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4/27/2009

THE NEW ENTHUSIASTS: Balancing Word & Spirit in an Age of Extremes

This article is derived from Eddie's latest book entitled Revival: Discerning Between the True & the False. Check it out at www.eddiehyatt.com/bookstore.html
Throughout history revival movements have again and again fallen prey to what the ancients called “enthusiasm,” a word coined by Martin Luther in referring to those who had forsaken reason, Scripture and common sense in pursuit of sensational, spiritual experiences. The word then became a common designation for those who mistake their own feelings and imaginations for the work of the Holy Spirit, and exalt their own personal experiences above the revelation found in the word of God.

But who are the enthusiasts today? Read the rest of the article and then tell me what you think.
Luther & the Prophets of Zwickau
While Luther was hiding in the castle at Wartburg after being declared a heretic at the Diet of Worms, a weaver from the town of Zwickau, Nicholas Storch, and two of his friends came to Luther’s hometown of Wittenberg claiming to have experienced divine dreams, visions and visits from the angel Gabriel. They wowed the people with their revelations and began taking the reform movement in Wittenberg in a direction based, not on Scripture, but on their personal, supernatural encounters. When Luther heard what was happening he put his life at risk and returned to Wittenberg and preached a series of eight sermons, showing from Scripture the fallacy of the revelations of the prophets from Zwickau. It soon became obvious to the people of Wittenberg that the prophets were in error and the three departed in humiliation never to return.

It was in his encounter with the Zwickau prophets that Luther coined the term schwarmer or “enthusiast,” which became a designation for those who have forsaken Scripture and common sense in pursuit of sensational, spiritual experiences.
John Wesley Encounters Enthusiasts
Enthusiasts have always been a part of revival movements. Take, for example, the 18th century Methodist revival where spiritual manifestations abounded. Although he valued genuine spiritual manifestations, it is obvious from his Journal that Wesley followed the Biblical admonition to “test the spirits” by applying the standard of Biblical truth in every situation. With Scripture as his yardstick, some experiences received his stamp of approval while others did not. Several people, for example, reported experiencing an overwhelming sense of God’s peace, while others told of love and joy. Wesley said, “And thus far I approved of their experience because agreeable to the written word.”[1]
Others, however, described experiences for which Wesley could find no basis in Scripture. Some, for example, said they felt the blood of Christ running up their arms, or going down their throat, or pounding like warm water upon their chest and heart. Wesley said,

I plainly told them the utmost I could allow, without renouncing both Scripture and reason, was that some of these circumstances might be from God (though I could not affirm they were) working in an unusual manner, no way essential to either justification or sanctification; but that all the rest I must believe to be the mere empty dreams of an heated imagination.[2]

While remaining open to spiritual manifestations, Wesley continually called his followers back to the Scriptures. His standard was,

Try all things by the written word, and let all bow down before it. You’re in danger of enthusiasm every hour, if you depart ever so little from the Scripture: yea; from that plain, literal meaning of any text, taken with the context.[3]
George Whitefield Stays with the Word
Like Wesley, George Whitefield saw many manifestations as the Spirit of God was poured out in his meetings. But, also like Wesley, Whitefield insisted that manifestations be measured against the standard of Biblical truth. In 1729 he wrote a letter Wesley exhorting him to neither require nor encourage outward manifestations. His concern was that such a preoccupation with manifestations would “take people away from the written word.” He wrote,

I think it is tempting God to require such signs. That there is something of God in it, I doubt not. But the devil, I believe, does interpose. I think it will encourage the French Prophets, take people away from the written word, and make them depend on visions, convulsions, etc., more than on the promises and precepts of the gospel.[4]
The Azusa Street Revival
The Azusa Street Revival also had its share of “enthusiasts.” One visitor to the revival wrote that it seemed that every religious crank in Los Angeles found their way to the revival. Nonetheless, William Seymour and other leaders of the revival were wise and mature enough not to swallow every sensational revelation or manifestation that came along. Although spiritual manifestations were encouraged and expected at Azusa Street, all had to pass the test of Biblical truth. The Apostolic Faith (June-Sept., 1907), the official paper of the Azusa Street Mission, carried a statement that read,

We are measuring everything by the Word; every experience must measure up to the Bible. Some say that is going too far, but if we have lived too close to the Word, we will settle that with the Lord when we meet Him in the air.

The saints at Azusa believed that the diligent study of Scripture was the only way that fanaticism and spiritual pride could be avoided. They, therefore, urged their people to make the diligent study of God’s Word a life-long pursuit. The October 1907-January 1908 issue carried a page of questions and answers. One question asked, “Do we need to study the Bible as much after receiving the Holy Ghost?” The response was:

Yes, if not we become fanatical or many times will be led by deceptive spirits and begin to have revelations and dreams contrary to the Word, and begin to prophesy and think ourselves some great one, bigger than some other Christians. But by reading the Bible prayerfully, waiting before God, we become just humble little children, and we never feel that we have got more than the least of God’s children.

The Azusa Street leaders also warned the people against exaggerating their experiences (a warning that is needed today). In the January 1908 issue they published a correction and exhorted the people to be careful about overstating their experiences. They wrote,

Correction: We want to correct some errors that were in the last published report from Portland. It was stated that one hundred were baptized at the evening campmeeting. The saints believe there were not so many. The insane persons that were brought for healing were not fully healed, or else through lack in our faith and through weakness lost their healing. The saints want the simple truth stated about the work. Amen! May no one from any place send in a report that is overstated but rather let it be understated. (January 1908)

So, who are the enthusiasts today? Well, in some cases it is obvious, but we must all look into our own hearts. We must, on the one hand, guard against falling into the extreme of the Zwickau prophets with an undue reliance on feelings, imaginations, signs and manifestations. After all, Satan can perform miraculous signs as is clear from passages such as Mark 13:22 where Jesus said of the last days, For false christs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.

On the other hand, we must guard against over-reacting to enthusiastic extremes and, thereby, quenching the real work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Tell me what you think.

[1] Wesley, vol. 1 of Works of John Wesley, 426-27, Sept. 6, 1742.
[2] Wesley, vol. 1, 426-27, Sept. 6, 1742.
[3] Wesley, vol. 2 of The Works of John Wesley, 429.
[4] Whitfield, 497.