. . . but you will have power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8)

This Bible verse distinguishes Christianity from almost all other religions and philosophies. They are in essence ideas, systems of thought, patterns of prescribed behaviour or ways of life. They assume that if we just get the right teaching, the right understanding, the right lifestyle, then humanity will be saved and will progress towards perfect flourishing. But Christianity does not assume this. Christianity alone sees humanity’s problem as deeper, and our situation more desperate, than something solved by moral or theological teaching. Even if we did “know” the right path, we would not have the strength or the will to pursue it. We cannot (or will not) climb out of the pit, even when we can see the footholds. We need a hand to reach down from outside and rescue us. In other words, over above any doctrine, even above any example, we need the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to dwell in us to change our desires, realign our thoughts, and push us towards perfection.

As a Charismatic, I am reminded regularly that only the power of the Holy Spirit can make a difference to this world. The Spirit may sometimes work through teaching, reason, and moral influence, but these are effective because the Spirit is the energy behind them. Without him they are only well-meaning ideas and programmes—sea-maps without sails, impotent to go anywhere.

As a Charismatic, it is my experience of God that comes first. This experience transforms the way I see everything else. Philosophy understands that you cannot effectively communicate an experience unless it is already shared. If I have not tasted sweetness, you cannot convincingly tell me that something is sweet. Experience gives content to the words we use, without which words would be empty of meaning. The experience of God’s power at work in our lives has no analogy or parallel by which it can be explained. As with skydiving, you’ve simply got to try it. I am not suggesting that only Charismatics and Pentecostals have this experience. Nor am I prescribing the way it should look (i.e. speaking in tongues). What I am saying is that Charismatics emphasise this element of common Christian experience as theologically significant.

As a Charismatic, I have to leave space in my theology for the unpredictability of God, and hold this in tension with his unchanging reliability. God is the solid rock, the firm foundation on which we stand—this One is also the raging fire and the “wind that blows where it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell from where it comes or where it goes” (John 3:8). As a Charismatic, I have to be ready for the Spirit to intervene in a way that breaks open my preconceptions of how he works, triggering a radical reinterpretation of all that he’s done in the past. This model is repeated throughout Scripture. “Forget the former things! Do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing” (Isaiah 43:18-19). Whenever the Spirit moves, he disturbs our tidy categories and interpretations, and we are never the same again. This emphasis affects our ecclesiology, our prayer, our Bible reading, and our gatherings. Our services, however structured, still keep space open for the Spirit to speak to the congregation. Our prayer is as much listening as talking. We likewise read the Bible with an open ear to what God might show us today. We regularly reserve time in our smaller gatherings to prophesy to one another.

The unpredictability of the Spirit can also lead to one of the common problems in Charismatic churches: anti-intellectualism. If God cannot be put in a box, if he could do anything in the next half hour, if he will always defy my expectations, then why acquire expectations to begin with? Why study the past, if, as Isaiah says, God is doing a new thing today? In a similar way, belief in power available to everyone regardless of education can develop into a rejection of education as powerless by comparison.

Anti-intellectualism breeds a gullibility that lacks the suspicious scepticism necessary to sniff out falsehood. Thus Charismatic churches can foster an environment in which it is easy for leaders to manipulate their congregations, persuading them of God’s presence and activity when their experiences can often be explained in other ways. Self-deception may follow when desire to experience gives way to defensive assertion that God has spoken. A people trained to expect God’s transforming power may not be equipped to understand or cope when that power does not manifest. The silence of God, pain, chronic illness, and continual failure can lead to pervasive disappointment in those who lack the theological categories to process these things.

So it turns out we need theology after all. Experiences are always interpreted into a theological framework. It turns out there is power in education, in ideas – power of a different kind but equally necessary. We all experience God in different ways. He has given us each other so we can learn from one another’s experiences. This is so that we may become enriched beyond anything an individual could possibly gain alone. The same Spirit manifests through the whole community of God, providing different gifts to different members, “so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith” (Eph 4:12-13). To ask which is more important, theology or Spirit-experience, is like asking whether the fuel or the steering wheel is more important in a car.

Therefore, as a Charismatic, I am aware of our need for the stabilising influence and sober judgment of the wider church—both now and through history. But I also want to suggest that we have something to offer back: a fresh outpouring, a revitalisation, and a restoration to the kind of church experience that makes 1 Corinthians 12 & 14 relevant within the context of chapter 13. May the Spirit empower us, direct our thoughts, challenge our preconceptions, and take us forward to ever new insights into the character and purpose of God.


This post was first published at Kings Theology on Oct 2, 2012. 

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Barney is the lead editor for the site. A theology fellow at Oxford University, he also hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers.