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Dr. J. Rodman Williams
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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 of God.

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, Ph.D.

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