Friday, July 16, 2010

Examples of Edwards and Finney

In this post, I offer two more historic examples of religious experience, namely, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney.

Edwards

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is a central figure of what is called the Great Awakening, a revival that extended from Maine to Georgia from c. 1739 onwards. The awakening, shortly after its beginning involved its main figure, English and Methodist George Whitefield (1714-1770), through his extensive field preaching. As controversy grew regarding the nature of the revivals, Edwards penned a number of articles to answer the critics. The most famous of these is his ‘mature analysis of religious experience’, called A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, and ‘published in 1746, several years after the revival was spent’.[i] What follows is a brief selection of Edward’s descriptions and comments of participants’ experiences he witnessed during these revivals.

Commenting on 1 Peter 1:18, Edwards wrote:

We see that the apostle, in remarking the operations and exercises of religion in these Christians, when it had its greatest trial by persecution, as gold is tried in the fire … he singles out the religious affections of love and joy, as those exercises, wherein their religion did thus appear true, pure, and glorious.

Qualities that we might describe as character traits produced through the indwelling Spirit, Edwards further describes as affections. By this term he meant qualities that are tangible; they are felt, experienced and observable. Further to this, Edwards said that true religion consists of these affections and without them, is cold and dead. Let’s examine an example from his A Faithful Narrative.[ii] There he relates the conversion story of Abigail Hutchinson:

By these things her mind was led into such contemplations and views of Christ, as filled her exceeding full of joy. She told her brother, in the morning, that she had seen (i. e. in realizing views by faith) Christ the last night, and that she had really thought that she had not knowledge enough, to be converted; but, says she, God can make it quite easy! On Monday she felt all day a constant sweetness in her soul. She had a repetition of the same discoveries of Christ three mornings together, and much in the same manner, at each time, waking a little before day; but brighter and brighter every day.

Abigail’s conversion had come after days of searching and longing for Christ which included great distress over her unconverted situation. Edwards thus describes the nature of religious affections, which form the essence of true religion, with phrases like ‘filled her exceeding full of joy’ and ‘constant sweetness of soul’. These are expressions reminiscent of Christian mysticism noted above, demonstrating a common source; namely, the Spirit. Edwards provided an extensive view of Abigail’s newly converted state, one that sounds very much like the so-called ‘erotic mysticism’ noted earlier. For instance, he wrote:

She had several days together a sweet sense of the excellency and loveliness of Christ in his meekness, which disposed her continually to be repeating over these words, which were sweet to her, meek and lowly in heart, meek and lowly in heart. She once expressed herself to one of her sisters to this purpose, that she had continued whole days and whole nights, in a constant ravishing view of the glory of God and Christ, having enjoyed as much as her life could bear. Once, as her brother was speaking of the dying love of Christ, she told him, she had such a sense of it, that the mere mentioning of it was ready to overcome her.

In summarising the account of Abigail’s conversion, Edwards said,

She was looked upon amongst us, as a very eminent instance of Christian experience; but this is but a very broken and imperfect account I have given of her: her eminency would much more appear, if her experiences were fully related, as she was wont to express, and manifest them, while living. I once read this account to some of her pious neighbours, who were acquainted with her, who said, to this purpose, that the picture fell much short of the life; and particularly that it much failed of duly representing her humility, and that admirable lowliness of heart, that at all times appeared in her. But there are, blessed be God! many living instances, of much the like nature, and in some things no less extraordinary.

While calling this case extraordinary, Edwards implies that not all believers will have Abigail’s experiences or the same intensity of them. However, he does not mean that believers in Christ will not have any ‘religious affections’. On the contrary, these affections or experiences should be integral to genuine Christianity, especially those mentioned earlier from 1 Peter 2:18, viz. love and joy. It was unthinkable to Edwards that believers should not feel their love for Christ and consequent concern for the unconverted; and that they should experience the ‘peace that passes understanding’ (Phil 4:7). In a final comment before passing to our next historical figure, Edwards’s plea from his Religious Affections is pertinent:

The Spirit of God, in those who have sound and solid religion, is a Spirit of powerful holy affection; and therefore, God is said “to have given them the Spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind,” (2Ti 1:7.) And such, when they receive the Spirit of God in his sanctifying and saving influences, are said to be “baptized with the Holy Ghost, and with fire;’’ by reason of the power and fervour of those exercises which the Spirit of God excites in them, and whereby their hearts, when grace is in exercise, may be said to burn within them. (Lu 24:32.)

