Learning and experiencing God's Spirit together
Biblical Theology and the Spirit-filled life
When the Veil is Taken Away
The Impact of Prophetic/Charismatic Experience on Biblical Interpretation
by Dr. John McKay
In today’s church, where the Spirit is powerfully reviving believers, older forms of biblical exposition can sometimes seem dry and irrelevant, quite simply because they are not geared to the revival flow of the Spirit’s working in our time. This article explains how the author presents a way of meeting this need. It also explains the theology and the thinking behind The Way of the Spirit, a Bible Reading Course in which the approach is more fully worked out and given practical expression and application.
The key is experience of the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, giving revelation and experience of God that are shared in common with other believers and with the Biblical personalities themselves. It has to do with life and freedom and everything Christ came to give us in the Church through the working of the Holy Spirit, and to draw us into the same richness of life that men of Bible times enjoyed. When the Veil is Taken Away and The Way of the Spirit are written to help Christians lay hold of the living, life-transforming dynamic of Scripture, so that they can apply it to themselves and then go and introduce others to it.
This article first appeared in the Journal of Pentecostal Theology 5, pp. 17-40, October 1994. It is excerpted from a book with the same title by the author. (Published by Kingdom Faith, ISBN 0-9522198-1-6.) It omits the book’s chapters on shared experience of the life and ministry of Jesus, of the Lordship of Jesus and of the Fatherhood of God. Other chapters have been slightly abbreviated and only introductory and concluding paragraphs have been included in the sections on the biblical books as prophetic/charismatic literature and on the Drama of Salvation.
Copies of the fuller text may be obtained from Kingdom Faith Resources, or reference may be made to the much fuller treatment of individual books of the Bible in his The Way of the Spirit (four volumes, available from Kingdom Faith Resources Ltd., Foundry Lane, Horsham, West Sussex, England RH13 5PX. Tel: +44 1403 211 505, Fax: +44 1403 218 463, E-mail email@example.com).
Copyright 1992, 1994 John McKay.
Converted to HTML format by James McKay, April 1998. Used by permission.
But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:5 NIV)
- Removing the Veil
- Conflict of Theology and Faith
- Dialogue without Compromise – the Analogy of Drama
- Biblical Scholarship and Revelation from the Spirit
- Biblical Literalism, Biblical Criticism, and Biblical Experience of the Prophetic Dimension
- The Academic Approach
- The Prophetic Mentality
- Shared Experience of the Power of the Holy Spirit
- Prophetic Appreciation of the Gifts of the Spirit.
- Prophetic Views of Biblical Experience
- The Bible as Prophetic Literature
- The Drama of Salvation, or, Creating the End-time Church of the Spirit
- The Charismatic, the Academic and the Word of God
- Communicating Spiritual Truths in Scholarly Language
- The Spirit makes us Witnesses, not Analysts
- The Wealth of the Witness of the Spirit
It is now nineteen years since I was baptised in the Holy Spirit. For the first nine of these I was still lecturing in biblical studies at Hull University and so inevitably was much occupied with trying to fit my new-found experience together with the sort of biblical and theological study we do in our universities. It was no easy task.
I found the two uncomfortable companions, like neighbours who acknowledge each other’s existence but prefer to live separate lives, not interfering with one another, as it were on opposite sides of a garden wall. It could not be so with me, for in my life critical theology and committed prophetic/charismatic/pentecostal experience had come together under the same roof and the ensuing tensions proved impossible to live with. The result was initially a lot of very deep rethinking and a total reassessment of what we are doing in teaching the Bible to Spirit-filled believers. The following discussion presents some of the conclusions.
My motivation is mainly to help students searching for a pentecostal approach to studying the Scriptures, and also because I am convinced there is an urgent need for a fresh approach to Bible teaching that will meet the needs of the revival of faith that today is running world-wide, almost all of it Pentecostal in origin and inspiration.
There are basically two ways of studying Scripture. One is objective and analytical, interesting in itself, but imparting little or nothing of the life of God to the student. The other, the way explored here, draws us to God and gives life. When I discovered new life in Christ through the infilling of his Spirit, I knew nothing else would ever satisfy.
I wrote the first draft of the book from which this article is taken about eleven years ago. Its theological viewpoint has been well tested since then, both in preaching and teaching, but in that time much has also changed. Today there is far more dialogue between charismatics and biblical scholars than there was in the 1970’s. In some ways that is good, but in others damaging, for compromise resulting from dialogue has so weakened the Charismatic Movement that the term ‘charismatic’ now prompts correspondingly weak notions about experience of the Holy Spirit. It is, however, hard to find a suitable alternative. ‘Pentecostal’ evokes thoughts of denominational streams, ‘spiritual’ is not specific enough, ‘revival’ fails to highlight baptism in the Spirit and the spiritual gifts. I personally prefer ‘prophetic,’ though to some that might imply limiting the Spirit’s activity to one particular gift. In this discussion the terms prophetic, charismatic, pentecostal and spiritual are for the most part used interchangeably, except when the specific reference of each is necessitated by the context.
Removing the Veil
But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit . . .
(2 Cor. 3:16f)1
About the time renewed faith was leading me out of academic theology to go and preach the gospel, the converse was happening with another Anglican priest/academic who said he had lost his faith. He felt it necessary to relinquish his holy orders, but did not feel any corresponding necessity to cease teaching theology in university. That is quite simply because academic theology can be taught and studied without faith. It is, after all, a purely mental discipline, in theory at any rate.
Conflict of Theology and Faith
In a university theology department students are taught to analyse the text of Scripture as objectively and critically as possible. Efforts to stimulate faith are usually discouraged on the grounds that anyone, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, or whatever, should be as free to study theology as he or she is to study history or philosophy or any other degree subject. In practice most students do have some kind of Christian faith, though by no means all, while the number of lecturers who would admit to active Christian commitment is also not negligible. However, the qualifications required for studying theology are not belief or religious devotion, but so many A-levels, as is only right and proper in an academic institution. The debate whether this state of affairs is also right from a Christian viewpoint is an old one and I do not wish to get involved in it here. My concern is simply to discuss the problems it raises for Spirit-filled Christians.
