Chapter 2: Theological Characteristics of an Indigenous Pentecostalism: Chile, by Juan Sepulveda

In the Power of the Spirit
by Dennis A. Smith and B.F. Gutierrez (eds.)

Chapter 2: Theological Characteristics of an Indigenous Pentecostalism: Chile, by Juan Sepulveda

Juan Sepúlveda is a pastor and deacon of the Pentecostal Church Mission and a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Mission at Selly Oak College. He teaches on Pentecostalism at the Theological Community of Chile and does research on "popular subjectivity and religiosity among the poor--Pentecostalism" for SEPEDE-AMERINDA. He coordinated the Latin American Pentecostal Encounter (CEPLA) 1990-1992. Rev. Sepúlveda is also a lecturer and advisor on the organization of conferences. This chapter first appeared in In the Power of the Spirit, Edited by Benjamin F. Gutierrez & Dennis A. Smith, published in 1996 by PC(USA)WMD AIPRAL/CELEP, pp. 49-61.



The purpose of this article is to reflect briefly upon the theological characteristics of Chilean Pentecostalism. Und erstanding the diversity within Pentecostalism as a world movement provides a firmer base for dialogue between Pentecostal believers as well as between Pentecostals and other churches.

Although Pentecostal experiences can be found throughout the history of Christianity, the modern Pentecostal movement was born with the present century. It was the last stage of a process of spiritual renewal begun by John Wesley in 18th-century England and developed in the United States throughout the 19th century by the Holiness Movement.

Although it began in the United States and expanded from there to Europe and the Third World, the United States was only one of several early centers of the Pentecostal movement. Another was in Chile. When the Azusa Street Mission (generally considered the cradle of modern Pentecostalism) [1] was born in Los Angeles, a Methodist congregation in Valparaiso had already taken its first steps toward Pentecostalism by holding prayer groups and studying the book of Acts. Under the leadership of the Rev. Willis Hoover, Valparaiso Methodists experienced a Pentecostal revival in 1909 and a schism in 1910.[2] Hoover had visited revival meetings in the United States and was aware of a pamphlet from India calling for a "clear and definitive baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire" [3] as a necessary supplement to justification and sanctification.

Since the break with the Methodist church meant the loss of external funding, the nascent Chilean Pentecostal movement had to design a strategy for financial self sufficiency; and having lost access to theological education, it was forced to create its own of pastoral ministry. Thus, Chilean Pentecostalism became the first example of an autonomous Protestantism. It had strong roots in popular culture and took on a number of characteristics that distinguish it from the global Pentecostal movement

One illustration of this difference is the fact that, in current Chilean evangelical parlance, "Pentecostalism" refers exclusively to the "indigenous" Pentecostal churches, while the Pentecostal churches of missionary origin (implanted after 1937) are always identified by their denominational name (Assemblies of God, Autonomous Assemblies of God, Church of God, etc.).

Distinguishing features of Pentecostal theology

To understand the specificity of Chilean Pentecostalism, one must first identify the theological features of Pentecostalism the world over. This is not an easy task since Pentecostalism has roots in various confessional traditions.

It seems that the single aspect that is absolutely unique to Pentecostalism is the "baptism of the Holy Spirit." A Norwegian pastor, cited by Beatriz Muñiz de Souza, wrote:

With respect to salvation through justification by the faith we are Lutherans. In our form of baptism by water we are Baptists. With respect to sanctification, we are Methodists. In our aggressive evangelism we're like the Salvation Army. But in relation to the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, we are Pentecostals.[4]

The well-known specialist in Pentecostal origins, Donald Dayton, thinks that the common and distinctive traits of Pentecostalism can be summed up in the four theological affirmations of the Foursquare Gospel Church: salvation, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, healing, and the second coming of Christ. In the first two elements, Dayton differentiates between two groups:

Those who teach a doctrine of sanctification in the Wesleyan, Holiness tradition, the "three works of grace." These Pentecostals assert that the Christian experience normally finds expression in a pattern of 1) conversion, followed by 2) "entire sanctification," followed by 3) "baptism in the Holy Spirit," which enables the believer to testify and serve, and is evidenced by speaking in tongues.

