Baptists and the Holy Spirit: Introduction

I recently acquired a copy of Baptist historian C. Douglas Weaver’s massive new work, Baptists and the Holy Spirit: The Contested History with Holiness-Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements. Given the historical and theological continuity between the three movements named in the subtitle, we could refer to them more generically as charismatic or “Spirit-filled” Christianity. While acknowledging their differences, these movements have held in common an emphasis on post-conversion encounters with the Holy Spirit to sanctify and empower Christians. Beginning with the Holiness confidence in divine healing, this tradition declares and seeks what we call, for better or worse, the supernatural and miraculous. Charismatic Christians expect God to work signs and wonders in the present day.

Because this is an expensive volume produced by Baylor University Press (listed for approximately $70 on Amazon), I have an admittedly ambitious goal of writing a chapter-by-chapter commentary for those who do not enjoy the benefit of a faculty book allowance.

The charismatic movement is in the news as I begin this blog series. President Trump’s pick for the next justice of the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, is a member of a charismatic community called People of Praise. Like the majority of the members, Barrett is a participant in the charismatic renewal within the Roman Catholic Church, which dates back to a weekend retreat at Duchesne University in February 1967.

A Personal Introduction

My first encounter with charismatic Christianity occurred in high school. I knew three members of a local charismatic church who were students with me at Baton Rouge Magnet High School. One was a girl in my grade, the other two were twin boys a year behind us. I briefly participated in an informal prayer group that would meet at the front steps each morning. The group was mostly the three of them with a couple of extra persons here and there. We would stand in a circle holding hands, praying one by one – except that the charismatic believers would start speaking in tongues simultaneously with the comprehensible prayers. I found it distracting; not to mention contrary to the explicit directive in 1 Corinthians 14 to speak in tongues one at a time. So I quit attending.

The twins were ostentatiously devout. They wrote Bible verses around the outsides of their backpacks in white-out and carried Bibles in their hands as they walked the halls. Sometimes their zeal expressed itself in ways that emphasized “separation from the world.” Each year, there was a “Spirit Day” when students were asked to dress up in school colors. One of the twins showed up wearing, I kid you not, a literal sandwich board like the stereotypical “End Times” street preacher. It read, on both sides, “The Only True Spirit is the Holy Spirit.”

In my junior year, they were welcomed into our school chapter of the service-based Beta Club.  I was the club secretary and responsible for tracking members’ progress in meeting their required community service hours. The twins were well behind around the midpoint of the year. When I asked them about this, they stressed how much time they were volunteering with their church.

I really didn’t like those two.

My next personal connection with the charismatic movement came in college. One of my first friends was named Angelo Golatt, although everybody called him “Doogie.” He was a big bear of a man – a teddy bear, though, given his infectiously joyful and warm-hearted demeanor. Pretty much everyone at our small, Baptist liberal-arts school was a friend of Doogie’s. He made everyone’s face light up. He constantly uttered praises and believed fully in the Spirit-filled life, praying earnestly and passionately for those around him to be healed and empowered. He did not repel me as the twins had done so.

Seven years after we graduated college, Doogie pled guilty to several charges of rape; a portion of multiple allegations of abuse against teenagers and adults with mental disabilities. Doogie sexually assaulted vulnerable individuals while holding positions of authority in two different congregations.

But Doogie was also associated with my sole experience of glossolalia. My freshman year was a season of incredible fervency. By no means could Louisiana College be construed as an oasis of pristine Christian devotion. But it is true that I was immersed in social circles characterized by sincere and active faith. I had prized the ethnic and religious diversity of my magnet high school, yet there was a certain freshness having so many friends and acquaintances joined in shared spiritual pursuit. We sang praise choruses in the lobby of the girls’ dorm until the end of open hours. The boys gathered in our dorm rooms for prayer groups. I remember rocking back and forth during the prayers with my body energized by…by what? The Holy Spirit? My heightened emotional state? The experience was one thing; the interpretations were several.

One night I was sitting alone in my dorm room, prostrating on the rug and praying intensely. Suddenly, my tongue tripped over itself and my words slipped into the realm of the incomprehensible. It caught me completely by surprise, as I had been intellectually and emotionally indifferent to the question of speaking in tongues. I had not prayed for or sought the experience. It came upon me absent my intentionality. At the moment, I received this strange utterance with tears of gratitude. Yet I have not spoken in tongues since that night.

