Towards critical thinking on Charismatic theology (2)

If you’re a member of one of the hyper-charismatic megachurches, the very idea of applying critical thinking to the theology around spiritual gifts and related matters is anathema, as it implies a lack of the faith that enables believers to heal any and every disease as Jesus did – except that they never can. Even the super-apostles have to fake leg lengthening on an industrial scale to inflate the numbers.

But critical thinking sorts good biblical theology from bad, just as it sorts good science from bad. And it’s worth remembering that Charismatic theology is a recent innovation, and therefore must bear the burden of proving itself true. Most Christians in history have served God without it. So I’ll proceed with the thought experiment I proposed in the last post. And that is to assume, for the sake of argument, that the original Pentecostals and, subsequently, the Charismatics, made a fundamental error in their theology of the Spirit and his gifts (therefore suggesting that either classical Cessationism or some other theology is true). What would we expect to see today on that assumption?

First, consider the alternative: as I said before, if counter to my null hypothesis Charismatic theology is true, then after 120 years of recovery of the correct doctrine of the Spirit the gifts should be smoothly operating in most churches, even those as dysfunctional as that in Corinth when Paul wrote his letter. That seems not to be the case.

As I suggested last time, what came first in the development of the theology was the conviction, amongst Christians already committed to elevating experience over doctrine by the Wesleyan Holiness movements and their emotional camp-meetings, that the Church had lost the Holy Spirit and his gifts. To be fair, their conception of the 1 Corinthians list as “sign gifts” was shared with the Protestant Cessationist majority, though it’s worth remembering that even Cessationists often believed in contemporary miracles, revelations and the like, but as isolated acts of divine grace rather than as permanent gifts. So what is under examination here is not supernaturalism per se. My point is that the first Pentecostals were not theologising their experience, but fervently seeking experience to confirm their theology.

It was therefore the strength of that conviction, accompanied by impassioned teaching about what to expect, and even more impassioned prayer, that led to prolonged “tarrying meetings.” Eventually (as had been experienced by the Irvingites earlier in the nineteenth century), the Spirit was believed to have fallen on some on the basis of their subjective experience. I mentioned last time the first speaker in tongues under Charles Parham, Agnes Oznam, whose supposed gift of Chinese was actually meaningless glossolalia, as the early Pentecostals were later forced to redefine the gift.

Now, glossolalia is also a practice of various pagans, psychic mediums and even Mormons. Whatever Christians may suspect about demonic origins for these, it is vanishingly unlikely in the context of Christians praying. However:

The anthropologist Felicitas Goodman studied a number of Christian and non-Christian tongue-speaking communities in Ohio, Texas, Brazil, Japan, Indonesia, and some in Africa. She took into account the segmental structure, the sounds, syllables, and phrases, as well as elements of rhythm, accent, and intonation. In her analysis, she concluded that there was no linguistic distinction between what was practiced by the Christians and the non-Christians she studied. This is strong evidence that glossolalia is a natural, human phenomenon that arises under particular conditions.

More detail is added in the linked article on specifically Christian tongues in other studies:

Dr. Heather Kavan, in over five-hundred hours of fieldwork in Pentecostal and Charismatic meetings, observed that glossolalia is characterized by high incidences of repetition, alliteration, and assonance. The range of sounds is small. The speaker also leans heavily on common sounds from their native tongue and minimizes uncommon sounds. Contrasted with the varied cadence and rhythm of normal speech, the rhythm of glossolalia is highly regular, repetitive, and often staccato. (In my own experience, I’ve noticed that Christian glossolalics tend to gravitate towards Hebrew or Latin sounding tongues, since those languages are associated with Christian antiquity. It always seems to be language that could be considered “Biblical sounding”.)

Under our starting hypothesis, we would therefore anticipate Charismatic tongues to be learned human behaviour (as opposed to demonic deception), and this is what we find from the start, as Pentecostals encouraged each other to “try” until they succeeded. And it is still the common practice in Charismatic circles too, as those praying for others to receive it advocate various combinations of “letting go,” “starting to say anything,” and so on. The fact that unbelievers also achieve it in such meetings is strong evidence that it is not supernatural, and it turns out seldom to be spontaneous.

But does it help people? In my own case, I came to the conclusion that it did nothing that normal prayer doesn’t do better, and finally gave it up. But with many issues, the very fact of acquiring an unexpected ability – especially apparently from God – makes one feel it must be valuable. After all, the environmentalist who learns the planet is dying feels extinction all around when the uninformed only enjoy the sunshine. What matters is not how one feels, but in the latter case whether climate collapse is real, and in the former whether learned glossolalia is really what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians as a manifestation of the Spirit.

