My spiritual formation was in a context were I was trained to be afraid of the Holy Spirit. We would have never actually put it in those terms, because it would sound bad; but our actions and actual words either avoided the Holy Spirit or taught us to avoid potential contact with him. This context was called cessationism, which is a theological theory which states that all miraculous experiences with the Holy Spirit ended either at the death of the last of apostles or at the completion of the cannon of Scripture. So somewhere between about the year 100 AD and the Second Council of Carthage in 419 the miraculous stopped. You’ll have to pick a more specific date yourself in this gap of about 320 years. In my book Viral Jesus I actually had an appendix about cessationism because I don’t believe we can see a viral movement of the Gospel if we are working within the framework of cessationism.
But my real problem wasn’t even that I was taught to avoid the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, with a special fear and loathing for the gift of tongues, but that the Holy Spirit himself seemed to be pretty much off limits for conversation. Let me give you an example. I went to a very fine Bible college. We even had a required course called God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. Here’s what I learned about the Holy Spirit in that course: The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. Next question?
Here’s the problem with the Holy Spirit. He is experiential. And we were trained that we could not get good theology from our experiences; and good theology is all that counts. Therefore any experience one had with the Holy Spirit was suspect and probably either worked up in the mind of the person having the experience or was demonic in nature. I know that’s not even a logical syllogism, but that’s how our thinking went. And yes, I’ve heard many times that what my Pentecostal or charismatic friends would state as experiences with the Holy Spirit were actually demonic. These of course would be things like speaking in tongues, which is obviously bad, but also prophecy and especially anything that would be socially inappropriate like being slain in the Spirit or even trembling.
The problem with this thinking is the Bible. The Holy Spirit ends up being extremely experiential in the Bible. Jesus didn’t tell us to avoid Him but to look with wondrous anticipation for him. And when he came it would involve actual experiential power which led to Kingdom work being done. Oh, this reminds me of something else I was taught. We can get no theology from the book of Acts because it is an historical book. Who makes up these rules? I could go on and on with verse references but I won’t. Here’s a little exercise I’d suggest for the curious. Look up all the references to the Spirit in the New Testament. Ask yourself how experiential that is.
I became frustrated because what I was actually seeing and experiencing on the mission field had no actual correlation to what I had been taught. I ended up seeing demonic possession. I heard precise, accurate prophecy that lead to significant ministry. I saw people healed. I experienced miracles…real miracles that would have made it into the book of Acts or the gospels. So I took a four credit independent study post graduate course to focus my thinking. Was cessationism real or just an incorrect theological theory? The appendix I have in the back of Viral Jesus is a synopsis of the paper I wrote after studying it from a Biblical, theological, hermeneutical, historical and sociological basis. But my synopsis is amateurish compared to Dr. Stephen Crosby’s Your Empowered Inheritance NOW! A Critique of Cessationism. If you want a thorough scholarly understanding of the issue buy Crosby’s book.
Here are two further books that have helped me actually experience the goodness of the Holy Spirit as he is actually described in the New Testament. The first is Experiencing the Spirit: Developing Relationship with the Holy Spirit by Robert Heidler. Heidler is a pastor and graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. He helped me finally understand the difference between being indwelt by the Spirit and being “filled” with the Spirit and why both are essential to spiritual life and ministry.
The second book is Miracle Work: A Down-To-Earth Guide for Supernatural People by Jordan Seng. Seng explains the dynamics of spiritual power and how to learn to minister in it. Of particular help to me was his “power equation” on page 51: Authority + Gifting + Faith + Consecration = Power. If you want to know what that actually means you are going to have to read the book. But it clearly lays out how Holy Spirit power works and how we can live and minister in it. I would suggest reading Heidler before Seng. If you read Seng without understanding what Heidler explains, you might end up frustrated and confused.
Pick a question and respond:
- Why do you think those who come from my spiritual background are so shy about the Holy Spirit?
- What part do you think the excesses of some Pentecostals and charismatics have played in other Christians being shy about the Holy Spirit?
- Do you agree that experience plays no part in our understanding of theology? Do you think the Book of Acts is off limits as a source of theological insight?
- What do you think the difference between being indwelt and filled with the Holy Spirit is? Do you think they are the same thing?
 By “apostles” cessationists mean the twelve Jesus trained…and Paul. They don’t have room for apostles apart from those, even though the Bible itself mentions them.
 I’m very grateful for all I learned there, it just wasn’t all I needed to learn.