Towards critical thinking on Charismatic theology (3)

My conclusion from the thought experiment in the last post is that what we actually see in the Church nowadays is more consistent with Pentecostal/Charismatic theology being profoundly mistaken than with its being correct. I base this on the fact that after, 120 years, the churches are not settled comfortably into Charismatic doctrine and practice, but are still chasing the rainbow and wondering why they never reach its end. The extreme example of this is, of course, the Word of Faith variants promising to bring heaven down to earth in ever more dramatic ways, but instead producing a pattern of financial acquisitiveness and irregularity, spiritual and sexual abuse, blatantly false prophecy, and elementary stage magic claiming to be greater works that Jesus’s own.

It all arose from the assumption that the Corinthian church has a list of “sign gifts” of the Holy Spirit, which a majority of Protestants said had ceased, but which the emerging Pentecostals believed should be for all time. But I’m going to suggest – somewhat tentatively, as I certainly don’t have all the answers – that this founding assumption is untrue. The reality of Paul’s treatment of charismata in 1 Corinthians is, I think, less simplistic than that.

Introducing the issue in 1 Corinthians 12 (as a response to that church’s chaotic abuses in worship), Paul actually uses a whole range of descriptive terms for what he’s covering. V1 has “things of the spirit” (pneumatikoi), which is essentially a generic term for everything in the Christian’s Spirit-empowered life, but is here principally applied to the context of worship meetings.

V4 introduces the familiar charismata, which literally means “little bits of grace” and can cover either some permanent endowment (like Timothy’s “gift” in 1 Timothey 4:14), some useful teaching (Romans 1:11), or one particular answer to prayer (2 Corinthians 1:11). I would contend that it is again generic here, covering all that God gives through his Spirit: a permanent ministry, every Christian act of mercy or faith or love, or individual blessings from God, such as a healing or a miracle or a prophecy. In other words, the word essentially suggests that whatever people bring to the church and its worship is a gift of grace from the Holy Spirit to the church. Why? Because Christians are by definition and by new birth those who worship in Spirit and truth, because they been baptized by one Spirit into one body and have all been given that Spirit to drink.

The generic meaning of the word, I think, is emphasised by Paul’s going on to add to “kinds of charismata” “kinds of service” and “kinds of working,” which seems to cover everything one would expect to find in any church service or, indeed, every aspect of church life.

These three also encompass, significantly, the whole triune being of God, respectively “Spirit,” “Lord” (Jesus) and “God” (the Father). This typically Pauline “proto-trinitarian” literary device actually shows that Charismatics, by focusing exclusively on the Holy Spirit, have missed the fact that Paul attributes worship and “gifts” to the whole Godhead. So if we take a “service” like putting out the chairs for the meeting, it is God who is working it in whoever is doing it. The emphasis is not that the Church needs to invoke the Holy Spirit to get gifts, but that the Church already has the whole of God, and therefore every gift manifesting through all its people. As the wise hymn-writer said, “Yet possessing every blessing, if our God our Father be.”

Paul’s next term, in v7, is the “manifestation” of the Spirit, for the common good. Once again, this seems intended to be a generic restatement of what is covered in verses 4-6. But the stress here is on God’s showing himself in individual things that go on in real time in worship, more than on describing how people have permanent ministries, though this is not excluded, especially in the plural “cures” given through “another” individual. If you like, it is God “showing up,” but not at some ecstatic communal moment in worship, but in everything that happens. To use the previous example, the Spirit is manifested in the cheerful chair-stacker as well as in the prophet.

Yet since Paul’s aim is to take the Corinthians’ pride down a peg or two, I believe he has in mind the Church as the catholic body of Christ, not as merely the Corinthian fellowship, which in its entirety is itself only one organ of that body. Hence in 12:27ff clearly the only apostle the Corinthian church has is Paul himself, and that at a distance – it is the universal body that has been given apostles. That being the case, it does not automatically follow that any one fellowship will have all the manifestations that God has distributed, according to his will, around the whole Church, which Paul describes.

The entire church had only twelve apostles plus the one to the Gentiles, and I think the character of the individuals involved in the so-called “New Apostolic Reformation” proves that the apostolic ministry, at least, has ceased in the Church. I could be open to persuasion that a pioneer missionary like Boniface of the Germans might merit the honorary term apostle, but nobody would argue that every church has them. And therefore when Paul tells them to desire the higher gifts, he implicitly excludes at least any ambition to become an apostle.

There seems no reason, therefore, why Paul in his list of charismata may not be naming some things that are restricted, or largely restricted, to apostles. As far as I recall, Philip alone outside the apostolic band is attributed with a string of miracles in the New Testament. Otherwise Acts restricts such ministries to apostles, and Paul himself, in 2 Corinthians 12, names miracles, signs and wonders as his own marks of apostleship, which would hardly be so if the Corinthians themselves had any number of miracle-workers and healers.

