Saturday, January 20, 2007

Here Come the Pentecostals

It all began 106 years ago in Kansas when a woman broke out of normal speech into glossolalia. It was but a foreshadowing of a mighty wave of the Spirit which has still not crested as it has gathered momentum around the world. I was in Moscow to teach and my hosts asked me if I wanted to go to the big joint worship service in the old Soviet Convention Center. I said of course. I was not expecting what I experienced. Russia is dominated by two major church groups-- the Orthodox Church of course which is the 'official' church of Russia, and all those Baptists of various sorts. But without question a group on the rise is the Pentecostals of various sorts. What I experienced was vigorous heart-stopping non-stop singing by hundreds of young people in choirs and in the stands, powerful testimonies, and then, unfortunately 'prosperity Gospel' preaching. Well, two out of three ain't bad. I was kind of hoping the Russian Pentecostals wouldn't be making some of the same mistakes of some American ones. But this phenomenon is in fact sweeping around the globe. I was in Singapore last May, before that in South Africa, before that in Austrailia, and I could go on. It's almost everywhere. In fact, it is the fastest growing religious phenomena in South America as well. Much of the two-thirds world is riding the crest of this wave. So we ought to pay attention, and ask what is God doing?

Though I have been a life long Methodist, for most of my adult life I have also been very involved in the life of the Spirit. This goes back to attending Gordon Fee's Bible study in his home with my wife to be in 1975 where I first heard speaking in tongues. Then there was the day I was at a healing and exorcism service in Tremont Temple in Boston and the next thing I knew, I was speaking in tongues. I need to tell you while of course there are always counterfeits when it comes to spiritual gifts, the genuine experience is simply one that comes unbidden and sweeps over you. Like grits on a southern breakfast plate, it just comes. And while you can stop it, its a pretty overwhelming experience. You don't have to be in an emotional state for it to happen. You don't have to be revved up by the praise band. You don't have to be praying for it--- it just comes. And why should this surprise us. The Holy Spirit is so much more powerful than we are and our little wills, and the Spirit does not want to be quenched by us as Paul reminds the Thessalonians in 1 Thess. 5.

And one of the things the Spirit does is break down barriers that humans build up, just like at the first Pentecost in Jerusalem. Pentecostal services not only minister to the down and out, but also the up and in. They are often racially inclusive services. You will have men preachers, women preachers, and children preachers. And sometimes the best ones are the children-- its amazing what happens when children are full of the Holy Spirit. In November 2005 I was asked to come to Valley Forge and preach at an Assemblies Church. I have never seen such a clearly inclusive service as this. It was a congregation which met in the local high school to save money for other ministry ventures. The composition of the congregation was about 40% white, another 25% black, 25% Hispanic or Oriental, and then another 5% of other sorts of folks, all praising the Lord in a mighty way. They also expected a 40 minute sermon-- I just smiled and said "No problem". That's one thing about a Pentecostal service-- its unlikely to start or finish at a preordained moment. There's a general starting time, but it keeps going as the Spirit leads.

Now of course lots of folks are scared of the Holy Ghost. Indeed, there are whole denominations who try to domesticate and keep the Spirit within specific bounds. I ought to know. I'm part of such a denomination that used to be mostly like that, and still is to some extent. When I was ordained in the 1970s I was sent to the conference counselor before ordination. They closed the door, turned on the banks of cassette recorders and proceeded to ask me some questions: 1) did I believe in a personal Devil--- yep I said; 2) well did I believe in demons and exorcisms?-- yep I said, its in the Book; 3) did I believe in charismatic gifts-- yep I said; 4) did I believe in speaking in tongues-- yep I said, been there done that; 5) what did I think of ordination-- I respect it but church ordination is just a public confirmation and recognition of the gifts God has given me. He's the one who anointed and appointed me in the first place. It kind of went like that. Thereafter they delayed my ordination for a year. I guess I was seen as too hot to handle.

