The Pentecostal Experience through the Ages
World of Aflame Publications
God’s truth endures to all generations (Psalm 100:5). God has always had a people; even in times of great apostasy, He has had a remnant who believed and obeyed Him.
In Romans 11, the apostle Paul derived an important principle from the story of Elijah the principle of preservation. That is, God always has a remnant. Even when His people as a whole reject Him, some still serve Him according to the truth.
When Jesus Christ told the apostles of His plan to establish the New Testament church, He assured them that the gates of hell would not stand against that church (Matthew 16:18). This statement indicates that the Lord will always have disciples who are victorious over the forces of evil and that Satan will never be able to wipe the church out of existence. In other words, Jesus gave His church the promise of preservation.
In Revelation 2 and 3, the Lord sent letters to seven churches in Asia Minor. They were actual churches in the first century, but their circumstances and conditions are relevant in every age, including today. Jesus praised two of them, rebuked one, and both praised and rebuked the other four. Significantly, in each letter He promised a reward to the over-comer, indicating that in every case some people would be victorious over sin. Regarding one of the weakest churches, He stated, “Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments” (Revelation 3:4).
Based on these scriptural passages, we believe that the New Testament church, as defined by the apostles’ doctrine and experience, has existed in every age since the Day of Pentecost. In this chapter we will examine the historical record to see what evidence exists to support this conclusion.
The Record of Preservation
At the outset of our survey, we must note several difficulties in attempting such a study of history.
Adequate records are not always available. Religious leaders often destroyed writings they judged unorthodox and suppressed views they considered false, dangerous, or unimportant. Other historical information may have been lost or overlooked by historians. Even today, it is often difficult to find information about Oneness Pentecostalism in libraries, despite the size of this movement and the lack of suppression of publications in the western world.
Records that do exist are often slanted in favor of majority doctrinal views. This occurs either intentionally or unintentionally, for history is written by the victors.
Many ancient writings contain changes or additions made by copyists over the centuries. This happened often for doctrinal reasons.
Existing documents do not always reflect the views of the average believer of the time. Instead, they reflect the view of an unrepresentative elite.
False doctrines existed from the earliest times. Many New Testament examples, warnings, and predictions show this to be so, so the antiquity of a belief or writing is no guarantee of doctrinal accuracy.
With these cautions in mind, let us investigate certain distinctives of apostolic Christianity that Christendom today generally does not accept. In particular, we will examine the new birth experience of Acts 2 (repentance, baptism in Jesus’ name, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit) and the doctrine of Oneness (the absolute oneness of God and the absolute deity of Jesus Christ, in contrast to trinitarianism). Chapter 1 discussed the Pentecostal outpouring of the first century, and chapter 3 discusses the great Pentecostal revival of the twentieth century; this chapter explores the intervening period.
The Oneness of God
Second century. The first generation of Christian writers after the apostles are commonly known as the Apostolic Fathers, or more accurately, the Post-Apostolic Fathers. They wrote around A.D. 90-140, and the most prominent of them were Ignatius, Clement of Rome, and Polycarp. They adhered closely to biblical language and thought, affirming strict monotheism, the absolute deity of Jesus Christ, and the true humanity of Christ. They did not use distinctive trinitarian terms, and their writings are compatible with the Oneness message.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia says concerning trinitarianism in the second century, “Among the Apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective; among the second century Apologists, little more than a focusing of the problem as that of plurality within the Godhead. . . . A trinitarian solution was still in the future.”
Third century. Tertullian, who is often called the father of trinitarianism, was the first writer to speak of God as a “trinity” and as “three persons.” Nevertheless, comments by early trinitarians reveal that well into the third century the majority of believers still adhered to the biblical doctrine of Oneness.
Novatian acknowledged that “very many heretics” accept Jesus as the Father. Hippolytus wrote that “no one is ignorant” of this belief. Origen acknowledged that “some individuals among the multitude of believers . . . incautiously assert that the Savior is the Most High God.” Most significantly, Tertullian admitted that “the majority of believers” were opposed to his doctrine of the trinity, seeing it as a compromise of monotheism and of their historic confession of faith.
Historians call the people of this time who opposed trinitarianism, affirmed God’s oneness, and affirmed the absolute deity of Jesus Christ “modalists” or “modalistic monarchians.” Encyclopedia Britannica defines their belief as follows: “Modalistic monar (whose doctrine was known to Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin and who was burned at the stake with Calvin’s approval), Emmanuel Swedenborg (who recognized the error of trinitarianism but taught some unusual, nonbiblical doctrines), some Anabaptists, many antitrinitarians, William Penn and many early Quakers, Isaac Watts, Isaac Newton.