That is not to say that miracles were otherwise unknown: Paul calls them a mark of the Spirit’s work amongst the Galatian Christians. Occasional miracles have occurred in churches throughout history: Augustine saw them in Milan, Bede talks of them in Saxon Britain, and Richard Baxter reports them in Puritan times. But that is not the “ministry of miracles” or “gift of healing” sought in Charismatic circles which (Roman Catholic saints aside!) the actual text of 1 Corinthians might well be restricting to a special class of men now gone to glory. Relevant to this somewhat Cessationist point is the association in Hebrews 2:4 of miracles with eyewitness testimony to the gospel.

Incidentally in this Hebrews passage “gifts of the Spirit” is literally “distributions” of the Spirit, which therefore need not be implying a Cessationist view of gifts in general, because it might refer to foundational incidents like the distribution of the Spirit at Pentecost and in the household of Cornelius, rather than “gifts” as such.

Back in 1 Corinthians, then, if we perceive that (a) Paul is attributing all Christian ministry, spectacular or humble, within the church to the Spirit and (b) that his canvas is the whole Church, not just the Corinthian sub-branch, then our view of what was actually being abused in Corinth changes radically.

For a start, we are freed from having to interpret the lists of gifts as specifically miraculous endowments. Words of wisdom can come most naturally from the wise, who have learned at the feet of Christ for years, and words of knowledge from the knowledgeable, that is from those who have studied Scripture deeply. There is no need to invoke clairvoyance.

We do not need to puzzle over a specific gift of faith amongst those whose very salvation is by faith, when it is universal experience that, at particular times, the most unexpected people exhibit uncharacteristic confidence in a specific prayer.

Similarly, whilst we would be right to be cynical about the healing powers of the stage magicians in megachurches, most of us can think of occasional examples of healing after prayer that surprised even hospital consultants. As an aside to that, may I urge that we treat such healing as signs of God’s “routine” love and as cause for thanksgiving, rather than treating every recovery from illness as a miracle to be “Bigged Up.” Providence shows God’s love and grace as much as miracle, and people soon see through Christian hype and come to despise it.

Discerning spirits is an interesting case, as it clearly harks back to 12:1-3, dealing with claimed prophetic utterances that might be demonic rather than divine in a pagan culture. It is not, by the way, saying that Satan and his agents cannot lie in normal conversation (Matthew 7:21-23). Yet it is as much a gift of God for someone, remembering Paul’s rules in those verses, to diagnose a demonic manifestation by its cursing Jesus, as it is for someone to have a mysterious “check in their spirit.” Jesus, after all, said the Spirit was given to remind the disciples of his words. Maybe as Satan gets released in the end times and love for God grows cold, we will see a resurgence of evil spirits, even in churches. But the charlatans have even polluted deliverance ministry, as I see from a recent controversy on YouTube. My suspicion is that the best “discerners” will be those who know Scripture well enough to identify demonic deception and call it out with reasons, rather than those with a supernatural power.

We come to tongues, and to prophecy. I find it interesting that these are the two subjects on which Paul dwells at length, which leads me to wonder if these, rather than a set-list of nine gifts, were the main issues being abused at Corinth. Certainly they are the most contentious issue in Charismatic circles, and that’s because (a) much modern prophecy, as I discussed in the previous post, turns out to be either false or too vague to be useful, and (b) again as previously discussed, modern tongues appears to be entirely glossolalia without linguistic content.

As for prophecy, Paul clearly expects that it is common enough that several will speak during a service, but also that each “oracle” is weighed by other prophets. I’ve already mentioned the phenomenon of the occasional inspired word from some ordinary believer, often confirming an individual’s call to ministry, for example. But I’ve also observed that most public prophecy nowadays is either flat wrong or too generic to tell. Is the problem in Charismatic churches that lack of adequate peer review encourages bad practice, or that the gift is actually absent? I suspect that it is largely misunderstood through people seeking to prophesy (and therefore speaking human thoughts that are more often wrong than right), whereas in Scripture prophecy is a burden that weighs down the soul until it is spoken.

Old Testament prophecy was largely the application of God’s word in the Torah to the present circumstances, and so the prophets were not simply those uttering words that came to them unbidden, but those also developing that word through study of the Scriptures and through knowledge of the times. A prophet of world events will, I think, be a student of the news, and not just the BBC headlines, as well as a student of Scripture. And his words will more often be of warning than of comfort. On this understanding, the Puritans were right to regard applied preaching as “prophecy.”

