Can charisms change? Insights from the examples of William Booth and Isaac Hecker

My research on the charism of William Booth and Isaac Hecker is raising some interesting questions in relation to the relative permanence or provisionality of charisms.   Are charisms a permanent endowment given to a person, or can they change, or even come and go, depending on the specific situations faced by the church in various times and places?

The issue is particularly important as it relates the charisms of ordained ministry, because traditions with a “high” view of ordination often believe it bestows a permanent character on the ordained person.

The report on Ministry from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (1973) provides an example of this kind of thinking:

In this sacramental act, the gift of God is bestowed upon the ministers, with the promise of divine grace for their work and for their sanctification; the ministry of Christ is presented to them as a model for their own; and the Spirit seals those whom he has chosen and consecrated. just as Christ has united the church inseparably with himself, and as God calls all the faithful to life-long discipleship so the gifts and calling of God to the ministers are irrevocable. For this reason, ordination is unrepeatable in both our Churches (#15).

On the other hand, Miroslav Volf, in his After our Likeness, while not discounting the possibility of lifelong charisms, suggests that charisms may come and go:

In contrast to calling, charismata in the theological sense of a combination of calling and endowment for a specific ministry in church and world are not “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Various charismata can replace one another over time, something implied by the interactional model of their bestowal.  Over the history of the congregation and of its individual members, the charismata with which these members serve in the congregation can also change; certain charismata come to the fore at certain times, while others become unimportant (either for the congregation itself of for the bearers of these charismata). This does not mean that the divine calling and endowment for a certain ministry cannot be a lifelong affair; but it is not necessarily such.  In any case, there is no correlation between the permanence of a particular charism and its divine origin.  The Spirit of God is the Spirit of life, adn the Spirit’s gifts are accordingly as varied as is ecclesial life itself (233).

William Booth and Isaac Hecker are interesting case studies in relation to this question, because both experienced what could be called a “broadening” of their respective vocations.

For Booth, the broadening related to his theology of redemption.  This is the development traced in Roger Green’s War on Two Fronts, in which Booth’s understanding of redemption expanded to include efforts at social reform.   Whereas early in his ministry Booth was strictly a revivalist who engaged in some social ministry as a means to and end (the end being evangelism), by 1890 he had come to see efforts at social reform as part of the church’s mission.  Booth came to see salvation as social as well as personal, and therefore solidified and extended the mission of The Salvation Army to include organized efforts at social redemption.

Does this shift in missional thinking and practice signify a change in Booth’s personal charism, or did his charism remain the same, while he gained a broader understanding of its vocational direction?   The answer, of course, depends on how Booth’s charism prior to 1890 is understood.   Was his ministry to the poor and marginalized an essential aspect of his charism, or did he simply have the charism of an evangelist?  Is it possible to have a charism of “evangelist to the marginalized”?

I’m working these questions through right now, but I’m leaning toward suggesting that it wasn’t Booth’s charism that changed, but simply his understanding of where that gift ought to take him and the ways he ought to exercise it in his own context.   If salvation includes the social as well as the spiritual, then being an evangelist ought to include social action, since the good news of the gospel itself has social implications.

For Isaac Hecker, the change came in terms of the scope of his personal mission.   At the time of the founding of the Paulist Fathers (1858), Hecker was captivated by a strong belief that he should be a missionary to America.  He felt that his experience as a native-born American, his acquaintance with the culture, desires, and values of the American people, and his familiarity with a class of Americans who were already on a spiritual quest had placed him in a unique position to reach out to the American people as a Catholic evangelist.  This required, he believed, the founding of a religious society that was specifically adapted to the American culture, since the established religious orders were all of European origin, and thus unsuited to the task of reaching Americans.

Starting in the 1870s, however, Hecker began to broaden his vision, and now felt that the Paulists should not confine themselves to America, but should expand into Europe.  This was supported by his view of America’s providential place in the world – he felt that the American culture, and the experiences of the Catholic Church in America, would provide the solutions for the Church’s troubles in Europe.   He thought the Paulists should take what they had learned in America and come to the aid of the European Church.

Writing in 1875 along these lines, Hecker seems to suggest something like a “provisionality of charisms”:

One may be engaged in a good work, but of an inferior order, more on the circumference; but as it is a good work, and he sees no better, he should act where he is and be contented. Suppose, however, it is given to a soul the light to see a good of a much higher order, more essential, more efficacious, more general, more universal, including the former; and this light draws him from the former, all his interest as such in it has expired, and he lives in this higher and more universal light; can he do no otherwise than follow it? (The Paulist Vocation, Revised and Expanded Edition, p. 96)

As with Booth, I’m not entirely sure where to come down on this issue.  Hecker clearly believed his vocation, and that of the Paulists, had expanded – does this imply a change of charism?  Again, I’m leaning toward the idea that his personal charism did not change; rather his sense of vocation was expanded, based on his growing familiarity with the challenges facing the Church in Europe.

