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
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.