Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements: Conclusion

To recap, I’ve been presenting a series of posts on charismatic movements, outlining a typology of views, as follows:

  • Charismatic more fundamental than institutional (Leonardo Boff).

While this survey shows that there is a significant body of literature on the theology of charisms and charismatic movements (and a wide divergence of viewpoints), I would argue that numerous questions remain which need to be addressed.

Significantly, for the most part, the literature on charisms has not been significantly incorporated into discussions of unity and diversity.   Of course, Cullman’s argument attempts to do this, but I would argue that he has disassociated the biblical idea of charisms from its original vocational context and applied it too liberally to all confessions, thereby inappropriately justifying continued separation across the board.  Also, it is apparent throughout his argument that his major concerns are with the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and magisterial protestant traditions, but he offers no criteria by which we should distinguish these separations as “legitimate” as compared with more recent protestant schisms.  Would he support, for example, the continual splintering of pentecostal and independent charismatic churches on the grounds of protecting their particular charism?

Further, his model suggests that there is a charismatic gift at the root of all church divisions.  While I believe there are many confessions or denominations in the Church today that began with such a misapprehension of charisms, this is certainly not the case in every situation.  It seems nonsensical to speak of the English reformation, for example, being rooted an unrecognized charism.  We might speak of Anglican charisms that developed in the subsequent history of Anglicanism, but if the separation of the Church of England from Rome was not rooted in a charism, we must question the validity of using such post-division gifts as a reason for continued structural separation.

Other uses of the idea of “gifts” as a way of discussing diversity in ecumenical documents have not delved into the biblical theology of charisms, nor asked questions about the appropriateness of applying the term to traditions / denominations / confessions.  Though the idea of “complementary gifts” has been a helpful way to build ecumenical bridges, it should not be used to construct a positive vision for ecclesial unity which justifies continued “separation.”

Where the idea of charisms has been incorporated in a more sustained way into a vision of the unity of the Church is in Catholic literature on the religious life, but little work has been done in attempting to apply the insights of this perspective to protestant reform movements. The comparison has sometimes been made, but not explored in much theological depth (See, for example, Outler’s remarks on Methodism as an “order,” in That the World may Believe, 54).

The weakness of some Catholic approaches, especially those which stress the complementarity of charism and institution, is that they are not helpful in interpreting the divisive history of renewal and reform movements in the life of the Church.  The question is of paramount importance, particularly for the many evangelical protestant denominations which began as reform, renewal, or missionary movements, with no intention of starting new “churches.”  In evangelical circles, partly because of the prevalence of free church ecclesiology, the tendency has been to emphasize the significance of the movements and downplay the importance of historical continuity.

All this is to say that I think significant work needs to be done on the topic of  “group” charisms, and how this concept  fits into the larger discussion about the limits of legitimate diversity in the Church.

Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements Part 1: Charismatic Opposed to Institutional

The first in my typology of views on “charismatic movements” deals with a perspective I’m calling “charismatic opposed to institutional.”  This viewpoint basically sees the charismatic element of the church as the “true” or “original”church, and the institutions as a corrupting, stifling force that squeezes out the charismatic life.  According to this perspective, then, “charismatic movements” would represent the re-emergence of primitive, Pauline Christianity.

In scholarly circles this discussion begins with debate over the constitution of the earliest Christian communities.  Rudolph Söhm was responsible for bringing the discussion of charisms into modern scholarship (found in his Kirchenrecht, published in 1892).  Söhm was a lawyer, and the original reason for his investigation of primitive Christianity was occasioned by a dispute with fellow jurists regarding the status of civil law in Christian marriage ceremonies.  This set him on the path of researching the history of canon law, and the necessary corollary discipline of church history.  Söhm argued against the prevailing “voluntary association” consensus among protestant scholars in the 1880s, positing instead that the earliest Christians viewed their communities as drawn together and constituted by the charisms of the Spirit, meaning that they understood the Church as a spiritual entity which was beyond all human law. The contrast here is between the church constituted by the consent of the members in a democratic “free association” sense, and the church as constituted by the charismatic action of the Sprit.

According to Söhm, leadership and direction of the community was provided by charismatic leaders (preachers, teachers, and bishops), and was not formalized into offices.  In Söhm’s views, such formalization of charismatic authority into offices came later as a failure and a retreat from the original organization of the Church. Leonardo Boff characterizes Söhm’s view by saying “Faith in the Gospel gave way to faith in divine law” (Church, Charism and Power, 68).

Söhm’s interpretation of the early Church had a profound influence in the early twentieth century, though it was not blindly accepted.  Adolf von Harnack agreed that the primitive church was charismatic, but proposed that there had originally non-charismatic leadership as well, identifying the charismatic leaders with itinerant preachers and prophets who exercised a universal ministry, and the non-charismatic with the local presbyters, bishops, and deacons (primarily in The Constitution & Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries).  In the final analysis, Harnack followed the same line of thinking as Söhm in proposing that the non-charismatic leadership eventually overtook and excluded the charismatic leadership, thus pushing aside the originally charismatic element in the Church.

Hans von Campenhausen provided a variation on this thesis, by identifying the non-charismatic leadership with Jewish Christianity, and the charismatic leadership with the Pauline communities.  The two models were later merged, and the error in Campenhausen’s reading of primitive church history was the investment of the offices with sacred significance, a move which, in effect, led to the exclusion of charisms (Ecclesastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries).

For the most part, later 20th century scholarship has taken a more nuanced view of the relationship between the institutional and charismatic in the church (more on that in later posts).  But the idea remains common in the popular Christian imagination.   Of course, revivalist groups, and charismatic movements would often read early church history in this way.  Inevitably a new movement that does not fit well with established leadership structures will interpret those structures as a stifling form of opposition to the Spirit’s work.

