Towards critical thinking on Charismatic theology (1)

Not long ago, an elderly friend of mine prayed that his church would, in the future, begin to “move in the spiritual gifts” of 1 Corinthians. And I began to think that, since he became a Christian as a teenager, maybe 65 years ago, at the very start of the “Charismatic Renewal” in Britain, and has always been in churches that were open to this movement, it was an odd kind of prayer to have to make.

After all, the Corinthian church on which the expectation is based was maybe only a decade old when it went into spiritual gift meltdown and had to be reined in by Paul. So why are modern churches still waiting to achieve New Testament normality over half a century after the Fountain Trust and so on spread the word?

Charismatic “normality” would include, in every church, reliable prophets, regular healers and miracle-workers, tongues reliably translated supernaturally, and miraculous gifts of knowledge and wisdom, according to some modern definition of what that means. Yet the only places where these are regularly reported seem to be megachurches tainted by heterodox theology and mercenary leaders – not to mention barefaced lying. Others are still waiting, which is probably the reason the charlatans have such a following online, in books and in record sales. If everyone has the real thing, counterfeiters have no market, whereas I’ve been in English churches where people holidayed in Toronto so as to get “the Blessing,” (without changing them noticeably, I might add).

My experience, though, is of many people aspiring to become healers or prophets, whereas genuine healings, and prophecies that come true, do happen, but mostly amongst random people, not those claiming permanently endowed gifts.

When I first came across the Charismatic Movement as a young believer in 1971, as it was beginning to become mainstream in Evangelicalism, the excuse for deferred hopes was that the Church had strayed, and adopted cessationism, for close on two millennia, and we were finding our way. The Pentecostals who developed the theology in the late nineteenth century had the same idea, though they were probably ignorant of parallel failed movements like Montanism in the second century, the Zwickau Prophets and their like during the Reformation, and even perhaps the Irvingites a few decades before themselves.

It was the Pentecostals who first proved that, special revelation or not, they could get their theology of gifts badly wrong. The first woman to acquire the gift of tongues under Charles Parham’s ministry, after intense and emotional prayer meetings (unlike the Corinthian experience, it seems) could speak only Chinese for three whole days afterwards. Or so the Spirit was thought to have revealed.

For although Parham listed a whole range of known languages members of his group went on to speak, it is a little-known fact amongst Charismatics that they saw it largely as a gift for foreign mission. Enthusiastic missionaries were sent to India and other lands, only to find that the natives didn’t understand their gibberish. Even C. T. Studd, converted through D. L. Moody in Cambridge, expected not to have to learn Chinese when he went as a missionary – an error close to my heart as my medical practice was founded by the grandson of one of the Cambridge Seven on his return from China after the Revolution.

Consequently Pentecostals redefined tongues, under the paradoxical influence of the Higher Critics, from “languages” to “ecstatic glossolalia.” This change is reflected now in the unscriptural Charismatic idea of “private prayer language,” which is by that definition immune to the research that shows it has no linguistic structure, either of men or angels. Yet the more biblical idea of “unlearned language” still lingers on in anecdotes about actual languages in churches always far away, rather than in actual experience.

It’s also worth noting here how the original Pentecostal claim that tongues were the validating sign of conversion was diluted to the experience of “baptism in the Spirit” being that evidence. Yet as better educated Charismatics saw that, biblically, baptism of the Spirit was the means of conversion and not the evidence, even if conversion was not attended by extraordinary experiences, the “experience” became a “second blessing” not actually supported by Scripture. Usually thereafter it was simply termed “filling with the Spirit” with no reference to conversion. Whoever said it was an experience seeking a theology spoke well, except that we must factor in that it was an experience that was sought after fervently by long seasons of prayer, preaching and so on, on the basis of a faulty theology.

The change in explanation is just as well, however, for it is a common thing for people not actually converted at Alpha Courses to report emotional experiences or to speak in tongues on the Holy Spirit weekend. I assume the explanation must be that these folk are expressing glossolalia “in the flesh”… which must at least raise the question of why the same might not be true of Christians encouraged to start speaking in tongues by the common “try it and see” methods.

But maybe the unbelievers are just quenching the Spirit by not allowing the experience of being filled to convert them… in which case, gifts of the Spirit are just the result of attending the right study course, not a fruit of salvation. Paul, I think, would be much surprised.

So, on the assumption that the Bible does describe genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit for believers rather than purely psychological phenomena for everyone, a Christian critical thinker who dares to risk the common accusation of the sin against the Holy Spirit, for not taking Charismatic theology at face value, might conclude one of three things. Firstly that the Charismatics are right, but they have inexplicably failed so far to achieve a general “breakthrough” so that their experience is clouded with many failures, counterfeits and errors; or secondly that the hardline Cessationists are right, and that although Scripture gives no warning of it, the gifts have ceased; or thirdly that both have actually misinterpreted 1 Corinthians and the gifts are not what they are assumed to be, and are operating as actually intended by Paul in many good churches near you, largely unrecognised.

Space has caught up with me, but by way of exploring these possibilities I hope to go on, in the next post, to pursue a thought experiment: if Charismatic theology were to be fundamentally wrong for either the second or third reasons, what would we expect to see happening in the churches where it is believed? Would it be abandoned, or would it be retained even in the absence of fulfillment?

Consider this thought experiment, if you like, as the null hypothesis in a scientific investigation. If God’s word is true, there is nothing to fear except the correction of unhelpful misconceptions.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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