Nineteenth century. Writers who expressed Oneness views were John Clowes (England), John Miller (U.S.), and some New England Congregationalists.
All branches of Christendom acknowledge the necessity of repentance, at least in theory. The early post-apostolic church emphasized repentance strongly and demanded evidence of repentance before water baptism. There was such insistence on a total life transformation that some taught no forgiveness was available for major sins committed after baptism. The gradual shift to infant baptism did away with true repentance, however, until in the Roman Catholic Church repentance evolved into penance and salvation by works.
The Protestant Reformers rejected this distortion, but because of their emphasis on mental faith alone and predestination, they did not completely restore the biblical doctrine of repentance. They held that repentance precedes the moment of faith or is equivalent to the moment of faith. As a result, most evangelicals today emphasize an instant mental decision for Christ, typically consisting of a simple gesture, a repeated prayer, or a silent thought. Unfortunately, this action is not necessarily accompanied by godly sorrow, a decision to forsake sin, or a transformed life.
For the first five centuries, water baptism was universally accepted as an initiation rite performed for the washing away of sins and therefore essential to salvation. Eventually, however, it came to be viewed as a magical ceremony instead of an act of faith. Catholics, Orthodox, many Lutherans, some Protestant scholars, and the Churches of Christ teach it to be part of salvation. Luther, the Augsburg Confession (an early Lutheran creed), and the Lutheran Catechism all stated that baptism is necessary to salvation, made effective by faith. Most Protestants today see it as symbolic only, however.
Most of Christendom uses the trinitarian baptismal formula, except for Oneness Pentecostals and many charismatics. But a study of church history reveals that the original formula was Jesus Name and that the early post-apostolic church used the name of Jesus in the baptismal formula. So concludes the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics and the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, as well as church historians Otto Heick, Williston Walker, Jean Danielou, Wilhelm Bousset, and many others. Most of the people we have identified as expressing Oneness beliefs apparently baptized in Jesus’ name also.
Second century. The Post-Apostolic Fathers made no reference to a trinitarian baptismal formula, but they attached great significance to the name of God in salvation, and it appears that they followed the apostles’ practice of baptizing in Jesus’ name.
Hermas wrote of baptism “in the name of the Lord” and in the “name of the Son of God.” Irenaeus stated, “We are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord.” The heretic Marcion broke away from the church during this time, and his followers preserved the older baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ.” The Acts of Paul and Thecla, written by an Asiatic presbyter, gives an account of baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ.”
A document called the Didache speaks both of baptism “into the name of the Lord” and baptism “into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” It does not otherwise allude to the trinity, however, and the latter phrase could easily be a later insertion, for the only existing Greek manuscript dates from 1056.
Most scholars assert that Justin Martyr was the first to mention a threefold formula, around 150. He did not recite the modern formula but explicitly included the name Jesus, apparently in deference to older practice: “in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit.” It seems that this formula was a transitional step to the later trinitarian formula. Similarly, Justin’s view of Jesus as a subordinate second person of the Godhead was a transition from original monotheism to later trinitarianism.
Third century. Stephen, bishop of Rome, held Jesus Name baptism to be valid. Cyprian denounced “heretics” in his day who “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” instead of “in the full and united Trinity.”
A Treatise on Rebaptism by an Anonymous Writer, probably written by a bishop who opposed Cyprian, makes a strong case for the validity of Jesus Name baptism even when performed by people outside the recognized church. It says that such people do not need to be rebaptized: “Heretics who are already baptized in water in the name of Jesus Christ must only be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Moreover, this position had the support of “the most ancient custom and ecclesiastical tradition” and “the formula of “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” citing Acts 2:38.
Many of the Plymouth Brethren, as well as some other English groups, taught on the authority of Acts 2:38 that baptism should be in the name of Jesus only. John Miller, a Presbyterian minister in the United States, interpreted Matthew 28:19 to refer to baptism in Jesus’ name as described in the Book of Acts.
The Baptism of the Holy Spirit
In theory, all major branches of Christendom teach that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is necessary to salvation. Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all teach that they receive the Holy Spirit. They do not usually recognize speaking in tongues as the initial evidence of the Holy Spirit, however. Most Holiness people, trinitarian Pentecostals, and charismatics teach that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is an optional, postconversional extra blessing.
Second century. The Post-Apostolic Fathers spoke of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and of the exer-cise of spiritual gifts. The Didache and Justin Martyr also mentioned with approval the gifts of the Spirit, including prophecy. Irenaeus specifically testified to the existence of speaking in tongues, describing it as the sign of a Spirit-filled person. Celsus, a pagan, stated that Christians in his day spoke in tongues. A group called the Montanists emphasized the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues.
