought if not in practice.

Another great section of the book is dedicated to exegeting three key passages of Scripture related to the Lord’s Supper. Of these three I found Green’s investigation of 1 Corinthians to be creative and insightful enough to entirely reorient the way I think about the theme and structure of the letter, as well, obviously, as its content. For Chris, it is not hyperbolic to see the whole letter as a tract on the Supper and how the Corinthians’ various misdeeds are a violation of the reality of the meal.

After all this footwork, Chris enters upon some of his own constructive work on the Lord’s Supper, specifically what everything he’s just talked about means for Pentecostals. Interestingly I found very little in this section that is controversial, the lone exception being a rather scholastic point about whether the bread and wine are entirely transformed (as in McCabe, who he uses as an example) or whether they remain both objects of this world and of the world to come simultaneously, which is the position Chris advocates. But! This is only because of my own Anglican tradition and exposure to the larger tradition. I am confident that to a Pentecostal, most of this chapter will be a scandal, as it indeed ought to be. Yet if this chapter was not for me controversial, it was uplifting and suggestive, stretching and challenging.

Truth be told, this work is an apologetic, revisionist, and polemical work, in all the best senses of those words. That the polemic is rarely aggressive or rude doesn’t detract from its force. Green is calling on Pentecostals entirely to reorient their thoughts and practices on the Lord’s Supper. Luckily for us all, he has given them vast resources from which to pull in order to accomplish this. Whereas some in the Pentecostal world view the work of Assemblies liturgical theologian Simon Chan as alien and covert catholicizing, Chris pulls extensively and to great affect on Pentecostal sources and on extended Scriptural exegesis, such that they are without excuse!

If I have any critiques of the book, they are few and relatively minor. The index was not thorough: Consider that Sergius Bulgakov is cited seven times in the book (pp. 263, 278, 282, 285, 291, and twice on 292) but only pg. 285 makes the index itself. I also felt the book could’ve used some editing of Chris’ unique style, whose neologisms were extensive enough to confuse my brain – and more importantly, the flow of the argument –  as I read; mixed metaphors and manners of speaking also contributed to this. I also wonder to what extent it was in Green’s best interest to rely so strongly on Robert Jenson; not because Jenson isn’t a worthy theologian, but because his ecumenical Lutheranism isn’t exactly conducive to Pentecostalism.

The harshest things I have to say are less about the book and more questions about Pentecostalism itself. I wonder, given the extent of “what is required” of Pentecostalism to live up to Green’s excellent work, does this not tend to suggest that Pentecostalism, as a tradition, lacks the resources to be more fully Christian without ceasing to be uniquely itself? An example: Green says that Pentecostals will have to forcibly transform the way they read Scripture. Their current way of reading Scripture shows how novel their view of Scripture is, and how weak is the christology that feeds it. What is in fact called for in this hermeneutical transformation is nothing less than a revision of their de jure christology. And there are several other such examples. I have long claimed that there are several important gifts that Pentecostals can give the larger Church. Yet there are resources at hand in most churches to ‘receive’ those gifts, whereas I’m less sure there are resources within Pentecostalism to accomodate the Tradition without a substantive shift in Pentecostal identity.

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