Now you may well run into cessationists, in fact you may be part of such a church. The cessationists argue that God ran out of juice. He used to give people these sorts of gifts in the apostolic age, but once that era was over, and once the canon showed up, such extraordinary spiritual gifts ceased. The chief proof text for this view is, believe it or not, 1 Cor. 13.8-12 which reads "Love never fails. But where there are prophecies they will cease; where there are tongues they will be stilled; where there is knowledge it will pass away. For we know in part and prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child. I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult I put childish ways behind me." Of course that is not all this paragraph says. It goes on to say 'Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see to face to face."

What is Paul talking about? When will we see face to face, and know as we are known? Well for sure it was not when the second century A.D. began, nor when the Scriptures were canonized in the fourth century. The cessationists have tended to argue: 1) the word 'perfection' refers to the coming of the canon. When the NT showed up we didn't need these extraordinary spiritual gifts any more. Of course the major problem with that exegesis is that no one in Corinth in the A.D. 50s could possibly have understood Paul to mean 'the NT canon' by the word 'perfection'. And in fact this is not what Paul meant-- he's referring to the eschaton when we see Jesus face to face, when perfection really comes in the person of the Lord, when we finally know Him as we are known. Then indeed we will not need prophecy or tongues, and then indeed our knowledge will cease to be partial. Indeed, then faith will become sight, and hope will be realized, and love will be perfected and go on. There is no chance that the word 'perfection' means the canon here. The context is eschatological, and Paul is looking forward to what will be the case when Jesus returns. This is so very clear in 1 Cor. 15, the resurrection chapter, as well.

2) And of course if you are a student of Church History you know perfectly well the Holy Spirit has not run out of unction to function. Those spiritual gifts have been being poured out in every century since the second century until now. In America of course the Azuza Street Revival in 1905 was a landmark event for Pentecostals. Their growth has been pretty steady since then. We might as well just accept it and come to grips with it, even if its not our cup of tea.

Now like any lay led (or for that matter clergy led) spiritual movement there are some theological problems with the way the Bible is read in this tradition. The top five mistakes are as follows: 1) Acts 2 is not about glossolalia-- its about the miraculous giving of the ability to suddenly speak in these various foreign languages; 2) Acts 2 is also not about a post-conversion experience of being baptized in the Spirit. Acts 2 is about the birthday of the church. One should not see John 20 and the upper room "receive the Holy Spirit" story as a preliminary reception of the Spirit. The story is about a prophetic sign reassuring the disciples that the Spirit would soon come on them once Jesus went away (remembering that Jn. 13-17 says that Jesus must first go away back to heaven before the Spirit could be sent); 3) speaking in tongues is not the initial evidence that one has the Holy Spirit in everyone's life. As the end of 1 Cor. 12 makes evident, not all born again Spirit filled Christians speak in tongues. That gift is simply not given to everyone, and anyway its the Spirit who decides who gets what gift; 4) the beginning of 1 Cor. 12 makes clear that being baptized by one Spirit into one body is language referring to the point of conversion and becoming part of the body of Christ, not some post-conversion experience. The NT certainly doesn't rule out post-conversion dramatic experiences in the Spirit, but they do not involve 'the baptism of the Spirit' nor the reception of 'more of the Spirit' Why? Because 5) the Holy Spirit is a person, not a mere power or force. You can no more have a little bit of the Spirit in your life than you can be a little bit pregnant. The Spirit is a living being living within you, and while that Spirit can get hold of more aspects of your life and personality once he is in your life, you get the whole presence of the person of the Spirit in your life when he first enters your life at conversion. Period. Thus while we can talk about the second, third, fourth, or however many works of grace or blessings after conversion, these are works in the Spirit, not receptions of more of the Spirit.

I could go on, but here I would encourage you to read the encouraging story of a small Pentecostal Church made up mostly of ex-Dominican Republic residents who now live in New York City. The NY Times has give us two clear and powerful stories about their life and ministry to the least, last, and lost in NY. Here are the links--


These stories are well worth the read, as you will learn something about storefront churches, and also about the life of Pentecostals. It is interesting that public figures as divergent as Sen. John Ashcroft and Rev. Al Sharpton are Pentecostal ministers. The Pentecostal phenomena crosses all sorts of cultural lines. So my question for you is--- What is the Holy Spirit doing in your life? Have you listened to the exhortation in 1 Thess. 5.19 not to put out the Spirit's fire or treat prophecies with contempt? How about the one in Ephes.5.18 to be filled in the Spirit speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs? Are you making a joyful noise unto the Lord? I hope so. If not, what are you waiting for?


