Desiring more of God (1) are you a restorationist?

In IBI, we had a good discussion today in a class I’m teaching on different views of baptism in the Holy Spirit. The framework for the course is this:

The Spirit and the Christian Life

  1. Introduction: the neglected Spirit?
  2. The promise of the Spirit: The Spirit in the Old Testament
  3. The Person of the Spirit
  4. Jesus, the Kingdom of God and the Spirit 
  5. The Spirit and Mission
  6. The Eschatological Spirit
  7. The Spirit and the new covenant community (Baptism in the Spirit 1 Cor 12:12-27)
  8. The Spirit and the Christian life 1: beginnings
  9. The Spirit and the Christian life 2: the Spirit versus the Flesh
  10. The Spirit and the Christian life 3: Fruit
  11. The Gifts of the Spirit
  12. The Holy Spirit and modern church life: issues; challenges; hopes; conclusions

We were at no.7 today. We aim to make links to ‘head, heart and hands’ in reading, lectures and discussion. A couple of key question that cropped up today – and will again I am sure – are along these lines:

What experience of the Spirit should Christians ‘expect’ or ‘seek’ as possible / normal?

 What is our ‘role’ in seeking more of the Spirit?

I’ll take the first question as the focus for this post and come to the second one in the next post.

What would be your answer to the first question? What are the signs of the presence of the Spirit in a church? How would you describe the out working of the Spirit’s presence in your church experience? Is there a desire for more of God or is the Spirit rarely talked about or taught about?

How the first question has been answered historically has been critical in multiple spiritual reform movements within Christianity – whether Montanism in the 2nd Century AD or Charles Wesley’s doctrine of perfection or Pentecostalism’s search for NT restorationism, or Keswick ‘Higher Life’ theology or varieties of Charismatic renewal and so on.

And, of course, Reformed theology has its own answer to that question as to what a spiritually mature and healthy church looks like. It tends not to be radical or subversive to a long-established post-Reformation status quo – indeed it tends to be extremely cautious about such questions because they can be destabilising and divisive. It also tends to develop reasons for why it is unrealistic or undesirable to desire or wish to imitate the charismatic experience of the first Christians.

Those that answer question 1 with a sense of dissatisfaction in the current status quo will begin to pray, search and long for some form of spiritual renewal. They will want to see reform of current attitudes and practices that seem spiritually anaemic and lifeless. (I’m not saying such desires are not present in more established Reformed communities).

This is a restorationist impulse – a desire to have more of God’s Spirit. It’s typically born from a desire to recapture something of the life of the Spirit within the NT Church as described particularly by Luke (in Acts especially) and by Paul.

While at times an unholy mess, for example, the Corinthian church still exudes a vibrant presence of the Spirit. This is not just about the presence of charismata such as tongues and prophecy but by Paul’s pervasive assumption that the church will know and experience the visible tangible empowering presence of God among his (often sinful and divided) people.

Nor is a restorationist impulse limited to just desiring particular gifts of the Spirit. It is much more a search for an experience of and an empowering by the Spirit for all of life.

In this sense I am a restorationist – because it seems clear that it is this sort of experience that Paul (and Luke and John) take to be the Christian ‘norm’. And it is not clear (to me) that this ‘norm’ should not be expected or hoped for or prayed for today.

We might summarise the role of the Spirit in the NT along these (brief) lines: In the NT it is the one Spirit received by any believer at conversion who:

  • Empowers for mission
  • Grants wisdom and reveals God’s will
  • Reveals the cross and leads to conversion
  • Who communicates the power and presence of God
  • Who leads people to new life of sonship and faith
  • Who gives gifts as he wills

9780801047923Or as Max Turner puts in his terrific book The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts the Christian life in the NT is characterised by an encounter with the dynamic and transforming presence of God himself.

I love his phrase that the Christian life is ‘essentially charismatic in nature’. How often do you hear that in your church?

