Summer 2010, Vol.
Recitals of the Acts of God: Israelite and American Pentecostal Testimonies
B.A., Advertising/Public Relations and Biblical Studies, Evangel University, 2009
M.A., Religious Studies, Missouri State University, In Progress
The cinderblock sanctuary was dimly lit. The winter sun had set, and the focus of the room was the display of flickering candles at the altar. After singing familiar hymns and choruses, individuals and families took their turns making their way up to the front to light candles and address the congregation. Then it was our turn. My mother ushered my two younger sisters and me up to the front. While my sisters simply stood before our church family, my mother testified to God’s goodness. Then, as a fifth-generation, Assemblies of God fifth grader, I gave thanks for the things with which God had blessed me. That evening I participated in a distinctive of Pentecostal practice.
Pentecostals are a distinct people. Their doctrines that so easily separate them from Protestant orthodoxy also dictate their behavioral norms and ecclesial practices. While some of the colorful character of early Pentecostalism may be muted in contemporary circles, even less than a decade ago some typical Pentecostal behaviors were widespread in denominations and fellowships like the Assemblies of God. Sunday evening testimony services were regular parts of church life. Individuals from all generations would participate in a practice of standing before the congregation and reciting the works of the God within their lives. Story after story would lead to times of prayer and singing hymns like, “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” and “Victory in Jesus.”
The Pentecostal focus on testimonies and the types of hymns of churches characteristic of the Assemblies of God are dynamic translations of the Old Testament recitals of God’s acts. Pentecostals have been critiqued for their emphasis on experience. Ellen T. Charry asserts that the formal classifying of experience as divine revelation began in England in the seventeenth century and was a result of the influence of modernism.1
Although scholarship and academia may not have categorized experience as divine revelation, the ancient Hebrews and at least segments of the Church have certainly acted upon their experiences of God. Truths and suppositions can only become worldview and practice through experience. Faith is not based on the unknown. It is based on the known, and it trusts through and for the unknown. The absolute truths of the Christian are believed with force in light of God’s actions throughout history and in the individual lives of believers.2
Israelite Testimony: Recital of God’s Redemptive Acts
The Israelites’ faith was based on their experiences of God’s acts.3 According to Gordon Kaufman, an act is “something done or performed, a deed; it is a particular and generally a very specific event brought about by an agent [and] involves an element of creativity not characteristic of lower forms of life than man.”4 God’s incommunicable attributes are communicated through His acts. Old Testament stories record experiences that reveal God’s nature and will. William A. Dyrness states, “Deeds in the OT are proofs, tokens and elaborations of God’s presence and cannot be understood apart from this background.”5 God worked in the lives of His people to reveal himself to them. As God revealed himself to His people, He expected an appropriate response.
The Old Testament is peppered with calls to remembrance. Brevard S. Childs explains that within the Israelite mind, “to remember was to call to mind a past event or situation, with the purpose of evoking some action.”6 Their memories of what God had done were calls to action. Moses instructed the people to retell the acts of Yahweh to the following generations that they, too, might live to serve Him (Deut 4:1-46; 7:17-19; 10:14-22). Some of the Psalms are recitals of God’s works and invoke worship and praise (Pss. 66; 105; 106; 135; 136). The praise and obedience of Israel was founded upon the proofs of God’s covenant and salvific works—like deliverance from Egypt and issuing the Law.
American Pentecostal Recitals of God’s Acts: Testimonies and Hymns
The selection of hymns popular in Pentecostal circles and their use of personal testimonies parallel the Old Testament precedents of recitals of God’s acts. Pentecostals used their personal experiences, expressed in the form of testimonies, for normative theology.7 Their stories of salvation, healing, Spirit baptism, and sanctification created expectations among their communities. Grant Wacker describes these testimonies’ influence, saying, “Such talk was heady stuff. If it fueled Pentecostals’ eagerness to do important things for the Lord, it also fueled their ability to do important things for themselves.”8 This pattern should sound similar.
