Long time readers of Stand Firm will not be surprised at my critical stance toward Charismatic thought and practice. For several years I’ve posted articles highlighting some of the abuses and excesses of the movement but I don’t think the abuses and excesses arise from nowhere. I think they are endemic to a theological perspective that elevates subjective experience and emphasizes ongoing revelation through “prophecy” tongues and words of knowledge.
That, in fact, was the argument put forward last week by John Macarthur, RC Sproul, Steve Lawson, Phil Johnson, Joni Erikson-Tada - big names in the evangelical world - and others who participated in a conference called Strange Fire, a name recalling the blasphemous and fateful liturgical innovations of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron in Leviticus 10.
The conference has met with strong reaction, both negative and positive. Few are neutral. Part of the negative reaction no doubt has to do with “tone”. The conference was combative and confrontational and that, I believe, has deafened many people to the substance of the presentations. Leading the way, as you might expect, was Pastor John Macarthur himself.
I don’t say that as a criticism. One of the things I admire most about Macarthur is his pugilistic courage. In an age ruled by concern police, tone nannies, and insensitivity victims, Macarthur’s style is a good corrective and, dare I say it, refreshingly manly. He doesn’t pull any punches.
At one point, after having suggested (and not without evidence) that world-wide the vast majority of Charismatics (90%) identify themselves with the prosperity gospel, Macarthur said most Charismatics are not Christian brothers. If the statistics he cited are correct, well then so is he. The prosperity gospel presents Jesus as a means to some other desired end. And a Jesus who is a means to some other end is not the true Jesus. But, of course, his words were taken out of context and reported in such a way as to give the impression that he “condemned all charismatics to hell”. He didn’t do that. He and the other speakers made clear distinctions between orthodox Christian charismatics and the prosperity gospel/word of faith charlatans.
But mishearing and misunderstanding is inevitable given the volatility of the subject matter. One cannot critique charismatic theology without being heard to deny the profound personal experiences of many others.
In any case the purpose of this article is not to defend Strange Fire - others have done that well - or to argue for Cessationism - there are far better advocates out there. My purpose is here is to merely lay out what I see as the four flaws of charismatic thought and practice. I think it is important to have this discussion as Anglicans especially in light of the “Three Streams” ideal that seems to hold sway in the Anglican Church in North America. I tend to agree with Gillis Harp that the ideal is theologically flawed and inconsistent with classical Anglicanism but on a far more practical level I realize that whether Three Streams “works” on the philosophical level or not, here we are, charismatics, evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, in the same church so we might as well start identifying some of the elephants in the common room.
And Charismaticism is a big elephant. I don’t know if there are any studies out there but if I were forced to guess, I would say that the Charismatic “stream” is presently the majority report in the ACNA because it is the one stream that easily that bleeds over into the other two. Anglo-Catholicism and evangelicalism clash on a number of fundamental levels. While you can easily find high church evangelicals, an Anglo-Catholic evangelical is an oxymoron. It’s nearly impossible to fit the two theologies together without losing some of the essentials that belong to one or the other. But one can be a Charismatic evangelical or a Charismatic Anglo Catholic without too much cognitive dissonance. And I think the majority of Anglicans take one of those two options.
But there are a number of Anglicans in North America, perhaps only a small minority, and I count myself as one of them, who are increasingly wary of Charismatic thought and practice. You hear them mumble under their breath every once in a while after the bishop speaks in tongues or dances at the altar, but they are quickly shushed. “You’re quenching the Spirit” they’re told.
I don’t think that shushing response will serve us well in the long run. If we row merrily down the confluent three streams as if we are all of one mind about these things we might well look back one day to find fewer people at the oars than we once imagined. So why not put our disagreements on the table so that we all understand one another better and that way we might avoid presuming and assuming and stepping on various toes.
