How Do We Assess What The Spirit Is Doing?
Since the early 19th century American Christianity has been largely dominated by a revival of the original Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. One can transpose much of what took place in the 19th century over the fist generation Anabaptists (1520s) and it matches up quite well. The original Anabaptists would have understood completely the Millerite eschatological fervor of the 1820s–40s. They would understand completely the claims of continuing revelation made by Joseph Smith and the Mormons in the same period. At least some of the original Anabaptists would have understood the bald Pelagianism of Charles Finney (1792–1875). The Cane Ridge Revival (1801) would have made perfect sense to the original Anabaptists as it fit their vision of piety almost perfectly.
Evangelical Christianity in America as it has been received in the 20th and 21st centuries is very much the product of that revived Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. The Second Great Awakening was a radically democratic, egalitarian, entrepreneurial, enterprise. Theologically, it was by turns mystical and rationalist. Further, the Second Great Awakening didn’t just happen out of the blue. It did not fall out of the sky like golden plates and magic spectacles. There’s a direct, organic connection between the 1GA and the 2nd but we’ll press on lest we move from preaching to meddling.
The enthusiastic (in the strict sense) piety of the 2GA faded in the second half of the 19th century but “fresh light” broke forth again in the revivals in Topeka, KS and Azusa Street (Los Angeles) at the turn of the 20th century. The patterns established in the earlier “revivals” have been formative for American evangelicalism.
One aspect of that revivalist pattern is the claim to renewed apostolic phenomena. Suggestions were made in the 18th century and proclaimed loudly in the 19th and 20th centuries that the apostolic phenomena had been restored to those with faith to receive and exercise them. Since the 19th century at least evangelical Christianity (defined broadly) has been divided between the “haves” and “have nots,” i.e., those who claim to have recovered the Apostolic gifts and powers.
As a consequence of these claims many evangelicals simply assume that when a contemporary leader claims to have the gift of “tongues” that what is seen and accepted as “tongues” is identical to what occurred in Acts and what is described in Acts. Such assumptions of continuity between the apostolic period and contemporary expressions of religious piety and enthusiasm have strongly colored evangelical assumptions about the nature of piety. It is a paradigm: it is assumed that spiritual vitality means reproducing apostolic phenomena. Any Christian who is not receiving direct revelations from the Spirit, exercising apostolic gifts and power is reckoned either to lack faith, to be missing out on a potential benefit, or to be making a false profession of faith.
Since the 1970s a somewhat milder version of neo-Pentecostalism has come to great influence in evangelical circles: the charismatic movement. This varied movement usually asserts less continuity between the Apostolic period and the post-canonical period. It has eliminated some of the more socially embarrassing aspects of neo-Pentecostalism (e.g., being slain in the Spirit) in favor of a moderated, more middle-class, suburban piety of direct revelations that are not considered necessarily equivalent to the canonical Scriptures and occasional exercises of prophetic gifts that may (or may not) be considered authoritative. When it comes to healing, the line separating the older Azusa Street piety from the Calvary Chapel charismatic piety is a little fuzzy.
Even in Reformed circles, which are typically cessationist, i.e., which typically do not accept the widely-held assumption of strong continuity between the apostolic period and the contemporary church, there are attempts to mediate between the neo-Pentecostalists, charismatics, and non-Pentecostalists by adopting the vocabulary of the charismatic movement. It is common for Reformed folk to say, “The Lord led me” or “The Lord showed me” or even “The Lord told me.”
Sometimes one suspects this is a defense mechanism. If we speak this way then perhaps we will not be accused of denying the ongoing work of the Spirit. In the neo-Pentecostal/charismatic paradigm, the assumption is that anyone who does not speak thus is implicitly denying the abiding presence, activity, and work of the Spirit. Some of this is cross-cultural or cross-paradigm communication. We’ve taken to speaking like charismatics in order communicate our conviction that the Spirit is at work in our communions and people.
The adoption of charismatic language to describe our experience comes at a cost, however, because we come to believe that what is being said is literally true. As Reformed folk read Scripture, the apostolic gifts and powers ended with the close of the apostolic age. As best we can tell, no one is actually speaking in natural foreign languages (Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12–14) by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. None of us is being carried about from place to place by the Spirit (Acts 8:39) or healing the lame (Acts 8 and 9). None of us is putting people to death (Acts 5) or raising people from the dead (Acts 20) and none of us is impervious to the bite of poisonous snakes (Acts 28). None of us even is so indwelled by the Spirit that others are healed merely by touching our handkerchiefs (Acts 19).
How Should We Speak?
Above I began to sketch a case that for a way between neo-Pentecostalism/Charismatic piety and a sterile piety. Genuine, confessional Reformed piety is warm, Spiritual, and vital but we understand that the Spirit works through means (Word and sacraments). This means that there are two distinct paradigms before us. Christ’s presence mediated v the unmediated experience of God (QIRE). In some cases, however, the issue is less a matter of genuine difference but rather about how we should speak.