In contrast with my ex-priest colleague, I found it increasingly difficult to be purely academic about my faith, because the Spirit was speaking to me about loving, setting captives free, opening blind eyes and glorifying Jesus, which are hardly the sort of exercises one usually associates with university departments. It is often said that charismatics are strong on praise, but weak on theology. I would rather say they are strong on praise and strong on their own brand of theology, but unhappy about the sort of dispassionate, uncommitted theology one frequently encounters in an academic setting. In theory a pentecostal theologian should have no problem about teaching in a seminary, but in practice much of the theology taught in ministerial training centres differs little in approach from that found in universities. There is clearly a tension that needs to be resolved. It is with such matters that I am here concerned.
Dialogue without Compromise – the Analogy of Drama
It seems to me that the two things, academic biblical study (whether pursued by liberal or conservative scholars makes little difference) and prophetic Christianity, operate at two very different levels. I see a kind of analogy with the world of drama, the academic being in some ways like the reviewer whose task is to analyse, criticise and comment on the play, the charismatic more like the producer or the performer on stage. One individual may attempt to handle each of these functions separately at different times, but he will have great difficulty in doing them both together. Inevitably there must be a great deal of tension between the two, though it is hoped that in the end they might function to each other’s mutual benefit, even if at times criticism and hurt may be the more apparent marks of their relationship.
Since my training is in biblical theology, I limit myself exclusively to that. Whether my views apply equally to wider areas of theological study, I must leave others more competent than myself to judge.
Now in this context of biblical theology I should be quite unhappy with any theological position that is based on compromise or ideas about a middle way. Indeed I should regard such a theology as being as worthless as the opinion of a middle-man between an actor and a drama-critic, for he would be neither one nor the other and equally useless to both. However, if compromise is unacceptable, there is the obvious danger that the academic’s arguments might so undermine the faith of the charismatic that he cease to function as one, or conversely that the charismatic might so dogmatically oppose the academic’s opinions that he become unwilling even to countenance rational, theological assessment. We see both tendencies operating from time to time among theological students in particular, but also among Christians in general. In the field of drama responses like these would either cause the play’s performance to deteriorate from lack of attention to criticism, or to collapse altogether through defection of the actors.
Charismatics and academic theologians must somehow learn to live together, even if in a state of tension, like actors and their critics. That may prove not too difficult so long as the academic and the charismatic are two different people, but the problem takes on a totally different appearance when they become one and the same person. That was my own particular problem, but it is one that is becoming more widespread as the influence of prophetic Christianity grows. So in a sense this is an autobiographical essay, since it is written from personal experience as well as from academic reflection. As such it should be of some value to others who are either charismatics or academics, even if they are not both, especially since they do tend to brush shoulders with each other increasingly in our time.
Biblical Scholarship and Revelation from the Spirit
In reading the views expressed in this discussion, it should be borne in mind that they are not all based on the findings of academic scholarship. Many of them are based on realisations that have resulted from my own experience of the Holy Spirit. ‘Revelation’ is the only word I know that adequately expresses their source, even if that may sound pretentious to some people; but at the same time it would be quite untruthful for me to deny a considerable amount of intellectual reflection as well. A much better way of explaining what I mean is to use an expression of Paul’s, the one that furnishes the title of this article, concerning the removal of a veil. In 2 Cor. 3:14-18 he contrasts the understanding with which the Bible (the Old Testament only in his day) is read before and after ‘anyone turns to the Lord’. He says that beforehand it is read as it were with a veil over the mind, but afterwards with the veil removed. He attributes the change to the action of the Spirit, for, he says, ‘the Lord is the Spirit’, and he goes on to speak about contemplating the Lord’s glory, presumably in the reading of Scripture, since that is what the paragraph is all about.2 Then emphatically he reiterates that this ‘comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit’. The message seems clear enough, that the Spirit enables us to read the Bible with some new clarity that could not be possible without his aid.
Now charismatics commonly do speak of some disclosure experience similar to Paul’s when they read the Bible after baptism in the Spirit. They tell of passages illuminated in new ways, of texts that take on new meaningfulness, of verses that burn themselves into the memory, of completely new appreciations of whole books of the Bible, of a positive urge to read page after page of the text, of exciting new discoveries about God’s self-revelation in Scripture, and so forth. Charismatics who speak enthusiastically of their latest insights from reading Habakkuk or Jude will tell how before baptism in the Spirit some months earlier they did not even know these books existed, or certainly that they had no idea about what was in them, let alone that they held such spiritual treasures.
For my own part, I well recall, for example, having spent three years as a Ph.D. student mulling over Deuteronomy (among other things), and then on re-reading it some years later in the light of my experience of the Holy Spirit, being surprised to discover the immense spiritual treasures in it that I had simply failed to appreciate before. Indeed I can honestly say that I came to understand more, not just about the content of Deuteronomy, but about the content of almost every other book in the Bible, and particularly in the New Testament, in the months following my own experience of Pentecost, than I had in all my years of theological study. There was certainly some kind of veil removed, for it was one of the most exciting and memorable experiences of my life rereading the Bible from cover to cover, genealogies, statistics, priestly regulations and all, and finding in it, chapter after chapter, treasures I never realised existed. Furthermore, where before there had been only dim perception of the Bible’s meaning as a whole, or no perception at all, now it all seemed to make excellent sense.
Biblical Literalism, Biblical Criticism, and
Biblical Experience of the Prophetic Dimension
We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths to spiritual men.3
(1 Cor. 2:12-13)
It is often said that charismatics have no adequate doctrine of Scripture, which is in some ways true, though perhaps it would be more accurate to say they have problems with all existing doctrines of Scripture. That is not always because they consider them wrong, but rather because they find them insufficient for explaining their own appreciation of God’s word. Since charismatics are drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds, some of them are fundamentalists, others are rationalists or liberals, and others are of every shade of opinion in between. Most, however, would express some frustration about the inadequacy of the traditional modes of interpretation they have inherited for describing their own views. Now this problem arises mainly because prophetic understanding operates on a different plane from all others.
