Decomposition of pneumatology

September 20, 2008

church / pentecostal / charismatic / spirituality / theology

This post is part of a series that looks at some of the ways that movements in church history stop moving and die. If you are unfamiliar with the term “pneumatology,” when it is used in Christian theology it refers to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

It is well-documented that the early church sought a very active engagement with the Holy Spirit. In today’s church, this engagement and what it means for today is viewed in, basically, the following ways:

  1. During the early church, the church was being built in preparation for the completion and canonization of the Bible. After this happened, there was no need for spiritual gifts, miracles, and most other tangible manifestations of the Spirit’s activity. Because we have a completed Bible today, we should not expect or desire these things.
  2. The early church was trying to legitimize itself as something distinct from Judaism, and so it invented miraculous stories to suggest that God was on its side. These recorded occurrences never happened, and that’s why they are not happening today.
  3. The early church began to lose its desire for these manifestations as it became institutionalized, beginning in the third century and intensifying in the fourth century. It traded the Spirit’s power for accommodations to culture, the desire to build doctrine, a hierarchical structure, sin, and tradition. The church does not see these things on a widespread level today because it is still making this trade, and it does not want to change bad enough.
  4. The early church lost these things as indicated in #3, but they are not seen today because there are too many fakes, or because God mysteriously chooses not to engage us in these ways.

Certainly there are nuances and exceptions to these ways, but the basic principle stands. The scholarly and popular support for #1 has dropped significantly, but there are still denominations that hold to it. #2 holds strongly in traditional liberal theology, which again has dropped significantly in the last half century or so. Modern liberalism typically has more respect for the supernatural than that. #3 is typically what is believed by the modern Pentecostal and charismatic churches, and #4 is held by many who have grown bitter from watching the excesses of the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movements.

In the book 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity, there is evidence presented through quotes and narratives that this kind of experience of the Spirit never truly died out of the church. Rather, it has been present in every significant movement of church history, from monasticism to the Reformation to the American Great Awakenings and Methodism, leading to the birth of the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movements. The book contains an incredible selection of things that are often not taught in church history classes.

So, if the supernatural life of the church did not die, but rather died out of specific movements as they developed, what does that mean? My contention is that this supernatural experience died out as the movements were unwilling to continue moving.

They developed traditions, doctrines, and explanations that rendered this kind of work of the Spirit either irrelevant, unneeded, or sinful in the eyes of members. Remnants have always existed in all of these movements, and some of these remnants have gone to start other movements and some of them have stayed to try to challenge their existing ones. In their developments, the majorities of these movements have traded the power of the Spirit for other kinds of power.

At the moment, I’m not dealing with any specific doctrines, such as initial evidence or divine healing, as they are for other discussions and have not necessarily been constant parts of charismatic experience through the centuries of the church.

However, I fear underestimating the importance of the overall idea: that as movements cease moving and changing, they lose their supernatural life, whether it is sudden or gradual. This is, again, not something that is entirely unique to me. As this series continues, though, I want to look into the consequences of this loss, and how these consequences relate to the decomposition of movements, and their regression into things like the approval of torture and baptism of political parties.