What does it means to be Pentecostal and Charismatic, and how do we discern if certain spiritual experiences are of God? Andrew Gabriel is the author of Simply Spirit-Filled: Experiencing God in the Presence and Power of the Holy Spirit (Emanate Books, 2019) and theology professor at Horizon College and Seminary in Saskatoon. He is an ordained minister with The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. He spoke to Faith Today about these questions and more.
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Faith Today: You are a Pentecostal-Charismatic theologian. What exactly does that mean?
Andrew Gabriel: The Pentecostal-Charismatic movement really started in the 20th century – many people would say with the Azuza Street revival in 1906. But it certainly goes back earlier than that with other similar revivals with Pentecostal-like experiences, like speaking in tongues, very exuberant worship and that kind of thing. Then eventually you have what’s known as the Charismatic movement that spreads into the mainline churches like the Anglican Church, the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church in the 1960s especially, and continues to grow even today.
Many people would try to distinguish these theologically or historically as I have just done, but a lot of academic scholars of history and theology would say there is so much overlap between this Pentecostal-Charismatic movement that you can put them together because they are all trying to emphasize the Spirit in theology, the Spirit in experience, the Spirit in life, and having real intense encounters of the Spirit sometimes. Not just saying the Spirit dwells in our hearts because we are Christian, but actually expecting to have something that is … tangible is not the right word, but something intense and really experiential.
I am trying to speak to anybody who would consider themselves Pentecostal and Charismatic, and trying to represent that.
FT: So a Charismatic person might not necessarily be a Pentecostal person, is that right? How does that work?
AG: Absolutely. There are some people who would say, "Well, I’m a Pentecostal and I’m definitely not a Charismatic." And there are others who would say, vice versa, "I’m a Charismatic, but don’t you dare call me a Pentecostal." There are others who scholars would actually say are part of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement but wouldn’t be comfortable with either of those terms. Pentecostals maybe are known for perhaps emphasizing speaking in tongues a little bit more than Charismatics, and Charismatics, many would say, perhaps emphasize prophecy more than speaking in tongues. And there are others who maybe like both or neither but are still very much into wanting to emphasize that the Spirit still works today in dramatic and miraculous ways, like healing and maybe speaking in tongues and prophecies, but wouldn’t use the Pentecostal or Charismatic terms.
FT: Given that understanding, that the two overlap, how large is the Pentecostal-Charismatic community?
AG: In the world, the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement would typically be said to be around 600 million or more people, so that includes so-called classical Pentecostals, denominations like The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, Apostolic Church of Pentecost in Canada, Church of God and other groups like that, but it also includes the wider Charismatic movement like those in the Catholic Charismatic renewal, for example.
FT: You have a book coming out, Simply Spirit-Filled, which strikes us as a very accessible and comfortably written book that explains this part of Christianity. What are you trying to accomplish with it?
AG: I’m not just trying to reach Charismatics and Pentecostals. On the one hand, I am writing for people who are what I call in the book Spirit experience junkies. I would say I have been there myself. People who are all in to anything that has anything to do with the Spirit, whether authentic or not. They just want to be a part of it because they want to experience all that God has for them in the Holy Spirit – but sometimes lacking discernment, and not being willing to really test what is authentic and what isn’t.
And then on the other hand, I am also writing for those who are curious about the Holy Spirit, but they are very cautious, and maybe they are even skeptical perhaps because of their tradition, their upbringing. Or maybe they have been part of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement, but they have been burned in some way and now they are skeptical of claims to experience the Holy Spirit.
I’m trying to encourage these groups to, on the one hand, be open to real, authentic experiences of the Spirit, because you know the Spirit was upon Jesus – we read that numerous times throughout the Gospels. In Luke 4 we read, "The Spirit of the Lord was upon me." We all think Jesus was wonderful, and the Spirit was very much involved in His life.
I want people to be open to the Spirit, but at the same time to be testing, discerning, thoughtful in their experiences of the Spirit. 1 Thessalonians says to test everything, but to hold fast to what is good. In trying to do that, in trying to reach that aim to help people be open and yet discerning, I also want people to realize the Spirit is not just involved in the dramatic, in the miraculous, in extraordinary things, because sometimes, and this is especially true of Pentecostals and Charismatics, they can think the Spirit is only involved if somebody is speaking in tongues, or shaking or crying or something very intense.
