Wesleyan Theological Journal 46/1 (2011)
One of the most exciting developments in European Christianity, a movement that has been buffeted by wave after wave of secularism, has been the growth of the charismatic movement over the last thirty-five years. Since a number of similarities exist between the charismatic movement and Methodism, particularly in terms of their understanding of grace, Wesleyan theologians and pastors are thinking through the parallels between these two vital movements and are charting a course for the future.
To aid in this reflection, Christoph Raedel, Lecturer in Christian Theology at the CVJM-Kolleg (YMCA-Training College) in Kassel (Germany) and a Methodist theologian, has brought together a number of leaders, mainly from the United Methodist Church in Germany (EmK), in an edited work that has proved to be both wide ranging and carefully argued. Methodisinus und charismatische Bewegung is divided into five major sections with contributions from (1) history, (2) hymnology, and (3) theology, to which are added (4) a report of practice (Praxisberichte) and (3) a summary document.
In the first major section, historical contributions, four essayists grapple with the relationship, at times rocky, of the charismatic movement with the United Methodist Church in Germany. Bishop Walter Klaiber’s contribution is valuable for the overall discussion because of its frankness and honesty. He notes, for example, that it has been difficult at times to integrate charismatic spirituality with the tradition of Methodist piety. Given this situation, it is important for charismatic renewal communities to recognize that renewal can indeed come in many forms.
The rise of the charismatic emphasis in the United Methodist Church in former East Germany is a fascinating and engaging story containing all the elements of human drama, ranging from enthusiasm sparked by pointed evangelical preaching to persecution of faithful and courageous pastors by the Stasi, the earlier East German secret police. Indeed, Pastor Küttner, a key charismatic leader, was arrested, thrown into prison and deemed to be an enemy of the state by the communist authorities for his faithful witness to Jesus Christ. However, as with the historic church of the early centuries (»the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church«) persecution of the EmK in the east could not stop the revival that erupted in 1952. Later, from 1975 to 1986, a spiritual awakening broke out in Mecklenburg, with numerous conversions, much deliverance, and the inculcation of holiness, such that Klaiber wryly notes that many of the charismatic congregations are found east of the Elbe and Saale.
Developments within the United Methodist church in the former East Germany are, however, not-simply of interest to German Methodists, but should prove to be valuable for North American evangelical and charismatic Methodists who continue to stiffer under the leadership of mainline, anti-evangelical denomination officials. To illustrate, in the EmK in the east, church officials enforced repressive regulations against the »dangerous« charismatic trends in the church. Two key criticisms emerged: first, the charismatic emphasis, so it was claimed, constituted a parallel structure within the church and would therefore likely result in a split. Second, denominational officials reminded the charismatic Methodists, in a very condescending way, »You have not loved our church.« Remarkably enough, the same two criticisms were repeatedly leveled against evangelical Methodists in North America by culturally accommodated denominational officials.
In the second major section, the included essays indicate that the contemporary charismatic movement in Europe and historic Methodism are similar in terms of their use of hymns in the context of worship and in ongoing Christian discipleship. John and Charles Wesley, for example, referred to their collection of hymns as »a little body of practical divinity.« This emphasis on real, vital transformation now (what John Wesley himself referred to as Scriptural Christianity) has been duplicated in many of the hymns of the charismatic movement within the EmK. In other words, both movements have stressed a living faith in Jesus Christ that is personally appropriated. However, as James Steven points out in a helpful essay, some differences have arisen, in that 18th-century Methodism underscored the atoning work of Christ as the means by which persons gain access to God, whereas the praise songs of the contemporary charismatic movement by and large focus on the joy of the Christian Faith and the love of God, with few offerings treating weighty topics such as confession of sin and the ethical challenges of the faith. As Steven observes, in charismatic hymns the Holy Spirit is primarily the Spirit of Power; in Wesleyan hymns the Holy Spirit is primarily the Spirit of love.
