Introduction: Who's Afraid of the Holy Spirit? The Uneasy Conscience of a Non-Charismatic Evangelical
Through the experience of my son’s cancer, I came to grips with the inadequacy of the Bible alone to handle life’s crises. I needed a existential experience with God. I got in touch with my early years as a charismatic and began reflecting on how the Holy Spirit works today. I saw scripture in a new light and began wrestling with the question, If the Holy Spirit did not die in the first century, what in the world is he doing today? This essay offers eleven theses that begin to explore answers to that question.
This message was originally delivered as the presidential address of the Evangelical Theological Society’s Southwest Regional meeting in the spring of 1994, held at John Brown University in Arkansas. It was modified further for publication in Christianity Today, appearing in the September 12, 1994 issue. It has now been thirteen years since my son’s cancer, the event that was the catalyst for this original essay. He is doing fine—so fine in fact that he wrestled on varsity in high school for four years and was co-captain his last two. He is now finishing up his bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas in Austin.
I am a cessationist. That is to say, I believe that certain gifts of the Holy Spirit were employed in the earliest stage of Christianity to authenticate that God was doing something new. These “sign gifts”—such as the gifts of healing, tongues, miracles—ceased with the death of the last apostle. This is what I mean by “cessationism.” Some cessationists might style themselves as “soft” cessationists whereby they mean that some of the sign gifts continue, or that the sign gifts may crop up in locations where the gospel is introduced afresh,1 or that they are presently agnostic about these gifts, but are not a practicing charismatic. For purposes of argument, I will take a hard line. In this way, anything I affirm about the Holy Spirit’s ministry today should not be perceived as being generated from a closet charismatic. I wish to address some concerns that I, as a cessationist, have concerning the role of the Holy Spirit today among cessationists.
While I still consider myself a cessationist, the last few years have shown me that my spiritual life had gotten off track—that somehow I, along with many others in my theological tradition, have learned to do without the third person of the Trinity.
But this did not hinder my academic work. Mine had become a cognitive faith—a Christianity from the neck up. As long as I could control the text, I was happy. I lived in the half-reality that theological articulation is valid only if it is based on sound exegesis and nothing else. Like the proverbial frog in the slowly simmering pot of water, I did not sense that I was on the way to self-destruction.
Thirteen years ago, the Almighty suddenly and graciously turned up the heat. He provided me with a wake-up call to get me out of the pot. I am sharing my testimony in hopes that many others who are in cauldrons of their own making might realize the danger—and get out.
This article has two parts. First, a personal testimony. I wish to relate to you, at some length, who I am and how God is working in my life. Second, I have eleven theses to put on the table—theses that have to do with our deficiencies in how we relate to the Holy Spirit. Many of these, as well as several others, have been fleshed out by the authors for this book. It is our prayer that this volume will be a stimulus to move other cessationists to take more seriously the ministry of the Holy Spirit today. In short, we are asking a fundamental question that all cessationists must ask themselves: If the Holy Spirit did not die in the first century, what in the world is he doing today?
My Spiritual Journey
I grew up in a conservative Baptist church in southern California. I was converted at age four when I attended Vacation Bible School in the summer of 1956. My brother, at the ripe old age of five and a half, led me to Christ. Ironically, he was not a believer at the time. A dozen years later I was instrumental in bringing him to the Savior.
I grew up in the church. My youth was characterized by timidity: I was a Clark Kent with no alter ego. I was afraid of life, afraid to explore, afraid to question out loud. In spite of this—or, perhaps because of this, I was a leader in the youth group. But I had questions that would not go away—questions about whether I had had an authentic Christian experience. At age sixteen I was in the midst of a life-threatening crisis: should I or should I not ask Terri C. out for a date? Because of the turmoil in my soul, I quickly agreed when a friend invited me to a charismatic revival at Melodyland in Anaheim, California. The house was packed; several thousand were in attendance. The speaker said some things that disturbed me intellectually. When he gave an altar call, I was ready to go forward and give him a piece of my mind. As I got up out of my seat, the Holy Spirit grabbed my heart and said, “No, this is not the reason you’re going forward. You need to get right with God.” Now, he did not speak audibly to me. These words are not to be put in red letters. But as I rose, before I took one step, I was overwhelmingly convicted of my own sin. The Spirit of God was definitely in that place.
