A Tale of Two Assemblies: FCGA17 and CofSGA17 — Personal Reflections

sad departure

Walking up towards the Mound from Edinburgh Waverly, on a certain week in May – you are struck by something odd. Ministers. Lots of them. But then as you approach the Mound you notice something else. Like a fork in the road the Ministers split into two groups. Some head towards St Columba’s Free Church and the others head towards the Church of Scotland’s Assembly hall. It Did strike me as odd that this scenario has been playing out every year since 1843. Most church splits really go their separate ways – yet every year the CofS and FC ministers and elders are reminded of the disruption. I cannot help but wonder that surely there comes a time when you need to delete your ex-girlfriend from your Facebook friends’ list?

FCGA17

This week I had the joy (yes, joy) of attending the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland as a Commissioner for Glasgow and Argyle Presbytery. This is not a detailed report – you can watch the videos, and read the reports for yourself – instead this is simply a few short reflections on some personal observations. 

Connections

FCGA17 was a humbling experience. It’s one thing tapping into the GA, online from afar – it’s another thing being there as part of the assembly. I’m reasonably new to the Free Church, so I don’t know most people – and most people don’t know me. Social media helps networking on one level – but on another level it’s superficial, one-dimensional and detached from context. Social networking may help us overcome geographical chasms, but it doesn’t develop depth of relationship. You just can’t get to know people via social media. In this sense, it was good to meet a number of folk in the flesh.

Humbling

I was encouraged by most of the GA. When I wasn’t encouraged, I might have been drifting off because we were dealing with some boring bits (or slightly amused at how a church models its governing affairs like a mini parliament) – but most of the time I was deeply impressed by the contribution of many of the other leaders. One of the things that really encourages me about the FC is depth. There really is a depth in many of the members. There is a depth of knowledge, wisdom, spirituality and godliness among many of the men and women who spoke at Assembly. I’m thinking for example of Irene Howat whose love for Christ and children was and is so evident. I’m thinking of Ms Elaine Duncan (Bible Society) who exhorted the incoming Moderator as she presented him with a Bible – her words carried conviction, depth and spiritual authority. I’m also thinking of some of the elders and ministers – both young and old, who just oozed character. Maybe it’s just the fact that I spent too long in youth ministry, and contemporary charismatic-evangelicalism – but the lack of hype, spin and triumphalism at the GA was just brilliant – and as I said, humbling.

Fellowship

The fellowship was fantastic. I had the opportunity to get to know some new folks, and to get know a little better some folks I’ve just got to know. Having relocated from the Isle of Skye, where not only are Free Churches ten a penny – but you quickly get to know folks because it is such a small community – in the central belt, FCs are more thinly spread and ministry commitments prevent you from getting to know other leaders and ministers in neighbouring towns. I really loved getting to know some of the ex-CofS guys, and it was also great to spend some time around food with a few of the senior leaders. And it was brilliant to catch up with some of the Skye leaders – not least my former minister.

Ministry 

The ministry was top-notch. It really was. There was a clarion call to “tremble” at God’s word in repentance and humility; a call to mission; a call to semper-reformanda (the Moderator, Derek Lamont’s opening address was simply outstanding and cutting-edge); a call to holiness, discipleship and accountability Really, really good stuff.

Unity in Diversity

There was an obvious diversity in the FCGA17. Okay – perhaps not enough – it was very white-western-male-centred – but within that group there certainly were a mix of backgrounds, personalities and approaches. Some more conservative than others. Others more progressive than others. Yet at the same time there was a unity – and this was particularly felt at various times in the GA when there were references to the doctrine of scripture. Scriptural authority is not a peripheral doctrine in the FC, it is foundational – and that was clear at many levels.

I loved how folks from a non-CofS background were welcomed the message was clear, “this is your church” – in other words, just because you weren’t brought up FC –that doesn’t mean you are visitor or a second-class member. It was very encouraging to hear those words – not just for the CofS guys, but others who have come in from other denominations.

