Monday, October 30, 2017

New and/or Reactionary

Gary McIntosh has written an intriguing guest piece for Christianity Today on the subject of the history of spiritual gifts profiles, and it raises a bigger question concerning the validity of new movements and trends within Christendom.

Given a minute, you’ll probably think of half a dozen examples of what McIntosh means by “spiritual gifts profiles”. Books, seminars and platform ministry on the subject of gifts are found everywhere these days. These attempt to inventory and describe each of the spiritual gifts given to believers by the Holy Spirit of God with a view to helping Christians recognize the gifts they’ve been given and use them more effectively for God’s glory.

But McIntosh points out that this level of attention to the gifts is a fairly recent phenomenon; perhaps not quite big enough to refer to as a “movement”, but certainly a notable trend.

And to some people anything new is automatically suspect.

To the Word with Fresh Eyes

Now, spiritual gifts are not exactly news to the church, as McIntosh points out. Christians have been using their gifts for the benefit of their fellow believers for centuries without a whole lot of investigation into the theological basis behind them. What WAS new last century was the level of scrutiny applied to the relevant passages and the attempt to turn that knowledge into the practical discernment of what any individual believer’s gift or gifts might be.

But a fresh look at the truth of God is not necessarily a bad thing. It is not a repudiation of the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints — not, that is, unless it is merely the sort of idle curiosity typified by the Athenians who, Luke tells us, would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. Novelty for novelty’s sake, basically.

Exceedingly Broad

In fact, one of the most compelling arguments for the sufficiency and finality of the Holy Scriptures is that we find ourselves constantly driven back to them for faith and practice. And the serious revisitation of any particular portion of the Bible is almost guaranteed to unearth things we haven’t thought about in depth before. Indeed, we cannot reasonably expect anything else if we believe the Psalmist, who declared:
“I have seen a limit to all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad.” 
The Hebrew word translated “broad” here means roomy or large. It’s the sort of size that allows exploration in all directions. It’s the same word used repeatedly to describe the land of Canaan, which was big enough for all God’s earthly people.

As applied to the commandments of God, the implication is that there is considerably more to the Law than casual readers are capable of teasing out. And if the Law is virtually inexhaustible, we should not be at all surprised to find that millions of intensely interested Christians exploring the rest of the scriptures over dozens of generations have entirely failed to exhaust them.

“New” Means “Wrong”

Still, some folks are inclined to dismiss anything they haven’t heard before on the grounds that “new” almost surely means “wrong”. Thus Curtis Ward feels compelled to make the argument that Pentecostalism did not originate in late-19th century revivals throughout America and Great Britain, but instead traces its lineage back to the apostles. His concern is presumably that late-dating the movement makes it less credible. Likewise, Dispensationalism is dismissed by some because is alleged to have originated between 1800 and 1830. The implication is that anything discovered so recently cannot possibly be true.

One of the things that made the ministry of the Lord Jesus such a draw was its authority, but the other was that it was “new”. The “newness” was not some kind of abrupt repudiation of Judaism. In fact, the Lord upheld both the Old Testament (right down to its very letters and their diacritical points) as well as the authority of its existing teachers. In that sense, his teaching was not new at all. What was new was that he held himself out as the personal fulfillment of the Old Testament law and prophecies, and every miracle he performed demonstrated that in order to be correctly understood the existing scriptures must be read with that staggering reality clearly in view.

With that in mind, it should be evident “new” and “heretical” are not necessarily synonyms.

Indeed, if the word of God is truly capable of near-infinite exploration, we should expect to find new emphases on familiar passages cropping up with a fair degree of regularity.

New and Timely

If these movements are of God, we should also expect to find them cropping up at exactly the time they are needed, and not before. The Lord Jesus and his “new” teaching did not appear on the scene until God had convincingly demonstrated over the course of centuries that the Law could not save either individuals or nations. Indeed, as the writer to the Hebrews points out, if the worshipers under the Old Testament economy had been truly cleansed by observing the Law and no longer had any consciousness of sins, sacrifices would have inevitably ground to a halt. But they did not.

Why? Because something else was needed; something the Old Testament anticipated but did not explicitly or fully reveal.

New teachings appear when the time is right. In the case of the Lord Jesus, this was clearly the provision of God. But it’s also a very natural and logical phenomenon; bad teachings also appear when it seems most convenient, not least because there is an active, personified malevolence at work propagating them.

Perhaps for this reason, in addition to being suspicious of new teachings, some of us tend to be dismissive of movements that appear reactionary, assuming they are either over-reactions or just another swing of the pendulum.