In the New Testament, the only specific prophecies we seem to have (not counting the books themselves) are the predictive prophecies of Agabus. It would seem that his prediction of a famine was purely divine insight, but I wonder if his warning to Paul of his coming bonds involved a more informed “reading of the signs” under God’s guidance. Trouble for Paul was always a possibility – prophetic insight made it a certainty that Paul could use in his planning and prayer. So I believe that the prophetic gift is often present in churches, but is actually hidden by the Charismatic habit of welcoming the person who stands and says, “I have great things in store for you, my children,” but looking askance at the chap who says God is calling the church to repent.

Tongues are more problematic, it seems to me, because unless Paul is mistaken in saying that wordless glossolalia are actually human languages with discernible meanings, what he describes is very different from what Charismatics practice, quite apart from neglecting interpretation or encouraging cacophonous mass-prayer contrary to 14:23. Both in the “witness” contexts of Pentecost, Cornelius and the Ephesian disciples of John, and in Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians, it is clear that what happened was speaking in an unlearned, real, language.

It’s also clear that when he speaks of “tongues of men and angels” in ch13 he is not giving an excuse for glossolalia (for angels speak quite intelligibly in Scripture), but employing the same hyperbole as he is in impossibly knowing all mysteries and all knowledge and moving mountains, destituting himself for the poor and volunteering for the most painful death possible.

So perhaps the original gift of tongues really has been withdrawn, or perhaps it is restricted to those occasional accounts of miraculous communication skills from the mission field. But if that is not the case, we have to deal with the hard reality that nowadays, the evidence is that tongues lacks any linguistic structure, whereas in Corinth it consisted of real languages. It is not the same thing, so how will we deal with that?

The core of my whole case, though, is that 1 Corinthians 12-14 teaches a fundamentally different view of communal worship than that assumed in Charismatic theology. The latter shares the pagan concept of worship as the means of trying to get God to “show up” in “tangible” power. Hence the language of “breakthrough,” “release,” “changing the atmosphere,” not to mention prayers of invocation to the Holy Spirit to “come,” notably absent from the New Testament, where the Spirit is usually conceived as sent by the Father, through the Son. This same concept spills over into ideas of “renewal” and “revival,” which are primarily seen in terms of power, and only secondarily in terms of reformation or large-scale conversion. It is significant that both terms derive ultimately from the Wesleyan concept of holiness from which the Charismatic movement sprang (see Jim Packer’s classic Keep in Step with the Spirit on this).

In contrast, 1 Corinthians envisages communal worship as the coming together of the already Spirit-filled body of Christ to honour and thank the Father and the Son regularly through that same Spirit, and the building of each other up in their most holy faith by virtue of their differentially distributed giftings. By that edification, the various parts of the body are equipped to make their whole lives an act of worship in Spirit and in truth during the week.

To play with Paul’s “body” language, healthy bodies are about growth, fitness and competent living. Experience-seeking bodies tend to end up crashing motorcycles, getting addicted to drugs… or, of course, engaging in idolatrous religion.

And so that’s my alternative view of 1 Corinthians 12-14. It admittedly lacks the neatness of “What are the nine spiritual gifts and how can we receive them today?” It also, perhaps, lowers our expectations of spiritual thrills and spills, and even goes some distance with the Cessationists. Furthermore, it leaves some questions unanswered, and in particular the question of tongues. But it seems to me both to deal with the realities of Christian life – and the unrealities of Charismatic life – whilst retaining a big view of God’s Church as a worldwide spiritual body across time, and an expectation that the supernatural God will do plenty of supernatural work amongst his people living in the real world of flawed personalities, imperfect skills, and patchy spiritual experience.

But sadly I have a feeling that saying this in church would garner much the same response as the climatologist presenting evidence that there is no global warming.

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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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3 Responses to Towards critical thinking on Charismatic theology (3)

  1. Peter Hickman says:


    You say in part 2 that ‘by seeking experiential religion [Charismatics] miss the real fruits of faith’. Given the context I think you are referring solely to the ‘thrills and spills’ of the gifts of the Spirit. I’m pleased to see a necessary examination of the beliefs and practices of Charismatics, and concur with much of what you say. But what exercises me most is the matter of another aspect of experiential religion, that of knowing God, i.e. the believer’s relationship with Him. They are not unrelated issues.