I also liked the fact that the chairman of the Board of Ministry made it clear that the FC was not an “anti-gay” church. With ministers and members of the CofS leaving over issues surrounding human sexuality – this may be the assumption that people make. It was great to hear an ex-CofS minister affirm this by making clear that it was the CofS’s departure from the doctrine of scripture which has led many to leave the CofS.

Humorous

There were loads of laughs. The banter was brilliant – not least between myself and my commuting comrade – a minister who happened to be travelling via the same train route as myself. 

Sad

This was also a sombre assembly. An assembly marked by tragedy. This was an assembly with a shadow over it. The passing of Iain D. Campbell, and the circumstances surrounding it, certainly impressed upon this ‘young’ preacher’s mind, the words of Tozer, “The world is not a playground, it is a battleground.” There is an enemy of our souls, and we all must be ever-watchful.

Sorrow was further compressed by the events in Manchester. One of the most powerful moments was our morning of prayer where we also sang psalms of lament. At moments like this – we need the breadth and depth of human experience that can only be found in the psalter.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul

and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Hope-filled

Whilst there was sadness, there was also hope – a lot of it actually. The Free Church is bursting with vision. That’s no exaggeration. The Mission Board, the Board of Ministry, and the Seminary Board and the Board of Trustees, are full of vision, passion, and strategy for mission, ministry and training in the 21st century.

Final reflections

This week in May, ministers at the Mound did not just continue to part ways geographically, and denominationally – they continued to part ways theologically. In one assembly, there was a clear message sent out that the church is not anti-gay, but it’s conscience is forever bound by the authority of scripture. In another assembly, a message of secular inclusion and scriptural abandonment rang out loud in clear. In paving the way for ministers to perform same-sex weddings, the Church of Scotland has abandoned the revelation of God’s Word. Maybe it’s a good thing after all that both assemblies run on the same week. The annual ritual also becomes a means of self-reflection. A constant reminder of the importance of not allowing the state to define our consciences, theology and practice.

Of course, while the ministers of each denomination head towards their respective assemblies – there are interactions. Friendly words – and not so friendly words are exchanged. I think of the minister from one assembly who confessed that he wished that he was attending the other assembly but felt that for him it was “too late”. But I also think of the exchange between a Church of Scotland Minister and a Free Church Minister who had left the CofS to join the Free Church. “Turn Coat” mocked the Church of Scotland minister. That’s simply poor taste. It’s also ironic – to be happy to be a turncoat when it comes to the Word of God yet to boast faithfulness to an increasingly apostate denomination is not a reason for boasting. As our retiring moderator reminded us, “These are the ones I look on with favour: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.” Isaiah 66:2

There are no perfect Christians, ministers or denominations. But by the grace of God, there are real encouraging signs in the FC. God is at work. The priority is God, His Word and his world. After almost 500 years of the reformation, there is a remnant who are still saying “give me Scotland…” Whether we are also saying …” or I die” is yet to be seen – but the signs are encouraging. May God keep us in his grace, and empower us for his purpose and glory – for Jesus’ sake, Amen.  

The importance and relevance of the Westminster Confession (Part 1)

Tonight at our mid-week meeting we kicked off a series on the Westminster Confession of Faith. We tapped into some of Vandixhoorn’s book, ‘Confessing the Faith’ for historical context; we drew from Trueman’s ‘Creedal Imperative’ for insight into why Confessionalism is essential for the well-being of the church and the preservation of the gospel and we began a study on WCF 1.1. We then explored how WCF 1.1 can help us become better at evangelism. It was a lively discussion and we heard some good testimony which demonstrated some of the material we were looking at.

Here are some of the highlights, followed by the study questions.

Carl Trueman

“The pastor who thinks he is being biblical by declaring he has no creed but the Bible may actually, upon reflection, find that his position is more shaped by the modern world than he at first realized.”

“It would be a tragic irony if the rejection of creeds and confessions by so many of those who sincerely wish to be biblically faithful turned out to be not an act of faithfulness but rather an unwitting capitulation to the spirit of the age.”