The Academic Approach
The fundamentalist maintains a doctrine of literal inspiration of Scripture in all its detail, whether theological, historical or scientific, and so, for example, would argue that the world was created literally in six days, that there was actually a primogenital pair named Adam and Eve who originally lived in a garden called Eden which must at one time have been geographically locatable, that people really did begin to speak different languages when a tower project at Babel collapsed, and so forth. To the fundamentalist the laws of Israel were dictated word for word by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, and in a similar fashion the utterances of the prophets are the very speeches of God himself. Thus every word of Scripture is cherished as an infallible word of God to be read, studied, learned and obeyed, but not criticised or questioned.
By contrast the rationalist maintains that everything in the Bible should be open to criticism. He holds that it contains the depositions of men who were poets, philosophers, theologians, historians and the like, and that their writings should be read and analysed in much the same way as those of any other poets, philosophers, theologians and historians. Thus the Bible is seen as a record of the reflections of religious men about God, rather than of the revelations of God himself to men, and it is sacred not because it is God-given, but because it has become hallowed by centuries of tradition and use. According to this view the laws of Israel were simply accumulated over the generations, but, because of the sanctity of the memory of Moses, became attached to his name. Similarly, the utterances of the prophets are the collected poems and sayings of literary men, well trained in the art of poetry, and to a lesser extent of prose-writing, men who also had some shrewd insight into matters political and theological. Thus, for example, Amos was probably no simple shepherd receiving messages from heaven, but a man of some culture and learning, perhaps a leisured sheep-farm owner, who had the time and freedom to devote to theological speculation. His writings should therefore be read with the same open critical eye with which one might read the works of any modern-day Bonhoeffer or Barth.
Between these extremes of interpretation lies a whole array of intermediate opinions that tend to one side or the other. Views that lean towards fundamentalism are usually called ‘conservative’, while the rationalist tendency is known as ‘liberal’. The conservative tendency is sometimes also referred to as ‘literalist’ and the liberal as ‘critical’, or even ‘radical’. Conservative opinion tends to be strongest in the evangelical wing of the churches, liberal in the non-evangelical. Set side by side these varied views form a complete spectrum of biblical interpretation. It may therefore seem surprising that the charismatic, or indeed any one at all, should find nowhere in its modulating shades of opinion where he feels entirely happy and at home.
This spectrum is, however, a fairly modern one. While it is possible to detect precursors to it in the writings of particular theologians down through the centuries, particularly since the Reformation, it is only one that has held centre stage in the past 150 years. Liberal theology only began to become influential in the second half of the last century and fundamentalism was born as a reaction to it at the beginning of this. In earlier times the liberal/conservative debate would have attracted little attention.
There is an older form of interpretation, popular before the Reformation and still sometimes used today, that sits loose to such questions about literal, historical value, neither affirming nor denying the Bible’s accuracy at these levels. This kind of interpretation is almost entirely occupied with tracing hidden, spiritual meanings in the text. For example, it would see the real value of the flood story, not in that it preserves a record of something that happened long ago, but in that it symbolises or foreshadows the saving work of the Church. In this view the ark carrying Noah and his family through the flood-waters to safety becomes a prototype of the Church carrying Christians through the water of baptism to salvation. In a similar way the restored Jerusalem of the Old Testament prophets’ visions becomes a portrayal of the heavenly Jerusalem of Christian end-time hope. Among the more common terms used to denote such spiritualising interpretation are ‘typology’, ‘allegory’ and ‘anagogy’. Limited examples of these methods are found in the New Testament itself, for instance, in Paul’s figurative use of the stories about Sarah and Hagar in Gal. 3:21-31, or Peter’s use of the flood story in 1 Pet. 3:20f, or Hebrews’ use of the laws of temple, priesthood and sacrifice in chs. 7-10. However, this form of interpretation is rarely used today, except occasionally in preaching, and to the modern mind it seems esoteric and antiquated.
The charismatic would also find such older methods a bit awkward, for he is as much the contemporary Christian as any. He may indeed be spiritually very sensitive, but he is also a historical realist and would tend to start from the literal sense of the text in much the same way as the present-day conservative or liberal. It is not because of any desire to retreat into spiritualising that he feels uncomfortable in the company of modern biblical interpreters. What then is his problem?
The Prophetic Mentality
The answer to that question is quite simply that he is a prophet, or is at least prophetically sympathetic, and so reads his Bible with the eye and intellect of a prophetical person. Let me illustrate what that means. Once in a conversation about a lecture course on mysticism a colleague remarked to me in some frustration, ‘How can our students ever hope to understand mysticism? Surely only mystics themselves can properly appreciate the records of mystical visionaries. It must take a mystic to understand the mystics!’ The charismatic might expostulate similarly about the Bible (or much of it), that only prophetical persons can properly appreciate the records of prophetical men. Or again, another academic, a New Testament scholar with pentecostal sympathies, once spoke to me of his exasperation when reading the works of fellow New Testament scholars who have no clear appreciation of the prophetic mentality of people like Luke or Paul or John.
Of course, to the non-charismatic such an attitude will seem exclusivist and arrogant, but it is very much in tune with similar viewpoints expressed by prophetical men in other times. For example, Tertullian in the early third century spoke of a division between the spiritual Christians of his own (Montanist) church and the ‘natural’ believers (psychici) in the other churches and claimed that only the former truly appreciated what the Spirit of God was saying to the faithful4. Similar sentiments are also found in the writings of Irenaeus in the late second5, but even before that we find something much the same in the New Testament itself. Indeed Paul appears to have been the one who first introduced the distinction when he wrote to the Corinthian church: ‘The man without the Spirit (psychikos) does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man (pneumatikos) makes judgments about all things’ (or perhaps better ‘has the measure of them all’; 1 Cor. 2:14f). Jude also draws a distinction between those who ‘follow mere natural instincts’ and those who ‘have the Spirit’ (Jude 19).
