16
Mar
10

Charismatic Movements in the Church

I’m introducing a new series of blog posts on the topic of “charismatic movements” in the Church.  When I speak of ” charismatic” movements,  I don’t necessarily mean pentecostal movements, but those movements of renewal and reform which rise up spontaneously in the Church, and centre around particularly gifted individuals, who operate outside existing authority structures.  Such movements have existed throughout the history of the Church, and have always had a rocky relationship with the established Church authorities.

I developed this rough timeline as a teaching tool for a course I was TAing earlier this year.  We could debate whether some of these movements are “charismatic,” but I would argue that they were all charismatic in origin, meaning that they sprung up around individuals who were perceived to be specially gifted (the basic meaning of “charism” being “gift”).   The timeline gets really selective when it comes to the modern era, because at that point I had to be selective.  I’m not claiming the timeline is exhaustive at that point, but I hope it is representative.  My main purpose in creating the timeline this way was to contrast “catholic” movements (meaning those who were eventually accepted by Church authorities as legitimate) with “non-catholic.”

I should add also that I’m not addressing the issue of “heresy” here, as some of the movements in question were definitely preaching a message which was outside the boundaries of historic Christian orthodoxy. I think most people would agree that the Bogomils and Cathars were heretical, but assessing the orthodoxy of other individual movements on the list would require more of a discussion than I want to get into.

One of the questions I’m studying for my dissertation concerns how we account for these movements theologically.  How do we know if a charismatic movement is truly of God?  What do these movements represent? A return to the primitive purity of the Church?  A form of fanaticism?  A revitalizing force?

I’ve developed a typology of positions on the question of the place of charismatic movements in the Church, and this typology will form the basis for my series of posts, each of which will discuss one or two representative theologians:

  • Charismatic opposed to institutional. Here the work of Rudolph Söhm and early 20th century scholars such as Adolf von Harnack is important.  The theory of these writers is that the church was originally charismatic, but this was stifled by emerging catholicism (institutionalism in his mind) in the 2nd century.  The emergence of stable authority structures was therefore a failure on the part of early Christianity.
  • Charismatic more fundamental than institutional. I’d summarize Leonardo Boff’s work in Church, Charism, and Power along these lines.  Charism is more fundamental than institution, because it gives rise to the institution and keeps it alive. Therefore the charismatic gifts of the Spirit should be the structuring principle of the church.
  • Charismatic in tension with institutional. Karl Rahner tries to hold the two structures in tension by arguing that there are both institutional and non-institutional charismata. A Legitimate opposition of forces in the life of the Church is inevitable and should be accepted.  Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s “christological constellation” also fits under this category.
  • Charismatic complementary to institutional. More recent ecumenical work has attempted to overcome the duality of charismatic movements and institutional structures by stressing the complementarity of the two.  Joseph Ratzinger also wrote along these lines in his discussion of lay movements in the Church, even going so far as to reject the dichotomy of charism/institution as inappropriate for ecclesiology.
  • Charismatic enlivens institutional. Others stress the role of charismatic movements as enlivening forces for the institutional church.  So Howard Snyder argues that both institutional structures and charismatic movements can be seen as normal and valid in the Church’s history.  I’ll also discuss Catholic theologies of “the religious life” (religious orders, etc.) under this category.
  • Institutional over charismatic. It’s hard to find anyone who actually argues for this theologically, but it is common on a practical level, so I’ll still attempt a post on this perspective.
  • Charismatic gifts as justification for separation. Oscar Cullmann’s book Unity Through Diversity makes the argument that different the “confessions” in the Church have their own unique charisms, which need to be preserved.  Therefore he argues that continued structural separation of the churches is justified, so that these diverse gifts can be preserved.  Many denominationalist theologies proceed on similar assumptions.

While the work I’ll be discussing is scholarly, the issue of finding a place for charismatic movements in the Church has immense practical implications, and I’ll attempt to draw these out.  This has been a perennial issue for the Church, and it remains an important problem today.  Think of the controversy surrounding “emergent” and whether it is a legitimate movement of reform or a heretical offshoot of genuine Christianity.  How are these “new expressions” of church related to the established Churches?

It is also an important question for people of evangelical heritage, because move evangelical denominations began as charismatic reform movements (not as denominations or “churches”).  Does that have implications for our understanding of the Church and the place of “denominations” as they now exist?  I think it does, and I’m hopeful that reflection on the history of charismatic movements, as well as theological reflection on the nature of the Church and where they fit, can provide some direction for our life together as we seek to give faithful witness in the post-Christendom context.

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4 Responses to “Charismatic Movements in the Church”


  1. 1 ann
    October 31, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Sounds like a fascinating and helpful study. One question? I’m not seeing the First Great Awakening on the list which was led by Reformed revivalists, Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, Jonathan Dickinson and George Whitefield. Is there some reason you’re not including it?

  2. October 31, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Hi Ann

    Thanks for stopping by! No, I’m not purposely leaving off the First Great Awakening – that’s a very important movement to consider. I do make note of it on the far right column of my chart, as an “event,” but I was running out of space under “movements”.

    I haven’t done a lot of reading on the Reformed revivalists, but I hope I’ll get to sooner or later! They definitely left a big mark on the Church. I’m not sure where they would fit on my typology. Let me know if you have any thoughts about that, or if you can recommend a good place for me to start reading on that topic.


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