Translation and Transformation in Pentecostals’ Recovery of the “Great Tradition”
By Emilio Alvarez and Aaron Hollander
The Most Rev. Dr. Emilio Alvarez is the Associate Provost for Lifelong Learning at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is also the Primate and Founder of the Union of Charismatic Orthodox Churches. Bishop Alvarez holds a Bachelors in Christian Education, a Master of Arts in Religious Education from New York Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Religious Education from Fordham University in the Bronx; he is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Divinity at Aberdeen University, under the supervision of the Very Rev. Dr. John Behr. Bishop Alvarez has two published works with InterVarsity Press: Pentecostal Orthodoxy: Toward an Ecumenism of the Spirit (2022) and Pentecost: A Day of Power for All People (2023), the latter of which is a contribution to the IVP liturgical series, The Fullness of Time: A Journey Through the Church Year.
Dr. Aaron T. Hollander is Editor of Ecumenical Trends, Associate Director of Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University. In 2022, he was elected President of the North American Academy of Ecumenists; he also serves on the steering committee of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network and on the faculty of the Summer Course in Ecumenism at the Centro Pro Unione in Rome. He is a scholar of ecumenical theology and lived religion, with degrees from the University of Chicago (PhD 2018), the Irish School of Ecumenics (Trinity College Dublin), and Swarthmore College.
Aaron Hollander, for Ecumenical Trends: Bishop Alvarez, it’s a real pleasure to be speaking with you as part of our interview series in Ecumenical Trends. This issue of ET is entirely dedicated to ecumenical perspectives from and relating to Pentecostal/charismatic communities, and this is a fitting context for digging into your life and work as a founding bishop and now archbishop and primate of the Union of Charismatic Orthodox Churches. Our readers may not know what that Union is or where it comes from; would you speak a little about the history of the UCOC, and about how you conceive of its contribution to the present and future of Christian life?
Emilio Alvarez: As always, my dear brother, it’s such a pleasure to be with you. I’m thrilled to spend this time speaking with you for Ecumenical Trends, so thank you for the opportunity. The first thing to say is that the Union of Charismatic Orthodox Churches is not a “denomination” in any conventional sense; it is a unique, organic amalgamation of men and women who have come alongside each other, come into a place of accompanying each another, after spending time in a grassroots journey of recovering what we identify as the “Great Tradition” of the church. We are Pentecostals or charismatics of one kind or another, and at one point we were all on our own separate journeys of seeking insight in the long history of the church, without knowing that others existed who were doing the same thing. So one of the things that we have in common is that we all felt like we were on an island by ourselves, and then slowly but surely we began to make connections through various formational and educational platforms (such as the Institute for Paleo-Orthodox Christian Studies), where we began to realize that God was bringing us together. For the first two years, we resisted building anything new; we just came together, prayed together, had wonderful experiences of tutelage and oversight by some wonderful friends in our ecumenical network, people of substantial erudition and authority, and were renewed in our learning and in one another’s company.
It became increasingly clear, though, that the Lord was not only doing this work in us as individuals but was also preparing us for new ministries in our communities, ministries that would require more structure and institutional recognition in order to grow and flourish. So it was in this spirit that we organized ourselves to be the Union of Charismatic Orthodox Churches. “Union,” because we resisted the name “denomination” – we didn’t break off from anywhere else to become something new. We were all accustomed to thinking and living our faith in a non-denominational kind of way, but as a result we were isolated from one another, trying to do something aligned but without a structure to facilitate our doing it together, and so we came together and envisioned a collaborative Union of Pentecostals and other charismatics all committed to recovering, each in our own context, the Great Tradition.
AH: You’re speaking about the “Great Tradition” – and I’ve read your wonderful book, Pentecostal Orthodoxy,1 in which you discuss this formulation substantially – but let’s get clear for the sake of our conversation: when you talk about the Great Tradition, are you speaking only about the specific currents of apostolic life and thought that (as you demonstrate in your book) entered into and fueled the origins of Pentecostalism (for instance by way of John Wesley’s studies in patristics), or are you speaking about something broader, something Spirit-filled and Spirit-driven across the history and geography of the church, to which Pentecostals/charismatics can and should have access insofar as they are open to the same Spirit?
EA: When referring to the “Great Tradition,” I’m mainly referring to the first thousand years of the Church, including its councils, creeds, liturgies, and patristic writings. These great treasures we hold as extra-canonical normative interpreters – those which can be described (as St. Vincent of Lérins’ maxim has it) as being rightly upheld “everywhere, always, and by all.”
AH: And when speaking with others in charismatic communities who do not share such a commitment to the primacy of these first-millennium authorities, when you start talking about the Great Tradition in these terms, what kinds of reactions do you get? In your experience, is an alignment with the ancient church, with the long intellectual melodies that play out in the history of the church, something for which people in charismatic communities are eager? Or do you find that it’s been an uphill effort to introduce these concepts to folks who are (or believe themselves to be) allergic to them for one reason or another?
