Baptism in the Holy Spirit: a taxonomy

I’m a charismatic, one of the perennial questions in charismatic theology is ‘what is the Baptism in the Holy Spirit?’

Other Christians who know and interact with charismatics and Pentecostals may well have answers to the same question, but its less likely to be a matter of debate. Among charismatics, it’s one of the fault lines that we divide along.

Actually, that’s not true, we’re not the sort of people that like dividing (which probably has detrimental impacts on our unity), but we tend to have some sense that we don’t think of it quite like they do over there, even when our practice looks remarkably similar. Charismaticism is largely a practical theology, in that we have typically started with what we do. While that horrifies most Reformed evangelicals, it has some strengths (when we do theology it is driven by the concerns of the church) as well as some pretty big weaknesses (we often don’t do any theology).

Cap that off with the fact that I’m a Reformed Charismatic, love the Reformed scholastics, and my doctrine of receiving the Spirit owes as much to Thomas Goodwin as it does to Azusa Street, and you get what sounds like an unholy mess to evangelicals not within the fold.

So, what is the Baptism in the Spirit? It can feel to most people like the key question here is whether we receive the Spirit at conversion, or later. Those who say conversion, say that being baptised in the Spirit is conversion, those who say later say that it’s a subsequent experience. Depending on your convictions, one or other side of that equation sounds faintly horrifying to you.

I’m not intending to get into that question in this post, instead what I’d like to do is suggest that if we want to speak clearly about this, we need to lay out the ground slightly differently. I’ve just made it sound like there are two positions, and that’s probably how most evangelicals talk about the question too: you’re a Pentecostal or you’re not. Except, when you start talking to people, or reading some of the key texts on this, there are way more than two positions.

When I started thinking about my own position on this six years ago, I had to develop a typology to lay out the options while I was figuring out how I fitted within them. There aren’t two positions, and there isn’t one question about timing. Theoretically, I think there are more than 900 positions. I think there are five key questions to answer, and not one.

Five Key Questions

Question 1: Nature

Is receiving the Spirit something that is conscious or unconscious? In other words, do you know that it happened?

It might sound like answering this is to answer a question about when we receive the Spirit, until you read James Dunn and find an advocate for receiving the Spirit at conversion as a conscious experience.

Question 2: Means

How do you receive the Spirit? Is it by faith or by the sacraments? Does this mean we receive the Spirit with baptism, or through all the sacraments of the church?

If we were to say baptism, depending on your position on baptism you might be answering other questions very differently.

Question 3: Timing

The question we were expecting if we’re familiar with the debate. Do we receive the Spirit at conversion, or subsequently to conversion? If subsequently we may be expecting this to be a short time after conversion or a very long time after. This would include those who think that the experiences can be simultaneous but aren’t always.

Or, there’s a third option, do we receive the Spirit concurrently with conversion—by which I mean it’s logically subsequent to conversion but temporally simultaneous. They might even sometimes speak of receiving as conversion.

Question 4: Purpose

What is receiving the Spirit for? Is it simply for regeneration as we’re talking about the reality of conversion? Or is it for service, by which we would include an array of spiritual gifts, or the power needed to fulfil your calling. Or is it for witness specifically—the power and boldness to speak to others about Jesus? Or is it for assurance, the deep heart-felt sense that you belong to Christ?

Or is it some combination of the above?

Question 5: Signs

How do we know that it’s happened? At this point it becomes difficult to enumerate the possibilities, because this can go in multiple directions depending on the answers to the previous four questions.

You might say specifically the gift of tongues is the sign, you might say spiritual gifts more broadly, you might mention praise, assurance, holiness, virtue, boldness, any combination of them, or nothing at all.

Charting the Options

We start to get a taxonomy that draws lines between different groups of thought on receiving the Spirit. If we ignore the possibilities where someone might think more than one of those things was happening, we have 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 8 = 960 different possible positions on the questions.

In reality we don’t, because some of those options would be weird and potentially internally contradictory, but the field is more complex, and—to me at least—more interesting, than we might have thought.

What do you think? This is an important question that we ought to have some sort of idea what we think about.

You might also notice that I’ve managed to write nearly a thousand words on the subject without telling you what I think.

Because it seems rude not to: I think that receiving the Spirit is logically subsequent to regeneration though most naturally understood as part of conversion-initiation; basic Christianity, not an added extra for a spiritual elite; available to all without qualification or pre-condition; fundamentally about Christian assurance, but with eschatological, ecclesiological, missiological and charismatic significance following on from this; a fundamental internal sign of Christian faith, and external sign of Christian community; initiatory into a life of ongoing dramatic encounters; and to be expected, sort and enjoyed by all.

Broadly that’s 1: conscious, 2: by faith, 3: concurrent (with nuance), 4: for assurance (with nuance), 5: by assurance (with nuance).

Which is to say that my five questions really only get you started. If you want to dig into this in some detail, I wrote a hundred page paper sorting my way through this which I’ll release in the coming weeks.

Photo by Sunguk Kim on Unsplash

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