A Warning Against Charismatics Over 140 Years Ago

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Charles Hodge (1797-1878), the preeminent theologian of Princeton Theological Seminary, gave a strong warning against charismatics more than 140 years ago in his Systematic Theology. His assessment and predictions are simply spot-on today.

His Assessment

“Mysticism (which he referred Charismatic Theology in his day) is matter of feeling. The one assumes that the thinking faculty is that by which we attain the knowledge of truth. The other, distrusting reason, teaches that the feelings alone are to be relied upon, at least in the sphere of religion. Although this method has been unduly pressed, and systems of theology have been constructed under its guidance, which are either entirely independent of the Scriptures, or in which the doctrines of the Bible have been modified and perverted, it is not to be denied that great authority is due to our moral nature in matters of religion” (1.6-7).

“The mystical method, in its supernatural form, assumes that God by his immediate intercourse with the soul, reveals through the feelings and by means, or in the way of intuitions, divine truth independently of the outward teaching of his Word; and that it is this inward light, and not the Scriptures, which we are to follow. According to the other, or natural form of the mystical method, it is not God, but the natural religious consciousness of men, as excited and influenced by the circumstances of the individual, which becomes the source of religious knowledge. The deeper and purer the religious feelings, the clearer the insight into truth” (1.7).

His Warning

Hodge warned what would happen when charismatics are left unchecked. He warned four “consequences of the mystical method” (1.8-9). Today we are seeing all of them in charismatics.

1. “That there are no such things as revelation and inspiration, in the established theological meaning of those terms.”

2. “The Bible has no infallible authority in matters of doctrine.”

3. “Christianity, therefore, neither consists in a system of doctrines, nor does it contain any such system. It is a life, an influence, a subjective state; or by whatever term it may be expressed or explained, it is a power within each individual Christian determining his feelings and his views of divine things.”

4. “Consequently the duty of a theologian is not to interpret Scripture, but to interpret his own Christian consciousness (or his own Christian experiences and dare not to question or challenge others experiences)” (1.8-9).

His Plea

1. “All truth must be consistent. God cannot contradict himself. He cannot force us by the constitution of the nature which He has given us to believe one thing, and in his Word command us to believe the opposite” (1.15).

2. “All the truths taught by the constitution of our nature or by religious experience, are recognized and authenticated in the Scriptures. This is a safeguard and a limit. We cannot assume this or that principle to be intuitively true, or this or that conclusion to be demonstrably certain, and make them a standard to which the Bible must conform. What is self-evidently true, must be proved to be so, and is always recognized in the Bible as true. Whole systems of theologies are founded upon intuitions, so called, and if every man is at liberty to exalt his own intuitions, as men are accustomed to call their strong convictions, we should have as many theologies in the world as there are thinkers. The same remark is applicable to religious experience” (Ibid.).

His Response to Experiences

1. “Demonstration of the Spirit is confined to truths objectively revealed in the Scriptures. It is not, therefore, a revelation of new truths, but an illumination of the mind, so that it apprehends the truth, excellence, and glory of things already revealed” (1.15).

2. “This experience is depicted in the Word of God. The Bible gives us not only the facts concerning God, and Christ, ourselves, and our relations to our Maker and Redeemer, but also records the legitimate effects of those truths on the minds of believers. So that we cannot appeal to our own feelings or inward experience, as a ground or guide, unless we can show that it agrees with the experience of holy men as recorded in the Scriptures” (1.16).

And I would add that just because something is mentioned or described in the Bible does not necessarily mean for readers to go out and do likewise. To understand the difference between descriptive and prescriptive is hugely important hermeneutically.

Final Thought

If he were here today, he would be puzzled why so many charismatics have not been disciplined out of  Presbyterian and other confessionally Reformed churches. Moreover, if he were here today he would say that not to be alarmed about strange fire in churches today is strangely foreign to historically Reformed faith and churches.

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