Historical Amnesia

I recently was part of Catholic – Charismatic (=neo-Pentecostal)/Pentecostal Novena to the Holy Spirit. I was part of it mainly because John Michael Talbot was speaking in one online session (there was a talk each day before the prayers), unfortunately that was a session that I missed. 

Now not only do I have nothing against ecumenical activities, I am very much for them. They played a part in my spiritual journey. I teach for an evangelical institution, I have many friends in various Protestant denominations, and view my own Protestant background as contributing to my spiritual health and present situation. Furthermore, Pope Francis has encouraged ecumenical contact, not just with the Orthodox, but also with Pentecostals, not to mention his visits to Islamic and other leaders. What I am interested in in this blog post is a type of historical amnesia and contextual warping that I admit was very much part of my past and probably part of my present as well and which warped both this novena and many ecumenical activities. 

I grew up Plymouth Brethren, a group that had started out as an ecumenical movement in the post-Napoleonic-wars British Isles. They correctly discerned that the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist was the center of first century worship. They felt that the various liturgies were what were holding Christians apart. So, they proposed meeting around “the [Eucharistic] elements” in “primitive simplicity,” i.e. without formal leadership and allowing the Holy Spirit to direct the service (in the beginning, the movement was open to any spiritual gifts being exercised: “It is the duty of Christian men in these last days to seek the renewal of the gifts of the Spirit.” After the early 1830’s they were still open to “leadings of the Spirit” in life and liturgy, but argued that the gifts of 1 Cor 12 has ceased, even if historically speaking they were present under other terminology). Of course, their historical-cultural amnesia was in not realizing that the early Church met in a context that included (1) Greco-Roman meal customs, (2) Passover liturgy, (3) synagogue service-of-the-word patterns, and (4) Temple prayer liturgies using the Psalms, among other influences. The Holy Spirit led the Church into all truth, for sure, and the Holy Spirit was, according to Acts, the impulse behind her cross-cultural missional activity, but the Holy Spirit apparently did not feel any need to jettison all elements of the liturgical and customary structure surrounding the Last Supper. Needless to say, the denominational leaders of the clergymen (there were women, but they would not have been part of church structures) meeting “in this way,” took a dim view of their ignoring of both New Testament and intermediate history and forced those involved over which they had influence to choose either the new “assembly” or their place in their denomination. As a result, a new denomination (which, of course, did not consider itself a denomination) was born. 

This present initiative (in common with similar initiatives – I am just using the example I participated in) shared with the Plymouth Brethren the desire to bracket the differences among the neo-Pentecostals, Catholic or Protestant, involved, and meet together more or less on the basis of a shared perception (common interpretive tradition and common language and experience) of the Holy Spirit as experienced in Pentecost, a type of “primitive simplicity.” They cited Pope Francis who had suggested “getting together for a gelato,” in other words, for human contact, for ecumenism from the ground up, bracketing the issues between them that theologians were dealing with. Notice that Pope Francis did not mention the core Christian gathering, the Eucharist, but a human activity with no obvious theological ramifications, i.e. eating “a gelato” together. And, of course, Lumen Gentium does note that our “separated brethren” are, due to their baptism, members of the one Church and in many cases live some aspects of the faith better than Catholics (Pope Francis himself was friendly with and apparently influenced by the late Luis Palau). Getting together for a novena to the Holy Spirit, i.e. for prayer, seemed relatively safe, although in the prayers and in the talks theological positions were expressed that I am sure some needed to ignore. And the novena style with some prayers repeated daily (e.g. the Lord’s Prayer, Apostles’ Creed and the Gloria) was surely foreign to non-Catholic neo-Pentecostal ecclesial communities. Still, this was a long way from the Fundamentalist excoriation of Billy Graham for merely having Catholic clergy on the platform of some of his “crusades.” It was also naïve for both the Protestants and the Catholics that I heard to speak as if this was the beginning of the unification of the church, for Pope Francis is Jesuit-trained and uses language carefully, even if he seems off-the-cuff, which means that once we get past gelato to working together theologically there is work to do. Pentecostals and neo-Pentecostals are a small segment of the Catholic Church and the Protestant world. And Lumen Gentium does not give the equality to “separated brethren” that at least some of the speakers claimed. [To cite a personal “for instance,” before I, as an Episcopal priest, resigned my orders and was received by the Catholic Church I had come to realize that I did not have valid orders in Catholic eyes (I had read the appropriate papal document) and that the Episcopal Church was an “ecclesial structure” or “ecclesial community,” not a church, since there can only be one Church; but I was nevertheless treated by those receiving me as if I were a priest (e.g. with the honorific “Father”) and part of a church. Their graciousness, however, was just that and they still received me as a layman without any promise of later ordination.]