As I came forward, four or five hundred other people streamed forth to the center stage. With hundreds of people there, I was quite amazed when the speaker, microphone in hand, selected me. “Why have you come forward, young man?” he queried. “I came to rededicate my life to Christ,” I answered. It was a good thing that the Holy Spirit changed my heart before my lips got in gear!
That night, January 6, 1969, was the major turning point in my life. I still celebrate it as my spiritual birthday (since the exact date of my conversion at age four was and still is a bit fuzzy).
Before I left Melodyland that night, a man invited me to visit his fellowship in Huntington Beach. I joined the group and became a charismatic. The group was vibrant in worship, courageous in evangelism. My faith was alive. My prayer life was thriving. And, for the first time in my life, I gained courage.
I would pray for hours daily, asking God to grant me the gift of tongues. After a weeknight meeting, when one of the “apostles” (apostle Bob, I believe2) discovered that I had not spoken in tongues, he asked if I had been baptized in the Spirit. When I answered in the negative, he laid his hands on me and did the job right there on the sidewalk. Observing that nothing had changed, he doubted my salvation.
So I quietly left the group. In the coming months, I fellowshipped at Calvary Chapel, where the neo-charismatic movement finds its origins. Finally, and quite naturally, I left the charismatic movement altogether. I had seen the abuses, and noticed that many things did not measure up to scripture. But my zeal for God was not quenched. I was a part of the Jesus movement as a non-charismatic. I continued to pray, evangelize, and read my Bible. In fact, there was a long stretch of time in which I read my New Testament, cover to cover, every week. I saw God’s hand in everything. And the Lord granted me a measure of courage that was not and is not naturally mine.3 Although I had left the charismatic movement, it took me a long time before I replaced my passion for Jesus Christ with a passion for the Bible.
Because of my interest in spiritual things, I decided to attend a Christian liberal arts college. I attended Biola University, married a beautiful Irish lass4 right out of college, and came to Dallas for more theological training.
Through the years, after going to a Christian college and a cessationist seminary, I began to slip away from my early, vibrant contact with God. My understanding of scripture was heightened, but my walk with God slowed down to a crawl. I took a defensive and apologetic posture in my studies of scripture. In the last several years, I began questioning the adequacy of such a stance—recognizing, subconsciously at least, that it did not satisfy my deepest longings.
Joe Aldrich, the president of Multnomah Bible College, once told me, “It takes the average seminary graduate five years to thaw out from the experience.” For most seminary graduates, I suspect, that thawing out may come through the natural course of events. But it took several crises before the Lord started warming me up again. The one that really put on the afterburners was what happened to my son, Andy, thirteen years ago—when he was eight years old.
In December 1991, Andy was kicked in the stomach by a school bully. He developed stomach pains that persisted for quite some time. His personality changed. He was no longer the happy little comic; he was somber, scared, and tired. Two months later, through a providentially-guided indiscretion, Andy left the bathroom door open when my wife walked by. She saw something that horrified her: his urine was brown. That same day, she took him to our family physician. This began a series of doctors and specialists. None of them had a clue as to what was wrong. Finally, he was admitted to Children’s Hospital on April 20, 1992, scheduled for a kidney biopsy.
Before the biopsy was to be performed, a sonogram was conducted. We had anticipated a blood clot on the kidney, but the sonogram revealed that something more was present. Perhaps it was a tumor. One physician suggested exploratory surgery instead of a biopsy. This sounded crazy to me! Cut my “Beaker”5 open! We agreed, grudgingly, to this procedure.
The surgery took place on Wednesday, April 22. That’s when the nightmare began. One of the physicians prepped us ahead of time:
Mr. and Mrs. Wallace, I wouldn’t be overly worried about this operation. What the sonogram revealed may still be just a blood clot. And if it’s not a blood clot, then, most likely, it’s a benign tumor. And if it’s not benign, then it is probably a Wilm’s tumor. This is a congenital kidney cancer found in children. It’s treatable and curable. However, if it’s not a Wilm’s tumor, there is the very slight possibility that what your son has is renal cell carcinoma. But that is such a rare cancer in children that the likelihood is quite remote.
