The Holy Spirit: Looking Back For A Way Forward Pt. 5

By: Garrett Best

We’ve been looking at Robert Richardson’s views of the Holy Spirit. Richardson, like many early Restoration Movement leaders, wanted to avoid two false views of the Holy Spirit and more generally, false conceptions of the Christian faith. He rejected the view of the “ardent sensuist” who believed that the Holy Spirit worked primarily through emotions, feelings, or ecstatic experiences. Some American Christian denominations in the 1800s were, according to Richardson, especially guilty of this false view of Christianity. On the other hand, Richardson strongly opposed the “unimpassioned rationalist” who believed that the Holy Spirit worked only through the written text, through words and arguments, or through human ability to reason. He believed that the movement that he was helping to lead with Alexander Campbell and others was particularly guilty of the second offense, unimpassioned rationalism. Richardson was not afraid to be critical of those in the churches with which he was associated. He believed that in order to combat the emotionalism present in the Calvinistic denominations on the American frontier, many in the Restoration Movement had swung the pendulum to the other side. Faith and worship were seen through primarily rationalistic lenses.

In previous posts, I hope I have sufficiently explored Richardsons’ cautions about an overly rationalistic approach to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and to Christianity as a whole. In this post I want to focus on what Richardson says about passions and emotions in the Christian faith. Notice what Richardson says here:

There has been, unhappily, with many, a systematic and continuous effort to disparage religious feeling, and to oppose all expression of it, as savouring of enthusiasm, and incompatible with their philosophy of religion. This extreme, is but the counterview of that theory of special “spiritual operations” now prevailing, which has been productive of so many disorders and extravagancies in religious society, to the discredit of both reason and religion… (pg. 196)

Richardson was troubled by any view that conceived of religion as primarily emotional while on the other hand being concerned about any view that conceived of religion as primarily intellectual. As Richardson saw it, the Christian faith was both a matter of the head and the heart.

There has, hence, arisen a dislike to all excitement, and to every manifestation of emotion, as if religion were designed for the intellect alone. The advocates of modern revivalism, on the other hand, seem to regard religion as consisting altogether in certain excitements of feeling. But the religion of Christ is designed for both the head and for the heart. It is intended to embrace the whole man in body, soul, and spirit, and to secure to every faculty and every department of human nature its appropriate office and its most harmonious development. (pg. 197)

When I was about 15 years old, a lady visited the Church of Christ I grew up in. Although I’m sure that church had thousands of visitors over the years, I remember this particular visitor vividly. I remember her because as soon as the worship started, everyone in the room knew we had a guest who clearly had never been with us before. During the songs we sang, she was lifting her arms in the air, clapping her hands, and agreeing with the words of the music with very loud, enthusiastic phrases like, “Yes Lord”, “Hallelujah”, and “Praise God”. During the sermon, the preacher got more amen’s from that woman than he got in the entire year. As a bonus, he even got several rounds of applause from her when he made particularly good points. As a teenager, I remember sweating because I knew her expressions of joy in worship were not welcome in our assembly and they made me uncomfortable. I couldn’t even pay attention that morning. I was too busy staring at her, even during the prayers.

About halfway through the sermon, she must have become aware that she was the only one in the crowd of 450 or so that was responding so enthusiastically to the songs and the message. She sat quietly for the rest of the service. After the service, I made my way over to stand near her so that I could eavesdrop on the comments she received from our members. Immature I know. I listened because I was interested to hear how people would respond to her enthusiastic worship. As dozens of people came to greet her, I didn’t hear a single unkind word to her. In fact, several people told her that it was refreshing to hear someone so vocally expressive and joyous in our typically tranquil worship context. We never saw her again after that Sunday morning.

Ephesians 5:18-20 describes our singing as the manifestation of being filled with the Spirit. In the following chapter, Paul says in 6:18 that we are to pray in the Spirit at all times. What does it look like to be filled with the Spirit in song and pray in the Spirit?

Somewhere along the way, some seem to have gotten the idea that the more emotional our worship is, the less correct or Biblical it is. If it feels good, it must be wrong. Richardson reminds us that Christian worship can be emotionally expressive and in accord with the Scriptures at the same time. It should appeal to both the head and the heart. Stoicism nor enthusiasm make worship any more or less acceptable in and of themselves. One can be enthusiastically wrong or reservedly right before God. It seems to me that the major consideration provided in Scripture is the heart and the intent of the worshiper (Hosea 6:6; cf. Matt. 9:10-13; 23:23-24; Mark 12:28-34).

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