“We conclude that for each of our three major witnesses, [Luke, Paul and John] the gift of the Spirit to believers affords the whole experiential dimension of the Christian life, which is essentially charismatic in nature. The gift is granted in the complex of conversion-initiation. The prototypical activities of the “Spirit of Prophecy” which believers receive – revelation, wisdom and understanding, and invasive speech – together enable the dynamic and transforming presence of God in and through the community. These charismata operate at individual and corporate levels, enabling a life-giving, joyful, understanding of (and ability to apply) the gospel, impelling and enabling different services to others in the church, and driving and empowering the mission to proclaim the good news.” 

Comments, as ever, welcome.





Pentecost Sunday

The Spirit is first and foremost the eschatological presence of God in the here and now. A couple of quotes for reflection this Pentecost Sunday.

First from JDG Dunn

“for Paul the gift of the Spirit is the first part of the redemption of the whole man, the beginning of the process which will end when the believer becomes a spiritual body, that is, when the man of faith enters into a mode of existence determined solely by the Spirit.” Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 311.

Second from Max Turner

“We conclude that for each of our three major witnesses, [Luke, Paul and John] the gift of the Spirit to believers affords the whole experiential dimension of the Christian life, which is essentially charismatic in nature. The gift is granted in the complex of conversion-initiation. The prototypical activities of the “Spirit of Prophecy” which believers receive – revelation, wisdom and understanding, and invasive speech – together enable the dynamic and transforming presence of God in and through the community. These charismata operate at individual and corporate levels, enabling a life-giving, joyful, understanding of (and ability to apply) the gospel, impelling and enabling different services to others in the church, and driving and empowering the mission to proclaim the good news.” Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts: Then and Now. 155.

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.

More Unconvincing Exegesis About the Spirit: Cessationism

8Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.  l When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 12:8-13

If Pentecostal two-stage baptism in the Spirit is on exegetical thin ice, then the traditional cessationist argument that spiritual gifts (charismata) no longer exist is down there with the Titanic.

1 Cor 13:8-12 says that prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will pass away “when the perfect comes” (v. 10). Faith and hope will no longer be needed when God is fully seen but love will remain.

The traditional cessationist argument has been that the ‘perfect’ means the completion of the NT canon or some puted maturity of the church around the end of the first century. The fact that this would have been incomprehensible to the Corinthians (and to Paul himself) makes this a slightly dodgy theory.

Others cessationist interpretations get even more speculative. Some acknowledge that the ‘perfect’ refers (as it obviously does) to the return of Christ, but propose that only knowledge once gained from revelatory gifts will come to an end at that time, and therefore the passage does not address when the gifts themselves will cease.

Full marks for creativity, zero for persuasiveness.

And in similiar creative (desperate?) mode others have proposed that Paul is only talking about the experience of spiritual gifts in the lives of a generation of early Christians. These gifts will cease when Jesus returns IF they are alive at that time. But if they die before he returns (which they of course did) then their spiritual gifts die with them.

? Yup, me too,

Saying there is thin to no exegetical basis for cessationism is one thing; the implications for contemporary worship is another. As Max Turner says in his Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts about what is the typical expectation / description of the Spirit life in the church

What IS normative in Scripture is that ‘Paul anticipated a lively ‘charismatic’ church in which every area of Christian life and ministry was deeply shaped by experiential awareness of the Spirit.’ [163].

Comments, as ever, welcome.

‘A slippery customer, the Holy Spirit’

“A slippery customer, the Holy Spirit”, so remarked someone in (a very interesting) conversation the other day.

I suspect what he meant by this was that there is a lot of uncertainty and confusion, not to to say disagreement, over what is, or should be, the ‘normal’ experience of the Spirit in a Christian’s life. By ‘normal’ I mean the type of Christian life described in the NT.

For much of the past century, disagreement has tended to centre on those who hold to some form of two-stage experience of the Spirit (primary reception of the Spirit at conversion, followed by some sort of deeper or higher or second-level experience of the Spirit subsequent to conversion). Two-stagers most famously include classic Pentecostal pneumatology around ‘baptism in the Spirit’, but also forms of Wesleyan and ‘higher life’ holiness theologies. J I Packer’s landmark Keep in Step with the Spirit engaged in depth with these sorts of debates in the 1970s from a Reformed viewpoint.