This is the context in which the charismatic’s dilemma must be understood. To him the bulk of current biblical interpretation, whether conservative or liberal, is the work of the natural mind searching for meaning in God’s word using the common techniques of scholarship shared with other secular disciplines, such as history, literary criticism, or philosophy. This kind of investigation has immense value and it would be totally misguided to underrate it, but the charismatic finds himself frustrated in the face of it, since it by-passes and fails to recognise a complete dimension that he himself sees so very clearly in his Bible, indeed the one he regards as the most important of all, in the light of which he would wish all else to be viewed, the dimension he might call the spiritual (pneumatikon), or the charismatic, or the prophetic.
As I try to give this dimension more concrete conceptual definition, I feel, very much like Paul, that that would be more effectively done ‘not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit’ (1 Cor. 2:13). In its light I sometimes find the conservative’s views easier to sustain, occasionally the liberal’s, but more frequently neither. It would be wrong to think of it only as a yardstick for measuring opinions of liberals and conservatives against each other, for it operates at a different level altogether and often has just nothing to say about the arguments of scholarship at all. Conservatism is a theology of biblical literalism, liberalism a theology of biblical criticism, but I would call the charismatic’s approach a theology of biblical experience – or perhaps better ‘shared experience’. That aptly expresses his awareness of the similarity between his own experience and that of the prophets, apostles and Jesus, and also his awareness of being himself an active participant in the same drama in which they were involved, of playing the same sort of part as they played in it, and of doing so in the same prophetic manner. All will become clearer as we proceed.
Shared Experience of the Power of the Holy Spirit
And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.
On the day of Pentecost Peter invited his hearers with these words to share in the apostles’ experience of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals claim that the invitation is still open and that acceptance of it radically changes a Christian’s view, not only of his own faith, but also of the faith of the early New Testament Church, and even of the prophetic personalities of the Old Testament.
Prophetic Appreciation of the Gifts of the Spirit.6
In the early 1970’s I came into contact with an ever increasing number of Christians who claimed a spiritual endowment that gave them access to similar gifts today. Then I experienced some of these gifts myself and I vividly remember being quite startled by my discovery of what they really were. That, however, is another tale for another time. The important point here is perhaps best summarised in a Job-like confession that to that point I had heard of these things with my ears, but now I could say, ‘My eyes have seen.’ (cf. Job 42:5) That is to say, before that time I had a theological or intellectual attitude to such matters, however confused or dimly perceived, but now they had become a living part of my own experience. Or, to put it another way, I had accepted Peter’s invitation and was beginning to learn something of the extent of its implications.
Quite apart from being surprised to discover just how different the spiritual gifts looked from the inside than they had formerly appeared from the outside, I was now for the first time, in a fairly elementary way, made aware of the challenge that shared experience presented to traditional biblical interpretation. To begin with, I could no longer acquiesce in the views about the gifts held by non-charismatics and found myself instantly dissatisfied with almost every commentary on the subject that I read. Since I now knew for myself that the gifts were a living part of Christian experience available today as well as in the first century, I could no longer even discuss the possibility that they might be simply an expression of primitive religion or of a lost idyllic age of the Church’s early history, and certainly not that they were unintelligible. Of course, the mere experience of such phenomena as tongues, prophecy, supernormal knowledge and healing was in itself no guarantee that these were the same gifts as those known to the earliest Christians, but at least the possibility was now worth exploring, and the further I looked, the more convinced I became that I was indeed sharing experiences of the same genre as those, not only of the early Christians, but also of the Old Testament prophets and of Jesus himself.
The miraculous and the supernatural in Scripture readily become part of the charismatic’s shared experience. He dreams significant dreams that are more than mere phantoms of the night, but tell of God and his will, he sees mystic visions of the Lord in his holiness and he hears the voice of God speaking sometimes audibly, but more normally in the silence of his heart. I refuse to recognise mere psychological explanations for these experiences, because, like the similar phenomena of which Paul speaks in 1 Cor. 14, they edify and build up the believer and the community of believers in their faith in God and their love for one another.
Of course there can be a quite human element in all this, even a spurious one. That has led many to dismiss prophetic Christianity as counterfeit, but the same problem was present in ancient times and the Bible’s answer to it is certainly not to reject the Spirit’s work. On the contrary it bids us sift and discern what is of God and hold on to that: ‘Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good.’ (1 Thes. 5:19-21) John tells us to test the spirits whether they glorify the incarnate and risen Christ (1 John 4:1-3), and when that is done it becomes immediately clear just how much present-day charismatic activity is indeed very genuine.
Prophetic Views of Biblical Experience.
Now that all sounds exceedingly dramatic, as indeed it is, but the effects of such shared experience for biblical interpretation are also dramatic, though in a very different way. It becomes increasingly difficult, for instance, for a liberal theologian who experiences this new dimension to view the miraculous and supernatural elements in the Old and New Testaments in terms of mythology or legend, and one immediate temptation is for him to jettison all his scholarship and become a fundamentalist. Some do fall to this temptation, though the step is not a necessary one. Fundamentalists make doctrinal claims, charismatics experiential. No charismatic could ever appeal to his shared experience to uphold such doctrines or prove such facts as the fundamentalist cherishes, for example the scientific veracity of the creation narrative in Gen. 1, or the literal existence of a fish that could carry Jonah in its belly without harming him. Prophetic insight has very little to say about such matters, though it does warm instantly to the emphasis on God’s goodness in the creation story or to the message in the Book of Jonah about the need for obedience in a prophet. Prophetic experience does not destroy or by-pass man’s reasoning faculty! It is still possible for charismatics to remain fairly liberal in their theological views, as some actually do.
None the less, the major effect of shared experience is to make the charismatic treasure parts of the biblical record he might beforehand have viewed with much scepticism. Not only the miracle stories in the gospels, but those actions attributed to the power of the Spirit in Acts and the prophetic narratives in the Old Testament also become particularly precious.
One area where shared experience completely transforms biblical interpretation is that of the prophetic word. The liberal views prophecy as something inspirational only in a very loose and vague sense, relating it more to natural sagacity, shrewd insight and inherited traditions, than to anything else. Charismatic experience, however, encourages a very different view, for the mediation of messages directly received is of the very essence of charismatic prophecy. Sometimes these messages are delivered in verse form, sometimes in prose, sometimes only the gist of the message is given and not in any particularly marked style, but always there is something received, some direct revelation that is passed on. Sometimes it will be communicated immediately, at other times it will be kept for a later occasion when the congregation is assembled together to hear it. Charismatic prophecy is something like the rehearsing of a conversation with a friend, only in this instance the friend is the Lord himself. ‘Thus says the Lord’ means literally that to the charismatic, and so to him the liberal view of prophecy must remain entirely inadequate.
