Volume 9 - Issue 3

Talking points: The charismatic movement

By Anne Mather

The charismatic movement has made its presence felt throughout the church. This new emphasis upon the experience of the gifts of the Holy Spirit listed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10 became a recognizable movement in established denominational churches in the early 1960s. Like its predecessor classical Pentecostalism,1 ‘Neo-Pentecostalism’ also stressed a definite, tangible experience of a baptism in the Spirit which was usually presented as an experience separate and distinct from conversion. The majority of Neo-Pentecostals, however, remained within the established denominations unlike their forerunner, and only with the inception of the house churches in the 1960s was there any mass exodus. As the charismatic movement developed,2 significant theological differences with classical Pentecostalism also emerged and the distinction between the two movements became more and more apparent. The charismatic movement increasingly embraced a variety of doctrines concerning such central issues as the baptism in the Spirit, and the birth of the Catholic charismatic renewal with yet another theological interpretation spotlighted this development. Not only was the charismatic movement accused of having a nebulous and inconsistent theology, but concern was also expressed that Neo-Pentecostals had come to emphasize an experience without major attention to belief and doctrine and were uniting people in differing theologies.

But what is this experience which has given rise to so much discussion both within and outside the movement? Baptism in the Spirit (also known as baptism by the Spirit, or baptism with the Spirit) is presented as an experience of infilling and empowering by the Holy Spirit which transforms a person’s life, an occurrence for which a New Testament precedent is claimed in several texts, notably Acts 8:15–17 and Acts 10:44–46. As well as being an inner working of the Holy Spirit, baptism in the Spirit is an outward manifestation into the realm of that which can be seen or heard. It is often accompanied by physical manifestations such as great heat, the sensation of a current of power passing through the body, a feeling of intense joy, sometimes the healing of a physical ailment, and frequently speaking in tongues. Invariably, there is a vivid awareness of the immediate presence of God, and many find that their baptism in the Spirit marks a turning-point in their Christian lives, initiating a greater concern with spiritual matters and deeper Christian commitment.3

However, although such important and far-reaching benefits are claimed for the baptism in the Spirit experience, participants in the charismatic movement still find it necessary to engage in apologetics in order to convince their critics that baptism in the Spirit is a scriptural phenomenon which is intended for Christians in every age. They are very much aware that church history and traditional Christian experience weigh heavily against their case, and charismatics point firmly instead to the instances of baptism in the Spirit recorded in Acts. As a counter to the common claim that the book was written for historical and not doctrinal purposes, they assert that the practice of the apostles is vital to an understanding of the apostolic doctrine precisely because apostolic practice cannot contradict apostolic doctrine. The argument is refuted that Christians should not seek the baptism in the Spirit since there is no command to do so in the epistles. The apostle Paul assumed that every true Christian had been baptized in water (Rom. 6:3) and that Christians took part in the Lord’s supper (1 Cor. 11:17f.), yet nowhere does he command them to do so. This is because it automatically happened. Likewise, there are no commands to seek the baptism in the Spirit, for in those days it was part of normal Christian initiation and the writers of the epistles would have assumed that everyone had received the power of the Holy Spirit. The biblical framework for the experience is normally carefully explained to a person seeking the baptism.

Classical Pentecostalism has always pointed to speaking in tongues as the ‘initial evidence’ that an individual has received baptism in the Spirit. However, many participants in the charismatic movement have found this emphasis upon tongues disturbing and do not agree that every person baptized in the Spirit is able to speak in tongues nor that they should expect to do so. Denial that tongues is the initial evidence of baptism in the Spirit does not constitute a rejection of glossolalia as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, but rather a rejection of what is frequently referred to as ‘the law of tongues’. Evidence of the baptism in the Spirit is increasingly sought in the areas of personal holiness, the fruit of the Spirit, and witness in words and life to the Lordship of Christ. This provides an example of the decreasing dogmatism which has characterized several areas of the charismatic movement’s theology.

