Monday, October 12, 2015

Baptized With Fire -- Reflections on the Holy Spirit and Mission


This past weekend I had the privilege of participating in a splendid continuing education event at Rochester College (Michigan).  Rochester College is a Church of Christ related school, placing it within the same Stone-Campbell Movement as the Disciples of Christ (my denomination). I want to take a moment to reflect on a few things that I was struck by as I participated in the event.

The two primary presenters were Dr. Amos Yong, a Pentecostal theologian affiliated with Fuller Theological Seminary, and Dr. Leonard Allen, a Church of Christ theologian affiliated with David Lipscomb University (Nashville). The addressed from their different vantage points the theme: "Baptized with Fire: The Holy Spirit and Missional Communities." I engaged the conversation as one who is part of the Stone-Campbell Movement but who in some important ways was formed by the Pentecostal Movement. I was especially struck by the contrasting ways in which traditional church of Christ interpretations of Acts, drawing upon Alexander Campbell, read Acts with little reference to the Holy Spirit. That is, there is little expectation that God is going to continuing what we see happening in Acts in the present. Instead the focus is on a very specific formula of salvation rooted in Acts 2:38. My own reading of Acts, likely influenced by my Pentecostal inheritance reads Acts as an account of the work of the Holy Spirit, a work that continues to this day.


Amos Yong, in his closing presentation, pointed us to Acts 2:39: "For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Amos suggested that Pentecostals read Acts 2:39 as promising the continued work of the Spirit in every age. So what happened then should be expected today!  The gifts of God are still present in their fullness (see my book Unfettered Spirit for more on this).  Campbell, in part reacting to the excesses of revivalism during the Second Great Awakening, focused on intellectual assent. Conversion came as the Gospel facts were presented, affirmed, and accepted as true. The Spirit was expected to work through the Bible and natural means, not the supernatural or the mystical.  It was a vision that was informed by the philosophical system of the age -- the philosophy of John Locke. In many ways the Stone-Campbell Movement has taken its cues from Campbell. We have tended, in all three branches, to emphasize a rational faith. 

I appreciate the valuing of the mind.  I believe that it is important that we think critically about the faith that we have inherited. It's appropriate to ask hard questions of the Bible, of Tradition, and of our structures. Having said that, we are more than our minds. There is room for the Spirit to move. What is interesting is that we have within the tradition alternative voices, what Leonard Allen calls "Distant Voices" that offer a different perspective. Leonard Allen in his first presentation on Friday told of a confrontation within the papers of the movement between Tolbert Fanning, an important voice of influence within the Churches of Christ, and Robert Richardson, a physician, professor at Bethany College, and Campbell's close friend. On the matter of the Spirit Richardson broke with his mentor and Campbell's embrace of Locke. He called for a fuller embrace of the Spirit and the spiritual. Fanning stood in for Campbell 3in this debate. I need to do more work with Richardson, but he wasn't alone. In fact, Barton Stone also lifted up the importance of the Spirit (and Stone was not an orthodox Trinitarian). 

In his book Distant Voices,  Leonard Allen notes that Stone believed that the only way in which true Christian unity could be achieved was through what Stone called "fire union." Whereas Campbell believed in what Stone called "head union," where believers united in their agreement on what the Bible teaches. Stone seemed to understand that people simply don't all agree on their readings of the Bible, and so union is impossible.  But with "fire union," it was the "fire of the Holy Spirit by which hard and unloving hearts were softened and filled with supernatural love" (Distant Voices, p. 19). Now as Amos reminded us, the Pentecostal Movement was given to fragmentation due to the various ways in which the work of the Spirit was perceived, but what is important here for me is that Barton Stone recognized that the kingdom work could only be accomplished when we allow the Spirit room to work. If, as he hoped, unity was to come to the Christian community, then it would come through the work of the Spirit.   To that I say amen.

I can't give a full accounting here of what transpired, but I think we heard important messages about the importance of the Holy Spirit in the work of mission. As Jerry Taylor, the opening preacher reminded us on Thursday afternoon, We can get the patterns down, but with the Spirit all we have is dry bones (Ezekiel 37).  That is an important word to the church. Without the Spirit the church is dead. Our institutions have their place, but with the Spirit they are merely dead and dry bones. 

Let us pray that the Spirit would move in our midst!!  

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