Since most Charismatic Christians don’t spend a lot of time reading or writing theology, we are sometimes thought of as having no theology at all. In reality, everyone has a theology, based both on experience and instruction. But it is true that Charismatics often do not work through what we believe, which can cause confusion both to participants and observers.
I believe the way to resolve this is to look at the “theological center,” the core concept or impulse which drives all of the other theological points in a system. We tend to think of groups of Christians in terms of theological points of doctrine, but that these points of doctrine are really only surface level manifestations of deeper emotional and intellectual commitments.
In Reformed Theology for example, the sovereignty of God, functions this way. Every other theological point can be derived or connected to God’s sovereignty, and when examining a challenging theological idea, you can use the idea of sovereignty to clarify it. This is also true when considering the practical life of a Reformed believer. Your idea about God and how he relates to your personal life will drive back to the fact that he is in control.
In fact, I believe that you could look at almost any Christian group and identify a theological center, which connects and defines the other aspects. I’m not saying that someone could not hold conflicting ideas, but the center does have gravity – over time other points will resolve toward it. This is because, while theology is complicated, people are simple. We can only burn one kind of fuel, so to speak. What is it that makes you tick as a Christian? What drives you to act? Whatever this is, will explain what kind of Christian you are and also what your “theology” is, whether you believe you have one or not.
Spiritual Hunger is the Core
At the core for any Charismatic Christian is the belief that more is possible and the desire to pursue it. This is sometimes referred to as “spiritual hunger.” We believe that it is possible to live a life like Jesus and the apostles. We read the gospels and the book of Acts as if we are characters in the same story, and should strive to do the same things Jesus did. The gospel is not just about being forgiven of your sins and going to heaven when you die, but having more of God here and now. We are on a quest to experience as much of heaven as we can.
I believe this spiritual hunger is the theological center of Charismatic Christianity. Everything we do connects back to it. This is partly because many Charismatic believers, like myself, have actually had that kind of experience. When you have experienced a real touch from God, it has a way of reorienting everything else. This kind of encounter inaugurates pursuit. We tell each other stories of when God has done things that are similar to what happened in the Bible: a friend was healed, received an amazing Word of Knowledge, or had a heavenly encounter. This, in turn, fuels our desire for God to do it again, and even greater.
Various groups may have differing beliefs about how to experience more of God – prayer, fasting, and impartation are some of the most common, but every Charismatic believer is on the quest for more. This belief drives us to orient our lives and practice around having more.
This idea of more, affects the way we understand the Bible. The charismatic hermeneutic is different from mainstream hermeneutics. For Reformed and Fundamentalist believers, God “spoke.” This creates a static mindset. Whatever Calvin, or another forefather discovered in the Biblical text and established as doctrine is a final word. We aren’t looking forward toward God doing more, but backwards to keep our orthodoxy secure.
By contrast, for Charismatics God “is speaking.” Jesus says that “man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds” from the mouth of God – that’s present tense, not past. We believe in a living and active relationship with Jesus similar to what you would have with any other person. This means active guidance for life and the day, it means illumination of the Scripture, and a host of other realities which can only be characterized as supernatural.
And as it relates to the Bible we recognize the role of progressive revelation: God is progressively highlighting and bringing to life different things taught or experienced in the Bible. Consider the Reformation. Martin Luther saw that the church was not practicing justification by faith. The doctrine was always in the Scripture, but when he had a fresh revelation of its importance and began to emphasize it. This became a foundation stone for future history. Calvin himself built on this and established the authority of Scripture over tradition. Our understanding of God is expanding with time as God gives fresh revelation to the church. As God is building the church, we believe he highlights Biblical doctrine that has not been emphasized before.
The Pentecostal/charismatic movement was just another step in this progressive restoration of encounter. The gifts and power of the Spirit have always been in the Bible, and were practiced to some measure at different times in church history, but hadn’t been a part of the core doctrine and identity since the book of Acts. When the Spirit blew through Azusa, placing emphasis on speaking in tongues, Pentecostals were not inventing a new doctrine, they were re-discovering what had been part of the Church’s inheritance all along.
Traditional Protestant hermeneutics developed out of a rationalist framework, which often leads to simply rejecting anything that sounds like “new” revelation. John Wesley addressed this problem with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which accounted for Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. This framework rightly recognizes the role that when we read the Bible, we are bringing more than simply naked reason, and also provides a way for us to properly filter and weigh what we believe the Spirit may be leading us to do. (I also believe that many other Wesleyan-Arminian theological commitments are a logical part of a theology centered on “more”)
“More of God” in History
The belief that “more is possible” leads naturally to the belief that we can bring more of heaven onto earth. In my book Cracking the End Time Code, I talk about how our theology of the end times shapes our idea of where history is headed, which in turn shapes our view of what our role is in life. Are we supposed to watch things get worse and wait for the rapture, or are we supposed to be bringing the Kingdom to earth?
Many Pentecostal groups have been influenced by the premillennial eschatology that they inherited from fundamentalists and evangelicals. The premillennialist view looks for things to get worse and worse until Jesus returns. There are exegetical problems with this approach, which I discuss elsewhere, but more practically, it is a theology that is fundamentally at odds with the charismatic ethos. It leads to a fear and escape-minded attitude. Instead of engaging and trying to influence the culture, it gears us to scan the news for “signs of the end” and wait around to be raptured.
Some charismatics are on the other end of the spectrum – believing that the Great Tribulation referred to the Jewish-Roman War of 66-73 AD, and that Jesus will return when we have taken over the world. While this aligns better with the victorious “more” it can easily slide into a church-state alliance, where “more of the Kingdom” means “more political power.”
I believe instead that the millennium is now (amillennialism). We are now reigning with him (Rom 5:17) Not only do I believe that it is Biblically correct, it is also the view that fits best with the “more” mindset. We are charismatics because we believe that you can have “more of God” than you currently have. His glory can be further revealed – in salvations, healings, and deliverances, but also in the transformation of cultures and institutions. The long view of history gives us a goal to focus on in between the exciting revivals. Even if no one is currently being slain in the Spirit, we can go about bringing more of heaven to earth, expanding our Father’s Kingdom.
Theology of the Possible
What does all this mean? Ultimately, charismatic theology is about the arc of what is possible. We can live the God kind of life in increasing measure here on earth, in the now, and in the future. We can have great hope instead of despair. We believe that the church and the individual have the possibility to be more like God than they are and that is what God is taking us to, one step at a time. The “more of God” worldview means a present millennium, the progressive restoration of the church, and an openness to what God is saying “now” through the church.
To read more about the purpose of God in history, check out my book Cracking the End Time Code.