Perspectives on Spirit Baptism: Five Views; A Book Review

Last summer, I wrote a seven part blog series on the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit,” with links that you can follow here (the Intro, then #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, and #7). To recap a year later, I thought I would recommend a book, where you can explore this issue in more depth.

The “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” is a controversial topic among evangelical Christians. Most people associate “Spirit baptism” with the charismatic renewal movement, and the “miraculous” gifts of the Spirit, such as “speaking in tongues,” and a very emotionally expressive style of worship, with lots of raised hands and swaying to the rhythm of praise and worship music in church. There are basically two camps on this issue, the continuationalists and the cessationists. Let me briefly break this down for those unfamiliar with the terminology.

Theologically speaking, those who believe that such miraculous gifts of the Spirit continue be operational in the church today are continuationalists. From the Bible, continuationalists believe that the “signs and wonders” displayed throughout the Book of Acts did not stop in the first century of the early church (see Acts 2:22; 2:43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 8:13; 14:3). In other words, if folks like Peter and Paul witnessed remarkable miracles performed by the Holy Spirit, why would we not expect at least some of the same thing happening today?

On the other hand, those who believe that such gifts “ceased” to operate after the era of the original apostles ended are cessationists. The “go-to” verse for cessationists is 1 Corinthians 13:8, which they argue teaches that the “gifts of the Spirit,” like speaking in tongues, would eventually “cease,” according to the Apostle Paul, once the last of the first apostles died, and the New Testament writings were completed.

Continuationalists come in all shapes and sizes, some more low-key than others. Some downplay the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, even finding a way to fit in with more traditionally cessationist churches. On the other side, among the cessationists, are vocal opponents of the charismatic movement, who wish that anything even hinting of “speaking in tongues” would just completely go away! One of leading proponents of cessationism, is Southern California Bible teacher, John MacArthur, who contends that the charismatic movement today is similar to the false worship practice of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1, who used “strange fire” in the worship of the God of Israel.

But “Spirit baptism” is a more fundamental issue than whether or not “speaking in tongues” is valid for today. “Spirit baptism” deals with the role of the Holy Spirit in giving spiritual life to the believer. Do we get “all of the Holy Spirit” when we first begin a relationship with Jesus, or should Christians look forward to a subsequent experience where we encounter the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, in our Christian walk?

A Good, “Multi-Views” Book on “Spirit Baptism”

Perspectives on Spirit Baptism: Five Views is designed to help Christians think through this issue theologically. Part of the “Perspectives” series by Broadman and Holdman Publishers, Perspectives on Spirit Baptism offers a series of essays by five different Bible scholars, from five different traditions, giving the other scholars an opportunity to briefly respond to the other scholars’ primary essays. I really like this format, as you can easily have a summary of each perspective in one volume, instead having to buy a different book for each viewpoint, and then trying to guess how the different viewpoints interact with one another. For someone completely new to the charismatic movement, and theology in general, this book is probably too heady as a starting place. But if you are looking for a good, one-stop book to help you sort out different views in the controversy, this is excellent.

Walter Kaiser starts off presenting a “Reformed” view, and this approach closely mirrors that of John R. W. Stott classic work in Baptism and Fullness. Kaiser makes the argument that Spirit Baptism happens at the believer’s conversion, but Kaiser is open to the possibility of multiple in-fillings of the Spirit, subsequent to conversion. But what does one do with how Luke, in the Book of Acts, presents Spirit baptism? Kaiser’s view, that sees the episodes of Pentecost (Acts 2), the conversion of the Samaritans (Acts 8), etc. as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, is still to me, the best way to explain why Luke in Acts appears to differ from the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:13. All in all, Kaiser’s biblical exegesis is the most sound of the various contributors.

The late Stanley Horton, an Assembly of God theologian, then presents a “Pentecostal” view, making the traditional Pentecostal claim that speaking in tongues is the classic sign of experiencing “Spirit Baptism,” subsequent to conversion. Horton defends the reality of Pentecostal experience that non-Pentecostals shy away from, but his handling of Scripture was not wholly convincing. He argues against Kaiser, suggesting that the Reformed position makes Luke, the author of Acts, more of an historian, as opposed to a theologian. But this is a misunderstanding of the purpose for which Acts was written. Luke’s emphasis on the reception of the Holy Spirit upon every believer, whether they be Jewish, Samaritan or pagan-background Gentile, is most certainly within Luke’s “theological” scope, in that he sees the work of the Holy Spirit as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Therefore, this need not imply that “Spirit baptism” is meant to be a “second blessing” experience for all Christians living beyond the New Testament era, as Horton teaches. Nor does it mean that “speaking in tongues” is the necessary sign of “Spirit baptism.”

