“Discerning” the Spirit of the Charismatic Movement

By: Dale M. Coulter
Friday, May 21st, 2010

David Neff’s recent article on the 50th anniversary of the charismatic movement offers a two-fold assessment. Neff claims that the movement did not fade so much as become integrated with the rest of Christianity and that its lasting legacy may be in reminding the churches of the need to balance order and ardor. For a short, popular piece, I think Neff largely gets it right. While a lot happens in the pentecostal-charismatic world that is difficult to defend (and what form of Christianity is without its “embarrassments”), it has prompted the many streams of Christian tradition to “drink from their own wells” afresh, to borrow a phrase from Bernard of Clairvaux.

At the same time, some Christians remain a little hostile to it. Since ”discernment of spirits” (diakriseis pneumaton) is a gift in 1 Cor. 12:10, maybe we should attempt to exercise such discerning judgment (diakrisis) to see how we might evaluate the movement. Part of the challenge is that when persons talk about “discernment,” they assume it is a private affair rather than a communal one. As Heb. 5:14 makes clear, “discerning judgment (diakrisis) between good and evil” results from a training process in which the believer matures in the context of the church and her life. Neff’s article invites readers to discern the mind of the Spirit on the charismatic movement by thinking with the church through the ages. When one “thinks with the church,” the pentecostal-charismatic movement comes across as another form of genuine renewal that returns Christians to the sources (ad fontes).

What is Discernment?

Before I go on, a word about discernment. The Greek term diakrisis, which appears in 1 Cor. 12:10 as a gift and Heb. 5:14 as a skill or virtue, was initially translated into Latin by John Cassian as discretion (discretio). Within the Egyptian monastic tradition, discernment of spirits and moral discernment were two sides of the same coin because the “principalities and powers” tempted the believer to commit sin. In the thirteenth century, it came to be associated with prudence (prudentia), and ultimately became part of the analysis of conscience to encompass the practice of moral, spiritual, and psychological discernment. C.S. Lewis captured this tradition in his famous Screwtape Letters, which have become standard evangelical reading. When you consider the act of discernment in the history of Christianity, then, the pentecostal-charismatic refusal to sever discernment of spirits from other acts of moral discernment is grounded upon a significant theological stream of the “Great Church.”

Discerning the Spirit of the Charismatic Movement

Photo by Indy Catholic

Maybe we should start with the common practice among pentecostals and charismatics of raising one’s hands. The earliest depictions of the physical act of worship from the Roman catacombs of the third and fourth centuries show believers with hands outstretched toward God (the orans position). Through the centuries, this position became clericalized so that it came to be associated primarily with the eucharistic prayer uttered by clergy. Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans are just three of the traditions that continue the practice of raised hands when praying over the bread and the wine. The question the pentecostal-charismatic movement asks is: if the priest or pastor can raise hands in worship, then why not the laity? This is especially relevant in Protestant traditions that espouse a theology of the “priesthood of all believers.” However, Catholic charismatic theologians have argued that even within the Catholic Church there is a proper place for recovering what amounts to an ancient Christian practice.

What about the emphasis on prophecy and miracles? As a historian of Christianity, I have always been struck with how the cessationists simply ignore the vital role of prophecy and the charismatic in early Christianity. No one told Hermas, the author of the early Christian prophecy The Shepherd, that prophecy had ceased. And they should have told Ignatius of Antioch after he reminded the Philadelpians that when he was with them “the Spirit said these words: do nothing without the bishop” (7.2). Or, the Didache when it gave instructions about how to discern true and false prophets.