As the hours during and after the surgery wore on, we found ourselves getting hit with wave after wave of dreaded news. Andy, indeed, had renal cell carcinoma (RCC). And it was not just the normal type—which was lethal enough. Andy had the more potent strain of RCC. By 1992, less than ten children ever diagnosed worldwide had lived beyond two years with this strain of RCC. Apart from radical surgery, it’s virtually untreatable and incurable, as far as medical science knows.
There was good news through all this, news of a providential character, news which gave us hope that our son would live. First, the bully who kicked Andy in the stomach probably saved his life. Only in one third of the cases of RCC is there bloody urine. The other symptoms are usually a mild stomachache and an occasional low-grade fever.6 That kick to the stomach probably triggered the bloody urine. Second, the one physician who insisted on exploratory surgery instead of a biopsy also saved his life. RCC is so potent a cancer that every case on record in which a biopsy was performed resulted in the death of the patient. In the midst of wondering, of confusion, of crying out to God, I could still see his hand in all this.
Andy’s kidney was removed in the surgery and he went through various grueling tests in which his body was probed for any remnants of cancer. The bone marrow test was the most traumatic. My brave wife held Andy in her arms for 20 minutes as this little boy clutched her, screaming in her ear, “Make them stop, Mommy! Make them stop!” Six days of testing produced no trace of cancer.
RCC in children is so rare that Andy’s case was the first one reported in the United States since 1984. Globally, he was the 161st child ever diagnosed with it. There are no support groups. Before Andy left the hospital, a team of ten physicians could not decide whether to administer chemotherapy. It would strictly be a preventive measure, but with RCC, prevention is everything. If the cancer metastasizes again, he will die (as far as statistics reveal). No child has yet survived a return of RCC. The choice was ours whether or not to go with chemotherapy.
We decided to go with chemotherapy, because the risk of not doing it, wondering whether that might kill him, was too great to bear. I cannot adequately describe what the next six months were like—for Andy, for me and his mother, for his three brothers. But I can tell you that I was in an emotional wasteland. I was angry with God and I found him to be quite distant. Here was this precious little boy who was losing his hair, and losing weight. At one point he weighed only forty-five pounds. His twin brother at that time weighed eighty-five pounds. Andy was so weak that we had to carry him everywhere, even to the bathroom.
Through this experience I found that the Bible was not adequate. I needed God in a personal way—not as an object of my study, but as friend, guide, comforter. I needed an existential experience of the Holy One. Quite frankly, I found that the Bible was not the answer. I found the scriptures to be helpful—even authoritatively helpful—as a guide. But without feeling God, the Bible gave me little solace. In the midst of this “summer from hell,” I began to examine what had become of my faith. I found a longing to get closer to God, but found myself unable to do so through my normal means: exegesis, scripture reading, more exegesis. I believe that I had depersonalized God so much that when I really needed him I didn’t know how to relate. I longed for him, but found many community-wide restrictions in my cessationist environment. I looked for God, but all I found was a suffocation of the Spirit in my evangelical tradition as well as in my own heart.
It was this experience of my son’s cancer that brought me back to my senses, that brought me back to my roots. And out of this experience I have been wrestling with practical issues of pneumatology.
I want to offer eleven suggestions, eleven challenges—eleven theses if you will—that deal with areas in my own life that God is addressing. I don’t yet have 95 of them—and this isn’t the Schlosskirche of Wittenberg. But I hope and pray that this essay will help other cessationists avoid the traps I fell into.
