The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit

I have been reading theology and especially spirituality for decades – it is part of my life. As one part of this I have been reading (or having read to me) Bible since I was one year old. Some have joked that I “bleed Bible” when cut. As a result, I am interested in integration. How does one integrate the classic spiritual tradition (and currently the Eastern “lung” of that Christian spirituality) and charismatic experience? And how do these fit with the Scripture? Or must one have a bifurcated life, with theology separated from certain experiences? That is the purpose of the critical examination of the charismatic renewal in the light of Scripture and alongside the spiritual tradition.

I have been part of the charismatic renewal in more than one form: there was the charismatic renewal that we experienced in Germany, which was contemplative, quiet, and did not boast about its accomplishments; there was the charismatic renewal that we experienced in the USA, which was much more exuberant, tended to focus on gifted healers, prophets, and, now, apostles, often trumpeted its successes (e.g. healings, numbers at meetings), and tended to focus on healing and deliverance (although seeking personal prophecies was also important) – it is also often identified with a certain style of exuberant worship; and there was charismatic renewal (although usually seen as a middle way) originally found in the Vineyard movement (and often in groups that are part of the Association of Vineyard Christian Fellowships) that tends to be egalitarian (“everybody can play”), folksy, rooted in the desire for intimacy with God, and simply identifies healing as a part of “doing the stuff” (the “stuff” that Jesus taught his disciples to do), the other parts being “feeding the poor,” and “teaching the word.” Healing in that movement is, at least in theory, more connected with evangelism “in the streets” (i.e. “power evangelism”) than with the meetings (which are seen as training events for taking the power of God and his good news to the streets; healing goes on in “clinics” after the service, which are practice sessions for what to do when one goes out). For John Wimber, the streets were where the action was and doing the “works of Jesus” in the streets was how one gained a deeper knowledge of God and scripture, the slogan being “the meat (the deeper knowledge of Scripture) is in the street.”

I am mostly going to bracket “charismatic worship,” for a number of reasons. First, it is one style of worship growing out of the the 1960’s and 1970’s that fit that culture. Thus, it would take a course on the history of Christian worship (which I have taught at times) to do it justice. Let us just say that much of it is not conducive to contemplation and much of it is forgettable in terms of either lyrics or music. But, then, much of the worship of any age is forgettable, however popular it was in that age. Whether Wesley (Samuel, John or Charles), or Isaac Watts or the music of any other age, the output was prodigious, and those hymns and songs still known and used are relatively few. And the further back one goes, the lower the percentage of musical output that has survived. Furthermore, it is not unified: one has the mass settings coming from the (Episcopal) Church of the Redeemer, Houston, which combined guitar and organ, which are very different from the loud “tinkly” music of the other parts of the charismatic renewal. Musical style becomes problematic when it is identified with, in this case, charismatic renewal, and therefore a “must” for being involved (often then foisted upon a later generation, just like insisting that one is not truly worshipping if one is not using traditional hymns), or when it is used to hype up a group for experience, rather than flowing out of what the group is already experiencing. Music is not the main issue in integration.


Returning to the groups of charismatics, Catholic charismatics have been found involved with each of these groups, although the best-known Catholic charismatic groups have been an uneasy mixture of neo-Pentecostal/US charismatic renewal theology and Catholic sacramentalism. For example, Holy Oil, which in the New Testament is only used by presbyters (priests in typical Catholic parlance; James 5) and the Twelve (Mark 6), is sometimes used by those who are neither; Holy Water, which is not found in the New Testament at all, but does have a venerable tradition in the church, is sometimes used without discrimination and without liturgical context; and in prayer for the sick the healer or healing evangelist is often preferred to anointing by the priest or seeking healing through pilgrimage to Lourdes or some similar shrine, without reference to either Scripture or tradition. Furthermore, the Holy See has at times had to quash the level of intercommunion and mixture of practices, for where the theology is not clear, there can be a lack of discernment where “the body” is actually present. (I will mostly avoid naming names and giving dates, although I could, for they would detract from the main points I am making.)

