The charismatic movement, which has swept through the Protestant churches in the last forty years, has presented a formidable challenge to Reformed, Evangelical Christianity. The problem has been how to evaluate it. Is it, or is it not, of God? The question still remains unanswered for many. They suspend judgement because they have no criteria for assessing it.
This article reviews a book entitled Charismatic Confusion – The modern claims to the possession of the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit by William Goode, with an introduction and appendices by Nick Needham and Alan Howe.
What makes this book different from many others is that it was written nearly two hundred years ago! In spite of its age (or because of it?) this work can help those who are still confused to form a sound judgement on the matter.
It was written by a man who was Dean of Ripon and a very considerable evangelical scholar. He wrote a number of works maintaining the Reformed position of the Church of England as expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.
This work was written to clarify Christians’ thinking about the Irvingite movement, in the wake of the confusion it engendered in the early nineteenth century. ‘Irvingism’ was started by Edward Irving, a popular Presbyterian preacher in London, and involved many features exhibited by the present-day Charismatic movement, such as speaking in tongues, prophecies, healings and so forth.
The value of Goode’s critique is that he places Irvingism in the context of the whole history of the church, and shows that it is not an isolated phenomenon but something that has manifested itself many times before. In the second century, for example, Montanism claimed to be a restoration of the apostolic gifts of tongues and miracles.
At first, such claims were not viewed unfavorably by the church. But gradually the excesses of the movement became apparent. Montanus began to speak as if God were in him: ‘I am the Lord God Almighty dwelling in man’. Quite properly, the Fathers rejected this as blasphemy.
Similar phenomena occurred in the Irvingite movement, where the prophets spoke as if they were the passive organs of the Holy Spirit: ‘I am the Word, the Spirit, and the Power’. This, says Goode, suggested a total misunderstanding of biblical prophecy, where the prophet was not a mere speaking trumpet, but the mental powers of the prophet were exercised and in full control in the revelations given.
The Montanists also came to regard the revelations they received as superseding the revelation of Christ and the apostles. Goode shows how there was a consensus among the early Fathers against the Montanists’ claims, and that they refuted their arguments from Scripture.
The only exception seems to have been the sad lapse of Tertullian, who joined the Montanists. His fall was deeply lamented by the church, but served as proof of how the most talented and sincere may be misled.
Goode proceeds to show how, throughout the history of the church, there has been a succession of similar spurious claims to extraordinary gifts and powers of the Holy Spirit.
At the time of the Reformation, there arose in Germany the ‘celestial prophets’, including Thomas Munzer and Nicholas Storck, who opposed the Reformers.
Melanchthon could not make up his mind about them and was inclined to think them genuine. But Luther was more robust and said that they must be tried and proved: ‘It is Satan’s method’, he said, ‘to attempt to crush every revival of the Divine Word, first by force, and if he does not succeed, then by false spirits, by wilful and malicious teachers’.
All these movements showed a remarkable affinity with Irvingism and indeed with modern day charismaticism and have much to teach us. It is the lack of historical perspective which today makes people so vulnerable to the claims and influence of the Charismatic movement.
Goode’s book provides such a perspective and is at the same time a preservative. Goode brings out the tendency of these movements to be the seedbed of false doctrine. Storck and the celestial prophets disparaged the Scriptures saying: ‘What is the use of clinging so closely to the Bible? The Bible! Always the Bible! … God himself reveals to us what we should do and preach’.
Irving himself fell into serious error, arguing that Christ took on himself ‘sinful flesh’. He also had unsound views on justification, rejecting the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and holding out the possibility of perfect holiness in this life.
Modern-day Charismatics have also manifested a tendency to sit loose to Scripture and its teaching. Michael Harper, one of the original leaders of the Charismatic movement in this country, and once a curate at All Souls, Langham Place, has become a priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
David du Plessis, another Charismatic leader, became a leading ecumenist and deeply involved with the Church of Rome. The value of Goode’s book is that it shows in a scholarly manner how off-beam these errant movements have been throughout the history of the church. This should be sufficient warning to Christians to keep clear of them today.
There are three valuable appendices dealing with the modern-day Pentecostal movement, beginning with Charles Fox Parham (1873-1929) and the Azusa Street ‘revival’ of 1906 in Los Angeles.
The transference of that movement to the mainline churches took place in 1959, principally through Dennis Bennett, a priest in the Episcopal Church of the USA. It is significant that Bennett was an Anglo-Catholic.
All this should have rung warning bells for those Evangelicals who first became acquainted with the movement. I myself remember well the advent of the Charismatic movement in Bedford in the mid-1960s where I was serving a curacy.
The first man to claim the experience of speaking in tongues was the vicar of an Anglo-Catholic parish. It interested me that it was the other Anglo-Catholic clergy who responded warmly to this phenomenon. The bishop himself, who was also of that persuasion, gave the man a platform at the diocesan clergy conference to speak at length of his experience.
The Spirit of truth
All this made me suspicious of the movement from the beginning, for the experience these men claimed did not lead them to abandon the false teaching that they held. They still continued with their masses and confessions and other Romish practices.
I remember thinking at the time, that if this were of the Holy Spirit, whom the Scriptures calls ‘the Spirit of truth’, he would lead them into all truth. They would begin to discern the difference between what Scripture teaches and what they practised, and a reformation would be beginning in the church. But there was no sign of that at all.
In the final appendix, Alan Howe raises the question of how it took evangelical leaders so long to discern that this movement was not of God. That may have been because some of the early manifestations in the UK occurred in respected Evangelical churches.
One such church was All Souls, Langham Place, where curate Michael Harper became involved along with clergy who had trained there, like John Collins and his curates David Watson and David McInnes.
In 1963, Collins, Harper and Watson went to see Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones who was moved by what he heard, and said that he believed they had been baptised by the Holy Spirit.
He told them to ‘press on’, perhaps because, at that time, many were looking and hoping for revival. Lloyd-Jones did not want to quench the smoking flax, if that was what it was. He was rightly anxious to avoid an arid intellectualism, which he feared might emerge in Reformed circles.
I think, however, that if he had been more fully acquainted with the impact of the movement upon Anglo-Catholics, and its failure to change their thinking and practice in a biblical direction, he would have discerned its aberrant character.
Over the past forty years, Charis-maticism has certainly proved to be an errant movement, which has done much to alienate nominal churches and nominal Christians from genuine biblical faith and experience.