The debate over the “gifts of the Spirit” divides evangelical Christians. The debate over the ancient liturgy of the church divides as well. Is it possible to heal the divides by bringing the charismatic and the liturgical together?
Consider the “gifts of the Spirit.” On one side are those who believe that the supernatural gifts of tongues, prophecy, etc. continue on today in the church (the continuationist, or charismatic position). On the other side are those who believe that those very same gifts ceased to exist at the end of the apostolic age, in the first century of the church (the cessationist, on non-charismatic position).
Walk into just about any “typical” evangelical church today, and the antenna of any first time visitor goes up. How many people during worship are raising their hands during the singing? Is the person sitting next to you uttering some undecipherable words, just above a whisper (or louder), during the corporate prayer time? If things get really scary, you might be asking yourself, “Is that barking I hear, or is that simply the drummer hitting the snare drum, making a really odd sound?”
Depending upon your theological background, the answers to these questions might encourage you to stick around, and inquire positively of the pastor, or they might encourage you to quietly sneak out the door, never to return!
In very much a similar way, Christians visiting a new church will react differently to the presence of traditional liturgy during the service. Does this church talk in anticipation of the season of Lent, starting in February or early March? How do they celebrate communion, and how often? What about a time of corporate confession by reciting some pre-written, scripted prayer? If they recite the Apostles Creed, what do they mean by that “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church?” What is that “catholic” part all about, anyway?
The answers to such questions, if one leans towards valuing traditional liturgy, will either give you a sense of coming home, a sweet richness of spiritual depth, or they will have you running out towards the parking lot, muttering about how that church is “too Catholic,” or even sarcastically, “Catholic-lite.”
Some churches will relish in being “charismatic” or “liturgical” (though rarely both). But I suspect many evangelical churches just try to play it safe. They would want to tone down the charismatic, so as not to terrify the non-charismatics, who might be freaked out by exuberant physical expressions of worship. But they might also tone down the liturgical, celebrating the Lord’s Supper just often enough to remind people that yes, it is indeed in the Bible, but not too often, so as to trigger those “Romanist” or “Papal” warning detectors, that some might be carrying with them.
As a result, such churches will sometimes settle for a worship experience, that on the one hand, downplays any physical or emotionally expressive activity, while simultaneously acting like nothing of significance has happened, over the past 2,000 years of church history, since the closing of the New Testament. In one fell swoop, such churches manage to both avoid the shallowness of a perceived hyper-emotionalism, which can inadvertently rob the worshipper of a concrete experience of the divine, as well as avoiding the depth of an historically informed, intellectually rich faith, by fearing that which lurks masquerading in the fabric of traditional liturgy.
Eucharismatic Worship: Blending the Charismatic with the Liturgical
Andrew Wilson is a British Bible teacher, the author of Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship, who wants to somehow bring both worlds of the charismatic and the liturgical together. Can charismatic and liturgical Christians really worship together? Not only does Wilson suggests that they can, he makes quite a persuasive case that the Scriptures make it imperative that they do so.
Wilson’s neologism, eucharismatic, combines together the eucharist, coming from the Greek word for “thanksgiving,” found in Scripture, that describes the Lord’s Supper, and the charismatic, coming from the Greek word “charis,” which means “gift.” In what is really a fairly short, sharply written book, Wilson puts together an argument that is quite winsome, though it remains to be seen, as to just how persuasive he really will be.
As for the eucharistic side of eucharismatic, Wilson has an easier go of it. If you think about it, the Protestant movement has done some pretty odd things with the traditional liturgy of the historic church. Not all of this is bad, but we Protestants have ripped out a good chunk of traditional worship practice, substituting other newer forms of liturgy in its place, ranging from the 18th century, Isaac Watts-style use of hymnals, to the 19th century “altar call,” to the contemporary use of rock music, accompanied by large Powerpoint slide projections, replacing those earlier hymnals. We have simply replaced ancient traditions with more modern traditions, and we keep doing it over and over again, often without taking the time to consider the ramifications of how we structure corporate worship. So, how is this really a return to authentic, “New Testament” Christianity?
But that is not all. For a good 1500 years, three-quarters of church history, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was the centerpiece of Christian worship. The Reformation came along and shattered the unity of the very act that was originally meant to demonstrate that very unity we have in Christ.
