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.





Wesley and the experiential Spirit

The other end of the spectrum within Western pneumatology to the institutional tendency is what T. David Beck calls the ‘experiential tendency’.

If Barth is an example of the former, John Wesley is an example of the latter. His conflict with the Anglican Church of the day revolved to a large degree around his view of the Spirit in the Christian life. Wesley was charged with being an ‘enthusiast’ (a bad thing to be obviously).

Wesley’s influence has been every bit as significant as Barth’s. His holiness theology was one of the inspirations for the rise of the modern Pentecostal movement, now the largest and most dynamic sector of global Christianity.

If justification is what God does for the believer in and through his Son, sanctification is what God works in the believer by his Spirit.

If the Christian life is a battle between ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’, the Spirit can win the struggle. The believer can therefore reach a state of ‘perfection’ – which in Wesley’s terms means loving God with all of our hearts, mind, soul and strength. In this state of perfection, or entire sanctification, there is no room left to commit wilful sin.

Wesley emphasised unique functions of the Spirit. One was assurance through the inner witness of the Spirit. Another was an experience of the depth of God’s love for the individual believer. He talked about a ‘sweet calm’ satisfaction of knowing God’s grace.

The indirect sign of the Spirit’s transforming presence is the fruit of the Spirit – affections like joy and peace and love.

The big point here is the experiential role of the Spirit in transformation – whether assurance of being a child of God; overcoming deliberate sin; or seeing his fruit as a visible witness of his presence.

Wesley never stopped insisting on the perceptibility of the work of the Spirit in the day to day of the Christian life. It is this experience of the Spirit that is the key to preventing Christianity from sliding into formalism and institutionalism.

In other words, this is a theology of encounter with the Spirit. The Spirit’s work is distinct from, and complementary to, that of the Father and Son.

There are great strengths in this form of pneumatology:

– a stress of personal experience of God in and through the Spirit

– a Trinitarian framework, but one in which the Spirit has distinct agency and ministry

– a passion for holiness and personal transformation

A quick read of the previous post gives a sharp reminder of how different Wesley is from Barth.

Beck points to weaknesses in Wesley’s pneumatology:

– The Spirit’s work is too closely focused on the individual believer with the subsequent danger of individualism

– The Spirit’s ministry is therefore tied too tightly to the present time – with little reference to the OT and to eschatological hope.

– And if Barth is overly Christocentric, Wesley could be charged with being overly ‘pneumacentric’ (to make a word up). And it’s no surprise to see this tendency emerge in some forms of Pentecostalism, where there is a search for spiritual experiences of the power of God as a key to revival.

Beck’s overall argument is that neither ‘bipolarity’ of Barth or Wesley is adequate to do justice to the NT witness of the Spirit. I’ll try to summarise his path between them in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.











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

Charismatics, spiritual gifts and the mushy middle

Holy SpiritThis post links in a totally unplanned way from the exegetical discussion of NT gifts to the contemporary question of how the heck what is described so routinely in the NT is to be ‘applied’ to contemporary church life.

I’ve been aware but pretty uninterested in the internet kerfuffle started by John McArthur’s Strange Fire conference.

However, it has sparked a couple of interesting reflections on this side of the Atlantic – in Britain anyway if not in Ireland. Both are by ‘Reformed charismatics’ – which in itself is an interesting combination.

Steve Holmes has a typically thoughtful piece on what defines a charismatic – and it is NOT primarily what one believes about the continuation of the charismata. Rather it is this

In my experience, it is certain practices: a practice of worship that focuses on and aims towards an experienced encounter with God; a practice of pastoral care that sees one-on-one extempore prayer ministry as fairly central; a practice of liturgy that is expectant of, and welcoming to, unplanned interventions; a practice of ministry that assumes the involvement of a significant number of lay people, some acknowledged to be more skilled/effective in certain areas than the pastor herself; and a ‘crisis’ spirituality which expects a series of defining moments that will lead to step-changes in Christian experience/discipleship …

All of which is to say that I suspect that an engagement between ‘charismatic’ and ‘cessationist’ evangelicals which is attentive to the lived reality of faith will turn less on confessions of belief about supernatural gifts, and more on debates about the place of spontaneity in worship, and about the effectiveness of crisis moments in sanctification and about the right ways to work out vocation.

I was happily a member of a charismatic Baptist church in England for some years and I think this sounds sounds right. Being ‘charismatic’ there was more about a style or ethos around worship, prayer, immediacy of the presennce of God in ministry and so on than it was about how exactly some spiritual gifts were (or were not) practiced.

But if you think ‘evangelical’ is hard to pin down, this  also highlights just how slippery the term ‘charismatic’ is.  Holmes’ description is pretty subjective stuff.

I also read the team written Think Theology blog. Andrew Wilson, New Frontiers pastor and excellent blogger (even if he has yet to see the light on women in ministry) has a comprehensive and thoughtful post here.

What struck me reading it was his 5th point and the phrase (borrowed from Tim Keller) the ‘mushy middle’.  The mushy middle is an abstract form of charismatic belief. Those who in theory believe in in the continuation of all the gifts today but in practice are pretty well indistingushable from cessationists.

Would someone like John Stott, with his ‘open but cautious’ view have fitted here I wonder?

The mushy middle sees NO exegetical and theological reason NOT to believe in the continuation of all the gifts described in the NT, but neither do they see any great reason to upset the status quo by getting all hot and bothered about the actual practice of those gifts. For, to be blunt, they could be more trouble than they are worth. There are more important priorities. If they show up fine, but let sleeping dogs lie if not.

In contrast, Wilson argues, “So anyone who believes the miraculous gifts continue should, to be biblically consistent (let alone loving towards others in their church), pursue them.”

