Mixed Tradition

Alexander Jordan’s disconcertion has become my revelation. Up to now, the Calvinist/Arminian debate was something like Emily Dickinson’s fly – something on the barest horizon of attention, not even worthy to be considered in the light of more momentous things, which suddenly becomes The Point and consumes everything. No, I’m not saying that I discovered Reformed theology, and it was as if I had been born again (again). I mean the realization this particular divide, which seems so academic, tends to be so thoroughly embedded in the church’s worldview

The charismatic movement ruined the divide. Somewhere around the beginning of the worship wars, when churches all over were switching from organs to guitars, something else was happening that sort of rode along with the more visible “praise and worship” movement. Believers from every tradition began to understand the work of the Holy Spirit in a more robust way, a way that included all the activity described in the New and Old Testaments. Perhaps they were witnesses to demonstrations of His power, or perhaps they read the text without the benefit of explanations why these things were no longer models for Christian life.

As believers began to study these things, often there was no voice in their own group teaching about the work of the Holy Spirit. So they had to look outside their own borders, and it’s just the nature of things that as people learned about the Holy Spirit, they also took on the cultural trappings of whatever group it was they were learning from. This is intimately connected with the praise and worship movement because, while there is no direct link between the work of the Spirit and they way you structure your liturgy, the changes in liturgy and the teachings on the Holy Spirit were traveling in the same currents. Much the way you can put dye in water in order to study the currents, you can almost tell a person’s understanding about the Holy Spirit by the style of worship they espouse – though lately the worship style has gone far ahead, while the doctrine has lagged far behind.

The result was a thorough mixing of traditions, causing no end of dismay to people like me who feel compelled to understand how everything fits together. To our credit, the charismatic and praise and worship movements were probably the heart and soul of the ecumenical movement for at least half a century: Because we had these things in common, we were able to look upon ourselves as “one holy catholic church.” There was a sense that there was a united Christian culture forming. To our shame, these movements at the very same time undermined our commitments to thinking through our faith. What’s an unimportant little thing like theology? Theology has divided us, so we’ll throw it out! The result is the hodgepodge that partly threw me into my turmoil nearly a decade ago. I couldn’t work it out.

Now (finally) I think I’ve worked it out so that I have a framework for knowing what I’m talking about. The charismatic emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit, contra materialistic naturalism may have been brought to the forefront through an Arminian tradition, but it’s by no means a “new doctrine.” In fact it’s part of what the church has believed from the beginning, and by all appearances continued to believe without contest until as late as the 17th century. A charismatic understanding of the Holy Spirit (that is, that he continues to do a bit more than work behind the scenes to help you come to saving faith and acknowledge the inerrancy of the Bible) is simply part of a proper understanding of the Trinity. It has priority over Reformed/Arminian debates the same way that a proper understanding of Jesus’ two natures has priority. Get this wrong, and you’ve misapprehended the nature of God.

These things settled, I can finally move on to how they play out in the area of congregational worship. (You’d thought I’d forgotten, hadn’t you?)

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