Experiential Religion

Experiential Religion

A brief survey in history and philosophy

by Peter C. Coker


 This overview briefly surveys the history of “experientialism” in Christianity and identifies some of its influences from within and outside of the Church. The purpose is to gain a renewed perspective on the validity of experientialism and to what extent it does or does not promote a healthy body of believers in Christ Jesus. The word experience as defined by Webster’s Dictionary means: (1) the conscious perception or apprehension of reality or of an external, bodily, or psychic event. (2) the state or result of being engaged in an activity or in affairs. (3) the conscious events that make up an individual life. (4) the events that make up the conscious past of a community or nation or mankind generally; Experience-Religion: to undergo religious conversion.

Experientialism can be divided into; mystical experiences and existential experiences, both of which tend to be self-verifying. Critics of experientialism will rightly point out that a reliance on experience tends to devolve into a feelings based validation for one’s salvation and Christian life, as opposed to God’s revealed word as validation. Others would challenge that the Christian life is not merely doctrine and rituals but meant to be lived abundantly with passion. Both positions have merit and deserve consideration. Experiential religion in this overview includes its effects on salvation and the Christian life beyond salvation.

In order to have a better understanding of experiential religion it will be necessary to look at some of the movements and schools of thought that have  influenced Christianity throughout its history. Included in this writing is a chosen sampling of the movements and philosophies that have impacted differing streams of thought and practice in Western Christianity.

Mysticism and Metaphysics

Prior to the time of Christ, the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato (427- 347 B.C.) syncretized mysticism with his own philosophical system. Plato advocated a belief in the immortality of the soul, and in his Dialogues contrasts; knowledge and opinion, perception and reality, body and soul. In his Doctrine of Recollection and Intuition he theorized; the world of ideas, the origin of the world-soul and of the human soul. Plato’s dialectic is interpreted by some as; a type of reasoning and a method of intuition, and by others as; the art of visualizing the divine originals or unveiling the Great Mystery behind the everyday material world.

A few hundred years after Plato, around the time of Christ, the Alexandrian Jew, Philo (30 B.C.- 50 A.D.), combined Plato’s mysticism and metaphysics to the Hebrew Bible. Philo, in combining Plato’s ideas with the Hebrew Bible taught that every man, by freeing himself from matter (physical realm) and receiving illumination from God, may reach the mystical, ecstatic, or prophetic state, where he is absorbed into the divinity. These ideas soon become threaded into streams of Christian thought as well.


Gnosticism is a modern term used to describe a variety of second-century unorthodox sects. They were likely the first experiential and heretical movements within Christianity. The early church father, Ireneaus (130-200), in his work, “Against Heresies,” observed that Gnostic movements subjected all morality to the caprice of the individual, and made any fixed rule of faith impossible. Although the term “gnosis” refers to knowledge or superior knowledge it is more specifically linked to special knowledge or a sense of being especially receptive to mystical or esoteric experiences with the divine. Thus, Gnostics claimed to have deeper spiritual insights about Christian life and as such, distanced itself from the orthodox faith, viewing it as a superficial faith. Some of the features of Gnosticism regarding Jesus Christ are as follows: some believed Jesus was a supreme being who brought Gnosis, a special knowledge of how to obtain salvation; some believed Jesus was a false messiah; and, some believed Jesus was only a human teaching the way to divinity.

            Many Gnostics acted similar to (later) monks, denying or depriving the flesh, abstaining from food and water or sexual relations. Yet others believed they were free to “do-as-they-please,” because they were “under grace”. But overall, Gnostic behavior generally leaned toward an ascetic lifestyle. Some of the Gnostic movements were: The Carpocrations, Zoroastrians, Mandaeans, and Manichaeans.


In early second-century Christianity, Montanism was an early movement that sought to return to the ways of the apostolic church. The supernatural gifts such as tongues and prophecy had ceased during the Apostolic Age. The leader of this movement, Montanus, claimed to be supernaturally filled with the Holy Spirit when he was baptized. He further stated that this marked the new dispensation of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s promise of the “paraclete.” Montanus claimed a new dispensation was being fulfilled in him, which he called “The New Prophecy.” Montanus and his two prophetesses, Maximilla and Priscilla, had ecstatic visions announcing the Second Advent of Christ and the establishment of the Heavenly Jerusalem in Pepuza, Phrygia (Today, Central Turkey).