The terminology of the charismatic experience

Terminology has been a repeated problem where the initial charismatic experience is concerned. A variety of terms have been used to describe it, and ‘baptism in the Spirit’ is undoubtedly the most widely used of these. However, it has been subjected to extensive criticism on a number of grounds. The term is found in the Bible only in its verbal form, notably with reference to the ministry of Jesus (Mt. 3:11) and to the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5), then by extension to the experience of Cornelius’s household (Acts 11:16). It is debatable whether this is sufficient basis for widespread use. Furthermore, because the term ‘baptism’ is so closely linked with conversion, regeneration and initiation, its usage in the charismatic context has often been used—or misunderstood—to indicate that a person becomes a Christian only at his or her baptism in the Spirit, or alternatively that a ‘Spirit-baptized’ Christian is a ‘first-class’ Christian and that those who have not had a similar experience are inferior. This gives rise to strong feelings: ‘The experience of “baptism in the Spirit” must be recognized. But the term must be condemned unequivocally.’4

Numerous other terms are used in the New Testament to refer to the reception of the Holy Spirit by the believer: the ‘promise of the Father’ (Acts 1:4), ‘the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 10:45), ‘receiving the Spirit’ (Acts 8:17), ‘being filled with the Spirit’ (Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31). The action of the Holy Spirit in this is described in terms of ‘coming upon’ (Acts 1:8), ‘clothing’ (Lk. 24:49), ‘falling upon’ (Acts 10:44) and ‘pouring out’ (Acts 2:18). Different people believe different terms to be the most apt according to their understanding of what constitutes a ‘baptism in the Spirit’ experience. A study section in Renewal magazine5 considered the vexed problem of terminology, concluding that although the phrase ‘baptism in the Spirit’ was useful practically, it should be used with careful explanation and alongside other terminology. The study section noted scriptural justification for the phrase ‘being filled with the Spirit’, which is also in common use. However, because ‘fullness’ is both subjective and relative to the Christian’s stage of maturity, this phrase is somewhat inadequate for a description of what many consider to be an initiating experience. Again, there is scriptural warrant for ‘being anointed with the Spirit’, because the Holy Spirit is described as ‘falling upon’ and ‘coming upon’ believers (Acts 8:16; 10:44; 19:6). But in describing only the outward and visible, this term (which may be an equivalent of the ‘sealing’ of Eph. 1:13) does not convey the dynamic and varied results of the gift of the Spirit, and is thus felt to be of limited value. ‘Receiving the Holy Spirit’ is easily the most common phrase used in the New Testament to describe the experience, but because it is not always easily distinguishable from regeneration, its use suggests that some Christians have the Holy Spirit whilst others do not. The study section concludes that because of all the difficulties involved when biblical phraseology is used, a non-biblical phrase may be more suitable, and that of ‘being released in the Spirit’ is suggested.

Although never used as such in the New Testament, this is an apt way of describing what Jesus spoke of in John 7:37–39 and an appropriate expression of the effect of the Holy Spirit on the church at Pentecost. Inevitably, there are strong objections in some quarters to the use of this term too, and this is particularly so amongst Catholic charismatics because it implies an unsatisfactory understanding of the sacrament of water baptism. It may not be insignificant that the most suitable term to describe the initial charismatic experience was thought to be a non-biblical one. The question remains whether the experience described by charismatics as their ‘baptism in the Spirit’ is in fact a baptism in the Spirit in the New Testament sense, and here the theology of the experience is crucial.

The theology of the charismatic experience

Classical Pentecostalism characteristically presented baptism in the Spirit as the second stage in a two- (or sometimes three-) stage pattern of salvation. It was understood as an experience that was separate and distinct from conversion, and the charismatic movement assimilated this theology in its early years. In the course of time, however, diversification has occurred.

Some charismatics still adhere to a classical Pentecostal position, presenting the baptism as the second stage in the salvation process, subsequent to conversion.6 It is stressed that there is a great practical advantage in being able to hold before believers the prospect of a second climactic work of God, and exponents of this theology frequently emphasize the prior place of experience and practice over theological theory. Although conversion should be a complete endowment; the fact remains that in practice often it is not. Did not Paul’s question in Acts 19:2 expect an answer in terms of recognisable experience rather than theological deduction from what must have happened ‘in principle’? Arthur Wallis, one of the leaders of the Bradford circle of house churches, explains that the ‘one baptism’ of Ephesians 4:5 is not exclusively of either water or spirit, but baptism into Christ.7 He feels that much of the current difficulty has been due to the misplacement and separation of water baptism from baptism in the Spirit: whilst something may be true as far as divine purpose and intention are concerned, it may not necessarily be true in human experience. Wallis later distinguishes between having the Spirit, as every Christian does, and receiving the Spirit: ‘Having the Spirit does not preclude you from the need of receiving the Spirit … Have you had an “upon” experience of the Holy Spirit?’ (his italics).8

This definitive ‘two-stage’ theology may be compared with what we may call the ‘one-stage’ theology, which has become increasingly dominant in the charismatic movement. This trend is to view baptism in the Spirit as one of several fluid components of Christian initiation, and it is upheld both by those personally involved in the movement and those examining it from the outside. There is a reluctance to attempt to separate the different components as in two-stage theology, as there is to give any implication of ‘stages’ in the manner of expressing what is understood more as a process. The work of the observer James Dunn has been influential here, setting out as it does the New Testament grounds for the interrelationship of several factors in an over-all conversion-initiation experience.9 Such an approach certainly reduces the theological tensions inherent in the ‘two-stage’ doctrine and Wallis’ distinction between ‘having’ and ‘receiving’ the Spirit mentioned above.

The Renewal study section10 provides a note on Christian initiation, defining it as a constellation of things, including repentance, faith, baptism, church membership, and confirmation or laying on of hands. It explains that initiation is not equivalent to salvation in the sense of one part missing meaning that a person is not saved. Nor is it equivalent to a single event, such as regeneration. Furthermore, although the New Testament practice seems to have been to bring the respective parts as close together as possible, initiation can be spread over a period of time.

This is representative of the reasoning of exponents of this viewpoint.

That applying New Testament principles and practices to the present day is not always a straightforward matter is also acknowledged, and a reader’s letter published in Renewal11 points to limitations in the use of the Bible as a source-book for today’s theology with respect to baptism in the Spirit. Firstly, because the New Testament only gives examples of converts to Christianity, its pattern of conversion/initiation is inadequate to explain everyone’s experience today. For instance, there are no examples in the Bible of people who have grown up in the church and have thus grown into belief rather than having a conversion experience that they can pinpoint. Secondly, the New Testament was written in and for a pagan/Jewish world in which hardly anyone had heard of Christianity. This is far removed from today’s Christian or post-Christian culture in which people are surrounded by Christian concepts and stories (albeit often distorted) from their earliest years.

The reader therefore concludes that although the various elements of conversion/initiation may be the same as in New Testament times, the way they are experienced today is often quite different. So today’s Christian may not necessarily have a parallel experience to the believers in Acts, and the term ‘baptism in the Spirit’ is best loosely applied.

One wonders, after considering these viewpoints, whether there really is as much of a divide between the two as there may at first appear to be. Exponents of the two-stage theory now rarely approach the issue in the same way as classical Pentecostalism did. An elder of a house church belonging to the Bradford circle—which gives the impression in its literature that it is firmly promulgating a two-stage doctrine—explained: ‘Baptism in the Spirit is part and parcel of the whole salvation package. We don’t really believe in two stages, but because of deficient teaching and understanding, many get it in bits and pieces.’12

A distinct second experience is therefore not so much the ideal as God’s provision for a regrettable situation. The failure of Christians to receive the ‘complete package’ is precisely the reason why baptism in the Spirit is so often presented by charismatics as a separate experience to conversion and initiation. Those who adhere to the ‘one-stage’ position accept that baptism in the Spirit may be a second experience for some, but they believe that this is not the biblical norm and that it is therefore erroneous to construct a doctrine around it. Tom Smail, one-time director of the Fountain Trust, makes the necessary distinction when he writes: ‘It is important to notice that it is one thing to testify to a new experience of the working of the Holy Spirit, and quite another to identify this experience as “the second blessing”. The one is a description of what has happened, the other presupposes a particular theological interpretation of it.’13