Equally, however, the charismatic would find it hard to acquiesce in the fundamentalist view of literal, mechanical inspiration, as though God had precisely dictated every single word that is spoken. On some rare occasions it may seem like that, but generally the dictum of Paul holds good, that ‘the spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets’ (1 Cor. 14:32). The charismatic will tell that he speaks his prophecy in faith, that is that it is indeed a word from God. Pressed about his utterance he would normally admit that, while he believes it comes form God, it is not always possible to draw an absolute line of demarcation between what in it is from God and what from himself. The utterance is certainly inspired, but it is filtered through a human channel, with the result that it is in the end only a near, hopefully very near, approximation to what God wants to communicate. Or as Paul puts it in 1 Cor. 13:9, ‘we prophesy in part’ (i.e. imperfectly). That helps us understand why George gives his prophecy in King James’ English, Mary hers in her local dialect, William his in cultured speech; or why Isaiah spoke with a Hebrew style quite different from Ezekiel’s. The prophet’s rehearsal of what God has said to him will have a degree of precision similar to the degree of exactitude he might attain in reporting some important conversation, a degree that will vary from person to person, and will even vary according to the mood of the speaker.
Now at this point we are confronted with the problem of determining how much any prophecy is of God and how much of the prophet himself. That is to say, we find ourselves acutely involved in the problems of discerning true and false prophecy. That, however, simply attests further to the reality of shared experience in charismatic/pentecostal and biblical traditions, for the same problem was as acute in both Old and New Testament times as it is today (cp. 1 Kings 13;
22; Matt. 7:22; 1 John 4:1)7.
The Bible as Prophetic Literature
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.
All charismatics are convinced of this, that in some way or other God does actually speak to people, whether to individuals, church groups, whole congregations, or even to some in the wider non-church community, through visions, auditions, prophecies, dreams, or ‘in various ways’, as Hebrews puts it, but certainly that he does speak. And so they find no need to dismiss as merely legendary the stories of God’s conversations and communications with Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Solomon, Peter, Paul, or whoever. From their own experience and their conversations with other Spirit-filled Christians they know that such things are not uncommon, and so they view the literature that tells of them somewhat differently from the liberal scholar who would tend to use words like ‘myth’ or ‘legend’ in his discussions about it. The expression I myself prefer is ‘prophetic (or charismatic) literature’, because the biblical books are often very similar to the sort of writing we find in contemporary charismatic (auto)biographies, accounts of church renewal, records of healing and revival ministries and the like, of which there are plentiful examples in our bookshops today.
It is clearly impossible to discuss all the books in the Bible here, or to maintain that they all contain the same level of charismatic literature, though it is surprising how much of it one finds in the most unexpected places, such as in Numbers, or Deuteronomy, or Proverbs, or Song of Songs, or 2 Chronicles, or Ezra and Nehemiah8.
The prophetic books hardly need any comment, for they are unquestionably charismatic literature, or at least to the charismatic they are. Collections of prophetic utterances are not commonly found in print today, but the exiled Camisards in London and their English converts at the beginning of the eighteenth century published many such books which they entitled Prophetical Warnings. However, the present-day charismatic has heard and probably uttered many a prophecy himself and so from his experience of the spoken word recognises the literary category instantly. Since I have already discussed earlier how a charismatic’s view of prophecy differs from that of the liberal or the conservative, there is no need to say more on the subject at this point.
The New Testament presents fewer problems in this context than the Old. The synoptic Gospels can be read like charismatic biographies, particularly Luke’s, where a greater emphasis is put on the action of the Spirit in the initiation of Jesus’ ministry (4:1-30), on his and his followers’ experiences of joy in the Spirit (cp. 10.17,21), on prayer (cp. 6:12), and on teaching to prepare the disciples for receiving the Spirit themselves (11:1- 13; 24:49). John’s Gospel is also very full of teaching about the Spirit and about the Christian’s need to receive him, particularly in chs. 3-7 and 14-16.
Acts, especially in the first half, is replete with charismatic hero stories, tales of outpourings of the Spirit, of healings and other miracles, of visions, of praise and rejoicing, of power- filled ministries, of divine guidance. It is not without reason that this book has sometimes been nicknamed ‘the Acts of the Holy Spirit’.
Revelation is the only book in the New Testament that actually calls itself ‘prophecy’ (1:3; 22:7,10,18). It was written about a visionary experience of the author when he was ‘in the Spirit’ on one occasion (1:10) and is certainly to be described as prophetic literature. It could almost be said that every single book in the New Testament is about some aspect of life in the Spirit. There is scarcely a chapter in it where the charismatic does not find echoes of things he might want to say about his own experience of life in the Spirit or of things that other charismatics have told, whether in print or by word of mouth, about their experiences.
There is little doubt in my mind that the majority of the books of the Bible, in both testaments, are, in their very different ways and to different degrees, classifiable under the general umbrella-title of charismatic or prophetic literature. But if that can be said about individual books, how far can it be said about the Bible as a whole? It is to that question we must now address ourselves.
The Drama of Salvation
Creating the End-time Church of the Spirit
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
The question raised at the end of the last section touches on the long-debated issue of whether or not there can be found any overarching thematic unity in Scripture. Some say the Bible has no consistent theological theme at all, but only many varied strands, and so they speak of diversity in the Bible rather than unity. They maintain there is no need to look for a common theological interest in such different materials as laws of sacrifice, prophetic utterances, hymns of praise, wisdom sayings, historical narratives, etc. Perhaps this question of theological unity will never be resolved, but it is my belief that there is a coherence, though it is one that I should prefer to call experiential or prophetic rather than academic or theological, and I believe this coherence can be grasped when we view the biblical records in the light of shared experience.