EA: That’s a great question – I would say that there are three main reactions. The first one is: “So now we’re Catholic?” That’s a question that comes up all the time, out of surprise or suspicion or genuine curiosity, in my context of primarily Afro-Latino Pentecostals – “Are we becoming Roman Catholic?” Sometimes it’s a resistant reaction – “hold on, let’s not get carried away with all this liturgical stuff, all these ancient theologians!” But more often it’s just inquisitive – “this stuff you’re talking about, it seems Roman Catholic to me, so what’s up with that?”
Sometimes this reaction, when it comes from a place of suspicion born of negative associations with the more liturgical, hierarchical churches, can give way to numbness when we continue to educate and inform our congregations in the biblical roots, the history and theology, and so forth – they can’t really continue to think of these elements of the tradition as alien, because we’re showing clearly how and why they are authentic to apostolic life (for example, practices in the liturgy, celebration of the eucharist, and so forth). But it can still be disorienting to be exposed to practices with which we are unfamiliar, even when we come to understand why they’re important. People can become stalled in a kind of liminal space between the forms of worship that are comfortable and familiar to them and the richness of the tradition that they don’t yet fully see as their own. So we need educational models, transformative learning models, that work with people where they are, helping them to locate themselves in the tradition rather than having that tradition imposed on them.
It’s almost like moving through the stages of grief: there might be resistance or anger, there might be numbness or denial, but finally there’s acceptance where people come to feel that they’re grounded in the truth – that it’s okay to grow and change aspects of our worship, that the Spirit is here with us helping us find our way in a long tradition. When people come to be in this kind of a place, then we can deepen the education a little further and contextualize the liturgical practices in the writings of the fathers and mothers of the church – and we engage in study not only of European writers, but of Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian, and other writers, in whom there is so much brilliant insight about the nature and purpose of the church of Christ. In this way we are working to bridge ancient Christian insights with the contemporary contexts in which our (predominantly Afro-Latino) communities are living.
AH: This is a basic question, and I don’t mean it as dismissive in the slightest – why bother? That is, why should Afro-Latino Pentecostals undergo this challenging work of learning, this work of reorienting their self-understanding and their understanding of the church in the world, especially if, as you say, it can lead people into a place of anger or numbness?
EA: It’s so important to think about this, and to articulate it clearly. It’s a question that I’m asked regularly, in particular by Black religious scholars in the North American context: why do Black people have to go back and recover the Great Tradition? Why do Latinos have to go back and recover the Great Tradition? What a wonderful question. And my answer is: recovering the tradition allows us to be fully ourselves. There’s an important book by Dwight Hopkins and George Cummings, Cut Loose Your Stammering Tongue,2 where the editors argue that there are wellsprings of great significance and value in the theological insight woven through narratives by enslaved Africans and by former slaves, and that recovering this insight – or going back even further into recovering ancient African spiritualities – allows contemporary African-American Christians to “cut loose [their] stammering tongues,” by which they mean that their spiritual expression, communication, and identity are liberated from the constraints placed on them by more recent American history when these ancient sources are recovered. I too resist the widespread assumption that the gospel was brought to Africans and African Americans by Europeans – you would be surprised how many people operate under this assumption – it overlooks the entire history of pre-modern, pre-colonial Christianity, which still has enormous power to speak to us today.
In a similar way, when African Americans or Afro-Latinos go back to the fountains of the early church, when we return to the roots of African Christianity and find treasures there and recover them into our worship and spirituality, this allows us to be fully ourselves. When we locate ourselves within a history that can inform and educate us, this provides perspective and depth that we are otherwise missing when we read the scriptures and cultivate our faith lives in ahistorical, anachronistic ways.
AH: What about the Orthodox reactions to your work in recovering “orthodox” Christian sources from within a Pentecostal/charismatic framework? How are your many Orthodox friends and colleagues viewing the confluence work of “Pentecostal Orthodoxy”? I can imagine that there would be a wide range of reactions here as well.
EA: Yes. I’ve seen the whole range of reactions, from “You’re not real” and “You’re an imposter” and “You’re playing pretend,” on one extreme, to the wonderful support and living relationships we’ve developed with individuals and communities throughout the Orthodox world. An example of the latter would be the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and Archbishop Elpidophoros, who has been so generous – he’s a true ecumenical leader, a Spirit-filled leader. He and others in the Orthodox world absolutely see the importance of what we’re doing, and they support us with prayer and intellectual exchange. They ask what they can do to walk alongside us as we recover the Great Tradition within the lifeways of charismatic Christianity. But there’s also the somewhat-supportive, somewhat-skeptical reaction, which may be most common of all: “This is great! So… why aren’t you Orthodox? Why don’t you just come home? What are you waiting for?”