Why Arminian theology is neither Pelagian nor Semi-Pelagian

Critics sometimes charge that Arminian theology (including its Wesleyan articulation) is Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian.   The charge usually comes from those who are strict monergists, meaning that the believe salvation is effectually accomplished by God without the cooperation of the human person.   For the most strident monergists, any doctrine of salvation which is not monergistic ought to be labelled “Pelagian,” or “Semi-Pelagian,” or perhaps identified as the start of a slippery slope that leads to Pelagianism.  If you are looking for examples of writers to make this charge against Arminian theology, a good place to start is Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities

However, this charge can be easily dismissed by offering clear accounts of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.

Several times in Augustine’s Confessions we find Augustine praying: “Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will.” In this prayer, Augustine is admitting that he needs God’s grace in a radical way—not only to know what God commands, but also to do what God commands. He is saying that he cannot obey God in his own power; he needs divine assistance.

Pelagius disagreed with Augustine’s assertion that human beings were incapable of obeying God in their own strength. He thought this idea might lead people to avoid personal moral responsibility. So Pelagius taught that human beings have complete freedom of the will, meaning that we inherently possess the freedom to obey God in every situation. Therefore, he said, we do not need divine grace to overcome sin. For Pelagius, we are all inherently capable of pleasing God, and therefore we are all obligated to offer God perfect obedience.

In a nutshell, Pelagianism denies original sin, and claims that human nature has not been corrupted and humans are capable of choosing good and avoiding sin without any special divine aid.  In other words, human beings are capable of meriting salvation on their own without God’s grace.

Pelagius felt that Christians do receive grace from God, but the only kind of grace he felt that humans needed was the grace of illumination – knowing what God would have us to do. The only barrier to obedience would be our ignorance of God’s will. So the ten commandments, then, would be divine grace, offering us everything we need to live a life that is pleasing to God.

Augustine agreed that we need grace to illuminate our understanding, but disagreed that we have the inherent ability to obey. Sin has so infected and bound us that we are dependent upon grace for any good that we might do.

Salvation, then, in the Pelagian perspective comes through obedience; we are justified on the basis of our merits, which we gain through our obedience to God. Augustine taught that salvation comes through divine grace. Our only claim on salvation is the promise of grace through Christ. Even our good works are dependent upon grace, and therefore are not meritorious.  This is the basis for the classic doctrine of total depravity.

It is quite clear that Arminians are not Pelagian, because Arminans affirm the doctrines of original sin and total depravity.   Human salvation is completely dependent upon God’s grace, without which we would be helpless.  While Arminians do hold that God’s prevenient grace provides fallen humanity with a measure of freedom so that we can respond to God, this freedom is not an inherent human quality.  Rather, it is a gift of grace, without which we would be helpless.

Semi-Pelagianism is a mediating position between Augustine and Pelagius which was  proposed later.  In Semi-Pelagianism, the initial step towards salvation is made by the unaided human free will.  In other words, the human person is capable of deciding to turn to Christ in faith, without any divine assistance.   After that initial step is made, the Semi-Pelagian position proposes, divine grace is then poured out for the “increase of faith.” Semi-Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange in 529.

Again, any responsible account of Arminian soteriology will make it clear that Arminians are not Semi-Pelagian.  Arminians do not believe that human beings decide to exercise faith in Christ by an unaided act of the will.  On the contrary, they affirm that, without divine grace, the fallen human person is incapable of turning to God.  Prevenient grace frees the person so that such a response is possible.

What is distinctive about the Arminian position (as opposed to monergistic Reformed accounts) is that God’s grace is resistible, meaning that we can refuse his gracious offer of salvation.  However, that hardly means that our acceptance of that offer is some kind of Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian meritorious “work.”

The influence of “non-theological factors” on the rise of Montanism

“Non-theological factors” always play a role in the rise of reform movements in the church.  By “non-theological factors,” I mean social, economic, political, and cultural elements that are not directly derived from received interpretations of the truth of the Gospel.   Political, cultural, and economic factors can play a very significant role in shaping the direction a given movement takes, as well as the way the movement is received by the church.

Sometimes interpretations of popular movements which lean heavily on the importance of these non-theological factors can be dismissive of substantive Christian convictions.  However, this need not be the case.  We should expect that reform movements are influenced by social forces, and indeed that they should form their particular Christian convictions in dialogue with social forces at play in their time.

