Friday, 14 November 2014

The First Time I Found Myself Praying in Tongues...

The first time I found myself praying in tongues was more than twenty years ago. It was simply at home, as I was having a time of devotion. At that time I wasn’t involved in anything like charismatic renewal, and – being a Reformed Evangelical - I was totally unprepared for the experience.

[Part 1 of a series on New Wine and systematic theology, drawn from my research master thesis Life to the Full. From Creation to Re-Creation, VU University 2014.]

Over the last fifteen years, tongues, promptings of the Spirit, words of knowledge, encouragement, and discernment, have become part of my spiritual life. My prayers have changed from primarily petitioning to simply spending time with the Lord – listening, receiving, worshipping, experiencing his intimate presence.

As chief editor of a Christian newsmagazine, cv•koers, I called attention to charismatic renewal as we published articles on the gifts of the Spirit, on prayer ministry, on healing and deliverance, and held conferences in conjunction with Reformed theologians as Jan Hoek, Mart-Jan Paul and Kees van der Kooi. In the subsequent debates, it seemed as if Reformed theology was missing appropriate categories to process the charismatic experiences we obviously had, though some maintained that rich resources could be retrieved from within the tradition of the Reformation.

Experiences of the Spirit
As my wife Nienke and I were asked to plant an international church on behalf of the Reformed Churches (GKv/CGK) in our city in 2006, a new chapter began. In ICF Amersfoort we learned from our brothers and sisters from around the world, and became part of the international network of New Wine.

In our English-speaking congregation Grace Church we witnessed healing, deliverance and spiritual guidance. Non-Western world views in our midst include the belief in spirits and witchcraft, and indeed, we were confronted with issues of demonic possession in our congregation. We have begun to learn – “hands-on”, as it were - about deliverance in the name of Christ. In our prayer ministries we experience the healing presence of our triune God. In our Arabic-speaking congregation Oase we baptized more than twenty former Muslims within three years, and most of them testified about visions in which Jesus appeared to them and encouraged them to surrender their lives to him.

I couldn’t imagine doing church ministry without these workings of the Spirit in our midst. At the tough “mission field” of ICF Amersfoort - in the midst of our brokenness and struggles, our failures and hurts - we experience our utter dependency on the Spirit of God to lead and empower us, to renew, restore, and heal.

How to understand these experiences theologically?
But how are we to understand these experiences of the Spirit? Are instances of healing, tongues, and other “signs and wonders”, to be at the centre of our church ministry? Are they what Christian faith and ministry really is about, and should they be “claimed in Jesus’ name” (as many Pentecostals tell us)? Or are these merely spiritual “extras”, that at best surprise us occasionally as the “Spirit blows where it wills”, and at worst distract us from what the gospel really is about (as many Evangelicals and Reformed theologians tell us)?

In other words, how do these experiences of the Spirit relate to our wider beliefs – to themes of salvation in Christ, of sin and forgiveness, of justification and sanctification, of future promises and present struggling? How to understand them theologically? More specifically, how to understand them within the theological context of the Reformed tradition that I belong to?

The Need for a Systematic-Theological Framework
Over the years I have learned a lot from the Vineyard movement, and I have come to feel theologically at home within the charismatic renewal of New Wine. However, renewal movements tend to be focused on practical church ministry, where “the rubber hits the road” (as Mark Collinson put it), “doing the stuff” (John Wimber). As the renewal takes place in existing churches, led by already trained pastors, it often simply builds on the divergent systematic-theological backgrounds. But how do the new experiences and practices relate to this theological substratum? Are they simply an add-on, and is it really theologically compatible then? Are the new experiences and practices vindicated and grounded? Are they critically assessed? Are the new experiences and practices made fruitful to theology, maybe re-assessing and refining traditional views and doctrines? In other words, to what extent is the charismatic renewal processed in systematic theology?

Though New Wine invests seriously in theological training (in the UK, New Wine works with almost all training institutes within the Church of England, and the Westminster Theological Centre offers BA- and MA-programs in Kingdom-theology), a proper systematic-theological framework for its charismatic renewal appears to be lacking still. As New Wine-theologian Chris Pemberton emphasized in an e-mail, there is still “a need for a clear systematic.”

By no means is my PhD-research to be understood as an attempt to such a systematic-theological framework, let alone this present MA-thesis. Such a constructive task is far beyond the scope of a thesis. At most it is an explorative description of some of its possible structures and principles - merely “testing the waters”, as to how the theological notions within the charismatic renewal of New Wine might relate to certain prominent theological loci. What resources does Protestant theology have to vindicate and assess New Wine’s theology of charismatic renewal? What rough, sketchy outlines of a framework might emerge from an exploration of such resources?

[In the following months I hope to publish excerpts from my research master thesis in this series]

There are several people I would like to thank for contributing to this thesis. First of all my supervisors, Kees van der Kooi (Professor of Western Systematic Theology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Director of the Centre for Evangelical and Reformation Theology), and Maarten Wisse (Associate Professor of Dogmatics and Ecumenics at the Vrije Universiteit and Director of the Graduate School of Theology and Religious Studies). Holding the Chair for Charismatic Renewal, Kees was my incentive to come to the Vrije Universiteit for my study theology, and he has proven to be the inspiring and mind-provoking mentor I hoped to find. Maarten not only sharpens my theological thinking by confronting me with opposing views(Proverbs 27:17) but has proven an involved personal coach, too. Thank you both, for being much more than merely supervisors.

I am grateful to a number of theologians who were willing to think along with me as I worked on the proposal for my PhD-research. Some of them read previous research papers I wrote and provided me with valuable comments and further questions. Others commented at several stages on my research proposal. I am especially obliged to the theologians and pastors within the Vineyard and New Wine who took the effort to respond (sometimes in elaborate e-mail-correspondence) when I asked them after their “felt needs” for a dogmatic study: What issues would such a study have to address in order to be of help for your ministry as a pastor? Which are the dogmatic questions you might be wrestling with in your church ministry? A special word of appreciation, therefore, to

- Chris Pemberton (leadership of New Wine UK, currently teaching at Westminster Theological Centre)
- Mark Collinson and Roland Price (leadership New Wine Europe)
- Jan Fokker (New Wine The Netherlands)
- Derek Morphew (Dean of the Vineyard Institute)
- Vineyard-pastors Eric Pickerill and Mark Hage
- Benno van den Toren (Professor of Intercultural Theology at the Protestant Theological University, Groningen, and former Academic Dean at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford)
- and Martien Brinkman (Professor of Intercultural Theology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam).

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