Bill Barnwell said...

In my early years as a Christian, I was openly hostile towards the charismatic movement. I had seen too many off the wall things that I knew weren’t from the Spirit from various individuals that I decided that they all were odd. Plus, I considered the movement extremely anti-intellectual. Four years ago, at my first district conference, our position paper on tongues was up for approval after being revised by the Constitutional Committee. The previous statement struck many as too anti-tongues so this was an attempt to moderate it. I wasn't too interested in that, however. The paper was pretty good, but there were two lines on there that I thought were too friendly to the tongues people and gave too much of an impression that one could still have the gift of tongues which I believed "ceased after the apostolic age." Therefore, I offered up amendments striking down the language, which passed and later went to general conference, which also passed. At 22, I thought I had let those "goofy charismatics" have it.

Then about a year later I decided to actually look at the doctrine of cessationism Biblically, letting the text speak instead of my biases. I couldn't find it. Anywhere. And looking at the same texts I used to use, I found my previous reasoning so sloppy that it was embarrassing. I apologized to a couple guys from conference who I knew were upset by that discussion and my role in it and moderated my own teachings from there. Many cessationists argue, and I used to myself, that if this gift is so real why doesn't it manifest itself in our circles? Well, I suppose if we decide from the get-go that it is no longer "valid" then we shouldn't be shocked that it doesn't show itself. Basically the position I used to hold and that plenty of others hold is that the gifts of the Spirit are indeed real and for today, but only the non-spooky ones not involving things that are clearly supernatural. And as a side note, you can always tell when a cessationist has made up one of those spiritual gift inventory tests by their explanation of some gifts. The other major non-Scriptural argument is that tongues are a secular manifestation as well and have showed up in different pagan religions and that there's a neurological explanation for it at the core. This deserves a look but why would it be shocking that the Devil can counterfeit? Plus, from what I've read about pagan tongues manifestations, it is a far cry from the Biblical model.

As things stand, I've never experienced the gift of tongues and I never may at all. But I do want to be open to the Spirit. I've thankfully come to the conclusion that "Spirit-filled living" comes down to more than just doing certain good things and not doing certain bad things.

SJBedard said...

Thanks for the reminder of the great gift of Pentecostals to the Christian Church. I became a Pentecostal soon after my conversion and even began in ministry at a Pentecostal Church. During my time there I experienced God in some fantastic ways. I loved the opportunity to have altar calls, not just for conversion, but to respond to God's Word and to receive prayer. However, I ended up leaving the Pentecostal church for three reasons.

1) Prosperity theology - a very destructive concept that has shipwrecked many people's faith.
2) Tongues as initial evidence - I remember a visitor to the church asking me about this and I had to decide if I would give the denominational answer or my own understanding of the Bible. I left soon after. I have heard of rumblings in some Pentecostal denominations concerning initial evidence, possibly due to higher levels of theological education.
3) Lack of consistency - There was something in the Pentecostal culture that encouraged people to reach out for God and to go deeper in their relationship with Him. Obviously an admirable desire. But I also saw the same people struggle constantly with backsliding. The focus on emotion and experienced seemed to create a culture where people moved up and down in their faith like a yo yo. Life was lived on the mountain or in the valley, but never on the plain. Baptist consistency (with all its shortcomings) had greater appeal to my personality.

Having said all that, my Pentecostal experiences still shapes my ministry and Christian life. As with all things, we need to pick and choose, taking what is useful and leaving behind what is not. As you have said, we dare not ignore what God is doing.

Dr. David Ritsema said...

My personal spiritual journey began before I was born. My parents were married in the old Worldwide Church of God. But before I was born they left and became charismatic. My earliest memories are of charismatic services. I was baptized there and was taught that I should speak in tongues.