There has been a lot of mixing and separating in the movement. For instance, John Wimber borrowed from the classic charismatic movement, but (at leaest in theory) only to the extent that he could integrate it with a quieter more contemplative “seeking God” and an evangelical theology. That did not mean that Pentecostal/neo-Pentecostal/charismatic folk of the classic type did not try to influence the movement (as conference speakers, for instance) or infiltrate the churches (as people with “experience” who thought they knew better “how to do it”) – for a while John Wimber’s meetings and the associated Vineyard fellowships were “where the action was,” so they were attractive to the charismatics who sensed that their own movement had peaked and the Spirit seemed to have “moved on.” That was indeed what was happening by the late 1980’s. But on the other hand, even though Wimber himself could talk about “bishops, priests, and deacons” as the structure of the church at the time of his release of the Canadian Vineyard movement as an independent body (which was a borrowing from classic Anglican and Catholic Church structure, as well as the New Testament and early Fathers), Wimber and the Vineyard board split with Toronto Airport (at that time Vineyard) Christian Fellowship over its emphasis on phenomena (earlier critiqued by Jonathan Edwards – phenomena happen, but prove nothing), and, concomitantly, with Global Awakening (Randy Clark being instrumental in both) that also focused on new apostles and prophets, strategic spiritual warfare, and large group revival, while still maintaining that they exist to equip every believer. There is clearly a sense in which this is true – they do encourage believers to pray for healing – and yet is there really any expectation that all will become like the “anointed healer” or “prophet” or the like? The “impartation” from above gives the impression that that there will always be a hierarchy of gifting, but that hierarchy is not the hierarchy that Wimber was thinking about.

There will always be a tension between this latest version of the charismatic movement and the Catholic Church. First, its theology is clearly Pentecostal-evangelical with the language of “saved” and “anointing” and “baptism in the Spirit” being used freely. Second, its ecclesiology is, well, individualistic and charismatic. By “charismatic” one means that in the movement (and similar movements) there are those who are apostolic and/or prophetic, but totally independent from apostolic succession in the Anglican or Catholic sense or even any of the larger Protestant bodies. They are ordained “from above” (although often there are services of ordination in which there is a type of circular ordination) – no qualifications other than “the Spirit,” no screening process, let alone formal education (some do have formal education, but it is not a qualification per se, and it is sometimes seen as something they have managed to overcome), and very very little in the form of accountability structures. They claim tens of thousands of affiliated congregations, many of them splits from other congregations. One wonders what the average size of a congregation is, but while there are some larger congregations, the total Sunday attendance is probably in the hundred thousands. From the Catholic point of view this is the multiplication of separated brethren without accountability structures and with a multiplication of grand titles. The Catholic Church has always believed that it can learn from separated brethren, but it has also been concerned with the tendency to recruit from Catholic ranks and to undermine Catholic theology.

However, the above is just descriptive of the situation. The central concern of this post is the question of integration, i.e. the theological and practical authenticity of any claim to the reception of the Spirit and whether that fits with the Scripture and tradition, including the spiritual tradition.

The Charismatic movement in the USA is aging and its numbers have been decreasing (movements like the Global Awakening may not yet have peaked, although the information I have received is that certain of its churches have declined). It obviously has not been fully satisfactory to many of its participants or to the church at large. Why might this be?


First, there is a failure to deliver on its promises. People are promised power (a dangerous promise, spiritually), and they are shown apparent power in the large gatherings, but few actually experience the power in their day to day lives. Great statements are made about breaking the power of this or that principality or spirit over this or that area. Great prophecies are proclaimed. Great healings are hoped for (on the basis of some real healings). The people eventually realize that little or nothing has really changed.

