A “greater effusion of the Holy Spirit”: Isaac Hecker’s hopes for renewal

Hecker via wikimedia commonsIn one of William Booth’s songs, he famously penned the line, “We want another Pentecost.”   Booth and his holiness movement counterparts placed a heavy emphasis on the Holy Spirit in their preaching, teaching, praying, and worshipping – an emphasis that David Rightmire has termed a “pneumatological priority” (see his article in the most recent Wesleyan Theological Journal and his book, Sacraments and The Salvation Army).

As I’ve noted here before, my dissertation compares the Booth and Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, a Roman Catholic movement from the same time period.   Although the two men are quite different in many ways, Hecker’s theology could also be said to evidence a certain “pneumatological priority.”

Hecker was possessed by a life-long quest for the renewal of human society.   He came to believe that societal renewal could only be achieved if individuals were renewed, and that such individual renewal could only come through religion.  As a devout Catholic, he believed that the Catholic faith was the one true religion, and therefore placed the Catholic Church at the heart of his vision for social renewal.

His particular emphasis on the direct work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals, however, was somewhat unique among Catholic authors of his day.  While he drew on traditional Catholic sources, his particular way of emphasizing the Spirit’s direct work went against the grain of the majority of Catholics in his day, and raised some eyebrows.   He put the Spirit’s work in the individual Christian at the centre of his vision of renewal.  As John Farina has summarized, for Hecker, “The cure for the world’s problems was Spirit-filled individuals” (An American Experience of God: The Spirituality of Isaac Hecker, 150).

Hecker via bustedhaloHowever, unlike Booth, Hecker was keen to safeguard against potential fanaticism by grounding the immediate work of the Spirit upon individuals in the external authority of the church, which he also credited to the Spirit’s presence.

These twin emphases are abundantly clear in his book The Church and the Age.  Of individual renewal by the Spirit, Hecker writes:

The renewal of the age depends on the renewal of religion. The renewal of religion depends upon a greater effusion of the creative and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. The greater effusion of the Holy Spirit depends on the giving of increased attention to His movements and inspirations in the soul. The radical and adequate remedy for all the evils of our age, and the source of all true progress, consist in increased attention and fidelity to the action of the Holy Spirit in the soul (The Church and the Age, 26).

The other side of the Spirit’s two-fold action, however, is found in the church’s external authority.

The action of the Holy Spirit embodied visibly in the authority of the Church, and the action of the Holy Spirit dwelling invisibly in the soul, form one inseparable synthesis; and he who has not a clear conception of this twofold action of the Holy Spirit is in danger of running into one or the other, and sometimes into both, of these extremes, either of which is destructive of the end of the Church (Ibid., 33).

Hecker 2 via wikimedia commonsOf course, most Protestants will note that individual discernment of the Spirit’s voice often comes into conflict with the discernment of those in ecclesial authority.  Church life is often filled with these types of conflict, and this raises questions about Hecker’s claim of an “inseparable synthesis” between the Spirit’s action in individuals and in the church’s authority structures.   When push comes to shove, how do we know which side is really hearing the voice of the Spirit?  As we would expect, Hecker takes the traditional Catholic line:

From the above plain truths the following practical rule of conduct may be drawn. The Holy Spirit is the immediate guide of the soul in the way of salvation and sanctification; and the criterion, or test, that the soul is guided by the Holy Spirit, is its ready obedience to the authority of the Church. This rule removes all danger whatever, and with it the soul can walk, run, or fly, if it chooses, in the greatest safety and with perfect liberty, in the ways of sanctity (Ibid., 35).

In spite of his clear affirmations of the ultimate authority of the church over individual believers, Hecker was still accused of leaning too much towards Protestantism by some of his contemporaries.  While these concerns were probably overblown (as we might expect in the nineteenth century, given the state of Protestant-Catholic relations), he certainly shared a “pneumatological priority” with William Booth and his contemporaries, and some of his writings seem to point to a desire for “another Pentecost.”

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.