Irenaeus’ counter-argument to Gnostic Christians that miracles occur in his congregation of Lyons even to the point that a man was brought back to life is yet another witness. Or, what about the visions accounted to Perpetua in the early third-century martyrdom text The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. How about telling the third century North African Bishop, Cyprian that the prophecies he thought authenticated his role as bishop had to be false. I could go on and mention the disciple of Origen, Gregory the Wonderworker, who performed miracles during his mission to the Cappadocian region of Asia Minor, Augustine of Hippo’s affirmation of miracles at the end of City of God, Gregory the Great’s attribution of a prophecy to Benedict that Rome would not fall from the Barbarian tribes descending upon her, the numerous medieval women who uttered prophecies and had visions, and on.

From this perspective, one wonders if the cessationist is not reading against the church rather than with the church. The early Protestant reformers understood that sola scriptura did not exclude the whole of Christian tradition but counted on it as the interpretive backdrop to the act of discernment. As the Gospel of John makes clear, the trial about Jesus’ identity continues in every generation and the Spirit always remains another Advocate whose charismatic presence continues to bear witness through signs that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

In an important sense, the pentecostal movement that began in 1906 and its charismatic offspring that began in 1960 face similar challenges. For pentecostalism, the challenge has been how to adjudicate between various Christians traditions in light of pentecostal spirituality whereas the charismatic movement must discern how best to incorporate pentecostal emphases within a variety of theological traditions. Many outside of scholarship on the pentecostal movement don’t quite grasp how much it represented the convergence of a number of different traditions. Early pentecostals were not freeing themselves from Christian tradition, but trying to discern which tradition best reflected scripture and their own spiritual encounters. Wesleyan, Reformed, Quaker, Baptist, Anglican, and Syriac theological traditions swirled together in the revival atmosphere of early pentecostalism. Likewise, those who just don’t get the charismatic movement tend to view it in light of a very narrowly defined theological spectrum that much of the time does not even reflect the tradition they represent let alone the broader Christian tradition that, by the end of the fourth century, encompassed Latin, Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopian churches. How can one practice discernment if one does not at least attempt to know the church in her universal expansiveness?

The pentecostal-charismatic movement continues to challenge the churches to “drink from their own wells” as a means of renewal. It does not revive the old mainline Protestant ecumenism of service, but one of encounter and thus reminds us that only “in the Spirit” can we participate in the “communion of the saints.” It helps all of us rediscover the original meaning of pietas as the affectionate bond that the third-century theologian Lactantius suggested was the mark of genuine religio, because in Christ and the Spirit “God has bound (religaverit) himself to us” so that we might bind ourselves to Him in worship. So, what about you? What do you discern about the charismatic movement?

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Friday, May 21st, 2010 at 4:00 am and is filed under Biblical Studies, Church History, Renewal Studies, Spiritual Formation, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

8 Responses to ““Discerning” the Spirit of the Charismatic Movement”

  1. Jeff Doles says:

    It seems to me that there is more of an acceptance of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit among the denominations. For example, a few years ago, Rodney Howard-Browne’s church hosted a conference called, “The Baptists are Coming,” packed with Baptists we would call “spirit-filled.” We also seem to be coming into a time when many who believe in the gifts, and even manifest them, do not especially identify themselves as “charismatics.” And the number of cessationists seems to be decreasing.

    So, I think the charismatic elements are no longer being viewed so much a novelties but as legitimate demonstrations of the Spirit. There is certainly long history of the gifts and manifestations, all the way back to the early Greek and Latin Churches, the Apostolic Fathers, the Desert Fathers and early monastics, on up through the Middle Ages, in the Roman Catholic church and among the pre-Reformers (the Hussites and the Waldeneses, for example), and among the later Reformation movement — Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, even Presbyterians (particularly the Scottish Covenanters).

    I have some ancestry in the Welsh Baptists, who seemed to hold to some charismatic elements — Vavasor Powell, an itinerant Welsh Baptist preacher, operated in the healing gifts of the Spirit. I also have some ancestry among the Huguenots, a.k.a. the French Prophets, who seemed like a pretty wild bunch of Calvinists. There were Holy Spirit manifestations among the Moravians, the Dutch Reformed, the Quakers. There were unusual workings of the Spirit in the meetings of Wesley, Whitefield and Edwards. Wesley and Whitefield were both present at what has been called the “Methodist Pentecost,” a New Year’s Eve meeting in which everyone was shouting for joy and ended up on the floor.

