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Matt Recker and the Gospel Coalition, Part 8: Charismatic Theology

In the Nick of Time

During the summer of 2014, Pastor Matt Recker published a series of blog posts in which he argued that the New Calvinism is essentially a recapitulation of the New Evangelicalism. The New Evangelicalism was a movement that began during the 1940s, blossomed during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and broke apart during the 1970s and 1980s. While it never comprised a majority of American evangelicals, it did exert a powerful influence through its principal voices (people like Harold John Ockenga, Carl F. H. Henry, Edward John Carnell, and Vernon Grounds), its leading evangelist (Billy Graham), and its leading publications (United Evangelical Action and Christianity Today). The principal mark that distinguished New Evangelicalism from the older fundamentalism was its willingness to embrace theological liberals and Roman Catholics as Christian brothers, viewing them as subjects of Christian recognition and fellowship. In addition to this primary feature, neoevangelicalism also displayed several less definitive characteristics.

One of those was its embrace of Pentecostals in full Christian cooperation. Pentecostalism—the First Wave of charismatic theology—began in about 1900. When the Azusa Street revivals splashed on the scene, fundamentalists almost unanimously rejected Pentecostalism as a serious error. While fundamentalists recognized that most Pentecostals were fellow-Christians, few were willing to cooperate with them publicly in organized endeavors.

From its beginning in 1942, however, the National Association of Evangelicals chose to admit Pentecostals. This decision marked a break with the older fundamentalist mentality, and one that marked the New Evangelicalism. While the neoevangelicals were not Pentecostals, they were unwilling to treat the cessation of miraculous gifts as a test of fellowship. They still thought that the Pentecostals were mistaken, but they chose to tolerate the mistake.

Once it gained a platform within evangelicalism, Pentecostal theology began to grow. Surprisingly, and in full continuity with New Evangelical methodology, it spread into the liberal denominations, beginning with the Episcopal Church. Eventually it even surfaced among Roman Catholics. This new and more respectable movement dropped the name Pentecostal in favor of the name charismatic. By the 1970s it had even entered the counterculture, producing saved hippies who called themselves “Jesus People.” This move toward popularity and respectability eventually became known as the Second Wave of the charismatic movement.

The Third Wave was marked by theological change. Leaders such as John Wimber and C. Peter Wagner no longer grounded healing in the atonement or tongues in Spirit baptism. Instead, they shifted the doctrinal basis for miraculous gifts toward inaugurated eschatology. On their view, the presence of the kingdom required the presence of kingdom authority, which was manifested especially through power encounters (healings, exorcisms, and even resurrections). In principle, all of the miraculous gifts were still in play, including the gift of apostle (which some, but not all, distinguished from the office of apostle).

During the 1990s, significant evangelical voices began to identify with the Third Wave. Besides Wagner and Wimber, Charles Kraft became a significant voice at Fuller Theological Seminary. Tim Warner taught courses on power encounters at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Exegetes Gordon Fee and Jack Deere became known for their charismatic theology. Perhaps most significantly, New Testament scholar and theologian Wayne Grudem became a public voice for Third Wave views.

In Grudem’s articulation, however, charismatic theology took a more moderate turn. While he wanted to make a case for the continuation of miraculous gifts—especially prophecy—he was also eager to safeguard the sufficiency of Scripture. He tried to meet both of these concerns by redefining New Testament prophecy. On Grudem’s view, Old Testament prophets spoke directly for God: what they said, God said. The New Testament equivalent was the office of apostle: the apostles spoke directly for God. New Testament prophets, however, spoke with a lower level of authority. Grudem understood New Testament prophecy as a human report of a revelation, and he understood revelation as something that God brings to mind. On Grudem’s view, New Testament prophecies have to be weighed and sifted, they can be ignored and perhaps disobeyed, and sometimes they can even be mistaken.