(1) Although the sign gifts died in the first century, the Holy Spirit did not. Cessationists can affirm that theologically, but pragmatically we act as though the Holy Spirit died with the last apostle. This is my fundamental thesis, and it’s well worth exploring. What can we, as cessationists, affirm that the Holy Spirit is doing today? What did Jesus mean when he said, “My sheep listen to my voice” (John 10:27)? What did Paul mean when he declared, “all who are led by the Spirit are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14)? What did John mean when he wrote, “You have an anointing from the Holy One” (1 John 2:20)? I am increasingly convinced that although God does not communicate in a way that opposes the scriptures, he often communicates in a non-verbal manner to his children, giving them assurance, bringing them comfort, guiding them through life’s rough waters. To deny that God speaks verbally to us today apart from the scriptures is not to deny that he communicates to us apart from the scriptures.
(2) Although charismatics have sometimes given a higher priority to experience than to relationship, rationalistic evangelicals have just as frequently given a higher priority to knowledge than to relationship. Both of these miss the mark. And Paul, in 1 Corinthians, condemns both. Knowledge puffs up; and spiritual experience without love is worthless.
(3) This emphasis on knowledge over relationship can produce in us a bibliolatry. For me, as a New Testament professor, the text is my task—but I made it my God. The text became my idol. Let me state this bluntly: The Bible is not a member of the Trinity. One lady in my church facetiously told me, “I believe in the Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Bible.” Sadly, too many cessationists operate as though that were so.
One of the great legacies Karl Barth left behind was his strong Christocentric focus. It is a shame that too many of us have reacted so strongly to Barth, for in our zeal to show his deficiencies in his doctrine of the Bible we have become bibliolaters in the process. Barth and Calvin share a warmth, a piety, a devotion, an awe in the presence of God that is lacking in too many theological tomes generated from our circles.
(4) The net effect of such bibliolatry is a depersonalization of God. Eventually, we no longer relate to him. God becomes the object of our investigation rather than the Lord to whom we are subject. The vitality of our religion gets sucked out. As God gets dissected and trisected (in the case of you trichotomists), our stance changes from “I trust in” to “I believe that.”
(5) Part of the motivation for depersonalizing God is an increasing craving for control. What I despised most about charismatics was their loss of control, their emotionalism. We fear that. We take comfort in the fact that part of the fruit of the Spirit is “self-control.” But by this we mean “do all things in moderation”—including worshiping God. But should we not have a reckless abandon in our devotion to him? Should we not throw ourselves on him, knowing that apart from him we can do nothing?
Instead, as typical cessationists, we want to be in control at all times. Even when it means that we shut God out. It is this issue of control that kept a good friend of mine a cessationist so long. Now, as a member of the Vineyard movement, he is quite happy: he acknowledges that he never was in control in the first place. In the midst of what I consider to be a heterodox shift on his part, there is nevertheless this honest breakthrough with God.
(6) God is still a God of healing and miracles. As a cessationist, I can affirm the fact of present-day miracles without affirming the miracle-worker. God is still a God of healing even though I think his normal modus operandi is not through a faith-healer. The problem with some charismatics is that they believe that God not only can heal, but that he must heal. That is one reason why, up until fairly recently, charismata has been a movement among Arminians. A few years back, I contracted a bizarre form of viral encephalitis. I went to hospital after hospital, finally ending up at the Mayo Clinic. At one hospital, a Christian friend came to visit me. She prayed for me in a long, drawn-out ritual, commanding God to heal me! For her, God was simply a tool, an instrument wielded by the almighty Christian. If her faith (or my faith) was strong enough, God had to heal me. That’s the way the genie works.
At the same time, the problem with many non-charismatics is that although they claim that God can heal, they act as if he won’t. We often don’t believe in God’s ability—we don’t really believe that God can heal. This can take various forms. I might not pray for someone because of my understanding of God’s sovereignty: “Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen, and there’s nothing I can do to change God’s mind.” Hence, we can excuse our lack of prayer on a belief in God’s sovereignty. Or we might take the opposite view: “God really is not powerful enough to do this sort of thing. Sure, he can perform miracles but they’re few and far between. He’s probably already hit his quota for the year, so why bother with prayer?”
Thus, the problem with some charismatics is a denial of God’s sovereignty; the problem with some non-charismatics is a denial of God’s ability or goodness or both. And neither group is being completely honest with God. Neither is submissively trusting him.