In the book from which this article is taken I have sketched, on the model of a theatrical drama, what I believe could serve as an expression of the operative sense of coherence to be found in a charismatic approach to the biblical corpus. The essential drama, as it unfolds from Genesis, has to do with the restoring of paradise or Eden. In the garden there were two special trees: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. Driven from the garden man now has access to neither. He had tasted of one and that left him in a condition of sin, in need of forgiveness. Deprived of the other, his only future is death. These two trees represent the twin poles or foci of our drama, which is about God restoring man to a right relationship with both, first through his patriarchs, priests, prophets and kings, then more fully through Jesus and the Church, and finally in his New Heaven at the end of time. At every turn prophetic/charismatic experience points the way forward to the fulfilment of God’s purpose in restoration.
The essential message of the New Testament story is that the age of the Spirit has come, first in Jesus and then in his disciples, who prove themselves to be men like the Old Testament prophets, men such as the Old Testament believed God would raise up to fulfil his purpose in bringing blessing to all the families of the earth. Eden is not exactly restored, but there is an Eden- like quality about life in the early Christian community, where joy is one of the chief characteristics of its members. Since the world as a whole still remains under God’s curse and in need of redemption, our drama continues to be played out with many of the same tensions and uncertainties as before, but there is now a new factor in it, for the followers of Christ have been granted access again to the source of life, lost since Eden, from which they can draw strength for the role they must play in the continuing outworking of God’s purpose. Sin with respect to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is now atoned for by the sacrifice of Christ, ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’, and the wholesome virtue of the tree of life is now embodied in the gift of Christ, ‘who will baptise with the Holy Spirit’ (John 1:29,33). In the power of the grace and Spirit he supplies, his followers now live the Eden-life in considerable measure, as Ezekiel and other prophets had said they would. And that is very much a charismatic or prophetic quality of life.
Such a view of the Bible’s coherent message is far from complete. Today almost 2,000 years have passed and the hard truth is that Eden has still not been restored. History is littered with evidence of man’s continuing unfaithfulness. And, the record of the Christian Church has not always been that good! So we are compelled in all honesty, even at this stage, to raise once more the question that runs through the entire drama: Can God’s purpose ever really be fulfilled?
But again we can approach it with hope. At the end of the first century, John, one of Jesus’ original disciples, was granted a vision in which he saw down the course of history to come, through many times of trial, to God’s final hour, to the blessings of Eden fully restored and man in Christ reigning at the last as he was intended to do at the beginning. It is towards the hope engendered by this further vision of Eden’s final accomplishment in what John calls the New Jerusalem that the drama tends. That, however, is in itself a further indication of the prophetic quality of New Testament faith, for it is of the very essence of prophecy to have some such future vision. Hence this final act is, and must always be, one led and dominated by the eschatological race of prophets, men who in some measure share in the vision and experience of the ancient prophets, men such as those whom today we would commonly call pentecostal or charismatic. Their vision, like that of the Old Testament prophets, is still an urgent and excited one, still forward looking, and still one of hope for a glorious finale. It is surely significant that as the curtain falls on the New Testament stage we hear John’s voice say, ‘He who testifies to these things says, "Yes, I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.’ (Rev. 22:20)
In the time that has passed since then the gospel has indeed reached many peoples and the end John saw is now nearer than most care to imagine. The power of God’s Word and his Spirit that worked in creation, that has upheld God’s purposes through history, that motivated his prophets, that lived in Christ, that gives us a foretaste of Eden today, still works for the final recreation of all things.
The Charismatic, the Academic and the Word of God
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses.
Such a drama-outline could hardly cover every aspect of Old and New Testament teaching, theology and literature. Sometimes the literature, rather than illustrating charismatic experience, depicts the responses of those who have not appreciated it, as in the case of Job’s counsellors, for instance. Our Bible is no simple-minded manual containing naive descriptive outlines of what prophetic religion should be like, but rather a dramatic account of the lives, experiences and insights of men and women who themselves came into living experience of that kind of religion or into contact with other living exponents of it. It is essentially the story of the dynamic activity (the Spirit) of God and of men’s varied responses to that. Hence it tells not only of prophets, but also of judges and wise men, of kings and warriors, of craftsmen and fishermen, indeed of all sorts and conditions of people. It paints pictures of men who acted by the power of the Spirit, but equally of men who did not; it paints pictures of times when the Spirit was very active in history, but equally of times when religion was decadent or arid. But always the measure or the ideal is that picture of the eschatological Church of the Spirit, that race of prophetical men whose purpose is to see Eden restored. It is to that end that the whole drama moves, and so it finds its apex in the life-story of the one who ushered in the final age of the Spirit, Jesus Christ.
Its contemporary value derives from the observation of the continuity of his work in the apostolic Church and the implication of the whole drama that that work should still be continued today. It bids us align ourselves with Jesus and the apostles, to share their experience, to come out of the audience, and join the players in the final act, to wait in our own Jerusalems until we too are endued with the same power from on high. Then once we do that, we find the curtain (or the veil) removed altogether and ourselves on stage holding hands with the apostles and seeing everything from their pentecostal perspective.
For a biblical scholar acceptance of that invitation creates an immediate problem. The academic task requires that he stand, as it were, off-stage, like a critic or reviewer, so that he can observe the drama with the more objective eye of scholarship, whereas the Holy Spirit draws him on stage to act with the actors. Thus he finds himself pulled in two directions, the one calling him to stand back and analyse what he sees, the other urging him forward to participate in the action. Ideally, I suppose, it ought to be possible to do both, as indeed it should be in ministerial training institutions, but in the critical atmosphere of academic theology the tension is considerable, often even unbearable.