In saying these words, Edwards warns against lifeless religion that contains no Spirit-energised affections that motivate Christian action to life, holiness and service. Holding a form or practice of godliness without the power was unthinkable to Edwards as it was to the Apostles (2 Tim 3:5). May it be so to us. The century following Edwards, another prominent figure appeared on the American scene; his name, Charles Grandison Finney.

Finney

In the nineteenth century revival movement, sometimes called ‘The Second Great Awakening’, Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) is prominent. He was also an early contributor to the Holiness movement from which Pentecostalism sprung.[iii] He is regarded as a pioneer of modern evangelism, especially the ‘altar call’ where people are called to the front of an evangelistic meeting to receive Christ, part of his ‘new measures’.[iv] This is important because it relates to the nature of the conversion experience which Finney described as an instantaneous event, a significant religious experience.[v] His conversion theology has had considerable influence on the modern Evangelical church including Pentecostalism.[vi] Finney’s theology was obviously influenced by his own conversion experience described, in part, below:

The repose of my mind was unspeakably great. I never can describe it in words. The thought of God was sweet to my mind, and the most profound spiritual tranquillity had taken full possession of me.[vii]

The awareness of God and the deep peace Finney mentioned are typical experiences known in conversion as will be noted later in instances of early Pentecostal experiences and in the introduction where contemporary stories were reviewed. Finney’s conversion experience significantly changed his life; he quit his lawyer’s practice to become a preacher of the gospel.[viii]

The same day in which Finney experienced conversion, he also experienced Spirit-baptism. This is best explained in his own words:

But as I turned and was about to take a seat by the fire, I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost. Without any expectation of it, without ever having the thought in my mind that there was any such thing for me, without any recollection that I had ever heard the thing mentioned by any person in the world, the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love for I could not express it in any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me, like immense wings.[ix]

His description of a ‘wave of electricity’ is similar to my account of Spirit-baptism in the introduction. Finney’s reference to ‘waves and waves of liquid love’ is not unlike a number of accounts and in examples of early Pentecostals shown later. The powerful nature of religious experience in Finney’s Spirit-filling may be seen as a forerunner to what Pentecostals came to expect. His experience would have been well known by early Pentecostals and is referred to by contemporary Pentecostals.[x] However, Finney’s theology of instantaneous conversion accompanied by religious experience, as Dayton says, is really Wesleyan in its nature.[xi]

Summary

What is the sum of all this? I believe there is something to be recovered of the power of the Spirit working deeply in people’s lives. It is not my intention to call into question what people have received or to judge their spiritual state.[xii] However, I am sure that it is obvious to any serious observer that we have lost something of the vitality and the depth of our forebears’ Christianity, what Wesley called, ‘experimental Christianity’.[xiii] When a comparison is made between now and then, as shown above, reasons for this loss come clearly to the fore. These reasons provide us with a very real challenge to reach out to God for pristine and authentic experiences of the Spirit, the kind for which the writer of Ephesians prayed (3:16-20), namely, continuing experiences of Jesus’ presence and infillings of the Spirit beyond conversion and so-called Spirit-baptism.


[i] Chris Mitchell, ‘Johnathan Edwards’, in Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1992)l; Jonathan Edwards, ‘A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections’, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), i: 236-343.

[ii] Jonathan Edwards, ‘A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God’, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974). i: 344-364.

[iii] Donald W. Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 63-84; Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century. 2nd rev. edn. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1997), 14-15.

[iv] Charles G. Finney, Charles G. Finney: An Autobiography on CD ROM (Albany, NY: Sage, 1996), 266; Donald W. Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 63-84; Keith J. Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney 1792-1875: Revivalist and Reformer (Darlington, DUR: Evangelical Press, 1990), 84-85, 134-148.

[v] Charles G. Finney, Finney’s Lectures on Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 290.

[vi] Frederick Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit: The Pentecostal Experience and the New Testament Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 40-42.

[vii] Charles G. Finney, Charles G. Finney: An Autobiography on CD ROM (Albany, NY: Sage, 1996), 31.

[viii] Ibid., 37ff.

[ix] Ibid., 33.

[x] Frederick Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit: The Pentecostal Experience and the New Testament Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 40-42.

[xi] Donald W. Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 63-84.

[xiii] Fee, Paul, 183-192.