Those who reduce this model to "two works of grace," by uniting the first two in one "finished work" which then is complemented by a gradual process of sanctification (meaning a strong focus on conversion followed by a subsequent "baptism in the Holy Spirit").[5]

The first of these two groups adds a fifth affirmation, conversion, to the foursquare model described above.

Pastor Gabriel Vaccaro proposed the following elements as constitutive of the Pentecostal theological identity: 1) evangelization oriented to conversion (understood as a change in life); 2) baptism of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues); 3) the church as a charismatic and healing community; 4) and belief in a spiritual world.[6] Vaccaro's view complements rather than contradicts Dayton's. Both describe speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, as the key manifestation of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Distinguishing features of Chilean Pentecostalism

Three aspects of the origin of Chilean Pentecostalism help us understand its later theological and organizational development:

1. Chilean Pentecostalism came directly out of Methodism without the mediation of the Holiness Movement, as occurred in North America. The importance of this distinction is clearer if we take into account that the Holiness Movement was not a brief transition between Methodism and Pentecostalism, but a movement that developed throughout the entire 19th century, mainly in the Methodist and Presbyterian churches. Since it came directly from the Episcopal Methodist Church, Chilean Pentecostalism was deeply influenced by its mother church. This is evidenced by the fact that the initial Pentecostal movement wholly assumed the articles of faith of the Methodist Church and perceived itself, at least in Hoover's view, as being a return to the sources of Wesleyan thought.

2 The Chilean Pentecostal revival was almost exclusively experiential in nature, and did not produce a meaningful theological renewal which would have distinguished it radically from the mother church. In spite of the fact that the Methodist Conference of 1910 found the teachings of pastor Hoover to be "anti-Methodist, contrary to the Scriptures, and irrational,"[7] the emerging Pentecostal movement could be considered orthodox from a doctrinal point of view. As indicated by the last word of the condemnatory resolution, the crux of the conflict was more cultural than doctrinal. What was condemned were the lived experiences and practices of revival, which to the rationalist, modernist, and liberal mentality of the Methodist church of that time, seemed primitive, excessively subjective, and beyond the control of reason. Thus, the condemnation of Pentecostalism differs little from the condemnation of the practices of popular Catholicism. In sum, in Chilean Pentecostalism, the centrality of experience over doctrine will be more marked than in North American Pentecostalism.

3. It is precisely the centrality of religious experience over doctrine that will prepare the terrain for the introduction of the Pentecostal experience into Chilean popular culture. Insofar as it offers an intense encounter with God, communicated more by body language and feelings than by the language of reason, Pentecostalism opens a new space where common people could express their own faith experience. This produces a fecund relationship of reciprocal influence between Pentecostalism and popular culture. It is one of the principal factors which will contribute to the wide acceptance of Pentecostalism in the popular sectors[8] and to the uniqueness of Chilean Pentecostalism.

Is there a "theology" of Chilean Pentecostalism?

Considering all the above, it is not surprising that academic theologians and observers from the historic churches would deny that Chilean Pentecostalism has a "theology." Christian Lalive d'Epinay, author of The Refuge of the Masses, says (p. 229; p. 191 in the English edition.):

If one takes "theology" to mean that the beliefs of a religious group and the ways in which its faith is expressed are classified as concepts and considered as a system, then the study of Chilean Pentecostal theology proves to be very disappointing.

As this statement demonstrates, the starting point of d'Epinay's objection is an understanding of theology as the conceptual formulation and systemization of a doctrine. This supposes a high degree of institutionalization, adequately prepared theologians, and academic centers that encourage the development of theology.

From this perspective, the supposed theological poverty of Chilean Pentecostalism is explained by its youth (less than 100 years of existence), its scant institutionalization, and the way it thrives in social sectors with no access to higher education. But d'Epinay seems to point to something deeper: Pentecostalism is founded more on the subjective experience of God than on God's objective revelation. Pentecostalism presents itself as a movement originating in the experience of God, not a church structure concerned with the objective revelation of Christian dogma. For a Protestantism influenced by dialectical theology (Barth), with its emphasis on the radical discontinuity between divine revelation and human experience, it is difficult to see an acceptable theology issuing from Chilean Pentecostalism.

