It is clear that the church in the first century had an experience of the Spirit. Both Acts and Paul agree that there were a variety of experiential elements to spiritual experience, and they included glossolalia, joy, prophetic speech, healing, and similar experiential elements. I am writing this just on Ascension (or before Ascension in some dioceses) and the gospel reading is the longer ending of Mark, which includes a number of those experiences as coming from the Spirit.
What is also clear is that none of the experiences was stereotyped. Paul indicates in 1 Cor 12 that not all speak in tongues (the grammar of “Do all speak in tongues?” expects a negative answer) nor do all experience any one of the other gifts of the Spirit. But all are Spirit-filled. This was true down through the history of the Church. Not all of the monks in the desert had the experience that Anthony of the Desert had. But they (or at least many of them) were none the less saintly and Spirit-filled individuals. Not all had the conversion experience of Augustine (which was really the end of a long process), but countless were truly committed Christians. Not all had the call of Francis of Assisi. And the experience of St Dominic was quite different. And while Francis of Assisi and Ignatius Loyola were both “converted” after an experience in battle, their paths were quite different after conversion, the one being suspicious of intellectual activity and the other forming his core group at the University of Paris. The list could go on and on.
The same is true in the Protestant world. Luther has his “tower experience,” which depended in part on Augustine, but one cannot demand that experience of others – and perhaps Luther himself carried it too far. John Wesley had a series of experiences that led to his preach tours, but they were not the same as the noisy revivals that broke out when he preached, often scandalizing proper Anglicans. Yet when it came to joining the Methodist movement and being part of the society, it did not matter whether one had had a noisy conversion or a quiet one that came over decades, but rather that one was indeed committed to Jesus. Likewise Jonathan Edwards defended the phenomena of the Holy Spirit in the New England revival and then turned around to argue that none of the phenomena were sure signs that a work was of God. Andrew Murray experience a revival in South Africa that he had been praying for for 30 years, but it was so unlike anything he had personally experience that at first he tried to shut it down. The Spirit uses infinite variety, and one cannot force everyone into the same mold. A friend of mine, a Protestant pastor, was concerned that he had not had the dramatic spiritual experience of his wife, while his wife was concerned about the same thing, thinking that he might lack the Spirit after repeated prayer. But the Anglican David Watson said to them, “[Susie – I am changing the names], you came in like a flood, while [Sam] is a slow leaker.”
However, at the end of the 1800’s in the USA something happened. Charles Finney, a great evangelist, started “using means” to induce a conversion experiences. That is the beginning of the altar call and the “mourners bench” and “tarrying” until one had the “right” experience. That would develop through later evangelists like Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. The altar call, and even the music of the altar call, became stereotyped. The “steps to salvation” were boiled down to a “sinners prayer.” And one ended up with a number of simple methods of “leading someone to Christ.” The “born again” experience became the standard experience of Protestantism. Anyone who did not have such as “testimony” was viewed as not being “saved.” Now I do not for a moment doubt that such experiences did not transform lives and produce committed Christians. I know of too many stories to doubt that. But I also realize that in moving away from Christian initiation as a process that either culminated in baptism and confirmation (as in 4th century Jerusalem and RCIA today, even if it is less dramatic) or grew out of infant baptism (baptism – catechesis as one grew up – confirmation and first communion when one could articulate one’s faith) one produced precisely what Baptists criticized in those who practiced infant baptism – nominal Christians. When infant baptism is not followed by familial and church catechesis and a Christian lifestyle in the home, one does get nominalism or cultural Christianity, often with a falling away from Christian practice. When a conversion experience is the be-all and end-all of evangelistic efforts (although in some ecclesial communities there is also baptism, even baptism right after the “born-again” experience) one likewise gets nominalism. A large percentage of USAmericans identify themselves as “born again” – they have had the experience. A vastly smaller percentage actually go to church or identify with core Christian teachings.
