Surprised by the Spirit
Surprised by the Spirit

Surprised by the Spirit

How might an openness to the Spirit's work in the entirety of the created order lead us to have eyes that look for surprising and unpredictable developments in cultural and political realms?

November 30 th 2011

"You're Pentecostal, aren't you Vince?"

Not exactly. My writing on the work of the Holy Spirit has led more than one person to assume that I emerge from the Pentecostal stream, but other tributaries have formed me more, and my ordination is in the Baptist General Conference. This assumption, however, presents an interesting question and opportunity: how might the Pentecostal and Charismatic worlds intersect with neocalvinism? How can these cousins help each other to grow in sensitivity to the Holy Spirit's work?

A good place to start is with some clarification about the terms "Pentecostal" and "Charismatic." There is much scholarship on the development of these movements and traditions, and some debate about precise definitions, but a big picture approach will suffice here. Generally speaking, Pentecostalism emerges from the holiness movement (which has roots in the life and work of John Wesley) and many point to the Azusa Street revival of 1906 as the prominent moment of widespread growth in the United States. Denominations such as the Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ, and International Church of the Foursquare Gospel emerged, and while each is denominationally distinct, they commonly emphasize a prominent place for the work of the Holy Spirit, particularly in a post-conversion experience called the Baptism of the Holy Spirit which is evidenced by speaking in tongues.

Many regard 1961 as the year the Charismatic movement emerged—in particular at an Episcopal Church in Van Nuys, California. Perhaps it is helpful to think of this as a time when the experiences of the Holy Spirit associated with Pentecostalism (such as miraculous gifts and expressive worship) began to emerge in non-Pentecostal denominations (Baptist, Presbyterian, and the like). A related movement is associated with John Wimber and the Vineyard that began in the 1970s. A common emphasis in Pentecostal and Charismatic settings is an openness to the work of the Holy Spirit as well as an expectation that God will do great, powerful, and perhaps unpredictable things in response to this "hands open" posture of reception.

This makes some people nervous when they worship in a Pentecostal or Charismatic church. I am reminded of a student who reported, after attending a local Charismatic church, that "I thought those people were crazy." He did not say why. But based on my own experiences in such contexts, as well as conversations with others who identify as Pentecostal or Charismatic, this is the response of many who have encountered a worship experience in which people may shout praises to God, run around, jump up and down, give prophetic words, speak in tongues, interpret tongues, and so forth. This exuberant atmosphere may strike some as wild and even chaotic—and I can only imagine what Abraham Kuyper might have said about such settings, given as he was to strongly stating his opinions. Whatever discomfort some may have about this often emotionally charged atmosphere and the unpredictability that comes along with it, we cannot escape the fact that these cousins are at the leading edge of church growth around the world, and part of this stems from their willingness to be led by the Spirit. What can we learn from these enthusiastic and unpredictable relatives?

Some critics of Pentecostals and Charismatics focus on what seems like a lack of order and an excessive emphasis on experience, in contrast to more orderly and emotionally restrained approaches to worship and the Christian life. Perhaps some who came from Pentecostal backgrounds and found more theological depth in Reformed contexts are wary of the experiential focus and quite content with a more rational faith.

While there are good reasons for such criticism, we must consider whether the openness to the Spirit's leading and the attention to experience is a corrective that facilitates a more truly holistic faith. In many parts of the Reformed world, there is high premium on reflection and intellectual rigour as expressions of faithfulness; this definitely helps lead to deep and meaningful articulations of Christian doctrine. The other side of this is that sometimes those who are more reflective are suspicious of the emotional and experiential aspects of our humanity. Extremes of reasoned reflection or ecstatic experience are equally unhelpful. We are neither exclusively rational nor emotional, and a committed suspicion of emotion reflects a failure to consider how God might want to work in our lives beyond the intellect.

Could it be that our Pentecostal and Charismatic relatives can help us to see more of our full humanity by reminding us that we can have life with God as reflective and emotional beings? Certainly there are non-Pentecostal traditions (like some of the Puritans, for instance) who gave intense focus to piety, but my sense of the neocalvinist ethos is that it is not always as enthusiastic about "heart" religion as it is about "mind" religion. The Spirit is at work renewing our minds as well as our hearts.