Well, after that long introduction, my four points below will probably seem anticlimactic. Let me begin with three caveats:
1. I am not a completely convinced cessationist. The New Testament does not explicitly tell us that the gifts are no more, so I won’t shout where the bible is silent. But for the reasons expressed below, I think there is cause enough to approach Charismatic claims with healthy and thorough skepticism.
2. Cessationism is widely misunderstood. Few cessationists would say that God no longer heals, guides, or works miraculously on earth. Nor would I. The question is not “does God perform miracles?” It is not: “Does God really respond to prayer?” Of course he does. The question is: how does he do those things?
3. I love, respect and hold in honor the many Anglican leaders and friends who are persuaded and practicing Charismatics. I do not for one moment question their personal experiences, honesty, integrity, or faith. The questions I raise have to do with the labels we put on these experiences not their validity as experiences.
So, caveats out of the way, here are the four aspects of Charismaticism, I find most troubling:
1. Charismaticism leads adherents to look for “words” from God outside the bible, rather than in the bible and this undermines biblical sufficiency. Scripture is not enough. There must be another word, a more applicable word, a word to me here and now (as if the bible is unable to perform that function). This not only results in biblical ignorance but also in a pronounced inability to exercise Christian wisdom.
Let me flesh this out using two hypothetical scenarios. Imagine I’m trying to decide whether to attend college in San Diego or Washington DC.
Scenario #1: In prayer I get the sense that God wants me to go to San Diego. There is nothing in scripture that would prohibit this decision, so I “follow the Spirt” and go.
Scenario # 2: I both devote myself to studying scripture to understand God’s purposes in the world. And in the course of study I realize that God has called his people to be witnesses and evangelists. I know the faith, I know scripture, God has given me a gift for communication. How can I use these gifts to further his purposes in making this decision about college? Investigating the two schools, I realize that the one in DC is situated in a primarily Jewish neighborhood and most of the students are not Christians. Most of the professors are not Christians. There is a good but struggling church in the area. The school in San Diego is a solid Christian University, in a Christian neighborhood, with good churches all around. Knowing God’s purposes as revealed in scripture, and knowing what he has equipped me to do, I go to the school in DC.
Now which was the “Spirit led” decision?
In my experience, the Charismatics I know would feel far more comfortable following scenario #1, being “sensitive to the Spirit” and consider scenario #2 far too rationalistic, ‘leaning on one’s own understanding.”
But think about it, my focus in scenario one is entirely internal: what is God saying to my heart? Scripture enters into the equation as a kind of minimal truth check but not as a conditioning and shaping agent.
In scenario #2 scripture shapes, conditions and directs the decision. I am forced to think through both options in light of what the bible tells me about God and his purposes apart from what I might feel in my heart.
Scenario #2, I suggest, produces biblical wisdom rather than a reliance on experience or emotions or voices that, truth be told, may or may not be from God.
Moreover, scenario #2 isn’t cold rationalism. The Holy Spirit guides through scripture, by drawing us to the word for wisdom and discernment rather than away from it through ecstatic experience. The dichotomy often drawn between “Spirit led” and “well-reasoned” is a false one.
2. There seems to be no objective measure available to test the the vast majority of claimed prophetic utterances. The argument that prophecy continues is often (not always) made alongside a assertion that the classic tests for prophets (The accuracy test found in Deuteronomy 18 for example) no longer apply in the New Testament era. God still speaks through prophets, interpreters of tongues and people with the gift of knowledge today, but he no longer superintends the expression of what he reveals. So “accuracy” is no longer an applicable standard. This, if I am reading him correctly, is Dr. Wayne Grudem’s argument explaining why we still have prophets and prophecies and yet he canon remains closed.
Moreover, since the Apostles through whom Jesus has promised to continue teaching (John 16:12-14) are no longer with us to guarantee and confirm divine truth as they were in the days of the New Testament prophets (like Agabus’ Acts 11:28, 21:10) there is no longer any way to confirm or deny, objectively, the validity of a “word”
So, if Charismaticism is true, God speaks through tongues, words of knowledge, and prophecy, to guide the church but does not give the church an objective measure for determining whether in fact he is speaking.