Just as the Israelites rooted their obedience and worship on the acts of God, so do Pentecostals. Known for their emphasis on the immutability of God, Pentecostals believe that God does not change and that He was clearly at work in the lives of the ancient Israelites and the Early Church; therefore, believers should expect Him to move today. The testimonies of individuals have affirmed God’s activity in the lives of His people. 9 Their recitals of the acts of God within their own lives confirmed the character and will of God within their worldview. These people were not asserting something other than what was evidenced in Scripture but rather emphasizing its relevance and lasting authority.
One must distinguish between the acceptance of God’s continual self-revelation and action in the lives of people today and the attempt to establish new, special revelation. Throughout the centuries, the move of the Spirit, as evidenced by ecstatic experiences, caused concern—and rightly so. Without proper discernment, the rants of the madman, the poorly informed eccentric, or the one misinterpreting various experiences have been accepted as proofs and truth—standing contrary to the suppositions contained in the inspired, written Word of God. Charry explains, “The question here is what authenticates or qualifies the specific experience of any particular individual or group to have their reported experience count as a source of the knowledge of God.”10
Pentecostal experiences, especially testimony services, were not intended to replace Scripture. Rather, they were the contemporary application of biblical teaching. In his book, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture, Wacker holds in tension Pentecostals’ leanings toward pragmatism and primitivism.11 Pentecostals seek to return to the standards of Scripture, especially those of the Early Church. Lesslie Newbigin declares,
Thus the Christian understanding of the world is not only a matter of ‘dwelling in’ a tradition of understanding; it is a matter of dwelling in a story of God’s activity, activity which is still continuing. The knowledge which Christian faith seeks is knowledge of God who has acted and is acting.12
Pentecostals were not replacing the Bible’s authority in their lives, but rather expressing its personally experienced evidence. They were not accepting a stagnant faith passed down through generations; they were embracing a lifestyle based on the expectation of God’s personal involvement in their lives as evidenced in the Old and New Testaments.
God’s involvement in their lives was expressed through their testimonies as well as through their songs. Up until this current generation, hymns served as the staple of Pentecostal song services as they were for the majority of churches in the Western world. The hymns and choruses that emerged from and were popular in the Pentecostal movement accentuated the personal and spiritual.13 Pentecostal song services were and are known for their spontaneity, vibrancy, and enthusiasm.14 While some have dismissed them for their emotionalism and lack of structure, they often served as celebrations and affirmations of God’s acts and a source of Pentecostal church history.
In 1972, W. J. Hollenweger wrote, “Hymns are more decisive in their influence on the religious beliefs and practices of Pentecostals than is the literature of the Pentecostal movement. A Pentecostal lives with his hymns. He knows fifty or a hundred hymns, with several verses, by heart as well as innumerable choruses.”15 In the relatively new field of Pentecostal scholarship, Pentecostal song selection serves as a valuable indicator of a congregation’s theology. Singing is an expression of what one believes and values. The hymns and choruses the Pentecostals chose to sing often fell within two categories: (1) those that focused on divine friendship and assurance and (2) ballads. 16 The first category includes well-known tunes17 like “I Know Who Holds Tomorrow,” “He Keeps Me Singing,” “Friendship with Jesus,” “The Comforter Has Come,” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” These songs focus on the immediate and emotional benefits of a relationship with God, such as assurance, peace, and personal fulfillment. Pentecostals also sang many ballads—musical stories about themselves, other believers, or Bible stories. Examples are “Supper Time,” “At Calvary,” “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story,” “Old-Time Power,” and “The Old Rugged Cross.”
Even today, people often testify to the fact that during times of trials, the words of hymns come back to mind and provide comfort. Hymns and choruses contain the promises and encouraging truths that enable believers to continue in their walk. Songs, in general, are good memory tools. For Pentecostals, worship was a way of remembering.18 The song services functioned similarly to the testimony services. They affirmed the individual’s experience and spurred the community on to dedicated, Spirit-filled living. The songs often followed the same formula as the testimonies did: acknowledging the state of life before a relationship with Christ or Spirit baptism, declaring the benefits of life with the Lord, and announcing commitment to discipleship and obedience.
