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Pursuing Presence, Not Signs: Balancing Pentecostal Experience with Biblical Teaching

Individuals with considerable personal charisma are often afforded undue deference by Christian believers on the basis of personality.

To these several factors, Russell Spittler adds what he terms “Corinthian spirituality.” Corinthian spirituality is a spiritual condition characterized by a “principled exaggeration of the worth of spirit over body.”5 While most modern Pentecostals do not necessarily exaggerate the spiritual over the physical—in many cases, precisely the opposite could be argued—an argument can certainly be made that Pentecostals elevate the experience of spiritual things over other aspects of Christianity, thus providing a home for Spittler’s “Corinthian spirituality.”6 Even prior to the beginning of the Charismatic renewal, Leslie Newbigin described Pentecostalism as one of three ways of approaching God, and attributed to Pentecostals the desire to “reach for God through personal experience.”7 Both Pentecostal and Charismatic perspectives understand the miraculous as part of God’s continuing work today, but these experiences—no matter how spiritual—are required by the Scriptures to be submitted to its authority and judged. A cursory examination of current Pentecostal and Charismatic praxis reveals that this evaluative process happens far too little in the everyday lives of Christians. In the next section I will examine the biblical function of signs and wonders generally, followed by a discussion of the character of those miraculous events.

Signs, Wonders, and Miracles Generally

The occurrences of signs, wonders,8 and miracles in the Old and New Testaments are far too numerous to summarize in this paper. In addition to the myriad accounts of the miraculous, no fewer than 20 words are used to describe various aspects of these phenomena, with significant overlap in their descriptive use. Rather than to attempt a static definition of the miraculous, I will instead use a functional definition, which notes that “the purpose of miracles was to legitimate (miracles as proofs) or to point (miracles as signs).”9 Three sub-categories exist in the discussion of miracles, including: i) positive miraculous events, such as healing miracles, ii) miracles best described as “divine infliction,”10 in which a miracle occurs with a punitive purpose, and iii0 pseudo-miracles, which imitate the miraculous function for purposes that are contrary to the will of God.

There is a sense in which all miraculous events point to God’s act as creator of all.

It is precisely because of the myriad examples and types of miracles that we must look to the theology of the miraculous to gain a better understanding of what they signify. One significant characteristic of miracles is that they use elements which came into existence through God’s creation, but with a “reordering,” which is impossible for an ordinary human being to accomplish.11 When God instructed Moses to pour water on the ground, and it became blood on dry land (Ex. 4:9), or when Elisha threw out a stick and the axe head floated (2 Kgs. 6:6) no new, tangible matter was created. Instead, the prophets took action, and the interaction of the pre-existing objects was divinely re-ordered.

If the miraculous can occur with pre-existing objects, how much greater a miracle is that which brought these objects into existence? God’s creation of the earth ex nihilio is therefore miraculous on a considerably greater scale than the other miracles in the Bible, except, perhaps, the Incarnation of God as Christ. But by understanding creation as the formative miracle, the miraculous event at the head of all other events, it could be argued that there is a sense in which all miraculous events point to God’s act as creator of all.12 Several examples substantiate this claim, but we must content ourselves with a few examples. The first example is the parting of the Red Sea (Ex. 14:13-31) which manifested God’s power over the waters, a power also evidenced in creation, when God divided the waters (Ge. 1:6-7).

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Category: Living the Faith, Spring 2009

About the Author: Jessica Faye Carter, J.D. (Duke University), M.Div. (Princeton Theological Seminary), is a lawyer, entrepreneur, and nationally-recognized expert on cultural and gender diversity. She is the author of Troubling Her: A Biblical Defense of Women in Ministry (Purple Girl, 2010), Double Outsiders: How Women of Color Can Succeed in Corporate America (JIST Works, 2007), and “Known and Yet Unknown: Women of Color and the Assemblies of God.” LinkedIn. Twitter. http://jessicafayecarter.com

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