Now I am Southern Baptist pastor and graduate of two Baptist schools (East Texas Baptist and Baylor's seminary Truett). I am working on a PhD in New Testament at the new baptist seminary, B. H. Carroll Theological Institute in Arlingon, TX.

My point is that my journey has been long and interesting. Along the way I married a pentecostal girl who was "losing her religion" (or at least her pentecostal beliefs).

I must admit speaking in tongues to me has never felt or seemed like something FROM the holy spirit. I feel more "comfortable" singing meaningful worship songs to the Lord, silence, and nature as forms of worship.

And yet, I cannot believe that the gifts were to stop. Scripture seems to teach that this is an open-ended gift. But what of "healing" or "interpretation" or the other gifts? I guess I have not really come to any conclusion after all these years and study. Pretty sad really.

Thaks for an honest and excellent blog article.

David Ritsema
PhD New Testament (student)
B. H. Carroll Theological Institute

Chris Petersen said...

Dr. Witherington

In regards to the Pentecostal growth in third world areas have you read Phillip Jenkin's "The Next Christendom"?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Friends:

Thanks so much for your personal sharing on this issue. I quite agree that it is always a danger to base too much on one's own religious experiences, which may be typical or atypical I like what my old church history Prof. Richard Lovelace once said-- "the Word without the Spirit is like wineskins without wine, but on the other hand the Spirit without the Word is like wine without wineskins to contain it and give it proper shape." I agree. We need both word and Spirit.

Chris, Phil Jenkins work I do know and I count him as a friend.


Ben W.

The Ole '55 said...

The cessationists argue that God ran out of juice.

I think that is an inaccurate and pejorative way of describing the cessationsist position, at least as I understand it. (Well, so is the phrase "cessationist".)

To argue that God works in different ways today than He did during the apostolic age in no way suggests that God is incapable of such acts of power. God's choice does not equal God's abilities.

Furthermore, the phrase "ran out of juice" also suggests that God's ways during the apostolic age were superior to his way of acting in the current day. That would not accurately represent what you describe as "cessationist" theology.

I have a rather less precise view of the work of the Holy Spirit in the current age. I recently wrote On Spiritual Gifts and Love.

Cheers ...

Ben Witherington said...

You are of course right Mitch. I was using the language for rhetorical effect. But in fact if a person thinks 1 Cor. 13 has anything to say on such a topic, much less conveying God's attitude about such gifts then or now, that person would be wrong. Paul's entire discussion in 1 Cor. 12-15 looks to the eschaton when faith indeed will become sight.

In fact the NT says nothing about God deciding to stop giving some particular gifts at any point between the resurrection and the return of Christ. While I don't want to over-emphasize these gifts, I also don't want to allow anyone the luxury of thinking they can read them out of existence by a misreading of Paul.


Ben Witherington said...

P.S. we don't live in a different era from the earliest Christians. From the apostolic era until now has all been part of the one 'endtimes' as defined by the eschatology of NT writers.

SJBedard said...

Hi Ben. I was curious as to what direction you see Pentecostal scholarship going these days. Gordon Fee has always been influential (if he was typical, I would still be a Pentecostal). Do you see an increase in Pentecostal scholarship and if so, is it a positive or a negative thing?

José Solano said...

God is sovereign. He really is. He does what He wants, whenever and wherever it pleases Him. For some he may find that Scripture and preaching are sufficient. For others He may provide a vision or a revelation. To some He sends a dream that is truly awakening. Others He may simply flood with beatific ecstasy as they simply sit and behold and weep. Or, God can send someone what He sent to Job or Jonah. Some speak solitarily to God directly in "tongues." At times God communicates to His church through an individual in tongues and there should be someone who interprets this communication. Sometimes even the entire congregation speaks and sings in tongues. God knows perfectly well why He does these things. We too may develop some understanding of why He visits people as he does without reducing the validity of spiritually enriching experiences.

What is most important is what these people understand of God's teaching and how they conduct themselves. We must remember that there was Pentecost but there was also Babel. This is where I would have to speak of the charlatanism or at best, the total misunderstanding of the so-called "prosperity gospel" preachers who simply play to human vanity.

