Several readers wrote in after last week’s newsletter, “Do non-charismatics ‘Do’ Holy Spirit Baptism?” to chide me for omitting the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians who have sought and taught the Spirit’s empowering work in the Christian’s life.
As I thought about filling that gap in this week’s newsletter, it occurred to me: Why should I try to say again what has already been well said, and exceptionally well researched, by a scholar who has made the history of Holy Spirit baptism his life’s work?
Stanley M. Burgess is a professor of religious studies at Southwest Missouri State University and editor of The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (Zondervan, 2002). That indispensable tome displays prominently on its cover an abbreviated timeline of Pentecostal prehistory.
At the Dictionary’s back, Burgess presents in an absorbing 8-page chart a much fuller timeline—a highly concentrated summary of his three-volume study, The Holy Spirit: Ancient Christian Traditions, Eastern Christian Traditions; and Medieval Roman Catholic and Reformation Traditions.
What follows is a sampling from that chart. As with the Spirit-seeking Protestants in last week’s newsletter, none of these Catholic and Orthodox folks can be called “Pentecostal” or “charismatic”—this would be a misleading anachronism. But the career of each one speaks out for the claim that the Holy Spirit has empowered ordinary Christians through the centuries—with jaw-dropping results:
“Writers of the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas [two inspirational books used widely in the early church] witness so much charismatic activity they find it necessary to distinguish between true and false prophets. At about the same time, the writer of Pseudo-Barnabas suggests prophetic ministry is normative in the church.”
“[Christian apologist] Justin Martyr argues that God has withdrawn the Spirit of prophecy and miracles from the Jews and has transferred it to the church as proof of her continued divine favor.
Irenaeus of Lyon describes the gifts of prophecy, discernment of spirits, and exorcism in his Gallic church, and even mentions that individuals have been raised from the dead. He warns against certain false Gnostics who fabricate spiritual gifts to win favor with the naïve.”
“Origen of Alexandria says healings, exorcisms, and validating signs and wonders continue to be experienced in the church. Just as miracles and wonders added to the credibility of 1st-century apostles, so they continue to draw unbelievers into the Christian fold.”
“Augustine [of Hippo], in The City of God, reports contemporary divine healings and other miracles. These he links directly to the conversion of pagans.”
“Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), perhaps the most famous Eastern [Orthodox] charismatic Christian, reports his most intimate spiritual experiences, which include a ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ accompanied by gifts of copious tears, compunction, and visions of God as light. [Burgess provides a resume of this influential leader’s life and teachings on p. 1112 of the Dictionary.]”
“The sermons of Thomas Aquinas are frequently confirmed by miracles, and he often experiences ecstasy, especially in the last months of his life.
Bonaventure reports that Francis of Assisi, while an unskilled speaker, is empowered by the Holy Spirit while ministering. Wherever he goes, his sermons are accompanied with miracles of great power, including prophecy, casting out devils, and healing the sick. As a result, his hearers pay attention to what he says ‘as if an angel of the Lord was speaking.'”
“Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), frequently receives divine communication in visions. He also experiences a gift of tears—often in such abundance that he cannot control himself—and the gift of loquela, which a few modern scholars associate with today’s charismatic phenomenon of sung glossolalia [tongues].”
“Jansenists, belonging to a radical Augustinian movement in the Roman Catholic Church from 1640 to 1801 [its most famed adherent was the French scientist and apologist Blaise Pascal], become known for their signs and wonders, spiritual dancing, healings, and prophetic utterances. Some reportedly speak in unknown tongues and understand foreign languages in which they are addressed.”
“Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), the Russian Orthodox charismatic leader, asserts that the goal of the Christian life is the reception of the Holy Spirit. Seraphim’s ‘evidence’ for a baptism of the Holy Spirit is a transfiguration experience—being transformed, while still in the flesh, into divine light. Seraphim also is remembered for a gift of healing.”
When viewed in its impressive entirety, Burgess’s list suggests something important: The church has rarely lacked for witnesses, from the widest variety of camps, who have proclaimed that the Holy Spirit is alive, well, and gifting believers in his church.
Again, though, this is no cadre of cookie-cutter charismatics. A rousing debate would ensue if we could work a little Steve-Allen-“Meeting-of-Minds” magic and bring these folks to the same table to discuss the details of the Spirit’s extraordinary works.
But despite their theological diversity, these witnesses of past centuries join in claiming for the church the same “promise of the Father” Jesus held out to his Apostles:
“Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5).
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.