Communicating Spiritual Truths in Scholarly Language
There is another aspect to this dilemma, one that is perhaps best illustrated through a brief biographical comment. I was myself attracted to the life of scholarship in the first instance by what I then called ‘the riddle of the Bible’. To me, as indeed to so many others, the meaning of Scripture was by no means as evident as it has now become. While it attracted me as God’s Word, the book itself was an enigma. It purported to be a deposit of revelation, but for the most part all that was revealed to me in it was a series of puzzles, albeit exceedingly fascinating ones. And so I spent many hours discussing the problem of Deuteronomy, the problem of Mark’s gospel, the problem of Christ, the problem of faith, and so forth. The essential message of Scripture quite simply eluded me, as it did everyone else with whom I discussed these problems, or at least as it seemed to do, since no-one was able to provide me with answers that satisfied. And so, failing to find anyone who could guide me through the maze, I came to regard scholarship as a tool which might somehow unearth the Bible’s hidden meaning, but only gradually and after many years of hard study by many hard working, highly educated men. The field was far too vast for any one scholar to handle alone. My own part must therefore be that of making some small contribution to a sum total of international scholarship that might some day produce something like a satisfactory solution to the riddle of the Bible. I must, however, admit to an increasing sense of despondency as the more I pursued this quite limited objective, the more aware I became of the confused complexity of theological debate, and proportionately I despaired of scholarship ever discovering a solution.
It was for reasons almost entirely unrelated to these that I one day asked God to baptise me with his Holy Spirit just as he had done for his early disciples and seemed to be doing for an ever-increasing number of Christians in our time, but subsequent to that, and to my own great surprise, I found myself reading my Bible with completely new understanding. The veil Paul spoke about had been lifted and for the first time in my life I discovered that it all made very good sense. The riddle had quite simply vanished – yes, in a moment of time – and over the days and weeks that followed, as I watched the jigsaw of the various books and chapters of the Bible progressively reforming themselves into a coherent whole, I marvelled that I had not seen it all before.
It was an exhilarating discovery, but also a painful one, for it deprived me of most of my former scholarly purpose. It could no longer be my aim to help resolve the riddle of the Word of God; the Holy Spirit had done that for me. My studies had now manifestly to change focus, off my search for meaning and onto clarification of my new understanding. Similarly, the focus of my teaching had to change, off presenting the current state of scholarly opinion and debate and onto communicating my new discoveries.
Now, this is precisely the point at which the real acuteness of my dilemma becomes manifest. Since my insight into the coherence of Scripture has not come by purely academic processes, it is difficult to communicate it in purely academic terms. In a sense there is an analogy with matrimonial love. A man who loves his wife will understand what I mean when I say that I love my wife, but I find it well nigh impossible to explain the nature of my love to anyone else. The words I use may convey an impression of something good, intimate, happy and worthwhile, but will scarcely satisfy the man who persists in asking for definitions. Similarly, those with spiritual experience comparable with my own will usually understand what I say without me having to explain too much, whereas others will mostly fail to grasp my meaning. In other words, I realise that the Spirit of truth is more capable of leading others into all the truth than I can ever hope to be, even with my accumulated wisdom and learning.
Here is no theoretical difficulty, but a very practical one. I have discovered over the past seventeen years, indeed to my great frustration at times, that baptism in the Spirit can often give less literate people a much better appreciation of the message of the Bible than three years of university education in a theology department can give to more intellectually capable undergraduates, or a similar period of study in a theological college or seminary to ordinands. However, this observation is not really much different from that made by Paul, for example, whose experience in this respect seems to have been remarkably similar to my own, for he was firmly convinced that the truth about Christ and him crucified, or ‘God’s secret wisdom’ could never be communicated as successfully through careful and erudite presentations of the gospel message as through ‘demonstration of the Spirit’s power’ or when ‘God has revealed it to us by his Spirit’ (1 Cor. 2:1-10). We may likewise recall how even Jesus’ teaching was not so easily understood by his own disciples before their experience of the Spirit at Pentecost as after it.
Unfortunately statements of this kind can and do convey an impression of arrogance, particularly to those who are engaged in the work of biblical scholarship, but as we have already noted, that in itself is part of the charismatic’s dilemma, also shared with the early apostles, and so I can do little more about it than Paul did when he wrote to the Corinthians, namely apologise for not being able to express myself about it more acceptably and assure the reader that the intention is quite the converse (2 Cor. 10). My own debt to biblical scholarship is very great and can certainly not all be laid aside.
The Spirit makes us Witnesses, not Analysts
A third major area of tension between a charismatic’s experience and his scholarship lies in his shared experience with the apostles and the prophets of a compulsion to speak about his new vision. Just before the ascension, according to Acts 1:8, Jesus forewarned his disciples that receiving the Holy Spirit would turn them into witnesses. Now there is a world of difference between the activities of scholarly research and witnessing. The academic will probe and analyse, or debate and hypothesise, until he finds a solution that seems to him reasonable. He may be himself convinced of its rightness, though he will recognise that further research either by himself or by other scholars may cause him to modify his views, and so he will want to present his findings in print for wider, more public discussion and debate. The charismatic cannot adopt such an approach to his disclosures. His conviction of their essential rightness is based on revelatory experience, the confirmation of the Word, and his own corresponding faith, not on experimental investigation or argument, and consequently is much more absolute. He feels little desire to proffer them simply for discussion, but feels more like an explorer who has discovered a new world and wants to tell everyone else about it, inviting them to come and see it and even to settle in it with him. Hence charismatic writing is seldom publication of ideas or theories for debate, but witness, the declaring of what has been ‘seen and heard’ (cp. Matt. 11:4; Acts 2:33; 4:20). Here is no mere dogged determination to do something about Jesus’ commission to evangelise, but rather an eagerness to proclaim what the Spirit has revealed. If the charismatic is unhappy about purely academic analysis of his vision, he is equally unhappy about evangelical pressurisation. He does not see his function as one of persuasion, but simply of declaration. He is not trying to convince others of the rightness of a theory, but to tell them of his discovery, like the explorer tell of his new country. There is nothing to debate, even if his hearers are sceptical. He is quite simply a witness.
Now witnessing, the declaring of what one has ‘seen and heard’, is not an academic exercise. It may claim to be a presentation of truth that has not been seen by other scholars, but in itself it has nothing scholarly about it. It is the audience, or the jury, that finds itself engaged in the academic work of testing the witness, but the witness himself can never change his story if he is to remain true to what he has seen and heard. He simply cannot engage in the academic task at that level any more, for if he does, he admits the possibility that his witness may not be true. And there also lies a dilemma.