The third major section, which focuses on theology, demonstrates quite clearly that not only is the church the work of the Holy Spirit, in that the Spirit is the effective presence of God in the Body of Christ, but that Wesley’s theology was well focused on the reality of the Holy Spirit in both the community of the faithful and in the depths of human heart is through a direct witness. Also helpful is the clear distinction in this book offered by Schneeberger between the work of Fletcher and that of Wesley, a distinction that has not always been honored by contemporary North American theologians who end up making Wesley a mere mouthpiece for Fletcher’s views. It was, after all, John Fletcher and not John Wesley who tightly identified the baptism of the Holy Spirit with entire satisfaction, Beyond this, Raedel’s contribution to this theological section displays the important truth that the personal communication of God through the Holy Spirit is not only tied to the practices of the church in terms of the sacraments and other means of grace, but it also must be comprehended in terms of both personal and social dimensions.
Problems, however, emerge in the theological section and in the appended document (Dokument, a General Conference text, originally published in the Book of Discipline, 1996) with respect to Wesley’s theology itself, specifically in terms of both the new birth (and the larger theological complex of conversion) and entire sanctification. Failing to pick up several of the nuances of Wesley’s own theological formulations, Schneeberger states quite bluntly that Aldersgate was not Wesley’s conversion (Es ist ganz gewiss keine Bekehrungserfahrung). He then repeats the well worked claim that Wesley hardly ever mentioned Aldersgate in his works — as if such an observation by itself would diminish the soteriological significance of Aldersgate. However, some of the best scholarship in Wesley studies today has marshaled considerable evidence to underscore the idea that Aldersgate is perhaps best described as Wesley’s evangelical conversion or, to use his own language, a conversion to »real, true, proper, Scriptural Christianity.« Not only did Wesley, for example, place a »narrative insert« summarizing his spiritual experience prior to May 24, 1738, thereby highlighting its significance, but he also specifically referred to this date several months later in a letter to his brother, Samuel Jr., in October 1738 and a full seven years later in a missive to »John Smith.« Does anyone remember what they did seven years ago today? If so, it must have been a very important date. That Wesley did not repeatedly mention his evangelical conversion throughout his life, perhaps for the sake of modesty or due to some other motivation, in the end proves little about the nature of his Aldersgate experience since this argument proceeds largely by silence, one of the weakest forms of reasoning.
In terms of entire sanctification, it appears that some of the theological formulations of the last section of the book (Dokument) actually confuse the process leading up to entire sanctification with Christian perfection itself. For example, after pointing out that Wesley was at times somewhat imprudent when he called for sanctification (Heiligung) immediately after the experience of justification, the document then goes on to speculate that, were Wesley to write today, he would probably emphasize sanctification as a step-by-step work of grace characterized by many experiences of daily repentance. However, it would have been far more helpful to the reader, in light of Wesley’s many theological nuances on this topic, to proceed with a number of carefully drawn distinctions.
First, holiness begins at the new birth in what can be called initial sanctification (though Wesley himself does not employ this exact phrase). Second, after the new birth, believers grow by degrees (or step by step as the Dokument puts it) in the process of sanctification. Third, entire sancti-fication, unlike the preceding process of sanctification, is not a change of degree; in other words, it is not a little more of what already was, but represents a qualitative change marked by the transition from impurity to an. entirely pure heart. Simply put, to claim that entire sanctification is a process might just be another way of stating that Christian perfection never actually happens, that one is always on the journey but one never quite arrives.
Despite these criticisms, Methodismus und charismatische Bewegung makes a generous contribution to our understanding of the problems and possibilities of the relationship between Methodism and the charismatic movement. The lessons learned will no doubt have consequences not simply for German Methodists but for the broader Wesleyan community as well, for all those heirs of Wesley who seek to be transformed by a God of holy love through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. As Raedel puts it, »The conversation between the Methodist tradition and the charismatic movement is not one between strangers but between related partners. It cannot be other than a family conversation.«
Kenneth J. Collins