Remember, purely subjective feelings, as we have learned in the whole gender issue, tell us little about objective truth, in this case, the testable truth of the gift of translatable languages described in the Bible. But psychology counts: what is the likelihood that those first Pentecostals, hearing the sister pray in apparent Chinese after prolonged prayer, would say, “Step back there – let’s check out whether this is really what it seems?” We know they did not, and when their missionaries were wrong-footed by the non-comprehension of their supposed languages by native hearers, the missionaries simply got on with learning the language and other work, whilst the leaders simply redefined the gift of tongues as angelic, rather than critiquing the whole experience and its theology.

A century on, in the fervour of a prayer meeting – or even in a laid back prayer meeting in a strongly Charismatic context – the expectation that the gift of tongues really is what is advertised is unlikely to be doubted, and the peer-pressure to follow others is strong.

Conformity – as we have discovered so painfully since COVID – is an almost irresistible force in human societies, and has been a feature of the Charismatic movement from the beginning. Conformity is even more potent when disbelief is equated with blaspheming the Holy Spirit, and when non-reception of tongues or Holy Spirit “experience” is often attributed to unbelief or unconfessed sin. And so glossolalia would be expected to continue even if Charismatic theology were in error.

In the early 1970s my wife (then fiancee) and I attended meetings of the Fountain Trust, founded by Michael Harper in 1964 to promote the Charismatic Movement in mainstream denominations. The first thing I noticed was how people surreptitiously looked around during prayer to see what “Holy Spirit prayer” looked like, and then tentatively raised their hands to copy those in the know. Only thereafter, one assumes, were they praying in the Spirit! Half a century on, raised hands (or even one raised hand) have become the way for spiritual people to worship (but not necessarily, curiously enough, to pray), and it’s easy to forget that the practice matches neither the kneeling and closed hands of most of church history (symbolising contemplation), nor the original “orans” posture of “raising holy hands” (in which the palms were held outward as if to receive God’s blessing).

Now, I consider the posture of prayer to be a matter of relative theological indifference – though physical symbolism can help or hinder our praying. I’m no doubt tainted by the old Evangelical prayer posture of sitting hunched up with arms folded – as if trying to keep God out! But nevertheless the posture of Charismatic worship is purely imitative and a recent tradition, arising from a distorted understanding of the biblical pattern, and yet it continues, unexamined, under its own momentum of imitation.

The same is true of the posture of outstretching an arm towards someone for whose healing one is praying, which arose in John Wimber’s Anaheim Vineyard Church as a substitute for laying on hands, simply because their factory unit was so hot under the Californian sunshine!

Much the same can be said for the imitativeness of other Charismatic beliefs and practices. For example, there is an assumption that a “gift of knowledge” means the supernatural ability to tell others things about themselves that only they know. Even more often, it is the throwing out of a general claim by a worship leader that “there is someone here who’s been having a challenging week/has trouble with their heart” and so on. This has precedents in stage magic, but not, as far as I know, in church history, and it is far from clear that such a practice is what 1 Corinthians means by the term. But it has become a fixed tradition now, and cannot be challenged, or even tested because there is always someone in the congregation with a hard week or a weak heart, who will assume the word really is directly from God to them.

In fact, I have even seen a Charismatic evangelist insisting that his none-too-specific word of knowledge about someone in a non-responding congregation was true and must be responded to, even as the event wound down and folks started to leave. As I hung around to chat to one of the worship band, I saw the evangelist home in on one of the few remaining people, a girl who had obviously finally “owned up.” I have often wondered whether the event really marked his profound supernatural insight, or her owning of an inaccurate “word” simply on the basis that it fitted nobody else at all.

The Charismatic gift of prophecy is very prominent, partly because it is regarded as the most desirable to seek in 1 Corinthians. The concept has acquired a distinct Pentecostal meaning – usually an unpremeditated utterance, generally vaguely formulated, and seldom specific enough to be testable. Back in the 1970s it was usually prefaced by “Thus saith the Lord,” spoken in KJV English, and liberally punctuated with Isaianic “Therefores…”, but fashions in inspiration have changed.