However, the real amnesia came in other comments. A connection was made between a nun urging Pope Leo XIII to call for prayer for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the Pope’s praying the Venite Creator Spiritus on January 1, 1901 (a prayer that is not uncommon in liturgies) and what is viewed as the start of the Pentecostal movement near Topeka, Kansas, that same day. There was no reference to the Topeka event as an expression of healing-holiness-adventist fervor that had been going on in the USA for something like 20 years and had spawned at least two denominations already (with a variety of Pentecostal denominations about to add to that number). There was no mention of the fact that far from unifying Christians the Pentecostal movement was separatist, insisting that one was not “in” unless one spoke in tongues (and it was strongly anti-Catholic – as I remember my reading, the first Pentecostal missions went to Catholic countries and went out without language training, depending on the Spirit given them the proper “tongues”). And there was also no mention of the fact that the “tongues” expressed that first evening were considered actual languages (which would be true to the biblical texts); in fact, the first woman to receive the gift claimed others told her she was speaking “Bohemian.” This is unlike the ecstatic “tongues” of the neo-Pentecostal movement of the 1960’s and later in mainline ecclesial communities and the Catholic Church (although there are isolated cases in which an actual language was spoken, almost always in cross-cultural situations).

A second type of amnesia was that of more distant history. The Pentecostal movement originally (which often today requires a “tongues” experience of pastors as a once-off qualification, but otherwise is often like other conservative evangelicals) and neo-Pentecostal movements in general see themselves as repeating the Acts narrative (understood without Luke’s purpose). There is no reference to intervening history, even in the speakers from the Catholic Church. Of course, scriptures tended to be used as proof-texts without reference to the wider context of the books in which they occur and that is a (in the Catholic Church) pre-Vatican II approach. That is also the approach to doing “theology” that I had in a Protestant seminary in the late 1960’s. In that “intervening history” quite a few major Catholic figures, such as John Chrysostom, mention the gift of tongues and apply it to the spread of the gospel to people of many languages (which, of course, is what the biblical term means). Augustine cites the “groanings” of the Spirit that are beyond words (from Rom 8) and then mentions some men were specially gifted to understand such groanings and express them in human language and that that is the origin of the collects in the liturgy. In other words, many aspects of the various biblical passages are picked up in the tradition, and I heard no reference to any of it in the novena speakers, for the interpretative template of 20th century experience had created an amnesia. 

