Tips for Defending Charismatic Theology to Non-Charismatic Believers[i]
In one sense, Charismatics have finally achieved a certain level of respectability within the
Evangelical movement. Today, we have academic societies and publications[ii] dedicated to the study of Charismatic and Pentecostal issues in which even non-Charismatics participate. Our books can now be published outside of denominationally-based publishing houses.[iii] One could reasonably argue that the movement has finally found a seat at the Evangelical table.
While gratifying that much of the overt and bitter opposition to charismatic theology has diminished in recent years[iv], Charismatics still confront pockets of theological opposition. In the spirit of having answers for those that question (1 Pet 3:15) and rebuttals for those that doubt (Tit 1:9), I have several tips to help defend and propagate Charismatic beliefs.
Before delving into the tips, I must lay a little ground work. First, these paper deals with apologetics within the Christian community. Although elements of the following tips may be helpful for responding to non-believers that purpose is secondary to the goals in this paper. Second, apologetics is a dangerous game not just because of the important theological and spiritual issues at stake, but also due to the emotions and pride that can accompany debates. Certain personalities are drawn to the challenge of ideological conflicts. If this trait characterizes you, I want to caution you to avoid the error of being more concerned about winning the argument than helping a brother understand the truth. Spiritual maturity is a critical element in responsible apologetics. We must always remember that our debates with fellow believers should have a different tone and spirit than our work with non-believers. Furthermore, one must employ wisdom when selecting among the following tips. Just as a golfer chooses different clubs for different situations, so apologists must select the right tip for the particular situation.
Third, understand that non-Charismatics fall into two main groups, belligerent and non-belligerent. Those that are hostile to Charismatic theology, I call anti-Charismatics. They can be identified by their public and vocal opposition. Their statements may range from those showing great theological care and nuance to those dripping with venom and derision. Thankfully, most non-Charismatics fall into the non-belligerent camp, which I call the non-Charismatics. Non-Charismatics are not hostile to Charismatics as they do not consider Charismatics to be heretical, just mistaken or a system that does not fit their personality. I suggest that non-Charismatics are more likely to open to change than anti-Charismatics. However, do not underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to break the hard-heart of anti-Charismatics.
Tip #1. Ask the anti-Charismatic to tell his/her testimony and experience in Christ.
It may sound strange but I believe that many anti-Charismatics took this position because of a bad experience. In other words, their bias against Charsmatic theology stems from experience not exegesis. Whether their negative experience was legitimate, or simply a misunderstanding on their part, is ultimately irrelevant. The point is that their negative experience with Charismatic theology or behavior has colored their understanding and view of Charismatics. I discovered this truth during a conversation with a non-Charismatic minister. He recounted a sad story of how his Charismatic mentor ultimately failed him. I could sense that his emotional pain still lingered even though many years had passed. I can only wonder how this brother’s theology would have developed if his Charismatic mentor had treated him differently.
The upshot of this tip is three-fold. First, do not debate with someone whose views have been adopted due to a negative emotional experience. Facts rarely trump emotion. If you have any doubts, consider how parents react when told that their child is below average due to a lack of ability rather than lack of effort. Even though everyone knows that 50% of the population must have below average intelligence, everyone thinks they are not part of that group. Second, personal stories will help you understand not only your interlocutor but others who have had similar experiences. Frequently, just listening in an empathetic way will be cathartic for anti-Charismatics. Your openness will let them know that “not all Charismatics are alike” and thus stimulate them to reassess their opinion of the movement. Finally, their stories will assist you in avoiding unnecessary offence with other non-Charismatics. You should also privately commit yourself to live your life in a manner that will avoid adding to his list of Charismatic failures.
Red herring arguments rely on directing the debate to irrelevant or secondary issues.[vi] Anti-Charismatics frequently employ red herring arguments in their crusade against the evils of the Charismatics. We need to be able to recognize them so that we can force our critics to address the substantive issues at stake rather than illegitimate ones. The following are two common examples of red herring arguments:
I heard this one in one of my theology classes. Besides being a gross generalization, this argument misses the point. I responded by telling my instructor, on the basis of his argument, we should jettison preaching because, the Lord knows, I have heard plenty of preaching which exhibited poor homiletics and inadequate theological rigor. The professor did not provide a rejoinder.
This argument should never be made by Christians because it adopts the same rationalistic perspective used by atheists to deny their belief in God. Remind your critic that atheists argue that God has never appeared to them or provided them with evidence that He exists either. Therefore, ask your non-Charismatic critics, “Do you think that the atheists are correct in their use of this argument? If not, then why do you think it should be used as an argument against the Charismata?”
The beauty of this tactic lies in its avoidance of endless debates over evidence. The fact is, you will not be able to provide enough acceptable examples of miraculous healing to convince your non-Charismatic brother that God still miraculously heals today. By avoiding the evidentiary issues, you can move directly to the heart of the issue, namely what does the Scripture teach about the continuation of the gifts?