Beginning with Grudem’s view, a moderate version of charismatic theology has captured large segments of otherwise conservative evangelicalism. Figures such as John Piper and D. A. Carson have publicly advocated at least some elements of continuationism (indeed, Piper’s views are nearly indistinguishable from Grudem’s). C. J. Mahaney, Matt Chandler, Josh Harris, Sam Storms, and Mark Driscoll have joined the number of those who support charismatic or continuationist practices. Indeed, major evangelical quasi-denominations like Acts 29 and Sovereign Grace Ministries are committed to charismatic theology.

So Pastor Recker is quite correct that the New Calvinism has absorbed a good bit of charismatic thought and practice. But this hardly makes the New Calvinism unique. The charismatic movement is probably the single greatest theological influence within evangelical Christianity today, both in America and around the world. The holdouts—particularly those who are vocal in their rejection of charismatic theology—are few and far between. Interestingly, many of them are paleo-Calvinists like Richard Gaffin or John MacArthur. For their part, fundamentalists have rarely engaged recent charismatic ideas in any sustained way, though some have shown signs of increased openness to continuationism.

Nevertheless, fundamentalists remain largely opposed to any version of charismatic theology, and they typically limit their fellowship with those who advocate it. This limitation raises the question of how to weigh the debate between cessationism and continuationism. My judgment is that cessationists are correct in perceiving that charismatic theology is a fairly significant error, even in its more moderate forms.

Why? For several reasons. It involves a major misunderstanding of the present work of the Holy Spirit. Even the moderate (e.g., Grudem’s) versions of the error involve significant misconstruals of key biblical concepts like revelation and prophecy. Doctrinally, the first two waves misapplied the doctrine of the atonement and distorted Spirit baptism, while the Third Wave over-realizes the kingdom and overreaches the concept of “kingdom authority.” It is not an isolated error, but often leads to some distorted appropriations of the biblical text (see Carson’s Showing the Spirit, passim—which surely contains some of the strangest things that Carson has ever written). Perhaps most importantly, charismatic theology leads to some truly vicious extremes, a tendency that produces two other problems. The first is that even the more moderate charismatics (who may personally repudiate those extremes) seem unable to apply any sort of theological brake to charismatic thought as a whole. The second is that charismatics tend to embrace extreme figures on the basis of their shared charismatic experience.

In short, charismatic theology is an important error within the faith. Pastor Recker is right to be concerned about it. Furthermore, he is correct to point out some of the places in which it has surfaced. I appreciate his doing so.


Conference Notice:
Signs and Wonders? The Pentecostalization of Global Christianity

In Acts 2 Peter declares that God’s Spirit will be poured out on all people in the last days so that they prophesy, perform miracles, and have visions. Contemporary Pentecostals claim to practice these and other related miraculous gifts of the Spirit, and the influence of this movement is increasing greatly throughout the world, predominantly in the Global South.

Central Seminary professor Dr. Jeff Straub has written and taught widely on the history and present condition of Pentecostalism. His travels addressing this topic have taken him to Africa, India, and China. During Central Seminary’s MacDonald Lecture Series on February 10, Dr. Straub will trace the history of Pentecostalism, describe its current state, and make a case for the cessation of miraculous gifts from the Scriptures.

We invite you to join us for this one-day conference on the campus of Central Seminary.


This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.


Praise the Lord of Heaven
Thomas Browne (1817–1889)

Praise the Lord of Heaven, praise Him in the height;
Praise Him, all ye angels, praise Him, stars of light;
Praise Him, skies, and waters which above the skies,
When His Word commanded, stablished did arise.

Praise the Lord, ye fountains of the deeps and seas,
Rocks and hills and mountains, cedars and all trees;
Praise Him, clouds and vapors, snow and hail and fire,
Stormy wind fulfilling only His desire.

Praise Him, fowls and cattle, princes and all kings;
Praise Him, men and maidens, all created things;
For the name of God is excellent alone;
On the earth His footstool, over Heav’n His throne.

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.