Dan Wallace has an intriguing post on “Charismata and the Authority of Personal Experience.” Apparently, there is an increasing number of scholars who are embracing the charismatic movement. My thoughts, heretofore, have been that the opposite is taking place, but let’s grant that there is some sort of increase, at ETS and other venues, of a charismatic intelligentsia. Wallace believes that these scholars have swung the pendulum from one extreme (rationalism) to the other (emotivism). The sum of his argument is that the Enlightenment injected a new emphasis on rational criteria into Evangelical Protestantism which caused a cognitive overload unable to bear the weight of personal (existential) crisis. Wallace has in mind those that come from a rigid fundamentalism, which is cast aside after some deep suffering and exchanged for a Vineyard fellowship (he explicitly names Vineyard). The result is that the (objective) authority of the Bible is exchanged for the (subjective) authority of personal experience, i.e., “an entirely different authority.”
[It should be noted that “charismatic” does not necessarily indicate speaking in tongues or extempore “prophesies,” but, rather, is used more broadly for churches that have a praise & worship service, “practical” preaching, community groups, Bible studies, etc. and an overall emphasis on personal transformation.]
Now, Wallace does, in the last paragraph, make the concession that personal experience is vital and a necessary correlate to the reasons of faith. But, the entire thrust of the article is that the sort of personal experience emphasized by Vineyard et al. are detached from the God of the Bible, thus self-generated and self-serving. Of course, there is abundant evidence that this does indeed take place. To use everyone’s favorite example, Joel Osteen does not preach the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (nor of Jesus Christ). That much is obvious. But can we really black label the entire Vineyard movement (and, presumably, the larger nondenominational phenomenon) and those scholars that associate with charismatic churches? Such a charge needs to deal with the actual churches in their particular (and typical) form of proclamation and worship. Have these churches abandoned the authority of Scripture — do they no longer proclaim Christ and his work of atonement — in favor of an increase of spiritual euphoria? Or is the euphoria and enthusiasm amidst a context of proclamation of the Word? Can it be said that the worship and preaching are a response to the God who makes all things new? I think, perhaps too optimistically, that we can still say yes, in most cases, to those last two questions. This will require some forgiveness, on our part as critics, for spiritual immaturity among clergy and pew-sitters alike, bearing in mind our own weakness and imbalance — a good reminder for those in the Calvinist camp. (After all, the case can be easily made, as I indicate below, that the “Calvinist resurgence” is working the pendulum back the other direction.)
One more point I’d like to make — a brief counter-proposal.
It has often been the case in the history of the church that suffering or spiritual crises have been a medium through which God draws us to his Son. In such cases, cognitive assurance can be supported and confirmed by emotional assurance, and, given the proper context of proclamation of the Word, will actually draw the person to a greater dependence on the God of her salvation. Prior to this, the person may have put her trust in reason (proofs) or the Bible (inerrancy abstracted from the God of salvation). The cognitive assurance, as such, was not “wrong” in its belief in the God of Israel and Jesus Christ, but it was wrongly grounded. In this sense, a charismatic church can actually claim a greater objectivity insofar as it relies on God to actualize his truth, and not human constructs (proofs or inerrancy). The church is thus used of God to effect the work of the Holy Spirit in drawing his beloved ones to the Son. This is not to say that proofs or inerrancy are inadmissible — they may be, but that’s not my point — rather, I am saying that they will always fail as epistemic foundations, which is to say, as foundations for faith. “Subjectivity” is not the problem. The problem is either a subjectivity or an objectivity disconnected (a dualism, as T. F. Torrance argues) from each other and made independent authorities. The former is the potential epistemic fallacy of the charismatics; the latter is the potential epistemic fallacy of the Calvinists.