A rather ingenious suggestion has been offered by David Watson, namely the establishment of a double meaning of the phrase ‘baptism in the Spirit’ by the separating in time of two aspects of the whole, the status and the experience.14 A different approach again is taken by Larry Christenson, who notes the two-fold meaning of the term and says that in its experiential sense it is the Spirit being actualized, or coming to more conscious manifestation in one’s life.15 This approach is similar to that of the Catholic charismatics, who describe the baptism neither as a ‘second experience’ nor as an aspect of a single complex process, but integrate the saving efficacy of the sacraments with the experienced effects of the baptism. Catholic doctrine teaches that a person becomes a Christian and receives the Holy Spirit at his/her infant baptism, and baptism in the Spirit is therefore understood as the coming to fruition, or the coming out into the open, of what is already there. It is stressed that nothing new has been conferred: it has always been there, but now becomes operative. Although it does not fit into any existent category, it is felt that the experience of baptism in the Spirit makes much of traditional theology operational, thus holding together both continuity and newness.

This understanding of baptismal regeneration introduces a new factor into the discussion, namely that of Christian conversion. Catholic charismatics are faced with the task of explaining the sudden, dramatic change in some people who before showed no evidence of being Christians but now become committed followers of Christ, whilst maintaining alongside this that there is no essential difference in their status as Christians. This is an indication of the difficulties Catholic charismatics face when articulating the charismatic experience within the context of their traditional theology.16

Questions concerning charismatic theology

It will be obvious from the above that there is no one ‘charismatic theology’, and some charismatic theologies seem more vulnerable to criticism than others. Among the questions raised about the charismatic movement by its critics, probably the most serious concerns the possible implication of a first-class and a second-class Christianity. Those Christians who have gone on to experience a distinct baptism in the Holy Spirit often seem to be regarded by charismatics as better-equipped, more able to discern God’s guidance and in closer communion with him by means of this new empowering by the Spirit. Many charismatics strenuously deny such an understanding, and yet it is hard to avoid the implication that Christians who—for whatever reason—have not been baptised in the Spirit are inferior spiritually to those who have. A second point noted by critics of the movement is that many presentations of baptism in the Spirit give the impression that it provides the key to instant success as a Christian. People are often led to believe that the effects of the baptism will be immediate and dramatic, and this can result in bewilderment and disillusionment if they do not prove to be so. Many people also find that after the initial euphoria has worn off, the old problems and failings return. The beneficial effects of baptism in the Spirit are obviously not as immediate and unconditional as one might assume from the claims of some charismatics. This suggests that the theology has sometimes been too simplistic, and is in need of careful reconsideration. A further problem is that much of the theology implies a quantifying of the Holy Spirit, a reception by clearcut instalments which makes the process too rigid and inflexible. The different sequences in Acts where the different elements of conversion and initiation appear in different temporal combinations may suggest that the Holy Spirit should be left to work in different ways according to different circumstances.

The charismatic gifts

One of the most noteworthy results of the baptism in the Spirit is the exercise of one or more of the charismatic gifts, the charismata from which the charismatic movement derives its name. The movement originally emphasized in particular those gifts listed by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10: the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. Since the birth of classical Pentecostalism, there has been considerable controversy over whether these gifts actually exist today at all, and with the appearance of Neo-Pentecostalism, such controversy again came to the fore. Those who believe in the ‘cessation of the charismata’ generally put forward one of two theories. The first of these is that charismatic gifts continued only till the church was established and out of danger. They therefore decreased throughout the first few centuries and halted in the fourth or fifth (a theory which participants in the charismatic movement would take issue with). The other view centres particularly upon miracles and gifts of revelation (prophecy, tongues, the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge) and states that these were only operative in connection with the apostles. Miracles marked the richness of the apostolic age in revelation, and when this period of revelation closed, so too the period of miracle-working ended for good. The age of miracles thus marked the era when the canon of Scripture was being produced. It is noted that in the Old Testament, only those who were inspired by God to speak his word worked miracles. It was a gift exclusively held by prophets (1 Kgs. 18:36 is cited here), and New Testament miracles performed the same function as Old Testament ones (Jn. 6:14, 7:31; Acts 2:22). The function of miraculous gifts is described in 2 Corinthians 12:12 as providing God-given proof of an apostolic ministry, and Acts 8:4–13 directly links miracles worked by non-apostles with apostolic ministry. It was the prerogative of the apostles alone to minister these gifts to others, and thus even the general exercise of miraculous powers within the church served as testimony to the prophetic authority of the apostles. When the last of the twelve apostles died, the gifts therefore ceased. Proponents of this theory discount the possibility of further apostles and thus of further gifts: the one excludes the other. The charismatics, however, believe that such ‘cessation’ theories are unsubstantiated. They find no statement in the New Testament which indicates that Christ or the apostles regarded the gifts as temporary. The gifts will be withdrawn only when Christ returns (the ‘perfect’ of 1 Cor. chapter 13 verse 10), precisely because at that point they will no longer be necessary. The Church will always need all the protection, support and help that God can give, and it will never be ‘established’ until it is merged with the church triumphant in Heaven.17