So it varies widely, how we are viewed in the eyes of more conventional Pentecostals and Orthodox Christians alike. In a sense, we are seen in whatever way that others need to see us in order to confirm their own sense of themselves. But it’s frustrating, to be sure, that we often seem to be viewed as not pentecostal enough for the Pentecostals and not orthodox enough for the Orthodox.
AH: This raises precisely my question about how the recovery work you are doing interfaces with the broader Pentecostal world. It’s clear that the Union of Charismatic Orthodox Churches is still a movement situated within Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity and so, for the Orthodox, this work is something they can be aware of and more or less in favor of, without it having any direct impact on their ecclesiology. The same can’t be said for Pentecostalism, however. In your book, you address the (now famous) arguments and trends, for instance in the scholarship of Philip Jenkins, that Pentecostalism is in a numerical sense the future of the church; and yet, you’re making the case that the future of Pentecostalism is in antiquity, in a living interface with the ecclesiology and liturgy of the ancient church. How do you reconcile these positions? What kind of impact do you envision Pentecostal Orthodoxy having beyond the particular communities that have already embraced the journey of recovery? Do you see this convergence of charismatic Christianity with ancient liturgical and theological currents as ever becoming more than a niche interest for global Pentecostalism? And if so, what does that look like?
EA: You know, my friend, I have to leave this to better minds and historians in twenty or thirty years. My overall sense is that, if Pentecostalism continues to grow and multiply as it is doing now around the world, and if other ecclesial configurations continue, for whatever reason, to contract numerically (though I don’t think we should fall into the trap of thinking of smaller churches as necessarily diminished spiritually), then it’s especially important for Pentecostalism to be one of the traditions that upholds the standard of orthodoxy, that contributes to defending the faith of the fathers and mothers of the church. So I do see Pentecostal Orthodoxy as playing a vital role in the future of the church, precisely by merging the ever-new life of the Spirit with the treasures of the Great Tradition, particularly in sacramentality. And we are already seeing the ripples of our recovery work worldwide. Aaron, I just received a letter from an inmate in prison who was reading my book – a Roman Catholic, in prison, reading Pentecostal Orthodoxy! – and he shared how much the work had opened his eyes to new possibilities, to the depth of the faith and spirit-filled existence of charismatics, and so forth. There are people in different countries who reach out to me and say, “Listen, you don’t know us, but we’re Pentecostals, and we read your book and we’re beginning to celebrate the Eucharist every week, and we’re beginning to teach on the Real Presence.” I say this not in the slightest to inflate my own importance – but these are real things that are happening, and I am heartened that the work is lighting a spark.
I see Pentecostal Orthodoxy not only as a vital instrument for informing and enriching the Pentecostal world with regard to the apostolic faith, the Great Tradition of worship and theology, but also as a bridge in contexts where Pentecostals/charismatics live in fraught and soured relationships with other Christians – for example in Latin America, where there is real and persistent animosity between Pentecostals and Roman Catholics, between Pentecostals and Eastern Orthodox. There is an opportunity here to overcome misunderstandings and reshape perceptions of one another.
AH: It seems like much of your life and much of your work could be described in terms of translation – you’re standing at a confluence of Afro-Latin church communities, and you’re involved with broader and overwhelmingly Anglo-European ecumenical networks. You’re working and ministering in English and in Spanish, you’re relying on ancient sources for insight into contemporary questions, and you are cultivating this notion of a union or a confluence between Pentecostal and Orthodox Christianities. So would you speak a little more explicitly about how you go about that work of translation, and about why it matters?
EA: It is my conviction that real translation – whether in language or in ecclesial consciousness – is impossible without first becoming multilingual. It’s not just talking in your own language and listening to someone else speaking in another – you first have to understand what they are saying on its own terms, and only then can you translate it accurately into terms that are comprehensible to those who speak only your language. Ecclesial translation requires becoming ecclesially multilingual, so to speak.
AH: What does that mean, to be “ecclesially multilingual”? What does that look like?
EA: Well, to be ecclesially multilingual would mean having a primary language in one faith tradition; in my case, my primary language is Pentecostal, as that’s the language that I grew up with. I was raised as a Pentecostal, I remain Pentecostal, and so it’s my native tongue, to continue the metaphor. But being a “speaker” of Pentecostalism as my primary language does not mean that I am capable of only understanding that way of living faith and thinking theologically. It’s possible to be a native speaker of English and yet to learn Spanish, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, and so forth. And I can become bilingual, trilingual, multilingual in the ecclesial languages that I can speak and understand on their own terms – without ever giving up my native language! I am a Pentecostal who can “speak” Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican. These are not my primary language – they don’t overtake and erase my native tongue – but speaking and understanding these ecclesialities makes me a better translator, a better communicator. I can communicate the Spirit-filled history of the Great Tradition to Pentecostals who may not be familiar with it; and I can communicate the apostolic roots of Pentecostal worship (spiritual gifts, glossolalia, and so forth) to those in the more hierarchical, liturgical churches who may not be equipped to recognize it. But I could never do this if I understood other traditions only in the terms with which my first language has prepared me to understand them.