There has grown up with this style of prophecy the idea that it really doesn’t matter much if a prophecy bears no relation to reality. A friend of mine often reminds me that “John Wimber used to say that even in the best settings, only 50% of prophecies come true.” Yet rather than accept that one biblical test of a false prophet is the failure of even one prophecy, and abandon Wimber’s Charismatic model, prophets continue to utter vanilla generalities and false predictions, and the movement chunders on regardless as the verbal garbage piles up. One potential penalty for this is that as congregations develop a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to unchallenged “prophetic words,” then they’re also likely to drift into the same casual attitude to the Bible, read or preached. Not good for growing faith in the God of truth.

In the town where I worked for thirty years, the success rate of public prophets about coming events and revivals was closer to 0% than 50%, with a couple of exceptions: the first was the occasional unpremeditated prophetic insight of someone claiming no prophetic gift, under the true inspiration of the Spirit, and the second was the deeply premeditated ministry of someone like Clifford Hill (for whose magazine I worked for a number of years), who sat somewhat removed from the Charismatic model by employing his knowledge of sociology, parliamentary politics and current affairs as well as deep thinking and prayer in his prophecy.

If prophecy fails to impress at the local level, the tendency is to look enviously to the star leaders of the Word of Faith Movement, the New Apostolic Reformation and their like, and yet to ignore the even more global failures of these self-proclaimed apostles and prophets. According to their predictions, COVID was wiped out within a month by miraculous vaccines (power-declaration by Copeland), and Donald Trump is currently uncontested President (predictions by most of the rest). But as I mentioned in the last post, the popularity of increasingly heterodox (and morally compromised) “super-apostles” seeming to succeed would be a logical result of disappointment with the way Charismatic theology works out on the ground locally. The theology must be right, so maybe they have the secret key to bringing heaven down over there in Kansas.

The more dramatic the supposed manifestation of the Spirit, the more one is likely to invest in it spiritually, and the greater the temptation to fake it, consciously or unconsciously, in order to share what others seem to have or, at least, not to be an outlier. This explains why completely bizarre, and even apparently demonic, practices become accepted as signs of a new Pentecost by (as far as one can tell) genuine Christians. Only this week I heard the testimony of a former worship leader at Bethel Redding Church admitting that he had followed others in falling to the ground and convulsing primarily from fear of appearing unspiritual. Given the power of suggestion and the conformism of a majority of people, I’m sure many others have done the same with less consciousness that it was voluntary compliance under strong suggestion, aka emotional manipulation.

A related factor in such conformity is the (unthinking) theology of worship as the means to persuade God to manifest in visible power. To those like Bill Johnson in the US (but also to others like the charlatan Michael Reid at Peniel Church in Brentwood, in my personal experience), there is not even a valid Gospel message without this. It is a surprise to many that this is not what biblical worship is about at all, as it is about my blessing when it should be about acknowledging God.

During the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards wrote extensively and perceptively on the manifestations of the flesh that were closely associated with genuine experiences of dramatic conversion. He clearly records how, as the revival became widely known, what we would now call mass hysteria became a greater proportion of the whole, threatening to undo the good that God was doing. Charismatics have sometimes quoted Edwards on revival, but have seldom taken seriously his warnings on the deceptiveness of the human mind and heart, nor imitated his “debunking” ministry. To too many, the mass hysteria is the revival.

The failure to learn from Edwards, I think, is one of the main reasons that Charismatic teaching would continue even if it is completely in error. It is a movement within Christianity, and so many will have come to genuine faith under it. Naturally enough we find it very hard to disown our parents, spiritual or natural. If you’re converted in the Closed Brethren, it can be hard to perceive the errors in their teaching. Likewise for any aberrant theology from Arianism to Armstrongism, but especially for movements that claim to have intimate communion with God and miraculous gifts, that outsiders are deemed to lack. “Moving in the gifts” is not simply held to be a correct view, but a spiritually superior one, so implicitly to doubt it is to backslide.

Yet if we are mature, we should examine every aspect of our faith in the light of Scripture and truth. If (as per this article’s working hypothesis) there is a fundamental flaw in Charismatic theology, then one way or the other it will be found wanting. Maybe the commonest, and most benign, outcome for disappointed churches is gradually to forget about it, rather as people disillusioned with COVID vaccines tend to stop getting them without openly admitting they were mistaken in getting the first doses. But in our day that can be quite difficult, especially when much modern worship music is consciously proselytising for the more radical centres of the Charismatic movement… and incidentally funding them with CCLI royalties to the tune of millions of dollars.