Whilst in the early days of the charismatic movement, there was particular emphasis upon the experience of the 1 Corinthians 12 gifts, it was gradually recognized that other lists of gifts can also be found in the New Testament, in Romans 12:6–8; Ephesians 4:11, 1 Peter 4:9–11, and 1 Corinthians 7:7–8. A much broader understanding of charismatic gifts then developed throughout the charismatic movement, and participants now frequently state that Scripture does not provide an exhaustive list of gifts, and that these are in fact innumerable. Tom Smail, for example, understands theology itself as being a charism, stating that it contains ‘something of the gift of discernment’, can ‘test the Spirits’ by ‘the test of the gospel’ and also has within itself a ‘gift of teaching’.18 A great many talents and abilities may be described as ‘charismatic gifts’, and the term has become rather vague and indeterminate and is very loosely applied. Nevertheless, charismatics still hope to exercise one or more of the 1 Corinthians gifts and to see these gifts operating in the life of the churches.

Charismatic and non-charismatic experience

Charismatic experience—encompassing baptism in the Spirit, the exercise of charismatic gifts, awareness of the immediacy of God, deeper spiritual understanding, and clear divine guidance—gives an individual confidence to describe his or her relationship with God in vivid terms. With this we may contrast the comparative reticence and less vivid terminology of non-charismatics. A charismatic will often confidently assert that ‘God told me’, whereas a non-charismatic may be more cautious and describe his experience of guidance in a less direct way—‘I feel that God may be leading me’—and seek additional confirmation. Are the charismatic and the non-charismatic expressing the same essential experience in a different way? Is there such a divide between the experience of the ‘charismatic’ and the ‘non-charismatic’ as there appears at first sight to be? The charismatic movement has certainly adopted a progressively less rigid theology and allowed for a greater diversity of experience. This is illustrated by developments in the doctrine of baptism in the Spirit. It is an observable fact that an individual’s understanding of this tends to start off clearly defined, being based upon the experience of that individual or their associates. However, as they become more aware of the complex issues involved, the biblical and theological questions, and the fact that participants in the charismatic movement have had different experiences and hold resolutely different opinions, they are themselves less dogmatic.19 The view has become increasingly commonplace that there is no single pattern for the Christian and that rigid laws concerning the timing, circumstances, and manifestations of God’s dealings cannot be constructed. This is openly expressed by the Catholic charismatic, Francis Sullivan:

It can mean any number of things for different people to move from the state of grace they are in to a new state of grace for them. Nor do I think this can happen only once in a person’s life, a once-for-all experience. It is for many people, but for others there may be other times of great grace, and steps forward. I don’t see why it should be only once, nor why it should always be the same kind of crisis experience. What is called for is a new transformation, a moving on. That has infinite variety depending on the infinite variety of individuals. God works with each individual as an individual.20