“Creeds and confessions are, in fact, necessary for the well-being of the church, and that churches that claim not to have them place themselves at a permanent disadvantage when it comes to holding fast to that form of sound words which was so precious to the aging Paul as he advised his young protégé, Timothy. . . The need for creeds and confessions is not just a practical imperative for the church but is also a biblical imperative.”

“A church with a creed or confession has a built-in gospel reality check. It is unlikely to become sidetracked by the peripheral issues of the passing moment; rather it will focus instead on the great theological categories that touch on matters of eternal significance.”

Vandixhoorn

The Westminster assembly (1643-1653)

Two years prior to the gathering of an assembly of theologians in Westminster Abbey (from whence the Westminster Confession of Faith derives its name), a prominent pastor named Edmund Calamy urged the House of Commons to reform the Church of England. . . Calamy urged Parliament to ‘reform the Reformation itself’. It was not until 1643 that Calamy’s modern reformation took shape in the calling of what proved to be the last of the great post-Reformation synods.

The Westminster Confession of Faith traces:

  • the great history of our redemption:
  • the grim realities of the fall,
  • God’s gracious covenants with man,
  • the stunning announcement of salvation,
  • and our sure hope of eternal life—

 

 All these are sketched out in bold but considered strokes. It is because of the clarity of this gospel presentation in all of its parts that the Westminster Confession of Faith finds itself in the first rank of great Christian creeds

Modern Translation of WCF 1.1

Although the light of nature and the works of creation and providence manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, to such an extent that men are without excuse, yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and of his will which is necessary for salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at various times and in diverse ways, to reveal himself and to declare his will to his church; and afterward— for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh and the malice of Satan and of the world— to commit this revelation wholly to writing. Therefore the Holy Scripture is most necessary, God’s former ways of revealing his will to his people having ceased.

Scripture Proofs 1.1

a Rom. 2: 14,15; Rom. 1: 19,20; Psa. 19: 1-3; Rom. 1: 32, with Rom. 2: 1. b 1 Cor. 1: 21; 1 Cor. 2: 13,14. c Heb. 1: 1. d Prov. 22: 19-21; Luke 1: 3,4; Rom. 15: 4;

Questions for study

  1. Look up the “scripture proofs” and compare them with WCF 1.1. Do you think the WCF is an accurate summary of these scriptures?
  2. What does WCF: 1.1 teach us about:
  • God?
  • Creation?
  • The Scriptures?
  • Humanity?

    3.
    What does the WCF mean when it says, “Holy Scripture is most necessary, God’s former ways of revealing his will to his people having ceased.” (See Heb: 1.1

4. Do you agree with this part of the WCF? Why/why not?

5. How can WCF 1.1 help us today with:

  • Our relationship with God?
  • Personal discipleship?
  • Evangelism?
  • Guidance?

 

 

A year in the life of a Free Church Ministry Candidate at Edinburgh Theological Seminary

Year one of four is over. (Not that I’m scraping tally marks onto the wall of my Study). It’s been an enjoyable year. It’s been a good year. It’s been a busy year. It’s been a challenging year. It’s been a productive year. So here are some reflections – in no particular order.

 

Part-Time Study/Part-time ministry

 

Two modules per academic year, along with pastoral responsibilities is probably just the right balance. Of course, everything takes longer this way, but it is manageable. Of course, there is often more than the two modules – there are preaching classes; Presbyterian practice module; and presbytery exams – but in a two-module year, these are still doable.

 

I remember listening to a Mark Driscoll lecture on ministry (before he crashed, burned and re-emerged). He argued that the best way to train for ministry is to be in ministry whilst studying theology. His argument was that the practice enables you to test out your learning in real ministry situations. I have to say, I think I agree. My first degree is a BD (Hons) in pastoral studies and theology. I was a full-time student, and whilst I was involved in local church leadership at the time, I wasn’t in pastoral ministry to the extent that I am now. Studying theology, whilst having responsibility for a church really changes the way you approach your studies – and I think it changes the way you approach ministry.