Montanism’s most influential supporter was the theologian Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, i.e., Tertullian, also called the Father of Latin Theology. Tertullian (160-230 A.D.) born at Carthage (modern Tunis, Tunisia) was known for his polemic attitude towards Greek philosophy and is said to have converted to Montanism in his later years. Some say there is no evidence that Terullian actually left the Catholic Church but was highly critical of church authority. Regardless, he became a critic of the Catholic Church and a defender of Montanism.  Irenaeus also urged the Roman Church not to quickly condemn Montanism. The Roman Church eventually denounced Montanism and in its rejection labeled it the “Phrygian heresy.”Although Montanism is viewed as heretical in certain ways, it was mostly orthodox in many of its beliefs. Through its focus on the Holy Spirit, it contributed to Christianity the belief that the Holy Spirit is a person and thus helped in the development of the Doctrine of the Trinity.

The Hermits

The word “hermit” comes from the Greek word for “desert.” The first well known example of this ascetic trend was a well-to-do young man from the village of Koma in Egypt named Anthony (250-355). Anthony, at the age of 20, took very seriously Christ’s words, “go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Anthony gave away his wealth and took up a life of solitude, living in a tomb. He is said to have battled many personal temptations of devils, beasts, and women. In spite of the conditions, Anthony is said to have lived to the age of 105. Anthony’s example spawned hundreds of imitators who lived in solitary, isolated conditions, in caves or in trees. They eventually became popular and interesting items for city people to go see and visit and soon attracted vast crowds. The original idea for the solitary life was not so much to flee from the world as to flee from the world in the church. However, inner temptations such as pride and eccentricity simply replaced the temptations of the outer world. The examples of the hermits led to the more organized idea of Monasticism, of monks living in monasteries.


There were several attempts and movements throughout Catholic history towards experiential religion. There were, periodically, the religious ideals of going “back-to-the-apostles” and away from institutional religious practices. Monasticism, existed within Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox traditions and eventually spawned monasteries as places for Monks to live, work and study. Around the year 320, a former soldier named Pachomius established the first monastery as a place for monks to live a regulated common life. Monks ate, labored, and worshipped together, assuming a threefold vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Monastic movement went to great lengths to deny the flesh, regularly fast and refrain from pleasures. They also emphasized celibacy, poverty, and silent contemplation. The influences of Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus (Jerome, 340-420) and Benedict of Norsia (4_? – 542), brought monastic scholarship and strict discipline into monastic life.

The Waldenses were led by Peter Waldo (1140- 1218) and called themselves the “poor in spirit.” The Waldenses were also a back-to-the-apostles movement that called for voluntary poverty along with the discipleship of all true believers, not just the monks. The Waldenses wanted to purify the church by a return to the simple-life of the apostles.

Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) devoted himself to poverty, preached personal holiness and a gospel of voluntary poverty as his back-to-the-apostles movement tapped into the spiritual hunger of the people. Francis called his group Friars Minor (Lesser Brothers) and are also referred to as Franciscans. Francis wanted to transform the world by preaching Christ-like humility.

Another dissenting movement in Catholicism was called Cathari, which means “pure ones.” The Cathari movement was most influential in and around Albi, France and some called them Albigenses. Their movement lasted from the eleventh to the thirteenth century’s. Similar to the Gnostics of the early church, the Cathari believed in the Eastern idea of an eternal conflict between two powers, one good the other evil. They also believed that all matter is evil and that Christ was actually an angelic being who did not undergo human birth or death. They believed the way to escape the power of the flesh was to avoid marriage, sexual intercourse, eating of meat, and material possessions. These movements and many others are historic indicators of the human desire for an experiential (feelings based validation) faith and existence. Later, after the Protestant Reformation, came experimental and experiential movements that affected both Catholicism and Protestantism.