    The Cane Ridge revival appears to have begun as a “Holy Fair,” an observation of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, such as had previously been held in Scotland by the Presbyterians — week long affairs that often manifested in the unusual phenomena that accompanied revival. The gift of tongues ans singing in the Spirit manifest in Scotland in the early 1800s. Then, of course, the ministry of Edward Irving, a Scottish Presbyterian, experienced speaking in tongues and gifts of healing, and they looked to God for the renewal of the gifts of the early Church. Also miracles and manifestations experienced in the ministry of Finney; of Horace Bushnell, a Congretationalist; of Johann Christian Blumhardt, a German Lutheran. The healing ministry of Dorothea Trudel and Samuel Zeller at Mannedorf, Switzerland, a ministry C. H. Spurgeon commended. Then Spurgeon himself, the famous Baptist preacher, evidenced words of knowledge and was known in his day for many remarkable healings effected by him through prayer and faith. A. B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, was a Presbyterian with a dynamic healing ministry. T. J. McCrossan, another Presbyterian minister associated with the CMA, believed in the gifts of the Spirit. He wrote “Bodily Healing and the Atonement” and described his own experience of tongues in “Speaking with Other Tongues.” John A. MacMillan, yet another Presbyterian associated with the early CMA (btw, I was raised in the CMA), understood very well the ministry of deliverance and wrote about it in “The Authority of the Believer.”

    I’ve compiled a lot of material about all of these, and more, in “Miracles and Manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the History of the Church.” When you redig the wells of just about any Christian tradition, you will find the charismatic gifts of the Spirit.

    • Jeff, thanks for providing even more evidence. I didn’t know about Howard-Browne’s conference with Baptists. Interesting.

      Your mention of the Welsh connection brought to mind a collection of sermons by Martin Lloyd-Jones titled Joy Unspeakable I still have from my seminary days. It was published in 1984. I love the foreward by Peter Lewis, then pastor of an evangelical church in Nottingham. He noted in 1984 that the two great movements in England were the Reformed and the Charismatic movement, and that they needed to come together. In the old Welshman Lloyd-Jones they had. Lloyd-Jones even came to believe that Spirit baptism was a distinct charismatic work of the Spirit separate from conversion.

      In light of your addition to what I wrote, one has to wonder even more whether the few remaining cessationists are not reading against the church on this point. In that sense, the pentecostals and charismatics are not the ones engaged in a private act of discernment over the Spirit. They take the history of Christianity quite seriously. Thanks for your work Jeff.

      • Jeff Doles says:

        As I’m sure you know, Dr. Lloyd-Jones was succeeded by R. T. Kendall. Dr. Kendall had Rodney Howard-Browne in to preach at Westminster Chapel, and after he retired from the Chapel, he held membership in Howard-Browne’s church for a while.

        Before Kendall went to Westminster, he pastored an SBC church in Ft. Lauderdale. My uncle was saved under Dr. Kendall’s ministry and then studied for the ministry himself at Wake Forest, after which he pastored an SBC church in Gastonia, NC. He has great love and respect for Dr. Kendall, but I’m not sure he knows what to make of R. T.’s charismatic shift : )

      • That’s right! I had forgotten about that connection. And, I seem to recall somewhere along the way that part of the shift with Kendall came from something that happened when John Wimber prayed for him. I only have a vague memory.

  2. Mike Pregitzer says:

    Dr. Coulter,

    I just started reading this blog and have found it to be very interesting. I especially enjoyed this post. I am still working through the cessationist/continuing gifts arguments, so posts like yours are particularly of interest to me.