 

Studying in a Reformed Seminary  

 

I often get asked “Why do you have to study theology formally at undergraduate level again.” If I’m honest, I’ve asked myself that question several times this year. I’m grateful for my under-grad in theology from the Scottish Baptist College. It was there I developed a respect for “exegesis”; “hermeneutics” and “theological reflection”. The Scottish Baptist College was as theologically diverse as it was robust – that after all is the beauty (and bane?) of Baptist ecclesiology. However, ETS is a Seminary with clear Confessional commitments. This meant we had rich resources to mine, but there were also boundaries to be respected. So whilst I’m studying theology a second time, it is beneficial to view the theological landscape from a reformed perspective. Further, it’s not only good from a personal perspective, but it’s good from a denominational perspective. It’s one thing for denominations to require their ministers to have a theology degree, it’s another thing entirely to ensure that ministers are grounded in good, biblical theology.

 

I know some folks who see the Reformed Seminaries as being too rigid, and too conservative – yet that’s not really what I experienced. There is a rich diversity even within Confessional denominations. The Calvinistic stereo-type is nonsense. It doesn’t exist. Every student, lecturer, and staff member brings their own unique gifts, character and experience into the life of the Seminary.

 

Yet having said all that there are some beautiful unifying themes that weave the whole thing together. A vison for God’s glory; the gospel message; the authority and sufficiency of scripture; and a heart for mission is the beating pulse of ETS. It’s alive.

 

Studying as a Ministry Candidate

 

It’s one thing studying theology as an independent student (I did that at SBC); it’s another thing studying as a ministry candidate. For me, I’m constantly aware of the weighty responsibility and privilege that this is. I am grateful to the Free Church for recognising the gifts and call of God. I’m grateful for their support, and the opportunity to study at a world-class Seminary.

 

When the challenging times come, your commitments are challenged. You can find yourself asking why you are doing what you are doing. You can doubt your calling. You can wonder if you are doing the right thing. And as you go through those times, the fact that you are not where you are solely because of an independent choice that you made, is a strengthening thing. The fact that your Kirk Session; Presbytery and the Board of Ministry sought the Lord about this and believed it to be the right thing – that is a rock in the storm.

 

The other good thing about difficult periods, is not only do they challenge your commitments and motivations, but they also strengthen them. You are brought back to core foundations. For example, last night as I sat through the Awards ceremony, I was rejuvenated and re-envisioned.  Iver Martin’s Word was top-class. For me, it reminded me why I’m in the Free Church. At the core of the denomination is an unwavering commitment to God, His Word and His world. It was the same when John McIntosh spoke. His retiring comments did not miss the mark. He challenged us not to abandon biblical truth for contemporary innovations. As a seasoned historian he warned us that if we did it would take decades for the church to recover. And he knows. He speaks as one who knows the history of the church. He sees the dangers. Do we?   

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Professor John McIntosh at ETS Awards Ceremony 2017

 

There are many more things I could say. I could write about what I’ve gained from studying Systematic Theology with Bob Akroyd; New Testament and Greek with John Angus MacLeod; and the staff and students I’ve had the joy of meeting, but this will do for now. Overall, I’m grateful to the Lord for ETS, the Free Church and the staff and students I’ve got to know this year.

 

To God be the Glory.

 

Acts 29: Missional or Charismatic? Engaging with Newfrontiers/Sam Storms/Steve Timmis

Andrew Wilson has written an interesting blog which interacts with a diversity of views within the Acts 29 network. Andrew is a leader within the Newfrontiers movement. His ministry is marked by theological thoroughness, missional engagement and charismatic commitments. His stuff is always worth a read.

Wilson begins by noting: “There’s an intriguing discussion taking place within Acts29 at the moment over whether, and to what extent, miraculous spiritual gifts (like prophecy or healing) continue today.” What is the discussion? Sam Storms (an Acts 29 leader has written a book which promotes charismatic practice; Matt Chandler (Acts 29 President) endorsed the book and wrote the Foreword; but Steve Timmis (CEO of Acts 29) has written a friendly but critical review of Storms’ book.