The Protestant Reformation is generally viewed as the period between the years 1517-1648. Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation, like others before him, had initially set out to reform Catholicism. His purpose was not to start another branch of Christianity nor divide the Catholic Church, but to reform the church. What emerged from his protest efforts at reformation ultimately became the Lutheran Church and the Protestant Reformation. Though early Lutheranism differed very little from official Catholicism in practice, its theology opened the door to new ideas for corporate worship and what it meant to live the Christian life. The reformers themselves though were soon divided into two major categories: the Magisterial Reformers and the Radical Reformers (radical, meaning “back to the roots”).

The Magisterial Reformers included: Martin Luther (1483-1546), a German; Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), a Swiss; and John Calvin (1509-1564) who was French. They intended to establish “one true church and commonwealth” with the support of the magistrates or civil authorities. They envisioned some sort of cooperation between the church and the state.

The Radical Reformers, on the other hand, includes those Protestants of sixteenth century Europe who believed in a “separation of church and state.” They renounced any statist coercion of religious belief and emphasized the “experience” of regeneration. They also rejected infant baptism in favor of “believer’s baptism.” Some notable names in this group are: Balthaser Hubmaier (1480-1528) was a Moravian Anabaptist; Menno Simmons (1496-1561) was Anabaptist and later a Mennonite; Felix Manz (1498-1527) was a Swiss Anabaptist; and Conrad Grebel (1498-1526) a Swiss Anabaptist who is often called the “Father of Anabaptists.”

The Reformation period divided Western Christianity into three major streams of theological thought:  Roman Catholicism as defined by the Council of Trent; Lutheranism; identified by the Augsburg Confession and Formula of Concord;  and, Calvinism, distinguished by the Westminster Confession and Heidelberg Catechism.

Much of the early Reformation period is marked by sectarian intolerance, religious prejudice, violence, and appalling religious conflicts. The English Civil War, the persecutions of the Anabaptists and the French Huguenots, the Thirty Years War in Germany, and the persecutions of one sect to another, created a general thirst among the people for tolerance and commonality. What eventually developed was the anti-religious Age of Reason (Age of Enlightenment) on one hand, and a more inner, experiential religious expression on the other hand.

The Age of Reason and Revival       

The Age of Reason, also called the Enlightenment, is also called by some The Age of Reason and Revival. It is generally considered to be the period between the years 1648-1789. This era is a direct result of the persecution and violence of the early Reformation period. The Enlightenment’s most influential leaders were Frenchmen, Voltaire (1694-1778) and Denis Diderot (1713-1784). Both men had many followers and both had a profound contempt for Christianity, whether Protestant or Catholic.

Enlightenment “thought” was derived primarily from pre-Socratic thinkers such as Heraclitus (535-475 B.C.) and Permenides (510-440 B.C.). The Enlightenment movement advocated “Reason” as the primary basis of ultimate authority. Enlightenment thinkers embraced either Deism or secularized human reason and denied any supernatural authority. As a result, Christianity became more inward, seeking supernatural experience (in place of doctrinal validation). The supernatural experience was mainly limited to salvation by way of emotional appeals to one’s eternal destiny. The competing ideals of “enlightenment” and “experiential religion” made up the cultural landscape that affected the growth and spread of Christianity as well as new ideas for civil government, especially the relationship of church and state.

With the unfolding of new ideas concerning Christian theology and practice came other reformed movements, such as; Arminianism, Pietism, and Methodism. The Reformation era had brought about new ways to think about Christian theology and how to live the Christian life. These ideas challenged the core beliefs of Christian cultures. Experiential religion and experimental religion would bring about differing forms of Christian practice. This led to Revivalism and the subsequent birth of Evangelicalism.


A possible precursor or forerunner to pietism was the protestant mystic and spiritual writer, Johann Arndt (1555-1621). Arndt wrote a devotional book titled, “True Christianity.” His book defined true Christianity in terms of the “inner man,” contrasting historic conventional Christian orthodoxy.

