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More Team Teaching: A Response to the Charismatic Experience

Last November, we featured an article called The Fear of God: Learning to Trust the Holy Spirit by Caleb Henry. Much conversation followed in the comment section, and several of our readers asked for a follow-up article on the subject. We thank Alden Thompson for providing us with one.


Caleb Henry’s forceful defense of the charismatic impulse has triggered an intense dialogue in the Spectrum blog. And the invitation to contribute to the conversation has opened a pandora’s box of memories for me, if I may borrow one of Caleb’s metaphors.

But an unrelenting deadline, a persistent editor, and an Ellen White quote have all conspired to keep this piece shorter than it might otherwise be.

The quote is tantalizingly relevant for both length and content. Writing in 1905, she spoke passionately about the articles in Adventist papers: “Let not the articles be long or the print fine,” she urged. “Do not try to crowd everything into one number of the paper. Let the print be good, and let earnest, living experiences be put into the paper.” – RH, May 25, 1905.

“Living experiences.” Could that mean “charismatic” in its modern sense? Probably not. But I am convinced that the charismatic impulse could be a great blessing to us. David Larson is an esteemed academic colleague, Caleb Henry a valued former student. Let’s find a way to genuinely appreciate each other without sinking into a sea of relativity.

Caleb has noted the key passages documenting Ellen White’s participation in the charismatic manifestations among early Adventists. I suspect that for most “rational” Adventists, both liberal and conservative, reading the section on “Opposition of Formal Brethren” in Ellen White’s autobiography (Testimonies 1:44-48) would be an unnerving experience. It was for me when I finally got brave enough to actually read the Testimonies. “Prostrated by the power of God….” “Helpless….” “Cold formality began to melt before the mighty influence of the Most High,” she exclaims, affirming those body-numbing events. Caleb’s experience is tame by comparison. But neither her experience nor Caleb’s can match the biblical illustrations of Saul’s Spirit-led nakedness (1 Sam. 19:24) or the Spirit-led dramas in Ezekiel (e.g. Ezek. 4, 12, 23, 26). In Scripture, it’s not hard to find exceptions to our idea of a dignified and gracious prophet.

Our uneasiness over Ellen White’s involvement in the Israel Dammon incident (see Spectrum 17:5 [August 1987]) would have been tempered significantly had we taken her own story more seriously. In 1845 Dammon was arrested for disturbing the peace after a loud and reputedly fanatical worship service at a farmhouse in Atkinson, Maine. Young Ellen Harmon was there as well as her future husband James. Neither of them was involved with the law, but their names are mentioned in the transcript of the trial. Interestingly enough, the Adventist right is almost as traumatized by the specter of the Dammon trial as is the Adventist left.

In her later writings, Ellen White does not advocate the vivid manifestations that marked her early experience. But throughout her life she consistently warned of the dangers of “cold formality.” And this may be the bridge between Caleb and his detractors. David Larson, for example, is not prepared to endorse Caleb’s experience as a valid one. Yet I have frequently heard Larson expound the advantages of the Wesleyan quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. His enthusiasm for our Wesleyan heritage is first of all a stand over against a Calvinism that resists admitting the role of “experience” in shaping theology. But might the Wesleyan appeal to “experience” also make room for more diversity?

I believe the charismatic impulse can help us experience a livelier sense of God’s presence. Typically Pentecostals carry the label of “fundamentalist,” though charismatic movements have now emerged in a host of non-fundamentalist churches, including the Roman Catholic and Episcopalian. But our labels quickly smudge. Though Pentecostals formally hold to the inerrancy of Scripture, in practice they part company with most “inerrancy” communities in actively supporting women in ministry. So what if Paul said that the women are to keep quiet in church (cf. 1 Cor. 14:33-35; 1 Tim. 2:12) – the Spirit has moved! A charismatic knows that when the Spirit calls a woman to ministry, mere humans dare not stand in the way. I suspect most “liberal” SDAs would be delighted for that kind of help.

Typically Adventists are at home with the Calvinist tradition of rational exegesis. Most Calvinists, like most traditional Adventists, are deeply troubled by the charismatic impulse. But if we can take seriously the Wesleyan quadrilateral with its explicit appeal to experience and reason, and if we are faithful to our Adventist heritage, Adventism can be a dynamic community alive with diverse voices.

In the turmoil of the 1888 General Conference, Ellen White came down on the side of charismatic guidance rather than rational exegesis. Returning to her room after a divisive debate, she wrote in anguish:

Many hours that night were spent in prayer in regard to the law in Galatians. This was a mere mote. Whichever way was in accordance with a ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ my soul would say, Amen, and Amen. But the spirit that was controlling our brethren was so unlike the spirit of Jesus, so contrary to the spirit that should be exercised toward each other, it filled my soul with anguish. – Ms 24, 1888 (EGW1888 1:223)

I don’t think Ellen White would really want us to shrug at the task of interpreting Scripture. But when quarrels over exegesis threatened to cripple the church, she opted for the “spirit of Jesus” – which ends up being a very reasonable thing to do! The editor of Pascal’s Pensees, A. J. Krailshammer, put it this way: “The paradox is that only reason can persuade reason of its own inadequacy.” – Penguin edition, p. 28.

I am not a charismatic, but I am a lonely pietist who struggles to find a “fervent” community that can nurture my soul without killing my mind. I believe it can be done, though the answer is not in the extremes, but in the creative tension between the charismatic and rationalist impulses.

As a Bible teacher, I continue to be challenged and encouraged by Ellen White’s counsel that “different teachers should have a part in the work, even though they may not all have so full an understanding of the Scriptures.” Since the minds of people “differ,” she argues, the variety of writers in Scripture match that need. Her counsel includes this amazing “post-modern” quote:

So today the Lord does not impress all minds in the same way. Often through unusual experiences, [432/433] under special circumstances, He gives to some Bible students views of truth that others do not grasp. It is possible for the most learned teacher to fall far short of teaching all that should be taught.Counsels to Parents and Teachers, 432-433.

Sounds to me like a call for Maggie, Graeme, David, and Caleb to work together on a team-taught course at an Adventist university.


Alden Thompson is a prolific Adventist author and speaker. He recently retired from his position as Professor of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla University, where he still teaches half-time. His publications include Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Paternoster, 1988; Zondervan, 1989), Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (1991), Escape from the Flames: How Ellen White Grew from Fear to Joy and Helped Me to Do it Too (2005), and Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other (2009).

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