Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements, Part 3: Charismatic in Legitimate Tension with Institutional

Karl Rahner provides a perspective on the place of charismatic movements which recognizes the tension that exists between the charismatic and institutional aspects of the church, without prioritizing the charismatic as more fundamental. In The Dynamic Element in the Church Rahner attempts to overcome the opposition between “charism” and “office” by reframing the question in terms of “the charisma of office” and “non-institutional charismata” (42-58).  The charisma of office must be affirmed, Rahner argues, if the Church is to be conceived as the one abiding historical entity which was has its foundation in the apostles, and continues to be “always the locus and visible manifestation of grace” by virtue of God’s promise (43). The church must be conceived of as charismatic, otherwise the Catholic affirmation of the Church’s visible continuity would be based on the juridical power of the institutions themselves.

“…because the grace of God is not only offered to mankind as a possibility, but is promised to the Church as a victorious grace more powerful than sin, it is certain from the outset from God’s side and from him alone, that ecclesiastical office in what most properly belongs to it, in its essence, will not, though it could, be used as a weapon against God.  To that extent, therefore, ecclesiastical office and ministry is charismatic in character, if we understand by charismatic, what is in contradistinction to what is purely institutional, administered by men, subject to calculation, expressible in laws and rules” (43-44).

For example, Papal infallibility must imply that, “in order to be what it is,” the papacy “passes into the charismatic sphere” (45).

However, in order to distinguish itself from totalitarianism, the Catholic church must affirm that the hierarchy is not the only vehicle through which the Spirit works, but that “there are charismata, that is, the impulsion and guidance of God’s Spirit for the Church, in addition to and outside her official ministry” (49).  Rahner posits that “a legitimate opposition of forces” arises as an unavoidable result of the “multiplicity of impulsions in the Church” (73). That is, these forces are felt and experienced by human beings on earth as disparate and opposed to one another, “precisely because they are unified by God alone.” (74)  This means that there will be conflict and tension in the Church, with both sides needing to be “protected” from the other:

“Now it is no doubt a rule, a normative principle and a law for the spiritual gifts themselves, that they should operate in an “orderly” way, that they are not permitted to depart from the order prescribed by authority…Yet this formal rule alone would not of itself guarantee the actual existence of harmony.  For although official authority might be sufficiently protected by the rule from merely apparent spiritual gifts, the charismata also need to be protected from the authorities” (52)

What is required for visible unity in the present Church is “the love which allows another to be different, even when it does not understand him” (74).

Rahner connects his perspective to the question of reform movements by speaking of “the possibility of institutional regulation of a gift of the Spirit” (58). Movements such as the Franciscans are examples of the “institutionally organized transmission and canalization” of the gift of their founder.

“Not only Francis but the Franciscans too are charismatics if they really live in a spirit of joyous poverty.  What would Francis mean to the Church if he not found disciples throughout the centuries?  He would not be the man of charismatic gifts in the sense we have in mind here, but a religious individual, an unfortunate crank, and the world, the Church and history would have dropped him and proceeded with their business” (59).

In this way the charismatic element in the church is passed on through institutional means, which are courageously received and approved by the Church, as the charismatic movement in question submits to her authority and law. This aspect of “regulation” of the Spirit is, for Rahner, an essential part of the reform movement’s vocation, in which the charismatic element of the Church shows that it truly belongs to the Church and its ministry. Speaking of submission to the Church’s regulation, Rahner writes, “It is precisely here that it is clear that the charismatic element belongs to the Church and to her very ministry as such” (59).

Rahner’s subtle argument has much to commend it from the perspective of the Church’s history, providing a way of affirming the essential place of both established structures and unpredictable movements of the Spirit that arise from outside the usual official ministries.   In particular, it is interesting to see how a Catholic thinker reflects on the role of a founder, and how the charismatic gift given to a founder can be institutionally preserved by the Church.  It is precisely this idea that I think needs to be looked at ecumenically, with particular reference to protestant charismatic movements.   How should such institutional regulation take place?  Could some protestant divisions have been avoided, if the establised church(es) had found a way to incorporate the movements in question (i.e., Methodism, The Salvation Army, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Classical Pentecostalism), affirming their place and giving them a measure of autonomy while also maintaining structural ties?

I’ll come back to this in discussing the fifth perspective in my typology, “Charismatic enlivens institutional” – a view which is very similar to Rahner’s perspective, but goes further in specifically discussing the role of charismatic movements in bringing life and renewal to the Church as a whole.

The longest church name in the history of the world

This is a church that has a storefront in our neighbourhood.  The St. Francis National Evangelical Spiritual Baptist Faith Archdiocese of Canada.   Personally I like the acronym printed on the window below, the “St. Francis N.E.S.B.F.  Archdiocese of Canada.”

It makes you wonder about this history of this group.  How on earth did they come up with that name?   At first glance it seems like they’d have something to appeal to just about every kind of Christian.

  • St. Francis – well he appeals to everyone, but especially to Catholics
  • National – that appeals to established Church types
  • Evangelical – obviously appeals to…
  • Spiritual – maybe the charismatics?
  • Baptist – of course…

Some of these things don’t normally go together, notably “St. Francis” and “Baptist,” which makes it all the more interesting.   I found a website for the church, which explains that they are a group from Trinidad.  They seem charismatic – they are also called “shouters,” and the have three hour worship services – and they mix elements of Protestant Christianity with African religion.   It’s not clear from their site exactly what that looks like.   They themselves aren’t exactly clear on their origins.

What is interesting to me about this group is that they are charismatic, but they don’t seem to downplay the significance of ritual and symbol in their faith.   Actually their website lists candles, bells, swords, flags, uniforms and a whole host of other items as significant in their worship.    Most charismatically-oriented protestants (we could expand that to include most evangelicals) are wary of any kind of ritual.  They’ve got some obviously “catholic” elements in their worship (one page on the website has prayers of the saints), but they speak in tongues and have street preaching missions.

Then again, if you know the story of St. Francis and the mendicant friars, you’ll know that these things are not so distinct from one another after all.  Francis was the ultimate charismatic.  He was also completely committed to the Catholic faith, and to the task of preaching the gospel.   Maybe the St. Francis N.E.S.B.F people are on to something.  It’s the history of division in the Church since the Reformation that has caused us to see the various terms that go into their name as being at odds with one another.   The names that we have given to our denominations are there precisely to distinguish us from the other denominations and traditions.   Our particular denominational identities then become filters for the discernment of what is good, acceptable, and true.   For example, in my tradition, if someone says something is “Wesleyan” that automatically makes it acceptable, but if it’s “Calvinist” people assume it is wrong, without even really thinking about it.  Although strong denominational identities are fading fast, most of us have been formed in communities that make these kind of distinctions all the time. “St. Francis” and “Evanglical” seem an odd pairing to a contemporary evangelical, because St. Francis is seen as a Catholic figure. But actually Francis lived during what is rightly called an “evangelical revival,” a real flowering of the gospel, which included radical forms of discipleship, self-denial, and evangelistic preaching missions.   I really don’t know much about the St. Francis N.E.S.B.F., so I wouldn’t want to hold them up as a model of anythying, but maybe the fact that they seem to have developed in obscurity has allowed them to hold these things together without worrying that they were crossing traditional boundaries.