But I want people to realize the Spirit is involved in many of the ordinary, everyday quiet things. I want people to say, "Hey, look! The Spirit is involved in this person’s life, enabling them to be a better leader." Or in their own life, shaping them to have the character of Christ, and things like that.
FT: You used the words real and authentic. Help us understand how you would know if what you are experiencing was real and authentic from God. How do you tell?
AG: That is a big question. I think the basis for that for me is certainly the Scripture. I do spend a lot of time in the book wrestling through the Scripture and saying, "What is the Bible really saying here?" and "What is it not saying?" And then of course sharing some of my own stories of what it was like for me.
But sometimes I would say you can’t always tell.
That is not the answer people want to know. They want to say, "I can know with absolute certainty right now, this is God speaking to me." Or "This is an experience from the Spirit." But sometimes it is a challenge and it will take some time to discern that, especially when it comes to hearing the Spirit speak to us. But I think that if we can ground our experience in Scripture, that is the best way to discern that.
The other side of the answer, of me saying, "You can’t always tell," is that sometimes our experience of the Spirit [means] we aren’t aware of [those experiences]. When the Spirit is shaping our character, we are not always sitting there crying or shaking or something like that. But the Spirit is quietly at work in our lives, shaping us.
I want people to be open to the Spirit, but at the same time to be testing, discerning, thoughtful in their experiences of the Spirit.
One time I had a student come to my office feeling very discouraged, but I could tell this student was doing excellent work and was going to pass the course. I didn’t have any concerns. But I saw some marks on the student’s arms which indicated that this student was struggling. So I encouraged the student, and I don’t remember everything that I said, but I remember talking about, "You are a child of God and you are made in the image of God."
At the time I wasn’t thinking the Spirit was speaking through me. But after that student left I remember thinking, "Wow, that student left encouraged." They had left with a new countenance upon their face, you might say. I had a sense that when I spoke, I wasn’t just speaking words that I knew from my study, as much as that might have been true, but I really felt that the Spirit had spoken through me. After the student left I was like, "Wow, I didn’t think of those things by myself."
And so now grounding that experience in Scripture I think about 1 Corinthians 14 when Paul says, "When we prophesy to each other, it is for our encouragement, and our strengthening and for our comfort." [I had] an experience of prophecy where the Spirit was revealing things through me and speaking to me to encourage this person.
To me, we feel it, we sense it, but we also see how it is connected to what we read in the Scripture.
FT: So, if I experience something that I felt was the Holy Spirit, if that same experience did not appear in Scripture, would that give me a reason to question it?
AG: Yup. Absolutely. Now it might not have to be an experience that is exactly like Scripture, where we can point to it and say, "Paul experienced this in this chapter and this verse," but if we see some kind of theme, some sort of similarities between our experience and what we see in Scripture, they could certainly be regarded as authentic, but not necessarily all of them. I am a Pentecostal and I speak in tongues regularly, and I see that in Scripture multiple times, but it doesn’t mean that just because someone is making noises that they are speaking in tongues.
FT: What do you love most about your tradition?
AG: The way we expect to experience God in real life-transforming ways. So on the one hand, that can lead to people trying to manufacture things, and that is the dark or the shadow side. But on the other hand, we don’t expect to just believe that God exists and go about our business as normal.
We really believe God can transform people’s lives and turn their lives around, and that can mean taking somebody from poverty and giving them the ability to focus and to be able to get a job and work. That can come in somebody who is healed from any sickness or disease. That can come from somebody with significant character issues who is now starting to live with the fruit of the Spirit, with love, joy, peace, patience, truth and so forth, and it changes their lives because they are able to navigate the world around them in new ways.
It’s the expectation God is with us and leading us every day. It is the everyday things. When we pray we expect God will lead us. We expect our faith to be real in ways that are actually going to change our lives from day to day.
FT: Thank you, Andrew.
AG: [in email after the interview] On the number of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christians in Canada, recent estimates say there are between 2 to 3 million, which is a little over 10 per cent of the Canadian population who self-identify as Christian. By 2025 scholars predict more than 30 per cent of the world’s Christians will be Pentecostal-Charismatic.
Listen to the full interview with Andrew Gabriel at the top of this webpage or visit www.TheEFC.ca/Podcasts.