I’ll be honest here and say the term ‘abstract charismatic’ probably describes me pretty well. While I’m not fully persuaded by his argument (will come back to this in another post) what he says is challenging and thought-provoking.

How about you?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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.

‘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.

The Global South arrives in force in Dublin

A couple of months ago, my wife and I were invited to attend the 4th annual ‘Holy Ghost Service’, organised by the Redeemed Christian Church of God (Ireland). Gotta say we had a blast – an unforgettable experience.

And safe to say that I’ve never been at an event remotely like it. And I’ve sort of been processing that night in my head ever since, and this post is a bit of that processing out loud ….

This meeting must easily be one of the largest religious gatherings in the country. Somewhere between 15-20,000 people in one location (a giant marquee in City West Hotel). It started at 8pm and went on (I’m told, we’d gone home) til about 3am.

First some context. The RCCG is a Nigerian Pentecostal denomination, and apart from the Roman Catholic Church, now one of the largest Christian denominations in the Republic of Ireland – maybe bigger that the ‘established’ Presbyterians and the Methodists.  Their stated aim is to have one RCCG church within 5 minutes drive of every person in Ireland …. can’t say they lack vision and ambition.

The RCCG is huge in Nigeria and the Dublin event had ‘daddy’ G.O. and’ mummy’ G.O. (Mr & Mrs E A Adeboye, G.O. = General Overseer) there as guest speakers which was obviously a very very very big deal indeed for everyone there…. (reminded me of our audience with the Pope but that’s another story 😉

I’ve been re-reading a favourite book (which if you haven’t read it you should, it’s fascinating), Philip Jenkins’ The New Faces of Christianity: believing the Bible in the Global South. What he does so well is compare and contrast different ways Southern and Northern hemisphere Christians read the Bible, and especially how the ancient world of the Bible ‘speaks’ so directly into the contemporary world of much of the Global South.

And reading Jenkins provides a framework for interpreting what was going on that night in Citywest.

This was ‘global South’ Christianity in Dublin. More specifically, this was African Christianity in Dublin. And more specifically still, this was full-on Nigerian Pentecostal Christianity in Dublin.

There were numbers of Irish people there and the RCCG is making serious efforts at bridge-building both with other Christians and public bodies. On the (distant) stage were leaders of various organisations including the major of South Dublin Country Council.

My reactions were a mixture between being inspired and uplifted during amazing praise & singing, being hugely impressed at the sheer organisational effort behind such a massive one-off event, enjoying the wonderfully prepared children’s orchestra and singers,  – along with various levels of theological and cultural ‘discomfort’.

I’m not going to go into the theological ones here on what was just a once-off experience (and we did not stay til the early hours when the main preaching happened). I’d rather turn things around – and ask what questions does such an event – and the nature of African Pentecostalism – pose to Irish Christians?

Here are some ….. and maybe you can add your own.

Expectancy that God makes a difference in life

There was a tremendous sense of expectancy that God would show up. In the huge choir and led worship (what singing); in the profuse and active prayer with everyone standing praying together out loud, calling out to God in a cacophony of sound; in how prayer was led from the front with a deep sense of approaching a holy and magnificent God. And tied up in these attitudes is the deep down belief that God is real, he will make a difference in your life. God will be seen by what he does. In the expectation of conversion, repentance, healing – God is alive and active and visibly so.

Good and Evil

At one point there was a long, and frankly to my western mind, rather bizarre sketch of guys dressed up as demons laughing at their success in keeping a succession of people under bondage – to illness, to fear and so on. Until Jesus turned up on stage, vanquished them and liberated the victims to a life of joy and victory.

Jenkins puts it this way:

‘For post-Enlightenment Christians in the West, the demonic elements in the New Testament mean so little that they are scarcely even an embarrassment any more …’ Jenkins, p98

Global South Christianity, and especially African Pentecostal theology, takes evil seriously. In a culture surrounded by occult, paganism and acts of great evil, as well as natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and famines – the reality of deep spiritual warfare in woven into the fabric of faith.


Linked to this was an incredibly strong sense of authority. I mean this in a couple of ways. First the ultimate authority of God – there was huge respect for his word and a tangible expectation of God speaking powerfully through it. God was present and to be listened to.

Jenkins makes the telling point that in much of the Global South, the Bible is a ‘new’ book , a sacred text from God that has power and authority.

‘But for Christians in contemporary Africa and Asia, it is this newly discovered Bible that fascinates, and that burns from within. Reading this book opens the door to real inner power’. Jenkins, p.25

Second, and closely linked, was a huge sense of the authority of God’s ‘Spirit anointed’ leaders – both men and women. There was tremendous respect and honour given to the ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mummy’ G.O. of the RCCG worldwide, Pastor E A Adeboye and his wife. Leaving aside the fact that she was leading thousands in prayer, never have I been at a church meeting where a woman has led with such authority.

Global Realities

And this night was a reminder of another thing Jenkins says – and which Western Christians need reminding of. So often in the Christian blogging and publishing world, esp in the USA, there is still a deeply inbuilt assumption that the USA and the West is the ‘default form’ of evangelical Christianity. Again and again whole internal conversations go on with no hint that there is a much bigger world out there.

When will we westerners ‘get’ that the West is no longer the ‘norm’ – ‘the’ Christian perspective against which all others are measured?.

Whereas in the past you might read about curious forms of marginal Christian experience such as ‘African theologies’ or ‘Asian theologies’ – soon the boot will be on the other foot and we will know when the shift has happened when we start reading about the curious characteristics of  ‘North American theologies’ or ‘Western European theologies’.

Comments, as ever, welcome.