And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:3–5).
When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it (Acts 5:5).
Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband (Acts 5:10).
…the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more (Acts 8:39).
But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up (Acts 9:40).
When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god (Acts 28:4–6).
…Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe (John 4:48).
…For false messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect (Mark 13:22).
I have not seen miracles here, but I do not disbelieve in miracles as such (Martyn Wendell Jones, April 24, 2016).
According to Holy Scripture after our Lord Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, i.e., after he began his heavenly reign over all things with and for the Father, he poured out his Holy Spirit upon the apostles. This was in fulfillment of what he had promised: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). At Pentecost God the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Apostles and they did mighty works. By the power of the Spirit they spoke in languages that they had not learned, they put people to death, they raised people from the dead, they were transported by the Holy Spirit, and they survived threats that ordinarily killed others. They did all these things not because they had sufficient faith—Peter denied the gospel even as an apostle (Gal 2:11–14)—nor because they sent money to some “ministry,” nor because they attended a revival. God the Spirit did these things through them in order to confirm their office, to establish Christ’s church, and to advance his kingdom through the preaching of the gospel.
Since the death of the apostles, however, there have been periodic attempts to replicate the Apostolic ministry. From the late 2nd century, the Montanists claimed to have apostolic power, revelation, and gifts. Such claims appeared periodically through the history of the church. In the 1520s, the Anabaptists regularly claimed to speak in tongues, to be filled with and slain in the Spirit, and to receive extra-canonical revelation. Indeed, Thomas Müntzer (1489–1525) taught that the continuing revelation he received was superior to Holy Scripture and he mocked the Reformed pastors as “ministers of the dead letter.” The Scriptures, he argued, are not the Word per se but become the Word in an existential encounter. In the early 20th century a certain well-known Swiss theologian would come to agree not only with his view of baptism but also with his doctrine of revelation. In the early 19th century, there was another claim of renewed, apostolic power at Cane Ridge, KY that inaugurated decades of religious enthusiasm known as the Second Great Awakening. A century later in Topeka, KS (1901) and five years later in the Azusa Street revival in 1906 there would be yet more neo-Pentecostal phenomena virtually identical to that experienced by the Anabaptists in the 1520s. In the 1980s Christians were been enthralled by revivals in Kansas City. In the 1990s it was the Brownsville revival. The latest such episode seems to be centered in Northern California at Bethel Church.
Martyn Wendell Jones is a Toronto-based writer and editor, who attends a PCA congregation in Toronto). Recently he visited Bethel Church and writes about his experience in Christianity Today. The story is carefully and thoughtfully written. The bottom line is that Jones saw no actual apostolic phenomena. He saw glitter on the ceilings and various sorts of enthusiasm but unlike the Peter, Paul, and Philip, there was no genuine apostolic phenomena. There never is. Jones hesitates to judge the episodes but the strongest endorsement he seems to be able to muster is that it has subjective value for the participants.
This is all one really has to know about all the neo-Pentecostal episodes since the Montanists. None of them have ever actually possessed or exercised apostolic power. The signs and wonders performed by the Spirit, through the Apostles, were not mere subjective experiences. They were objective, empirically verifiable saving (or damning) acts by the Spirit in real history (in contrast to mytho-poetic subjective appropriation of a story, Geschichte, that may or may not be actually true). There were as objectively historical phenomena as Jesus’ resurrection. People were actually put to death. People were actually raised from the dead. None of the miracles performed by the Spirit through the apostolic company were dependent upon the faith of the apostles or upon the faith of those involved. When the viper attached itself to Paul’s arm those around him expected him to die because that is ordinarily what happens in such cases. They doubted but Paul lived. Peter’s authority to end the lives of Ananias and Sapphira was not contingent upon Peter’s faith or theirs.
Evangelicals were once strongly critical of the liberal tendency to reduce Jesus’ resurrection to a subjective experience (e.g., treating his resurrection as a metaphor for one’s personal experience). Since the Second Great Awakening, however, American evangelicals have more willing than they should to reduce the work of the Spirit to purely subjective experiences and to redefine the apostolic phenomena and to fudge the difference between the two. In truth, neo-Pentecostal glossolalia is not the Apostolic phenomena of speaking in foreign languages by the power of the Spirit. Call it primitivism, a hoax, mass delusion, or group therapy but do not call it apostolic. What is taking place at Bethel Church, as in the earlier cases, is a classic example of American religious enthusiasm. Since the early 18th century, in the so-called First Great Awakening, American evangelicals have been on quest for an immediate encounter with the risen Christ or with the power of the Spirit. In the Second Great Awakening that quest manifested itself in a remarkable series of episodes including Cane Ridge, Mormonism, and the Millerite Apocalyptic movement. The skeptic H. L. Mencken described such moments as “magic and noise.”
I understand that it is hard to accept that we live in a time between Pentecost and the Parousia but we do. We need to accept that fact. No one at Bethel Church has apostolic power just as no one in Kansas City, or Brownsville, or Azusa, or Topeka, or Cane Ridge had it. I understand that it hurts to give up this dream. It is like losing a friend. When we realize that these episodes really just “magic and noise” we may grieve for what we have lost but that sense of loss is salutary and good. In it we should look for that which is real: Christ, his gospel, and his promises made visible in the holy sacraments. In place of the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience, that euphoria once felt at certain chord progressions or when the first row of people began to collapse to the floor, look to Christ who saves sinners and to the solid promise of the constant presence of the Holy Spirit, through whom Jesus said, “Behold, I will be with you always.”
- Recovering the Reformed Confession
- “‘Magic and Noise:’ On Being Reformed In Sister’s America” in Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (hardcopy edition). (Kindle edition).
- More on the QIRE