Third century. Tertullian identified speaking in tongues as one of the marks of a true church. Novatian cited with approval the existence of tongues and other spiritual gifts in the church. Based on passages in Epiphanius and Pseudo-Athanasius, it appears that Sabellius received the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues.
Fourth and fifth centuries. Hilary and Ambrose taught in favor of tongues, but a little later, Augustine opposed “heretics” who still taught that people spoke in tongues at conversion. Both Augustine and John Chrysostom admitted that in former times everyone who received the Holy Spirit spoke in tongues, but they argued (wrongly) that tongues had now ceased.
Middle ages. Speaking in tongues was reported among “heretics” such as the Waldenses and Albigenses, and also among the Franciscans and other mendicant orders of monks.
Sixteenth century. Some Anabaptists spoke in tongues, as did people in a prophecy movement in England. Menno Simons, the Anabaptist leader whose followers became known as Mennonites, described speaking in tongues as expected evidence of the Holy Ghost, and many early Anabaptists worshiped quite demonstratively.
Seventeenth century. Speaking in tongues occurred among the Camisards in southern France, the early Quakers in England, the Jansenists (a Catholic reform movement) in France, and the Pietists (including Moravians) in Germany.
Eighteenth century. Speaking in tongues continued in some of these groups and was also reported among the Methodists in England and America. John Wesley, founder of the Methodists, heard of speaking in tongues and defended it as a valid Christian experience for his day. The Wesleyan revivals were noted for physical demonstrations in repentance and worship.
Reports of speaking in tongues grew more numerous, coming from among
(1) American revivals and camp meetings conducted by Methodists, Baptists, and some Presbyterians; (2) Lutheran followers of Gustav von Below in Germany; (3) Irvingites in England and America; (4) Plymouth Brethren in England; (5) Readers (Lasare) in Sweden; (6) revivals in Ireland; and (7) Holiness people in America, particularly in Tennessee and North Carolina.
We do not necessarily agree with all the doctrines of every individual or movement discussed in this lesson, but our investigation has demonstrated a basic truth: through the ages people have believed, preached, and experienced repentance, baptism in Jesus’ name, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the sign of tongues. These doctrines are not modern-day inventions; the Bible teaches them and many throughout history have practiced them.
In particular, it can be stated that some groups adhered simultaneously to baptism in Jesus’ name and the baptism of the Spirit with tongues. The Book of Acts and the Epistles show that the first-century apostolic church adhered to them. We also find them practiced by the early post-apostolic church (second century), the early Sabellians (third century), and modern Pentecostals and charismatics (twentieth century). The historical evidence also indicates that both doctrines existed among Montanists (second and third centuries), later Sabellians (fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries), various “heretics” (third and fourth centuries and Middle Ages), Anabaptists (sixteenth century), antitrinitarians (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), early Quakers (seventeenth century), and Plymouth Brethren (nineteenth century). Satan has evidently tried to suppress the facts, but there is enough evidence to indicate that the apostolic church has existed since the Day of Pentecost.
Test Your Knowledge
1. Why is it sometimes difficult to find historical records of the Pentecostal experience?
2. What terms do historians use for Christians of early centuries who opposed trinitarianism while affirming the absolute deity of Jesus Christ?
3. Name some groups since 1500 in which speaking in tongues was reported.
4. Is there any evidence that both baptism in Jesus’ name and receiving the Holy Spirit with tongues occurred among the same groups of people? If so, which groups?
5. In order to believe and teach the Pentecostal experience, is it necessary to prove from historical records that it existed in every age? Why or why not?
Apply Your Knowledge
History itself can never prove the validity of doc-trine, for the Bible is our sole authority. But history can provide insight into how key doctrines were altered or lost over the centuries, and it can help to dispel the myth that these doctrines are of recent origin.
Expand Your Knowledge
For further discussion, documentation, and bibliography, see The Oneness of God and The New Birth by David K. Bernard. Another helpful book is Ancient Champions of Oneness by William Chalfant. Several compilations of ancient church writings are available; the most comprehensive is The Ante-Nicene Fathers, a ten-volume set. Helpful general reference works are Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Encyclopedia Britannica, and The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge.
The above article, The Pentecostal Experience through the Ages was written by David Bernard, C.A. Brewer, P.D. Buford, Dan Butler, Gray Erickson, J. L. Hall, T.M. Jackson, Edwin Judd, Ralph Reynolds, Dan Segraves. The article was excerpted from the 2nd chapter of United Pentecostal Church International.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.