More harmful, for individuals, is the personal disillusion that comes from finally seeing through the facade and being unable to discuss it productively. There is a high dropout rate from the megachurches, sadly not primarily into non-Charismatic churches, but into unbelief, and even into other religions or witchcraft, which are hoped to deliver the supernatural goods that churches fail to. But even in local fellowships, failed healings, in a theology where healings cannot fail, can and do lead to terminal loss of faith both for the sick person and the person praying. Not good for faith in the faithful God.

Where churches remain committed to “seeking the gifts,” but somehow find themselves on the hamster-wheel of constant disappointment, members (as I have mentioned) may well look to the “big boys” over in California and stray into complete heterodoxy. Failing that, though, a church that has prioritised “moving in the gifts,” is likely to concentrate increasingly on that quest the more it fails to achieve it – thus eventually detracting from the core business of discipling in the truth and proclaiming forgiveness through the Cross. The quest for gifts can easily make a church inward-looking for its hidden sins, lack of faith, insufficient prayer and so on. Perhaps that is one reason (amongst many) that the more the Charismatic movement has grown, the faster the collapse of Christianity in the West has proceeded. Certainly the “rediscovery” of the Holy Spirit’s power has not brought true revival to our nations in the last 120 years. Why not?

This disconnect between expectation and success is ironic, as back in the day (and perhaps now) it was the keenest Christians who sought to be filled with the Spirit for service, since (for historic and sociological reasons, which is another subject) the Charismatic movement seemed to be where God was doing things. That was certainly my own experience as a young Christian at college, where members of my own informal Charismatic group not only moved and shook Evangelical witness in Cambridge by livening up the student Christian magazine, Really, and running an evangelistic fortnight of college events and concerts by rising stars like Graham Kendrick, as well as converting my future wife, but also went on to make some of the best Christian music, run Spring Harvest, organise Christian holidays, found Riding Lights theatre company, start the A Rocha environmental organisation, become Anglican bishops, lead churches across the world, stop the mouths of lions… well, maybe not the lions. The fact that few of these friends champion Charismatic theology now indicates that it was the channel for their godly zeal, rather than the source of it.

But we should not let its adoption by keen and effective Christians prevent critical examination of the theology itself. All the best European Christians of the fifteenth century were, after all, Catholics, but the Reformation was still necessary. Methodism was a force for good, but had to unlearn Wesley’s erroneous doctrine of Christian perfection. Those corrections must have been traumatic for those who had taken the errors to be strengths in their walk with God. How would you cope with the realisation that your hard-won achievement of sinless perfection was, in fact, a sinful error? Yet it is God’s truth that saves us, sustains us, and enables us to bless others, and not our belief system, which will not always conform to that truth.

Perhaps there is an alternative interpretation of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians that can enable us both to affirm the Spirit’s work in our midst, and to live comfortably with daily realities… perhaps I’ll try some tentative exploration of that possibility in another post.

Avatar photo

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.
This entry was posted in History, Politics and sociology, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Towards critical thinking on Charismatic theology (2)

  1. Peter Hickman says:

    I’ve followed a similar path to yours, I think.
    I was heavily involved in the Charismatic Movement, having already been converted as an adolescent. I didn’t have a ‘Baptism in the Spirit’ experience, although I did become convinced that Scripture validated the possibility of receiving the Holy Spirit some time after conversion; of the five descriptions of converts receiving the Spirit in Acts 2, 8, 9, 10 & 19 (Pentecost, Samaria, Paul, Caesarea and Ephesus), only one records Spirit-infilling as simultaneous with conversion; indeed, Paul and the Ephesians received the Spirit through the laying on of hands (a procedure which is hardly a means of conversion). Non-Charismatics argue that Acts 2 & 8 are exceptional cases (and tend to be fuzzy about Acts 9 and 19), whereas it seems to me that Acts 10 is the exception, the simultaneity being necessary to convince the Jews that “the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (v 45).
    However, whilst this is of academic interest, I am no longer inclined to try to convince anyone of it. What counts is how people live, and, in my long experience of observing such matters, Charismatics are the most likely to be ‘so spiritually minded that they are of no earthly use’ [note to my friends: I’m not tarring everyone with the same brush!]; I think that the Charismatic belief system and world-view, if anything, tends towards relatively negative outcomes – it is not necessarily associated either with better character traits, or with greater wisdom or with a more wholesome lifestyle.