AH: Translation is such a potent and fruitful metaphor for ecumenical exchange – one that the North American Academy of Ecumenists will be exploring in depth at our annual conference this November – though of course it’s not only a metaphor but is also quite literal in the many cases of needing to render existing ecclesial sources and conversations in new languages, with all the pitfalls that accompany that process. But what you’re saying, I think, clearly addresses one of the basic misconceptions that many people have about ecumenical work in general – that ecumenism is just mixing and blending different Christian perspectives together and creating a mish-mash in the effort to make everything palatable to everyone. Well, can you imagine trying to provide translation between two languages by simply blending them together? Granted, in bilingual communities it’s perfectly normal to combine languages conversationally (and much could be said about lived bireligiosity, for example in mixed marriages), but such phenomena are not reliable means of translation for those who otherwise only speak one language or another.
Nevertheless, languages and churches alike do evolve over time, borrow from one another, and learn from one another how to express our outer and inner worlds in new ways. So the metaphor of translation reminds us, as you’ve rightly observed, that there is an enormous opportunity in learning to speak and understand ecclesial languages other than one’s own. So doing, we not only are better equipped to communicate with others, but we also understand our own language, our own faith tradition, more deeply – as anyone who has learned a second language will appreciate.
EA: Exactly right. A practical example of this: I took part in a conversation with a large group of Pentecostals, and the subject of papal infallibility came up. Of course, most of us were harping on this, and making accusations left and right about the incoherent or sinister nature of the doctrine, and I had to stop them – I asked the question, “Do you know what papal infallibility actually is? Do you know about the difference between speaking ex cathedra and expressing a theological judgment as an individual?” And I was able to explain, in Pentecostal language, about the pneumatological dimension of papal infallibility, and about the logical continuity between the pneumatology of papal infallibility and the pneumatology with which we understand the prophet who gets up and prophesies in a Pentecostal service. Of course, the surrounding ecclesiology is very different, and that’s also worth attending to, but in that moment we were able to redirect a conversation that was trading in lazy stereotypes into a more nuanced conversation about how apostolic pneumatology can be interpreted in very different ways.
AH: And of course, there might still be reasons that Pentecostals are suspicious of papal infallibility – but these should be reasons based on history, or institutional power dynamics, or the like, rather than poor comprehension of the doctrine itself. Such translation work isn’t an ecumenical panacea. But it allows for us to get closer to the real issues in a relationship rather than remaining stuck at the level of fear and misunderstanding.
It seems obvious that explaining papal infallibility in terms of charismatic pneumatology would help Pentecostals better understand it – although they would still have to appreciate that Catholics would not themselves interpret the doctrine in such terms. My question would be, could such a translation of a Roman Catholic doctrine into a charismatic framework of understanding open up something new or more textured for Roman Catholics trying to understand what papal infallibility is and isn’t?
EA: That would be up to them to say, but the logic and experience of translation would suggest that the answer is yes, absolutely. Again, inter-lingual translation work aids all parties, not only those who speak the target language for whom something else is being translated, but also those who speak the source language who have the experience of seeing their own tradition cast in a different light, described in unfamiliar terms – so long as those terms are still accurate!
AH: Because translation is never a free-for-all. It requires intense training, practice, humility, patience, willingness to fail or accidentally offend and yet try again. And it can introduce some very serious problems of misinterpretation. I suspect you’re familiar with the Italian aphorism, “traduttore, traditore” – “[the] translator [is a] traitor.” The expression gives voice to the reality that, no matter how careful we are, something will always be lost or falsified in the act of translation. To extend our metaphor from earlier, then – what are the risks to Pentecostals/charismatics recovering the Great Tradition? What could go wrong? Of what could this kind of translation turn out to be a betrayal?
EA: I think a few things could go wrong. First, it’s possible to become so enamored of the riches of a venerable tradition that you forget or downplay your own identity and become something or someone that you’re not. I say this very carefully and respectfully, because I have known people, people I care about, to be engaging with the Tradition out of what might be called “conversionism,” where they had been charismatic or Pentecostal and now they’ve become Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, or Roman Catholic, and then everybody outside their new tradition has it absolutely wrong. This type of conversionism is hurtful because it deadens the possibility of nuance and learning – these individuals, once they “find” what they’ve been seeking in the Great Tradition, they become convinced that there’s nothing more to learn. Likewise, it’s possible to become so zealous about the ancient church that we become stuck and static; if antiquity is the chief metric that we use for ecclesiological validity, then we can cease to recognize any worth in contemporary forms of church life, in contemporary manifestations of faith. And then all our learning, all our recovery, all our immersion in the apostolic tradition is useless because it can’t coherently inform the present moment, it can’t provide insight where the rubber meets the road that we’re actually walking.