This is an important part of the church’s missionary engagement with the world.  There are no “purely” theological convictions, because theology is always worked out in the course of the church’s life in history, and it is bound to be affected by social, political, and cultural factors.  Therefore, we should not fall into the trap of assuming that non-theological factors determine of the rise and shape of reform movements, but we should examine the way that Christian convictions interact with non-theological factors in the history of particular movements, and evaluate the role of non-theological factors on the basis of this interaction.  It is the interaction of specifically Christian convictions with non-theological influences that produces the vitality and volatility of the reform and renewal movements.

Montanism, a popular second century movement which upheld a rigorous vision of Christian discipleship, and was marked by prophetic spiritual gifts, is an interesting case-in-point.

A number of non-theological factors played a role in the history of the Montanist movement. The movement took root in Phrygia in the late second century, where it would seem that the tradition of prophecy had continued to exist alongside the priestly office (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. V.17).   The continuing existence of a prophetic office made it difficult for the bishops and clergy of that region to deny the Montanist prophecies, in spite of the eccentricities and excesses of the Montanists.  W. H. C. Frend suggests that the Montanists were a threat to the clergy, and as such the rivalry between priest and prophet caused the Montanists to be resented, and contributed toward their rejection by the established church (Saints and Sinners in the Early Church, 69).  No doubt the prominent role played by women would have also created concern among clerics.

It seems that the Montanists raised no serious doctrinal challenge to the established church, but their somewhat strange and extreme positions and their threat to established leadership led the church to push them out of its fellowship. While it is difficult, on the basis of the evidence, to evaluate the established church’s decision, it does seem that the church might have benefited from the continuing vitality of Montanism, and its excesses might have been kept in check, had the Montanists been given a continuing place in the established church’s life.

After the movement was officially rejected by the clergy, it continued to flourish in the Phrygian countryside, but also spread to North Africa.  This move was aided by the fact that the movement found fertile soil for a rigorist morality in that context.  A significant political factor inNorth Africawas the persecution of Christians, which led to a spirit of defiance and apocalyptic hope among the Christians there, even before the spread of Montanism.  The persecutions inNorth Africaled to an anti-imperial protest ethic among the Christians, with martyrdom and confession being valued above all else.  In this political environment the strict Montanist discipline appealed to Christians like Tertullian, who had faced the prospect of dying for their faith.  The rigorist morality also reinforced the social distinctions between the Montanists and the rest of North African society, distinctions which again were made quite apparent during times of persecution.

Thus we can see that some non-theological factors influenced the Montanist movement in various ways.  The tension between prophetic and priestly roles in the Church caused difficulties with the clergy which influenced the rejection of Montanism.  The rural regions ofPhrygiaproved more fertile soil culturally for the rigorist morality of Montanism, and the persecutions inNorth Africaalso supported the rigorist and apocalyptic currents of the movement, leading Montanism to grow specifically in those regions.

However, it is also obvious that such non-theological factors alone cannot be credited with bringing about the rise or Montanism, or determining its character.  Ultimately the Christian convictions of the Montanists themselves were more significant in shaping the movement’s existence.

First of all, the conviction that the Spirit was speaking directly through the Montanist prophets led members of the movement to embrace a radical obedience and adherence to the discipline that was derived from their prophetic utterances.  So Tertullian ridicules the Catholic criticism of Montanist fasting by noting that Catholics will fast at the request of the Bishop, yet the Montanists fast at the direction of the Spirit (On Fasting, XIII).  Further, after the movement was rejected by the church, one can understand why many members continued to adhere loyally to their leaders, since they believed that the church had rejected the Spirit in rejecting the Montanists.  Likewise, the apocalyptic anticipation of living on the cusp of a new age would encourage radical adherence to the movement and generate a significant following.

Finally, we can note that a strong conviction concerning the holiness of the church shaped the Montanist relation to other Christians.  In On Modesty, Tertullian is enraged that the “Pontifex Maximus” has issued an edict indicating that the sins of adultery and fornication could be forgiven with proper repentance.

“But it is in the church that this (edict) is read, and in the church that it is pronounced; and (the church) is a virgin!  Far, far from Christ’s betrothed be such a proclamation!” (On Modesty I).

The pardoning of adulterers is parallel to the pardoning of idolaters in Tertullian’s mind.  The Church’s holiness is seen in the integrity of her discipline, and it is this conviction concerning the Church’s holiness that drives Tertullian’s adherence to Montanism.

I would argue that, while the non-theological factors certainly played a supporting role in Montanism’s rise, the leading role in shaping the movement came from the central theological convictions that its members embraced.  More specifically in North Africa, it was the encounter of these strong convictions about the divine origin of Montanist discipline and the integrity of the Church with the political condition of government persecution which produced the enthusiasm and vitality of the Montanist movement.