Pentecostals do not seek to replace the authority of Scripture with emotionalism and experience. They seek to experience the type of life detailed in Scripture. The fact that God acted was a presupposition in the Israelite worldview. While their obedience and commitment to Yahweh sometimes faltered, they never rejected the premise that He had acted in their history and that He continues to act. The recitals of God’s action were reminders of God’s faithfulness to Israel and His actions on their behalf. The New Testament contains a few, small recitals of God’ acts and calls to remember (Eph. 2:11-13; Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:9-15). In Ephesians 2:11-13, Paul exhorts the people to remember what they once were and what they became through Christ. Pentecostalism reaffirms that God is active in the world and that He is active in the lives of individuals.
Pentecostals’ hymns and choruses were like sung testimonies of personal deliverance and dedication, Christ’s work upon the cross, and the move of the Holy Spirit. They harmonize with the recitals of the Old Testament. The ancient Hebrew people were called to remember the acts of God and pass them on. Through testimony services and singing, the Pentecostals were enumerating God’s works and making a call to a Spirit-filled life. They had personally witnessed the movement of the hand of God and personal regeneration and experienced His salvific works. Their services and ecclesial norms testified to their exuberance in communicating the benefits of relationship with God. Often a third of the service was dedicated to testimonies,19 and worship through music was always emphasized in Pentecostal circles. They were answering the Old Testament call to remember and were extending the list of the actions of God. For God delivered the Israelites from the land of Egypt and the individual from the life of sin; He became the praise of Israel and put songs in the heart of anyone who dedicated his or her life to Him. He promised to never leave or forsake His children and sent His Comforter to be their Guide.
Alford, Delton L. Music in the Pentecostal Church. Cleveland, TN: Pathway, 1967.
Childs, Brevard S. A Memory and Tradition in Israel. London: SCM Press, 1962.
Charry, Ellen T. “Experience.” In The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance, 413-431. Oxford, UK: Oxford University, 2007.
Dyrness, William A. Themes in Old Testament Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977.
Hollenweger, W. J. The Pentecostals: The Charismatic Movement in the Churches. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1972.
Jacobs, Alan. Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
Kaufman, Gordon. “On the Meaning of ‘Act of God.’” HTS 61 (1968): 181.
Lawless, Elaine J. God’s Peculiar People: Women’s Voices & Folk Tradition in a Pentecostal Church. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1988.
Melodies of Praise, Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1957.
Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
Tanner, Donald Ray. An Analysis of Assemblies of God Hymnology. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Minnesota International, Xerox University, 1974.
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary of Current English, 6th ed. J. B. Sykes. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.
Verhey, Allen. “Remember, Remembrance.” In Vol. 5 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freeman, 667-669. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Wacker, Grant. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2001.
1. Ellen T. Charry, “Experience,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology 5, ed. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford, U.K: Oxford University, 2007), 413-431.
2. Alan Jacobs, Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 1-2.
3. Deut. 7:17-26; 8:2-4; 26:5-10; Josh. 24:1-13; Judges 6:8-10; 1 Sam. 8:8; 12:6-11; 2 Sam. 7:8-11; 1 Kings 8:9, 16-21; Neh. 9; Pss. 78; 105; 106; 135; 136.
4. Gordon Kaufman. “On the Meaning of ‘Act of God’” HTS 61 (1968): 181.
5. William A. Dyrness, Themes in Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 33.
6. Brevard S. Childs, A Memory and Tradition in Israel (London: SCM Press, 1962), 17.
7. Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2001), 58.
9. Elaine J. Lawless, God’s Peculiar People: Women’s Voices & Folk Tradition in a Pentecostal Church (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1988), 124.
12. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1989), 51.
13. Delton L. Alford, Music in the Pentecostal Church (Cleveland, TN: Pathway, 1967), 18.
14. Donald Ray Tanner, An Analysis of Assemblies of God Hymnology (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Minnesota, Xerox University, 1974), 71.
15. W. J. Hollenweger, The Pentecostals: The Charismatic Movement in the Churches (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1972), 464.
17. All of the songs listed in this paper can be found in Melodies of Praise (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1957). This hymnal was offered as the standard songbook for the Assemblies of God.
18. Allen Verhey, “Remember, Remembrance,” in vol. 5 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freeman (New York: Doubleday), 669.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010 11:54 AM