Before turning to the next tip, I must caution readers that exposing red herrings will rarely convince your opponents. However, they need to be rejected because red herrings allow people to avoid the difficult work of engaging the role and place of the charismata. As with all prejudices, people are rarely thankful to those who reveal them. Be prepared for your opponent to abruptly end the conversation or display an angry outburst. Do not follow or hound them. Let the Holy Spirit work on them when their emotions cool down. Neither should you feel guilty over their behavior. The truth frequently offends people. Jesus made lots of people angry and mad. While we should not seek such events, we should not avoid them when the truth is at stake.
Use the irony argument if you think that the critic is spiritually mature enough to question his own bias. I love this tactic because of its shock value. But you have to be very careful with it as some Christians may be very insulted by it. I discovered this argument when I noticed how frequently non and anti-Charismatics claim that God had spoken to them. I was surprised by people, who, on the one hand, denied God’s continued verbal direction to His church (cf. Acts 11:28; 16:9f), but on the other, believed that God gave them personal guidance about job choices, financial decisions etc.
The argument proceeds as follows. I wait until they mention how God is leading them in a particular way. I then remark how Charismatic they sound, namely that God is talking to them today. You can modify it by saying, “I didn’t know you were a Charismatic.” If they seem bewildered by your comments, inform them that Charismatics believe that God did not go silent in 100 A.D. but that He still directs His sheep and His church (cf. Rev 2-4). Be prepared to let them know that Charismatics differentiate between Scriptural revelation, which has ended, and God’s continuing and providential guidance for specific circumstances noted in the scriptures above.
The beauty of this tactic rests in the way it mentally disrupts critics of Charismatics. The argument shows that their opposition to Charismatics is not due to theology, because they actually practice it in their own lives, but due to their cultural bias against it. How the non-Charismatic responds to this point will tell you a great deal about their spiritual maturity and willingness to be open to correction.
Tip #4. Counter hasty generalization arguments.[vii]
A hasty generalization occurs when one moves from an individual or small sample and then proceeds to understand all members of the group on the basis of that insufficient sample size. Here is how the argument unfolds. The anti-Charismatic provides a litany of problems with the theology held by a small group of highly visible Charismatics. He then proceeds to argue that all Charismatics suffer from the same theological errors.
The easiest way to address this fallacious argument is to point to various scholars such as Gordon Fee and Wayne Grudem to highlight that the Charismatic movement does have orthodox and highly qualified theologians defending its views. Tell your opponent to argue with the arguments proffered by these people rather than the antics of those who may be more publicly visible.
The best argument to help convince non-Charismatics is presenting them a life full of the fruit of the Spirit. The fact is the “Charismaniacs” have done great damage to the faith. Hucksters, the flamboyant, and even the down right heretical have alienated many faithful Christians who would have been otherwise open to the Spirit’s work. Anti-Charismatics have been rightly offended by so-called Spirit-led people who act in ways which directly violate Scriptural mandates. A truly Spirit-led life must exemplify Christ-like wisdom in all aspects of our behavior. Seek wisdom and you will find that God will help us lead our fellow believers see the full work and ministry of the Spirit too (Jms 1:5).
As noted above, employment of these arguments will rarely result in the capitulation of an adherent to the anti-Charismatic cause. But you must remain patient. Do not underestimate the Holy Spirit’s ability to use these defenses of Charismatic theology to gradually wear down a cessassionist’s views. These arguments can help move someone from being anti-Charismatic to non-Charismatic. I suspect they can also nudge a non-Charismatic just a little closer to the fullness of the Charismatic life.
Dr. Vantassel received his Ph.D. in theology from Trinity Theological Seminary in Newburgh, IN in 2008. He has an M.A.T.S. in Old Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in S. Hamilton, MA and a B.S. in Biblical Studies from Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He is an instructor of theology at King’s Evangelical Divinity School in the U.K. His latest book is entitled, Dominion over Wildlife? An Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations (Wipf and Stock, 2009) defends a Christian’s moral right to utilize animals against the claims of the Christian Animal Rights Movement. He is also the Assistant Editor for the Evangelical Review of Society and Politics, a peer-reviewed publication dedicated to issues related to Christianity and politics. He lives with his wife in Lincoln, Nebraska.
[i] The author has expanded this article from one entitled Stephen M. Vantassel, “Tips for Communicating to Our Non-Charismatic Reformed Brothers,” Association of Charismatic Reformed Churches (Newsletter) 2007.
[ii] Journals include The Pneuma Review and Pneuma,
[iii] Hendrickson Publishers in Peabody, Massachusetts is one significant example.
[iv] E.g. Stephen Vantassel, “Book Review: Charismatic Chaos by John F. Macarthur Jr. (Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 1992). Pp.308.,” Paraclete 28, no. 1 (1994).
[v] Fallacious arguments can be classified in different ways. For details on a variety of logical fallacies consult Patrick J. Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic, Second ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1985).100-158. Readers should understand that author of this article has simplified terms in order to enhance reader understanding.
[vi] Ibid. 148-149.