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Charismata and the Authority of Personal Experience

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This is part of a series of occasional short essays from the "Professor's Soap Box."  It is not intended to be a detailed exposition; rather, it is meant to give you food for thought and to challenge some popular ideas.


Have you noticed the rise in psychic "hotlines" and TV shows nowadays?  Five years ago, it would have been difficult to find even a psychic commercial on TV.  Now, there are several half-hour infomercials, aired almost round the clock. 

Have you also noticed New Age music cropping up here and there, not to mention the infiltration of Eastern Mysticism into the West, and increased UFO sightings (not to mention TV programs about them)?  How about the rise of "what's in it for me" attitudes, a morality of convenience, and a market-driven society (i.e., making a living as an end in itself)?  While we're at it, we could add the increasing denial of absolute truth by most Americans--even though a large proportion claim to be evangelical Christians, the prioritizing of relevance over truth, of pragmatics over knowledge, of feelings over beliefs.  Al Franken, of Saturday Night Live fame, some years ago epitomized what we are seeing with his self-serving commentary (he humorously suggested that this decade should be labeled the "Al Franken" decade). 

A New Kind of Charismatic

Part and parcel of this phenomenon is the rising popularity of charismatic Christianity--especially among those who had never been attracted to the charismatic movement before.  Specifically, the Pentecostal/charismatic movement historically has roots in Wesleyan theology and practice.  In other words, it has historically been associated with Arminian theology.  The reason for this is not immediately obvious, but can be seen through a variety of connections. Arminianism teaches, among other things, that a person once saved can lose his salvation.  Hence, Arminians put a strong emphasis on moral duty, as well as spiritual experiences, as the continued confirmation that one is still saved.  It is a natural extension from this stance that the test by which a person knows he is saved is various manifestations of the Spirit.  Thus the craving for supernatural experiences is both endemic to the charismatic mindset and necessary as continued confirmation of salvation.

But this craving for confirmation is not the motivation of many who have become charismatics in the last few years.  Indeed, what is unusual about the current popularity of the charismatic movement, principally the Vineyard form, is that has attracted many Calvinists as well as many well-trained scholars.  Every year at the Evangelical Theological Society meetings1 I learn of a few more professors of theology who have joined the ranks of the Vineyard movement.  Often, the response of colleagues when they find out about one these theologians is one of astonishment: "No! Not him!  I never would have expected him to become a charismatic!"

Cognitive Christianity
and the Impoverished Soul

Why are scholars suddenly becoming charismatics?  What has happened in the last few years to attract the intelligentsia to this group?

We can give both a short answer and a long one.  The short answer is that many Christian scholars have for a long time embraced a Christianity that is almost exclusively "from the neck up."  That is, theirs is a cognitive faith, one where reason reigns supreme.  They are usually fine exegetes and theologians, able to defend the faith and articulate their views in a coherent, biblical, profound, and logical way.  But (without naming names) many of these savants have lost their love for Christ.  They love the Bible and know it inside and out.  But their soul has become impoverished.  They love God with their mind only; that is the extent of their spiritual obligation as they see it.  In fact, for them, personal experience--especially of a charismatic sort--is anathema.  It has no place in the Christian life.  Study of the Bible so that they can control the text is what the Christian life is all about.

But when crisis comes--such as the death of a loved one, a teenage daughter's pregnancy, or some major upheaval in their church ministries--their answers appear shallow and contrived, both to others and themselves.  They have the inability to hurt with the hurting, though they know all the right verses on suffering!  They begin to search for answers themselves, answers of an entirely different sort.  Often, in the crucible of the crisis, they attend a charismatic meeting.  And there, a "prophet" reveals something about their life.  They are both amazed at the prophecy and deeply touched at the perception into their own condition.  (Of course, cognitive types almost always marvel when other, more sensitive people, intuitively recognize traits and characteristics, internal workings and struggles in others.)  Their souls get drenched with an emotional infusion that had been quenched for too long.  It doesn't take long before they hold hands with those whom they used to oppose, even to the point of now leading charismatic groups.  They in fact become the theologians of a new breed of charismatic, giving a rather sophisticated rationale for charismata.  In the process, they have gone through a paradigm shift: their final authority is no longer reasoning about the Scriptures; now it is personal experience. 

Because of a crisis, personal, spiritual experience has replaced reason as the authority that guides their lives.  They have exchanged, in some measure, their heart for their mind.2  That's the short answer.

The Age of Epistemological Narcissism

The long answer is this.  The history of the Church and indeed of western civilization, in terms of authority, can be traced out rather simply.3  Before the Reformation, tradition was the final authority.  This included the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church and all its trappings.  When that pesky little German monk, Martin Luther, nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, a new authority was boldly announced: revelation.  Actually, it was an old authority, but one which Luther and later Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon, and a host of others, argued had been subverted to tradition by the Church in Rome.  The Reformation's battle cry was sola scriptura--that is, Scripture alone is our authority.  The Roman Church argued that we needed tradition, especially the interpretations offered by church fathers, in order to understand Scripture.  This was so, they argued, because the Bible could not be easily grasped.  The Reformers argued for the perspicuity of Scripture--that it was sufficiently clear to be a good guide in essential matters, such as the person of Christ, the Trinity, salvation.  In order to prove the point they needed to exercise reason.  New hermeneutical methods were developed, translations were made, commentaries were written.  All of this was consistent with the view that the Bible should be clearly understood.  The Reformers knew it to be so in their study; they wanted to make it so for the person in the pew.