Second, there is the failure to deliver on holiness. The Pentecostal movement arose out of the healing-holiness movement of the late 1800’s, which also spawned groups such as the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Many Pentecostal churches have “holiness” in their name or “sanctification” as one of their pillars. But, without accountability structures and with great power in the hands of pastors, apostles, prophets, and “anointed leaders,” the promise of holiness has been less than fulfilled in virtually all of the forms of the movement and in the charismatic movement flowing from it. On the local level, individuals have been abused by prophetic words and/or by being blamed for the death or continuing sickness of a loved one because they, it is claimed, “lacked faith.” Pastors and youth leaders have abused money, sex, and power, and have done so with relatively impunity. Only lately do we observe a more consistent demand for accountability as victims come forward. Many of the most high-profile prophets, apostles, and “anointed leaders” have publicly “fallen,” sometimes to be restored to ministry in a relatively short period by some of their colleagues. Indeed, this was part of the reason for the break between John Wimber and the “Kansas City Prophets.” Other situations are swept under the rug, their victims blamed, and the wound continuing to fester. The waiting rooms of abuse counselors fill up. Now, there are lots of holy men and women of God in these movements, to be sure, but the fact is that there is every reason to believe that sexual abuse, to name one issue, is just as prevalent among these groups as among mainline denominations and the Catholic Church. Where then is real renewal? The difference between such groups and movements and mainline denominations is that unlike, say, the Episcopal Church, accountability, clear rules, and abuse prevention and detection training have not been implemented, partly because of there being no structure to implement them. And unlike the Catholic Church there is no Dallas Charter (most instances of abuse pre-date the 2002 Dallas Charter that established a procedure of training, reporting, and resolving these issues, and any I have read about since 2002 appear to have been swiftly reported to law enforcement authorities, if illegal, or to have swiftly led to suspension from ministry and investigation, if immoral but not illegal, or, better put, breaking canon law but not civil law). The fact is that power, including if it is spiritual power, gives great temptations to corruption, so money, sex, and abuse of power will continue to be problems. Without accountability structures that have real authority, there is no way to remove the perpetrators. And without the centralized training, it is difficult for a church or denomination or movement to move from seeing such acts as “sin” or a single “fall” to be repented of, to seeing them as psychological problems to be treated, to finally realizing that they are addictions or major character flaws and permanently disqualify one from ministry (which are the stages that Bishop Anthony Taylor, the Catholic Bishop of Little Rock, says that the Catholic Church in the USA had to move through over 50 or 60 years). Wherever in the Catholic Charismatic movement or in any other form of the Charismatic movement up to the present there have been such failings, they have left wounded, disillusioned, and often, unfortunately, bitter people in their wake. Holiness is not an option, and, if lacking, the only appropriate recourse is retreat to a hermitage or other place of penance until one gains mastery and self-control.

Finally, there are the theological issues which make integration of the charismatic movement difficult at times, more or less depending on its form:

The baptism in the Holy Spirit language, for one, is problematic. It was developed from the crisis sanctification language of the 1800’s and there is no doubt that people often have a series of peak experiences marking their lives. But theologically virtually all Christian traditions connect the baptism in the Holy Spirit to Christian initiation (Pentecost in Acts 2 being an exception, for the Spirit does not “come” until Jesus physically leaves this dimension), and in the Catholic Church and a number of other traditions this is sacramentally expressed in the use of properly blessed oil. Furthermore, the experience of glossolalia is neither common in Christian initiation in general nor universal in Acts. Paul, in fact, does not connect glossolalia to conversion-initiation at all. As long as this language continues to be used in this way, people will remain confused and disappointed, and all the more as they become theologically aware. It is unfortunate that the Catholic Charismatic movement took this language over from Pentecostalism, for which there was a clear series of crisis conversion as an older child or adult (taken over from what was developing in conservative evangelicalism) to which was added crisis sanctification/baptism in the Spirit. This just does not fit with Catholic theology.

The focus on the Spiritual gifts of 1 Cor 12 is also problematic, not in the insistence on their still being operational, but in how they are made central out of context. The Catholic Church has focused more on Isa 6:2-3, which is reasonable because all Christians are “in Christ” and therefore should expect those Isaianic gifts of the Spirit to be present in them. These gifts also mesh with the “fruit” of the Spirit in Gal 5:22-24. What is characteristic of both lists is that they are behavioral and ethical and indicate connection to God, which should be universal aspirations of every Christian.