Wilson says all of this “intriguing.” I’ll come back to this later. But for the moment I’ll simply add that there is nothing really unusual about this. From what I understand, Acts 29 has always been diverse, and by and large, “continuationist”. For example, Mark Driscoll (Acts 29 Founder) always described himself as “charismatic with a seat-belt” although, towards the end of the Mars Hill era was moving towards a more explicit charismatic position as could be seen in in his infamous ‘Sixth-Sense-esque’ moment when he declared “I see things” and when he gate-crashed John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference.

However, as far as I understand it, Acts 29 have always had a “continuationist edge” but they have never been “charismatic”. In fact, when I attended an Acts 29 Boot Camp in London (it was the one where Steve Timmis was brought in as the director for Acts 29 Europe), I happened to be sitting next to a guy from Newfrontiers. We had a discussion about the nature of New Frontiers and Acts 29. Both of us were “charismatics” and we noted that the Acts 29 conference was great in its emphasis on mission, but not so good in worship (worship being defined through a charismatic grid).

So, from my experience, Acts 29 (and Mars Hill where it derived its origins and ethos) have never been overtly charismatic. And there is a reason for this too. Acts 29 was always missional, and it was understood that charismatic practices often hindered mission rather than enabling it. The whole premise underpinning Acts 29 was contextualization and biblical faithfulness. Consequently, churches which made the charismata a central tenet tended to be not very missionally minded . Very often they would create church cultures that alienated people because of the various charismatic practices (en masse tongue-speaking, Toronto Blessing style manifestations, people being slain in the Spirit and so on). At least this is my analysis of the Acts 29/Mars Hill philosophy.

Wilson views the difference between Storms and Timmis as “intriguing”.

It’s intriguing because, as a local church, it is not an issue on which you can sit on the fence: you either “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy,” or you don’t (although the degree to which you do this can obviously vary).

I think there are two issues here. One is a difference in tradition/worldview held by Wilson, Storms and Timmis. The second is a contradiction in Wilson’s understanding of the ongoing charismata.

First the difference in worldviews.

Tradition/Worldview difference

Wilson, develops his point about not being able to sit on the fence. He says the diversity of views on the charismata within Acts 29: “reflects a fairly important difference in ministry philosophy, not to mention theology, which in turn reflects a rather broader theological bandwidth than I am used to within Newfrontiers.”

Of course, this is correct. The charismata does have a different emphasis in Newfrontiers than it does in Acts 29, and in fact as it does in the worldview/experience of Sam Storms.

Charismata in Newfrontiers

New frontiers was pioneered by Terry Virgo and was a product of the charismatic movement of the 60s. The charismatic movement took different forms. One stream flowed into the Old mainline denominations, other streams flowed into the historic pentecostal denominations and others flowed out into new churches. One particular expression of the new churches was the restoration movement. New Frontiers, however else it may have evolved over the years (e.g. from a house church movement to a mega-church movement) has an ethos that is firmly rooted in the charismatic and apostolic restorationist movement. You can get a grasp of Newfrontiers’ history and core values, and development by reading Terry Virgo’s books on the church: ‘Restoration of the Church’ (1985); ‘No Well-Worn Paths: Restoring the Church to its original intention’ (2001); and ‘The Spirit-Filled Church: Finding Your Place in God’s Purpose’ (2011).

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To understand Newfrontiers’ theology of the charismata you need to understand its pneumatology and its ecclesiology. In terms of its theology of the Holy Spirit, in line with its charismatic history and tradition, Newfrontiers still seems to operate within a framework which understands the baptism in the Holy Spirit as a distinct and separate experience from conversion (however, given their lack of Statement of Faith, this is more assumed). It is not clear whether they make speaking in tongues “an” or “the” evidence, but Terry Virgo’s connection between baptism in the Spirit and speaking in tongues  is clearly emphasised in his latest book.

For restorationists there is a direct link between ‘baptism in the Spirit’; ‘operating in gifts of power’ and ‘expression of gifts within the context of the local church’. For the consistent restorationist, gifts must be expressed in the context of public worship. It’s a primary distinctive.