AH: This would seem to be where the emphasis you place on training in Christianity, on the importance of religious education, makes a real difference. Your book makes it very clear that a Pentecostal/charismatic recovery of the Great Tradition isn’t just about enthusiasm for ancient forms of thought and practice, which risks an idiosyncratic or self-serving adaptation, but also about what you call (inspired by John Wesley) “orthopathy,” or affective alignment with the tradition – which is not something that can be taken for granted or just asserted. Such orthopathy has to be cultivated. So what kinds of educational models do you see as especially appropriate, especially beneficial, when it comes to cultivating orthopathy with the tradition, which would seem to imply both a deep rootedness but also an openness or flexibility with regard to how the tradition breathes life into unprecedented situations?
EA: Well, I argue that Pentecostalism – in spite of the history of its modern emergence – can be better classified with Eastern monastic and mystical traditions than with Protestant evangelicalism. Pentecostals take very seriously the alignment of the whole person with the life of faith – ours is an emotive and bodily understanding of the spirit of worship, not just an intellectual assent to a saving truth. As Aiden Kavanaugh articulates in his work: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. The law of worship is the law of belief is the law of living. If we separate these, we are misinterpreting or misusing one or all.
I don’t want this to come across the wrong way, but education and formation in a life of faith are crucial because they place constraints on the mind and on the heart in a way that directs them properly. I believe that there’s a pedagogy of the Spirit, Aaron, and Pentecostals can sometimes ignore this, trusting our own feelings without questioning whether those feelings are appropriate and productive. A pedagogy drawn from the Great Tradition, however, can shape and correctly orient those emotive reactions to the presence of the Spirit – as we see in the writings of Macarius the Great, John Climacus, Symeon the New Theologian, and others.
AH: I appreciate what you’re saying about constraints and structure – they are not the opposite of freedom or authenticity in the Spirit, but rather (as Jeremy Begbie describes it) the “liberating” framework within which a living tradition is possible.3 In spite of the stereotype that organized structural education, in theology or liturgy or what have you, deadens or dulls a spiritual life, it would seem more productive to think of formation or education functioning like a trellis for growing a tomato plant. Maybe the Spirit is giving life to the plant regardless, but without a trellis that plant is going to collapse on the ground and not be able to bear good fruit. It might still be growing, but it’s not going to thrive. And nobody would mistake the trellis for the plant or the fruit – even if we sometimes make that mistake in church life.
EA: That’s a fantastic metaphor. Or it’s like a body – you can’t have muscles and organs and blood without a skeleton to hold them upright and enable them to move through the world.
In any case, I love the transformational learning model. I think this model really does help charismatics/Pentecostals to be able to decipher information that they might already have or that they might already know, but to see it in a different light, and then to adapt what we thought we knew, and in the process transform ourselves to make room for what we now understand more deeply. Let me give you an example: it took me a long time to understand the Eucharist, and I didn’t come to appreciate real presence through propositional thinking. I had read the theological arguments, I knew some of the history of the debate, okay – but none of that made a difference in my thinking beyond appreciating how different thinkers had approached the problem. What changed my mind was a service, a mass that I attended where no one spoke to me, but I was there in the right frame of mind, and the act of partaking of the body and the blood broke through all my ideas and showed me the presence of Christ in a way of knowing deeper than I could have articulated in language. I was convinced that day, and the proper theological framework came later. Transformational learning seeks to integrate cognitive learning with experiential learning in a kind of cycle, and this is enormously helpful for Pentecostals, charismatics, evangelicals, Catholics, you name it, to be able to make that translation between what we know, what we are seeking to know step by step with our limited minds, and what we feel but have not attained the language to articulate.
AH: And that goes for ecumenical exchange as well, doesn’t it, and not only for digesting our own traditions more fully? When interacting with and learning from a community other than our own, an oscillation between intellectual and experiential approaches in attempting to understand where the other is coming from can aid in filling in the well-known blind spots that persist in either approach when undertaken on its own.
This is a good point, I think, at which to transition into the specifically ecumenical questions that I’d like to raise with you. You’ve written about the transformative capacities of recovering ancient tradition in Pentecostalism – so what then does such a recovery offer in terms of the involvement of Pentecostal communities in ecumenical work more broadly? What is a “Pentecostal Orthodoxy” bringing to ecumenical labor and study?