It was not merely the Protestant protest against transubstantiation and the Mass that did this. It was also Lutherans and Reformed Christians at odds with each another, as to coming together with a commonly accepted alternative to what Rome was doing. As a result, we Protestants have kept the Lord’s Supper, but we also manage to push it off to the side, and elevate the preaching of the Word in its place. The default practice for most Protestant churches today is to celebrate the Lord’s Supper once a month, instead of every time the church gathered for worship, the traditional custom, which reaches back into the New Testament era.
Wilson’s argument is not just about the Lord’s Supper. It is about reclaiming the great wealth of 2,000 years of collective worship tradition, that can nourish the soul, invigorate the mind, and strengthen the spirit. Wilson is right on this half of his argument, and I find no objection here.1 In similar fashion, last year I read two books, Chris Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age, and Ken Stewart’s In Search of Ancient Roots. Both books make a powerful argument along the same lines as does Wilson in defending his “liturgical” argument. I would recommend that for Christians who are unfamiliar with the rich, liturgical history of the church to read either one of these books. Evangelical Christians need to remember the past and feed upon it!2
A Refreshing, More Scripturally Informed Defense of the Charismata for Today
Andrew Wilson has a more difficult time with defending the charismatic side of eucharismatic. True, looking at the growth of Christianity on a global scale, the charismatic movement is one of, if not the, driving force behind the expansion of God’s Kingdom all over the world. But there are well-known preachers, such as Southern California pastor John MacArthur, who do not find such “good news” to be all that good. MacArthur’s 2013 Strange Fire conference aimed to try to dampen the charismatic fire, but it also provoked plenty of protests from other Christians, who claimed that MacArthur was throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Though admittedly John MacArthur himself does not use this argument, many cessationists like him appeal to 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 to argue that the gifts of the Spirit “ceased” to be operative in the church, once the writing of the New Testament was completed. “As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; …. but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” But this is a most egregious error in exegesis.
The consensus of New Testament scholars today rightly argues that “the perfect,” in this passage, has nothing to do with the completion of the New Testament canon, which would have been non-sensical to Paul’s original audience. Instead, “the perfect” is more likely Paul’s reference to when the believer finally meets the Lord in His full, heavenly presence, or when Jesus Himself returns, at His Second Coming. Since the context of 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love” chapter, popular at weddings, is primarily about love, then the evidence suggests that “the perfect” has to do with the perfection of love, which would be realized fully by the Second Coming of Christ. Still, there are plenty of other reasons why cessationists make their case against the modern practices of the charismatic movement.
The charismatic movement has surely reinvigorated the church, while also causing quite a host of problems. The prosperity gospel finds its home largely in the mega-worship centers of charismatic churches. Manipulation and trickery have damaged the credibility of charismatic expression. Aside from the nagging question as to whether or not speaking tongues is a genuine, Holy Spirit gift today, or simply a psychologically-induced, bunch of gibberish, I am greatly concerned as to the general trend among so many charismatic churches today, at least here in the U.S., and a lot of my charismatic friends.
Over the past 20 years, I can count nearly a dozen charismatic churches in my town, where different groups of my charismatic friends will wander around from church to church, looking for that right “Holy Ghost” experience. A group of folks seem to get really excited about what God is doing in one church fellowship, and then after a few years, or sometimes, even just a few months later, things just appear to burn out in that church, and then those different groups will just migrate around to another church, looking for that next “Holy Spirit” experience. The cycle just continues, until some folks end up at my church, finally ready to settle down, whereas others just see it as a temporary resting place, until yet another new “Spirit-filled” church starts up, and the cycle is restarted again.
To put it bluntly, charismatic Christianity lacks roots (I could have been equally blunt about liturgical Christianity, in that it is often boring, but I have said enough already there).
Having been involved in charismatic circles on-and-off over the years, I have seen this rootlessness first hand. A lack of solid Bible teaching is sometimes a factor, but the endless search for experience is the main culprit. I find this trend much more disturbing than pondering over the question of the legitimacy of a “private prayer language.”
The fact that charismatic Christians tend to bounce around so much is a great reason why Andrew Wilson believes in the eucharismatic, that the exuberance of the charismatic needs to be anchored in the depth of the liturgical. I believe Wilson hits the bulls-eye on that one, and for that reason, I would like to get this book in the hand of every charismatic I know. Bravo! If such a eucharismatic church were to exist near me, I would probably join it! Andrew Wilson’s, Kings Church in London, England is just a bit far to travel to on a Sunday morning.
Why “Open, Yet Cautious,” Despite Its Pitfalls, Is Still Needed Today
However, Wilson does falter a bit along the way. Where Wilson misses it is in his insistence that the “open, yet cautious” position, held by evangelicals like me, is the most “unbiblical” of all, when it comes to the issue of the validity of the gifts of the Spirit for today. I had to slow down when I read that!
