Duke historian Grant Wacker tells us that in the winter of 1887, a group calling itself the Evangelical Alliance for the United States met in Washington, DC. It was an appropriate site for a noble assemblage of scholars, pastors, college presidents, and other leaders who were intent on recapturing the moral, spiritual, and political clout which they had once garnered in American society. As Wacker explains,
The first session opened with the hymn, “Come Gracious Spirit, Heavenly Dove.” The participants then read the second chapter of the Book of Acts… At the end of the week, William E. Dodge, president of the Evangelical Alliance, asked the delegates to search their hearts to see if they too were open to the Spirit’s guidance. “Christ is waiting for us, he urged. “Are we ready?”1
This could have been a common event in contemporary evangelicalism, but it was, in fact, a significant contributing factor in the success of the Social Gospel movement at the turn-of-the-century. Higher critics with Americanized Hegelian bents (identifying God with progress) preached beside Wesleyan-Holiness revivalists and evangelical preachers. When doctrinal differences divide, such movements often turn to the Holy Spirit as the tie that binds. Invoking the “Spirit” hardly proves as controversial as appeals to the Father and the Incarnate Son do. As many modern feminist and radical theologians are also discovering, the “Spirit” rarely embarrasses. Even the Hopi tribe worships the Great Spirit.
But is this “Spirit,” the Holy Spirit, as in “the Lord and Giver of Life who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets”? That one? Is he the Spirit who is identified in Scripture as “the Spirit of Christ,” that is, the One whose person and work is essentially as well as instrumentally united to that of the Son of Man? Harry Emerson Fosdick, scion of liberalism and champion of modernism against the likes of J. Gresham Machen, wrote a book titled The Secret of the Victorious Christian Life, which was well received by the evangelical masses despite its moralistic optimism (perhaps because of it). And we all know how Norman Vincent Peale, a quite outspoken liberal, was so well received. Billy Graham even counted Peale among his closest allies. The World Council of Churches and similar groups arose out of missionary conferences in which doctrinal differences (i.e., the Word) were set aside in favor of common mission and experience, especially conversion and the New Birth (i.e., the Spirit).
In the past few decades, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), based in Wheaton, Illinois, has reflected the breadth of these older heirs of American Protestantism in a more conservative form. But denominations no longer steer the evangelical ship (or, more accurately, the evangelical regatta). Rather, it is the successive outbursts of revivalism which continually define and redefine the American religious landscape. It is not churches or schools, but movements, which shape American church life. Though Jesus founded a Church, an observer of American evangelicalism might surmise that the Holy Spirit started a revival as competition.
Of course, this state of affairs is tragic for a number of reasons. First, it is deeply dishonoring to God and his Word and Spirit. But second, it is a serious danger for those to whom we wish to bring the good news. In this article, I want to emphasize the important link between Word and Spirit and its consequence for our expectations about extraordinary works of God in our day.
The Historical Problem
As early as the Book of Acts, we see characters like Simon Magus who sought to market their own brand of Christianity by circumventing the Church. It was St. Paul especially who was vexed with these “super-apostles” as he called them: itinerant, self-appointed Christian leaders who made up their theology as they went because they considered themselves “apostles” who received divine revelation of deeper mysteries than those revealed by the ordinary apostles in Jerusalem. They thought that their “ministries” could evangelize, disciple, and perform similar functions to those entrusted to the visible Church. Facing this “sect-spirit” directly in 1 Corinthians, Paul warns, “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (3:10-11). On that day of God’s judgment, the work of so-called “ministries,” which tried to lay another foundation, says Paul, will be burned as hay, wood, and straw (v. 12-15). Continue reading