While the reminder about a holistic faith may be familiar, I think the openness to the Spirit we find among Pentecostals and Charismatics opens a less familiar possibility. The unpredictability welcomed by our cousins prompts me to consider how this might yield insight for how we pursue public life. Unpredictability need not refer to personal ecstatic experiences alone; how might an openness to the Spirit's work in the entirety of the created order lead us to have eyes that look for surprising and unpredictable developments in cultural and political realms? Though Jesus' words about the mystery of the Spirit's action in John 3 primarily refers to God's saving work with individuals, we can ask whether the unpredictability and imperceptibility of the Spirit's coming and going has implications for the possibilities that stem from common grace. The Spirit's work in creation is how common grace works; though God has a telos in mind, we do not know the specific path toward it.

In that light, what I have in mind is a willingness for us to be imaginative people who not only "dream big" about what could happen in domains as diverse as art, public policy, education, and finance, but also participation in what some would regard as mundane settings. An openness to the unpredictable and unexpected means that one is willing to be surprised at what might emerge even as we go about life in the everyday world of work; God may bring about some new direction that is a surprising expression of the cultural mandate as we work steadily on the "common grace" terrain of creation. This is not necessarily the inverse of making plans, but certainly a willingness to have even our best plans altered by new directions God may make available to us. Pentecostals and Charismatics tend to believe that God will do big things; can neocalvinists be open to God who by the Spirit may bring about big and surprising things in our cultural engagement? Are we willing to be surprised and to welcome the unpredictable?

Of course, learning is a two-way street. We now ask the opposite question: how might aspects of a neocalvinist emphasis on the Spirit help inform our Pentecostal and Charismatic relatives? In The Spirit in Public Theology I primarily focus on the Holy Spirit's work in creation, characterized as animating life, restraining sin, and moving creation toward God's glory. I discovered in Abraham Kuyper's work that (as mentioned above) the Holy Spirit's work in creation is described in the same way as the operation of common grace, though Kuyper himself did not make the connection.

One significant observation regarding the Spirit's work in creation is that it helps us to see that the Spirit's work is not only a post-Acts 2 phenomenon. For many traditions, including Pentecostals and Charismatics, the work of the Holy Spirit is primarily or exclusively articulated in relationship to salvation, primarily regeneration and sanctification. We certainly need to speak often of the Spirit's redeeming work, but we are less than completely faithful if we ignore the significance of the Spirit's work in creation that we learn about as early as Genesis 1:2. This emphasis can help our Pentecostal and Charismatic relatives to be even more open to the Spirit and in some cases help make clear the important truth that redemption is not an escape from creation but the reclaiming, renewing, and fulfilling of God's ultimate purpose for the world He has made.

More specifically, attention to the Spirit's work in creation has significant implications for our view of the church's mission in the world. As Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions lead the way in church growth around the world, especially in developing countries, there is the risk that the primary emphasis will be on internal change (regeneration, sanctification, the practice of spiritual gifts) and certain kinds of felt needs (like healing the sick).

Of course these are very important, but they are only part of the fullness of participation in the kingdom Christ has inaugurated. Political and cultural action is also part of a Christian witness. The Spirit's work in common grace as well as particular grace means that Christian faithfulness includes ongoing stewardship of the created order. Even in totalitarian countries where there may be little that Christians can do to participate in politically and culturally influential domains, at the very least the life of the church should put this on display in their life together. It is important here to note that a commitment to culturally formative activity does not mean that Christian mission is to be regarded as a form of triumphalism—far from it. But it does mean that regardless of the pace of transformation (or even if it seems that regression is happening), faithfulness to God is expressed as faith that is both private and public. What might we see happening around the world if Pentecostal and Charismatic believers live out Christian mission in this way?

Neocalvinists and their Pentecostal and Charismatic cousins can help each other be people who are more fully Trinitarian by giving attention to ways that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives and in the created order. One day we'll be together singing praises to God in the fully realized kingdom; in the meantime, let's see what happens if we are willing to be surprised by what the Spirit may do if we are truly open to Him and willing to follow His leading.

Topics: Religion
Vincent Bacote
Vincent Bacote

Vincent Bacote is Associate Professor of Theology, and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics, at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He is the author of The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper (2005). He is also co-editor with Dennis Okholm and Laura Miguelez of Scripture in the Evangelical Tradition (InterVarsity Press, 2004). He is also the editor of the Precepts for Living Annual Commentary (UMI).


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?