EA: You know, I’ve read many of the Pentecostal-Roman Catholic dialogues. And to be honest, I just get upset when I read them. I recently picked up one of the published resources and I was reading one of the dialogues, on the concept of the “church fathers,” and how Pentecostalism could not tolerate affording the fathers such a special interpretive authority. I’m paraphrasing what was in the dialogue – but while reading it I was practically jumping up and down in my seat, because if I had been at that table, I would have suggested that Pentecostals can absolutely believe that the fathers had hermeneutical proximity to the apostolic witness and that this hermeneutical proximity should be honored and taken seriously. Maybe a majority of Pentecostals need the hermeneutical proximity of the fathers to be translated into terms that are more immediately accessible to their perspective, but this does not mean that they are incapable of appreciating and affirming the theological principle.
Pentecostal Orthodoxy, then, is making major contributions not only to the sacramental life of our own communities but also to correcting errors in ecumenical exchange that result from misunderstanding rather than real disagreement. One major problem has been that we have not been included in formal ecumenical exchanges, and so the potential benefits of our translation work, as you put it, have not been realized – almost no one in the mainstream ecumenical world knows we exist. The published dialogues are all interacting with classical Pentecostals, which is reasonable enough, but then their perspectives are taken as representing a universal Pentecostal position, which of course is not accurate. It’s something I would like to be a contribution of Pentecostal Orthodoxy to the ecumenical world more broadly: we could hit the pause button on a few assumptions that are being made, by both Pentecostals ourselves and by our partners in dialogue, about what’s possible, what’s appropriate, what’s just an outdated assumption, and so forth.
AH: It goes back to what we were discussing earlier, around the importance not only of open and hospitable exchange between churches but of real and rooted ecclesial bilingualism – of being immersed in and becoming conversant with traditions broader than those by which we were first oriented. It has been an abiding challenge in the history of ecumenism that we can only understand what others are saying by appropriating it into our own presupposed frameworks of understanding. That’s the nature of interpretation as such, hermeneutics would say, but when we aren’t self-conscious about this and actively working to stretch and stand outside ourselves, it is all too easy to talk past one another without even realizing it.
Okay, so we’ve been talking in overwhelmingly positive terms about your achievement in Pentecostal Orthodoxy, and about the mostly positive ecumenical implications of the recovery work in which your communities are engaged. But there are still some thorny issues. Early on in the book, for instance, you discuss how “ecumenism” isn’t invented in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but rather is an intrinsic, authentic dimension of ancient Christianity – committed as it was to what we might now call “unity in diversity” or diversity “reconciled” by coherent shared commitments and identities. You’ve suggested that there are various hermeneutical principles with which the ancient church adjudicated ecumenical disputes – “universality,” “antiquity,” and “conciliar consent” – which are principles that we can recover today for our own ecumenical challenges. That is, if I understand you correctly, Christian perspectives that are upheld more universally should outrank, as it were, those which are more idiosyncratic or local? Those which are more ancient should take priority over those which are more modern? And those which have been approved formally by an ecumenical council should be used to resolve dissonances between those which have not?
I recognize that this kind of approach has the potential for highlighting existing common ground between churches, but what does it suggest in terms of the status of “new” theology – whether we’re talking about St. Symeon the New Theologian or whether we’re talking about James Cone? If the theology that emerges out of contextual situations, out of the insight generated by unprecedented or previously unacknowledged lived experience, doesn’t meet these hermeneutical criteria of universality, antiquity, and conciliar approval, can they still have a bearing on ecumenical exchange? How do you reckon with, for example, the feminist theological insight that the Great Tradition – precisely because of the contextuality and particularity of those human beings who have been responsible for it – retains persistent blind spots even within its otherwise universal, ancient, and council-approved formulations? Without in any way denying the refracted presence of the Spirit in those formulations, is there still room for critique of the tradition from the perspective of new theology?
EA: Yes, we must protect the space for critique and the means to lift up new theological insights. Otherwise, it’s not real orthodoxy. Orthodoxy in every generation turns a critical, adaptive eye on what came before. Vincent of Lérins’ famous axiom – dicas nove, non dicas nova; “speak newly, but don’t speak new things” – is a real problem sometimes, because the fathers of the church just didn’t have everything right! Where were the fathers in terms of slavery? Well, most of them thought that enslavement results from sin (whether individual or ancestral), and some of them read the situation back into the Curse of Ham in Genesis, and so forth. But it doesn’t help the later church to be so pious toward the fathers that we can’t be honest about their blind spots.
I think it is our responsibility to critique the tradition – but that’s only possible if we are in the tradition. If you’re not in the tradition, if you aren’t immersed in it, if you don’t understand its internal reasoning and life-giving power, then how can I accept your critique? This has been my fight with other Pentecostals who don’t understand, but are all too willing to critique, the theological heritage of Orthodox Christianity. So yes, I’m with you completely – there is space for critique of the tradition from the vantage point of new, contextual theology, but that critique is not productive unless we begin with immersion, with fluency, in that which we are critiquing. And with that fluency, we are equipped to heal something which is good, but poisoned in one way or another by the powers of the world.
