Sunday, June 12, 2016

Religious Experience in Acts

The author of the Book of Acts (scholars call the author "Luke") portrays in novelistic-like narrative his impressions of early Christian religious experience.  The author wants you to think that this description of religious faith in Acts is the normative way Christians should experience God. In the main he does not portray their experience of God as ecstatic,* although he does use the word "ecstasy" (in Greek, ekstasis) a number of times (3:10 [amazement], 10:10 [trance], 11:5 [trance], 22:17 [trance]) to describe certain ecstatic experiences. Ecstatic experiences in Acts, however, are something out of the ordinary, rather than routine or typical.
The normative religious experience in Acts is also not mystical** for God is described as the Creator, "who made the world and everything in it," the "Lord of Heaven and Earth," "who does not live in shrines made by man" (17:24). Nevertheless, "God is not far from each one of us" (17:27-28), for the earth is his footstool—although his throne is in heaven (7:49).  Compare the following references that suggest God's ascendant position in the universe (2:33; 7:32-34; 7:55-56). Christians in Acts do not have "a direct and intimate consciousness of the Divine Presence," and must therefore reach out to God through prayer in order to overcome the distance that separates them (see, for example, 1:14, 24; 2:42; 3:1; 10:4; 12:5, 12; 22:17).
From my perspective the normative religious experience in Acts is best described as "charismatic," a word that does not appear in the New Testament. A charisma (Greek, charisma [χάρισμα]) is usually translated by the English word "gift." Charisma does not appear in Acts, but a synonym does. In Acts the gift (dōrea) of God (2:38) is the Holy Spirit/Spirit (5:32)  who fills (4:31, 9:17, 13:9) and empowers (1:8) Christians for mighty works, wonders, and signs (2:43, 4:30, 5:12, 6:8); the Spirit enables them to prophesy, see visions, and have dreams (2:16-18, 10:9-19, 11:4-5, 12:6-11); empowers them to perform healings and drive out evil spirits (8:6-8, 14:8-10, 16:16-18, 19:11-12), to raise the dead (9:36-41), and miraculously be understood to speakers of a different language (2:7-8); to speak with tongues and prophesy (19:6, compare 1 Corinthians 14:26-33). The Holy Spirit is given spontaneously (2:4, 10:44-48) or by the laying on of the hands of those who have received the Spirit (8:14-18, 9:17, 19:1-6). The Holy Spirit only comes to those who obey God (5:32), who have been saved by believing in Jesus Christ (2:38, 5:30-32, 13:29-39) and in his resurrection (16:28-31, 17:2-4). Salvation brings with it the forgiveness of sins (2:37-38, 10:43, 26:18) and the empowerment by the Holy Spirit to perform these evidences of the Spirit. Such was the normative religious experience in Acts.
Fast forward to the present day: except for one segment of Christianity's very wide tent this kind of religious experience is no longer experienced as normative among those churches emerging from the Reformation of the 16th century. For these churches the charismatic evidences of the Spirit in Acts are a thing of the distant past, relegated to what they call the "Apostolic Age." Nevertheless, among churches described under the broad rubric "Pentecostal" (deriving from Acts 2:1-21) the evidences of Holy Spirit possession found in Acts are very much alive.
In an odd turn of events, however, the Holy Spirit/Spirit does not empower anyone in the final third of the book (19:21-28:30). In these final chapters the tone of the writing is different and the Spirit's role is basically reduced to that of advisor to Paul (Spirit is only mentioned seven times: 19:21, 20:22, 20:23, 20:27, 21:4, 21:11, 28:25), and the one clear allusion to an act by the Spirit refers to an event that had happened much earlier (20:27), and which is not even described in the Book of Acts. These latter references to the Spirit correspond generally to the way the Spirit is usually regarded in the churches of "main-stream" Protestantism—reduced to an idea and only having as much power as a person allows the idea to have over him or her.
How do you see your own religious experience in the light of the charismatic experience in the Book of Acts? Or put another way: is there any such thing as a normative religious experience?
Do you suppose there is an illegitimate religious experience?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
*Ecstatic religious experience: an intense "state in which the mind is carried as it were from the body; a state in which the functions of the senses are suspended by the contemplation of some extraordinary or supernatural object. It is a kind of 'out of this world rapture…'" Harkness, Mysticism (1973), 32.
**Mystical religious experience: "The type of religion which puts the emphasis on immediate awareness of relation with God, on direct and intimate consciousness of the Divine Presence. It is religion in its most acute, intense and living stage." Harkness, Mysticism. 20.