The next day, I told Doogie what happened to me. As a big smile grew across his face, he said he had been praying for me to receive the gift. So, what happened? Was my experience of glossolalia a purely psychological phenomenon? Is God’s grace so profligate that God answered the prayer of a deceitful rapist? Perhaps I am playing a dualistic game, separating psychology and divinity.

By the end of my freshman year, I was attending the so-called “liberal” Baptist church in downtown Alexandria. The seeming antithesis of charismatic Christianity, Emmanuel Baptist Church worshiped in a neo-Gothic sanctuary featuring stone arches and stained-glass windows. The worship style was formal and attentive to the rhythms of the liturgical calendar. Through the course of my undergraduate studies and the start of seminary I became increasingly attracted to “high church” expressions of Christianity. I flirted with Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy before settling into a “Bapto-Catholic” identity through the influence of Curtis Freeman, director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, and Steve Harmon, one-time visiting professor at Duke and the author of Towards Baptist Catholicity. My personal spirituality aligned with the contemplative Christian tradition and I found exemplars in Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, and Meister Eckhart.

Ultimately, I don’t see the charismatic and the contemplative, nor the liturgical and the extemporaneous, to be exclusive categories. I have never actively held the cessationist view that the “miraculous” gifts of the Spirit – tongues, healing, words of prophecy, etc. – were limited to the initial generation of the Church. It is the case, however, that I have largely ignored the gifts that are, shall we say, more ostentatious from the perspective of Western modernity. Surely this is a combination of factors: a focus on other aspects of Christian life and ministry; a distaste for the oft-cited excesses and theological oddities within the charismatic movement.

 But still I reckon with the testimony of generations of Christians, alongside personal friends and, finally, one night in a college dorm. So, like Fox Mulder in The X-Files, I want to believe.

Weaver’s Introduction to Baptists and the Holy Spirit

My history with “Spirit-filled” Christianity is something of a microcosm of the larger experience of Baptists in America, as detailed in Baptists and the Holy Spirit. Weaver opens his tome with the question, “Have Baptists treated the Holy Spirit like a shy member of the Trinity?” (xi) Our tradition is firmly Jesus-centric, to the point that Curtis Freeman has called us functional “Unitarians of the Second Person.” Weaver states that the book will serve as a rejoinder to that stereotype, while demonstrating how Baptists have more often opposed the Holiness, Pentecostal, and charismatic movements than accepted their claims.

Weaver shares his own brief anecdote from his college days about a close friend who claimed the voice of Jesus informed him about the imminent end of the world. I am reminded about my own experience of a college friend who made several claims to personal revelation, including that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the prelude to Armageddon.

Weaver notes that “Baptist interactions with the holiness-pentecostal-charismatic traditions and a concern for an experience of the Holy Spirit have been extensive, more extensive than ever imagined” (xii). One fruit of the argument with Spirit-filled Christianity has been a sharpening of Baptist theology and practice concerning the Third Person of the Trinity. In keeping with his previous work, In Search of the New Testament Church (2008), Weaver will highlight how both Baptists and the broader charismatic tradition have been marked by the restorationist impulse – that is, the desire to reinstate (and the belief they are reinstating) the singular model for Christian community given in Scripture. But if you get two restorationists in a room, they are going to argue fiercely as to who is doing a better job of returning to the faith and practice of the original followers of Jesus. A key difference between charismatics and the majority of Baptists has been the cessationism of the latter. This entails that charismatics have claimed a fuller “restoration” of New Testament Christianity than most Baptists have deemed appropriate or possible. Thus, Baptist polemic has accused holiness-pentecostal-charismatic Christians of fakery, psychological delusion, or demonization.

Weaver also states that he will be attentive to how issues of socioeconomic class, race, and gender have shaped the story of Baptist-charismatic interactions. The former, once radicals themselves on these matters, had long set out on the road to social respectability before anyone had heard the names of Keswick or Azusa Street.

Although the dominant story is one of differentiation and disagreement, Weaver will note influences of the holiness-pentecostal-charismatic tradition on Baptists as well as participation by the latter in the former. Some would leave the Baptist fold altogether, while others would hope to reform their tradition through the acceptance of the charismata as present manifestations of the Spirit’s grace and power. No surprise to me, the Baptist story is one of ongoing contestation and identity negotiation as we seek to understand just what it means to be filled with the Spirit “for the living of these days.”

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