6 Points of Discussion on the Spirit with the Renewal Movement and Pentecostals

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.

4)     Healing:

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

Pentecostals, gifts and the Spirit

What has been your experience of the charismata? In church practice? Personal experience?

A comment of my own upfront before sketching Anthony Thiselton’s exegesis of key ‘gift lists’. I don’t think it is so much exegesis as the hermeneutical interpretation of that exegesis that lies at the heart of confusion, disagreement, unease and uncertainty around how to ‘put gifts into practice’ in a lot of modern church life.

For many non-charismatic / Pentecostal churches, these gift lists are given lip-service (they are in the Bible after all) but in practice are ignored. Sometimes out of fear of mis-use, spiritual elitism and subjectivity? In effect, the feeling is, that it’s not worth going there …

However, if you follow Thiselton’s exegesis below, I think it’s fair to say that the gifts under discussion are already very much in practice in all churches, whether explicitly acknowledged or not. This might be pushing what he says too far, but see what you think:

Thiselton begins discussion of most of the gifts (charismata, ‘free gifts’) listed in 1 Cor 12:8-10; 12:28-30; Romans 12:6-8 and Eph 4:11-12.  He leaves remaining gifts in 1 Cor 12:9-10 (stuff like deeds of power, prophets, tongues, healing) to later because they involve he says not only exegesis but hermeneutics and radically different contemporary interpretations.

The interesting thing below is how the gift lists counter any sense of dualism between ‘supernatural’ and natural. Many of the gifts are not ecstatic or spontaneous but work through character, personality, mind and spiritual and emotional maturity.

The other thing to note is how both Corinthians and Romans are located within the necessity of love. ‘Let love be genuine’ The gifts are for the good of others not the self.  In Ephesians they build up the body.

(1) Logos sophias: words or utterances of wisdom 1 Cor 12:8

Thiselton critiques the usage here in ‘Third Wave’ Wimber type events where ‘words of wisdom’ are relayed from the front stage to 1000s of people – perhaps about medical or psychological conditions. In the whole context of Corinthians, sophia is a loaded term, with a profound contrast to human and divine wisdom. Many scholars link ‘utterances of wisdom’ here to be words about the saving work of the crucified Christ.

Thiselton further argues ‘wisdom’ in the OT and NT is NOT some spontaneous insight but much more is about character, insight, discernment, trained judgement. This is hard learned practical wisdom of faith (a la James) in contrast to the wisdom of the world.

Here’s a question – is a word of wisdom less ‘inspired’ if it involves reflection and thoughtful judgement?

(2) Logos gnoseos : words or utterance of knowledge 1 Cor 12:8

Hard to distinguish from words of wisdom. But again a loaded word (gnosis) in Corinthians.  A gift (charisma) that involves a right use of knowledge; Thiselton suggests a type of creedal affirmation in line with basic Christian truths. There is no incompatibility between the hard work of knowledge and a gift of the Spirit.  And by the date of Ephesians the list of ‘offices’ in 1 Cor 12:28 has given rise to more formally distinct offices – apostles, evangelists, pastors, teachers … He suggests that

We can imagine Paul bewailing that in the future some churches would only listen to an ordained ministry, while other churches would invite the less ordered swing to constant “spontaneous” speeches from an assembled congregation. 89

(3) The gift of ‘faith’ 1 Cor 12:9

Most are agreed that this is distinct in some way from saving or justifying faith. This is a sort of faith that is not granted to everyone. But ‘faith’ can mean different things in different contexts. This context seems to be some sort  of ‘special’ faith.

Given that none of the nine gifts of the Spirit in 1 Cor 12:8-10 are given just to the individual, Thiselton proposes that ‘faith’ here is a display of ‘glad, even daring, confidence in God’s sovereignty, mercy and leading’ that encourages and inspires others. Such robust faith reanimates the faith of others.

I can sure think of examples of such faith, maybe you can too.

