Packer on Pentecostalism

I tend to associate J.I. Packer with a kind of Reformed evangelicalism which values intellectualism more than experiences and is suspicious of any kind of manifest activity of the Holy Spirit. So I was interested to read at Pentecostal pastor Brian’s blog sunestauromai – living the crucified life an extract from an interview Packer has just given to a Pentecostal periodical. Here is most of what Brian quotes from Packer, apparently with Brian’s emphasis, and the periodical’s American spelling:

The Pentecostal emphasis on life in the Spirit, which became a big thing at the turn of the 20th century, was absolutely right. It was an emphasis that hadn’t been fully grasped by other evangelicals for a long time. The up-front quest for fellowship with God that grabbed the whole of the heart and therefore had emotional overtones and the openness to a recurrence of some of the signs of the Kingdom was right. …

It’s simply a marvelous work of God that when the Pentecostal version of the gospel has been preached all around the world for the past half-century there has been a tremendous harvest. It’s a wonderful work in our time, which we can set against the decline of Christianity in North America and Western Europe. Most notably in Africa and Asia, Christianity has been roaring ahead through the Pentecostal version of the Christian message and life in the Spirit. I celebrate it and thank God for it. There have been older evangelicals who have set themselves against distinctive Pentecostal emphases as if there’s something wrong with it. I have not lined up with those folk and indeed have argued that their attitude is mistaken.

Now I am not a Pentecostal by denomination; like Packer I am an Anglican. But I am one of many Anglicans, and people from other “traditional” denominations, who over the last 40 years (for me personally, for nearly 30 years) have embraced what used to be considered the distinctive Pentecostal emphases, on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. True, many of us have rejected, as I think Packer did, the Pentecostal teaching about the necessity of a specific “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” experience evidenced by speaking in tongues. But we hold that such experiences and gifts are good and to be desired, and that these gifts should be used, with proper safeguards, in the life of the church.

This is of course a summary of what is known as the Charismatic Movement. Perhaps in some ways the movement is dead, as some have alleged. But if so, it is not because its distinctives have been abandoned, more because they have become more and more acceptable in the life of the church and are no longer charismatic or Pentecostal distinctives.

But these Pentecostal and charismatic distinctives have often been viewed with great suspicion by British Anglicans of the Oak Hill tradition who look up to Packer as one of their Christian heroes. Perhaps Packer can help to persuade them that the good things in the Pentecostal tradition are good for reviving not just Pentecostal churches in Africa and Asia but also Anglican churches in North America and Western Europe.

0 thoughts on “Packer on Pentecostalism

  1. Peter, this is an important issue, and I’m encouraged to see someone like Packer positively evaluating the Pentecostal experience.

    I personally have been encouraged by the Pentecostal emphasis on the Spirit’s work but not all of it.

  2. The emphasis upon experience is scarcely new in Packer. His book Keep in Step with the Spirit is opposed to much that is charismatic but sees experience as central. Also if one reads his preface to Ryle’s Holiness the place, both positive and negative, of experience is movingly described. In small doses, his classic book Knowing God is also very moving. Packer does comment (sourly?) that the charismatic church is said to be in search of a theology but is actually more in need of a theology than in search of it. Charismatic theology has moved on greatly since then but one can still recognise the truth in the quote from Gordon Fee of a man who thanked his Pentecostal friends who taught him the love the Bible and his Presbyterian friends who taught him to understand it.

  3. Thanks, TC and Timothy. I was aware of Keep in Step with the Spirit, but haven’t read it, so I am not able to comment on it. I suppose my real point is, if experience is key to revival as Packer suggests, and the western church needs revival, why is experience not given more emphasis in actual practice?

  4. This is very encouraging to see such a well-known respected scholar say positive things about the pentecostal-charismatic movement. He obviously understands and recognizes the catholicity and apostolicity of charisms in the Church.

  5. Peter, I still believe a residue of Dead Fundamentalism remains and is the central reason. I could be wrong.

    Kevin, I couldn’t agree more with your observations.

  6. Absolutely, TC. That dead fundamentalism needs to be revived, literally given new life, or else, if it has become gangrenous (2 Timothy 2:17), cut away.

    Kevin, I too agree.

  7. Thanks for the plug Peter. I did give the full quote as I saw it on the TPE website and the emphasis are mine, I went back and highlighted the last sentence as well – namely that those who are against Pentecostalism are mistaken.

    Many evangelicals probably avoid experiential aspects of Christianity mainly because of those on the fringe of the charismatic movement and instances such as the Toronto Blessing and the Brownsville revival back in the 90’s – some pretty wild stuff happened there – really wild. But in the midst of it all the Spirit was moving and changing lives.

    Even so, experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit does not have to be all wild and crazy. It can be deep and contemplative.

    I think too the Western church has issues with Pentecostals because they tend to eschew biblical scholarship and are typically anti-intellectual – but, I think more younger Pentecostals are getting educated (Masters level and higher) and this will help turn things around in the next few decades.

    Finally, if I may, I think the experience of the Pentecost event should be a normal aspect of the Christian life – Aimee Semple McPherson hated calling it Pentecostalism and preferred to call it “Bible Christianity.” I would side with her.

  8. Yes, that’s right. I don’t know much about what they are doing, but I do know they are studying Pentecostalism from a sympathetic position. Other British scholars in this area are Mark Cartledge, formerly at Birmingham, and Max Turner, who I think is still at London School of Theology, formerly London Bible College where I studied theology. But I don’t know much about this field.

  9. Jonathan, you are no longer welcome to comment on this blog. This is because you have ignored my warnings and for a third time posted as a comment a long essay which does not interact with the post or the preceding comments. I am taking steps to block further comments from you. If you persist in attempting to post such material, I will report you as a spammer, which will make it hard for you to comment on any blog and may get you in trouble with your ISP.

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