[xiii] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, 3rd Edn. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), iv: 138.

Friday, January 1, 2010

John Wesley and Religious Experience

There are numerous references in Wesley’s Works[i] and other Methodist writings, similar to Spurgeon’s, where consciousness of Christ’s presence was regarded as an accepted norm. For example, the following excerpt from my doctoral thesis aptly illustrates.[ii]

“Religious experiences were significantly present in the life of Methodist founder, John Wesley, first seen in his conversion then in his ensuing ministry.[iii] He was branded ‘enthusiast’ partly for this reason, and spent considerable effort refuting such accusations.[iv] In Wesley’s spiritual formation, his father’s influence on him regarding religious experience is shown by the deathbed exhortation to his son, that ‘the inward witness … is the proof, the strongest proof of Christianity!’[v] Second, John’s interaction with the Cambridge Platonists’ writings on mysticism and the inner life added to his understanding of religious experience.[vi] In addition, it was Wesley’s contact with the Moravians, particularly August Gottlieb Spangenberg (1704–1792) in Georgia and Peter Böhler (1712–1775) upon return to England, which crystallised his personal need of inner witness.[vii] Wesley’s definition of inner witness is described in terms of religious experience in his subsequent evangelical conversion where he reported that his ‘heart was strangely warmed within him’, that he had received intuitive knowledge that his sins were forgiven and that Christ was his Saviour.[viii] Another famous example of religious experience other than conversion occurred at a love feast at Fetter Lane on 1 January 1739, together with Whitefield, his brother Charles and about sixty others. He said, ‘About three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground’.[ix] This remarkable event was recorded without comment by Wesley but demonstrates the place of religious experiences in his early formation, exampled in participants falling to the ground as those overpowered, as well as in their cries of joy.

“Influenced by his spiritual formation, Wesley espoused religious experience as essential to ‘vital religion’.[x] To illustrate the nature of these experiences, we again quote Wesley, who said,

Suppose, for instance, you are employed in private prayer, and God pours his love into your heart. God then acts immediately on your soul; and the love of him which you then experience, is as immediately breathed into you by the Holy Ghost, as if you had lived seventeen hundred years ago [meaning at the time of Christ and Apostles].[xi]

“This quote is part of Wesley’s rebuttal to a charge of ‘enthusiasm’. His argument was that he simply believed and practiced nothing less than the church had always believed and Scripture enjoined. In his refutation, he quoted from traditional church writings emphasising religious experiences that he thought ought to have been common to all Christians. These included inspiration of the Spirit when reading Scripture, peace of conscience through remission of sin, consciousness of inward faith, awareness of the indwelling Spirit, and assurance of truth in the heart. All these experiences were felt.[xii]

“Wesley further expounded his meaning of religious experience in an ‘Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion’ where he said,

It is the feeling of the soul, whereby a believer perceives, through the ‘power of the Highest overshadowing him,’ both the existence and the presence of Him in whom ‘he lives, moves, and has his being;’ and indeed the whole invisible world, the entire system of things eternal. And hereby, in particular, he feels ‘the love of God shed abroad in his heart.’[xiii]

“This unequivocal statement of religious experience demonstrates what Wesley expected in the practice of ‘vital religion’ and therefore expected in his followers, not the least his leaders, and subsequently would have expected in second–generation ministers and missionaries like Smithies. In reviewing his statement, we observe that he said that the believing soul ‘feels’ and ‘perceives’ God through the power of the Spirit. He also said that the soul perceived the eternal and spiritual dimension through the same means and, integral to this, the believer predominantly sensed God’s love. Wesley’s explanation fits Alston’s definition of religious experience as the direct awareness, perception or experience of God, which makes ‘it possible … to enjoy the relationship of loving communion with God’.[xiv]

“Wesley’s position will now be outlined regarding the place of religious experience in relation to the three categories by which this section is arranged, namely, (1) personal spirituality, (2) conversion and sanctification, and (3) revival. Regarding the first, Wesley wrote about religious experiences that buoyed personal spirituality. In his journal entry dated 25 December 1744, he said,

I waked, by the grace of God, in the same spirit; and about eight, being with two or three that believed in Jesus, I felt such an awe and tender sense of the presence of God as greatly confirmed me therein: So that God was before me all the day long. I sought and found him in every place; and could truly say, when I lay down at night, ‘Now I have lived a day.’[xv]