AH: I think this relates also to your hermeneutical principle of “conciliar approval,” since we have to take into account the authority by which the great ecumenical councils of the early church issued that approval (or approbation). We can take seriously the pneumatological dimension of their authority, but even if the councils are Spirit-infused, they are also fully human: the councils are oriented and validated by imperial power politics, and the people in the room where the decisions are being made have their perspectives on the world and on the values of the church conditioned by their wealth, their gender, their culture. Do you worry at all that the criterion of conciliar approval for the validity of theological or ecclesiological common ground risks subordinating prophetic possibilities to the political inheritance of the Roman empire?
EA: I don’t think that’s unfair to say. It’s true that there are some implications of the hermeneutics of recovery and translation that I develop in Pentecostal Orthodoxy that are not fully examined, and I do wish that I had addressed these political connotations in a little more depth. For one thing, the writing in the book was intended mainly for a Pentecostal audience, and for those in other churches interested in exploring the more “orthodox” dimensions of Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity. And so my priority was to establish the harmony between the ancient conciliar period and the needs of the present. But there are real dangers in not acknowledging and owning that there were some decisions that were made at the ecumenical councils that were primarily political in purpose, and that the legacy of those decisions is still very much with us – even as the holiness and spiritual fruitfulness of those councils also remains with us. So yes, conciliar consensus, though important as an ecumenical principle, is risky and can’t be absolutized; the same goes for universality and antiquity.
At the same time, as much as you’re correct to point out ways that appeals to consensus, universality, and antiquity can be problematic, this framework that I utilize is the framework that I believe helps Pentecostals recover the Great Tradition, recover their own orthodoxy, most effectively. I think that once that recovery is made, then there may well be new, more nuanced, more politically cautious frameworks that will need to emerge – critiquing and rectifying what came before from a place of immersion and fluency. Clearly, I do not want either Pentecostal Orthodoxy nor ecumenism more broadly to present itself as “apolitical” – not only is that not realistic, but the attempt also has the effect of simply tolerating or ignoring the power of the status quo. But if a Constantinian imperial approach to ecumenism is not satisfactory, and if there are good reasons also to resist the United-Nations-style approach of autonomous bordered churches that we’ve seen over the last century, then something else needs to emerge, a different kind of political theology. The argument I make in the book is for an “ecumenism of the Spirit” – an ecumenism that begins in the grassroots, in the bodegas and the grocery stores, in the gas stations, at the markets – that has as much to offer in terms of repairing our orientation toward one another and toward the universal church as whatever is happening in Rome or in Constantinople. It’s the neighborhood mother who is Roman Catholic but is good friends with the Pentecostal mother whose children are in the same school, and their kids are growing up together, and they go out shopping together, and they pray for one another, and nobody in their respective church hierarchies knows that they pray for one another, but they do, and they eat at each other’s home every single week, and this matters in a way that our ecumenical infrastructures are ill-equipped to recognize and build upon.
AH: There are certainly conversations taking place, even in the traditional structures for ecumenical dialogue, that appreciate the importance of such lived, noninstitutional ecumenism – but there seems to be a gap between recognizing that so-called grassroots ecumenism is important and is happening, on the one hand, and actually learning from it and taking new direction from it in terms of ecclesial administration and self-understanding, on the other.
EA: And that’s exactly my question. How ecumenical are we really being in all this writing we’re doing – you and I and others – and all these meetings we’re having, if ultimately we’re just trying to play a support role to the ecumenical affairs of the “heads of state” in our churches, our communities, and so forth? Jesus’ prayer was that all may be one – not just the dignitaries and presiding bishops authorized to write accords. Ecumenicity is for everybody, a healed relationship with our estranged sisters and brothers is for everybody. But look around – and I say this respectfully – look at how it’s only now, if even now, that the tremendous achievements of Vatican II are being digested in most Catholic parishes. And that’s to say nothing of Pentecostalism, where what I’m seeing in terms of an abiding ecumenical ethos is often very discouraging.
AH: So what do we need? It’s a both-and approach, clearly – neither of us would say, I think, that our leaders and theologians and academics don’t have a crucial role to play. But that’s not sufficient, and here again we see the importance of coherent religious education and ecumenical formation in the parishes, so that the grassroots ecumenism isn’t a free-for-all but is engaged in deep and responsible learning in the tradition, and can also be empowered to inform the work of communal leaders. We talk a lot about the “reception” of ecumenical dialogue into the churches, but not nearly as much as we should about what needs to happen in the other direction. There needs to be a clear pathway for those mothers in the community, who have lived ecumenical relationships, to speak into the formal dialogues, to better prepare their leaders. What does that look like? Something tells me that convening focus groups from time to time is not an adequate solution.
