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Henry I. Lederle: The Third Wave: New Independent Charismatic Churches, Part 2

Signs and Wonders

The third distinctive aspect of this grouping is quite simply the present-day reality of signs and wonders. The reclaiming of the miraculous is, of course, the heritage of a number of movements in the twentieth century. The Vineyard movement, however, has a different perspective on them. Healings and miracles are consciously seen as a means of evangelism and church growth. The concept of church growth, as developed by Donald McGavran of Fuller’s School of World Missions, had a significant impact on John Wimber. It was the testimony of students from the Majority World that first opened the eyes of Charismatic leaders to the fact that healing can play a pivotal role in evangelism. This is certainly the case in many churches in Africa and Asia. What Wimber discovered was that the proclamation of God’s kingdom needs to be accompanied by the demonstration of God’s power. The concept of power was to become crucial, as can be seen from Wimber’s book titles Power Evangelism, Power Healing, Power Points. Here was a new strategy—the growth of the church in numbers and in maturity is consciously and intentionally linked to the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The Kingdom of God: Already but Not Yet

An important theological impulse behind this movement was an understanding of the kingdom of God. George Eldon Ladd, of Fuller Seminary, developed this as a central motif in his book Jesus and the Kingdom. The Lordship of Christ is of paramount importance and presents a challenge to the contemporary church, with its focus on meeting people’s needs and fulfilling human potential. Equipped with kingdom power, the believer receives the authority to drive out demons in what has become known as spiritual warfare. Crucial to Wimber’s understanding of the kingdom of God is the creative tension between the already and the not yet. This polarity was originally formulated by Geerhardus Vos, developed by Oscar Cullmann, and popularized in North America by George Eldon Ladd. The Christian life is lived out between the First and Second Comings of Christ. Certain aspects of God’s rule are already apparent, such as salvation, fellowship in the Spirit, forgiveness of sins, and Charismatic manifestations, but others will only become evident at the final consummation of the kingdom. They are not yet manifest due to the fallenness of creation and include such things as the elimination of death, total healing, and moral perfection. Wimber argues powerfully that physical healing is affected by this tension. Against the traditional Classical Pentecostal doctrine of healing as included in the atonement, he advocates, rather, healing through, or as a result of, the atonement. With this formulation, he desires to break loose from an automatic guarantee of healing. Wimber also advocates a holistic understanding of healing that includes an inner healing of the memories and emotions as well as deliverance of people who are demonized.

John Wimber was converted as an adult. He had an Evangelical Quaker background and was generally Reformed in his theological leanings. He was initially associated with Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel and the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. He led the Vineyard movement from 1982 until his death in 1997. It was Wimber who gained notoriety by teaching the controversial course MC510: Signs, Wonders and Church Growth at the Fuller School of World Mission between 1982 and 1985. This course was eventually canceled due to widespread objections, including opposition by the theological faculty at Fuller. One of the concerns expressed in their report Ministry and the Miraculous, edited by Lewis Smedes, is that it is inappropriate to include the practice of healing within the academic setting of a classroom. (No such reservation seems to exist with regard to preaching in homiletics courses!) They furthermore argue that the answers to prayers for healing should not be called “Signs and Wonders” because that detracts from the uniquely revelatory events of salvation history (p. 28). The course had become immensely popular, and the demonstrations of healing in the laboratory, or practical, part of the class had an extensive impact. The cancellation of the course may have illustrated that the broader evangelical community has not yet fully moved beyond its heritage of cessationism and dispensationalism.

The fact that Classical Pentecostals were also critical of Wimber’s approach illustrates the tension between the First Wave and this particular form of the Independent Charismatic movement. This tension is illustrated further by the whole concept of spiritual warfare, which has become as contentious as the concepts “faith” and “prosperity” in the Word of Faith grouping of Independent Charismatics. Classical Pentecostals generally have supported the conviction that Christians cannot be demon possessed and, consequently, have grave reservations about much of the deliverance ministry practiced in Empowered Evangelical circles.

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Category: Church History, Pneuma Review, Spring 2012

About the Author: Henry I. Lederle, D.Th. (University of South Africa) and M.A. (University of Orange Free State), is Professor of Theology and Ministry at Sterling College in Sterling, Kansas. He is the author of Treasures Old and New: Interpretations of Spirit-Baptism in the Charismatic Renewal Movement (Hendrickson, 1988), Theology with Spirit: The Future of the Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements in the 21st Century (Word & Spirit Press, 2010), and several collections of essays, articles and reviews.

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