What is a charismatic?

You have probably heard of the furor generated by the Strange Fire Conference sponsored by John MacArthur, concerning which subject he has written a book which expresses his concern (Strange Fire). I was not at the conference nor do I have the book, but yesterday I listened to a couple of interviews by Michael Brown. In the first hour, he interviewed Phil Johnson, the executive director of Grace to You. From that interview, I got a clear picture of the severity with which MacArthur’s conference and book have criticized the charismatic movement as dangerously heretical. It was certainly a disurbing interview, as Michael Brown called for a much more nuanced assessment of the charismatic movement globally, so that it does not all get painted with the same brush as TV preachers of the prosperity gospel, but there was no backing down by Johnson.

My particular interest in this post, however, was the next section of the program, where Brown interviewed Sam Storms and Adrian Warnock about the same subject, and he received a very different response to the “Strange Fire” critique from them than he had gotten from Johnson. They shared Brown’s gratitude for what God is doing in and through many areas of the world where charismatics are ministering. I was puzzled, however, when Brown introduced Storms and Warnock as “Calvinist charismatics.”

I would have called them “Calvinist continuationists,” rather than “charismatics,” but I’m wondering if my own definition of “charismatic” is accurate these days. I see a spectrum of four positions: Pentecostal – charismatic – continuationist – cessationist. Pentecostals identify baptism by Christ with the Spirit as a  distinct (and usually subsequent) experience of the baptism by the Spirit into Christ. Tongues is the sign that one has received that “second blessing” of baptism with the Spirit, it is a repetition of the original Pentecost event in that person’s life.

Charismatics generally differ in that they view tongues speaking as one of the good gifts which the Spirit still gives to members of the church, but not as a sign of baptism with the Spirit. They are characterized by a similar emphasis on the spectacular gifts of the Spirit, tongues, interpretation, prophecy and miracles, but they do not teach the “doctrine of subsequence” which classic Pentecostalism does.

By this definition, Storms and Warnock are not charismatic. They represent what I would call “continuationism.” They believe that all the spiritual gifts Paul lists in 1 Corinthians continue to be given by the Spirit for the building up of the church today. This puts them out of step with many of their fellow Calvinists, who are cessationists (as MacArthur is) and who believe that those spectacular gifts ceased with the death of the apostles, since they had been given to attest to the apostolic ministry in the founding of the new covenant people of God, the church.

At one point in the interview, Storms spoke of his “charismatic ministry,” and I got no sense that either of them were uncomfortable with Brown’s having publicly identified them as “Calvinist charismatics,” but this does not mean that they would use that terminology to describe themselves. Then again, maybe they would.

Right now, I’m not inclined to revise my own use of the term, but I have begun to think that it may be helpful to distinguish between “practicing continuationists” and “non-practicing” continuationists. In the book Wayne Gurdem edited, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?: Four Views, Douglas Oss presented both the Pentecostal and the charismatic positions, because of the editor’s concern that if these had been represented separately, the book would have been overweighted in a positive direction (13). In that collection, Storms presented the “Third Wave” perspective, and Robert Saucy put forward a continuationist perspective which was dubbed “open but cautious.”

As I reflect on the difference in perspective between Storms and Saucy, it now strikes me that, whereas both affirm the continuation of the Spirit’s giving of all these gifts, Saucy has not experienced them personally, and he is a bit nervous about them, whereas Storms is enthusiastic about them, not just from his exegesis but from his experience. I think one of the peculiar things about churches which have not taken a cessationist position, and in which the leadership and the membership are exegetically continuationist, is that the gifts are never practiced publicly. That is where the “cautiousness” is manifest. As J. I. Packer observed, in some of these contexts, the same sorts of things were going on in terms of people having “a word from the Lord,” but these were not described as instances of what Paul regulated in the worship services in Corinth. Furthermore, if any one had actually stood up and spoken in tongues, there would have been great confusion, despite a formal recognition that the Spirit might prompt someone to do so.

So, all these things being considered, I’m now inclined to make a distinction between “practicing continuationists” and “non-practicing continuationists.” (Alternatively, we might distinguish between enthusiastic and cautious continuationists.) This would allow for the significant difference between the practicing continuationists and charismatics, in the emphasis they place on the spectacular gifts and in the relative weight they give to the inspired inscripturated Word and the immediate, non-universally-normative, revelation by the Holy Spirit.

I’m interested to hear what others have to say about this matter of terminology, and how readers respond to my proposal.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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