Now I grew up in a Protestant group. However, my mother started reading (King James) Bible to me at age one (due to having a brother five years older) and noted that I soon showed recognition of the stories. I was taken to church from infancy on, and by the time I was five I felt it was important to sing the songs in our small church community. There was no doubt in my mind that what I heard was real. I was totally committed and proud of my parents’ commitment. But about age 6 a well-meaning Sunday school teacher told that class that if any of us had not “asked Jesus into your heart,” i.e. had the experience, Jesus might rapture one’s parents and leave one behind (implicitly to go to hell). Well, that so scared me that I “asked Jesus into my heart” repeatedly every night in my bed for quite a period, never telling my parents or anyone else. I was terrified. But there was no “experience,” and that was natural, for I was already a believer. I would much later, when I needed a “born again” testimony use that event, but as I reflect on it now, there was no status change at that point. Rather, it was unwitting emotional child abuse. I had grown into the faith, the faith of a child, but real faith, and would not have a crisis experience. I would, of course, grow in my faith. And there came a time at age 15 when I decided that I needed to take my faith seriously rather than drift along in the boat that was my family. That is when I asked the elders of our church for baptism, and also asked to “come into fellowship” as an adult male, and would within a year start my preaching career. I had a committed young adult faith. But there was no experience, no crisis, no walking of the aisle, but rather a quiet decision, I think in the privacy of my bedroom. Yet I had to have an experience to tell to others. And the first public talk I gave (at age 8 or 9) was a stereotyped evangelistic address based on “The Wordless Book” (it was given to a banquet for the Bible Club movement, and was also broadcast on the radio). And I would late get training in most of the canned evangelistic methods known to evangelicals. It would only be years later, long after seminary, that it would dawn on me that none of the evangelistic stories or messages in the New Testament asked a person to pray “the sinners prayer” or to “ask Jesus into their heart.”
Now all of that is to lay the basis for pointing out that not long after Finney the healing-holiness movements of the late 19th century broke out and, when those revival movements started having experiences of the Spirit, a development took place that paralleled that happening in the field of evangelism. That is, one had to have a “second blessing” or “baptism in the Spirit,” or one was not “Spirit-filled.” (This was true of many movements, from the Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Pentecostals, for there were a number of movements coming out of the same healing-holiness ferment.) And for some of these movements the one and only necessary sign that this had happened was that one spoke in tongues. So one “tarried,” not to “get saved,” but to “get the baptism.” It did not matter that Paul said that not all spoke in tongues. It did not matter that some earnest believers never “got it.” That was the sine qua non. And perhaps one reason for that was that, as monastic movements have long known, holiness is a process that takes time to develop, while that “sign” could be produced quickly in an emotional event. And often it was not a sign of holiness at all.
The Pentecostal revival would later spread to mainline Protestant communities and to the Catholic Church as the Neo-Pentecostal or Charismatic movements of the various groups. Often it spread with the same insistence on having the experience, although in those latter groups there was not the parallel need to “get saved” first (or at the same time). In other words, “Spirit baptism” was subsequent to a more process-oriented Christian initiation rather than a “second experience.”
I got interested in charismatic phenomena when I was at Wheaton College, but did not pursue it until after my PhD when I was teaching at Bibelschule Wiedenest in Germany. I had picked up a book during my PhD time in England while serving as a military chaplain on an Army base in Germany. I reflected on it for a while and prayed and nothing seemed to happen, but I knew that God wanted me to speak in tongues. In Germany I would sit in the forest above Wiednest and meditate and wait for God to “do it to me,” and nothing happened other than a longing. But in 1975 sitting on a balcony of our apartment in Haus Sauer and reading another book I got a bit of needed instruction and did quietly speak in tongues. No lights, no peak experience, just an “oh, so that is how it is done.” And that same longing brought me (and rather quickly us) into German charismatic meetings that were quiet, contemplative, but in which various gifts would surface from time to time. And they brought us to week-long fasting retreats. Glossalalia was accepted and properly disciplined, but it was not the sine qua non. A deep longing for God and a growth in holiness in the context of community was. But I did see marvelous healings during those days. And I learned that one did not have to be loud and did not have to have a single sign gift in order to be filled with the Spirit and know God intimately. One did not have to be manipulated, and one should certainly no boast that one “had it.” In fact, I cannot remember ever hearing my mentor, Armin Riemenschneider, ever speak in tongues. But he was a deep river of the Spirit.