  1. Hi Charlie, some observations regarding “Holy Spirit” in Acts 1-10, as God’s experiential gift, which seems to have little to do with “mighty works, wonders, and signs.”

    I think perhaps that the experience of the Spirit that allowed one to speak in foreign languages (Acts 2:1-13) is a mimetic development of Joel 2:28-32 (Acts 2:17-21) rather than an actual event. Perhaps it reflects the early communities’ cognizance of language in its mission outreach. We moderns need to interpret it something like ‘empathic communication with others is the work of the Spirit.’ Interestingly, the risen Jesus, not the Father, is the source of the outpouring of the Spirit (empathic communication skills) in 2:33.

    In 4:8 Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit” speaks boldly “of the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” to the “rulers and elders.” This is certainly consistent with a contemporary definition of charisma (gift) as courageous and inspiring self-presentation.

    Acts 5:42 suggests that the essence of the Christian experience was being convinced that Jesus was the “Messiah.” It seems to me that this would require a bit of cognitive and imaginative work. Interestingly, there is no mention of Spirit. “They did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.”

    Acts 6:3 suggests that Spirit is insufficient of itself and is augmented by wisdom; at least these were the characteristics of the seven chosen to look out for the Hellenist widows.

    The speech of Steven suggests (7:51) that the “Holy Spirit” was not a recent Christian phenomenon or even a personal dynamic but had been Israel’s rejected guide throughout her history.

    The Spirit could act as a consultant, for example, prompting Philip to go over and give guidance about the true meaning of the prophet Isaiah to the Ethiopian court official (8:29).

    Interestingly, the Spirit doesn’t seem to be involved in the three stories (Chps. 9, 22, 26) of Saul’s conversion, and then in only one mention, until after he meets with Ananias through whom his sight is restored, he receives baptism, and is “filled with the Holy Spirit” (9:17).

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  2. Thanks Gene,
    For engaging the post. A couple of comments about your response to the blog;
    I take Acts 1:8 as programmatic for all the mighty deeds performed by the Apostles in Acts. The can do nothing out of the ordinary apart from the infilling of the Spirit--even when the Spirit is not mentioned in the immediate context. So to your comment about Acts 5:42 compare Acts 5:32. They were able to continue successfully in the faith because of the power of the Spirit. Even God's Holy Servant Jesus had to be filled by the Spirit (Acts 2:32-33, Mark 1:9-10).
    Did I understand your second paragraph correctly. Were you suggesting that "Luke" did not think that the incident on the Day of Pentecost was a historical event?

  3. Hi Charlie,

    I think that whoever is responsible for the speaking in languages tradition, either Luke or someone before him, probably believed it was an "historical" event since the Christians were big on seeing Jesus Christ's actual history in the Hebrew Scriptures. I think that we post-moderns have to think of such 'narrative pictures' as pious look-backs which explain various dynamics going on in the Christian communities.

    I agree that Acts connects continuing successfully in the faith with the power of the spirit. The point of my first post was to make make a list that didn't include miracles and wonders, which to me, again, are probably pious look-backs to the supposed powers/experiences of the early leaders. I propose that the functions of the Spirit which held the community together were available to every follower.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  4. Good afternoon Charlie,

    When you say "illegitimate" religious experience- can you define illegitimate? Put differently, who is the determiner of the legitimacy of a religious experience? I've known people who began attending a charismatic church and were shunned by other family members and friends. In their view- the shunning actually increased the legitimacy of their decision to attend that church and that the "enemy" was "using" their other family members to "test" their faith.

    Gene very insightfully pointed out the non-presence of any Holy Spirit at or around Paul's conversion. I had never noticed that before. I was taught that God could not "send" his Holy Spirit to "believers" until after his son had risen from the grave... and that is why there's no mention of the Holy Spirit at work in the OT.