Perhaps, more importantly, there are a host of Holy Spirit inspired revivals in church history, some more local, some more widespread. They did not, of course, require a crisis experience characterized by speaking in ecstatic utterances, for the requirement of crisis experiences for either conversion or “Holy Spirit filling” is a product of the 1880’s onward, but they are characterized by various gifts of the Holy Spirit (in the sense of the Pauline lists). Catherine of Siena could read the souls and thoughts of others. Francis of Assisi started what became a worldwide proclamation movement that saw many miracles of various types. John of the Cross would write about spiritual experiences (which he views as sensual yet, when God-given, a step in the right direction) and both their value and their ability to be counterfeited, as does Teresa of Avila in a less systematic way (and, of course, the two of them renewed and revived Carmelite spirituality, forming the touchstone of that movement until this day). St Philip Neri was known for his healing gifts, his joy, and his fervent prayer – as well as his ascetic lifestyle. Of course, there were others in the East, such as John Chrysostom, to mention only one. And there were those in the north who evangelized or renewed the church in the Germanic world. Some, like Ignatius of Loyola, did have dramatic conversions or callings. Others, like Francis of Assisi had a series of steps in their conversion or calling narratives. My point is twofold: there are numerous incidences of Holy Spirit generated revival, renewal, or evangelism through all of church history. (I have only referred to the ones I have been reading about recently.) The other side of the coin is that while we can see the various spiritual gifts of 1 Cor 12 at work, the movements look different from one another. Francis of Assisi eventually became a deacon, but started off as a layman. Philip Neri was a priest. Some others were bishops. Catherine of Siena was a woman who was not cloistered as, for instance Clare of Assisi was. Some revivals or renewals were more local, while others took in whole countries and others sent out missionaries to the far ends of the world. The one thing they have in common is that they tend to play down references to miracles and visions and the like; in fact, it is usually followers or later biographers who mention them, not the person himself or herself (although Tersa of Avila did so when ordered to for the benefit of the Inquisition). Even Jonathan Edwards who defended various Spirit-phenomena in the New England revival then went on to make it clear that they were no mark of that the revival was a real work of the Spirit – things like holiness and changes lives were the mark of genuineness.

In fact, as Paul (in 1 Cor 12 – 14) makes love far more important than gifts that some may have (and probably usually have on a temporary basis) and as he in 2 Cor 12 only mentions his visionary experience because he feels “forced,” the ones considered most spiritual through history stressed such things as love, joy, peace, long-suffering, lack of anger, etc. as the marks of the Spirit and mostly kept silent (or tried to) about visions, ecstasies, prophecies, healings, and the like as something that needed testing or which were occasional private experiences or which were gifts needed for a particular mission. They sound like Jonathan Edwards: the genuine marks of a move of the Spirit are moral. The other things may be from the Spirit or may not be, they can be counterfeited or real, they can be corrupted or, with appropriate maturity can lead to growth in Christlikeness. This, of course, fits with Jesus, who tells people he heals to be silent (when he is dealing with single cases) and never advertises. 

So, something happens in Topeka and Azuza St and Arkansas in the 1901 – 1906 period. It is not something absolutely new, not something that has not happened since the first century, but one more in a series of revivals and renewals down the ages. The Holy Spirit had not “come back,” but – to the extent that it was genuine (and as all revivals is was a mixed works, as Jonathan Edwards points out for the revival of his day) – it was another in a series. Likewise, the spread of Pentecostal theology and practice to mainline and Catholic groups was good, but it was also very North American in style and origin. Yet at the same time the Holy Spirit was at work in Europe, for example, but with a more contemplative shape to the renewal. The Holy Spirit was at work in East Africa in the Anglican Church, with miracles of all types, but without tongues (the so-called East African revival). 

That means that if the Holy Spirit does a work of revival in our time (as the neo-Pentecostal movements seem to be dying out or in some cases getting rather weird) it will probably not be a fourth wave of what happened in 1901 (the third wave being the interdenominational movement of the 1980’s and later that was identified with John Wimber, which did not have Pentecostal theology or an emphasis on glossalalia) but something different. And it may be in China or Africa and not in North America. It will not look exactly like Acts, for Acts served the purpose of initial cross-cultural beginnings, as Luke points out. But it will have characteristics that are common to the various revivals and moves of the Holy Spirit down the ages. And we may only notice it if we are well-read enough to get over our historical amnesia and notice that what is going on here or there looks like this that happened there then and this other thing that happened in this other place at another time, but of course not exactly the same. However, those involved will likely not be talking about what is going on, first because they are too busy and second because humility is a mark of the true action of the Holy Spirit.

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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