(4) Apostles; teachers; forms of help / assistance (antilempseis); kyberneseis (forms of leadership)  1 Cor 12:28

Apostle: one whom God has sent, but more for Paul one who has been called and being a witness of the resurrection.  Called to found churches with no hint of institutional or apostolic succession. Rather than tie apostle to authority, Thiselton follows those who link it with humility – a pointing of others away from self to Christ.

Teacher: an easier match to today. Both prophets and teachers are needed and inspired by the Spirit. There is no suggestion that teaching works best when it is unprepared and spontaneous.

antilempseis  ‘forms of assistance’ / helps / helpful deed / administrative support:   kyberneseis : which can be translated ‘forms of leadership’ (NRSV) but Thiselton goes for ‘church strategist’.

Romans 12:6-8, where charisma occurs 6 times of prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, being a generous donor (or perhaps distributor of monies like a church treasurer), and a ‘cheerful disposition.’ All spring, says Thiselton, perhaps excepting prophecy, from a ‘settled disposition or habits of character’.

Ephesians 4:11: new terms here of ‘evangelists (proclaimer of the good news) and pastors (guardian, protector, shepherd).

Pentecostals, the Spirit and Paul

Anthony Thiselton outlines 8 basic themes related to the Spirit in Paul in dialogue with contemporary Christianity, esp Pentecostalism.

1. The work of the Spirit is Christ-centered (1 Cor 12:3; Gal 4:6: Jn 16:13-14). ‘Christ was experienced through the Spirit’ says Jimmy Dunn. Pentecostalism at its best holds to this Christ centeredness (Fee, Frank Macchia), though the charge is regularly made that they can be unbalanced in terms of being Spirit centered. The gifts of the Spirit properly understood point to Christ and the upbuilding of his body, the church.

2. Every Christian receives the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ.  See Gal 4:6; 1 Cor 12:13, and all through Paul. This seems to me uncontestable. And this Christocentric focus is increasingly the default position among Pentecostals too – following Fee, Machia, Karkkainen, Amos Yong et al. Historically some in the revivalist and holiness movement have disputed this with their (over) emphasis on what Macchia calls a ‘high-voltage’ crisis experience rather than an ongoing transformative process of sanctification.

3. The Holy Spirit is a special gift to chosen individuals for particular tasks, AND a gift poured out to the whole community.

4. The Spirit is given in a ‘fresh way’ after Christ’s resurrection. There is an eschatological turning point at Pentecost, which for Paul is a new era of the Spirit.

5. The preaching of the gospel comes with the power of the Spirit (1 Thes 1:5).

6. The Spirit is ‘Holy’ in the sense of being the holy presence of God himself.

7. The eschatological Spirit points to the sense of what Thiselton calls ‘futurity and purpose’. (2 Cor 1:22; 2 Cor 5:5). Where in both texts arrabon is used (deposit guaranteeing the future).

8. The Spirit is prophetic and revelatory. But Thiselton urges caution here. The NT sense of prophecy is wider / broader than the OT

Thiselton proposes that much of Paul’s language and framework is drawn from OT and Rabbinic Judaism but reconfigured (my word) with a Christ-focus. Take 1 Cor 2:16 for how wisdom and revelation of the Spirit is defined as ‘the mind of Christ’.

He also proposes that such themes can, in broad terms, be found in John, the synoptic gospels and in Acts.

So, tying back to the first post on this book – it is NOT here in these 8 themes that you might see a ‘chasm’ between Pentecostals and others. No, the real areas of controversy and difference come elsewhere (and in another post 🙂 )

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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.

A dangerously widening chasm?

Anthony Thiselton, Professor Emeritus of Christian Theology at the University of Nottingham and author a bunch of important books, talks about ‘a dangerously widening chasm of church practice’ between Pentecostals / Renewal Movement and other Christians in older established churches.

Those words come in his preface to his newly published magnum opus with the snappy title of The Holy Spirit – in Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries and Today.