I would later enjoy louder meetings, such as the National Catholic Charismatic Conference for Priests and Deacons in Steubenville Ohio, which I attended in 1980, just after having been ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1980. Yet while the Spirit was so thick one could cut it with a knife, no one was pressuring me to have their experience nor was I pressuring anyone to have mine.
I would later be involved in charismatic pastors groups in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It was one such group the first invited John Wimber to Vancouver. That was another exercise in difference. He did not want to focus on gifts, but on God. The early Vineyard music tended to be quiet and intimate, intimate worship music, not message music. It seemed too simple at times, but then it was not designed for professionals, but came out of home groups. And the actions of the Spirit were not taken as evidence of anything. From Wimber’s point of view each individual had had the Spirit since coming to faith. The point was to draw close to God, to see “what the Father was doing,” and to cooperate with it. So he was nonchalant about healing – it was just an act of obedience to what God was speaking in his heart – and very realistic about people who died. There was no blaming that the person did not have faith, as I had seen some people abused earlier, but just a note that even though thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, and prayed with great faith, that physical healing was not what the Father was doing. “Any prayer that could not be prayed at a deathbed was not worth praying at all.” And while Wimber spoke in tongues, he did not stress it. Nor did one have to testify to having that gift to become a Vineyard leader. And yet many, many were healed and, at least in Vancouver, demons were driven out, not with a lot of show, but with gentle authority (gentle towards the person, that is). And we drew closer to God.
Now Vineyard would take some twists and turns down the years, some of which happened before the death of John Wimber, and some of which John Wimber regretted and repented of. So I write what I write by way of example, not as a means of adulation.
The long and short of it is that God being who he is acts sovereignly and will not be reduced to anyone’s formula or anyone’s box. That is the story of the church in the first century, and the story of various revival movements down the years. They usually start of with someone’s experience, but eventually it gets formalized. There is an experience that one must have, whether in coming to faith or in being filled with the Spirit. And this becomes the formula for growth or healing or revival. But people being people do not always fit this formula, so some are cast aside and even abused (I will leave those stories out, for this is long enough and they would not be profitable). There is only one “formula,” and that is drawing close to God, which means conversion of heart, a deep longing for holiness, and quiet contemplation of the divine. Always loves, which means that he always seeks our good, and in his time and in his own way he fills the rooms in “the interior castle” of the person. And when that happens, phenomena happen. Often the individual is unaware. Often they will not tells stories about what God has worked through them. They want God, not the gifts. They seek the lover, not the stuff he gives them. Those gifts get his work done, so they are used as appropriate. But they are not to be boasted about ir even pointed out. The goal is becoming like Jesus, union with Jesus.
Now that is consistent with Catholic theology. And that is exemplified in the lives of saints down the ages (Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, and dozens and dozens of others – I try to read the story of saint every day as an encouragement).
When I first met a Vineyard team, this advice was given, “Be an animal (I thought of a wounded animal dragging itself through any obstacle to reach its goal). Seek the Lord, seek the Lord, seek the Lord. And when you think you have arrived, seek him some more.” Now that is 20th century California language, and it is not the language of the Pentecostal or Neo-Pentecostal movements. But it is the language of the Spirit. I think that St John of the Cross or Anthony of the Desert or any number of others would agree. And when one seeks God, when one’s whole object is to be conformed to the cross of Christ, when one finds one’s beloved and so becomes like the beloved, as happens to true lovers, then the Spirit flows and ministry happens. But if one falls into formulas and tries to manipulate God, one may get power, but it is power with a dark side, the dark side of abuses that have dogged the charismatic and many other movements in the church. Rather, seek God and let the Spirit flow.
Enough for now.