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Encountering the Spirit: The Charismatic Tradition

(London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006; 152 pp.)




Mark Cartledge


This volume is the twenty-second installment in an extended series that explores the variety of ways in which people pursue and express their hunger for spirituality. Additional volumes are devoted to such themes as the Carmelite Tradition, Ignatian Spirituality, the Anabaptist Tradition, the Medieval English Mystics, the Celtic Tradition, the Orthodox Tradition, the Anglican Spiritual Tradition, as well as Benedictine, Quaker, Byzantine, Lutheran and a host of other expressions in the pursuit of wisdom and relationship with God.

That a volume should be devoted to The Charismatic Tradition is certainly appropriate, if for no other reason than that in excess of 500 million people worldwide would identify with some expression of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Mark Cartledge, who identifies himself as “a charismatic Anglican” (136), is himself eminently qualified to write this book, having contributed several volumes to an analysis of charismatic life, with particular focus on the spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues. He currently serves as Senior Lecturer in Pentecostal and Charismatic Theology at the University of Birmingham in England.

Cartledge contends that “the central motif of the charismatic tradition is the ‘encounter with the Spirit’ both corporately within the worshipping life of the Church and individually through personal devotion and ongoing work and witness in the world” (16). One of his primary points of emphasis is that charismatic spirituality is not new or recent but has been a staple feature of Christianity from its earliest days, “even if aspects of it have been marginalized and ignored at various points in history” (16).

One of the more helpful features of this book is the way Cartledge labors to provide a historical context for his discussion of charismatic spirituality. He does this both in the early pages of the first chapter and all of the second. But before noting his conclusions, a word is in order about the “theological context” in which he casts this tradition.

Cartledge believes that “every expression of Christian spirituality [charismatic and non-charismatic] is an indication of a process of searching for God, who once encountered effects change within the life of the searcher, who is then transformed or renewed in order to continue the journey” (25). In a Roman Catholic church the “encounter” with the divine is located in the altar where the Eucharist is celebrated; in a Protestant Evangelical church it is in the pulpit where the Word is proclaimed; and in a charismatic church it is on the platform where a worship team leads in corporate praise and prayer ministry. In a typical charismatic worship service, “participants are taken through a search-encounter-transformation cycle. This begins with praise, moves to prayer and the ministry of reading and hearing the Scriptures preached, followed by prayer over and for the people via ‘altar calls’ or ministry times. The outcome of such encounters with the Spirit is transformation of the person in some way (edification, healing, cleansing, empowerment” (26). Of course, Pentecostals and Charismatics “would also see that God is encountered in the preaching of Scripture, in the community of the Church as people have fellowship together and in many events within the life of the worshipping and witnessing Church because the Spirit can and does ‘enliven’ all things within the kingdom of God” (27).

Thus the charismatic tradition anticipates continual encounters with the Spirit as part of the on-going life of the believer. Charismatics “expect God to reveal his glory in worship, to answer prayer, to perform miracles, to speak directly by means of dreams and visions and prophecy” (28-29). Cartledge sums it up best in saying that at the core of charismatic spirituality is the conviction that “God is not absent but deeply present. . . . God loves to give himself to his people!” (29).

Within this broader framework in which God is met, charismatics typically focus on four key themes: praise and worship, inspired speech, holiness, and empowered witness in the kingdom of God. But before looking at each of these, Cartledge turns his attention to tracing the presence of charismatic spirituality from the early church to the present day.

In the second chapter Cartledge focuses on “The Charismatic Tradition in Church History.” He acknowledges that “in certain periods of church history it is extremely evident, while at other times it is almost if not totally hidden” (33).

In the early church and early middle ages he cites a number of individuals who either mention the presence or themselves practiced some form of charismatic spirituality. These include Clement of Rome, Ignatius, the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus of Rome, Tertullian, the Montanists, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory Thaumaturgus, and Athanasius. Chrysostom (347-407) was “the first major figure to deny the continuing existence of signs and wonders in the Church, especially speaking in tongues” (36). Others who refer to the operation of spiritual gifts in this period include John Cassian, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, and of course Augustine (354-430). In the early middle ages, Gregory the Great and the Venerable Bede (673-735) are noted as among those who acknowledge the on-going validity of spiritual phenomena.

In the high middle ages, Cartledge mentions Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Richard St. Victor (d. 1173), Joachim of Fiore, Bonaventure, Aquinas (1225-74), and Gregory Palamas. Cartledge acknowledges the cessationist tendencies of Luther, Zwingli, and especially Calvin. In the post-reformation period, charismatic spirituality had its advocates among the Quakers and the Jansenists. John Wesley (1703-91), says Cartledge, “although to some extent tolerant of followers claiming dramatic spiritual experiences, including dreams, visions, healings, revelations and prophecies, . . . regarded such phenomena as rare and seemed to have little time for ‘enthusiasts’” (48). Earlier in chapter one he provides a very brief overview of developments from Azusa Street (in the early twentieth century) to the present.

Cartledge’s primary concern is with identifying what he sees as the four themes that constitute the heart of charismatic spirituality. The first is worship, which is most often characterized by informality, contemporary music, freedom, full participation (rather than the performance orientation of more liturgical traditions), “an energetic engagement with praise” (58), prayer ministry, and spontaneity that allows for contributions from the congregation that may include “the use of spiritual gifts such as prophecy or speaking in tongues, or . . . the opportunity to give a testimony for the encouragement of those present” (58).