If you are seriously interested in any of the three areas named within the title, you need to grapple with this book. It’s the fruit of a lifetime of teaching and is, as far as I know, unique in its scope. One of his aims is to open up dialogue and understanding with Pentecostals / those within the Renewal Movement and other Christians outside those streams.

So to come back to that line in his opening paragraph – what do you think?

Is difference over church practice around the Holy Spirit – in worship, theology of ‘Spirit Baptism’, gifts, theology of healing, expectation of encounter with the living God, church organisation, and so on becoming (or has the potential to become) a ‘dangerously widening chasm’ within global Christianity?

To put it another way, do Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals (for want of a better description) increasingly speak a different language (no pun intended) in how they express their Christian faith? In church worship and in personal spirituality?

Pentecostalism, we are routinely reminded, the fasted growing sector of Christianity on the planet. The stats are astonishing, especially in the global south. It’s also a very young movement just over 100 years old.

Only recently is there a growing self-reflective theology emerging within Pentecostalism – a movement traditionally suspicious of, and reacting against, intellectualism and rationalism. See journals like Pneuma and Journal of Pentecostal Theology. See authors like Gordon Fee, Frank Macchia, Robert Menzies, and Renewal scholars like Max Turner.

At 565 pages, I don’t plan to blog through the book. But what I hope to do is to pick up on some of the key theological and hermeneutical points of debate and difference among Pentecostals / Renewal and others Christians.

To kick off – some general questions:

What for you are the key points of difference between Pentecostals and non-Pentecostal Christians? What lies behind those differences? Are they more surface differences than anything really substantial? What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of Pentecostalism? What have other Christians to learn from Pentecostals?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

thinking death

This links in with the post the other day on Near Death Experiences.  I’ve been reading Anthony Thiselton’s book Life After Death: a new approach to last things.

Thiselton refers to Moltmann who said

“To push away every thought of death, and to live as if we had an infinite amount of time ahead of us, makes us superficial and indifferent … to live as if there were no death is to live an illusion”

And Thiselton says

“To be reprieved from serious illness, or to have experienced near death, far from deflecting us from this life, can give our present life a new depth. It is those who repress the thought of death, who turn life into an idol, who perhaps have also deeply repressed anxieties about death.”

And that repression is a symptom of Western life’s avoidance of death. Some interesting contrasts to consider:

In Victorian times, death was a central concern – and still is for 2/3 of the world. Death is near and is witnessed, experienced and familiar. Children are not protected from seeing the dead and dying.

In our culture a quick and painless death is a blessing. In the medieval and Renaissance times it was viewed with horror because there was no time to prepare for the afterlife.

Thiselton argues the self-love of modern life makes an idol out of life itself.  This life is all there is and this means that death is marginalised, avoided, meaningless and absurd – the end of everything good.

The idolisation of life leads to full-on living – fast food, fast cars, fast relationships, fast meetings …

Modern fear of death means that death is “no longer the public solemn event it used to be.” Dying and death are now personal and private affairs.

I’d be interested in your thoughts here – how has being confronted by death changed the way you look at life?

I’m not sure I agree with Thiselton on the last point. Seems to me that death is becoming more openly incorporated in public secular remembrance services celebrating someone’s life. Christians may say this is one way the ‘idol of life itself’ is worshipped. Atheists have the opposite take; here Christian postmortal hope is seen as narcissistic.

A personal note here: having spent quite a while in hospital visits over the last few weeks and in some meetings with (excellent) doctors talking about odds of life/death survival rates and so on, never has it been more clear to me that modern science and medicine is wonderful and resourceful and remarkable, but it has nothing at all to say about the most inevitable part of life – death.

Discussion of death was studiously avoided. It was a taboo subject because it was outside the parameters of science and medicine. Pastoral care and support was therefore all focused on practical issues of life.  Important of course, but ultimately superficial. Meaning, significance and hope beyond death were off limits because there was no framework for them to exist.

Comments, as ever, welcome.