“It can be seen from this example, which is one of many, that on this occasion Wesley was enriched and sustained by a sense of God’s presence. These are the kind of experiences we seek in Smithies’ writings as representative Wesleyan missionary in the reviewed period. His experiences will be compared with other contemporaries to gauge their nature and commonality. As we find instances, the meaning of religious experience will be uncovered. This discovery will add to our understanding of the character and impetus of WM missionary work which may otherwise be obscured since, as noted above, missionary work is usually studied on the basis of its practices and results, not its underpinning spirituality and, in particular, its religious experiences.[xvi]

“Wesley also addressed the subject of religious experience in relating stories of conversion and sanctification, or as he described sanctification, those ‘made perfect in love’ or ‘renewed in love’. In one of his stories, he wrote about Grace Paddy, of whom he said,

Such an instance I never knew before; such an instance I never read; a person convinced of sin, converted to God, and renewed in love, within twelve hours! Yet it is by no means incredible; seeing one day is with God as a thousand years.[xvii]

“In this case, Paddy was convinced of her sinfulness whereas before she had been ‘careless’ toward religion. Conviction of sin was often accompanied with considerable anguish and weeping as it was in this instance. Her conviction was followed by conversion, which we know to be evidenced usually by the tangible witness of the Spirit (see below). Shortly after this, Paddy received the so–called second blessing, instant sanctification. Wesley showed amazement at this because to that point, September 1765, he had not heard of the occurrence of entire sanctification so soon after conversion. His description conveys the incidence of distinct religious experiences. Regarding her experience, Wesley reports Paddy saying, ‘During his last prayer I was quite overwhelmed with the power of God. I felt an inexpressible change in the very depth of my heart’.[xviii] Her description fits our definition of religious experience showing the place that Wesley gave it in conversion and sanctification in a similar manner to the following story of sanctification.

“Wesley related the story of a Mrs V., about whom he had ‘no doubt but she [was] perfected in love’.[xix] He reported her saying, ‘But just then God revealed himself to my soul. I was filled with joy unspeakable’. The perception of God, in this case, filled Mrs V. with ecstatic joy, an obvious religious experience associated with her ‘second blessing’. ‘If you seek it by faith’, said Wesley, ‘then expect it now’, for ‘it is infinitely desirable’, that ‘it should be done instantaneously’.[xx] In another example, Wesley related the experience of Elizabeth Longmore who had purportedly received instant sanctification. She said,

I felt my soul was all love. I was so stayed on God as I never felt before, and knew that I loved him with all my heart. When I came home I could ask for nothing; I could only give thanks. And the witness, that God had saved me from all my sins, grew clearer every hour. On Wednesday this was stronger than ever. I have never since found my heart wander from God … He is never out of my thoughts: I see him always; although most at preaching and in my band and class. But I do not only see him; I feel him too, so as I cannot express.[xxi]

“Longmore’s account shows increased and sustained love for God, the essence of Methodist holiness, to be the meaning and value of her experience. Another part of the nature of her instant sanctification was consciousness of God’s presence. The awareness of God’s presence and the increase of love resonate with Alston’s definition of religious experience noted above. Wesley’s comment on Longmore’s experience and another whom he had cited was that, ‘Constant communion with God the Father and the Son fills their hearts with humble love. Now this’, he said, ‘is what I always did, and do now, mean by perfection [instant sanctification]’.[xxii] Wesley recounted many such stories, but these are sufficient for our purposes to indicate the importance of religious experiences in conversion and sanctification.

“Revival is the third facet in which we uncover Wesley’s regard for the place of religious experience. During his public ministry, at times of revival, hearers would occasionally fall to the ground in great distress, sometimes crying out with weeping and groans. In one example, Wesley reported,

One, and another, and another was struck to the earth; exceedingly trembling at the presence of His power. Others cried, with a loud and bitter cry, ‘What must we do to be saved?’ And in less than an hour seven persons, wholly unknown to me till that since, were rejoicing, and singing, and with all their might giving thanks to the God of their salvation.[xxiii]

“As shown here, such incidents usually resulted in relief from guilt and a sense of peace and joy for participants. Indeed, to Wesley and his Methodists, such experiences often meant conversion and were evidence of the ‘hand of God’.[xxiv] This sample of revival is one of many from Wesley’s journals that demonstrate his regard for experiential Christianity. It is this and the just noted two categories that are to be examined in the work of Smithies and missionaries of the first half of the nineteenth century, namely, personal spirituality (§4.2), conversion and sanctification, and (§4.3) revival (§4.4).