The gifts of 1 Cor 12 are ministry gifts. Paul explicitly states that not every Christian has any one of the gifts in that list, not even tongues (the attempt to get various versions of tongues, some being languages – either of human being or angels – and most being the “prayer language” of someone simply does not fit the texts contextually or linguistically). Instead Paul is giving a list of examples of gifts that one may have, a list that starts with speech coming from wisdom (known from the wisdom books of the Old Testament, from James 1 and 3, and from Isa 6), then speech coming from knowledge (what one knows of scripture, or, presumably, the natural world – linguistically this would notrefer to a revelation, but to the inspiration to apply or properly interpret knowledge), next come the related trust in God/Jesus (that may come from listening prayer, an awareness of what God wants to do in a given situation, although Paul does not make that explicit – his point is that the Spirit inspires trust), various types of gifts of healing (we do know that in Mark 9, for instance, there were some things that the disciples were not gifted to heal, while earlier it is clear that they had been gifted to heal many things, presumably in different situations), working wonders, prophecy (visions and oracles, for that is how the term is used in Hebrew Scripture; in Acts it is rarely used for foretelling, and when it is so used, it is a warning with a present application; later in 1 Corinthians Paul speaks of it as upbuilding and convicting in its effect), discernment, linguistic ability (certainly needed as the church reached across cultures and linguistic groups, as one sees in Acts 2, whether one was aware of what one was saying or not, whether one had the gift of learning language or the instant appearance of language), and the ability to interpret languages (again, clearly needed in cross-cultural ministry, whether the Spirit’s gifting was evident in how quickly one learned or in instant understanding). There is no reason to believe that these are not fully operational today, for they are clearly still needed. I have personally experienced all of them at one time or another. But the is not Paul’s point. Paul is taking some examples and stating that they are equally gifts of the Spirit, that no person will manifest them all in a given group setting, and that no person has a monopoly on them, for “to each is given.” The point is that together they serve “the common good.” They do not validate one’s spiritual experience or status, they do not belong to a few, they do not create a gifting hierarchy – they work together for the good of the community. That is why love is more important than any gift (1 Cor 13) and that is why glossolalia (speaking in a foreign language, learned or unlearned) should only be done if the person or someone else interprets for those who do not speak that language. It is the unity of the body and the upbuilding of all that is the point. Likewise, those prophesying should not interrupt or otherwise disrupt one another, and there should be few enough oracles that the leaders of the community can evaluate them – all individuals are mixed bags of holiness and depravity, so all gifts will tend to be at least somewhat tainted by our desires and the like. People are to desire the “higher gifts,” which appear to be those that most strengthen the community and speak to outsiders. Thus, glossolalia is of limited value, for it may be irrelevant in a group in which all speak Greek, but it should not be forbidden, so long as it is interpreted, for even if one is not aware of the fact, perhaps someone is there who needs to hear some key phrase or message spoken in their mother tongue.

Paul (assuming that he is the author of Ephesians) does speak of individuals characterized by certain ministries in Eph 4, but the gifts are the people, not the ministries. The gifts are apostles (I doubt that the Twelve are meant, but rather missionary-church planters like Paul, for such people also appear in the Didache and are not allowed to stay in a local church but must move on after a rest), prophets, evangelists (one thing that I am not, although once in a while God surprises me by using me this way), and pastors and teachers. Again, the list need not be complete, but exemplary. The purpose is the same as in 1 Cor 12: for the common good, i.e. for “the equipping of the saints,” for “the building up of the body of Christ.” They serve the servants of God. Nothing to get proud about, folks.

That, in brief, is what biblical studies might contribute to the discussion, and ignoring the context makes the whole seem questionable and difficult to integrate. Likewise, the typical charismatic teaching on “faith” is linguistically problematic and often pastorally disastrous. It becomes our work, not God’s gift. Equally problematic (in contexts in which the language is used) are the teachings about “mantles” and “anointings” and “impartation.” They are also quite in contrast to Catholic teaching, if one is a Catholic.

The point is that if one speaks enough of these theologically questionable teachings, eventually at least those with some theological education see through them. The wise leader knows this, which is why John Wimber would contract with me, for example, to “take apart” his teaching on an issue by issue basis. That is, he asked me for a 5 to 10-page or so paper summarizing the biblical teaching on a topic with no holds barred when it came to disagreeing with him. I was not the only one so “privileged” (I put “privileged” in quotes because, while I did feel honored and trusted to be asked, I also experienced sending in a paper and before receiving any acknowledgment, receiving a communication from across the continent from someone wanting me to defend it because Wimber had sent it to him as “the official Vineyard position!”), which is good, for it is in the multitude of counselors that there is wisdom. Let the scholars argue it out and look carefully at the evidence that they produce for their positions. Likewise, there are consequences of ignoring Paul’s teaching, consequences that often mean the dissolution of the community that one is not building up.

