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 2: Charismatic more fundamental than Institutional

This second perspective might seem similar to the “charismatic opposed to institutional” view, but there are some important differences.  In this perspective there is still a priority placed on the charismatic element of the Church, but the institutional structures are valued as necessary and themselves empowered by gifts of the Spirit.

For this perspective I’m taking Leonardo Boff as a representative.  Boff, of course, is a well known Brazilian theologian, an important figure in liberation theology.  He was orignally a Franciscan priest, but was silenced more than once for his views (including those found in the book I’m discussing here), and eventually he left his order and the priesthood.   He also has a pretty snazzy website, I’ve just discovered.

Leonardo Boff gives a strong priority to charismatic gifts arising “from below”, that is, from the grassroots, but he is also willing to speak of “hierarchical charisms.” So for Boff, the institutional side of the church is not simply devoid of the Spirit’s guidance, though there may be tensions between charismatic and institutional.  However he does view the historical institutionalization of the Church as a “failure” in a sense.  Writing about Catholicism in general, he writes that “A christological emphasis on the level of the incarnation led the Latin Church to excessive institutional rigidity.” (Church Charism and Power, 154)

However, his solution is to prioritize the charismatic over the institutional, not to oppose the two:

Charism includes the hierarchical element, but not exclusively.  Charism is more fundamental than the institution.  Charism is the pneumatic force (dynamis tou Theou) that gives rise to institutions and keeps them alive.  The principle or the structure of the institution is not the hierarchy but rather the charism which is at the root of all institutions and hierarchy (159).

So Charism becomes the “organizing principle” (155) of the church’s institutions, with an emphasis on the participation of the whole people of God, all of whom are given charismatic gifts.  The Spirit is made manifest in the Church through the diverse charisms, given for diverse services and functions, but all are oriented toward the good of the Church and working together for unity.  The role of leadership in the community, then, is to take “responsibility for harmony among the many and diverse charisms” (163).  The authorities in the church are there to ensure that there is freedom for charisms to flourish, and to allow the movement of the Spirit through the charisms to organize the Church’s life and witness.

However, Boff argues that leadership structures in the West have tended to be characterized “complete domination” in which the hierarchy “considers itself to be the only charism,” a situation in which the charismatic gifts of the Spirit will indeed be perceived as a threat to those in leadership (157).  He arrives at this conclusion via another interesting facet of his work – the integration of theological and sociological reflection, specifically of the Marxist variety.

While faith and theology provide the ideals toward which the Church is striving, ecclesiological reflection, according to Boff, begins with the lived realities of ecclesial practice, then measures these practices against theological norms.  The resulting reflection provides direction for revised and theologically informed praxis (132).  Sociological analysis is therefore part of theological analysis, with theology providing the overall normative vision, but sociology providing the starting point for reflection and some guidance as to how the normative theological vision ought to be lived out. For example, Boff argues on a theological basis that the laity have an inalienable dignity and certain inalienable rights, but his account of how these rights should be exercised in the community has clearly been influenced by Marxist social analysis.  This is seen in the fact that he gives a significant place to the concept of “power” in his ecclesiology, as opposed to the traditional theological category of “authority.”  He calls for a better distribution of sacred power, and a redefinition of the roles of bishop and priest (10).  He criticizes the centralization of decision making in the Church as move which marginalizes the people (34).  He describes the processes of the CDF (which he would soon experience firsthand) as unjust and a violation of human rights (37-38).  Thus Boff will make statements such as “The logic of power is the desire for more power,” and argue that the concrete exercise of power in the Church “follows the logic of any human power structure” (53).

The touchstone of this Marxist analysis is the critique of the inequality in the means of production.  The religious-ecclesiastical or institutional realm of the church is part of the social order, and is conditioned by the prevailing means of production in that social order (110-111).  The Church’s own means of production (in relation to cultural/symbolic goods) manifests a structural inequality, with the hiearchy producing all the goods and the laity doing all the consuming (43).   This imbalance is in complete harmony with the social realm, but full of internal contradictions, because the basic ideals of these institutions call for shared means of production (113).  Ecclesiology must be worked out with attention to these inequalities.

This approach leads Boff to a specific normative conclusion about charismatic reform movements: they must be structural as well as spiritual.  Boff is able to see the base communities of Brazil as a form of ecclesiogenesis because they are a “new way of concretizing the mystery of salvation” (126) which gives rise to new lay ministries based on the integration and equality of charismatic gifts (128).   The examples of the violation of human rights in the Church with which Boff is concerned are not simply the result of individual actions, but result from a certain way of structuring the Church.  The men of the hierarchy are mostly men of good faith, but the structures in which they operate are authoritarian.  While the Church embraces the slogan ecclesia semper reformanda, reform and conversion are typically limited to the personal and spiritual realm. In opposition to this tendency, Boff argues that the goal of charismatic reforming movements in the Church must be the recreation of the Church as an institution of power.  The church has mimicked the structures of the world, and what is needed is the conversion of the institutional Church (58).  Therefore, reform movements must embody an alternative structure, one that is more circular and fraternal. Boff believes that this alternative has emerged at particular moments in the church’s history, in various charismatic movements, evangelical revivals, and idealistic groups (156).

Boff’s synthesis of theology and social analysis is methodologically very interesting, but leans quite heavily on Marxist categories.  At times is not clear whether his view of charismatic movements in the church is driven by Marxist concerns or theological concerns.  I would prefer that theological concerns predominate. Still, Boff’s model provides a way of explaining the history of charismatic movements that has a lot of explanatory power. His ideas provide a plausible account of the history of charismatic movements and their often rocky relation to established structures, without de-spiritualizing the institutional church.  I think, however, his perspective could be aided by turning a similar critical sociological eye to the charismatic movements.  In his Marxist framework they are treated in an entirely positive light, and I would argue that this is an oversimplification.

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.