Israel and the Church: reclaiming the continuities

Generally speaking, most ecclesiological thinking has tended to overemphasize the discontinuity between ancient Israel and the church.  There are many reasons for this, some of which explicitly and intentionally emphasize the discontinuities, and some of which do so in an implicit way.  This overstress on the differences between Israel and church can lead to a static understanding of the church, which misses out on the dynamic, historical nature of the people of God, and thereby leaves us less sensitive to questions of renewal and reform.  I would suggest that thinking more intentionally about the continuities between the church and Israel can help to recover a more biblical understanding of the people of God.

My perspective on this question has been greatly influenced by George Lindbeck’s argument for an “Israel-like” view of the church.  I’m not going to summarize his work here (though maybe I should do that another time), but if you are interested in what he has to say, I would recommend reading the following two essays: “The Story-Shaped Church: Critical Exegesis and Theological Interpretation,” in Scriptural Authority and Narrative Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 161–78; and “The Church,” in The Church in a Postliberal Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 145-165.

First of all, why is it that Christian thinking about the church has overemphasized the discontinuities between Israel and church?  I would suggest four significant reasons, though their are probably more.
  • An idealized, platonic understanding of the church.  This is particularly true of ecclesiologies which place great stress on the “invisible church” (that is, the elect, known only to God) as the “real” church.  If the “real” church is invisible, then the historical, visible church can be undermined as “unreal” or unimportant.
  • A triumphalistic view of the church as holder of the keys to salvation.  If the church’s role in mediating salvation is stressed too much, such that the church itself is seen as possessing the fullness of the means of salvation (rather than serving as God’s instrument), then it becomes easy to play off the “triumphant” church against the unfaithfulness of Israel in the Old Testament.
  • Divisions among Christians leading to different groups claiming to be the “true” church.  The triumphalist tendency in the Christian church has only be exacerbated by divisions.  In a situation of division, ecclesiology has often become about proving that your church is complete and lacking in nothing, in comparison with other churches.  Again, this can easily lead to a presumption that we are above the failures of Israel.
  • Some forms of supersessionism and dispensationalism.  Obviously, supersessionism in all forms is going to stress the discontinuities between Israel and church, since supersessionists argue that the church as replaced Israel as God’s people.  The most extreme form would be dispensationalism, which, in arguing that Christians and Jews live under different “dispensations” of God, are able to justify strong discontinuities between the Israel and church.

So, what then, am I proposing regarding the continuities and discontinuities between Israel and church, scripturally speaking?  Clearly, from a Christian perspective, things have changed for the people of God post-resurrection.  But how much has changed, and what hasn’t changed?

First, what are the discontinuities between Israel and church?

  • Pentecost marks the beginning of a greater fullness of the Spirit, poured out upon all (Joel 2:28-32 / Acts 2).
  • Jesus Christ offers a more complete revelation of God than was available to the OT people of God (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 1:1-4)
  • The church is given a universal mandate to evangelize the world (Matthew 28:16-20)
  • The sacrificial worship and priesthood of OT Israel are replaced by Jesus’ work on the cross (Hebrews 10)
  • The church is not intended to be a nation with a theocratic civil government, but a dispersed community of exiles, spread among every nation (1 Peter 1:1-2)

What are the continuities that I believe should be re-emphasized?

  • The church is still a historical and visible community of persons.
    • It is not an “idea”; the church is a real, living human community, with a history of ups and downs, successes and failures, faithfulness and apostasy (Acts 5; Revelation 2-3)
    • The church is still a communal entity. Though salvation is personal it is not individualistic.
    • The people of God can still be seen as a people on a journey – a pilgrim people headed towards the new creation (1 Peter 2:11)
  • The church is still subject to judgment under the lordship of Christ. This judgment is not only a future event, but is reflected in the church’s historical life, here and now. Judgment begins with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17).  NT Christians viewed OT history as their history, and took warning against unfaithfulness (1 Cor. 10).
  • The church is still a holy and priestly people, witnessing in word and deed to the world about the faithfulness of God (1 Peter 2:9-10).
  • The people of God still need a Saviour. The church is not, in itself, the fulfilment of Israel; Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Israel; he is also the fulfillment of the church; we find fullness in him, not in ourselves (Eph. 1:3-10)

If we take these continuities to heart, several implications will follow.  These are thoughts which I try to keep in mind as I think theologically about the church.

