The Spiritual Gifts: Experiencing the Spirit (Part 5)

The phrase  “Baptism of the Spirit” has caused no small amount of contention among various theological camps. How can so many wise Christians, reading the same Bible, come to such different conclusions about this doctrine? The answer to that question lies, I believe, in reading each usage of the phrase in context and noting the distinct emphasis of each author’s usage. The Bible presents a perspectival approach to the doctrine that allows us to include aspects of each theological view when discussing the doctrine of the Baptism of the Spirit. We have explored two of the three perspectives already, in this final post we must consider the Normative perspective. The Normative Perspective presents the doctrine of the Baptism of the Spirit with an initiation emphasis.

The Normative Perspective focuses on the rules, laws, and norms of belief and action. It emphasizes the authority of God, the objective standard of truth. In relation to the Baptism of the Spirit, then, it sets the standard and framework for how we ought to think about all the other usages of the idea. In particular, the Baptism of the Spirit happens within the parameters of God’s preset boundaries, most notably the church. The final text that speaks of this doctrine makes that clear.

In 1 Corinthians 12:13 Paul uses the concept to speak of initiation into the body of Christ. So, we read:

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

There has been much debate around this passage, and so it is worthy of our time to take a moment and study it specifically. There are some who suggest that this passage does not pertain to the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Some translations muddy the conversation by changing the language from “For in one Spirit” to “For by one Spirit.” The implication being that we are not baptized into one Spirit, but baptized by one Spirit. It’s tempting for some theologians, especially of a Pentecostal persuasion, to adopt this reading, but it simply doesn’t hold up to serious study. In the Greek the phrasing of 1 Corinthians 12:13 is nearly identical to the other six phrases that mention “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” The only change is that Paul here says “one Spirit” instead of “Holy Spirit.” We should translate this verse, then, as “in one Spirit.”

The implications of this verse are that “baptism of the Holy Spirit” happens at the moment of conversion and is a necessary part to becoming a Christian. Indeed, within the Bible there is no such thing as a Christian who does not have the Spirit (Rom. 8:9). Baptism of the Holy Spirit is an act of initiation into the body of Christ. It is on this ground that Paul makes his arguments for unity within the church, thus mandating a universal Christian experience of the Spirit. But what then should we do with the other texts that seem to clearly indicate some post-conversion experience of the Spirit?

A perspectival approach allows us to see that these references, read in context, can imply different uses of the doctrine. Baptism of the Spirit, then, needs to be seen as a multi-faceted gem. When looked at from one angle it clearly refers to the experience of initiation into the body of Christ at the moment of conversion, a universal experience for all Christians. When looked at from another angle, however, it emphasizes a unique post-conversion experience of empowerment for ministry. At still another angle, it refers to the epochal transition of the plan of redemption into the eschaton. Each has its unique purpose and focus within the Scriptures and within our own Christian lives. We do not need to flatten out the reading of the text to fit a systematic theology. All three perspectives fit together; they are intertwined. So, the Situational (Eschatological) perspective launches the church, the Existential (Empowerment) happens within the boundaries of the church, and the Normative (Initiation) manifests the existential.

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