When I read that, I felt like I was being shot at from both sides, given John MacArthur’s critique of the “open, yet cautious” position, from the cessationist perspective. For MacArthur, the “open, yet cautious” position simply enables the very worst of the Charismatic Movement, very much like a spouse married to an alcoholic, who foolishly tries to hide over the egregious behavior of the alcoholic, who simply can not say “no” to another beer. Ouch!
Wilson disagrees with the cessationist position, but he does see where a case can be made for it, from Scripture. Instead, he fully embraces a charismatic position that the gifts of the Spirit are operational today. But he then contends that the “open, yet cautious” position “is the one approach that simply cannot be defended from Scripture: that the miraculous gifts continue, but that we should not particularly pursue them!”3
“Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts” (see 1 Corinthians 14:1, 39).
Andrew Wilson grounds his Scriptural argument upon the “Presumption Of Obedience Principle,” namely, that we should assume that specific commands given in the New Testament have direct application for us today, unless evidence can be cited that contravenes those commands. Wilson is not particularly enamored by the acronym, “POOP,” of the “Presumption Of Obedience Principle.” But he correctly indicates that the burden of proof is on the cessationist, to demonstrate that the gifts of the Spirit have ceased, and not on the continuationist, who presumes that the gifts are still operational.
In one sense, Andrew Wilson is correct. As a good friend of mine, who leans cessationist, told me recently, he is “open, yet very, very cautious” about the gifts of the Spirit.
One could easily argue that the reason why so many Christians refuse to pursue and seek the gifts is because there is so much whacky stuff out there that falls under the banner of “charismatic.” “Name it and claim it” false promises, the New Apostolic Reformation bizarreness, and supposed gold dust coming down from the ceiling during a worship service, all make the list. The abuses of the charismatic movement have inoculated many Christians against the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. So, for all practical purposes, they dismiss them. This is too bad. The “open, yet very, very cautious” would do well to consider reading Spirit and Sacrament. And to be honest, there is some rebuke applicable for my cautiousness that I need to receive, for my part, too.
But in another way, that is very near the exact reason why “open, yet cautious” is the most biblical position of all, contra Wilson. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1 ESV).
Sadly, when so many in the charismatic movement have failed to do this, to “test the spirits,” it brings ill-repute upon the cause of the Gospel. It then divides Christians as there are those believers who simply do not wish to be tainted by such scandal… for a good reason! This happens despite the fact that most charismatic Christians I know sincerely wish to pursue their walk with Christ with integrity. Rather, the problem is more about a lack of discernment and critical thinking that seems to pervade much of the charismatic movement.
The detrimental impact goes beyond the church. The secular world saves its most biting, cynical criticism against the Christian faith by citing the charlatans who give Christ a black-eye. Indeed, “open, yet cautious” is the appropriate posture to take when the integrity of the Gospel message is at stake, making it the most “biblical” position of them all, to call out misuse of spiritual gifts, when the situation requires it. To his credit, Andrew Wilson most probably gets what I am saying here. Therefore, perhaps in view of Wilson’s irenic, even generous, critique, I need to amend my view as “open, yet cautious, …. but I wish I did not need to be so cautious.”
Furthermore, nothing will challenge the heart of a cynic more than witnessing a miracle, for which they have no satisfactory naturalistic explanation. I yearn to see that happen, as there is only so much that the best apologetic arguments can do, to persuade a non-believer as to the truthfulness of the Gospel. Every step of faith towards Christ is indeed a miracle in motion, so I have no serious doubt that God continues to do miraculous things. I am just not persuaded that everyone who claims the “gifts of the Spirit” really possesses them (blogger and book reviewer, Tim Challies, agrees with me at least on this very last point).
Does “speaking in tongues” today exactly correlate to what is described as normative practice in the New Testament? To me, questions like this one seems to be at the heart of the current debate.4
Nevertheless, if you are going to make an argument for the continuing validity of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Andrew Wilson makes it very well in this book. For those of us who have remained skeptical of the charismatic movement, due to exceedingly bad biblical interpretation, Spirit and Sacrament is quite a fresh, new look. Part of it is the exegetical skill Wilson manages to artfully display in making his case from the Bible. For example, he ties the Baptism of the Holy Spirit to conversion, and not to some “second blessing” event following regeneration. Along with Wilson, the later position, though while interesting, I do not find compelling at all, and I have addressed this topic at length.