    You are correct to point out the disappointment that is commonly observed amongst those ‘seeking the gifts’. It became evident quite early on in the Charismatic Movement. The late Maurice Smith, one of the Movement’s UK ‘leaders’ in the 70’s said, “I have always carried a certain quiet disillusionment, that, although I was always so glad to be a Christian, the goods have never quite measured up to the advertisement”. Indeed. The gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 are not generally manifest in church meetings. This is compensated for by ‘seeking God’s presence’, which is thought to be achieved by corporate worship; the emotions engendered by singing together are taken, wrongly I think, to be representative of the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes ‘healing meetings’ are held, especially if there is a visiting speaker who is deemed to possess unusual healing powers. I have attended many such meetings over the last 50 years; no-one is healed, at least not miraculously, although the placebo effect is frequently manifested.

    Jesus said that the disciples would be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:29) and that “anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing … I will do whatever you ask in my name” (John 14:12—13). Despite this, there is a distinct lack of power in believers’ lives and a distinct scarcity of believers doing what Jesus did. Of course, from time to time we hear a report of a miraculous event. It is usually characterized by one feature – it has occurred somewhere else, typically in another country.

    I look forward to reading any alternative interpretation of the Scriptures, however tentative, that can ‘enable us both to affirm the Spirit’s work in our midst, and to live comfortably with daily realities’. It’s something I’ve struggled with for more than long enough.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Peter

    On “receiving the Spirit” Paul makes it clear that it is the Spirit that brings us into relationship to Christ, and hence foundational to faith. But that doesn’t preclude later endowments – in my own case six years after my conversion I came out of a fortnight’s coffee-bar mission with a love for Scripture, and general zeal, that was like a second conversion (and the former, at least, has never left me). I find that the spiritual experiences of biblical characters were also spaced out across their lives.

    “I have always carried a certain quiet disillusionment, that, although I was always so glad to be a Christian, the goods have never quite measured up to the advertisement”. That reminds me of a song I hate called “There must be more than this.” More than what? The Charismatic problem (as I’ve heard it described) is an over-realised eschatology – by seeking an experiential religion, they miss the real fruits of faith. To put it in New Apostolic Reformation terms, they want to bring heaven down to earth, whereas we’re told to set our sights on what is above.

    I’m not in the least disappointed with Christ after 59 years, however disillusioned with myself or anyone else, and I think it’s because biblical faith works (in the Bible’s terms). I think Charismatic stuff doesn’t work (ultimately) because it isn’t actually biblical, and hence this series.

    So the “clothed with power” word was not only said primarily to apostles, who certainly had a special sprinkling of miracle-dust (unlike Bethel glitter!), but whose power, as symbolised by tongues of fire and utterance at Pentecost, was primarily in their word, which was able to take a humanly ridiculous message of salvation through a crucified God who came alive, and change the world with it. And that word still has demonstrated the power to win hearts around the whole world, and change it permanently.

    One factor in my own thinking that I haven’t stressed in these two posts is that, although most Charismatics I’ve known have been genuine believers growing in the Lord (however much I question their theology), some claiming the gifts have been out and out villains.

    I hope you’re not too disappointed with my 1 Corinthians exposition next time! Interestingly for the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the great John Owen wrote an entire large treatise on the work of the Spirit without once mentioning the gifts, which may be why few Charismatics have bothered to read it, to their loss.

  3. Ben says:

    (Late here, as usual)

    I grew up in ‘The Fellowships’, which were (are?) a charismatic branch on a Wesleyan sinless perfection base. That takes some getting over, as you might imagine.

    I think another part of the ‘resistance’ to letting go of the Charismatic dream/promise, is that it at least seems like (at last) a tangible, real intervention of God in our lives. In an age where faith has been ridiculed, denied, shaken for multiple generations. “I believe, help thou my unbelief” gets a little fillip from (the hope of) something seemingly miraculous breaking into our ultra-materialist existence.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Now your last paragraph is an interesting point – it is experience that seems the basis of all false religions. It was why George Harrison was attracted to TM and Hindu religion rather than boring Christianity, why the Greeks were attracted to oracles like Delphi, why witchcraft and New Age hold their appeal, and so on.

      It’s not enough to say that every truth has its counterfeit, since the emphasis of both OT and NT religion is on faith in past salvific events, and eschatological promises. There is religious experience, but it’s mediated by the word of Torah and Gospel, and apprehended by faith (in the Holy Spirit) “from first to last,” and not “from first until there is spiritual breakthrough.”

      I need to do a piece specifically on the New Testament concept of worship, which is very different from what is often assumed – this I knew before, but it has been reinforced by recently reading a great book by David Peterson, Engaging with God.

Leave a Reply