Since the early 19th century American Christianity has been largely dominated by a revival of the original Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. One can transpose much of what took place in the 19th century over the fist generation Anabaptists (1520s) and it matches up quite well. The original Anabaptists would have understood completely the Millerite eschatological fervor of the 1820s–40s. They would understand completely the claims of continuing revelation made by Joseph Smith and the Mormons in the same period. At least some of the original Anabaptists would have understood the bald Pelagianism of Charles Finney (1792–1875). The Cane Ridge Revival (1801) would have made perfect sense to the original Anabaptists as it fit their vision of piety almost perfectly.
Evangelical Christianity in America as it has been received in the 20th and 21st centuries is very much the product of that revived Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. The Second Great Awakening was a radically democratic, egalitarian, entrepreneurial, enterprise. Theologically, it was by turns mystical and rationalist. Further, the Second Great Awakening didn’t just happen out of the blue. It did not fall out of the sky like golden plates and magic spectacles. There’s a direct, organic connection between the 1GA and the 2nd but we’ll press on lest we move from preaching to meddling.
The enthusiastic (in the strict sense) piety of the 2GA faded in the second half of the 19th century but “fresh light” broke forth again in the revivals in Topeka, KS and Azusa Street (Los Angeles) at the turn of the 20th century. The patterns established in the earlier “revivals” have been formative for American evangelicalism.
One aspect of that revivalist pattern is the claim to renewed apostolic phenomena. Suggestions were made in the 18th century and proclaimed loudly in the 19th and 20th centuries that the apostolic phenomena had been restored to those with faith to receive and exercise them. Since the 19th century at least evangelical Christianity (defined broadly) has been divided between the “haves” and “have nots,” i.e., those who claim to have recovered the Apostolic gifts and powers.
As a consequence of these claims many evangelicals simply assume that when a contemporary leader claims to have the gift of “tongues” that what is seen and accepted as “tongues” is identical to what occurred in Acts and what is described in Acts. Such assumptions of continuity between the apostolic period and contemporary expressions of religious piety and enthusiasm have strongly colored evangelical assumptions about the nature of piety. It is a paradigm: it is assumed that spiritual vitality means reproducing apostolic phenomena. Any Christian who is not receiving direct revelations from the Spirit, exercising apostolic gifts and power is reckoned either to lack faith, to be missing out on a potential benefit, or to be making a false profession of faith.
Since the 1970s a somewhat milder version of neo-Pentecostalism has come to great influence in evangelical circles: the charismatic movement. This varied movement usually asserts less continuity between the Apostolic period and the post-canonical period. It has eliminated some of the more socially embarrassing aspects of neo-Pentecostalism (e.g., being slain in the Spirit) in favor of a moderated, more middle-class, suburban piety of direct revelations that are not considered necessarily equivalent to the canonical Scriptures and occasional exercises of prophetic gifts that may (or may not) be considered authoritative. When it comes to healing, the line separating the older Azusa Street piety from the Calvary Chapel charismatic piety is a little fuzzy.
Even in Reformed circles, which are typically cessationist, i.e., which typically do not accept the widely-held assumption of strong continuity between the apostolic period and the contemporary church, there are attempts to mediate between the neo-Pentecostalists, charismatics, and non-Pentecostalists by adopting the vocabulary of the charismatic movement. It is common for Reformed folk to say, “The Lord led me” or “The Lord showed me” or even “The Lord told me.”
Sometimes one suspects this is a defense mechanism. If we speak this way then perhaps we will not be accused of denying the ongoing work of the Spirit. In the neo-Pentecostal/charismatic paradigm, the assumption is that anyone who does not speak thus is implicitly denying the abiding presence, activity, and work of the Spirit. Some of this is cross-cultural or cross-paradigm communication. We’ve taken to speaking like charismatics in order communicate our conviction that the Spirit is at work in our communions and people.
The adoption of charismatic language to describe our experience comes at a cost, however, because we come to believe that what is being said is literally true. As Reformed folk read Scripture, the apostolic gifts and powers ended with the close of the apostolic age. As best we can tell, no one is actually speaking in natural foreign languages (Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12–14) by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. None of us is being carried about from place to place by the Spirit (Acts 8:39) or healing the lame (Acts 8 and 9). None of us is putting people to death (Acts 5) or raising people from the dead (Acts 20) and none of us is impervious to the bite of poisonous snakes (Acts 28). None of us even is so indwelled by the Spirit that others are healed merely by touching our handkerchiefs (Acts 19).
Part 2: How should we then speak?