Fire From Heaven
By Dr. J. Rodman Williams
A Personal Reflection and Review
The publication in 1995 of Fire from Heaven: the Rise of Pentecostal
Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century
is an extraordinary event. In this book, Harvard professor Harvey Cox
speaks quite affirmatively of "pentecostal spirituality" as
the best hope for the reshaping of religion in our time and the future.
Cox's book will come as a surprise to many both inside and outside Pentecostal
circles. I personally find the book to be both exciting and challenging.
Thirty years prior to Fire from Heaven Cox wrote The Secular City (1965).
It was anything but a tribute to Pentecostal spirituality. A couple
of quotations may suffice: "As Bonhoeffer says, in Jesus God is
teaching man to get along without Him, to become mature, free from infantile
dependencies, fully human"; "It may well be that the English
word God will have to die, corroborating in some measure Nietzsche's
apocalyptic judgment that 'God is dead.'" In such a situation Cox
summoned his readers to celebrate the liberties and disciplines of the
secular city. Perhaps God will be found there.
In the same year, 1965, I became a Pentecostal. This does not mean
that I joined the Assemblies of God or some other Pentecostal denomination.
No, at the time I taught theology in a Presbyterian seminary, and to
this day carry Presbyterian credentials. But I had what Pentecostals
would surely call a Pentecostal experience including, yes, speaking
in tongues. It happened as I began existentially to yearn for a living
counter to "the death of God." Harvey Cox's Secular City frankly
dismayed me, although not as much as the surrounding coterie of outspoken
"death of God" theologians flourishing in the 1960's. Of the
three leaders, I knew two personally. There must, I reflected often
in agony, be some way to a recovery of the living God. It is a long
and involved story which I will not recount here. Suffice it to say
that a spiritual breakthrough occurred the day before Thanksgiving in
the fall of 1965. The secular God, the dead God, suddenly became almost
overwhelmingly alive. The secular only seemed to have replaced the city
Back to Harvey Cox again. Thirty years ago The Secular City; now in
1995 comes "fire from heaven"! Here to the amazement--and
doubtless consternation--of many, Harvey Cox declares enthusiastic affirmation
of "the rise of pentecostal spirituality." Today, the inauguration
of the Azusa Street lectureship, I will quote a few words of Cox in
regard to Azusa Street: "a spiritual fire roared forth that was
to race around the world and touch hundreds of millions of people with
its warmth and power" (46). Again, "it is a spiritual hurricane
that has already touched nearly half a billion people, and an alternative
vision of the human future whose impact may only be in its earliest
stages today" (65). Wow! Pentecostals/charismatics can only cry.
Fire roaring forth--a spiritual hurricane-- and Regent University, if
not fully at the center, represents something of the wind and fire.
On the much debated phenomenon of speaking in tongues Cox refers to
the background reason, namely, that it "is to be found in the searing
realization that the reality of God utterly transcends our puny capacity
to describe it." "Our corrupt and inadequate language is transformed
by God's love into the tongues of angels" (96). Right on again!
Pentecostalism represents "a religious groundswell that transcends
the boundaries of any single denomination" (116). Again, this speaks
to us at Regent that in so far as we embrace, and even promulgate, "pentecostal
spirituality," we are riding the groundswell to a fuller unity
among the worldwide people of God.
I find it fascinating to observe how Cox speaks of "pentecostal
spirituality" as "primal spirituality." Pentecostalism
"has succeeded because it has spoken to the spiritual emptiness
of our time by reaching beyond the levels of creed and ceremony into
the core of human religiousness, into what might be called 'primal spirituality,'
that largely unprocessed nucleus of the psyche in which the unending
struggle for a sense of purpose and significance goes on" (81).
Cox refers next to "primal speech," his term for speaking
in tongues which he describes as "an ecstatic experience, one in
which the cognitive grids...that normally prevent people from opening
themselves to deeper insights and exultant feelings, are temporarily
suspended" (86). Moreover, "tongue speaking has persisted...because
it represents the core of all pentecostal conviction: that the Spirit
of God needs no mediators but is available to anyone in an intense,
immediate, indeed interior way" (87). Thus Pentecostalism signifies
"the recovery of primal speech" (see title of chap. 4). Two
other aspects of "primal spirituality" are "the recovery
of primal piety" and "the recovery of primal hope" (see
titles of chaps. 4 and 5).
