Less A Problem of What the Spirit is Doing and More a Problem of What We Say

Part 2

LA Times Azusa St RevivalIn part 1, I began to sketch a case that for a way between neo-Pentecostalism/Charismatic piety and a sterile piety. Genuine, confessional Reformed piety is warm, Spiritual, and vital but we understand that the Spirit works through means (Word and sacraments). This means that there are two distinct paradigms before us. Christ’s presence mediated v the unmediated experience of God (QIRE). In some cases, however, the issue is less a matter of genuine difference but rather about how we should speak.

Historically, even though the church has often and rather conveniently fuzzed the boundary between the canonical and post-canonical periods (e.g., the hagiographies of the early church) as a matter of doctrine the main Patristic writers tended to recognize a distinction between the apostolic and post-apostolic periods. The scandal of the Montanists was that they claimed to represent a revival of the apostolic phenomena, a claim that most rejected.

As Warfield showed in 1918, the so-called “miracles” claimed by the neo-Pentecostalists simply don’t measure up to apostolic standards. The apostolic miracles were of a different order than anything that is claimed today. It wasn’t a matter of “so and so said that he heard that in Pakistan in 1937 x happened.” That’s what passes for the miraculous in our day. There’s word for that: credulity. The genuine thing was obvious, public, and empirically verifiable. They had nothing to hide because they had real power. They didn’t need ear pieces (Robert Tilton) or camera tricks and the like. There was no agony of deceit.

The truth is that those leading evangelical proponents of gifts tacitly admit that they aren’t really apostolic. One leading advocate admitted to a gathering of theologians that his first attempt to heal failed because he lacked sufficient faith. That’s not apostolic. Paul shook off the serpent at Malta because he had apostolic power not because he had sufficient faith (as if he would have died had his faith flagged for a moment). Paul sustained several stonings and other attempts on his life. We would not. We’re not apostles.

Please hear me. I am not saying that the Spirit cannot do today what he did in the first century, in the Exodus, in the flood, or in the resurrection. I quite expect to see Jesus return bodily. I expect to see a bodily resurrection and a metaphorical flood (1 Peter) but we’re not there yet. God has not promised to do in our age, in the post-canonical time between the ascension and the parousia, what he did in the canonical age.

What happens is that contemporary evangelical and charismatic folk describe ordinary phenomena in extraordinary, apostolic terms. They identify non-apostolic phenomena as apostolic. That’s cheating but it’s rhetorically powerful and persuasive. Many evangelicals don’t want to live in the post-canonical, in between time. It’s a drag. People want a power religion. Judged against the neo-Pentecostal and charismatic claims, Reformed Christianity seems decidedly weak and powerless (see all of 2 Corinthians).

So, what should we do? I propose that we speak the truth in love. Instead of making claims that we can’t back up we should speak simply. Instead claiming implicitly that we know what the Spirit is doing just now (we don’t—you don’t know where the Spirit comes from or where he is going) we should say what is true. Instead of saying “the Spirit told me” or “the Spirit led me” or we should say what actually know to be true. “I had a strong desire to pray” or “in the providence of God it turns out that as I was praying x was happening at the same time.”

Does the Spirit lead us, give promptings? Sure. That’s not in question. What is in question is what we should claim about them. The Word tells us that the Spirit is constantly, powerfully, and actively accomplishing his purposes. Confessing that truth is one thing. Claiming that we know just what he is about at any given moment is quite another. We say, “The Spirit was really present” when what we know to be true is that “we had an intense experience.” In fact the Spirit is always present. We may become conscious of certain intense feelings or experiences and if those are good and holy, praise God.

Implicit in the claim to know what the Spirit is doing is an unstated knowledge and claim to power. “It’s not in the Scripture but I know what the Spirit is doing in this instance.” I say that doesn’t accord with what we believe about the immensity of God, the omnipresence of God, and our doctrine of the providence of God. He is always sustaining, governing, upholding all things. We know that he is with his covenantal people is a particular way. That presumes knowledge of the Spirit’s work that we don’t have. It’s powerful and seductive but it’s powerful precisely because it fills in the sorts of blanks we want to have filled in. It sounds and seems more “spiritual” to say, “The Spirit led me to do/say/think” rather than “after prayer and study I did/said/thought.” The latter is corrigible and the former is less so. It’s really a sort of implicit claim to power, authority, and knowledge that, as far as I know, in the post-canonical era, no one has.

Why can’t we simply do good, useful, edifying things without attributing it directly to the inspiration of the Spirit? Why do we have to know whether it was directly from the Spirit? Partly, I think, because we feel guilty for being cessationists because the non-cessationists seem to having all the fun.

Brothers and sisters, we are not charismatics or neo-Pentecostals. We have a different paradigm. We should learn to be content with Scripture and with our own paradigm instead of seeking to plunder the Pentecostals. We do not believe that God occasionally drops into history to do the spectacular but rather we believe that he is constantly with us. We believe that he accomplishes extraordinary things through the ordained and regular (Rom 10). Which takes more faith? To believe that the Spirit is knocking people over, inspiring them to make incorrect prophecies, or to believe that God uses the foolishness of the preached Gospel (1 Cor 1-2) to raise spiritual dead (Eph 2) sinners to new life and to grant them faith and through it union with the risen Christ?

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  1. Exactly, Dr. Clark.

    We carry on. We live in the world and pray for it. We trust that God is at work in all of it, in spite of what we see in the world…or in ourselves.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    I have interacted with you at least a few times on the “Reformed-and-charismatic” issue. As someone who probably falls into the “Young, Restless, Reformed”, quasi-confessionalist (“”Reformed” and Charismatic”) category, I can honestly say I appreciate a lot of the things you have written about these issues. I have gained a lot of insight into what the real issues are for confessionalists like yourself and the other WSCal types of folks.

    To be honest, doctrines like baptism (credo vs paedo) and the charismatic/cessation issue are very difficult for a lot of “Young, Restless, Reformed” guys like me. I’m 26 years young. I know a lot of 20-something year old kids who more or less came to believe the Doctrines of Grace through just picking up the Bible and seeing a lot of these things taught in Scripture. We (the YRR folks) know that pietism is not biblical or even helpful and we have just started to come to some solid truths about things like salvation, but most of us (the YRR folks) are more or less kind of lost when it comes to a lot of the true Reformed distinctives.

    There are lots of issues that many of us (the YRR folks) simply do not know about. We have not clearly understood what the real issues are (historically, etc), so usually what ends up happening is both sides (confessionalists vs YRR folks) end up talking past each other, which usually accomplishes nothing for everyone involved.

    Your posts and comments about the cessationalism/charismatic issue have been very helpful for me.

    The whole cessationalism thing is starting to make a lot more sense to me. If nothing else, those blog posts have made me more cautious and mindful of the way I communicate the “illuminations” (I think that may be the word you used) God may (or may not) have given me.

    Most of the “Reformed and charismatic” people I’ve met would agree with just about everything I’ve read on this blog about this issue. They would word it very differently, but where the rubber meets the road they would agree with what you are saying.

    Most of the YRR folks I know (myself included) simply do not know any better. We have not been taught. A lot of us grew up in pietism, started loving Scripture and through our reading of Scripture we came to see that Scripture teaches “the Doctrines of Grace.” We’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other.

    We need people like you to be patient and gracious with us. And we need people like you to teach us.

    Please keep writing about these types of issues. It is very helpful. Thank you for your patience and willingness to delve into these things. Your efforts are not in vain.

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