Indeed, it is the ‘cumulative pattern’ which has received increasing attention, and it is generally accepted that the experience of many people will be a more gradual process of growth and deepening in spiritual experience. This gradual awakening and endowment may be described as a ‘baptism in the Spirit’ with equal validity to the more climactic experience. A distinct baptism in the Spirit experience itself is also increasingly viewed in the context of a process of progressive Christian growth. Furthermore, it is recognized that a Christian can have any number of what may be described as ‘fillings with the Spirit’, according to the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit in providing for particular needs at the appropriate times. This indicates a shift away from insistence upon the term ‘baptism in the Spirit’ and the related exegesis of passages from Acts. Fluidity in understanding and a certain flexibility in theology have therefore become characteristic—an interesting development in a movement which initially rallied its participants around the more dogmatic theology of Classical Pentecostalism. The divide between charismatic Christianity and non-charismatic Christianity has narrowed as allowance has been made for variety in the action of the Holy Spirit with regard to the Christian believer.

1 For the development of classical Pentecostalism, see: Walter Hollenweger, The Pentecostals (SCM, 1972); Prudencio Damboriena, Tongues As Of Fire (Corpus Publications, 1969); Nils Bloch-Hoell, The Pentecostal Movement (Allen and Unwin, 1964).

2 For an account of the ‘birth’ of the charismatic movement in America, see Dennis Bennet, Nine o’clock in the Morning (Kingsway, 1971). For a presentation of the ‘charismatic line’ through church history, see Michael Harper, As At The Beginning (Hodder and Stoughton, 1965), and for developments in Britain in the 1960s, see Michael Harper, None Can Guess (Hodder and Stoughton, 1971).

3 For a description of the benefits of the baptism in the Spirit, see Tom Smail, Reflected Glory (Hodder and Stoughton, 1975), pp. 17–18, and for the benefits to a Catholic priest, see David Parry, Not Mad, Most Noble Festus (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1979), pp. 32–34. Concern has been expressed in many quarters over the testimony of many Catholics to a new devotion to the Catholic church, to the mass and to Mary.

4 Richard Hanson, Theological Renewal 19 (Oct. 1981), p. 4.

5 Renewal study section (‘Promise of the Spirit: what it is and what it is called’), Renewal 55 (Feb/Mar 1975).

6 For a presentation of this theology, see Fred Pritchard, ‘Can we talk of a Second Blessing?’ Theological Renewal 5 (Feb/Mar 1977), pp. 23–25.

7 Arthur Wallis: ‘A Fresh Look at Baptism in the Holy Spirit’, Theological Renewal 8 (Feb/Mar 1978), pp. 29–36.

8 Arthur Wallis, ‘Baptism in the Spirit’, Restoration (Mar/April 1979), p. 19.

9 For a detailed presentation of this hypothesis, see James D. G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (SCM, 1970).

10 Op. cit.

11 Letter (‘Sources of authority’), Renewal 51 (June/July 1974), pp. 7–8.

12 Interview with an elder of a Bradtord Circle church, Feb. 1981.

13 Op. cit., pp. 17–18.

14 David Watson, One In The Spirit (Hodder and Stoughton, 1975).

15 Larry Christenson, ‘Baptism with the Holy Spirit: a Lutheran perspective’, Theological Renewal 4 (Oct/Nov 1962), p. 22.

16 See further, Cardinal Suenens, A New Pentecost? (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1975), pp. 117–24,148–49,213.

17 See B. B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles (Banner of Truth, 1972); Walter J. Chantry, Signs of the Apostles(Banner of Truth, 1973); A. A. Hoekema, Holy Spirit Baptism (Paternoster Press, 1972); Douglas Judisch, An Evaluation of Claims to the Charismatic Gifts (Baker Book House, 1978). For a response, see Michael Harper, As At The Beginning (Hodder and Stoughton, 1965), pp. 106–111.

18 Tom Smail, Editorial, Theological Renewal

19 For the change in Michael Harper’s position with regard to tongues as the initial evidence of baptism in the Spirit cf. the following: As At The Beginning (Hodder and Stoughton, 1965), pp. 102–4; Walk in the Spirit(Hodder and Stoughton, 1968), pp. 20–21; This Is The Day (Hodder and Stoughton, 1979), pp. 60–61.

20 Francis Sullivan: tape of talk on ‘Holy Spirit Baptism’ given to participants in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, at Hawkestone Hall. Undated.

Anne Mather

Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, Staff

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