Saturday, September 26, 2009

Charismatic vs. Institutional? Not that simple...

The other day I picked up the book The Holy Spirit: Ancient Christian Traditions by Stanley M. Burgess and have been quite enjoying it. The author is a Lutheran I believe, but he takes a pretty balanced look at the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology) in the early Church. The premise of the book is that a Christian pneumatology was never adequately developed in the early Church due to the excessive focus on Christology and the Christological-Trinitarian disputes of the early centuries. The result (so the author says) is that the early Church never reached a true consensus on the place of the Spirit in the life of the Church, which gave rise early on to a rupture between those who saw the Spirit as continually present to the Church in its institutions, sacraments and liturgies (which the author calls the 'major tradition') and those who saw the Spirit as dynamically active supernaturally via charismata in the lives of the faithful (which he calls the 'minor tradition'). Thus there is a fundamental tension between charismatic and institutional.

Though the "institutional" or major tradition eventually became dominant, the author argues that the charismatic (minor tradition) has always remained vibrant, and that the most fruitful periods of Church history have arisen when the two traditions "cross fertilize" one another. Nevertheless, an adequate pneumatology has never been developed and even to this day the divide between the institutional and the charismatic persists in the modern disputes over the proper role, if any, of the charismatic renewal within Christianity.

It is an interesting thesis, but from a historian's point of view I can't say that it is entirely accurate. Those familiar with the writings of the saints of the early Church know that the 'institutional" Catholics never stated that the movement of the Spirit was exclusive only to the sacraments and the liturgy. St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom and all the others all believed in visions, dreams, miracles, exorcisms and the like. According to the author, St. Cyprian is representative of the furthest end of the "major tradition" spectrum: one who sees the work of the Spirit as bound up with the institutional Church and the episcopacy. However, many of these great theologians, including Cyprian, emphasized the continued work of the Holy Spirit in the Church as evidence of Christianity's truth, citing miracles, dreams and other phenomenon that they themselves witnessed or heard from trustworthy sources. To say that the hierarchical "institutional" Church of the first centuries was altogether mistrusting of charismatic manifestations of spiritual gifts is simply false. On the contrary, they embrace them warmly when they are legitimate.

But that last clause, "when they are legitimate" is essential. There are legitimate charismata and illegitimate charismata, a fact which allows St. Augustine to enthusiastically endorse the miracles and dreams of St. Amrbose while condemning the ecstatic visions of the Montanists. While there has never been a fundamental mistrust of supernatural phenomenon in the Church, there has indeed been a proper and just reluctance to accept over-enthusiastic manifestations of charismata which seem to reduce the work of the Holy Spirit to the level of the experiential.

While this book is (in my opinion) a little errant in the oversimplistic distinction the author tries to draw between charismatic and institutional, it is fascinating for its inclusion of many obscure Gnostic texts, some from ancient Gnostic liturgies. Some of the ancient texts preserve what appears to be glossolalia-like utterances (i.e., "tongues") in the old heretical Gnostic conventicles. Take this example:

The second ogdoad power, the Mother, the virginal Barbelon epititoch [...] the uninterpretable power, the ineffable Mother.

And the throne of his [glory] was established [in it, this one] on which in unrevealable name [is inscribed], on the is the Word [the Father of the light] of everything, he who came forth from the silence, while he rests in his silence, he whose name [is] in an invisible symbol. A hidden, [invisible] mystery came forth iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii [iii] eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee [ee o] ooooooooooooooooo uu [uuu] uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee aaaaaaaa[aaaa] aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa oooooooooooooooo [oo] ooooooooooooooo.

ie ieus eo eu eo oua! Really, truly, O Tesseus Mazareus Yessedekeus, O living water, O child of the child, O glorious name, really, trully, aion o on [or: o existing aeon], iiii eeee oooo uuuu oooo aaaa [a], really trully, ei aaaa oooo, O existing one who sees the aeons! Really truly, aee eee iiii uuuuuu ooooooooo, who is eternally eternal, really truly, iea aio, in the heart, who exists, u aei eis aei, ei o ei, ei os ei forever, Thou art what Thou art, Thou art who Thou art!
[The Gospel of the Egyptians, iii.2.42, 43-44, 66]

What gibberish! This is perhaps the only record we have of what "tongues", or at least a heretical perversion of the true gift of tongues, sounded like in the Gnostic communities.

While I can't say the theme of the book is correct, it is definitely worth reading if you have an interest in the early heresies, and this book takes you through a lot of the deviations and perversions of doctrine in the first several centuries of the Church that had to do with errant ideas of the work of the Holy Spirit. I don't think I agree that this division between institution and charismata is as fundamental in the life of the Church as the author says, but it is undeniable that these type of movements have plagued the Church at ever stage of its development. However, whenever a wacked out, overly-experientially based movement arises, I think it has less to do with a unresolved tension in the Church itself as to a popular reaction against Christians who fail to live and make use of the charismata that already exist in the Church. If all Catholics devoted themselves to prayer and fasting and were exemplars of holiness and piety, there would be little need for these fringe movements to pop up with their false promises of a more "authentic" experience of God (I'm not speaking here of the mainstream 'charismatic renewal', but some of this could apply to that movement as well).

As has always been the case throughout history, the best remedy for heretical movements and fringe apparition-based groups is for the rank and file Catholics to live their faith to the fullest.


Mara Joy said...

I especially like your closing conclusions!

Kate said...

Here's a post I can wholeheartedly agree with!

I found it interesting as well that there seems to be a very strong movement in some Catholic charismatic communities towards Carmelite spirituality - which seems to affirm your feeling that these movements arise precisely because of a longing for that depth and sort of spirituality.