In memoriam: Vinson Synan (EerdWord)

vinson synan

James Ernest, vice president and editor-in-chief of Eerdmans, eulogizes the late Vinson Synan in this blog post.

In 1958 my parents brought their new baby boy home to a little house in a small city in central Virginia where most of the men worked either in the chemical plants or on a nearby Army base. On warm evenings my parents could sit outside, or just leave the windows open, and listen to the “holy rollers”—they intended no disrespect in calling them that, or at least no lack of affection—singing in the Pentecostal-Holiness Church a block away. My parents were Presbyterians, but they knew and loved most of the same songs. And, like everyone else around town, they respected the pastor of that church, whom they knew simply as “Brother Synan.” 

I doubt many people in my hometown ever knew that Brother Synan went on to become one of the leading lights in the academic study of Pentecostalism. Few if any of them were ever aware of his magisterial book, The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement in the United States (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1971), or its revised edition, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997). A quick glance at sales history tells me that after all these years, this book is still a standard resource in its field. 

How did it come to be an Eerdmans book? If we weren’t all staying home these days because of the coronavirus, I would be sorely tempted to get up from my desk and start hunting through paper files in search of letters between Brother Synan and Bill Eerdmans. That’s a correspondence I would love to read! 

I will not try to do over what Daniel Silliman has already done; see his obituary in Christianity Today  

If you want to acquaint yourself with the history of American Pentecostalism, may I recommend spending some time with his book? 

Here you will encounter the scholarly mind of Professor Synan the historian, not the Pentecostal heart of Brother Synan the preacher. Or perhaps you will catch a glimpse here and there of the latter. Here is the (prophetic?) concluding section, headed “The Future of the Pentecostal Tradition,” of The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition.

In light of many studies made in the past, a possible future may be glimpsed. According to projections made by the World Council of Churches in the early 1970’s, by the year 2000 over 50 percent of all the Christians in the world will be: (1) non-white; (2) from the Southern Hemisphere; and (3) of the Pentecostal or charismatic variety. Events and church growth patterns of the past several years seem to confirm these trends. 

If these projections hold, it is not unreasonable to predict that by the end of the century Christendom could approximate the following configuration: 

Twenty-five percent will be classical Pentecostals, coming predominantly from the burgeoning Pentecostal movements in the Third World. These Christians will continue to have a minimum of liturgy and ritual and will emphasize the gifts of the Holy Spirit in their regular services. They will continue to be the fastest growing churches in the world. Many ‘‘superchurches’’ will emerge in third-world nations as well as in the United States. 

Twenty-five percent will be charismatic, but in mainline Protestant and Catholic churches—mainly in the ‘‘developed’’ nations of Europe and North America. Their services will be the mildly charismatic affairs typical of the ‘‘third wave,’’ and may or may not carry the label ‘‘Pentecostal’’ or ‘‘charismatic.’’ They will gradually surpass the older ‘‘liberal’’ churches in size and influence. In a sense, they will become the ‘‘mainline’’ churches of the twenty-first century. 

Twenty-five percent will be non-charismatic Christians from the mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. These will include two groups; the ‘‘liberal’’ churches, which will continue to decline in numbers, and the non-charismatic evangelical churches, which will continue to grow while becoming a smaller proportion of the total number of Christians. The ‘‘liberals’’ will have less power in the denominational structures but will continue to dominate the ecumenical movement. The ‘‘evangelicals’’ will be about equally divided between those who are more open to charismatic worship and those who will more and more be drawn into a defensive fundamentalist shell. 

Twenty-five percent will be nominal Christians from all churches, people who do not practice their faith and are Christians only in a cultural sense. Most of these will be in a progressive condition of apostasy, and Christian only in a faintly historical way. They will constitute a large number of Western (mostly white) church members who find the church increasingly irrelevant, and will, as apostates, leave their names on the church rolls while seldom if ever attending services, or else they will leave the church entirely. 

One of the first observers to note these trends was John Alexander Mackay, President of Princeton Theological Seminary, who once called the American Pentecostals ‘‘the fly in the ointment of Protestantism.’’ By 1967, however, he was calling the charismatic renewal ‘‘the most influential and significant movement of our time.’’ Mackay also saw the possibility of ‘‘a more cordial rapprochement between Catholics and Pentecostals than between the adherents of the mainline denominations.’’ After reviewing the decline of the mainline Protestant churches and the growth of the Pentecostal churches, Mackay offered the following prophecy: ‘‘The Christian future may lie with a reformed Catholicism and a matured Pentecostalism.’’ 

If Mackay’s vision proves to be correct, it is altogether possible that the future of Christianity will be molded by the developing Pentecostal churches of the Third World interacting with the vigorous charismatic elements in the traditional churches. The recent history of church growth in Africa and Latin America indicates that Christian affairs of the twenty-first century may be largely in the hands of surging Pentecostal churches in the Third World and a Roman Catholicism inspired and revivified by the charismatic renewal. 

[originally posted]

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