(7) Evangelical rationalism can lead to spiritual defection. I am referring to the suffocation of the Spirit in post-graduate theological training, as well as the seduction of academia. Most seminary professors can think of examples of gifted young students we have mentored who seemed to have lost all of their Christian conviction in an academic setting. For many of us, this recollection is terribly painful. How many times have we sent Daniels into the lions’ den, only to tell them by our actions that prayer won’t do any good?
One particular instance is very difficult for me to think about. One of my brightest master’s students two decades ago went on for doctoral work at Oxford. His seminary training prepared him well in exegesis. But it did not prepare him well in prayer. Some years ago I caught up with him and discovered that he was not only confused about his evangelical heritage, he was even questioning the uniqueness of Jesus. This student had suppressed part of the arsenal at his disposal: the witness of the Spirit, something non-believers can’t touch. To this day I wonder how much I contributed to this man’s confusion and suppression of the Spirit’s witness.
It is not the historical evidences alone that can lead one to embrace the resurrection as true. The Spirit must work on our hearts, overcoming our natural reticence. When our graduates go on for doctoral work, and forget that the Spirit brought them to Christ in the first place, and suppress his witness in their hearts, they are ripe for spiritual defection. We need to be reminded—especially those of us who live in an academic setting—that exegesis and apologetics are not the sum of the Christian life.
I speak not only from the experience of my students. In my own doctoral program, while seriously grappling with the evidence for the resurrection, I suddenly found myself in an existential crisis. I was reading in biblical theology at the time, wrestling with those two great minds, Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth. I was impressed with the fact that as strong as the historical evidence is for the resurrection, there is and always will be a measure of doubt. Evidence alone cannot bridge the gap between us and God. As much as I wanted the evidence to go all the way, I couldn’t make it do so. At one point there was real despair in my heart. I had gotten so sucked in to the cult of objectivism that I forgot who it was who brought me to faith in the first place. Only when I grudgingly accepted the fact that some faith had to be involved—and that through the Spirit’s agency—could I get past my despair. The non-verifiable elements of the faith had become an embarrassment to me, rather than an anchor.
(8) Many of the power brokers of evangelicalism, since the turn of the century, have been white, obsessive-compulsive males. Ever since the days of the Princetonians (Hodge, Warfield, Machen, et al.), American non-charismatic evangelicalism has been dominated by Scottish Common Sense, post-Enlightenment, left-brain, obsessive-compulsive, white males. This situation reveals that we are suppressing a part of the image of God, suppressing a part of the witness of the Spirit, and that we are not in line with historic Christianity.7 The implications of such demographics are manifold. Three of them are as follows.
- The white evangelical community needs to listen to and learn from the black evangelical community. I find it fascinating that the experience of God in the black non-charismatic community is quite different from that in the white non-charismatic community. In many ways, it resembles the white charismatic experience more than the white cessationist experience of God. A full-orbed experience of God must take place in the context of community. And that community must be heterogeneous. If, as has been often stated, 11 o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America, then something is desperately wrong with the Church.
- The Holy Spirit does not work just on the left brain. He also works on the right brain: he sparks our imagination, causes us to rejoice, laugh, sing, and create. Few Christians are engaged and fully committed to the arts today. Where are the hymn writers? Where are the novelists? Painters? Playwrights? A very high-powered editor of a Christian magazine told me a few years back that he knew of only one exceptional Christian fiction writer. What are our seminaries doing to encourage these right brainers? What is the Church doing to encourage them?8
- We men have failed to listen to the women in our midst—and this failure is related to our not hearing the voice of the Spirit. If the Imago Dei is both male and female, by squelching the valuable contribution of women, we distort that very image before a watching world.
(9) The Holy Spirit’s guidance is still needed in discerning the will of God. The rationalism in our circles makes decision-making a purely cognitive exercise. There is no place for prayer. There is no room for the Spirit. I believe there is a middle ground between expecting daily revelations, on the one hand, and basing decisions solely on logic and common sense on the other. I may not receive revelations, but I do believe that the Spirit often guides me with inarticulate impulses.