Arndt’s book greatly influenced a German Lutheran minister named, Philip Spener (1635-1705). Spener, a highly regarded minister of the church in Prussia, was concerned that true Christianity had been replaced by a “dead orthodoxy” of ritualism and legalism. Spener was highly influenced by Waldensian, Antoine Leger and French Christian mystic, Jean de Labadie.

Spener published a book entitled; “Pia Desideria,” (Pious Desires), which is considered to have begun the Pietist movement (although some dispute this). After the publication of Spener’s book he then organized “conventicles;” small groups of “heart Christians.” From there the “Conventicle Movement” (original pietism) spread throughout Europe. The Conventicles were spiritual renewal groups trained by pietistic clergymen. The aim of pietism was to make Christianity authentic by the life transforming experience of God in conversion along with a devotion to God in the inner man. Conventicles practiced discipleship shaped by the Bible, with work towards perfection while seeking to be “in the world, but not of the world.” In his writings, Spener strove to balance Biblical authority, confessional fidelity, and theological scholarship with the experience of God in the inner man. He believed the reformation was unfinished and that it had become a stale, overly intellectual and polemic religion that lacked life and power.

August Hermann Franke (1663-1727) was a pietist leader who was influenced and mentored by Philip Spener. Franke’s contribution to Pietism and Evangelicalism was a passion for missions and world evangelism, as well as concern for the poor and disadvantaged.

Count Nikolas Ludwig Von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) was another leading Pietist. Zinzendorf was a member of German Nobility; his godfather was Philip Spener and mentor was Franke. He was described as being quite eccentric, passionate about Jesus and commonly known as the “Noble Jesus Freak.” Zinzendorf allowed a roving band of Moravian Christians to settle on his estate. The Moravians, also called the United Brethren, were the spiritual descendents of Jan Hus, the forerunner of the Protestant Reformation in Prague. The Moravians envisioned a “communion of saints,” a town inhabited only by Christians, separate from the world. The Moravians were the first large-scale Protestant missionary movement in history. Although the Moravians were small in number they had a tremendous influence on the Pietist movement. The Moravians also had a large influence on John Wesley (1703-1791), who lived with them for a time in Germany. The Moravians later started a few settlements in the American colonies.

The most notorious and very radical pietist was a German named Johann Dippel (1673-1734) who was born at Frankenstein Castle near Darmstadt. Dipple was an Alchemist, Theologian, and medical experimenter. He published many theological works under the name Christianus Democritus and believed religion should not be dogma, but should be love and self sacrifice. Dippel practiced alchemy and anatomy during his stay at Frankenstein Castle and was rumored to have inspired Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” story by experimenting on corpses from the local graveyard (Shelly herself gave a different account for her inspiration). The word of his gruesome experiments eventually caused him to be run out of town by local townspeople.

Martin Boos was a German Roman Catholic theologian who lived from 1762-1825. After he had followed the extreme practices of asceticism, Boos came to believe it was all to no avail. He then developed a doctrine of salvation by faith which was very similar to that of pure Lutheranism. Though his pietistic movement was opposed by the ecclesiastical authorities, it gained considerable popularity among Catholic laity and priests. Boos preached with great effectiveness, but he also had to endure enmity, accusations, and persecution from his enemies. In 1817 the Prussian government appointed him to a professorship and in 1819 gave him the pastorate at Sayn. He died in 1825.

Pietism  was the original Protestant renewal movement and the beginning of experiential religious theology and practice. It sought to combine objective truth with an added dimension of subjective inward experience. Pietism thus combined Biblical doctrine with individual piety along with a vigorous Christian life. Pietism influenced Protestantism and later Catholicism, but not without its critics, the most notable being German theologian, Valentin Ernst Loscher (1673-1749). Immediately following the Pietist Movement, the phenomenon known as Revivalism soon began to emerge.


The First Great Awakening

The founders of revivalism were John Wesley (1703-1791), George Whitefield (1714-1770), and Jonathon Edwards (1703-1758). John Wesley and Jonathon Edwards are also considered the founders of Evangelicalism. Revivalism was the Christian phenomenon that began in Great Britain and quickly spread to the North American colonies during the 1730’s and 1740’s. This revival movement is referred to as the Great Awakening and is marked by emotional preaching which brought masses of people to repent and follow Jesus Christ. The Great Awakening was unique in human history, and Christendom had not seen anything like it since the days of the Apostles.

