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).

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.

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.