By Jeffrey T. Riddle
There has been an attempt in recent days by some to merge Calvinism and the charismatic movement. Several factors have influenced this trend. Here are three:
First, movements and ministries like “Together for the Gospel” and “the Gospel Coalition” have commended charismatic ministers, churches, and their practices to young Calvinistic ministers and their churches.
Second, the merging of charismatic and Calvinistic theology has been promoted among young ministers by the widespread use and influence of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology in various evangelical schools and seminaries. Although there is much to commend in the devotional quality of Grudem’s work and in his generally Calvinistic Baptist perspective, reformed readers will not be able to affirm his advocacy of charismatic practices in the church.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, charismatic influenced “third wave” contemporary Christian music has largely replaced “traditional” worship liturgies in most evangelical and conservative Protestant churches, and now many of the lyrics for the newest songs are being influenced by the doctrinal resurgence of Calvinism.
Why should one be wary of this merging of charismatic and Calvinistic theology? Here are five specific concerns:
1. One cannot hold to the validity of charismatic “sign-gifts” in the church today and be consistently Biblical and reformed in his theological outlook.
At the outset we must understand that holding to Calvinistic soteriology is not enough to make a minister or church reformed. Reformation theology—including especially the Regulative Principle of worship—must also be applied to every other aspect of doctrine and practice in the church.
Based on sound Biblical exposition and demonstrated proofs, the classical Reformed creeds and confessions routinely rejected the continuation of charismatic gifts and experiences. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689), for example, deals with this issue in its statement on Scripture:
Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times and in divers manners to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterward for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary,those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased(emphasis added).
One cannot claim consistently to hold to reformation doctrine while also affirming non-cessationism.
2. The emphasis on modern day occurrences of the extraordinary and the miraculous undermines the Biblical emphasis on the “ordinary means” of grace.
When Naaman was told by Elisha to dip seven times in the Jordan, the leprous commander was offended that he was given such an ordinary task (2 Kings 5). He wanted an extraordinary experience!
In the New Testament, the clear emphasis for spiritual edification and growth is on the “ordinary means.” Believers are to pray (1 Thess 5:17); sing songs of praise (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16); preach (1 Tim 4:2); assemble together (Heb 10:24-25); read aloud the Bible (1 Tim 4:13), give offerings and alms (1 Cor 16:1-2). On the other hand, believers are not actively encouraged to practice or seek miraculous experiences or gifts.
3. Those who deny the cessation of extra-ordinary charismatic gifts and experiences in the church today ignore the Biblical parallel to the cessation of some Biblical offices.
After the resurrection and ascension of Christ, some gifts existed for a limited time to validate the ministry and authority of the apostles (cf. Mark 16:17-18; Acts 2:43; 5:12, 15; 14:3; 15:12; 19:11; 2 Cor 12:12). With the completion of the canon of Scripture these miraculous gifts ceased. A clear parallel exists in the New Testament relating to offices that existed in the post-apostolic era. The offices of apostle, prophet, and evangelist were “extraordinary” ones that did not extend beyond the age of the apostles, while, the “ordinary” offices of ministers, elders, and deacons have continued throughout this gospel age (cf. 1 Cor 12:28-31; Eph 4:11-12; 1 Timothy 3:1-12; Titus 1;5-9). For a convincing discussion of this point, see Walter J. Chantry, Signs of the Apostles: Observations on Pentecostalism Old and New (Banner of Truth, 1973) and Samuel Waldron, To Be Continued: Are The Miraculous Gifts For Today? (Calvary Press, 2005).
4. The promotion of non-cessationist doctrine fuels an overriding desire for extraordinary spiritual experiences that can lead to confusing theological beliefs and practices.
Theologian R. Scott Clark calls the evangelical desire for extraordinary experiences QIRE or “The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience” (see his book Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice [P&R, 2008]). He also notes how the claim of many evangelicals to be “open” to charismatic gifts and other phenomena leads some falsely to understand “ordinary” events as “extraordinary.” Here is an example. A child is sick and the church prays for her recovery. The child is treated by a doctor for the ailment and gradually recovers. The church then claims authoritatively that God healed the child because of their prayers. Certainly God is sovereign over the child’s health, and he may have been pleased to use the prayers of the church to bring about the child’s recovery. Scriptures gives clear instruction on the exercise of the ordinary means of prayer for the sick (cf. James 5:13-15). God can work miracles, including healing, according to his good pleasure. By definition of his own sovereign Godhood, God may choose to do as he pleases (cf. Dan 4:34-35). There is, however, absolutely no objective way to measure or evaluate if the church’s claim that its prayers resulted in the child’s miraculous recovery is true. Of necessity this conclusion would be a matter of faith. At any rate, if the child recovered after the church’s prayer, then this would have been the result of ordinary rather than extraordinary means. Again, the instrument of prayer is simply an ordinary means. God would have been no less sovereign, however, had the child not recovered (cf. Job’s response to suffering in Job 1:21). We might also ask how we would look at the circumstances if the child had been part of a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness church. If she recovered after they prayed for her in those false churches would we say that God miraculously answered their prayers as a means of affirming their doctrine and practice? What if the child had been part of an atheistic family, and they offered no prayer for her and yet she still recovered. Would we say God did a miracle in response to their unbelief? Seeking extraordinary experiences typically leads to subjective declarations and doctrinal confusion. Again, R. Scott Clark notes that those who embrace charismatic doctrine tend merely to interpret ordinary events as extraordinary ones. Clark pointedly asks why we do not see those who promote non-cessationism doing things that are truly miraculous as the early apostles and their associates did? Why do they not claim to be able to raise the dead as Peter and Paul did (cf. Peter’s raising of Tabitha in Acts 9:36-41 and Paul’s raising of Eutychus in Acts 20:9-12)? Why do they not claim to be able to be miraculously transported by the Spirit from one place to another as happened to Philip (cf. Acts 8:39)? The “miracles” that are claimed today are hardly comparable to the authenticating signs that accompanied the apostles. In truth, they are most often ordinary events give extraordinary spin.
5. The emphasis on extraordinary experience undermines the sufficiency and authority of Scripture.
This is most clearly stated in Christ’s account of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. The narrative concludes with the Rich Man begging Father Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house to warn his five brothers lest they too come to the place of torment (vv. 27-28). Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (v. 29). In other words, Abraham tells him that they have the Scriptures, and this should be enough to warn them of the reality of hell. The Rich Man protests, “No, Father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (v. 30). The Rich Man is essentially a non-cessationist. He believes that God should use an extra-ordinary event to change the hearts of his brothers. Surely, a spirit who comes back from the dead will make a difference! Abraham replies, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” (v. 31). Indeed, from our present perspective we see how the greatest miracle in the world has already taken place. Christ has been raised from the dead! Yet, many remain unmoved, cold, and indifferent to the gospel. Jesus reminds us here that his preferred means of speaking to men is not through fantastic experiences but through the ordinary means of Scripture. Zeal for experience undermines, in truth, the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.