Frankly, Andrew Wilson is one of best Bible exegetes around these days, as displayed by his work on the Think blog. But the other part of the strength of this book is in how Wilson connects his continuationist argument with his concurrent argument that we should recover a love for the great treasury of liturgical tradition, its depth of history and richness in terms of spiritual practices that nourish the heart.
Andrew Wilson has quite a way with words, too. Spirit and Sacrament is simply a joy and literary feast to read, even if you are not ultimately persuaded by his arguments. I highly recommend his book.
Want to explore more? In 2018, a friendly debate between Andrew Wilson and Southern Baptist theologian Tom Schreiner took place, Wilson defending a continuationalist view of Spirit gifts, and Schreiner defending a cessationist view. The congenial nature of the debate is what I found most refreshing. Here is a series of blogs posts explaining the main ideas of the different viewpoints:
- 3 Reasons Charismatics Are Wrong about New Testament Prophecy, by Justin Taylor from Tom Schreiner’s 1 Corinthians commentary.
- The worst argument against the charismatic gifts, that Tom Schreiner says should be avoided.
- Andrew Wilson’s response to Tom Schreiner.
- Wilson’s response to Tim Challies’ book review.
- Other blog posts by Wilson about cessationism.
1. Some might object to Wilson’s treatment of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which he normally does call “sacraments,” though he recognizes that other Christians might prefer the terminology of “mysteries” or “ordinances.” The way Wilson presents his arguments is quite agreeable, though it does leave some questions unanswered. “In the Lord’s Supper, just as in baptism, Christ is presented to us, not just represented to us. When we celebrate the sacraments, we do things that do things.” So, what does baptism and the Lord’s Supper actually do? Well, Wilson does not give us fine-grained details (except you do find his thought laid out more in this blog post, though some will take issue with his dismissal of infant baptism). But perhaps that ambiguity is the point. The sacraments are a mystery, which is consistent with the teaching of Scripture. They are more than a symbol, which is why some on the “symbolic” side of the argument prefer the term “ordinances” as opposed to “sacraments. But neither does baptism nor the Lord’s Supper convey grace in the manner of say, actually saving us, through a physical act, through a form baptismal regeneration. Rather, we meet Christ and feed upon Him spiritually in the sacraments. ↩
2. I made a couple of notes that demonstrate why liturgical Christianity is biblical Christianity, from reading Andrew Wilson. For example, many Christians reject the idea of using a yearly calendar for worship, as it sounds “too Catholic.” But as Wilson observes on p. 54, the Song of Ascents (120-34), in the Book of Psalms, sets the standard. These psalms were used in Jewish worship, for different pilgrim festivals at various times of the year. Consider the practice of reading Scripture publicly, particularly during the medieval era, when nearly everyone in Christian Europe knew the stories of the Bible. Compare that to the biblical illiteracy of our day!. ↩
3. Sometimes the “devil” is in the footnotes. In generally, Andrew Wilson believes that all of the charismatic gifts available to the early church are also available to the contemporary church, and that they should be pursued eagerly. However, on pages 101-102 of Spirit and Sacrament, Wilson has a footnote that qualifies this, by indicating that “apostleship” should NOT be considered as a charismatic gift, as are prophecy, teaching, etc. Wilson excludes apostleship for three reasons: (1) In Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, Paul himself excludes apostleship from his list of charismatic gifts. When Paul does include apostleship in a list, he does not encourage believers to pursue being an apostle, as a spiritual gift, as in 1 Corinthians 12:27-31 and Ephesians 4:11 , (2) the New Testament uses the word apostolos in two different ways. In Acts 1:26, it refers specifically to one of the Twelve. In 2 Corinthians 8:23, the same word is used to speak of unnamed brothers (“messengers,” ESV) who are sent to collect the offering for the poor. The first case is specific to the era of the New Testament, whereas the second case is not limited in the same manner, and (3) Paul does consider being an apostle as a gift, but it just is not something that believers are encouraged to pursue (Romans 1:1-7). This is incredibly helpful, particularly in view of the recent growth of the “New Apostolic Reformation” movement, where it is not clear regarding whether or not clear distinction is made between the office of apostle, in the New Testament era, and a more generic kind of “apostolic” function in the church. ↩
4. On page 111, Wilson argues that the gift of tongues experienced at Pentecost is different from what was experienced at the church in Corinth. The former case dealt with known tongues being spoken, whereas the latter case dealt with unknown tongues. The former tongues were understood, yet the latter case required interpretation. ↩