This point of view has been challenged by, among others, Jürgen Moltmann, in his recent book, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, Moltmann claims that "personal and shared experience of the Spirit" is a legitimate point of departure for theology. "To begin with experience," says Moltmann, "may sound subjective, arbitrary and fortuitous, but I hope to show that it is none of these things."[9] If Barthian theology starts from the supposition that human beings cannot aspire to God through experience because God cannot be the object of experience, Moltmann reminds us that "God's revelation is always the revelation of God to others, and is therefore a making-itself-experienceable through others." (Moltmann, p. 6)

Naturally, a theology which begins with experience will have a language and methodology distinct from those of classical, conceptual theology. "The theology of revelation," Moltmann continues, "is church theology, a theology for pastors and priests. The theology of experience is preeminently lay theology." (Moltmann, p.17) Since experience cannot be reduced to concepts, a theology that takes experience as its starting point must be a narrative theology, as is biblical theology, to a large degree.

From this point of view, the theology of Chilean Pentecostalism is founded upon testimonies. It is in the narration of the experience in the Spirit, not in books or systematic elaborations, where we find the theology of Chilean Pentecostalism. What follows is a provisional attempt to "read" some of the aspects of Chilean Pentecostal testimony.

Change of life as fundamental experience

The Pentecostal movement is built upon the possibility of a direct, intense encounter with God, which profoundly changes a person's life. Such a change in life, called conversion or personal salvation, clearly marks a before and after in the life of the convert.

Through the Holy Spirit, God becomes directly accessible to the seeker, making any priestly mediation unnecessary. The encounter with the Holy Spirit is intense: God practically invades the believer, occupies him, filling his life with new meaning. The intensity and force of the encounter make a change in life possible, that is, a change in his subjectivity, the way he sees himself and the way he sees life.

The "works of grace" in Chilean Pentecostalism

How is this fundamental experience, this change of life, lived out in relation to the "works of grace"? Pentecostal testimony shows that justification, sanctification, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit are grounded in this unique experience. In the teaching and preaching of the Chilean Pentecostal churches--except for those more influenced by missionary Pentecostalism --the three (or two) works of grace are not usually described as separate and distinguishable stages. The "Pentecostal experience" is at the same time an unconditional acceptance by the forgiving God (justification), the beginning of a new and transformed life (sanctification), the receiving of the strength to sustain new life in an adverse social and cultural medium, and the sharing of testimony with others (baptism of the Holy Spirit).

Unlike Pentecostalism the world over, Chilean Pentecostalism makes no temporal distinction about the works of grace, perhaps because the Holiness Movement tried to define the experience conceptually. Pentecostalism moved from the distinction of concepts (justification, sanctification, baptism of the Holy Spirit) to the distinction of experiences or stages. In this context, two further quotations from Moltmann are illuminating:

If we call this event justification, we are describing it as the operation of Christ. If we call it regeneration, we are describing the operation of the Spirit. We need both viewpoints if we are to understand the event completely. (Moltmann, p. 153)

Of course these are not stages in the experience of the Spirit. They are different aspects of the one single gift of the Holy Spirit, although in terms of time we can certainly discover these aspects successively. (Moltmann, p. 82)

To the degree that the baptism of the Holy Spirit frequently merges with the experience of conversion, Chilean Pentecostalism sees the change of life itself--not temporary and extraordinary manifestations--as evidence of authenticity of the experience of God. (When the believer has participated in church prior to receiving the baptism of the Spirit, it is understood as a phase of seeking.) As in Pentecostalism the world over, the experience of God is usually accompanied by extraordinary feelings and perceptions, such as speaking in tongues, sobbing, dancing, visions, auditory hallucinations, laughter, or exuberant joy. These manifestations are ways of sharing an experience otherwise impossible to communicate, and this is another criterion for the authenticity of the experience. Here Chilean Pentecostalism most clearly separates itself from mainstream Pentecostalism: speaking in tongues, although it can happen, is not seen as the only guarantee that one has been baptized in the Spirit. It is one among several possible manifestations of this intense experience of one's encounter with God. It is a specific gift which certain people receive to benefit the building of community.