Maybe I’m wrong, but my sense is that the discussion around ‘two-stage’ reception of the Spirit has lost momentum.  Yes, scholars like R P Menzies have produced robust defences of Pentecostal normative two-stage Spirit reception. But increasingly I get the sense that even within classic Pentecostal denominations and churches that there is a softening / moving beyond older set positions.

A number of factors may be in play here. One might be the increasing diversity of a post-denominational age where strong identity markers (like speaking in tongues and baptism in the Spirit) are just not so important any more.

But perhaps there is increasing scholarly consensus that the exegetical basis of a classic Pentecostal two-stage Spirit reception, has, over time, become increasingly unsustainable. Don’t get me wrong – I have a lot of respect for Pentecostal spirituality – its immediate sense of God, vitality of worship, expectation of answered prayer, passionate evangelism, emphasis on all members using Spirit given gifts in service … But none of these good things need to be tied to a two-stage pneumatology.

Even a Pentecostal like Gordon Fee finds no basis for this theology in his magisterial book on Pauline Pneumatology, God’s Empowering Presence

One of the key figures in this debate among others has been Jimmy Dunn. In a new book of articles in honour of Max Turner of London School of Theology, The Spirit and Christ in the New Testament & Christian Theology, Dunn has an excellent chapter on ‘”The Lord, the Giver of Life”: The Gift of the Spirit as Both Life-Giving and Empowering’. 

In it he argues that life is the fundamental mark of the Spirit. Throughout the NT he is known as the life-giving Spirit. Most of the time this refers to soteriology – he is the Spirit who gives spiritual life (Jn 6;63; Romans 8:11; 1 Cor 15:45; 2 Cor 3:6; Jn 3:3-6; Jn 4:10-14; Jn 7:38-9; Romans 8:2, 6, 13; Gal 5:15; 6:8.)

This rich picture is of a dynamic life, of living water (not a stagnant pool). This is the normative Christian experience, a made possible and sustained by the empowering and soteriological Spirit.

All this means there is no need to develop artificial two-stage theologies; what  Dunn calls a sort of ‘booster rocket’ theology. All Christians are given this dynamic and empowering Spirit to drink (1 Cor 12:23).

And this means that in John’s Gospel, it does not hang together to say that the disciples had drunk the Spirit during Jesus’ pre-resurrection ministry. In John 7:39, the giving of the Spirit was to be a future event. The disciples had NOT been ‘born again’ already – they receive the Spirit in Jn 20:22 in the context of being commissioned for mission.

In Luke’s volume of Acts, the Spirit’s empowering and saving (life giving) functions are inseparable. Luke describes this in a wide variety of ways but the fact is that there is NO second action of the Spirit on believers.

The first one is both soteriological and empowering and is tied to ‘believing in the Lord Jesus’ (11:16-17); forgiveness of sins (2:38);  new fellowship; commissioning for mission (9:15-16; 26:16-18); inclusion of the Gentiles (Cornelius – see 11:17-18 where they have been given ‘life-giving repentance’)

And in relation to the controversial and contested case of the Ephesian disciples in Acts 19, Paul’s question to them “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” assumes that the life-giving Spirit is the gift given following belief. There is no life before receiving the Spirit. This is contra Calvin who argued that the Ephesian disciples were ‘regenerate’.

Dunn concludes with these words

“It is the character of the Spirit that the life thus given is vitality, a life that liberates, energizes, empowers, and expresses itself in a wide variety of forms all indicative of the fact the that the Spirit is life!” (17)

This emphasis is not only persuasive biblically, but it helps move the discussion on to where it really matters – not a two-stage normative experience or not (who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’), but a focus on the good news of the empowering and life-giving Spirit given to all as a gift of grace to all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. And the expectation and possibility of a subsequent life ‘filled with the Spirit’.

Comments, as ever, welcome.