The problem with this perspective, of course, is that no purely charismatic movement can exist for any period of time without developing stable institutional structures.  Once you set a time and place for a meeting, and decide who is on set up, who is leading the singing, etc., you have begun the process of institutionalization!  So, if this is true, what kind of a reading of church history does it provide?  The church’s history is one of continual decline, interrupted sporadically by spontaneous irruptions of real Christianity, which themselves inevitably degenerate into spiritless institutions.  The result is that much of Christian history, and the majority of Christians in the world at any given time, are written off as being part of a spiritually dead Church.

Are “institutional” structures completely devoid of the Spirit’s leading?  That cannot be, if a) we believe that Christ has promised to be with his Church to the end, and b) historical continuity of any kind involves institutional structures.  It is true that there often are tensions and struggles between charismatic movements and established structures, but setting up such a clear dichotomy between the two seems to oversimplify the situation. Therefore, conceiving the institutional aspect of the Church as fundamentally “opposed” to the charismatic is not satisfactory.

Charismatic Movements in the Church

I’m introducing a new series of blog posts on the topic of “charismatic movements” in the Church.  When I speak of ” charismatic” movements,  I don’t necessarily mean pentecostal movements, but those movements of renewal and reform which rise up spontaneously in the Church, and centre around particularly gifted individuals, who operate outside existing authority structures.  Such movements have existed throughout the history of the Church, and have always had a rocky relationship with the established Church authorities.

I developed this rough timeline as a teaching tool for a course I was TAing earlier this year.  We could debate whether some of these movements are “charismatic,” but I would argue that they were all charismatic in origin, meaning that they sprung up around individuals who were perceived to be specially gifted (the basic meaning of “charism” being “gift”).   The timeline gets really selective when it comes to the modern era, because at that point I had to be selective.  I’m not claiming the timeline is exhaustive at that point, but I hope it is representative.  My main purpose in creating the timeline this way was to contrast “catholic” movements (meaning those who were eventually accepted by Church authorities as legitimate) with “non-catholic.”

I should add also that I’m not addressing the issue of “heresy” here, as some of the movements in question were definitely preaching a message which was outside the boundaries of historic Christian orthodoxy. I think most people would agree that the Bogomils and Cathars were heretical, but assessing the orthodoxy of other individual movements on the list would require more of a discussion than I want to get into.

One of the questions I’m studying for my dissertation concerns how we account for these movements theologically.  How do we know if a charismatic movement is truly of God?  What do these movements represent? A return to the primitive purity of the Church?  A form of fanaticism?  A revitalizing force?

I’ve developed a typology of positions on the question of the place of charismatic movements in the Church, and this typology will form the basis for my series of posts, each of which will discuss one or two representative theologians:

  • Charismatic opposed to institutional. Here the work of Rudolph Söhm and early 20th century scholars such as Adolf von Harnack is important.  The theory of these writers is that the church was originally charismatic, but this was stifled by emerging catholicism (institutionalism in his mind) in the 2nd century.  The emergence of stable authority structures was therefore a failure on the part of early Christianity.
  • Charismatic more fundamental than institutional. I’d summarize Leonardo Boff’s work in Church, Charism, and Power along these lines.  Charism is more fundamental than institution, because it gives rise to the institution and keeps it alive. Therefore the charismatic gifts of the Spirit should be the structuring principle of the church.
  • Charismatic in tension with institutional. Karl Rahner tries to hold the two structures in tension by arguing that there are both institutional and non-institutional charismata. A Legitimate opposition of forces in the life of the Church is inevitable and should be accepted.  Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s “christological constellation” also fits under this category.
  • Charismatic complementary to institutional. More recent ecumenical work has attempted to overcome the duality of charismatic movements and institutional structures by stressing the complementarity of the two.  Joseph Ratzinger also wrote along these lines in his discussion of lay movements in the Church, even going so far as to reject the dichotomy of charism/institution as inappropriate for ecclesiology.
  • Charismatic enlivens institutional. Others stress the role of charismatic movements as enlivening forces for the institutional church.  So Howard Snyder argues that both institutional structures and charismatic movements can be seen as normal and valid in the Church’s history.  I’ll also discuss Catholic theologies of “the religious life” (religious orders, etc.) under this category.
  • Institutional over charismatic. It’s hard to find anyone who actually argues for this theologically, but it is common on a practical level, so I’ll still attempt a post on this perspective.
  • Charismatic gifts as justification for separation. Oscar Cullmann’s book Unity Through Diversity makes the argument that different the “confessions” in the Church have their own unique charisms, which need to be preserved.  Therefore he argues that continued structural separation of the churches is justified, so that these diverse gifts can be preserved.  Many denominationalist theologies proceed on similar assumptions.

While the work I’ll be discussing is scholarly, the issue of finding a place for charismatic movements in the Church has immense practical implications, and I’ll attempt to draw these out.  This has been a perennial issue for the Church, and it remains an important problem today.  Think of the controversy surrounding “emergent” and whether it is a legitimate movement of reform or a heretical offshoot of genuine Christianity.  How are these “new expressions” of church related to the established Churches?

It is also an important question for people of evangelical heritage, because move evangelical denominations began as charismatic reform movements (not as denominations or “churches”).  Does that have implications for our understanding of the Church and the place of “denominations” as they now exist?  I think it does, and I’m hopeful that reflection on the history of charismatic movements, as well as theological reflection on the nature of the Church and where they fit, can provide some direction for our life together as we seek to give faithful witness in the post-Christendom context.