Yet there are gifts that everyone should seek and obtain, for they are available in Christ, and those are the Isa 6 and Gal 5 gifts. But they all are connected with an ethical lifestyle, even an ascetic lifestyle (in Paul’s words, “crucifying the flesh”). And that is what triggered this post. Last night I was reading St Seraphim of Sarov, On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit(no press is listed, but I got it from and its ISBN is 9781499236965). Now this seems to be a poor translation of a transcription of a discussion with St Seraphim, and the discussion must have taken place before Seraphim’s death in 1833. To understand it one must realize that “saved” essentially includes sanctified, ready for the beatific vision, and that in fact the beatific vision or intimacy with God is what the acquisition of the Holy Spirit is. For Seraphim almsgiving and other acts of ministry (including the ministry gifts of 1 Corinthians) are simply means of preparing one’s heart for closeness to God, and they only function this way if done for Christ. St Seraphim also includes “crucifying the flesh” in this category, naming fasting in particular. The most productive way of preparing one’s heart is prayer, and he was no wimp when it came to prayer: he prayed for hours in his hut kneeling upon a stone.

Now the various gifts of the Spirit and then some are attributed to Seraphim, but not claimed by him. He did his duty in the church or focused on prayer in his hut. He does not talk about miracles. But others did, and the writer of the work experience Seraphim’s clairvoyance when the old man simply says that he realizes that the writer started his spiritual seeking quite young and had still not found what he was seeking after having consulted many spiritual men (the writer fills in how this meshed with his experience). I would suppose that Paul would call this prophecy. But Seraphim does not speak of this or of any other miracle attributed to him. He refers to himself as “humble Seraphim” and to the writer as “your Godliness,” although the writer refers to St Seraphim as “father.” While Seraphim’s exegesis is spiritual exegesis, almost Philonic in places, and while one is sometimes not sure whether it is the translation or poor biblical memory that brings in some inaccuracies, the tenor of the book is clear: like John of the Cross, or Teresa of Avila, Seraphim (and, as well, the Philokaliain general, which I happened to be reading later in the night, in particular Diodochus of Photiki) sees the purification of the soul as critical to obtaining intimacy with God, and this is the goal of the Christian life. Purification comes through the sacraments, through prayer (especially), and through righteous deeds, which include ministry done for the sake of Jesus, especially almsgiving. Thus while all of Paul’s gifts of the Spirit are not just accepted, but, according to other accounts, experienced in the life of Seraphim, he pays little attention to them, for they are just tools for doing the ministry God has called him to for the sake of Jesus. In other words, he is determined to put on Christ, to receive the virtues of Gal 5, to become like Jesus, and he does so by laying down his life for others, as Jesus did. God gives the needed tools for doing this, the “charismatic gifts” being one and only one aspect of this, and not the most important one, and for that he is thankful, but, in a sense, hardly notices, for of course God would give the gifts necessary to do his will, and all Seraphim wants to do is thank the giver. His concern is the conquest of the passions, bringing them under the control of the mind informed by Christ.

This puts charismata in context. It brings me back to the contemplative focus on the gifts that I found in Germany in the Rufer Movement (Ruferbewegung). But it takes me beyond that into the holy men and women of God down the ages practicing the same disciplines and the same gifts. They often renewed the church, although at times they were islands of piety in the midst of corruption. Yet rather than anger or outrage, they expressed sorrow and prayer. Here are charismata in the context of the whole of church history. And now I know why I have been uncomfortable with the charismatic movement even while enjoying the gifts and the fellowship – there is often an “us” – “them” mentality, “us renewed and with it” ones over against “them, the dead and unspiritual and hierarchal” ones. I have called myself a charismatic, and basically that is correct, if it means accepting the gifts listed in 1 Cor 12, and expecting them to function in my life and the lives of others. But what I have longed for all the time is to forget the gifts and simply use them as they are needed by this or that occasion and become a man of the Spirit, to experience the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Then they are integrated as Paul would have them integrated.

If I succeed in that acquisition of the Holy Spirit, do not expect me to blog about it. To experience the Spirit in that way, says St Seraphim, is to lapse into silence, as he did for some 13 years, three outside the monastery and 10 within. The silence is both the silence of deep humility in face of the all-knowing God, and the inability to express the inexpressible, which may well mean that there will be lot of silence (loving silence) in heaven.



About Peter H. Davids

I am a retired Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a retired professor, and an active Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years, writer, and editor). My present appointment is Chaplain to the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Our Lady of Guadalupe Priory in Georgetown, Texas. I am also a priest available to parishes and communities in the Diocese of Austin, and the resident priest for the Austin Byzantine Catholic Community. I am married and so am a husband and also a father, and a grandfather.
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1 Response to The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit

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