“Since such occurrences were core to the impetus, nature and outcome of original Wesleyan spirituality and ministry, as demonstrated from Wesley’s experiences, we will examine whether religious experiences carried the same significance in nineteenth century missionaries like Smithies. If religious experiences were a primary measure by which they gauged the progress of their spiritual life and ministry success, and were also shown to be an empowering, motivating and sustaining force, then to Smithies and his colleagues, religious experiences were far from being incidental curiosities from a medieval past as Goodwin proposes.[xxv]


[i] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, 3rd edn., 14 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991).

[ii] Richard B. Roy, ‘A Reappraisal of Wesleyan Methodist Mission in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century, as viewed through the Ministry of the Rev John Smithies (1802–1872)’, Dissertation (PhD), Edith Cowan University, Perth, WA, 2006, 179-190.

[iii] E.g., Wesley, Works, i: 96, 170; Knox, Enthusiasm, 528–540.

[iv] The term ‘enthusiasm’ has many meanings but at the time of Wesley it was a derogatory term akin to our ‘fanaticism’ or ‘emotionalism’; See Davies, Methodism, 30; Knox, Enthusiasm and James D. G. Dunn, ‘Enthusiasm’ in The Christ and the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 32–42. For an example of Wesley’s refutations, see Wesley, Works, viii: 103–107.

[v] Wesley, Works, xii: 100.

[vi] Edwards, ‘John Wesley’, i: 42–43.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Wesley, Works, i: 103.

[ix] Ibid., i: 170.

[x] Ibid., i: 151; v: 124.

[xi] Ibid., viii: 107.

[xii] Ibid., viii: 103–107.

[xiii] Ibid., viii: 4–5.

[xiv] Alston, Perceiving God, 2.

[xv] Wesley, Works, i: 479.

[xvi] E.g., Birtwhistle’s silence on religious experience in his authoritative article on WM mission (Birtwhistle, ‘Methodist Missions’, iii: 1–116).

[xvii] Wesley, Works, iii: 235.

[xviii] Ibid, iii: 234–235.

[xix] Ibid., iv: 254–255.

[xx] Ibid., vi: 52–54.

[xxi] Ibid., ii: 528.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid., i:196.

[xxiv] Knox, Enthusiasm, 528–535; Wesley, Works, iv: 466–470.

[xxv] Goodwin, ‘Religion of Feeling’: 44–49.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The personal knowledge of God: recovering our heritage.


Here’s the next installment; I hope you find it helpful:
Paul prayed that his readers would be strengthened in their inner being ‘with power through [the] Spirit’ (Eph 3:16-20).[1] This terminology, according to Gordon D. Fee, is the language of experiential Christianity and is connected to the ‘knowing God better’ of Ephesians 1:16-17.[2] To know God in this sense is to experience strengthening in the inner being through the power of the Spirit. Whilst not referring here to an emotional experience per se, Paul was indisputably speaking about something tangible.[3] The result of such an experience was not merely emotional uplift (though it certainly may have been), rather, it was life-changing in the sense of building Christ-like character. Paul prayed further that believers might ‘grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ’ and be ‘filled with the fulness of God’. The result, as can be easily seen, was to be life-transforming. Once filled with God’s love, love being what it is, believers would more fully love God and people. Likewise, being filled with God was not simply a warm, fuzzy feeling but the concrete experience of godly attributes and actions that affected church and community.

In line with Paul’s prayer, then, the thesis of this review is that what the NT frequently speaks about and our recent predecessors readily knew, namely, continuing experiences of the Spirit, need to be recovered today.[4] Without such experiences, the Christian faith may be reduced to a matter of creed, rationalistic observance, and legalism (i.e., trying to live for Christ through our religious methodology and human energy). It is true that everyone’s experience of God is different, and may vary in apparent intensity and nature from person to person. In addition, God may work powerfully on occasions, producing significant character change without a noteworthy experience. However, I am persuaded that there will be some tangible evidence of God’s power even on these occasions. Further, it is important and highly desirable that there are experiential landmarks in a believer’s life where he or she has met with God in a way that is memorable. Such encounters with God are our Christian heritage as clearly set out in the NT (e.g., Rom 5:5, 14:17, 15:13). As Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément says, ‘Christianity … is a mystical religion’[5] , Christian mysticism being loosely defined as 'the doctrine that the individual can come into immediate contact with God through subjective experiences which differ essentially from the experiences of ordinary life'.[6]

For further clarification, I will cite a few selected examples from recent church history to demonstrate what our forebears experienced and practised. In doing so, I will be addressing the following questions. Did our forebears believe and practise their faith differently, particularly in relation to the experience of God, and if they did, is there something to be recovered that has been lost to us over the last 50 to 150 years? To achieve this purpose I will briefly review selections from Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening and writings from two Christian movements, Methodism and Pentecostalism.

