The Natural Supernatural
Would Paul be a leader in the current signs-and-wonders movement? In some ways, yes, says Gordon Fee, professor of New Testament at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. In his recent book, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Hendrickson, 1994), he argues that the Holy Spirit is the key to Paul’s life and thought. Christian History talked with Fee about the role spiritual experience played in the church of Paul’s day.
Christian History: Many Christians don’t naturally think of Paul as someone who had a regular and active “Spirit—life.” Why is that?
Gordon Fee: By and large, Protestants think theologically, and then almost completely in terms of soteriology—what does it mean to be saved? We’ve read Paul through the lens of his letters to Galatia and Rome, where the issue was justification by faith. We’ve read these texts so often we tend to understand Paul only as a theologian.
But Paul was a person of prayer before he was a theologian. His desire was not to be a precise theologian but to know Christ personally. That was the passion of his life. Any reading of Paul that doesn’t take that seriously, doesn’t understand Paul.
If you had asked Paul to define what a Christian is, he would not have said, “A Christian is a person who believes X and Y doctrines about Christ,” but “A Christian is a person who walks in the Spirit, who knows Christ.” He wouldn’t have denied the importance of doctrine, but it would not have been the first thing he would have mentioned.
Christian History: What religious experiences were most important to Paul?
For Paul, everything began on the Damascus Road. About that experience, he said, “I saw the Lord.” He considered that a resurrection appearance of the same quality others had. That experience determined everything for Paul.
If we turn to Paul’s letters, it’s clear that the Spirit, whom he considered the Spirit of Christ, was an ongoing, dynamic reality in his life. In addition to receiving visions, he performed healings and spoke in tongues.
Christian History: Was Paul’s experience of the Spirit unusual?
Not at all. In the first century, it was assumed Christians would experience these things. For example, when Paul scolded the Galatians, he began a sentence, “He who richly supplies you with the Spirit and performs miracles in your midst. . . . ” Paul spoke in the present tense—the Spirit was dynamically active, doing extraordinary things in Galatia, and the Galatians were well aware of it. He assumed the same common experience when he wrote the church at Corinth.
Now, Paul did have some unusual experiences of the Spirit, but he never made an issue of them. In 2 Corinthians 12, for instance, he mentions having been “caught up to the third heaven,” and he seems to be validating his ministry by mentioning this experience.
But he was really playing the role of the fool in a Greek play. In the end, he didn’t even know whether he was transported out of the body, and he couldn’t report what exactly happened—some validation! The point is that he downplayed this incredible experience in a playful way. This type of experience was unusual, but it was private for Paul.
But this wasn’t the case with the usual supernatural experiences of early Christians—prophecy, miracles, and tongues.
Christian History: What did Paul mean by “prophecy”?
This experience is mentioned throughout early Christian literature; it was a common denominator in all churches. Prophecy was understood by Paul as the spontaneous Spirit utterance of the faithful. There was a synergy between the Spirit and the speaker; the Spirit prompted the speaker to say things. Prophecy wasn’t a trance; it wasn’t a matter of an individual’s wanting to speak his or her mind. Something supernatural was going on that pushed a person to speak.
Christian History: What type of miracles did the early church experience? How common were they?
Miracles included everything from answers to prayer to dreams and visions. But it certainly included healings. In many instances, we don’t know exactly what happened, but we do know there was a kind of commonness about them.
These people were not gullible. They understood the difference between ordinary experiences, which could be explained in human terms, and miracles, which required a supernatural agent. They lived in an age that respected things of the Spirit—versus our materialistic age that trusts only empirical proof. When things happened by the power of the Holy Spirit, early Christians didn’t try to explain them away.
It’s equally clear that these sorts of things didn’t happen every time they prayed. Then again, they happened enough that Paul could write about them as if every Christian had experienced signs and wonders.
Christian History: In Paul’s day was speaking in tongues similar to that of today?
Probably. Tongues was like prophecy: the Spirit prayed through the person’s spirit. The speech, however, usually was not in an intelligible human tongue—not a foreign language but a supernatural one.
Again, it was a common experience of the early church. For example, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I speak in tongues more than all of you.” In Romans he talked about groanings that were inarticulate—I think he meant speaking in tongues. The way he wrote these churches, he assumed they knew what he was talking about, that it was a common experience of the church.
Christian History: Were such religious experiences known in other ancient religions?
Yes. We have to remember that the ancient world believed in spiritual realities. At the shrines at Delphi, for example, pagans experienced miracles and prophecy and extraordinary bodily manifestations. Some of it may have been due to psychedelic drugs, and we can’t rule out demonic activity. But to first-century people, the supernatural was not all that unusual.
Today, Emerging World peoples, who still believe in the spiritual world, have been attracted to Pentecostalism because Pentecostalism is comfortable with this spiritual world. Emerging World Christians know that what they experience in the Spirit is similar to their earlier experiences of the demonic—though their Christian experience is redemptive, not destructive. That’s the type of environment in which Paul lived and ministered.
Christian History: Why are some modern Christians reluctant to embrace this aspect of Paul’s life and teaching?
As products of the Reformation, we are also products of the Enlightenment. Many of my fellow evangelicals are rationalistic in their approach to Christian faith—we love God with our minds, and we often neglect loving God with our hearts; we don’t have a full experience of God’s Spirit. We’re afraid to experience the Spirit.
That’s partly because of what we’ve read about the Corinthian church! When they experienced God, there were excesses. Some people lost control, and it’s important for post-Enlightenment Christians to be in control. So we shy away from spiritual experiences.
Christian History: Some would say there’s a danger to Christianity that emphasizes emotion at the expense of the mind.
That’s a false dichotomy to Paul. For Paul the rational and the emotional go hand in hand: “I will pray with my mind, and I will pray with my spirit. I will sing with my mind; I will sing with my spirit.”
He did both. When it was a matter of public edification, he insisted that people under the Spirit’s influence retain some control, remembering to do everything “decently and in order.” On the other hand, he allowed more freedom of expression when it came to private prayer, especially tongues.
Many of us in the Western church, however, have neglected the emotional part of faith and the role the Spirit plays in that. In Paul’s world, it wasn’t a matter of either spirit or mind, but both.
Christian History: What would Paul make of devout congregations today in which few people, if any, experience prophesies, tongues, or miracles?
He would probably sit in amazement. He would wonder where and how this one-sided Christianity had developed: “Who bewitched you? When did you leave the Spirit?” It’s not that he wouldn’t recognize the truth of the preaching. He would just wonder what had happened.
Christian History: What would Paul and the early church, then, think of the “holy laughter” in some churches today?
That sort of thing was not common in the first century, and I’m cautious about speaking of phenomena I’ve not experienced or witnessed. But my guess is that the early church would see it as a work of the Spirit—whether it’s a human response to the Spirit’s triggering, or the Spirit himself who produces the laughter. Laughter is certainly something the Spirit could produce!
As far as other signs and wonders, like animal sounds, I have my doubts.
Christian History: What has most impressed you in your studies of Paul and the Spirit?
That Paul was a passionate lover of Christ, and that passion meant that he prayed before he did theology; he experienced the reality before he taught it. The longer I’m in the church, the more I’m convinced that a Christianity that doesn’t have a passion for praise and worship just isn’t Pauline. Paul couldn’t imagine theology that didn’t begin and end with the Spirit. CH
By Gordon Fee
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #47 in 1995]An interview with Gordon Fee.
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