Much of what I have written here may seem to add to the impression alluded to earlier, that there is something anti-intellectual in the prophetic mentality. The impression is an unfortunate one, for his experience usually stimulates the charismatic to very deep thought about God, the Bible, and the needs of his society. It is not that he ceases to think theologically, but quite the contrary. However, his theological perspective has changed, and changed so radically that he finds his views no longer fit with those of the majority of today’s biblical theologians, and furthermore that he fails to find much satisfaction from participating in their debates. It is my convinced opinion that a charismatic’s view of the Bible must be different from everyone else’s, be they fundamentalists, conservatives, liberals, radicals, or whatever. Their views are based on doctrines, assumptions and hypotheses, albeit sometimes diametrically opposed ones, about the nature of Scripture and revelation. The charismatic’s is based on what he discovers himself thinking after he is baptised in the Holy Spirit. And as we have seen, his discovery is itself more in the realm of experience than of doctrine, for it is a discovery that he has stepped out of the audience into the play where he shares in so many, if not ultimately all, of the experiences of the actors, particularly of the charismatics/pentecostals of the last act in the New Testament Church.
The Wealth of the Witness of the Spirit
It is for these reasons that this article contains no weighing of the viewpoints of other scholars and no listing of the works of others with whom I am in agreement or disagreement. In one sense there is no debate. Prophetic experience leads me to treasure the biblical records with a new love that makes me less willing to dismiss as much as the liberals tend to do, but it does not persuade me therefore to accept all the historical conclusions of fundamentalism. But then, it tells me of things about which neither of these speak, and there lies its great attraction. The word that comes most readily to mind for describing these things is not fundamentalism, or radicalism, or any other ‘-ism’, but truth. The witness of the Spirit, as Jesus says in John’s Gospel, is essentially to truth – not to any truth about technical, historical, or scientific data and statistics, which are properly subjects for scholarly research, but to the truth about the word of God, and that speaks to me of salvation, forgiveness, blessing, hope, love, joy, peace, power and the like. Pre-eminently that truth is about Jesus, who, as we have it in John’s Gospel again, is himself the Truth (14:6). So the Spirit shows me the truth of Scripture (or resolves the riddle of the Bible) and the truth of Jesus (or resolves the riddle of the incarnation), but perhaps the two are one, for even the Bible itself recognises an interplay between the written word of God and the incarnate Word of God. Both speak of the same truth, and the Spirit witnesses equally to both. That is not to say there is no truth in the things that liberals or conservatives say, but that there is a more profound truth that neither of these, in the charismatic’s eyes at any rate, have ever grasped. That alone comes from the Spirit of God, not by any human intellectual process.
Of course, experience offers no magical solution to so many of the problems that the scholars handle, such as the date of the Exodus, or the editorial arrangement of the book of Ezekiel, or the authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, but it does bear witness to the basic truth of the accounts of what the biblical personalities experienced in their relationships and encounters with God or his messengers, and to the essential truth of their aspirations and hopes for those who believe in Christ. The charismatic’s main argument with biblical scholars of the academies is therefore about the nature of belief. He wants them to begin believing that what they are analysing is not just myth, or legend, or the theological ruminations of pious intellects, if they are liberals, nor simply ancient history or doctrinal presentations, if they are conservatives, but living Christian experience as it was and as it still should be. Like Peter, he wants the critic to lay aside his pen for a moment and to step on stage to see for himself what this Spirit-life is really like. But then any scholar or student who accepts that challenge will find himself, as I do, longing for some new kind of scholarship through which he can express his new-found revelations and understandings.
That, in the end, is the invitation of Scripture itself. Does not our Drama of Salvation end with such a call from the Spirit and the Bride (of Christ; = the Church) who say ‘Come!’ It is those who are ‘thirsty’ who will come, and when they do, they will drink of the water of life freely given by God. And that water is the Spirit of God himself, flowing from his throne and the Lamb. Our calling is not so much to receive understanding as to receive life. But in the light of that life there is indeed a freshness of understanding unknown to and unknowable by the natural intellect. The Christian, who has tasted such things and knows that nothing else can satisfy in the same way, must inevitably become a witness – but not without understanding. And that is why the Spirit cuts through all our debates and scholarship to lead us into all truth, his truth.
1. For convenience, biblical quotations are taken from the NIV, though I have occasionally retranslated an odd word or phrase (all acknowledged in endnotes).
2. NIV translates ‘reflect the Lord’s glory’. NIV footnote suggests ‘contemplate’, cf. RSV ‘beholding’.
3. So NIV footnote, cf. RSV. NIV text reads ‘in spiritual words’
4. Cp. Tertullian, Against Praxeas 1; Against Marcion IV.22.
5. Irenaeus, Against Heresies V.6.1, (cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V.7.2)
6. This, of course, relates to the spiritual gifts spoken about not only in the book of Acts, but also in other New Testament passages such as Rom. 12:6-8 and 1 Cor. 12:7-11.
7. The prophetic writings in the Bible have stood the test of time and have been fully recognised as authentically inspired of God in a way that is quite unique, and hence are accepted as sacred scripture. They do, however, still reveal the individual personalities of the prophets themselves in considerable measure.
8. Comments here are of necessity brief and representative. The prophetic/ charismatic thrust of each book in both Old and New Testaments is fully discussed in my 4-volume work, The Way of the Spirit. See also, J.W. McKay, ‘The Old Testament and Christian Charismatic/Prophetic Literature’, in Scripture: Method and Meaning, Essays presented to Anthony Tyrrell Hanson, edited by B.P. Thompson, Hull University Press, 1987. Also J.W. McKay, ‘The Experiences of Dereliction and of God’s Presence in the Psalms; An exercise in Old Testament Exegesis in the Light of Renewal Theology’, in Faces of Renewal. Studies in honor of Stanley M. Horton, edited by P. Elbert, Hendrickson Publishers, Massachussetts, 1988. Also ibid, ‘My Glory – A Mantle of Praise’, Scottish Journal of Theology 31, 1978, pp. 167-72; ‘Psalms of Vigil’, Zeitschrift fŸr die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 91, 1979, pp. 229-47.