    In this post, I noticed that you appealed to some of the early church fathers for support of the continuation of gifts after the apostolic age. I am certainly not an expert of church history, but I think we have to be cautious when appealing to these early saints to support biblical principles and truths. These men were often influenced by Greek philosophies and struggled to remove philosophic errors in their biblical thinking. Tertullian, for example, seem to hold that there was a time when the “Son was not” and was subordinate to the Father. Clement seems not to have thought of Jesus as really a man, but as merely in human form because he chose to appear so (I believe this is the docetist error). While great men, these saints were still working through and trying to understand the nature of the Trinity and break free of neo-Platonist and other influences.

    With this in mind, their understanding of prophecy and gifts (or their interpretation of what they experienced) may also have been distorted, or perhaps not. But this is why the Scriptures, not tradition, are to be the final arbiter of truth. Personally, I was under the impression that the closer Christians were to the teachings of the apostles (early church) the more accurate their theology. However, after more studying and reading, I’m finding that this is not necessarily the case. Like yeast in dough, the gospel has grown within the church and with that, in many ways, our understanding of the Trinity, and Christ and the Church has matured.

    Anyway, thank you for your words and continue your good work in the Lord.


    • Thanks Mike for reading the blog and for posting. I’m glad that you think it’s useful.

      I would urge you to read as many of the primary sources of early Christianity that you can. The idea that the early church fathers were influenced by Greek philosophy in a bad way was floated most of all by the German historian Harnack in his multi-volume set on Christianity. Scholars have been chipping away at that theory for quite some time so much so that it is difficult to sustain. The issue is not whether Christian theologians utilized Greek philosophy (you can find Greek concepts even in NT texts), but how they used them. The problem with theories like that one is that they continue to get passed along in textbooks long after they have been rejected in the scholarly world. This is why I think you need to read the primary sources.

      Also, you mentioned Tertullian and Clement, but neither of them were in my list. So, my question is whether you think all the early fathers are somehow tainted and do you also think that if Tertullian is wrong on one point that means he is suspect on every point? Just how far do we push it. For example, Ignatius of Antioch was clearly battling some kind of docetic Christology in his letters. I would also encourage you to read the fathers in context. So consider that Tertullian was writing against modalism that had broken out in the Roman churches where the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are just three faces of the one God and the Trinity is really just a unity.

      As to the scriptures as the final arbiter, I’m not against that, but there is always the question of interpreting the scriptures. So, how do you go about interpreting them? Do you just rely on private judgement? Do you just read commentators from the last 50 years? Reading with the church does not make tradition the final judge, but it does suggest that if God continued to have a church after the first century then maybe listening to that church will help us read the Bible more faithfully.

      This was my point. Consider this: if, as many NT commentators suggest, the Apocalypse was probably composed toward the end of the first century, then it was during the same time frame that Hermas composed The Shepherd. In fact, The Shepherd was considered inspired and on the same level as other NT books by some Christians. My point is simply that if prophecy ceased then it seems we must automatically rule out instances of prophecy not found in the canon of scripture from the first century on, even if that prophecy was chronologically close to prophecies that appear in the NT. Why? On the basis of some worked out interpretation?

      Well, as I said, thanks for read the blog and making comments. I hope my response will stimulate you to continue working through the issues.

  3. ken says:

    Thank you for this post. I also did a little study of my own on the church fathers and found that they write of the charismata and its activity in the lives of the early believers.

    I’ve had to grapple many time with the Reformed living in North America. For one, they don’t honor sola scriptura with cessation of the gifts, their own history, and church history. With all that said, I love Reformed theology. 90% of all the books I own are Reformed, the other percentage are ones I recently found by charismatic/pentecostal scholars, Karkkainen, Chan, Yong, etc.

    Thank you for these post.


    • Ken,

      Thanks for sharing again. I see no reason why you can’t keep those two worlds together. After all, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church is proudly Reformed and charismatic. Just keep in mind that the Reformed folks you interact with may only be part of the Reformed wing in America, not the whole, even though they might want you to think they represent the whole.