Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What is Theology?: Holy Spirit

If you read my blog and you know me, then you probably know that I'm a born and raised Pentecostal. It's hard to tell, when you're raised in something, just how large or small the group is that agrees with you. That's the nature of being in a bubble I guess. Pentecostalism certainly isn't the smallest denomination, but it is definitely not the oldest either. This causes doubt at times in other denominations as to whether the Pentecostal view of the gifts is legitimate. Buckle up... this post is looking to be a little long.

As many of you Pentecostal readers hopefully know, you're view is not the only one. It may in fact be correct. I certainly believe it is, but that doesn't excuse us from taking a look at where some disagreements might be between us and other church bodies. Hopefully I can shed some light on this here and strengthen those of you who wish to continue in your pursuit of the Holy Spirit. Not only that, I hope I will cause those of you in other denominations to consider the role of the Holy Spirit in ways you may never have before.

One accusation I hear once in a while from Pentecostals of other denominational views is "they don't believe in the Holy Spirit!" Are you a Pentecostal who has said that? Well knock it off. You don't know what you're talking about. The question among orthodox Christians has never been "is there a Holy Spirit?" But quite simply, what exactly is His role today? That's about it. Every denomination I've heard of believes He has a role. What is it exactly?

The most basic part that the Holy Spirit plays, at least that every Christian I've met believes in, is the revealing and glorifying of Christ. According to one of our most foundational creeds, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. When Jesus Christ ascended into Heaven, he told the disciples beforehand that he would be leaving in order that the Holy Spirit, or "the helper" would come. The helper would not come unless He left. Not only that, but when he would come, he would lead the disciples into all truth. It is believed by most that this "all truth" was a memory of what Jesus taught in order that the New Testament writers would be able to finish the authoritative and inerrant canon of scripture that we have today.

The reason that Pentecostals are called by that name, is because they have chosen to remember with a much greater emphasis just what happened when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples for the first time. Do you all remember? A sound came like a mighty rushing wind. People began to speak in other tongues. Everyone began to glorify God. It is believed that this is when the experiencing of "Spiritual Gifts" began. The Pentecostal view in no way is meant to take away from the role of the Holy Spirit in revealing Christ. It is simply that, while this is His primary role, Paul clearly teaches that this role is also fulfilled by the the giving of very real and supernatural gifts. There are just a few things I'd like to cover. The first is the most popular debate that asks, are these gifts for today? Aside from that, I'll take a glimpse at what I think are two of the most controversial gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14: Tongues and Prophecy.

First of all, thanks to my Pentecostal upbringing, I completely believe that these gifts are for today. There are two basic objections to this that I will mention which are raised by those who believe these gifts have ended, those who are known as cessationists. Some of the many objections relate to the nature of some of the gifts. Some relate to church history. For example, many believe that when we look at church history, we see the gifts of the spirit fade out soon after the Apostles set up the early church. In response to this, I will simply say that there is are a great many reasons to think this is a very bias view to take. There is in fact a great deal of evidence, even among writers from cessationist denominations a few hundred years ago, where they recount stories of gifts being manifested in their churches. They simply do not call them by their obvious names. For more evidence of this I recommend you look into some of the writings of Dr. Sam Storms who does an excellent job in his historical research of spiritual manifestations.

When it comes to objections due to the nature of the gifts, we can look at prophecy as the best example. Cessationists object to this gift because they believe it compromises the sufficiency of scripture. It is their fear that if the Lord is continuing to speak, what is to stop us from throwing away the written word that is supposed to have the final say? This however contradicts the Pentecostal and I believe Biblical view of what prophecy truly is.

Prophecy today, like any other gift, is subject to human frailty and imperfections. The best definition of it I have heard is simply: "saying in human words what God has brought to mind." It must be tested against scripture, but it should be considered beneficial and trustworthy when it has been held to the proper standards. The question that must be asked is, is there any gift where this is not the case? A gift that even cessasionists seem to always believe in is the gift of teaching. Isn't teaching also subject to human weaknesses and mistakes? Shouldn't it also be tested against scripture and held to the proper standards? Of course.

Another objection that has been used but you will rarely hear anymore comes from a misuse of a passage in 1 Corinthians 13: As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. It was argued that the "perfect" being referred to was the canon of scripture and since we now have it, we no longer need this kind of prophetic gift. The problem is, when you continue to read this passage, it becomes perfectly obvious that Paul is referring to Heaven when he speaks of "the perfect." He says this because then we will see God face to face. Prophecy will be of no value. In actual fact, there is no Biblical reason to believe we can't be benefited by this gift, properly used, today. Paul, when referring to prophecies, told us to not to despise it. He told us to test everything and cling to what is good.

One final defence I will give, before I dig into tongues, is to look at the very event of Pentecost itself in scripture. What was it that Peter said when he quoted Joel? "'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy..." When did he say these things would happen? In the last days. One question... have the last days ended? No... we are still awaiting the return of Christ. There is no reason to think we should no longer seek these gifts.

Now... onward to the infamous topic: tongues. What are they? It seems clear from scripture, particularly in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 that they are a gift of a spiritual language given to individual Christians in order to edify themselves in spirit. It is a language that the one praying does not understand. As Paul says, "he speaks mysteries." Not only that, but when they are given an interpretation in a corporate setting, they edify the the body of Christ as well.