For our first example, consider the following comment from the nineteenth century Baptist pastor, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892). A plea is found in his devotional for November 20, viz., ‘O children of God, seek after a vital experience of the Lord’s lovingkindness, and when you have it, speak positively of it; sing gratefully; shout triumphantly.’[7] His plea here may be read as believers seeking an occurrence of God’s grace rather than a tangible experience. However, such a reading is hard to justify when taking into account his many other comments on this subject, such as the one following:

O that I may in this sense feel the Lord dealing with me! A sense of the divine presence and indwelling bears the soul towards heaven as upon the wings of eagles. At such times we are full to the brim with spiritual joy, and forget the cares and sorrows of earth; the invisible is near, and the visible loses its power over us; servant-body waits at the foot of the hill, and the master-spirit worships upon the summit in the presence of the Lord. O that a hallowed season of divine communion may be vouchsafed to me this evening![8]

Spurgeon’s pining in this quote makes it obvious that he looked for a ‘sense of the divine presence’ that would cause his soul to be ‘full to the brim with spiritual joy’. He saw the source of such an experience to be the ‘hallowed season of divine communion’. Accordingly, Spurgeon fits our criterion of the experience of God in that he sought for a sense of God that resulted in actual joy, an experience of God that came from a time of fellowship with God. We continue with several other examples to show that this was not an isolated or rare occurrence in Spurgeon’s life and writings. He says, for instance,

Let us learn to live in the presence of the living God; let us pray the Holy Spirit that this day, and every other day, we may feel, ‘Thou God seest me.’ May the Lord Jehovah be as a well to us, delightful, comforting, unfailing, springing up unto eternal life.[9]

Here Spurgeon’s definition of living in the presence of God is to ‘feel’ that God is attentive and that his indwelling would be as a well, bringing delight and comfort. In other words, here is the tangible reality of God in the soul. That these sentiments were not merely a wistful dream of the unattainable, Spurgeon challenges his readers, saying,

Some Christians very seldom enjoy their Saviour’s presence. How is this? Surely it must be an affliction for a tender child to be separated from his father. Art thou a child of God, and yet satisfied to go on without seeing thy Father’s face?[10]

Accordingly, Spurgeon affirmed that the consciousness of God’s presence was a norm of Christian existence; that to not feel God’s presence was abnormal. Indeed, he tells us in the following that believers should frequently experience God’s presence as a means of growth in grace because it is there that ‘every power will be developed’. He says,

Of all the things in the world that can set the heart burning, there is nothing like the presence of Jesus! A glimpse of him so overcomes us, that we are ready to say, ‘Turn away thine eyes from me, for they have overcome me.’ … If we know that Jesus is with us, every power will be developed, and every grace will be strengthened, and we shall cast ourselves into the Lord’s service with heart, and soul, and strength; therefore is the presence of Christ to be desired above all things. … Remember his presence may be had. His promise is as true as ever. He delights to be with us. If he doth not come, it is because we hinder him by our indifference. He will reveal himself to our earnest prayers, and graciously suffer himself to be detained by our entreaties, and by our tears, for these are the golden chains which bind Jesus to his people.[11]