(10) In the midst of seeking out the power of the Spirit, we must not avoid the sufferings of Christ. This is the message of the Gospel according to Mark: the disciples could not have Christ in his glory without Christ in his suffering. Too often when we decide that it’s a good thing to get to know God again, we go about it on our own terms. Again, I speak from personal experience.
Some time back, one of my students died of cancer. Another was about to die. I began urging students at the seminary to pray for God’s intervention. The Lord did not answer our prayer in the way we had hoped. Brendan also died. My own pain was increased when I saw his three small children paraded in front of the mourners at his memorial service.
Through the deaths, tragedies, and suffering that seem to be “par for the course” of being a Christian, and seem to abound for the seminary family, I have learned about suffering and honesty with God. I questioned God—and still do. Out of my pain—pain for these students and their families, pain for my son, pain for myself—has come honesty and growth. I have moments when I doubt God’s goodness. Yet I do not doubt that he has suffered for me far more than I will ever suffer for him. And that is the only reason I let him hold my hand through this dark valley. In seeking God’s power, I discovered his person. He is not just omnipotent; he is also the God of all comfort. And taking us through suffering, not out of it, is one of the primary means that the Spirit uses today in bringing us to God.
(11) Finally, a question: To what does the Spirit bear witness? Certainly the resurrection of Christ. How about the scriptures? A particular interpretation perhaps? Eschatological issues? Exegetical issues? Don’t be too quick to answer. Some of this needs rethinking… In fact, my challenge to each of us is this: reexamine the New Testament teaching about the Holy Spirit. Don’t gloss over the passages, but wrestle with what they mean. If the Spirit did not die in the first century, then what in the world is he doing today?
In conclusion, to my charismatic friends, I say: We must not avoid suffering as though it were necessarily evil, for we cannot embrace Christ in his resurrection apart from embracing him in his death. To my cessationist friends: We must not anesthetize our pain by burying our heads in the text, as if a semi-gnostic experience of the Bible will somehow solve the riddle of our misery. And to my son I say: I love you, Andy. And I am grateful for all that you, in your childlike faith, taught me about life and about God.
1 . This is what I would call concentric cessationism, as opposed to linear cessationism. That is, rather than taking a chronologically linear approach, this kind of cessationism affirms that as the gospel moves, like the rippling effect of a stone dropping into a pond, in a space-time expanding circle away from first century Jerusalem, the sign gifts will still exist on the cutting edge of that circle. Thus, for example, in third world countries at the time when the gospel is first proclaimed, the sign gifts would be present. This view, then, would allow for these gifts to exist on the frontiers of Christianity, but would be more skeptical of them in the ‘worked over’ areas.
2 . There were twelve apostles at the Light House. We knew each one only by their first name because, as apostle Bob said, “the original apostles only had one name.”
3 . So much so that as a high school student, during late 60’s, I visited the University of California at Irvine to evangelize in a public forum. The occasion was the capturing of UCI and “sit-in” by the SDS (a young socialist group). The school shut down while it was under siege. I sneaked in, hoping to address a group of hundreds of university students about a greater revolution than socialism.
4 . I must admit, she has that proverbial Irish temperament, too. After over thirty years of living with her, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
5 . Andy’s nick name. Since he was about four years old, he imitated the sounds of the beaker on the PBS program, Sesame Street.
6 . The first case reported in America (1934) was so mild, in fact, that the child died before the parents suspected anything worthy of a doctor’s attention.
7 . Along these lines, see Vern Poythress, “Modern Spiritual Gifts As Analogous To Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works Of The Spirit Within Cessationist Theology,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39 (1996) 72-102, in which he affirmed the miraculous among cessationists. Part of his argument was to note that cessationists in the 19th century sensed God’s presence and saw his works in ways that are not nearly as frequent among cessationists today.
8 . I am happy to report that Dr. Reg Grant is one of those few Christian artists who teaches at a seminary. He offers two courses on creative writing, and is in charge of a new media arts program at Dallas Seminary. See his stimulating article on the Holy Spirit and the arts in this volume.