Prior to the Great Awakening, John Wesley and his brother Charles had founded a Bible group at Oxford University called the “Holy Club.” The club’s purpose was a desire for holiness through strict spiritual disciplines. At the Holy Club, the Wesley’s met George Whitefield who had also become a member. Later, Whitefield pioneered outdoor preaching, which, at that time, was considered improper and sacrilegious. The Wesley’s and Whitefield eventually formed an evangelistic venture that resulted in revivalism in Great Britain.

Whitefield then traveled to New England in the American colonies. There, he met Puritan minister, Jonathan Edwards. John Wesley soon followed and met Edwards as well. Whitefield, Wesley, and Edwards were each highly educated men. Whitefield and Edwards both liked to preach about the impending doom that awaited those who would not believe the Gospel of Christ. The Wesley brothers, on the other hand, liked to preach about God’s love. Each of these founding revivalists believed in the absolute authority of scripture and insisted on the classical doctrines of Christian orthodoxy, but they also elevated experience over doctrine as the true centerpiece of Christian existence. Wesley also introduced a feature he had learned from the Moravian’s, which was dividing up members into small groups of about twelve, called “classes.” The purpose was not as much for learning as for spiritual encouragement through prayers and testimonies.

Revivalism quickly spread throughout the thirteen American colonies and helped create a certain sense of commonality between the various colonies that, in a short period, would lead to the idea of independence and the American Revolution. With new ideas about human rights, the nature of government, and a new spiritual zeal “in the air,” the Great Awakening was helping to develop the notion of greater independence among the colonists. A common cry among some colonists began to be, “no king but King Jesus!”


In conjunction with revivalism and the Great Awakening came a stream of Christian thought referred to as Evangelicalism. Evangelical simply put, means; “of the good news” or “related to the gospel.” In Great Britain and in the American colonies the evangelical was synonymous with the Great Awakening and Revivalism. As previously mentioned, John Wesley and Jonathon Edwards are considered the founders of Evangelicalism. The roots of evangelical theology are in the Pietist movement. As with revivalism, evangelicalism leaned toward the emotional appeal of making a personal decision for Christ. Evangelicalism rejected the hi-church view of sacramental salvation and covenant salvation as inadequate to true spiritual conversion. The evangelical believed that the conversion experience included repentance for sins, believing in Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins, and believing Jesus Christ for regeneration. Evangelicalism is generally referred to as the low-church, in that it reduces the liturgical formalities of high-church worship and emphasizes the priesthood of all believers. The necessity of personal faith in Jesus Christ for salvation is taught as opposed to regeneration by baptism.

The evangelical faith developed as a result of the “enthusiastic” spiritual reformers attempt to breathe vitality into the spiritual lethargy of what was described as a period of “dead orthodoxy.” Evangelical theology tends to be conservative while seeking renewal and reformation through cultural relevance by adapting the gospel message to contemporary problems and issues. Evangelicals have also helped in keeping their faith renewed historically by holding spiritual renewal events, such as, “Holy Fairs,” “Jesus Festivals,” and through “crusades, and revivals.” Evangelicalism crosses denominational lines and is described by some as being dynamic as opposed to static. The unifying ethos of evangelicalism’s theology is the ultimate authority of scripture.

The 2nd Great Awakening

            The second Great Awakening is said to have begun in 1775 under Timothy Dwight, Jonathon Edwards grandson. While teaching at Yale College, Dwight preached passionately against the infidelity among Yale’s students. A revival soon broke out among the students and an awakening began to spread to other campuses and cities.

Around the same time as Yale’s revivalism, revival began to break out in the frontier of Kentucky. The largest revival in Kentucky was at Cane Ridge, in 1801. Hundreds, if not thousands of churches were birthed as a result of the Cane Ridge camp meeting revivals. Both the New England and Kentucky revivals focused on the necessity personal decisions of repentance, and the acceptance of Christ for the salvation experience of being “born again.” The awakening spread throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Ohio. Some notable figures of that period are; Charles Finney, Lyman Beecher, Alexander Campbell, Peter Cartwright, Joseph Smith, and Nathaniel William Taylor.