    Psalm 42.1-11 exemplifies what might be termed the heart’s cry of every believer: ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God’, etc.
    Throughout the Bible there are dozens of scriptures that encourage us to believe that we can both find and know the Father and the Son. Here are just a few examples:
    2 Chronicles 15:1-3 ‘if you seek Him, He will let you find Him’
    Jeremiah 29:13 ‘You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.’
    John 10:14 ‘I am the good shepherd. I know My sheep and My sheep know Me’
    Philippians 3:10 ‘that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death’
    Colossians 1:10 ‘bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God’
    Hebrews 8:11 ‘And they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen, and everyone his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all will know Me, from the least to the greatest of them’
    James 4:8 ‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you’
    Furthermore, Jesus promises that the believer’s desire for God will be fully sated, to the point of overflowing:
    John 4:14 ‘Whoever drinks the water that I give him will never thirst’
    John 7:38 ‘Whoever believes in me … streams if living water will flow from him’

    The trouble is, I don’t think that Christians in general fare any better in experiencing ‘knowing God’ than Charismatics in particular fare in experiencing ‘the spiritual gifts’. Of course, I can speak only of what I have observed; maybe there will be some believers who would tell me, “Well, I know God in the way the Bible leads us to believe I should know Him’; I just haven’t met them yet.

    I note that from time to time you have quoted A.W. Tozer. I have read his ‘The Pursuit of God’ many times. Here are some quotes from the 2007 Paperback:
    p1. ‘Quietness of soul, the fruit of truly seeking God, is seldom found in [twenty-first century] Christians. Far too many have come to accept turbulence of the soul as the norm and have ceased to seek God with their whole hearts.’
    p9. ‘God is a person … He communicates with us through the avenues of our minds, our wills and our emotions … this intercourse between God and the soul is known to us in conscious personal awareness … where the man can know it as he knows any other fact of experience.’
    p25-26. ‘God wills that we should push on into His presence and live our whole life there. This is to be known to us in conscious experience. It is more than a doctrine – to be held; it is a life to be enjoyed every moment of every day… [yet] … for the most part we bother ourselves very little about the absence of personal experience.’
    p35. ‘To most people God is an inference, not a reality.’
    p36. ‘For millions of Christians, … God is no more real than he is to the non-Christians. They go through life trying to love an ideal and be loyal to a mere principle. Over against this cloudy vagueness stands the clear scriptural doctrine that God can be known in personal experience … the Bible assumes as a self-evident fact that men can know God with at least the same degree of immediacy as they know any other person or thing that comes within the field of their experience.’
    p46. ‘Our pursuit of God is successful just because He is for ever seeking to manifest Himself to us.’
    p51. ‘always He is trying to get our attention, to reveal Himself to us, to communicate with us.’
    p67. ‘It would be like God to make the most vital thing easy and place it within the range of possibility for the weakest and poorest of us.’

    There is no need for me to elaborate. Tozer says it all.
    Sorry to be so wordy, but I wanted to make the point thoroughly.
    I have a theory. Perhaps if Charismatics had more of an experience of a personal relationship with God they would be less concerned about seeking the ‘thrills and spills’ of the gifts of the Spirit, or the emotions engendered by a ‘knees up’ on a Sunday morning. The ‘concept of worship as a means of trying to get God to “show up”’ is indeed unbiblical, but perhaps, in seeing it as a substitute for ‘the real thing’, we might empathize with those enduring the unmet needs that underlie it. I hasten to add that I write not from a position of thinking that I have attained anything, but rather from a position of realizing and acknowledging my own poverty of experience.

    I like your take on prophecy, that ‘Scriptural prophecy is a burden that weighs down the soul until it is spoken’. It is in our nature to yearn to hear God’s voice, and whenever we do we will have something worth-while to share. As Amos 3:8 says, “The Sovereign Lord has spoken – who can but prophesy”; we could benefit from more of that kind of prophecy, I think.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for this contribution, Peter.

      Tozer’s “thing” was “the inner life,” which is why he’s liked by Charismatics, I think. My suspicion is that his experience was deeply affected by his deeper concern with Scriptural truth, ploughed in through prayer etc, than with many Charismatics.

      Likewise for Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who spoke a lot about the baptism of the Spirit, but clearly lived his life (and ministry) with close reference to imbibing knowledge of God from Scripture – hence his serial sermons on half a verse!

      Jim Packer brings this into focus in his Knowing God: the experience of God is knowing him through what he has already revealed. Now is that the same as having a regular conversation with God, in which he answers one’s questions, gives unequivocal instructions for the day’s activities, and so on?

      Probably not, but can we say that that was the experience even of the apostles? When Paul says he says a word from the Lord on something, he seems to mean that Jesus said it in his ministry, and at other times he says he has no word from the Lord, but gives his judgement based on (implicitly) his knowledge of the Lord. That seems rather different from the “I’ll just check with my boss” approach that one sometimes comes across.

    • Ben says:

      Thank you. This echos (far more clearly) what I was trying to say in my (recent) comment on the previous post.

      I’m up there with Thomas, except that he heard, saw, and touched.

      And yet torn, because not unaware that I might not actually be 100% keen on a totally indubitable God (even should I survive the revelation).

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