    Personally, I think the stories about Holy Spirit activities in Acts were made up out of whole cloth in order to prove the existence of a third and separate entity of the triune Godhead. But I don't know who inserted them into the text... Anymore than I know who came up with "parakletos" to explain the function of the Holy Spirit.

    St. Louis, MO

    1. Good Morning Elizabeth,
      You ask about "illegitimate religious experiences." A dictionary definition of illegitimate is "not rightly deduced or inferred" and another "departing from the regular." The person who decides whether a religious experience is legitimate or illegitimate would be whoever is evaluating it, I suppose. For example, Paul had a quibble (well maybe more than a quibble) with those he called "the superlative apostles" (2 Cor 11:1-33). I suppose he would call their experience "illegitimate" (2 Cor 11:13-14) because he disagreed so violently with them.

      On your second paragraph Third Isaiah (56-66) mentions the Holy Spirit (63:10-11).

      On your last paragraph on the trinity, see the blogs on Dec 9 2015 ("Is the Trinity in John's Gospel") and Nov 25, 2015 ("Is the Holy Spirit part of a Trinity").

    2. Good Afternoon Charlie,

      Yes I have seen examples of people "violently disagreeing" with certain religious experiences they deem illegitimate. Paul certainly paved the way for Christians to freely express their outrage at such religious experiences, such as Judaism and their dreadful "Judaizers." Paul set quite an example for his fellow preachers of the gospel- to stamp out false prophets and false gospels whenever necessary. Is it any wonder the book of James is the least read and taught in the NT? How strange that the (supposed) brother of Jesus receives so little attention... And someone who never met or knew Jesus in the flesh has been elevated to a stature nearly as high as the Son of God himself.

      Charlie, have you ever known someone (friend or acquaintance) to accuse another Christian of having an illegitimate religious experience? If so, what was your reaction to him/her?


    3. Good Morning Elizabeth,
      I would classify as illegitimate only that religious experience motivating someone to cause harm to another. Such an experience is flawed in some way, for in my view it is never right to harm another. I realize that this statement creates a problem since we are frequently called upon to choose between the lesser of two "evils." In choosing that course of action that does less harm, we have still harmed another.
      To answer your question directly: judging another's religious experience happens all the time in churches, it seems to me. People tend to set up their own religious experience and gestures as the standard for how God is expected to interact with everyone, which borders on an attempt to control God.

    4. Yes indeed... That is very true. Charlie, I can sum up in five bullet points the essence of every sermon I've ever heard in my entire life either in person or on TV. This is what I was told every week:
      1) I'm not praying enough
      2) I'm not reading the Bible enough
      3) I'm not witnessing enough
      4) I'm not giving enough money to the poor and needy
      5) I'm not volunteering at church activities enough

      And the way I was inspired to be engaged in more of all those things was to be told: "It's OK to 'say' you love God... But how much do you really love him? If you REALLY loved God- then you would be doing all those things automatically. So you must not really love God if you aren't doing them on a regular basis." In fact, the church I attended in Kansas City tells its congregants to fast one day a month to prove their love for God... Or in their words, "The Bridegroom." Whatever that means.

      So I very much know what it is to be labeled as having an "illegitimate" religious experience, as viewed by my former church's higher-ups anyway.


      PS: Have you ever heard any preacher refer to Jesus as the Bridegroom and the Church as the Bride of Christ? I don't remember seeing that metaphor listed in the your book "The Wisdom of Jesus," but I may be forgetting it.

    5. Hi Elizabeth,
      It is an interesting question. Jesus is never specifically referred to in the New Testament as the "bridegroom." The church as the "bride of Christ" (although that full rubric never appears) is a later ecclesiastical concept where the church is conceived as the bride and Christ as her consort (but without using the term bridegroom; 2 Cor 1:2; Eph 5:21-33; Rev 19:7) and the "New Jerusalem" is also portrayed as the bride of the Lamb (Rev 21:1, 9).

      The term "bridegroom" does appear in the gospels where it seems strongly implied or perhaps the writer expect that the reader will make the inference that Jesus (or Christ) is the bridegroom, although the connection is not made in so many words (Matt 9:15; 25:1-10; Mark 2:19-20; Luke 5:34-35; John 3:29).