The following is inspired by Mockingbird contributor and conference speaker Dr. Simeon Zahl’s essay “Reformation Pessimism or Pietist Personalism? The Problem of the Holy Spirit in Evangelical Theology” which can be found in the recently published new volume, New Perspectives for Evangelical Theology.
For Christians who have been given to see through the fog of human life and its inherent sinful trappings, there is often a deep uncertainty when it comes to the Holy Spirit. Modern Pentecostal theology has told us that humanity can easily perceive the movement of the Spirit in everyday life. We are told that the Spirit is at work when we do the right thing. We are told that the Spirit can help us make choices in our life through supernatural signs. We are also (often) told that our deepest desires will be fulfilled if we asked God in the proper way. Yet when I look at my life and the world, far too often such promises seem empty or precarious. I know myself to be too easily self-deceived. I know how easily I can coerce God to bless what I sinfully want. What can seem to be God’s hand at work is often my subconscious’ doing.
Did Martin Luther help solve this dilemma? Yes and no. It is Luther’s low anthropology which sees through the false piety of spiritual “enthusiasm.” Luther knows that we cannot properly perceive God’s work.
For Luther, God is only known through the proclamation of the word. As Zahl says,
“For Luther [in his treatise Against the Heavenly Prophets and in the Smalcald Articles], any claim to experience of the Spirit apart from the direct instrumentality of the ‘external Word’ (verbum externum) is false by definition. This view of the Word is strikingly high. The action of the Spirit in the world is tied so completely and directly to the scriptural text as to border on the magical. Luther is saying that in the post-apostolic church the Spirit will never act in a decisive way in a person’s life apart from during a sermon or the reception of the sacraments. ‘Damascus’ experiences, for example, do not happen anymore—God has chosen to speak instead through the Bible alone.”
Yet this, to me, seems to be a very limited view of God’s work in my life and the world. Revelation does not only occur from eleven to twelve o’clock on Sunday morning. Yet how can God be known without finding the projections of my ego?
Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt: A Solution?
Blumhardt was both a Charismatic healer and a committed Lutheran. His unique synthesis of the two theologies points toward a middle-way between Charismatic Theology and Lutheranism that accounts for the benefits of both without falling prey to their failures. According to Zahl:
“In Blumhardt’s view, although God does sometimes give the feeling of ‘a kind of peace with God,’ and does communicate with his people in a personal and guiding way, God’s primary way of doing so is through ‘negative’ experiences, in which our guilt and the true limits of our supposed autonomy are made manifest. Through these experiences of the Spirit, we die to ourselves again and again, in such a way as to pave the way for transformation and new life. Blumhardt’s watchword during one of the most important phases of his development was ‘Die, so that Jesus may live!’”
“Such experiences are less susceptible to deception and co-option than are ‘positive’ personalistic experiences, because they contradict rather than conform to our will and desires. We are not likely to make them up, to be forging them in our unconscious to meet some secret need, because the Spirit works against the forces unknown to us as well as those that are known. Excluded here, therefore, would be any masochistic appreciation of negativity, because such masochism would really be a veiled or indirect ‘positive’ experience…. A truly ‘negative’ experience of the Spirit drives directly against our egoism no matter how subtle a form that egoism takes. This is why the thwarting of the will, including especially the sub-conscious will, is a very helpful way of describing what is taking place when the Spirit is active in this role. If an experience is easily assimilable into a comfortable category or pattern of control, it is not ‘negative’ at all.”
“What we are talking about here could be called a ‘charismatic theology of the cross.’ ‘Positive’ experiences of God in peace and joy are not excluded, but they are viewed with wariness. God is present personally and affectively in our life, but first and foremost in our darkness and our difficulties, because of the degree of our basic opposition to him and interest in ourselves that persists (to whatever degree) in the Christian life. If God appears to become ‘silent’ in our prayer life, for example, the discomfort and anxiety this experience produces is a far surer sign of divine presence—‘birth-pangs’—than any direct and comforting guidance or ecstasy might be.
The hope we have in such experiences, grounded in the hope secured in Christ’s resurrection, is that the ‘negative’ word is not the final Word, and that the God of Jesus Christ is at work here, through the Spirit, for our good, both in this life and in the life to come.”
p.s. Simeon expounded on many of this topic in his recent conference talk, “Experiencing The Spirit In Failure And In Love”.