Can your Spirituality be too Incarnational?

Continuing on from my recent comments on incarnational Christianity I would now like to begin exploring how this relates to Christian spirituality and see what that stirs up.

Missional_pneumatology With some semantic adjustments to my last diagram we get this, a chart illustrating how  various pneumatologies, that is, theologies of the  Spirit, relate to one another. I realize I risk offending all sorts of people with this chart but let me explain first.

I will begin with Cessationism. This is the view that the charismatic gifts of the Spirit ceased back with the closure of the cannon and the death of the Apostles and that we should not expect to be charismatically empowered for mission today. No prophecy, no visions, nothing. God speaks to us through the Bible only, never directly. Exercises in listening to God any other way are misguided by definition; the only thing cessationists have to say to the world about stuff like meditation is “don’t do it”.

Far more popular these days is Pentecostalism.  Pentecostalism takes its name from the outpouring of the Spirit on the church on the day of Pentecost. This movement places great stress on the spiritual gifts of prophecy, healing and tongues and has been growing great guns the world over. That’s all quite biblical so you’ll get no argument from me there. No, my critique lies elsewhere. The problem with standard Pentecostalism is that it takes too little account of what the Spirit was doing before Pentecost and too little account of what the Spirit is doing beyond the church. The sacred / secular split is embodied at the core of it. There is heavy focus on “worship in the house” but comparatively little focus on everyday worship in the world. There is deep appreciation of spiritual experience but a strong tendency to any of it happening in the outside world and especially in other religions as demonic by definition. It’s theodicy and modalities of discernment are very black hat / white hat. A frequent consequence of this demonization of other religions is that Christians are disempowered from mission. When its perceived to be safer to intercede from afar than share your story face to face that’s a problem. There is much more I could say on this but this should serve to flag some issues.

Reacting against this, many Christians are drawn towards panentheism and pantheism, the latter being the more hard core of the two. I myself went down this route once upon a time. On the positive side, Pantheism takes the immanence of God seriously. On the negative side, it tends to underplay God’s transcendence, and consequently, the holiness of the Holy Spirit. This plays all sorts of havoc with Christian theodicy, Christology and salvation theology. I could say more about relativism and perennial philosophy but hopefully you get the picture. When everyone has the Spirit equally already, why seek the Pentecost experience?

So, what is different about missional pneumatology then? Here is a snapshot. Like Pentecostalism it affirms that Pentecost was a momentous event, but missional pneumatology is shaped by the awareness that phenomena approximating the charismatic gifts do occur in other religions and can at times be indistinguishable from them on the surface. Consequently missional pneumatology places much greater emphasis on the spiritual fruit of faith, hope and love than on prophecy, healing and tongues (1 Cor 13). But being more engaged with the world than Pentecostalism, missional pneumatology is in a far greater position to speak intelligably back into cultures that practice channelling, holistic medicine and mantras. Furthermore, being more holistically informed by the pre-Pentecost pneumatology of the Old Testament, missional pneumatology speaks of the Spirit of God moving though all creation without confusing Creator with creation. Again, there is much more I could say but hopefully that illustrates some of the contours.

Now, for those that find my nomenclature offends cherished identities, please feel free to translate the green quadrant as “immanence emphasizing Pentecostalism,” or alternatively, “transcendence emphasizing mysticism”, if that makes it easier.  The essential point isn’t the wording, it’s the problems that arise when opposing theological teachings aren’t balanced.

6 thoughts on “Can your Spirituality be too Incarnational?

  1. “The problem with standard Pentecostalism is that it takes too little account of what the Spirit was doing before Pentecost and too little account of what the Spirit is doing beyond the church.”
    To add to this, I think the problem with standard Pentecostalism is also that it takes too little account of what the Spirit was doing in and with the church. They took tongues and the other charisms as the primary evidence of the Spirit.
    However, they missed what Luke had to say at the end of Acts chapter 2 (and the end of other pneumatologically interesting sections):
    “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
    Faith, hope, and love bonded in increasing intimacy of relationship with each other and with God. That’s the evidence of the Spirit.
    The growth of this emphasis in missional contexts is why I’m of the strong opinion that the Emerging/Missional churches are even more of a pneumatological movement than Pentecostals. Early Pentecostals, I think, were called to embrace this fuller picture but they got caught up and mesmerized by the shiny things. It’s not that they are wrong, it’s that they stopped too early and missed the main point.


  2. Matt,
    Did you leave the upper right quadrant green because missional pneumatology does correlate with culturally incarnational Chritianity?
    Do you think the other three correlate?
    Or is there to be no correlation, as you said, because we can all be in different quadrants on different issues?
    We’re getting closer here…I’ll try to be patient as you keep processing this…and I’m still looking forward to your descriptors.
    Have you seen the charts that Hersey and Blanchard have done for Situational Leadership? It uses the four quadrants, but the way they have filled out how to understand the differences, etc., are very helpful…


  3. Peggy, I believe incarnational Christianity and missional pneumatology do correlate, but we need to be more integrated to get there.
    What I observe more frequently amongst emergents is a flip flopping between the red and blue quadrants when speaking on pneumatological issues. I see many post-fundies diving into mysticism and waxing lyrical of how God is everywhere. But when you speak of engaging with other religions, and especially the occult, all of a sudden dualistic back/white demonologies rear their heads. This suggests a lack of integration and just goes to show that deconstruction / reconstruction is not always a linear process.


  4. Oh, I should add, I think the correlation between the two charts is weakest in the yellow quadrant. I know plenty of cessationist fundamentalists. What I am trying to illlustrate though is that, just as some Christians can disengage from the authority of scripture, others can disengage from the Spirit, even if the two don’t always go together in so linear a fashion.


  5. Matt, what do you think of the statement that Pentecostals look for the Spirit to bring signs, while a missional pneumatology looks for signs to identify the Spirit?
    Meaning instead of saying first the Spirit comes (or we bring the Spirit) as in a revival meeting, a missional pneumatology would be about finding those aspects, signs, of the Spirit in other cultures and other religions, then beginning with that would tie together a more holistic teaching and message of Christianity. Affirmational rather than rejecting. And identifying that the most passionate missionary is the Holy Spirit, whose mission in this world is to bring people to relationship with God. It’s arrogant for us to think that we bring the Spirit, God tagging along behind us.
    This post makes me think you’d really like Kirsteen Kim’s new book: The Holy Spirit in the World. She is a missiologist who focuses on the presence of the Spirit in other cultures and religions.
    The chart is perfect. I have tended to think in terms of Pentecostal emphasis on signs/wonders as the contrast, or the empty pneumatology of Protestant/Catholic conversations. Seeing the pantheistic pneumatology have a place in this is very helpful.


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