Edmund J. Rybarczyk
Pentecostalism and Eastern Orthodoxy are dramatically different in many ways (culture, ecclesiology, styles of worship, and missiological strategies, to name a few) and typically know little about the other. North American Pentecostals tend to view the Orthodox Church as the twin-sister of the Roman Catholic Church; Orthodoxy might still contain a remnant of Christian truth, but it is too mired in ancient culture, too caught up in icons and a static liturgical form of worship to be of any consequence to the modern person. Worse, Pentecostals have dismissed altogether the idea that people living in Russia, apart from the influence of Western missionaries, could ever be Christian. Predisposed by their own eschatological hermeneutic (Russia is the great anti-Christian nation, the “Gog and Magog” of Ezekiel 38-39 and Revelation 16:12), and equally predisposed by the Cold War between the United States and Russia (xenophobia plays no small part in many eschatological schemes), Pentecostals tend to view Russians as godless pagans, as though the entire country had accepted Marxist Socialism’s atheism in toto.
Conversely, Orthodox, if they know anything at all about Pentecostals, lump them with Evangelicals and even non-Christian religions. Pentecostals might proffer a semblance of Christ’s presence, but lacking Christ’s apostolic priesthood and “the fullness of Orthodoxy,” as the Orthodox like to state it, they are relegated to a shallow emotionalism that can never produce lasting change.
Both groups traditionally have been quite parochial in their unwillingness to recognize Christ in others claiming to be Christians but who are not Orthodox or Pentecostal, as the case may be. We must be fair. Both Orthodox and Pentecostals are impelled by their convictions about Christian truth, and neither is rightly willing to sacrifice Christian truth for the sake of spurious fellowship. All is not relative. Christ is the only means of salvation. However, an historical examination of both churches bears out that both have allowed race, culture, nationalism, historical myopia, and tradition to obfuscate a recognition of Christ in others.
Characteristics in Common
Antagonistic sentiments aside, there are many characteristics that Orthodox and Pentecostals share. Obviously, both are not Roman Catholic; neither answers to the pope in Rome. Second, both traditions allow and encourage local ministers/priests to marry and have children. In addition, both resolutely assert that knowledge of God made known through His Son Jesus Christ is by no means limited to the intellectual domain of human existence, but that the human person can feel, sense, and hear God in visceral and profound ways. To be a Christian is far more than having one’s legal slate wiped clean in heaven. The experiential realm—accurately defined as the mystical realm because it incorporates ineffable and mysterious elements—is affirmed by both traditions. Neither group has traditionally been concerned about deflecting charges of mysticism. In fact, it is clear that both groups have flourished because of—not in spite of—their mystical character.
Wesley’s Experiential Religion as a Bridge
In recent decades scholars have been intrigued with the historical connection between—and theological similarities shared by—some of the Orthodox patristic fathers and the Anglican-turned-Methodist minister, John Wesley (1703-1791). Wesley is important for understanding the historical antecedents to Pentecostalism because the latter built upon his experiential foundations. Like a sieve, Wesley filtered Greek patristic theology so that some of Orthodoxy’s experiential thrust was revivified and reintroduced into eighteenth-century Christianity. Wesley studied several Eastern Orthodox fathers and even preferred to read them over Western fathers. Quite clearly, he borrowed from the early Greek fathers in developing both his own anthropological understandings and the ensuing experientially oriented doctrine of entire sanctification, something he also described as perfection. Both Pentecostals and Wesley are deeply concerned with what happens in the Christian and not just what happens for the Christian; in this regard Orthodoxy shimmers within both Wesley and Pentecostalism. Pentecostals, like both the Orthodox and Wesley, urge a divine-human communion that extends far beyond the moment of conversion.
For both groups Christianity is—indeed life is— comprised of experience. This holds true for each, not only as it concerns Christian living but for both groups’ theology as well. Neither tradition is much interested in doing theology for the sake of intellectual exercise. Neither automatically makes the brightest of its thinkers into saints or heroes, and neither has much use for those who want to reduce Christianity to the realm of the abstract. To be a Christian, as both express it, is to live for, and in, Christ. How one explains that life, or even more starkly whether one bothers to explain that life, is always secondary to the Christian life itself.
More Common Ground
Like the Orthodox, Pentecostals are not content to relegate their faith to the intellectual area. The mind is important, but one’s affections, one’s existential core, is critical too. Consequently, both traditions manifest an anti-intellectual character and are noted for a lack of concern for systematization regarding theology.
Both also perceive themselves as the great defenders of pneumatology. Pentecostals, in light of their own experiential spirituality, believe they are reintroducing and refamiliarizing the universal church to the Holy Spirit. Orthodox, similarly, believe they are the true pneumatologists, especially in light of their historical rejection of the Western church’s addition to the Nicene Creed of the Filioque (the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son).
The two also hold very congruent views of anthropology. Orthodox do not believe the fall caused humans to cease being who God created them to be. It is just that they ceased being all God had initially created them to be. Vladimir Lossky said that in the fall, “Man closed up within himself the springs of divine grace.” For Orthodox the fall did not eradicate those springs of grace; instead it corrupted, perverted, and fractured them.
Along with the fact that Scripture ascribes God’s image to fallen humans (Genesis 9:6; I Corinthians 11:7; Colossians 3:10; James 3:9), Pentecostals follow James Arminius and do not believe that the imago dei (the image of God) was destroyed by the fall. That Scripture describes post-fallen humans as beings created in God’s image, that even evil and hateful people still do good and loving things, and that people still interact with their God-given consciences, all testify to the fact that the image was not destroyed. Humans are not totally depraved (again, they can do good and even though they are fallen they reflect something of God Himself), but they are depraved. Original sin is a spiritual and moral handicap, “a tendency or bias to sin,” as Myer Pearlman said, which makes sin quite natural—and indeed inevitable—for every person.
Orthodox, especially Russian Orthodox, frequently talk about kenosis (Jesus’ self-emptying, Philippians 2:5-11) in their spirituality. Pentecostals do not use that precise word, but some of their discussions markedly resemble the Orthodox kenotic tone. Writing in 1930, Mary Lowe Dickinson noted that it is normal for Christians to be outraged at incidents of personal injustice, ‘“undeserved condemnation, unmerited abuse, misconception of our motives, [and] calling our good evil.” In fact, she argued, these incidents of personal insult are the rule in life, not the exception. The authentically Christian response to these things, she instructed, is to yield to them. Such yielding is neither to be done in a self-congratulatory way, nor should one call attention to one’s own humble response. Moreover, the Christian is not to waste time making explanations or vindicating oneself.
Within their own historical contexts, these two traditions emphasize a personal encounter with God. They do not find mystical-existential manifestations embarrassing, but see them as normal and necessary. Indeed, as the two express it, to allow Christ’s Spirit to transform the depths of one’s being will necessitate mysterious and nearly inexpressible experiences. Each presents that mystery in ways that draw human persons to Christ: Orthodox through aesthetics, Pentecostals through kinesthetics. Both emphasize that the human person was created for a transforming fellowship with God.
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Edmund J. Rybarczyk, “Beyond Salvation: An Analysis of the Doctrine of Christian Transformation Comparing Eastern Orthodoxy with Classical Pentecostalism,” Ph.D. dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1999.
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