This longer quote leaves us in no doubt that Spurgeon not only urged his readers to know God’s presence by experience but that he lived in this experience. He stressed that ‘the presence of Christ … be desired above all things’! Here is no mere assumption that every Christian has Christ’s indwelling (which is true), but that each believer should earnestly seek for the constant reality of Christ’s presence; the experience of God. Indeed, Spurgeon is confident that Christ ‘will reveal himself to our earnest prayers’. There is an interesting connection between Spurgeon and our next source of review, Methodism, in that it was in a Primitive Methodist service he was unmistakably converted.[12] It is the Methodist movement that we will briefly review next.
____________________________________
1. Although a majority of scholars do not accept Paul’s authorship of Ephesians, for convenience I will call Paul the author in accordance with the book itself (for Ephesians authorship see Arthur G. Patzia, ‘Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon’, in New International Biblical Commentary, ed. W. Ward Gasque [Peabody MA: Hendrickson, 1984]).
2. Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 201, where Fee says that ‘Paul makes a clear connection between the Spirit and the experience of power’.
3. See Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 1, where he says, ‘For Paul the Spirit, as an experienced reality, was the absolutely crucial matter for Christian life, from beginning to end.’
4. Ibid., also 202, where Fee says, ‘For Paul life in the Spirit begins at conversion; at the same time its experienced dimension is both dynamic and renewable’; and, ‘Moreover, the reception of the Spirit is not a static or merely past event, but is pictured as an ongoing reality’.
5. Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 1993), 7.
6. R. C. Tannehill, Dying and Rising with Christ: A Study in Pauline Theology (BZNW 32; Berlin: Töpelmann, 1967).
7. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, Nov 20, Morning (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991).
8. Ibid., Jan 6, Evening.
9. Ibid., Feb 17, Morning.
10. Ibid., May 30, Morning.
11. Ibid., December 26, Evening.
12. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography: The Early Years (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1962), i:88-89.

Monday, November 30, 2009

In light of my own experience of the Spirit, the subject of religious experience has been one of significance throughout my Christian life and has consequently changed my understanding of Scripture, the gospel and the community of faith. For example, the Scripture, for me, is not just a book of words to be intellectually mastered but words to be experienced and lived. When Paul spoke about love, peace, joy, compassion, sorrow, zeal and even power, he spoke of Spirit-produced qualities that could be known by experience and lived out in the world. I came to see that his vivid descriptions of these spiritual graces, for me, were not just his colourful language but eyewitness accounts of the power of the risen Christ working in his church. To Paul, the gospel message was a power to bring dynamic change or ‘conversion’. This was seen in Paul’s own conversion experience and further reflected in what he said occurred in the conversion of believers within his own churches.


In summary, my life-changing Spirit-filling occurred in a meeting free from any emotional ‘hype’, and without any expectation on my part of receiving it. It occurred without any instruction about how to receive, other than quiet waiting on God with thankful praise while hands were laid on me with prayer, and without ever having seen anyone receive Spirit-baptism. Even in its reception, any outward display of emotion was barely detectable although the inward experience was profound. To me, the experience is what I would now call a sovereign work of God’s grace because there was nothing that qualified me to receive it, neither faith nor goodness.

Another significant event occurred later in my life as a young minister. I mention it here because it demonstrates an aspect of the nature and the value of religious experience from my own personal observation. When I was a young minister in my late twenties, I pastored a small Pentecostal congregation in Albany, Western Australia from 1969-1976. As a member of the ministers’ fraternal, I become a friend of a number of the local ministers including the local Salvation Army officer, AL. AL and I had some conversations on Pentecostal belief but found we did not agree on some aspects. In particular he rejected the notion that Christians must speak in tongues as the evidence of Spirit-baptism. I avoided speaking about these beliefs after discovering his views. Some time later, AL went through some family difficulties and consulted me about them. After we had talked, we concluded with a short prayer for God to help him through his time of need. My prayer finished with a few words which went something like, ‘Dear God, fill AL with your Spirit so he may be strengthened in this time of turmoil’. After praying this prayer, to my amazement, he fell to the floor as if he had been shot. When he hit the floor, he began immediately to sing in tongues. As a Pentecostal minister, I should not have been surprised at this scene but nothing could be farther from the truth. Although people in our churches often received Spirit-baptism, they seldom received it in such a dramatic way. For example, a person would usually sit or kneel to receive prayer but seldom would a person fall to the floor after receiving prayer. Also, speaking in tongues was reasonably common but not singing in tongues. There was nothing to prepare either AL or myself for the dramatic nature of what occurred. Up until my prayer for AL, we were both calm and even hushed in our tones not wanting to disturb my young daughters asleep in the next room. When AL got up from the floor some 20-30 minutes later, his face was beaming with the joy of what he had experienced. I light-heartedly apologised for having to tell him that he had actually sung in tongues when he had previously said he did not believe speaking in tongues was necessary. He replied that I should not be sorry because what he had just experienced was ‘wonderful’. After spending some time describing the wonder of his Spirit-baptism, my wife and I walked with AL to the front door to say goodnight to him. As we stood at the front door, he looked up and down the street and commented on how ‘even the street lights looked beautiful’. Shortly after my own Spirit-baptism I had this same sense of physical things, especially nature, taking on a vivid liveliness. This is an experience that a number of people share in their stories of religious experience of either conversion or Spirit-baptism. AL retired as a Major in the Salvation Army in Melbourne and to this day tells his story with great enthusiasm. His life was changed from the time of his Spirit-baptism as was mine.