The most influential person of the second Great Awakening period was evangelist Charles Finney (1792-1875). Finney was an attorney who, after his conversion, left his law practice and entered the Presbyterian ministry. He later switched to the Congregational Church which gave him more freedom for his style of evangelism. Finney did not believe in waiting for God’s Spirit to move, but instead initiated interest through manipulated revivals with pre-revival publicity, preparation, and citywide ministerial cooperation. This method was laid-out in his “Lecture on Revivals of Religion” (1835). Finney preached using reason, traditional exhortation, and emotional appeals to bring listeners to personal decisions for Christ. His influence and methods can be seen in later evangelists such as; Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham and many others.

The Plymouth Brethren

            The Plymouth Brethren was a movement that began by meeting in households in Ireland. They were first called “brethren” due to their practice of calling one another “brother” and were also known as the “Assembly Movement.” The early meetings included Christians from various denominations whose only emphasis was meeting in the name of Jesus. The movement spread to England and the first established meeting was in Plymouth, England, in 1830. By 1831 the Plymouth movement had grown to 1,500 and became known as the “Plymouth Brethren.”

            The movement sought to distance itself from the established church and denominational differences that had defined the protestant church since the reformation. The teaching combined elements of Calvinism and Pietism with an emphasis on the Millennium. One of its early leaders, John Nelson Darby is considered the father of dispensationalism and popularized the “secret rapture” theory. Although the movement today is in decline with the main concentrations in Northern Ireland and Scotland, it has spawned several other movements which have had a large influence on much of evangelical theology. Other notable Brethren include; H.A. Ironside, George Muller, W.E. Vine, Thomas Newberry, Jim Elliot, F.F. Bruce, and Jim Wallis.

The 3rd Great Awakening

The so-called Third Great Awakening was a period in American history from the late 1850’s to the early 1900’s. It affected pietistic denominations and postmillennial denominations as well. The Social Gospel movement was formed in this period as were new sects such as Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science Church. In the late 1800’s, the seeds for the anti-religious secular humanist movement were also sown. The awakening was a period of social activism with Social Gospel preachers as well as more fundamental preachers such as Dwight Moody who founded the Moody Bible Institute. The pietistic denominations sponsored growing missionary activities in the U.S.A. and around the world. Out of this awakening also came the Holiness Movement, followed by Pentecostalism.

The Holiness Movement

The Holiness Movement grew out of a small group called the “Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness.” Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874), a New York Methodist, became involved with the group which was modeled after John and Charles Wesley’s “Holy Club” at Oxford University. Phoebe studied Wesley’s writings on sanctification and then developed her own version of “entire sanctification.” She popularized her methods through books, such as “The Way of Holiness” and through a magazine titled “Guide to Holiness.” She preached in hundreds of camp meetings and revivals throughout North America and Great Britain.

Using Phoebe Palmer’s method, the Holiness movement grew through various independent churches and ministries organized for renewal. Palmer’s simple method for sanctification is known as “alter theology.” It is basically a three step process of: (1) entire consecration of oneself to God; (2) trusting in God to keep his promise to sanctify that which is laid upon the altar in consecration (the self); and (3) witnessing to what God has done. This formula became a standard for all Holiness churches and organizations.

The Salvation Army, founded in 1865, is the best known Holiness denomination. Other Holiness denominations include; The Church of the Nazarene, the Free Methodist Church, the Wesleyan Holiness Church, and the Church of God in Christ. Many Holiness Christians were social reformers who led movements for equal rights for African Americans and for women.

In England, the Holiness movement was called the “Keswick” movement and began there in 1876. Keswick teaching was a little less emotional than American Holiness, but the basic teaching was the same; Christian perfectionism through Spirit baptism.


The roots of Pentecostalism date back to the writings and preaching of A.J. Gordon (1836-1895) and A.B. Simpson (1843-1919). Gordon and Simpson promoted a popularized version of Keswick higher-life theology, but did not agree with the extent to which Pentecostalism later went.