But as Gary McIntosh points out, interest in reexamining and profiling the gifts of the Holy Spirit was a direct response to the errors of Pentecostalism. Likewise, our own Immanuel Can has pointed out that neo-Calvinism is a reaction to post-modern uncertainty; a sort of doubling-down into determinism in the search for security. It is even argued that the literal approach of the early Dispensationalists was a rejoinder to the excessive spiritualization of the Bible favored by post-Millennialists.

In fact, most religious movements of any significance will appear to be reactive. This is the case regardless of whether these movements are of man or of God.

Reactive Teaching

To be frank, I find the same reactiveness often drives my own Bible study. I read something someone else has written about God’s word and find myself disagreeing with it viscerally without at first knowing why. It might be a single verse that is being forced to say something it doesn’t. It might be a verse that isn’t quoted at all, but that needs to be dealt with. It might be an important principle that is being ignored. But whatever the issue, the answer is reexamining the word of God, and the result is often something people might consider fresh or different.

In fact, it seems to me much of the New Testament was also written reactively. Heresies and misinterpretations cropped up, and the apostles and other authors of scriptures rebutted them as necessary. But these rebuttals forced the writers to revisit the Old Testament scriptures, resulting in fresh new theological emphases and clear, practical new implications for Christian living. Paul’s argument for justification by faith in Romans can be seen as a reaction to legalistic Jewish self-righteousness, and the book of Colossians is said to have been a response to a heresy of the “syncretistic Jewish-Gnosticizing type”.

Assessing New Movements

In short, truth has a tendency to come to light when that truth is most needed. Reaction and response are as natural to the Body of Christ as they are to a human body dealing with an infection. Likewise, solid, scripturally accurate teaching seems to bring all sorts of heresies out of the woodwork. It seems to me, then, that the relative newness or reactiveness of any particular movement or interpretation should not be used as evidence either for or against it.

What IS important is that a movement’s theology is sound, and that it is consistent with the word of God.


  1. Actual the notion and discussion of gifts of the Holy Spirit is pretty ancient:

    We learn in Isaiah 11:2 of seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that the (Catholic) Catechism elaborates as “wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord” (no. 1831). St. Thomas (Aquinas)introduces them in his treatise on the virtues and notes that whereas human virtues perfect our thoughts and actions as moved by our natural reason, the gifts derive from God and perfect our thoughts and actions as moved by the Holy Spirit. Natural virtues are like oars with which we row toward the good. Gifts of the Holy Spirit are like God-given winds filling our sails.

    Our “blessings” refer to the beatitudes proclaimed in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, beginning in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew. Jesus details these eight beatitudes, or special blessings, that come to all who display various Christ-like perfections: to the poor in spirit, to those who mourn, to the meek, to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, to the merciful, to the pure of heart, to the peacemakers, and to those who bear persecution for his sake.

    God’s gifts bear fruits as well as blessings. The Church’s teachings on the fruits of the Holy Spirit build on the words of St. Paul in Galatians 5:22–23 and are found in our current Catechism in paragraph 1832. They are twelve in number: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity. St. Thomas tells us, “The fruits are any virtuous deeds in which one delights.” As material fruits please and refresh us, so do spiritual fruits, “with a holy and genuine delight.” The gifts make us receptive to the inspiration of God, so that we may bear (and enjoy) the fruits.

    1. The kinds of things of which Aristotle spoke, and which later, Aquinas borrowed, have nothing to do with spiritual gifts, Q. Those are merely human "virtues," qualities all humans are imagined to possess in common, and which have no value toward God as far as salvation is concerned (Romans 3:9-20 and 4:1-3). The Bible is quite clear that the unsaved, the "natural" man, has no knowledge of spiritual things, and no such "gifts" from God (1 Cor. 2:14).

      This is a key point of difference between Catholic tradition and Protestant exegesis: that the Catholic tradition invents a doctrine of "General Grace," a belief that all men are on a continuum of salvation, and faith alone is not the deciding factor in their destiny; therefore, "virtues" can be had by anyone. The Bible holds that the unregenerate man has no "virtues" for God, and his "natural" righteousness is, in the eyes of God, nothing more than dirty rags (Is. 64:6).

      As a works-based religion, Catholicism has to hold that there is virtue in the acts of all men; but the faith that is in Jesus Christ teaches us to give up on our own hopes for any "virtue," and to trust in the perfect Person of Christ, through Whom virtue is imputed where it is never deserved.

      So where my "virtues" fail, Christ's do not. And salvation comes to those who give up their own "virtues" and throw themselves on the mercy of God. We might say, "The road to Hell is paved with human virtues."