EA: It’s such an important question, and I don’t have a ready-made answer for it, but let me give one example of what seems like a positive possibility: in Rochester, New York, some Pentecostal pastors got into an interesting conversation with the two former parish priests – Roman Catholic priests – who used to pass through the building where we were. And at one point we invited them to come to our services, and they did come, and we welcomed them and had fellowship with them. And this already was a huge opportunity for our community members, just to see the good will and have everyday human interaction with these Catholic priests. But after coming to our services a few times, they said: “Well, what’s the next step?” And we thought about it, and it came to us: “We’re going to mass.” The whole church! If they’d have us, we’d go to the Catholic mass in the same spirit of fellowship and learning and neighborly love. And we did exactly that. This kind of thing isn’t a panacea, but it’s a model – a grassroots model of ecumenical hospitality, openness, and transformed seeing of one another – that is beginning to take hold, to which scholars and church leaders alike are going to have to give their close attention.
AH: My last question, then – you’ve already brought up what you’ve described as a shift or contrast between “spiritual ecumenism” and “ecumenism of the Spirit,” and I take you to be saying that an ecumenism of the Spirit should be conceived as a means rather than as an end. That’s admittedly one of the great pitfalls of classical ecumenism, that it can fall into the habit of thinking of itself as an end: we seek unity because we’re supposed to seek unity, and then once we get unity, we’ve done what we set out to do and we can go about our business. This is a caricature, of course, but I do worry about ecumenical myopia in this respect. It sounds like you do as well. If the goal of an ecumenism of the Spirit is not simply “visible unity” after the fashion of the twentieth-century ecumenical movement, then what is it?
EA: Well, to answer that, we would have to really go back and re-translate “visible unity,” not only because there has rarely been much agreement about what it actually means, but also because what the classical ecumenical movement typically meant by visible unity was the denominational heads standing together, signing documents, declaring by fiat that their communities are no longer divided, and decreeing that they could share communion between them, and that’s just… it’s a kind of agreement, and sharing the mass and recognizing one another’s holy orders are not insignificant, but I just don’t see this kind of institutionally decreed “visible unity” as indicating anything particularly profound about what’s taking place at a human level between estranged members of a family. It might be the pneumatologist in me, but real (that is, on a deeper level than what is merely “visible”) unity would have to mean that people from different faith traditions are able to come together and understand one another on a human level, but also on a theological level, having grace enough with each other to be able to understand that, whatever distinctions and disagreements persist between them, the love that permeates their relationship is more fundamental and more abiding. Such a thing would clearly be supported and honored by the “heads of state” making their accords about intercommunion, but such accords would neither be necessary nor sufficient for what really matters. I think if the heads of our various denominations were to say, right now, that our various schisms were null and void, and that we can share communion and holy orders right now with no restrictions – I think it would be a full-blown disaster. People would fight it, because that’s not where their hearts are – we don’t yet know each other. Such a “visible unity” would not be real unity.
If, on the other hand, we were able to come to know one another in a grassroots way – to eat in each other’s houses, to know each other’s cultures, to know each other’s ethnicities, to know each other’s traditions, to have the grace and freedom of heart to be able to listen to each other without judgment and without presupposing our own solutions – I think that then we might be able to arrive at a place of opening up communion, sharing ministry of various kinds, and it would not come as a shock because that unity would already be lived before it was asserted.
I’ve seen this happen, Aaron. I was with a group of Pentecostals on a trip, and there were some Roman Catholics who had come along with us, and there were two women who just hit it off from the get go – they were laughing and talking and opening up to one another the whole trip. And at the end, we visited a Roman Catholic church, and the Pentecostal woman – a staunch Pentecostal, mind you, not at all what you might consider flexible in her faith or traditions – goes up to the font alongside her new friend, and dips her hand in the water and crosses herself. She must have caught me staring, because it caught me by surprise, and she just smiles at me and says, “Well, when I’m in my sister’s house…!” I was blown away. But it’s moments like this when we really see what’s possible.
AH: We have our denominational configurations, we have our identities, we have our comfortable frameworks with which we make a world for ourselves that is less than universal – because it has to be particular in order for us to inhabit it comfortably – but then we so easily start idolizing that world and mistaking it for communion rather than recognizing it only as a means of communion. Thank you for your insights today and especially for these wonderful glimpses of an ecumenical alternative.
1. Emilio Alvarez, Pentecostal Orthodoxy: Toward an Ecumenism of the Spirit (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022).
2. Dwight Hopkins and George Cummings (eds), Cut Loose Your Stammering Tongue: Black Theology in the Slave Narratives (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991).
3. See Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 204-245.
This interview originally appeared in Ecumenical Trends 52.4 (July/August 2023), a publication of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. The journal offers distinctive perspectives where the church, the academy, and the interfaith field coincide, and combines reporting on current developments in ecumenical/interreligious affairs with accessible scholarship, interviews, and pastoral reflection on the dynamics of religious difference on common ground. Find out more, and subscribe to Ecumenical Trends (print and/or online), by clicking here.