As long as reason was the handmaid of revelation, there was no problem.  But once reason became master, revelation was increasingly viewed as unnecessary and, in fact, untrue.  With the birth of the Enlightenment came the promise of a new king.  He would soon reign over virtually all human thought in the western world.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Enlightenment had so captured the evangelical community that the Bible became more an object of study than a guide to life.  Seminaries in this century followed largely the Princeton model (a strongly Calvinist school) of reasoning about the Scriptures.  Pastors were trained to expound the text of Scripture--and this came to mean explain the text, but not apply the text.  Too many seminaries viewed one's exegetical and theological skills as the lone spiritual barometer.  There was no accountability of one's life.  Whether one believed the Bible and consequently tried to shape his life by its precepts was often not in view. 

The problem with this model was that non-evangelical scholars could also do first-rate exegesis.  Many of these non-evangelical savants would be considered nonbelievers: besides rejecting the Bible as the Word of God, they did not embrace the bodily resurrection of Christ or, sometimes, even the existence of God.  Hence, if quality exegesis was an indicator of spirituality, then an atheist might be considered spiritual!  The barometer of mere knowledge obviously has its defects, for without belief there is no life.  Cognition is important for true biblical scholarship; but without conversion as a first step, such is certainly not evangelical biblical scholarship.  Further, this approach trickled down to the pew: for many churches, even today, mere Bible knowledge, regardless of its application to one's life, is equated with true spirituality.  Reason has come to reign over revelation even for evangelicals. 

With the advent of postmodernism, reason has increasingly become passé.  It's not necessarily that reason is rejected as untrue; rather, it is judged to be irrelevant. So what authority is left?  What authority remains after tradition, revelation, and reason have all been abandoned?  Personal experience. Ours is the age of epistemological narcissism.  This is no longer the age of cogito ergo sum ("I think; therefore, I am"—the hallmark of Cartesian logic); it has become the age of sentio ergo sum ("I feel; therefore, I am").  And since there are no external standards by which to judge personal experience (since other authorities are rejected), anything goes--whether it be sensuality or hallucinogenic existence, full-blown mysticism or an uncritical embracing of supernatural phenomena from any and all corners.

So, how does the current charismatic movement fit into this?  Why are so many intellectuals embracing the charismata?  It seems that the vacuum left in their souls by a rationalistic faith has made them ripe for a different kind of authority.  As sons of the Enlightenment, these cognitive scholars have embraced reason as the supreme authority in their lives.  But the rationalism of the Enlightenment is, when unbridled, antithetical to revelation.  These scholars viewed personal experience as the enemy of the gospel, while embracing reason as its friend.  But when some crisis invades their lives, and their purely cognitive faith cannot supply the deepest answers (for it does not address the whole man), they have to find the answers some place.  And they look to an entirely different authority.  They are ripe for excess in one area, just as they had lived in excess in another.  Ironically, they end up mirroring the present age of postmodernism, just as they had mirrored the past one of rationalism.

In reality, both personal experience and reason are part of proper human existence.  Like fire, they can be used for good or evil.  When they take on the role of supreme authority, consciously or not, they destroy.4  "I know" and "I feel" must bow to "I believe."  (When either one is elevated above revelation it produces arrogance.)  The cognitive content of that belief is the revealed Word of God.  It requires diligent study to grasp its meaning as fully as mere humans can grasp it.  But it will not be believed unless there is a personal experience with the Risen One.  Thus, the trilogy of authority can be seen this way: both personal experience and reason are vital means to accessing revelation.  We are to embrace Christ, as revealed in the Word, with mind and heart.5  When either reason or experience attempts to escape the supreme sovereignty of the revealed Christ, the individual believer starts down a path of imbalance.  Tragically, his service to the Lord Christ is thereby increasingly curtailed.6

1 The Evangelical Theological Society is a group of evangelical leaders, principally professors at seminaries and evangelical colleges.  Full membership requires subscription to a minimal core of doctrines and a Th.M. (Master of Theology) degree or its equivalent.

2 This does not mean that these scholars no longer use their brains!  But it does mean, for many of them, that reason is subordinated to personal experience in an epistemological hierarchy.

3 I owe the framework of the "long answer" to Dr. Bob Pyne, professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Seminary.  He is not to be blamed for the details, however!

4 Most charismatics today would argue that their personal experiences are fully subordinate to revelation.  But most cognitive Christians would also argue that reason for them is subordinate to revelation.

5 Thus far I have left tradition out of the equation.  This is, however, something of an overstatement.  In reality, most of us employ tradition as a conduit to another authority.  Often we are unaware of the tradition's influence.  Those in Bible churches worship in a way quite different from those in more liturgical settings; Koreans worship in a way that is markedly different from African-Americans.  And a given group may tacitly assume that somehow its worship style is the right one, or that others are wrong because they are different.  The difference between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics with reference to tradition is that evangelical Protestants generally feel more at liberty (and more responsible) to question their tradition, and to change it in line with what they perceive is the biblical norm.  In other words, they are able, when it is brought to the conscious level, to subordinate tradition to revelation.

6 You will notice that I have not in this paper given any arguments against the charismatic movement.   This paper is instead intended to set the stage, giving a rationale for why so many are flocking toward this kind of Christianity.  In later papers we will address specific charismatic arguments.  Suffice it say here that our thesis should be clear: What is endemic to the modern charismatic movement is an elevation of personal experience above revelation as final authority.

Related Topics: Spiritual Gifts, Tongues

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