This is why Wilson argues that charismata “is not an issue on which you can sit on the fence: you either “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy,” or you don’t”. What this means is, ‘miraculous’ gifts must ne normative if we are to be faithful to the New Testament Church pattern for public worship.

It is no wonder that folks in the Newfrontiers camp will be encouraged by Storms book. (I haven’t read it, although I agree with the points that Timmis makes in his review of it). However, Sam Storms’ theology of the charismata has been formed in a different context to that of Newfrontiers. Sam Storms’ background is the Vineyard church. Or, if you prefer to think in terms of movements, the Third Wave (see ‘Riding the Third Wave: What Comes After Renewal?’ edited by Kevin Springer and introduced by John Wimber).

The ‘Third Wave’ was really a major revision of the pentecostal and charismatic theologies. Pentecostalism made baptism in the Spirit and tongue-speaking essential – it was polemic and divisive; the charismatic movement made these things normative, and more widely accepted; the Third Wave returned to a classical evangelical understanding of baptism in the Spirit (happens at conversion) and separated the gifts of the Spirit from the baptism. It also placed ‘gifts’ or rather ‘power tools’ in the context of mission. Miracles, in this context, (in theory) were not so much about the church service, and more intended as signs to accompany the preaching of the gospel. In other words, they were a missional tool. (However, many charismatic churches, including Newfrontiers’ have been influenced by the Third Wave and vice versa).

The ideology of charismata as a missional tool was not always realized in the Vineyard movement. When the Kansas City church (Mike Bickle), where Sam Storms was based, joined the movement, a lot of emphasis was placed on spiritual manifestations. The movement really went off the edge during this stage. There were false prophecies, sensationalism, and scandals (See my review of Bill Jackson’s The Radical Middle).

Since we are thinking in terms of Waves. It is worth noting that the current missional movement is probably the next stage in the evolution of contemporary evangelicalism. With each development, ‘charismata’ is given a slightly different emphasis. In the missional context, mission, contextualization and the gospel are what matters. And, where and when charismata can serve this purpose – that is good and well. And if it doesn’t, then it shouldn’t be the focus. This is why Steve Timmis can disagree with Storms yet say: “although I’m not a cessationist—nor even a functional cessationist—I’m not and would not describe myself a charismatic.”

It’s also why Timmis can say:

I’d love to see the dead raised. I want to see cancers healed with thrilling frequency. I covet testimonies of multiple people having their hearts’ secrets exposed so they acknowledge God is indeed among his people. But I don’t. The anecdotal evidence cited by good friends is underwhelming. I can and do ask. I can and do expect. At times, I could even be accused of pestering my heavenly Father for these things.

But as I wait, the Lord continues to work powerfully by his Spirit in transforming lovers of self into lovers of God and others. I see many evidences of lives changed, and of sustaining grace. I hear God speak directly and pertinently through his Word as it’s faithfully taught. So, brothers and sisters, press on with the daily task of following Jesus with joy, even amid sacrifice.

Contradiction

This is where there is a contradiction in Wilson’s response. If we look at his statement in the light of Timmis’ comments it is clearly seen:

It’s intriguing because, as a local church, it is not an issue on which you can sit on the fence: you either “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy,” or you don’t (although the degree to which you do this can obviously vary).

On the one hand, he is saying you can’t sit on the fence with the pursuit and expression of charismata yet on the other hand he is saying the degrees to which this outworked can be varied. Yet, it seems as if Timmis’ position is excluded from the scale, despite the fact he says he is not a cessationist. How is that possible? It’s possible because Wilson’s ecclesiastical and theological moorings demand a more central place for charismata. For Wilson (and probably Storms) charismata/miracles must be normative. But this is exactly the reason why Timmis must reject the premise underpinning Storms book – and also the premise underpinning charismatic theology.