In Chilean Pentecostalism the emphasis on the "gifts of the Spirit" (1 Cor. 12) is superseded by an emphasis on the "fruits of the Spirit" (Gal. 5). In this, Chilean Pentecostalism is heir to the Wesleyan understanding of sanctification: the "new life" is seen in the fruits. Extraordinary or charismatic experiences that are not translated into new fruits may well be the work of other spirits or even pure posturing. The "new life" must show itself not only in faithful participation in the work of the church, but also in daily life, that is, in fulfilling the roles one assumes in the family, at work, and in society in general.[10]

This means, furthermore, that Chilean Pentecostals generally do not retreat from the world. When a Pentecostal convert testifies that he "left the world," he isn't saying that he left society. Rather, he is saying that he has abandoned the world that made up his previous life. But this "new life" must be lived in this world, because this is where he must now bear testimony to having been made new.[11]

In sum, the work of the Holy Spirit is understood fundamentally as the eruption of the power of the living God. This power is manifest in personal life as the possibility to overcome powerlessness when facing evil (dependence on vices, incapacity to plan one's life, family failures, etc.) and to become a new person. In the community, this power is manifest in the church's capacity to evangelize and its ability to offer the newly converted a "living church."

The fact that they have not reduced the manifestations of the Spirit to a single expression (such as glossolalia, in mainstream Pentecostalism) has allowed Chilean Pentecostalism to develop a clear vision of the freedom of the Spirit. Not having a fixed definition makes it easier to conserve spontaneity in the liturgy and more difficult to reduce the liturgy into a mechanism for attaining a glossolalic trance. Unfortunately, this idea of the freedom of the Spirit is frequently used to justify the divisions in the Chilean Pentecostal fold.

Healing and salvation

As in mainstream Pentecostalism, faith in God's healing power plays an important role in the life of the Chilean Pentecostal communities. Considering how little access poor Chileans had to the benefits of modern medicine during the first decades of this century, experiences of divine healing occupy a privileged place in the conversion testimonies of the first generations of Chilean Pentecostals.

Donald Dayton observes that, in the development of North American Pentecostalism, the doctrine of "healing as part of expiation" (Dayton, p. 6) played an important role. This doctrine holds that healing functions as evidence of expiation; therefore, whoever has not been cured also has not been pardoned for his sins. Although this doctrine was later reconsidered by Pentecostal theologians--as it was by some important figures in the Holiness Movement--it continues to exert an influence, especially among the branches of Pentecostalism that stress healing as the first article of faith. The mass campaigns that focus on healing over evangelization usually express this point of view.

In Chilean Pentecostalism, many testimonies blend healing and conversion into a single experience; yet we must not confuse the two. Conversion ("giving oneself up to God" or accepting Jesus Christ as personal savior) is understood as a joyful response to God's love, which can be expressed in healing.[12] However, people can be healed and not converted, and people who have been converted have not necessarily experienced physical healing.

While the mass healing campaigns (including the more recent televised versions) emphasize the marvel of individual healing, Chilean Pentecostalism emphasizes the everyday life of the faith communities. The healing power of God is manifested in the warm welcome given to newcomers, in caring for the sick, in community prayer, and in perseverance in care and visitation. It is the community that heals. If, for reasons known only to God, there is no physical cure, there is always God's power manifest in the community, which gives the afflicted strength to confront adversity with hope, and even with joy.

Present and future salvation

Chilean Pentecostalism, like Pentecostalism around the world, believes in and awaits the second coming of Jesus Christ; still, it may not be clear at first glance what place this hope has in Pentecostal preaching and testimony. Many outside observers share the prejudice that Pentecostals are more concerned with the afterlife than with their present responsibilities. The inevitability of suffering is accepted, while all hope for happiness centers on the next world. Certain expressions in Pentecostal discourse tend to confirm this impression: "we suffer here, we will reign there"; "this world offers nothing but perdition." It is therefore surprising to find that in Chilean Pentecostal testimony, and particularly in street corner preaching, the emphasis is on the possibility of salvation here and now, a possibility that appears to be supported by the preacher's personal experience.

The street corner preacher doesn't claim that by accepting Christ "I will be saved and happy in the beyond," but rather "I am saved and happy here and now, because Christ made me into a new creation." Pentecostal testimony doesn't compare the present with the future, but the present with the past, a present of salvation versus a past of perdition. The preacher announces that this same experience is within reach of anyone listening if she sincerely wants it because, not long ago, the preacher himself was in the place of the listener. Although Chilean Pentecostalism is certainly not disinterested in the hereafter, the novelty of the Pentecostal gospel is that the hereafter can actually be lived in the here and now.