It might even be said that a form of liturgy exists within charismatic spirituality, one that “is not written down but memorized. That is, the sequence of anticipated events is internalized by the members of the group. In this way there is a combination of an understood format and the opportunity for spontaneity to occur. The liturgy is continually in the making and it is a corporate event requiring participation by all those present” (60). Cartledge, building on the insights of Victoria Cooke, provides a brief analysis of the genre of music employed in this tradition. One may expect to encounter songs of praise, love and commitment, intercession, ministry, and songs of awe and glory. All such songs “display a conviction that God himself is the primary agent in worship and that through them he is establishing and sustaining a personal relationship with the worshippers” (67). Thus the goal of worship is “intimacy with God” (61).

A second consistent theme is what Cartledge calls “inspired speech” (69), such as “reception of revelation through ‘words’, pictures, visions and dreams; the relay of that revelation through prophetic messages, words of wisdom and words of knowledge; as well as the inspiration in prayer, testimony and preaching” (69). He is quick to point out, however, “that most Pentecostal and Charismatic leaders, following the injunctions of Paul, take seriously the need to discern the nature of inspired speech” (84). All inspired speech, therefore, is “relativised” and does not “give a platform for claims to new revelation” (85).

The third dimension of charismatic spirituality noted by Cartledge is what he calls “the sanctified life.” It is certainly the case that modern Pentecostalism can trace its theological roots, at least in part, to John Wesley and the National Holiness movement, but I struggle to see this feature as being essential to the contemporary charismatic movement. Whereas charismatic believers are assuredly committed to the principles and practice of holiness and pursuit of a life consecrated to God, there is nothing especially unique in their approach that would set them apart from the mainstream of evangelical Protestantism.

Cartledge argues that “although charismatic spirituality does not necessarily make purity a prerequisite for the reception of power, as many Pentecostals would do, especially in the Holiness Pentecostal traditions, there is an inevitable relation between the two. It is believed that for the dynamism of the Spirit to be continued in the person’s life, there must be an ongoing ‘infilling’ of the Spirit, and the Spirit would by his nature as holy bring to mind those things which require cleansing and restoration” (98).

Fourth, and finally, “charismatic spiritually has often been associated with forms of apocalypticism: end-time expectations about the consummation of the kingdom of God. To some extent this is still prevalent but cannot be said to permeate every expression of the tradition” (101). What is pervasive among charismatics is the recognition of the “already / not yet” dimension of the kingdom’s presence, due in large measure to the influence of George Ladd and the way his perspective was embraced and articulated by the late John Wimber.

This eschatological tension accounts for why the charismatic tradition emphasizes the current blessings of power that are available to the believer. If anything, among charismatics “the ‘now’ is stressed at the expense of the ‘not yet’” (107), which accounts for the over-realized eschatology and triumphalism that one often sees in the more extreme versions of the health/wealth gospel and the Word of Faith movement.

Cartledge rightly acknowledges that “Pentecostal theology has generally been premillennialist”(113) and that “baptism in the Spirit as an empowerment for Christian witness is associated with an expectation of a ‘harvest of souls’ indicating the imminence of the End” (113).

However, I must take exception with his comment that “the broader Charismatic movement can be classified as amillennialist” (114). That may be the case in the U.K., but in America most charismatics are decidedly pretribulational and premillennial in their convictions and almost entirely given to an unqualified endorsement of Christian Zionism.

This review has gone on much too long, so let me conclude. Cartledge has a final chapter in which he quite helpfully summarizes the strengths and weaknesses of charismatic spirituality. Among the strengths, he cites:

First is “the ability to give a full expression to the importance of experience. . . . As such it is holistic, uniting the affective and the cognitive dimensions together in purposeful action. It overcomes the old dualisms in Western thought (e.g., body and spirit) and allows people once again to connect their faith to all areas of their existence” (134).

Second, “there is the openness to the empowering of all of God’s people, whatever the socio-economic and educational differences” (134). Thus there is “a radical egalitarianism in the Spirit” in which “ministry is no longer limited to the professional and the elite” (134).

Third, “in theological terms, the Cinderella of theology, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, has finally been allowed to attend the ball” (134).

Among the weaknesses, Cartledge mentions the following:

First, “with the emphasis on power and the immediacy of the transcendent within the immanent, the charismatic tradition can err on the side of expecting too much now” (135). Thus “the power of the resurrection can eclipse the weakness of the cross . . . [and] success and celebrity status can be sought as signs of power and blessing rather than a commitment to suffering and weakness in the ordinary of everyday life” (135).

Second, “the category of creation or nature can be lost in a worldview that sees reality in the dichotomous terms of light and darkness, or the spiritual kingdom of God versus the spiritual kingdom of Satan. This cosmological dualism can fuel spiritual warfare, but it also misses the important category of creation as good but fallen” (135).

Third, “in some places the impact of mature and wise theological thinking is distinctly lacking” (135). The result is that “popular preachers in the charismatic tradition can exhibit enormous influence and yet lack any sense of responsibility to the broader theological tradition and the universal Church” (136).

In sum, this is a very helpful book for those generally unacquainted with the charismatic tradition, but will probably prove a bit frustrating for those wanting a more theologically rigorous analysis.

My primary criticism is that I’m not convinced the four themes cited by Cartledge as indicative of charismatic spirituality are the most accurate way of portraying this tradition. I agree that worship and inspired speech are essential distinctives, but the notion of holiness of life and “empowered kingdom witness” are less evident, at least here in the U.S. Even when they are present among charismatics, they are no more prominent than one would find in many Baptist denominations or even among the Nazarenes.

I think it would be more accurate to emphasize the concept of power in Christian experience and ministry as a distinctive feature of the charismatic tradition (whether in signs and wonders, healing, or the more routine exercise of the charismata in corporate church life). In addition, the concept of divine immanence and the relational intimacy that it produces is far more a factor in the typical charismatic church than either of the other two emphases noted by Cartledge. But aside from these minor quibbles I found his analysis to be accurate and quite helpful.