It’s amazing how much debate can arise over a rarely used phrase within the Scriptures. The phrase “Baptism of the Spirit” is only found in seven places in Scripture, yet it has generated a great deal of disagreement among various Christians. Despite its limited usage in Scripture, any analysis of the experience of the Holy Spirit must wrestle with this phrase. It’s importance in Pentecostal theology has forced many theologians and schools of thought to develop a theology of this doctrine, and so we must turn attention to it in this series on the Spiritual Gifts. While there is much debate about what the phrase means, I believe it is best understood within a perspectival framework. Each of the views on Spirit Baptism sees a part of the picture, but needs to incorporate the total picture of the Scriptural teaching. A perspectival approach to the doctrine of the Baptism of the Spirit acknowledges a diversity of usage in the New Testament.
Allow me an introductory moment to explain what I mean by “perspectival.” Perspectivalism is a theological grid developed by Presbyterian theologian John Frame. Frame argues that ideas can best be understood by examining them from different angles, or perspectives. He uses the labels “normative,” “situational,” and “existential” to describe the three key perspectives. A quick explanation of each perspective will set us up to understand their usefulness for thinking about baptism in the Spirit.
Triperspectivalism, as Frame calls it, unpacks our knowledge of God, the world, and self by looking at things from different angles. The normative perspective deals with God’s authority. He sets the standards and laws, and is Lord over all. The situational perspective has to do with our world, and particularly God’s control of our world. He interacts with the world, seeks His will to be done on earth, and we submit to such a will in our lives. The existential perspective has to do with God’s presence and our experience of living in relationship with the covenant Lord. This framework provides a useful way to look at all the theological views of Baptism in the Spirit and to see how each gets part of the picture, and how in conjunction with the others provides a whole view of the Biblical teaching on Baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The seven passages that speak to Baptism of the Spirit each highlight a different perspective. The first four passages, found in the gospels, reflect an eschatological emphasis. So, in Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, and John 1:33 we read John the Baptist’s words about Jesus that He will “baptize with the Holy Spirit.” The texts point the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, the in-breaking of a new reality. John Baptized with water, a baptism of repentance, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Something new is happening. Things are changing. This Eschatological emphasis can be associated with the Situational perspective. Here God has inaugurated His Kingdom and is bringing all things under His sovereign and kingly control. The already-not yet reality of the Kingdom of God points to His Lordship of all things and His coming reign in a new heaven and earth.
The second set of verses emphasis the concept of empowerment for ministry. Here Acts 1:5 and 11:16 reference Pentecost and the outpouring of the Spirit on the disciples, these texts, as we will see in coming weeks, highlight the empowerment of the disciples to be Christ’s witnesses. In our perspectival framework, this emphasis highlights the theme of God’s presence. The disciples are experiencing the presence of God’s Spirit given to them in a unique and powerful way.
Finally, the last verse that mentions the Baptism of the Spirit is 1 Corinthians 12:13. Here Paul utilizes the phrase to speak of initiation into the Body of Christ. Participation in the church serves as the normative perspective, for it is within the boundaries of the church that all empowerment happens. The church becomes the boundary marker for the spiritual activity of God’s people.
Each perspective has its place. So, while Cessationist emphasize the Pauline perspective, the Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians emphasize the Lukean perspective and the empowerment theme. Yet, each perspective is important and reflects a part of the whole. In fact, each perspective necessarily requires the others. The eschatological launches the church. The existential happens within the boundaries of the church. The church lives out the existential, and the existential manifests the eschatological. Each involves the other and provides a comprehensive picture of the Bible’s teaching on the whole doctrine of the Baptism of the Spirit. Within the coming weeks I hope to unpack each perspective more carefully demonstrating exegetically what I more or less assume here. So, stay tuned to this discussion.
Situational Perspective Existential Perspective Normative Perspective Eschatological Empowerment Initiation Control Presence Authority Kingdom Pentecost Church
A perspectival framework helps us to see the intertwined nature of each theological position on the Baptism of the Spirit. Each is a part of a whole picture, but each is only a part. We must allow the Bible to present its case clearly to us and not impose our own assumptions on the text. Each of the seven passages of the Scripture has its own usage for the phrase, and we want to allow context to dictate meaning. This framework allows us to do that.