The fires have been re-lit and the internet is once again taking sides in the Fire Wars. The cause? A fellow Scot decided to gate-crash John MacArthur’s sermon by leaping on-stage and declaring himself a prophet sent by God to rebuke MacArthur for his doctrine of cessationism. Since then, MacArthur’s side-kick, Phil Johnson has responded, which in turn has caused Michael Brown to challenge John MacArthur to a public debate.
I’ve not really had time to give this much thought, but as I scrolled through the thousands of comments on Michael Brown’s Facebook page, I was troubled by the wrong understandings (really wrong understandings) that many charismatics have about non-charismatic churches and Christians.
Reading the views of some charismatics, you would be left with the impression that they alone have the Holy Spirit. This is a major problem. It’s also really silly. At worst the charismatic movement is only 50 years old, at best, it’s just over a hundred years old. Are we really saying that the Holy Spirit has not been active in the church for 1900 years?
Added to the confusion are the claims of biblical faithfulness. Charismatics claim that they are “bible-Christians” and that cessationists are not – yet cessationists also claim to be “bible-Christians.” How can two opposing view-points be derived from the same text? Quite simply, the answer is that the issue is a question of heremenuetics – biblical interpretation. In other words, it’s how we approach the bible that is the issue.
My concern is less with Brown and MacArthur, they are both big boys who are able to understand the wider issues. My issue is with the multitudes of followers who take sides, but very often have a totally misguided perception of the “other”.
I happen to think that the Strange Fire event was good for the church. I also happen to think that Macarthur was right to call out the major issues within the charismatic movement. Whilst Brown is one of the more balanced and biblical Pentecostals, I do tend to think he doesn’t recognize that the charismatics have a problem within the mainstream, and not just the edges of the movement.
But there is a bigger issue, and that is how we understand the person and work of the Holy Spirit within the church, not just today, but historically.
Here’s what I think, and I’ve been chewing this over for the last few years, ever since the Strange Fire event. Charismatic Christianity is choking in a cloud of confusion. It misunderstands, and is misunderstood. Like-wise, “cessationist” Christianity is misunderstood by charismatics, and also, at times, misunderstands Charismatics.
Charismatic spirituality is not as unique as charismatics think it is, its main, and healthiest components are found in all Christian groups all over the world and all through history. They do not have the monopoly on God’s presence, God’s power, gifts of the Spirit, guidance and providence and answer to prayer.
They do however, in my view, tend to wrongly define. They claim apostolic power, but when asked to prove it, at best can point to answered prayer. Who doesn’t believe that God can heal in response to prayer? They claim prophetic continuation, but at its best and healthiest, it looks a lot like what Christians for centuries have called providence and guidance.
I think this is the real issue. The real issue is not trying to defend cessationism, or continuationism, the real issue is the need to correct the misunderstanding about the person and work of the Spirit. I fear that the charismatic movement has hi-jacked the term “Holy Spirit” as if they have the monopoly on him. Like-wise, there is this wrong thinking that assumes spiritual experience, and a living relationship with God is exclusive to Charismatics.
Gerald Bray, in his book Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present shows the wrong-headedness of this: “The Christian doctrine of God maintains that believers have a living personal relationship with him.” Christianity is, and has, always been about believers having a relationship with God. Sometimes, in the Charismatic and Cessationist debate, the impression is giving that Charismatics have a living relationship with God whereas Cessationists have a more distant relationship. This is wrong. Historic Christianity has always been about a relationship with God, and that relationship has never been dependent upon the presence of signs, wonders, or particular gifts of the Spirit.
So Christianity is about a relationship with God, but we need to understand “relationship” in its right context. Bray defines what it means to have a relationship with God by establishing the fact that the relationship is “made possible by Jesus Christ”. That is, the incarnation, substitutional death, ressurection, ascension and ongoing intercession of Christ is the essential work that makes this relationship with God possible. Further, it’s important to understand that the knowledge of these objective truths is essential for this relationship to be a reality. Lose the objective truths and we will eventually lose the living personal relationship, we will slip from Christianity to heresy.
Bray goes on to explain the role of spiritual experience within Christianity. Concerning the relationship with God, he says,
This is experienced by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the holy trinity, who comes to dwell in our hearts, bearing witness that we have been adopted as children of God . . . Christian faith therefore is not primarily an intellectual or academic doctrine, but a living experience of God, which is indispensible and can be had by anyone, regardless of intellectual ability or academic achievement. In this sense, it is correct to say that the Christian faith is a mystical communion with the individual with God, who speaks to our spirit with his spirit. This inner witness of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to all true Christianity, but not exclusive. We must recognize that mysticism has acquired a bad name because it tends to emphasise individual experience, even to the point of creating a spiritual elite within the church, at the expense of objective and collective (or ‘corporate’) factors which are equally important. These factors are present in the written text of scripture and in the common life of the church, which seeks to integrate the individual into a wider whole . . . We must never deny that God speaks to individuals, but what he says is consistent with what he has already said to the church as a whole.
I’m not one of these Christians who has an aversion to “labels”. You know the kind, the ones who resist labels and argue that they are evil. However, sometimes labels out-live their usefulness. When definitions become wooly, fuzzy or gooey, they either need to be clarified or replaced. Terms like “charismatic”, “continuationist”, and “cessationist” are either too narrow, too broad or too contradictory. The debate around the person and work of the Spirit needs more nuances. It needs to be more informed. How will we achieve this? Only by consulting the wider resources of the church, both recent and ancient – especially the ancient ones.