I include the above stories because they are a part of my life’s journey and demonstrate a participant observer perspective in reviewing some aspects of the nature and value of religious experience in conversion and Spirit-baptism. My own and AL’s experiences are the kind that I want to compare with others, from both contemporary and historic examples, to see if there are implications helpful for a contemporary congregation. Also, I want to see if there is sufficient basis for such experiences in the NT and church history or alternatively is a postmodern critique correct that no explanation of reality is possible? Can we really expect religious experience to be a part of our Christian life today in the light of what we will find, and can we be led astray by religious experience?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Religious experience: a biblical, historical and contemporary review

My great interest, and in fact the thing about which I have written most academically, is religious experience. Religious experience to me means encountering God in a tangible, detectable way, resulting in changes in character of the kind that Paul and others wrote about in the New Testament. I suppose I would describe religious experience as encountering Jesus in such a way as to be transformed; you might say converted in the first instance, but I am really talking about ongoing experiences.


My first venture into writing on this subject began with two graduate diploma essays of around 10,000 words each. The first delved into religious experiences found in the writings of St Paul and the second examined the writings of the fourth century Cappadocian Fathers for the same purpose. The next major work (30,000 words) was my master's project which examined religious experiences in a contemporary Pentecostal church compared with the NT, subsequent church history and Pentecostal origins (i.e., 1901 onwards). Finally, I reappraised 19th century Methodism partly for the same purpose. Putting these works together has provided a considerable coverage of Christian history specifically searching for instances of experiences of the Spirit (another way of describing religious experience). So, there's a lot to say, and a great deal that is fascinating, but also very relevant, especially if such experiences can be known by us today.

My interest in this subject started in my early teenage years when a family friend from NZ, who was studying at the local YMCA leadership college in Homebush, NSW, returned from his vacation in 1960 excited about a new experience he received whilst at home in Tauranga. This experience, he said, was called 'baptism in the Spirit' and was evidenced by speaking in other tongues, just like the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost. While I now would define this differently to our friend, at the time there was quite a buzz of excitement as one by one family members and friends received this 'baptism' and spoke in tongues. All this created in me considerable eagerness to receive the same 'blessing'.

After a few weeks of intense longing and praying, at least that's how it seemed to my teenage perception, I gave up! I gave up because I had been trying through earnest prayer to somehow attain to a spiritual fitness to qualify for the experience. After giving up, I visited a home group meeting led by a respected indigenous Australian female minister (can I be really saying this about the 60s?) who was gifted in 'laying on hands' for people to receive the Spirit. As the meeting progressed the minister asked me if I desired prayer for the Spirit. I consented but knew I wasn't qualified spiritually. Amazingly, after only 15 minutes of quiet prayer and praise, like John Wesley over 200 years previous, I literally felt my heart 'strangely warmed' within me. That warmth I knew, don't ask me how, to be the love of Jesus. I was literally overwhelmed with love and with what only could be termed the 'power of God' (though never out of control nor trance-like in any way) so that my body literally trembled with what felt like thousands of volts of electricity running down (!) my arms. My mouth, too, experienced this electricity and at this point I must have spoken in tongues, although to me this didn't matter at all. I say, 'must have', because I was conscious of not praying or praising in English and those listening affirmed that they heard what to them was speaking in tongues. Further, my lack of concern about 'tongues' was the surpassing awe (though all very quiet and outwardly 'respectable') of the experience itself. From that point my life was transformed and the rest is history. But let me tell you more another time. Suffice to say that this is where my interest in religious experience started!

Since that time I have read considerably around the subject and, as I said, written a number of works regarding it. Consequently, I have formed a number of different, hopefully more mature views about religious experience. What I will say, though, is that my experience to me was and remains real, and as far as I can judge, thoroughly biblical and life-changing.