In his book Keep In Step With the Spirit, theologian J.I. Packer wrote a helpful theological work on the person and work of the Holy Spirit and shared in a couple of chapters his thoughts on the charismatic movement taking place in much of the world today.
My goals for sharing this is not to choose sides or argue for a middle ground in the recently renewed interest in debating cessationalism and the charismatic faith (reignited by the StrangeFire conference and book by John MacArthur) but rather to share helpful truths for both sides to ponder.
I hope the information presented here will help both sides avoid misunderstandings that lead to straw men argumentation, widening the chasm between the differing sides within the body of Christ that Christ so desperately wanted to be unified (John 17:23).
Below are some quotations from the chapters called “The Charismatic Life” and “Interpreting the Charismatic Life” from Packer’s book:
A different hermeneutical approach for Charismatics:
Protestant charismatics under Pentecostal influence tend to read all the details of New Testament charismatic experience as paradigms and, in effect, promises of what God will do for all who ask, while thoughtful Catholics plus the Protestant charismatic minority of whom I spoke above read them rather as demonstrating what God can do as spiritual need requires. (183)
Testing the charismatic movement with basic biblical tests:
…Scripture yields other principles for judging whether movements are God inspired or not—principles about God’s work, will, and ways that the Apostles themselves apply in letters like Galatians, Colossians, 2 Peter, and 1 John to various supposedly superficial versions of the faith. Two basic tests emerge: one credal and one moral:
The creedal test may be formulated from two passages, 1 John 4:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 12:3. The first passage says that any spirit—that is, evidently, anyone claiming to be Spirit inspired—who fails to confess the Incarnation is not of God. The thrust of this fully appears only as we recall that for John the incarnation of God’s Son led on to his sacrificial death for our sins (1:1-2:2, 3:16; 4:8-10), so that denying the former involved denying the latter, too. The second passage affirms that the Spirit of God leads no one to say “cursed [anathema] be Jesus,” but leads men rather to call him Lord (kyrios), which otherwise they could never sincerely do (see 1 Corinthians 2:14). Both passages illustrate the truth that is central to this present book, namely that the Spirit’s constant task is to make men discern and acknowledge the glory of Jesus Christ. So the credal test, for charismatics as for all other professed Christians, is the degree of honor paid by confession, attitude, and action to the Son whom God the Father has made Lord.
The moral test is given by statements such as those of John, that he who truly knows and loves God will show it by keeping his commandments, avoiding all sin and loving his brethren in Christ (see 1 John 2:4; 3:9, 10, 17, 24; 4:7-13, 20-21; 5:1-3).
When we apply these tests to the charismatic movement, it becomes plain at once that God is in it. For whatever threats and perhaps instances of occult and counterfeit spirituality we may think we detect round its periphery (and what movement of revival has ever lacked these things round its periphery?), its main effect everywhere is to promote robust Trinitarian faith, personal fellowship with the divine Saviour and Lord whom we meet in the New Testament, repentance, obedience, and love to fellow Christians, expressed in ministry of all sorts towards them—plus a zeal for evangelistic outreach that puts the staider sort of churchmen to shame. (184-185)
Positive and Negative Aspects of the Movement:
Positive Aspects (185-191):
- Christ Centeredness,
- Spirit-Empowered Living,
- Emotion finding expression,
- Every-heart involvement in the worship of God,
- Every-member ministry in the body of Christ,
- Missionary zeal,
- Small-group ministry,
- Attitude toward church structures,
- Communal living, and
- Generous giving
Negative Aspects (191-197):
- “Super-supernaturalism” (thinking God only is working through wondrous or miraculous works and not by natural means),
- Eudaemonism (belief that God means us to spend our time in this fallen world feeling well and in a state of euphoria),
- Demon obsession,
- Conformism (being motivated more by peer pressure to practice certain spiritual gifts or worship a certain way)
Packer provides added clarity on his view of differences between charismatics and non-charismatics closing his chapter called “The Charismatic Life:”
…I suggest that, in reality, charismatic and non-charismatic spiritualties differ more in vocabulary, self-image, groups associated with, and books and journals read, than in the actual ingredients of their communion with the Father and the Son through the Spirit. Charismatic experience is less distinctive than is sometimes made out. (199)
Packer on building theology on experience:
The sign that an experience is a gift of God’s grace is that when it is tested by Scripture, it proves to have its heart an intensified awareness of some revealed truth concerning God and our relationship with him as creatures, sinners, beneficiaries, believers, adopted sons, pledged servants or whatever. We have measured charismatic experience by this criterion and not found it wanting. But when that experience is pointed to—and it often is—as evidence for beliefs that appear to be biblically mistaken, we are left with only two options: either to reject the experiences as delusive and possibly demonic in origin, after all, or to retheologize them in a way which shows that the truth which they actually evidence and confirm is something different from what the charismatics themselves suppose. (201)