There are two objections to this gift that I've heard. One is obviously that they have ceased, as was mentioned. The other however is a bit different. Some say that, in fact, this gift is referring to a heightened ability to learn a foreign language in order to evangelize. They might defend this by looking at Acts 2 and pointing out that foreigners were understanding what was said. This particular instance of tongues may or may not be related to that form of spiritual manifestation, however, it is clear that 1 Corinthians 14 is referring to something else. look at what Paul does. If you read closely, you can see that Paul compares tongues both to the playing of an instrument, as well as to the speaking of a foreign language. Now, how could it be that the spiritual tongue being explained could be the same thing as the foreign language Paul compares it too? They are clearly two different things. Otherwise this simply would be an incoherent set of words from a very brilliant man.

That basically sums up by defense of the gifts. For further study of them, I recommend Sam Storm's book "A Beginner's Guide to Spiritual Gifts." He does a great job summarizing the gifts listed in 1 Corinthians.

To close, I'd simply like to encourage those reading to consider seeking even harder after the gifts of the Spirit than you have in the past. Paul encourages us to eagerly desire more of them. Are you nervous that you'll lose control in some way? Don't worry, that's not how it works. The gifts are something given that we receive if we ask. They are not forced upon us. They are a blessing that is given for our edification. There is room for mistakes. We simply must be deeply rooted in the word before we branch out too far in the gifts. We are meant to use them within the boundaries that Paul sets in his letters, but then those boundaries are made to set us free.


  1. It worked so here goes a couple of short things. We can discuss further but I am heading out.
    First, I appreciate your blog and sharing your thoughts. I have enjoyed them quite a bit and see your father coming out in some of your writings.
    Now to the other part.
    Eric, I grew up the same way you did. Probably more intensely as a Pentecostal. I still consider myself to be one if it means we believe in the Holy Spirit and all that comes with it for today. I appreciate my upbringing very much and appreciated your comment about seeing the gifts in action. It changed me for the better. At the same time it also became a shroud to some things.
    First, I see myself in you several years ago when I came to Elim. You speak the same thing I did, always heard everyone speak the same way. Our first major mistake in this. Yes, it is your blog and you can do as you like, however you titled it "What is theology, Holy Spirit", Some how everytime a Penecostal brings up the Holy Spirit it always turns to the gifts. It is as if we cannot just take Him without them. When was the last time you heard someone of our thought or denomination say, I feel such comfort, joy, and talk about being guided in the truth. Or even as Paul says at the the end of 1 Cor. 12, I will show you now a more excellent way. When was it that we talked about the more excellent way in Pentecostal circles? Love. We can't and we don't. Not if it does not involve the gifts. So for all of us as Charismatics, Pentecostals just try talking about the Holy Spirit and realizing who He is apart from the spiritual gifts. It can be done and should be done.
    The gifts are this beautiful and powerful thing, a bonus if you will that He choses to give us, and then through us uses the gift to draw people to Him.
    Second, I really think that you should take the time to read 12, 14 and include 13 this time. Make sure that you are reading the scripture for what it says and not tagging the scripture to a book. What you wrote is what I have heard from so many over the years. However, if you will read them with a book and as a whole, you may see something different.

  2. I appreciate You're critique! I can't say it was in any way a correction of what I was saying, but more of a nuance and a balancing out. Thanks for that. I get what you're saying.

    At the same time, I'd like to clarify why I came at it from such a strong pentecostal angle. An angle we hear so often at Elim and places like it. The past couple years of my life I've been surrounding myself with friends and teachings that are very strongly reformed. This is mostly due to my time at Nyack.

    While I like that you correctly reminded me as well as the other readers that we shouldn't ignore 1 Corinthian 13, it is precicely because of people I've met going to the OTHER extreme that I focused so strongly on 12 and 14.

    You asked the much need question, "What is more important? Love, or the gifts of the Spirit?" Of course, I agree that it is love. The problem is, many of my reformed friends have been asking the wrong question. "If we have love, then why do we need the gifts?"

    It's always tempting to go from a "both/and" way of thinking to "either or." I've seen too many Christians use an overemphasis or a misuse of the gifts as an excuse to stop using them. But I think that we need to remember what Paul said to the Corinthians when they were becoming obsessed with things like tongues: "Eagerly desire more!"

    Do I think that love is the greatest gift? I wouldn't be honoring the Bible if I said no. But do I think we can have it without the gifts? I don't think I should ever have to make that choice. It's pretty clear to me that the gifts of the spirit are vital to the flourishing of the Body

  3. I agree the gifts are part of the flourishing body, however they are secondary to the love and it comes in stages I believe. I can share with you about that some other time.
    At the same time we should eagerly desire more as the scripture says and I will never understand how we can take one part and not the other. Never understand that.
    The one thing that I would say is that the strong pentecostal angle is also the reason, I believe for such a strong reaction from the reformed side. I do not agree with them on this. However, I can see where they are coming from and have asked some of the same questions myself.
    Their question is of course wrong, if we have love why do we need the gifts? I don't know that Christ needs them to draw us to himself, however over and over when they are used in the scripture we see the confirmation of Paul's own words... it is for the unbeliever. It is the thing that takes it over the top. God takes something and blows their minds and it is awesome. Does He need the gifts? Does He need us? No. But he chooses to use them and us. How awesome is that?
    One final thing, Elim is the least of the Pentecostal environments that I have been in and the one place that I have found more of a balance. Just wondering your thoughts on that.