Towards a ‘Catholic’ understanding of the miraculous

Towards a ‘Catholic’ understanding of the miraculous

The human longing that gave birth to the Pentecostal movement is not bad in itself. The fundamental and basic hunger that is addressed by Pentecostalism is a desire for intimacy with the Uncreated God. This is good and God-given. We were meant for intimacy with the Divine.

But the theological poverty that was the atmosphere of the birth of Pentecostalism guaranteed that the very good desire would be quickly corrupted by weak theological support. And the movement bears this out. All one has to do is turn on religious TV to discover both old and new heresies finding fertile ground in the hearts of ungrounded and disconnected Pentecostal believers.

– Fr Barnabus Powell, Strange Fire – Journey to Orthodoxy

The Church of England, particularly in London, is becoming decidedly Charismatic. Largely under the influence of churches like Holy Trinity Brompton many people are also finding their way back into the Church via its initiatives such as the Alpha course. To be honest a lot of these CofE Churches are Anglican increasingly in name only and bear a closer resemblance to Vineyard, Elim or New Frontiers churches.

This trend is a global one with many of the new converts in the global south being to Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. For a time I consistently attended a Charismatic CofE church and whilst I never bought into or understood the more pronounced tongues, slayings and various other phenomena attended fairly happily for the most part for several years.

However the prominence and focus on the Charismatic externals eventually did in part give cause to move on. Their wasn’t much talk of doctrine, people held very different beliefs on a range of issues but it became increasingly requisite to be onboard with charismata as the church presented it. Orthodoxy was never a problem but charismatic orthopraxy felt like the only means to participate fully in the body and soul of the church.

In talking to many people about this, trying to learn more, I found the people broadly fell into two camps. The Charismatics or the Cessationists, the former believes in the full run of gifts (understood in a particular way) and the latter their absence. That was the way a vicar was putting it to me before asking me to choose what I subscribed to. Yet neither is really the historic position of the Catholic (universal) church nor that of Scripture. The testimony of the saints before us throughout the ages is replete with the miraculous yet is a topic generally neglected by contemporary Charismatics. In fact I’ve come to believe that if contemporary Charismatics would be lead to search their own history they would discover that their ‘new things’ God is doing and ‘fresh waves’ of the Spirit at their best are nothing new and at their worst have nothing to do with the spirit.

There’s nothing wrong fundamentally however with the desire to see God at work in the life of the believer. Yet the preeminence given to the more ecstatic displays you might see on a sunday or the emotional intensity sought has become to some a form of sacrament (The charismatic churches I attended, even in the CoE, rarely shared the eucharist interestingly). This and the pursuit of such encounters blindsides the believer into thinking it is in these expressions that the primary work of the Holy Spirit is being done.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

– Galatians 5:22-24 (NIV)

The other more concerning thing is the presence of what could be considered antinomianism, amongst a proportion of charismatics. Drinking to get drunk, sex out of marriage and antipathy towards theology or doctrine are on the increase alongside a Biblical illiteracy that despite being bemoaned by those in ministry shows little to no sign of improving. I appreciate this isn’t universally the case and don’t mean to hurt or anger anyone yet this is what I have consistently seen over the years living in different cities across the UK. All of this indicative of  our shifting attitude towards faith from the corporate to the individual and the corresponding dearth of actual discipleship present in the church today.

None of these things are seen as problematic to a Charismatic or Pentecostal who takes the ability to speak in tongues, prophecy and exhibit what they believe to be manifestations (some understand as the ‘seal’ mentioned in Ephesians 1:13 and 2 Corinthians 1:22) of the spirit irrespective of how they live the rest of the week. These events are ‘signs’ of the Holy Spirit in the life of one someone who otherwise might be entirely devoid of the fruit Paul outlines that we hope to see. This is perhaps most evident in the Pentecostal heresies of the Prosperity Gospel, New Apostolic Reformers and Oneness Pentecostals. If all these dramatic displays we saw were legitimate in all these churches with conflicting theology departing from orthodoxy, the Holy Spirit must really not be so concerned or grieved by what we do, say or think after all. I know no other way to come to terms with it if the gifts are legitimate.

It’s tempting then to be dismissive of all of this and say it is all questionable yet I think even this is to lose out in our understanding of how God directly intervenes in our world. It is fair to say that perhaps Pentecostalism and its milder Charismatic relative are reactions against a dry intellectualism that has occupied much of Protestantism since its conception and there is a balance needed to be found. For me this is where the lives of the saints come in, they remind us that God still acts in the world today despite all our foibles and can change the lives of the worst of us for his glory. They tempered reason with wonder and loved the church that homed them. As Protestants we should not forget that it is God alone that is worthy of veneration, they are just like us and fallible, but that at the same time they show us the faith “which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

Modern day charismatics have brought a lot to the Church by reminding us the intimacy with God is something worthy of pursuit and that he has agency in this world. He is a God who cares about the sick and the hurting enough to be involved directly. Yet theologically it is easily compromised and leaves many Christians like ‘infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.’ (Ephesians 4:14) The historic position of the church is that God is at work through his Holy Spirit in all times and we should neither be charismatic nor cessationist but contextualised by a Catholic (Universal) understanding of the spiritual gifts that are to be eagerly desired. We should stop ‘inviting the Holy Spirit’ into our church services because Jesus already promised us that he is present wherever we gather. That the pursuit of spiritual events are a poor substitute for the progressive sanctification of the individual under God.

Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return to the adoption of sons, our liberty to call God our Father, our being made partakers of the grace of Christ, our being called children of light, our sharing in eternal glory, and, in a word, our being brought into a state of all “fulness of blessing,” both in this world and in the world to come, of all the good gifts that are in store for us, by promise hereof, through faith, beholding the reflection of their grace as though they were already present, we await the full enjoyment.

– St. Basil the Great, “On the Holy Spirit”