For the Chilean Pentecostal, waiting for the second coming of Christ is not a passive activity; it is by definition active. While waiting expectantly, one carries out the work of the Lord, bearing testimony to God's work in all dimensions of everyday life. God's promises (fulfilled eschatology) are usually understood to apply only to the lives of the converted, not to society in general. Still, there are signs that Chilean Pentecostalism is gaining awareness of itself as a major actor in popular strategies to confront social problems, such as alcoholism and family violence.

Pentecostalism's impact on society results from the conversion of individuals. For this reason, the Pentecostal version of utopia can be expressed in the ideal of "Chile for Christ," that is, when all Chileans are won to Christ, Chile will be better off. After eighty years of uninterrupted growth, however, it is beginning to dawn on the Chilean Pentecostal movement that such growth has not resolved the country's many social problems. For this reason it cannot continue to hope that "Chile for Christ" is the solution. On the other hand, the movement is aware that growth is not unlimited. While Pentecostalism grows, other religious movements are also growing, and the Catholic church does not seem to lose its majority. The movement has thus begun to awaken to such new dimensions of mission as, for example, special ministries to the socially marginalized, or church support for education. Due to its popular nature and the social exclusion of its membership, Pentecostal churches have yet to produce political leaders, but political participation is now beginning to be seen as a desirable option. More congregations are becoming involved in the search for solutions to problems that affect the quality of life in poor neighborhoods.

Final words

Chilean Pentecostalism should not be measured against the yardstick of worldwide Pentecostalism. Claims that Chilean Pentecostalism is theologically poor because it does not clearly distinguish the "works of grace" or because it doesn't recognize the centrality of glossolalia miss the point. In this article I have described Chile's unique contribution to the global Pentecostal community.

I wish, nevertheless, to discourage any triumphalistic interpretations of these remarks. The extreme atomization of the Chilean Pentecostal movement has blurred its identity and has frequently led to confusion. Furthermore, I gladly recognize that Pentecostal churches of missionary origin throughout the world have gone through important processes of renewal, autonomy, and return to popular culture. The Holy Spirit works where and how it will in order to lead all churches, Pentecostal or not, to a greater faithfulness to God.



[1] See Walter Hollenweger, 1976, first chapters.

[2] See Willis C. Hoover, Historia delavivamiento pentecostal en Chile, (Valparaíso: Imprenta Excelsior, 1948).

[3] Ibid. p. 14. The pamphlet was sent to Hoover's wife by its author, Minnie Abrams, from Maleri, India.

[4] B. Muñiz, A Experiencia de Salvação: Pentecostais em São Paulo, (São Paulo: Dos Ciudades, 1969), p. 54.

[5] Donald W. Dayton, Raices teológicas del pentecostalismo, (Buenos Aires: Nueva Creación, 1991), p.6.

[6] See Gabriel Vaccaro, Identidad pentecostal, (Quito: CLAI, 1990), pp 11-33.

[7] Christian Lalive d'Epinay, El refugia de las masas, (Santiago: Editorial del Pacífico, 1968), p. 42. (p. 11 in the English edition).

[8] Between 1930 and 1960, Chilean Pentecostalism doubled its membership approximately every ten years. In the following decades growth has continued but at a slower rate. In the last national census, done in 1992, it was revealed that 13.2% of the population over 14 years of age is Protestant, of which the large majority is Pentecostal. Concerning the reasons for growth, see J. Sepúlveda in lvarez, 1992, pp. 77-88.

[9] Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 17. My comment about the importance of this book for Pentecostalism has been published in the Journal of Pentecostal Theology 4,1994, pp 41-49: (A Global Pentecostal Dialogue with Jürgen Moltmann's The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation "The Perspective of Chilean Pentecostalism.")

[10] Concerning the impact of Pentecostal conversion on daily life, see the recent study by Manuel Ossa, 1991.

[11] See Canales, Palma y Villela, En tierra extraña II. Para una sociolagía de Ia religiosidad popular protestante, (Santiago: Amerinda-SEPADE, 1991).

[12] Many testimonies have a language and structure similar to the miracle-seekers of popular Catholicism in which "giving oneself to the Lord" is the expression of gratitude for favors granted. Of course, instead of a sacrificial pilgrimage to the sanctuary, this form of gratitude among Pentecostals involves a person's whole life.