Pentecostals and Acts

How Acts is read is pivotal to the different perspectives on the Spirit and contemporary church practice held by Pentecostals / Renewal Movement and others ‘mainline’ Christians.

Roger Stronstad and Robert Menzies are two Pentecostals who have written extensively on Acts. Along with Max Turner of London School of Theology from within the Renewal Movement, with his amazing 1996 double whammy of Power from on High: the Spirit in God’s Restoration and Witness in Luke-Acts and Spiritual Gifts Then and Now.

In his magnum opus, The Holy Spirit in Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries and Today, Anthony Thiselton wades into the troubled waters of Acts not once but repeatedly.

The first instance is in his chapter on ‘The Holy Spirit in Acts’, but the issues keep resurfacing in later sections on the contemporary scene – but we’ll get to those later.

Below is a rough sketch on this chapter, focused on Pentecostal perspectives. [And I don’t find Thiselton’s style easy to follow.]

The classical Pentecostal position has been to interpret Acts 1:8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” as Jesus promising a second blessing type experience, empowering believers, subsequent to coming to faith. Typically this second blessing being accompanied by speaking in tongues.

Things have moved quite a way since then.

Veli-Matti Karkkainen, A Pentecostal scholar at Fuller, estimates that 40% of Pentecostals do not claim to speak in tongues. Gordon Fee questions the exegetical basis of second blessing theology, and Karkkainen seems to come close to this position as well. Menzies is one holding out on the classical position the tongue speaking constitute ‘initial evidence’ of ‘baptism in the Spirit’.

Within the Renewal movement, (charismatic, ‘Third Wave’ / ‘New Wine’) you tend to get, for example, tongues connected to the Spirit being invited to ‘come upon’ the whole congregation during a time of worship, prayer and teaching – which is a distinct theology and practice to classical Pentecostalism.

Thiselton sets out three key questions:

1) While there has been a huge amount of analysis and discussion of Luke-Acts, ‘who is right over Luke’s overall intention?’ Is he mainly ‘just’ a narrator of events that happened in a unique, unrepeatable way, or does he seek to offer a model or paradigm for Christians for all time?

This is the critical hermeneutical question. Pentecostalism, and much of the Renewal movement is ‘restorationist’ to a greater or lesser degree. But even so, some modern Pentecostals are now writing that Luke did not intend to write a blueprint for all subsequent generations.

2) Does Pentecostal zeal for renewal and purity risk compromising the doctrine of grace?

Thiselton puts it this way; “Is there more than a hint of receiving the Holy Spirit when faith, obedience and prayer are first offered? Or does the Spirit himself originate and cause faith, obedience and prayer?

[I think this question is a bit of red herring. it does not so much relate to interpretation of Acts as to an Arminian or Calvinist understanding of the ordo salutis. Pentecostals are Arminian (I’m sure there are exceptions, there always are!) and Arminians would argue here that it is not a question of grace being undermined since it is God’s prevenient grace that enables faith to be offered.]

3) What is meant by ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’? (and should Pentecostals abandon it?)

Many Pentecostals have moved away from the older more rigid classical position of a crisis experience linked to tongue speaking. Frank Macchia for example, wants to hold on to the term but offers a much broader more inclusive understanding of a more process-orientated sanctification (like that held by John Wesley).

Thiselton picks this question up later (129-30). If people like Macchia, Karkkainen and Fee are in effect saying that a text like 1 Cor 12:13 is not talking about a secondary ‘baptism in the Spirit’ but the gift of the Spirit that makes someone a Christian, how and why try to hold on to the term at all? (Macchia says it is still a key identity marker of Pentecostalism.) Thiselton is not questioning the experience of subsequent fillings or empowerments of the Spirit, he is disputing the label. Even to admit that they want to use the label but acknowledge that it is not a Pauline theology would help says Thiselton.

To which a fourth can be added from later in the chapter:

4) How should Acts 2 be understood in relation to events in Acts 8:14-25 (Samaritans); 10-17-48 (Cornelius) and 19:1-7 (the Ephesians)?

Non-Pentecostals will tend to argue that Acts 2 was initiatory and decisive for all Christians. It was the once-off outpouring of the Spirit, filled with eschatological overtones of fulfilled promise and the dawning of the new age of the Spirit. How then is this to be reconciled with three subsequent outpourings of the Spirit recorded in Acts that seem to be exceptions to the norm?

Pentecostals will tend to take them not as exceptions, but as the norm or at least as a model to be emulated – as evidence of second blessing or subsequent giving of the Spirit post conversion.

J D G Dunn has called the Samaritan episode “the chief stronghold of Pentecostal … and Catholic alike.” [Note Catholicism and some Protestantism also hold (a very different) two-stage second blessing theology of the Spirit where the Spirit is imparted at Confirmation by the laying on of hands of a Bishop]

Does Acts 8 contradict Paul and his insistence that to be a Christian is to be receive new life in the Spirit? The Samaritians had ‘accepted the Word of God’ but had not received the Spirit. Thiselton, following Dunn to a large extent here, goes for Acts 8 as an untypical event in the advancement of the gospel across deep divisions (Jew-Samaritan) at a unique epoch in the mission of the church.

Cornelius is more straightforward in terms of being an example of both coming to saving faith from hearing the preached word AND receiving the Spirit. The key event here being the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God. Acts 10 then is a ‘Gentile Pentecost’ initiated and effected by the Spirit who instructs Peter what to do. This then is a unique once-off event in the history of salvation – a salvation empowered and enabled and effected by the Spirit.

[Curiously, despite listing Acts 19 in a sub-heading, Thiselton fails to discuss the Ephesian elders text].

I can’t do justice to the depth and breadth of Thiselton’s scholarship – he seems to have read and interacted with everyone and everything. The picture is of a book constructively critical of Pentecostal and Renewal theologies, but serious intent to engage at depth and with absolute fairness with those perspectives.

So it’s no accident that he comes back later in the book to engage specifically with Pentecostal and Renewal scholars and explore problems and challenges in their perspectives. I’ll post on that later. In this sense this is an ecumenical work that invites (and I am sure will get) serious response from those dialogue partners.

One initial impression that may be mistaken – Thiselton acknowledges much honest self-reflection and rethinking among Pentecostals. He does not see much sign of it amongst many Charismatics and Renewal movment people. But I would also like to see more self-criticism of the problems and weaknesses in this book of ‘mainline’ or ‘orthodox’ practice around the Spirit.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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