The charismatic will say: “scripture is the objective test”
Yes, but while that will certainly work when measuring a prophecy that is in actual conflict with scripture, a good number of “words from the Lord” constitute something like scenario #1 above. God is telling me to go to college in San Diego. Or, possibly, God has told me to tell you to go to college in San Diego. Or even, God has told me to tell the pastor that the entire congregation must move to San Diego. How do you measure that? One can move to San Diego without violating biblical commands. And yet is this truly from God?
“Well” Charismatics will say, “the community (or individual) must “exercise discernment.”
But the problem is that there is no objective measure by which to discern. So even the community discernment becomes an exercise in corporate subjectivity.
In the end, if Charismatic thought is true God gives his word to prophets, interpreters/speakers of tongues, and those who receive words of knowledge, and Christians are left to either trust that the person claiming to speak a word from God is really doing so…or not. But we’re given nothing beyond feelings or senses or intuitions to tell us to go one way or the other.
I think this turns God into the author of confusion and opens the church to the potential for massive massive error.
Please do not misunderstand. I am not saying that God does not give intuitions or senses or experiences. I’ve felt God calling me to do things before and I think that is a normative experience for most Christians. But I would not presume to say on the basis of these experiences and intuitions that I am a prophet or that I have gotten “words of knowledge”. I do not think we can rightly call these things “revelations” or “words” in the sense of the New Testament gifts or Old Testament prophecies precisely because there is now (unlike then) no way to measure them.
3. It seems a number of the manifestations that Charismatics claim to experience are no different than those you might find in the Malian village where my wife Anne grew up: speaking in “tongues”, receiving words from a spirit, etc. These ecstatic experiences seem fairly universal in pagan cultic practice. Charismatics argue that the pagan practices are demonic counterfeits of the true gifts. That may well be true, but how do we know that? Given the absence of objective measures in #2 above how do we know whether these gifts are the gifts we find in the New Testament? Many would argue, for example, and I would agree, that the New Testament gift of tongues was the miraculous ability to speak in other languages, real intelligible languages, open to real objective interpretation…not mere the incoherent speech predominant today. Are there really two different types of tongues?
Now, again, don’t misunderstand. If you speak privately with the Lord in “groans too deep for words”, if, in other words, you have a private prayer language, wonderful. There is nothing at all wrong with that. My question is whether or not this is really “tongues” in the New Testament sense of the word.
4. Finally, Charismaticism breeds a type of Christianity that looks to experiences to determine whether or not something is “of the Lord”. Granted this is rather anecdotal, but in my experience, the people most likely to say: I just don’t “feel” the Spirit here (after, mind you, hearing God’s word and receiving the Sacrament) are Charismatic in background and have been trained to discern the presence of God by the emotional response they subjectively experience during worship. The Spirit of God is present every time the people of God gather in the name of Jesus Christ but it seems that for many charismatics, unless there is some “manifestation” that produces a subjective experience of the Spirit, then worship is “dead”. This need for experience is. I think, what produces the most outrageous excesses of the movement, driving many leaders to open worship up to all kinds of disorder - laughter, slayings, ecstatic dancing, etc - in the name of being “Spirit led”.
There are other aspects of the Charismatic movement that concern me, but the four points above represent the primary ones. We left the Episcopal Church because we could no longer participate in a church whose leaders claimed the Holy Spirit’s authentication for their errors. Thankfully, Charismatics retain what revisionists discard, the supreme measure and authority of scripture. For that reason this remains an in-house discussion among brothers. My fear, however, is that the experiential, subjective foundation of Charismatic theology produces in individuals and congregations a slow drift away from the solid bedrock of the Holy Scriptures into an untethered feelings-based spiritual journey to nowhere.
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