Historically, even though the church has often and rather conveniently fuzzed the boundary between the canonical and post-canonical periods (e.g., the hagiographies of the early church) as a matter of doctrine the main Patristic writers tended to recognize a distinction between the apostolic and post-apostolic periods. The scandal of the Montanists was that they claimed to represent a revival of the apostolic phenomena, a claim that most rejected.
As Warfield showed in 1918, the so-called “miracles” claimed by the neo-Pentecostalists simply don’t measure up to apostolic standards. The apostolic miracles were of a different order than anything that is claimed today. It wasn’t a matter of “so and so said that he heard that in Pakistan in 1937 x happened.” That’s what passes for the miraculous in our day. There’s word for that: credulity. The genuine thing was obvious, public, and empirically verifiable. They had nothing to hide because they had real power. They didn’t need ear pieces (Robert Tilton) or camera tricks and the like. There was no agony of deceit.
The truth is that those leading evangelical proponents of gifts tacitly admit that they aren’t really apostolic. One leading advocate admitted to a gathering of theologians that his first attempt to heal failed because he lacked sufficient faith. That’s not apostolic. Paul shook off the serpent at Malta because he had apostolic power not because he had sufficient faith (as if he would have died had his faith flagged for a moment). Paul sustained several stonings and other attempts on his life. We would not. We’re not apostles.
Please hear me. I am not saying that the Spirit cannot do today what he did in the first century, in the Exodus, in the flood, or in the resurrection. I quite expect to see Jesus return bodily. I expect to see a bodily resurrection and a metaphorical flood (1 Peter) but we’re not there yet. God has not promised to do in our age, in the post-canonical time between the ascension and the parousia, what he did in the canonical age.
What happens is that contemporary evangelical and charismatic folk describe ordinary phenomena in extraordinary, apostolic terms. They identify non-apostolic phenomena as apostolic. That’s cheating but it’s rhetorically powerful and persuasive. Many evangelicals don’t want to live in the post-canonical, in between time. It’s a drag. People want a power religion. Judged against the neo-Pentecostal and charismatic claims, Reformed Christianity seems decidedly weak and powerless (see all of 2 Corinthians).
So, what should we do? I propose that we speak the truth in love. Instead of making claims that we can’t back up we should speak simply. Instead claiming implicitly that we know what the Spirit is doing just now (we don’t know where the Spirit comes from or where he is going) we should say what is true. Instead of saying “the Spirit told me” or “the Spirit led me” we should say what actually know to be true. “I had a strong desire to pray” or “in the providence of God it turns out that as I was praying x was happening at the same time.”
Does the Spirit lead us, give promptings? Sure. That’s not in question. What is in question is what we should claim about them. The Word tells us that the Spirit is constantly, powerfully, and actively accomplishing his purposes. Confessing that truth is one thing. Claiming that we know just what he is about at any given moment is quite another. We say, “The Spirit was really present” when what we know to be true is that “we had an intense experience.” In fact the Spirit is always present. We may become conscious of certain intense feelings or experiences and if those are good and holy, praise God.
Implicit in the claim to know what the Spirit is doing is an unstated knowledge and claim to power. “It’s not in the Scripture but I know what the Spirit is doing in this instance.” I say that doesn’t accord with what we believe about the immensity of God, the omnipresence of God, and our doctrine of the providence of God. He is always sustaining, governing, upholding all things. We know that he is with his covenantal people is a particular way. That presumes knowledge of the Spirit’s work that we don’t have. It’s powerful and seductive but it’s powerful precisely because it fills in the sorts of blanks we want to have filled in. It sounds and seems more “spiritual” to say, “The Spirit led me to do/say/think” rather than “after prayer and study I did/said/thought.” The latter is corrigible and the former is less so. It’s really a sort of implicit claim to power, authority, and knowledge that, as far as I know, in the post-canonical era, no one has.
Why can’t we simply do good, useful, edifying things without attributing it directly to the inspiration of the Spirit? Why do we have to know whether it was directly from the Spirit? Partly, I think, because we feel guilty for being cessationists because the non-cessationists seem to having all the fun.
Brothers and sisters, we are not charismatics or neo-Pentecostals. We have a different paradigm. We should learn to be content with Scripture and with our own paradigm instead of seeking to plunder the Pentecostals. We do not believe that God occasionally drops into history to do the spectacular but rather we believe that he is constantly with us. We believe that he accomplishes extraordinary things through the ordained and regular (Rom 10). Which takes more faith? To believe that the Spirit is knocking people over, inspiring them to make incorrect prophecies, or to believe that God uses the foolishness of the preached Gospel (1 Cor 1-2) to raise spiritual dead (Eph 2) sinners to new life and to grant them faith and through it union with the risen Christ?
This essay first appeared in 2013 on the Heidelblog.