How can and should the theology and experience of the early church of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament be ‘translated’ to modern church life?
How this question is answered will play a major part in what local church Christians join. To over-simplify, Pentecostalism, and the later charismatic and Renewal Movement, is shaped and motivated by the belief that the NT experience of the Spirit – as described in Acts and 1 Corinthians in particular – should be the normative experience of the church in all generations.
Towards the end of his book, The Holy Spirit – in Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries and Today, Anthony Thiselton gathers some themes and questions together. He has said that he prays that this book will stimulate much new thinking and discussion. In the final section he summarizes his concerns and questions, which he hopes will “open up some neglected areas of teaching, thought, and experience, and bring God’s blessing.”
One set of challenges is aimed particularly at the Renewal Movement and Pentecostals.
I hoped to write a book which would invite sympathetic dialogue with Pentecostals (with some probing questions also) and those in the Renewal Movement (also with probing questions).
So, here are the probing questions: the sub-text here is that here are the areas that Thiselton has most reservations and questions about in their praxis around the Spirit.
1) The Trinity and the Spirit
His point is not very clear here: filling in, I suspect that he is cautious about an over-emphasis on the Spirit, that detaches his person and ministry from the work of the Son and relationship with the Father. Where experience of the Spirit becomes almost the end itself, a sign of God’s blessing and evidence of advanced spirituality.
2) Unity of the Spirit fosters unity of the Church
The concern here is an over-emphasis on ‘newness’ and uniqueness. ‘We’ are the ones through whom God has chosen to bring spiritual renewal. We have the Spirit in ways others don’t. But such an attitude goes against the Spirit’s work of unity. It judges others as being less spiritual and fosters an attitude that either you work with us or you are not participating in what God is doing.
3) Appeal to ‘new things’:
Certainly traditionalism can be spiritually deadly. [As Jim Packer wrote many years ago in Keep in Step with the Spirit, it is no great achievement to have order in a graveyard]. But taken too far this attitude can deny the work of the Spirit in previous centuries and in other churches today. It can lead to an over-emphasis on feelings and experience. Seen in some contemporary worship music with trivial and repetitive songs.
Yes God heals, but Thiselton is cautious of a form of dualism around some miraculous gifts. He urges the development of a healthy eschatology that has room for the reality of sin and death and sickness in this fallen world. Without a now and not yet perspective, teaching on healing can foster guilt, depression and confusion. (It’s my lack of faith I’m not healed etc).
5) Prophecy and tongues:
Thiselton concludes (and its hard to argue with him on this I think) that historically the gift of tongues has been over-emphasised within Pentecostalism. Today many Pentecostals are withdrawing from that over-emphasis (some are not). The Renewal Movement has not been so tongue-tied (just thought I’d add that wee quip in there – good eh?).
But Thiselton offers a warning to those in the Renewal Movement over prophecy. He sees the possibility of a replay of the Donatist controversy (I assume he means where division within the church is caused by one section claiming for itself particular purity of doctrine and life over against the compromised wider body).
He argues prophecy needs to be seen more widely than only prophetic word and inspiration. He sees a place for thought, reflection and teaching within prophecy rather than some form of instantaneous revelation from God.
He is cautious for example about the practice of someone using a ‘picture’ in their mind for guidance in public worship. He wants to root prophecy in the story of redemption of what God has done, not subjective pictures.
6) Baptism in the Spirit:
The Renewal Movement is not tightly tied to a particular theology of ‘baptism in the Spirit’.
The real question here is for Pentecostals and their historic elevation of this experience as a normative ‘second blessing theology’, evidenced by speaking in tongues. Thiselton wishes Pentecostals would abandon this theology as exegetically indefensible and unnecessary. Yes God can and does give particular experiences of the Spirit post conversion – but don’t make it normative and don’t call it Baptism in the Spirit.
These are good questions for debate and discussion. It will be interesting to see if and how Pentecostals and people in the Renewal Movement engage and respond to Thiselton’s work.
These sorts of questions also form I think a good basis for believers who are seeking to build understanding and robust unity across ecclesiastical and theological boundaries. A unity that is not based on pretending we don’t have differences but addresses and explores those differences within a deeper committment to working together. I’m thinking here of Evangelical Alliances for example that seek to build bridges between Renewal, charismatic, Pentecostal and ‘mainstream’ churches and organisations.
And I said in an earlier post, I also wish he had had more to say to ‘mainstream’ churches and their desperate need of reform and renewal in their theology and praxis of the Holy Spirit.
Comments, as ever, welcome