Fire from Heaven

fire-from-heaven[1]In 1965, Dr. Harvey Cox wrote a book entitled The Secular City, as an attempt to offer a theology for the age of coming postmodernism. In it, he regarded rapid urbanization and cultural deconstruction as challenges that demand answers from 20th century Christianity.

But in the mid-1990s, Cox wrote another book entitled Fire from Heaven, which served as a response to some of the questions raised previously in The Secular City. The new research suggested the rapidly growing Pentecostal movement as the answer to the postmodern quest for religion and spirituality. As such, Pentecostalism represented the process of spiritual restoration of significance and purpose to oppose despair and hopelessness (p. 33). The book further proposed that Pentecostalism in global perspective is a solution to the modern-day Christianity crisis.

Formative Context
The research begins at the turn of the twentieth century with the American context as the original formative environment for modern-day Pentecostalism (chapter one). Since the time was a peak for millennial expectations and holiness quests, a second Pentecost was a natural culmination. The factors that presupposed the Pentecostal movement are then used to provide further proof for the success of Pentecostalism as religious and social reformation. Since, this is not constrained geographically to its roots and tradition, a global impact Christianity is possible.

Pentecostal Beginnings
After establishing the contextual formative factors of modern-day Pentecostalism, Fire from Heaven considers its beginning at the Azusa Street revival. The research describes it as a revolutionary event of social reformation of classes, genders and races which did not just spark Pentecost but aided its spread in America. The focus on William Seymour is well deserved, since the Azusa Street events were the end of a long formative process through which Pentecostalism emerged. On the other hand, Los Angelis in the beginning of the 20th century was not only a proper social context for such event, but also provided the right medium through which this event could spread nationally. This is the difference between Pentecostal historians who see a heritage of historical developments that lead to modern-day Pentecost, and commentators outside Pentecostalism who only have a glimpse of the largely publicized events and accounts.

Pentecostal Growth
One aspect of Pentecost, which seems central for the research, is its power to influence and grow. Fire from Heaven gives a brief account of modern Pentecostal history in regard to the global growth and increasing influence of the movement. The interesting aspect in the approach is that the author is an outsider in regard to Pentecostalism and observes the historical developments as cause and effect processes, rather than personal heritage. Yet, even with such an approach, Pentecostalism becomes a personal experience for the author which he uses as a proof for his thesis. Cox admits that the rapid growth of Pentecostalism is not an accidental event, but it is supported by the fact that this particular religious movement is able to provide applicable answers to religious quests and crises and thus serves as a movement for social transformation. This research finds the power of Pentecostalism in its simple but applicable message.

Toward Pentecostal Theology of Experience
The heart of Fire from Heaven is the proposal of three major primitive developments that have been attributed to the Pentecostal message: primal piety, primal speech and primal hope (p. 82). These are easily identified in Pentecostal circles as holiness, glossolalia and eschatological hope. Of great interest to the Pentecostal believer are the associations which Fire From Heaven offered. For example, the sign of speaking in tongues expresses the Pentecostal appeal for interdenominational union and racial equality which serves as a restorational factor for the original creation and order before the division at the Tower of Babel.

Furthermore, this story of Pentecostalism proposed that miracles and wonders were not connected to power alone. Instead, they were the results of piety and holiness of both the individual Christian and the ecclesial community. Finally, the recovery of the first hope became the answer for the present quest for existence. As such, the eschatological return of Christ for judgment over all and to restore the creation to its original order became the motivation and meaning for the Pentecostal Christian in the present life.

Pentecostalism in a Global Context
Another Biblical practice applied by early Pentecostals was evangelization with special interest to its global aspect of missions. Chapters 7-12 of Fire from Heaven deals with the global spread of Pentecostalism as a religious movement that was able to respond equality in different cultural contexts. Cox uses chapters seven and eight to show that Pentecostalism approached the 20th century world not only as a religious movement, but as a social one as well. Modern-day issues like the role of women, music, etc., which were coherent factors in the world’s 20th century history, were viewed and addressed by Pentecostals as well.

Chapters nine through twelve are Cox’s personal observations and evaluation of Pentecostal worship praxis in Pentecostal churches around the world. Unfortunately, European Pentecostal churches are not a part of this in-depth analysis, which limits the global overview of the research. The mentioned examples, however, give enough material to show Pentecostal characteristics, approaches and reasons why more and more people join this movement. The book finishes with a return to American Pentecostalism and its effect on present American spirituality as well as cultural and social developments.

Mission Applications
The above book review agreed with my understanding and practice of Pentecostal theology since I have learned and lived it in the underground Bulgarian Church of God. As I read the pages of Fire from Heaven, I began to feel that something had been lost since the time when modern Pentecost began. The twenty first century Christianity offers everything except the primitivism, purity and power of its own Holiness roots. My visit with Dr. Cox at Harvard Divinity School in the summer of 2000 not only served as a proof for me, but it provided the groundwork for the writing of my masters thesis on the subject of “Pentecostal Primitivism Preserved.”

The central theme of my research was an appeal for remembering and returning to the past. Based on my own Eastern Pentecostal tradition and personal salvific experience, my paper went a step further than Dr. Cox’s Fire from Heaven and called the Christian Church to neo-primitivism as expressed in the rediscovering and reclaiming of the basic order of the Primitive Church of the first century. Additionally, my master’s thesis reformulated the three primal distinctives of the Pentecostal experience as power, prayer and praxis. Finally, the paper called for a reclaiming of the original experience as the answer for the church of the 21st century, but only when expressed in discipleship after the example of Christ. The conclusion pointed out that only through such process would the Pentecostal community be enabled to preserve its own identity and transmit the faith once delivered to the saints of the future generations.

We have used this approach in the mission work in Bulgaria for the past few years and it has proven to be an effective Biblical strategy for missions. While it is yet a bit early to speak of its successes and failures, I might add that its practical implementations have gained a large interest among ministers and the membership of the Bulgarian Church of God. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the political and economical challenges in Eastern Europe have strongly affected the Evangelical Churches in Bulgaria. As the Protestant Church in Bulgaria is entering a new constitutional era in the history of the country, more than ever before, reformation in doctrines and praxes is necessary in order to adjust to a style of worship liberated from the dictatorship of the communist regime is needed. Fire from Heaven is an encouragement that Pentecostalism as a church model and social-religious formative process is the answer for contexts equal to the present Bulgarian reality.