The real issue here is not cessationism versus charismatic theology, the issue is how a theology of the Spirit is worked out in practice. It is a question of what is considered to be normative in church life and what is not. From a New Testament point of view, what is central, the gifts of the Spirit or the Gospel of Christ and the Word of God? If you try and make both central tenets, what is at stake? I would argue that you end up with two competing authorities. You end up with the authority of scripture, and the authority of individual experience. Sola-scriptura will be undermined, despite our best efforts to make that not the case. Further, Nobel Prize winning scientist, Francis Collins, makes the following observations about miracles.

The only thing that will kill the possibility of miracles more quickly than a committed materialism is the claiming of miracle status for everyday events for which natural explanations are readily at hand.

In my experience, this is problem that charismatic practice can create. When everything is miraculous, nothing is miraculous. As Timmis highlights, on the one hand charismatics claim that the same miracle-power that the Apostles walked in is available to all, but the reality is most charismatics are “happy to accept a lower standard of “success”.

Collins further makes the point, regarding healing:

More difficult to evaluate are the claims of miraculous healing from medical problems. As a physician, I have occasionally seen circumstances where individuals recovered from illnesses that appeared not to be reversible. Yet I am loath to ascribe those events to miraculous intervention, given our incomplete understanding of illness and how it affects the human body. All too often, when claims of miraculous healing have been carefully investigated by objective observers, those claims have fallen short. Despite those misgivings, and an insistence that such claims be backed up by extensive evidence, I would not be stunned to hear that such genuine miraculous healings do occur on extremely rare occasions. My “prior” is low, but it is not zero.

The importance of these issues is often overlooked in charismatic contexts. I overlooked them myself for many years. But we need to be realists. Faith cannot mean the redefining of reality. Again, it would seem to me that a biblical understanding of miracles and charismata is to recognise that God does work supernaturally, but at the same time it is not normative. There is no ‘key’ to ‘unlock’. There is no secret technique to discover. Charismatic theology ever forces us to embrace the next solution. Why? Because reality does not match ideology. If miracles are to be normative, why do we not see them more? And to answer that question, there is always the next book, the next method and the next strategy about how to become more supernatural. The irony being we end up less supernatural because we have substituted confidence in God’s sovereign power with a human methodology.

Further, in the constant search for the supernatural element in modern ‘prophecy’ we lose sight of the supernatural element in the ordinary means of grace. God in the midst of his gathered church, his grace conveyed by the means of Word and sacrament. This is supernatural. Maybe the problem is we are in search of the signs, rather than the reality itself – which is God in the midst of his people.  

Acts 29 in many ways is reflective of contemporary evangelical culture. In contrast to the pentecostal churches, and charismatic movements (like Newfrontiers), a diversity of views of spiritual gifts and miracles exists. Movements that make charismata a central tenet in some ways, I think, in decline. Certainly, in the UK, with the shift towards contemporary missional churches, charismata is becoming less and less part of the bread and butter of public worship. Participation in collective praying and prophesying has been replaced by worship that is driven by a professional band, or rendered almost impractical where the church is large. Consequently, in practice, many pentecostal and charismatic churches are indistinguishable from any other evangelical church.

What does this mean for Storms book and Acts 29? I don’t know, I’m not in that movement. Will some Acts 29 churches become more actively charismatic in practice? Maybe. Will all of them? I doubt it. Not if Timmis’ review is anything to go by. In that sense, Acts 29 will just be like every other network of independent churches – some will be more charismatic than others. Whilst this may be a “broader theological band-width” than is the norm at Newfrontiers, it is more reflective of the global church scene. And, I have a sneaking suspicion that it is more reflective of Newfrontiers – or certainly where Newfrontiers is heading. Ever since Newfrontiers split into spheres, my understanding is that some have headed down more charismatic routes (e.g. Bethel) whereas others would be more focused on expository preaching, and would be sceptical of anything as extreme as Bethel.

What will Acts 29 look like in the future? Who knows. If we can learn anything from the past though, the Vineyard movement suffered when it allowed the Kansas City church (which Storms was a part of) to set the trend in terms of a ‘supernatural’ emphasis. As a result, church planting and mission suffered. It would be a great pity if Acts 29 suffered the same fate – that is, if charismata took such central stage that it begins to hinder rather than enable mission.