More Charismatic Than You Think image

More Charismatic Than You Think

Charismatics and cessationists have many things in common, but one of the oddest is the way both tend to tell the story of how Pentecostal-Charismatic churches emerged. For many cessationists, the relatively sudden appearance of the miraculous gifts at the start of the 20th century proves that the gifts are not authentic, and that charismatics are both naïve and historically rootless, inventing something that the church has never had. For many charismatics, the relatively sudden appearance of the miraculous gifts at the start of the 20th century proves that the gifts are desperately needed, and that charismatics are both zealous and pioneering, rediscovering something that the church has long lost. In both narratives, the story is one of radical discontinuity. It's just that one group approves of that discontinuity, and the other one doesn't.

Yet when you read the church fathers, or the reformers, you often find that their experience is nothing like as different from modern “charismatics” as either of these narratives, cessationist or charismatic, might lead you to believe. When I, as a charismatic, read Calvin talking about healings in answer to prayer, or Luther’s take on spiritual warfare, or Pascal’s description of his experience of the Holy Spirit, or Spurgeon’s spontaneous insights into what was happening in his parishioners’ lives, it strikes me that although their language may be different from mine - I might talk about the gift of healing, prophecy, and so on - their experiences are almost identical to mine, or those of people in my church. (If anything, actually, they go further than most modern charismatics would on a number of points. I’ve never met anyone whose “baptism in the Spirit” experience was more striking than Pascal’s, or whose diabolic encounters more dramatic than Luther’s. These guys make Smith Wigglesworth look like John Macarthur.)

Perhaps nobody illustrates this principle more clearly than Augustine. Although he believes the new birth is coterminous with baptism, it’s hard to think of a clearer regeneration story (in modern charismatic terms) than this from Book VIII of the Confessions:

“If I wish, I can become the friend of God at this very moment.” After saying this he turned back to the book, labouring under the pain of the new life that was taking birth in him. He read on and in his heart, where you alone could see, a change was taking place. His mind was being divested of the world, as could presently be seen. For while he was reading, his heart leaping and turning in his breast, a cry broke for him as he saw the better course and determined to take it.

Or how about this for (what charismatics would call) prophetic direction?

‘And again Continence seemed to say, “Close your ears to the unclean whispers of your body, so that it may be mortified. It tells you of things that delight you, but not such things as the law of the Lord your God has to tell” ... all at once I heard the singing voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain, “Take it and read, take it and read.” At this I looked up ... telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall ... I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites. I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.’ (Confessions, Book VIII)

Or this, on demonisation?

“I know that a young woman of Hippo was immediately dispossessed of a devil, on anointing herself with oil, mixed with the tears of the prebsyter who had been praying for her. I know also that a bishop once prayed for a demoniac young man whom he never saw, and that he was cured on the spot.” (The City of God, Book XXII)

And then, of course, there’s his huge six thousand word chapter on healing in The City of God, intriguingly entitled, “Of Miracles Which Were Wrought that the World Might Believe in Christ, and Which Have Not Ceased Since the World Believed.” Here’s one of his numerous examples:

“In the same city of Carthage lived Innocentia, a very devout woman of the highest rank in the state. She had cancer in one of her breasts, a disease which, as physicians say, is incurable. Ordinarily, therefore, they either amputate, and so separate from the body the member on which the disease has seized, or, that the patient’s life may be prolonged a little, though death is inevitable even if somewhat delayed, they abandon all remedies, following, as they say, the advice of Hippocrates. This the lady we speak of had been advised to by a skillful physician, who was intimate with her family; and she betook herself to God alone by prayer. On the approach of Easter, she was instructed in a dream to wait for the first woman that came out from the baptistery after being baptized, and to ask her to make the sign of Christ upon her sore. She did so, and was immediately cured ... ‘What great thing was it for Christ to heal a cancer, who raised one who had been four days dead?’”

This isn’t some random maverick nobody from nowhere-on-the-wold. This is Augustine: Western Christianity’s most influential thinker, and the one church father whose writings were circulating throughout Europe for the next thousand years (and beyond). And here he is, matter-of-factly talking about personal divine direction, and demonisation, and dramatic miraculous healings from cancer and gout and cataracts and a whole host of other things, in ways that sound astonishingly similar to modern charismatics. Augustine does use different language for these things in places, of course, and he also gives some examples that would make all but the most loony faith-healers raise an eyebrow. But if anyone wants to argue for the apocalyptic appearance of miraculous experiences in 1906 after nineteen centuries of nothingness - whether in favour of it (charismatics) or against it (cessationists) - they are on a hiding to nothing.

So there.

(You might also want to check out Sam Storms’s piece, giving six answers to the question, “Why were miraculous gifts absent throughout church history until their alleged reappearance in the 20th century?” It’s smart, crisp, clear and convincing. Pretty much like Sam.)

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