  • Though the church enjoys a greater fullness of the Holy Spirit, we are still fallible and capable of unfaithfulness, as was ancient Israel (1 Corinthians).
  • Because the church is historical, it always exists in a particular time and place, as a particular community embedded as a bodily presence in a particular culture.  Being rooted in a specific time and place, then, is an essential aspect of the church’s identity.
  • Though Christ has taken our judgment upon himself, he still disciplines his people as their Lord, just as the people of Israel were disciplined.  That is to say, all forms of “triumphalism” should be rejected.  Being “in Christ” and having the Spirit’s presence does not imply automatic blessing – it may also mean judgment, rebuke, and discipline (1 Cor. 11:32).
  • Finally, we should expect to see periods of decline and renewal in church history, and we should attune ourselves to these dynamics.  This is part of our journey as the living, breathing, embodied, historical and visible people of God.

Book Review – Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community

Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker, both professors of evangelism as United Methodist seminaries, wrote Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010) as a contribution to the “New Monastic Library” series, from Wipf and Stock.   The book is an engagement with the “new monasticism” movement from a specifically United Methodist perspective.  The authors are both advocates for new monasticism as a renewal movement, and both are involved in new monastic communities.   Heath and Kisker see the new monasticism as a way forward in the quest to renew the Methodist tradition in America.

New monasticism is a relatively recent movement of Christians who are banding together and forming intentional communities of radical discipleship, often (but not always) including communal living in what New Monastics call “the abondoned places of empire.”  Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way community in Philadelphia are probably the most well-known examples of new monasticism, but there are many others.  If you’re trying to get a sense of what the movement is about, look up the 12 Marks of New Monasticism.  For a book-length introduction, see Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008).

Heath and Kisker have written a book which is aimed at a United Methodist audience.   That means they document new monastic communities within the UMC, locating them within the broader new monastic movement, and they also lay out a proposal for further development of new monastic communities in the UMC.   In doing this, they argue that the new monasticism resonates with the heart of the Wesleyan vision for Christian community.  That is, they argue that Methodists can embrace the new monasticism as an authentic re-envisioned embodiment of the original Methodist communities.

After an opening chapter in which the authors recount their personal stories, the book spends two chapters looking at the history of intentional communities in the church: an initial chapter focused mainly on the history of monasticism in the early church and the middle ages, followed by a chapter discussing “Protestant Models of Intentional Community.”  The book does not present detailed scholarship (that is not its purpose), but provides an interesting narrative of church history from the perspective of intentional communities and their role in renewing the church.  So, the Anabaptist, Pietist, Moravian, and Methodist movements are laid out as part of a history of intentional communities of radical discipleship – a history that extends back to the ancient monks of the Egyptian desert.  The point is not to say that Methodism (which is the main focus of the book) was “monastic,” but that it shared many of the aims and features of monastic communities, in its own way, even as its forms of life were more directly borrowed from the Anglican religious societies and the Moravians.

Next, in chapter four, Heath and Kisker briefly describe the new monasticism, focusing particularly on how United Methodists have become involved.  The fifth chapter was the one I found most interesting, because it makes some concrete suggestions about how the UMC could embrace new monasticism.  For example, a rule of life is offered, based on United Methodist membership vows.  Phoebe Palmer is presented as a potential “patron saint” of new monasticism, someone who “embodied just about everything that the new monasticism holds dear” (53).  And the chapter deals with such concrete issues as appointments and the possibilities of bi-vocational ministry.   The book closes with reports from three United Methodist new monastic communities.

This is a very short book, and as I said above, it is not an attempt at rigorous scholarship, though it is well written.  It’s very accessible, and it offers an interesting window on the new monastic movement from a Methodist perspective.  Because it is aimed specifically at a United Methodist audience, I did feel at times like I was listening in to someone else’s conversation.   But I think this was a necessary consequence of the authors’ choice to write specifically for United Methodists.

As a Wesleyan who is interested in the history and theology of renewal movements I find the prospect of a “Methodist new monasticism” to be very intriguing.  As I’ve noted in previous posts, the origin of Methodism as a religious society in the Church of England means that Methodists have inherited a somewhat ambiguous ecclesial status.  It is not surprising, therefore, that Methodists longing for renewal would attempt to return to radical forms of intentional community as a way of re-connecting with the Methodist ethos in a new context.