Larry Hart offers a “charismatic” view, and refreshingly, Hart takes seriously the most common objections, raised by someone like Walter Kaiser, against the teaching that Spirit Baptism is a “second blessing” experience for the Christian, after conversion. Hart contends that the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is not a doctrine, but rather, a metaphor.  In other words, “Spirit baptism” is more of a theme that has different expressions in the New Testament, instead of it being a singular, specific event in the life of the Christian. If Hart is correct, it may better explain why the Book of Acts appears to present “Spirit baptism” differently than what you find with the Apostle Paul. Hart’s essay is the longest in the book, and it provides a useful framework for interpreting charismatic experiences, as demonstrating different dimensions of applying biblical teaching, regarding the Holy Spirit. But whether or not Hart’s Spirit baptism is doctrinally coherent is another matter.

Ray Dunning’s “Wesleyan” view is less focused on offering biblical insight, than the other essays in the book. However, Dunning greatly succeeds in giving us historical context for the contemporary interest in Spirit baptism. Dunning connects the dots historically with the rise of John Wesley’s Methodism, in the 18th century, to the Pentecostal-Charismatic movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, with the 19th century Holiness movement’s emphasis on “entire sanctification,” acting as a bridge in between Wesleyan revivalism and the modern charismatic movement.

Ralph Del Colle’s “Roman Catholic” view is really an attempt to interpret how the charismatic movement, that began in Protestant circles, has had an important impact in how Roman Catholics think about the work of the Holy Spirit. Colle’s survey indicates that Roman Catholicism has, in general, assimilated the charismatic renewal in their tradition, but the theological position of the church is far from clear. One would think that Spirit baptism, in the Catholic tradition, might be firmly associated with the sacrament of confirmation, but in recent Catholic theology, this is evidently not the case. The sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and the eucharist are all lumped together as sacraments of initiation, whereby Spirit baptism is regarded as a renewal of that initiation, a type of “releasing” of the Spirit, as given in the sacraments. That all sounds pretty vague, frankly.  Colle admits that a plurality of interpretations has emerged for a Catholic view of Spirit baptism, and how it is connected to the sacraments. Nevertheless, it is interesting to consider that the charismatic movement has served as a way to break down at least some barriers between some Protestants and Roman Catholics.

My Take

I have held onto old copies of John R. W. Stott’s classic Baptism and Fullness, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones Joy Unspeakable, and several other titles by such charismatic teachers as Dennis Bennett, like Nine O’Clock in the Morning. Books like these cover the biblical exegetical questions and practical concerns about Spirit Baptism, but the conclusions these writers reach are contradictory. Isolated by themselves, they do not easily help you to work through the strengths and weaknesses of each position.

Perspectives on Spirit Baptism fills in the gap left by single view approaches offered by Stott, Lloyd-Jones, Bennett, and others. It hits all of the biblical interpretation issues that are central to the debate, but Walter Kaiser far outshines the others in his analysis, with Larry Hart running perhaps in second place, for consistency and coherency.

Furthermore, this book sketches out the history of how Christians over the past couple hundred of years have addressed the theological question of “Spirit Baptism,” all in one place. That historical narrative alone makes such a single volume very valuable.

I have two main criticisms, that took away from the effectiveness of the book. First, there was only a passing reference to the non-charismatic view, held by some Puritan thinkers, who associate “Spirit baptism” with being “sealed by the Holy Spirit,” as taught by the 20th century British preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones. But perhaps this view was ignored in this volume, because such a view does not have that many vocal advocates now in the 21st century (Minnesota Baptist pastor John Piper is probably the most notable exception).

Secondly, this book does not include a strictly cessationist viewpoint; that is, the perspective that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit ceased to function after the end of the apostolic age. Most cessationists would find at least some affinity with Walter Kaiser’s view, but to call Kaiser himself a cessationist, would be pushing it too much, as Kaiser has a much more open-minded view of the charismatic movement, than does someone like a pastor John MacArthur, who finds nothing good coming out of the charismatic movement.

However, a lot of evangelical Christians hold to a John MacArthur-like cessationist view, so it seems strange that the series editor, Chad Brand, did not include a representative of this perspective in the discussion. All of the contributors are either active continuationalists, or they are at least open to the possibility that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit are presently operational among contemporary Christians, even if they do not personally experience such gifts themselves. Leaving the strict cessationist view out of the discussion is a rather strange omission.

My last critical comment has more to do with the Kindle version of the book, that I read. The endnote references within the text link to the endnote section of the text, but they do not allow you to link back to the main text, which is an extremely annoying characteristic of a lot of Kindle books these days. The publisher should really fix things like this.

The topic of the miraculous gifts, or “charisma,” of the Spirit is indeed important for those who have questions about the Bible. However, it only makes sense to develop a theology of the charisma by having a robust theology of the Spirit Baptism to undergird it first. In spite of the above shortcomings, Perspectives on Spirit Baptism: Five Views, will help the reader sort things out.

I also recommend this review of the book by Sam Storms, that has more detail than my review.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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