Now despite my appreciation of all that Cox says about "pentecostal
spirituality" being "primal spirituality," I have certain
concerns. I will mention three of them.
First, I find in Cox's approach a tendency to view Pentecostalism as
basically a religious expression that belongs to human existence at
large. It is an expression in depth of "human religiosity."
Cox refers to "pentecostalism's power to tap into a deep substratum
of human religiosity" (page 91). Thus Pentecostalism, despite its
depth probe, may be viewed, for example, as a form of shamanism. "My
own observations," says Cox," lead me to believe that the
answer to the question of whether there can be a Christian shamanism
is yes" (228).* Pentecostal spirituality lies latent within this
and many other forms of religious expression. But is there not something
distinctive about Pentecostal spirituality? Is it only a powerful breaking
forth of what is latent anywhere and everywhere?
This leads to a second concern: I find little reference in Fire from
Heaven to the Holy Spirit. One of the few references was earlier quoted
about "the pentecostal conviction that the Spirit of God needs
no mediators but is available to anyone in an intense, immediate, indeed
interior way." Is this the Holy Spirit that needs "no mediators,"
etc.? Pentecostals view the Holy Spirit as being mediated through Jesus
Christ, and hold that the pentecostal experience rather than being an
internal upsurge of latency comes from the exalted Christ. In regard
to the Holy Spirit and Christ, the only reference to my knowledge (I
may have missed something here) is in Cox's statement "a special
encounter with the 'Holy Spirit'...was at the heart of the early Pentecostal
movement. But they were not just talking about any spirit. They said
it was the same Spirit who hovered over the primeval chaos when God
created the world, who spoke through the prophets, who dwelt in Jesus
Christ" (716). What seems to be lacking in Cox's treatise is any
focus on the idea of "a special encounter." For not only ,
I would say, did the Holy Spirit dwell in Jesus; He was also sent forth
by Christ (see Acts 2:33). The result for Pentecostals is a special
encounter. This seems lacking in Cox's book wherein the Spirit represents
an immanent reality that may break forth at any time.
Third, and this follows, little if anything is said by Cox of the basic
Pentecostal conviction that the Pentecostal experience flows not only
out of a special encounter with the Holy Spirit, who comes from the
exalted Christ, but also happens to those who have found salvation.
Candidates for the Pentecostal experience are only those who have found
new life in Christ. The human situation in depth is more than the "largely
repressed nucleus of the psyche"; it is a nucleus of human sin
and evil that must be dealt with before the Holy Spirit will become
operational. Pentecostal spirituality is a primal spirituality-- yes--but
is rooted deep in a saving experience with Jesus Christ. Nothing in
Cox's book elucidates this matter.
Now let me speak a final personal word of challenge to Harvey Cox.
Despite his extraordinary knowledge of Pentecostal history and its recent
day spread around the world, his visitations to innumerable Pentecostal
gatherings and fellowship with many Pentecostal people, Cox declares
himself not really to be a part of it all. In the Preface Cox states
forthrightly, "I am not myself a pentecostal" (xvii). What
if Cox were to become one? Of course, I do not mean denominationally
so but spiritually. Would such an experience not make possible a still
profounder understanding of Pentecostal spirituality and the reshaping
of religion in the century to come?
In any event, I want to close by expressing my sincere appreciation
for Harvey Cox's Fire from Heaven. The book has stimulated me greatly,
and I view it as a landmark contribution to the far-reaching Pentecostal/charismatic
movement. In Cox's own words, "a spiritual fire roared forth"
at Azusa Street that is now being felt around the world. We can only
be grateful for Harvey Cox's affirmation of it.
*According to Webster, a shaman is "a priest or priestess who
uses magic for the purpose of curing the sick, divining the hidden,
and controlling events."
Content Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams,
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