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... From the Goodnews archives, Sep/Oct 2007


Baptism in the Spirit

A Biblical Understanding


Fr Peter Hocken, a historian of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and the Pentecostal movement over the last century, shares his reflections on the Baptism in the Holy Spirit and its meaning for the Church (part 1)


Most leaders in the charismatic renewal over the last forty or more years, whether Catholic or Protestant, would agree that what we call Baptism in the Holy Spirit (BHS) is at the heart of the movement. Virtually all agree that BHS brings a new level of relationship with the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Virtually all agree that BHS opens the door to the charisms of the Spirit: prophecy, healing, speaking in tongues, etc. The vast majority believe that BHS is a gift for the whole Church, even if a particular style of being charismatic is not for everyone.

However, beyond these basic common convictions, there has been widespread variety as to how BHS is explained and how it fits into church life. I have said “variety” rather than “dispute”, as the differences of understanding have rarely led to major tensions or caused division. In general, charismatic Catholics have sought to explain BHS in relation to sacramental initiation, while most charismatic Evangelicals have followed the Pentecostal pattern and sought to explain BHS in terms of normative Christian experience. However, a few significant Catholic voices took a different position, notably Fr Francis Sullivan, SJ, who understands BHS in terms of a new sending of the Spirit. But the majority Catholic understanding was sacramental, using the language of “release” or of the grace of baptism “coming to conscious expression”. In other words, the grace is there from sacramental baptism (and confirmation), but in BHS it is made visible, it becomes part of our conscious life as a Christian. The Holy Spirit was there, but is now set free. In the Evangelical approach, the Holy Spirit was not there, at least in this way, but now it is given in BHS.

Not enough attention paid to Scriptural evidence

To be honest, I have never been very excited about either of these approaches. I have felt that they do not pay enough attention to the Scriptural evidence. I also felt that they do not pay enough attention to what happens in BHS and how it often comes about, being too focused on fitting the “new thing” into our received theologies. So let us look at these two weaknesses: the Scriptural data in this issue and the relationship to the sacraments in the next.

The term “baptism in the [Holy] Spirit” does not appear in the Scriptures. However, the verbal form “baptize in Holy Spirit” does occur – four times in the context of the baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3: 11; Mark 1: 8; Luke 3: 16; John 1: 33) and twice in relation to the “promise of the Father” fulfilled on the day of Pentecost and at Caesarea in the home of Cornelius (Acts 1: 5; 11: 16). It seems that in the New Testament, this phrase “baptize with Holy Spirit” characterizes the ministry of Jesus himself. It is not just that BHS is something that Jesus does, but that it is to do this that he has come. In this perspective, trying to find out where it fits into our forms of initiation misses the crucial point.

The last days

If we look at the Gospel references to “baptize with Holy Spirit”, it is not hard to see that the framework is eschatological. All four references are presented as sayings of John the Baptist. The “last days” context is particularly evident in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, where the promise is that Jesus “will baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire”, fire being associated with judgment and with purification (see Mal. 3: 2 - 3). In these two Gospels, this promise is immediately followed by a verse about the final judgment: “His winnowing fork is in His hand, to clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3: 17; almost identical in Matt. 3: 12). Here John the Baptist was following in the line of the Old Testament prophets. How, we shall see more in a moment.

The two references in the Acts of the Apostles do not mention the word “fire”, and both are presented as a word of Jesus rather than John the Baptist. Acts presents the day of Pentecost as a fulfi lment of this promise. In Acts 1, the Lord says “but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1: 5). And in Acts 11, Peter is said to remember this word of the Lord when the Holy Spirit “fell on” Cornelius and his household, adding: “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.” (Acts 11: 15).

The fi rst Pentecostals at the start of the 20th century believed that the Holy Spirit was being poured out on them as on the 120 disciples on the Day of Pentecost. An early headline of the newspaper from Azusa Street in Los Angeles blazoned the message: “Pentecost has come”. This conviction that BHS is the experience of Pentecost led to the movement being known as Pentecostal. It seems to me that one importance of the BHS terminology is to link this grace with Pentecost. When we avoid the “baptism” terminology and choose another phrase instead, the connection with Pentecost is not so clear.

Preparation for the Second Coming

However, the Pentecostals generally assumed that the promise of the Holy Spirit was completely fulfi lled on the day of Pentecost. However, I do not think this is how the apostle Peter understood it, when he cited a strongly eschatological passage from the prophet Joel. Yes, Peter does say, “this is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2: 16). He then cites the passage well-known to us as charismatic Christians: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all fl esh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy ...” (Acts 2: 17). But why then does Peter continue with Joel? “And I will show wonders in the heaven above, and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fi re, and vapour of smoke; the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and manifest day. And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2: 19 – 21).

The most satisfactory explanation seems to be that Peter understood the event of Pentecost as heralding the “last days” (see Acts 2: 17), and that the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost is a fi rst fulfi lment that foreshadows the greater outpouring of the Spirit that will take place on the day of the Lord. This is common in biblical prophecy, that a more immediate fulfi lment is a sign and preparation for a greater fulfi lment to come. In this case, the two major levels of fulfi lment of this prophecy relate to the first and the second comings of Jesus.

Spirit sent to guide every dimension of the Church

Although there was a strong eschatological component in the beginnings of the Pentecostal movement, the way that the Pentecostals have commonly presented BHS has not done justice to the biblical data. The major effort went into proving that BHS was a second experience after conversion, visibly demonstrated by speaking in tongues. Only in the last year has a Pentecostal theologian really done justice to the importance of BHS for the whole life of the Church. Frank Macchia’s outstanding book Baptized in the Spirit1 is in a class of its own, presenting a vision of the Church, in which the risen Lord pouring out his Spirit shapes and guides every dimension of the life of the Church. For Macchia, Jesus is par excellence the baptizer in the Holy Spirit. It is at the heart of His mission.

The implication of the biblical data is that Jesus has come to baptize in the Holy Spirit. This He begins to do after His resurrection and ascension. This immersion in the Holy Spirit is to prepare the way for the coming King and His rule in righteousness. In this light, we should understand the outpouring of the 20th century as a sign of the Lord’s coming in glory. That does not mean we have any idea of God’s precise timetable! But it does mean that the whole purpose is preparation for the Kingdom Why is God pouring out this grace at this point in History?

This eschatological focus directs our attention to why God is pouring out this grace at this point in the history of the Church. In fact, recovering a sense of God’s action in history has characterized the theological renewal of the last century. We do not just belong to a Church that passes on a timeless doctrine, and in which each generation only needs to accept the timeless doctrine and receive a timeless grace. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit awakens the Church to the “ticking clock” of God. We will return to this significance of BHS in the second article when we will consider the relationship of BHS to the sacrament of baptism. (part two next issue)

Footnotes: 1 Zondervan, 2006.


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Peter Hocken