It is also important to note the position that speaking in tongues held in the early church through Pauline exhortation. "He who speaks in tongues edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless he interprets, that the church may receive edification." 1 Cor. 14:4-5 There is a lot of interpretation that can be made of this passage.

Brian said...

If y'all want to see top level pentecostal scholarship, check out the work of a Finnish scholar Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and probably the current leading pentecostal theologian in the world today.

Brother Marty said...

While your post addresses one of the "sign-gifts" (speaking in tongues) of the Holy Spirit, dismissed as being solely for the first century Christians, I concur that these gifts are present today.

I'm in the healing ministry - you know - the ministry where healings and miracles are signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit at work in us. Like you, I didn't seek any gift, but when it presented itself to me by the Holy Spirit's authority, I succumbed. I let His healing work through me, without me having any say in the matter. As it turns out, there are many, many others through whom the Holy Spirit works in similar ways.
While a mere Methodist (lol), I don't discount the call of the Holy Spirit. Rather, I embrace it.
As pointed out, we are all parts of the Body of Christ, each with unique gifts of the Holy Spirit. Be it speaking in tongues, or the gifts of healing and miracles, we're all part of the body.
I'm a member of the Order of St Luke the Physician (an ecumenical healing order), and we have many charismatics in our ranks. But, as far as who we are, we have Roman Catholic, Anglican, Charismatic, and to a very large degree, United Methodist members. This order is in the forefront of acknowledging that the cessationist perspective is flawed.
Thank you for this post.

yuckabuck said...

I've heard it said that the controversy over whether the gifys of the Spirit ceased or not is mostly over, with most of the church deciding in favor of seeing the gifts as still active. I wonder if anyone else sees it the same way?

(the way it was)
I was raised a Roman Catholic, but began to pull away while attending Geneva College and being made to read the New Testament. I decided to give myself to Christ there while attending a campus charismatic meeting that was VERY controversial because they... spoke in tongues (!). That summer, I read the Bible for hours every day, trying to sort out what the truth about it all was. God showed me that the gifts were still operative, but that I did not HAVE to speak in tongues, because the Spirit distributed gifts as HE wills (1 Cor 12:11).

(the way it is now?)
Ten years later, I was attending a Vineyard church, because the Vineyard stood for the same position- full use of the gifts, but no special emphasis on tongues as evidence. The Vineyard's founder, John Wimber, died in 1997, and Todd hunter led the denomination for about a year after. In trying to get the churches to move forward, he made the point that what the Vineyard had going for it- the "best of both worlds," a cross between Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, was irrelevant to people today. While you can still find a John Macarthur here or there, he said that most of the church was past that issue, and that the Vineyard would have to seek from God another mission than just modeling an Evangelical use of gifts.

I think he is right about Evangelicalism at least, but I do not know for sure about the wider church. Certainly Catholicism has incorporated charismatics into their mainstream as well, but I do not know about other streams of Protestantism, or Orthodox churches.

What does everybody else think? Is this still a big issue?

Ben Witherington said...

There are a lot of cessationists in some of the Reformed Churches, especially the most conservative ones.


Hollands Opus said...

Great scriptural presentation, Ben.

No doubt it was the Holy Spirit that equipped you to interact so graciously with Elaine Pagels too!

I happen to embrace the perspective you offer, which doesn't make you or me right..the facts accomplish that.

I did have the experience of speaking in tongues - once. I was alone and had a singularly overpowering sense of being quite welcome in the presense of Jesus. This was the Spirit's doing...he revealed Jesus in such a way that I would know the efficacy of grace and the sweetness of His way. That is a blessed anointing indeed.


Matthew D. Montonini said...

Thanks for reminding of the times when I used to speak in tongues quite frequently.
I am not sure why I stopped- probably changing churches and denominational emphases had something to do with it!-but I realize that is no excuse.
1 Thess. 5.19 and Eph.5.18 will definitely be on the forefront of mind today.

Nick Norelli said...

It's refreshing to see a careful and credentialed scholar (from outside the Pentecostal tradition) maintaining the working of the Holy Spirit through spiritual gifts in the lives of believers today.

I myself attend a Pentecostal church where the gifts regularly manifest in our services and I have defended the continuity of the Spirit and his working for the last few years. At times I find myself frustrated with the lack of belief on the part of believers in all that the Spirit has for the body, but at the same time I realize that I cannot change anyone's mind. I pray however that you can Dr. Witherington. I believe that your credentials speak for themselves and while not being able to persuade anyone in and of themselves, will certainly cause people to take a deeper look into what you're saying.

On the flip side of this coin, I find myself often frustrated with the emphasis in Pentecostal circles on the gifts themselves rather than the Giver of the gifts as well as the allowance of emotion to regulate their use over and above scripture. I believe we need to strike the right balance between the two otherwise we will just fall into the same trap that the Corinthians fell into.

We need to allow scripture and the Holy Spirit to dictate our use of the gifts so that the final result is the edification of the body. If the body is not built up then it seems to me that the gifts are being used in vain. Our first concern needs to be living a life pleasing to God which bears the fruit of the Spirit.

P.S. - The 5 points you raised toward the end of your post have caused me to think and I am now going to re-examine some of my current views, especially concerning a 'filling' of the Spirit subsequent to a 'reception' of the Spirit. Thank you so much for your comments.

James Garth said...

Ben, thanks for your encouraging article.

I too have had the experience of speaking in tongues. Interestingly, I did not seek after this particular charismatic gift. Before my experience, I regarded this gift as something curious, perhaps evidence of God's movement, though often tainted by the human failings of false zealousness and naive exuberance.

And then, just like that, one Saturday morning, it happened. I was taking a shower, praying in my mind, thanking God for the day, and all that he's provided, etc. I felt a curious idea in my mind that I should pray out loud, and when I did so, a complex, rapid, beautiful language emerged. It was like a blend of Arabic and Latin, with a rapid, almost insect-like inflection.

It was entirely under my control in the sense that I could initiate the voice at will, although the precise syllables which emerged were, in a sense, spiritually amplified. I like to use the analogy of a driver pushing the gas pedal, but letting another person (ie. the Spirit) take control of the wheel, and steer the car.

The gift persists to this day, and I have found its efficacy in apologetic situations to be dramatic and genuine. I believe that those whom God blesses with this gift have an obligation to share their testimony with others in an intelligent, articulate and factual way. So I thank you once again for giving us your testimony, and hope that others are encouraged by it.

Blogger said...

What great commentaries you have responding to your interesting post! I have been writing on this subject from a Sprit Filled psychologists viewpoint. If you have time, I would be interested in what you thought.
Spirit Filled Life: Southern Baptist Can't Pray in Tongues

Joanie D. said...

Ben and all,

My comment here is coming "late in the game" but I just wanted to post a little thing.

I was brought up Catholic but then became involved with some charismatic churches and then found that the Catholic church also had groups that allowed for speaking and praying in tongues. What I liked about the Catholic groups was that they limited the tongues to the times where they actually gathered together for a type of "charismatic gathering" or used the tongues alone during their prayer time. It didn't occur during mass. Mass was for a different kind of worship. If there was no interpretation of tongues, then like the Apostle Paul said, that would not be edifying to the people gathered.

As time went on, I found that I was most "comfortable" with using tongues during my private, silent prayer time. So the "tongues" go on within me silently, sometimes right along other kinds of prayer. I came from a family that did not like loud, emotional occurrences so maybe that is why I feel more comfortable having this be a private way of prayer. I would certainly not be opposed to being in a gathering where there was public praying in tongues and I know it can be very powerful. Maybe I have also come to the point that I have because my husband is an anti-Christian and because of that I can't/don't attend church. The only "Christian fellowship" I get is online and I know that may not be considered fellowship at all since I am not physically together with the people online. But for now, that is the way it is. I am comforted by the fact that all around me in my community are people who I know are also Christians. God is to be found everywhere, but I do MISS gathering specifically with other Christians for formal worship.

Joanie D.