Soon after, in January 1901, at the Holiness Bible Institute in Topeka, Kansas, a woman student spoke in tongues as she received the second blessing experience of Spirit baptism. Charles Parham, founder of Bethel Bible School, then interpreted “speaking in tongues” as the initial physical evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

A few years later in 1906, revival broke out at William Seymour’s church on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California. Commonly called the Azusa Street Revival – for months people came from all over the country, experienced the revival, and then took it back to their home churches. Seymour’s congregation was predominately black with some whites. Later, in 1914, white Pentecostal leaders founded the Assemblies of God denomination, which then became the largest of the Pentecostal denominations.

Pentecostalism represented an intense form of revivalism whose theology followed the orthodox Arminian stream of theology. The Pentecostal and Holiness movements remain distinct subsets of evangelicalism. The majority of evangelicalism does not embrace entire sanctification or the “sign gifts,” though almost all denominations have been affected by the renewal of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in Christian life.

Charismatic Movement

The beginning of the Charismatic Movement is generally considered to have started in 1960 with Dennis Bennet, Rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Van Nuys, California. Bennet announced to his congregation that he had received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He soon began to minister and teach in Vancouver, and ran workshops and seminars about the Holy Spirit. During the 1960’s and 1970’s the movement spread through; Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Anglican, and Catholic churches. In the Catholic Church, charismatic renewal began with individuals and then spread to the University of Notre Dame and the Roman Catholic Duquesne University in Pittsburg. Duquesne University then began hosting charismatic revivals. The movement spread through many denominations and spawned many new independent churches as well. The movement continued to spread throughout America and the world.

In the 1970’s, newer independent churches such as the Calvary Chapel (Chuck Smith) and Vineyard (John Wimber) movements grew dramatically, becoming new denominations in themselves. In the 1980’s the charismatic movement continued in what has been termed The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit. Out of this movement came Word-Faith theology, the Word-Faith movement and the Toronto Blessing phenomenon. It is believed that the Third-Wave movements were influenced by the Latter Rain movement of the 1950’s. The Latter Rain movement was a movement within the Pentecostal churches that was officially declared heretic by the Assemblies of God at the time.

            These are some of ideas and movements that have influenced Christian theology and practice throughout the centuries, since the beginning of the church. They indicate a general thirst for an inner Christian experience in addition to an external church liturgy or worship service. Next, is a brief look at how philosophy tremendously influenced Christian theology and life. Ideas from philosophy greatly impacted how theologians approached and interpreted the scriptures.

Modern Philosophy and Theology

Prior to the modern era, in the Medieval period, the seeds were sown for the adoption of humanism in theology by the Italian Catholic priest, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas was the most famous and influential theologian-philosopher of the Medieval period and is best known for his work, Summa Theologica. Aquinas in trying to reconcile faith and reason used the Bible, the writings of the philosopher Aristotle, the writings of a Jewish Rabbi and of a Muslim scholar. In Aquinas’s view, mans’ will had fallen, but not his intellect. Subsequently, with this view, mankind became intellectually autonomous, thus, a sphere, apart from God was created for the autonomous principle in Christian Theology. This also laid a foundation for Natural Theology, a theology that could be pursued independent of the Holy Scriptures.

Following the Medieval period, came the Modern era. During the age of Modernism came the birth and development of experiential religion. Philosophy and theology gradually began to lean towards experience, intuition, and “feeling” by focusing more on Empiricism rather than Rationalism. Rationalists believed that all knowledge is based on innate ideas of the mind, and that studying the nature of these ideas secures knowledge. Empiricists on the other hand believed that all knowledge comes from experience, and that we learn about the world by testing our ideas against it. These ideas naturally influenced theology and doctrine in Christianity, which in turn began being reduced philosophically to experience and consciousness.

This began in the Modern era with the French rationalist philosopher, Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Theology, which previously reigned in the sciences, scholasticism, and medieval culture, began to take a back seat to philosophy with Descartes ideas. Descartes philosophy made the human mind, in effect, autonomous and determinative; apart from divine revelation. This was basically true of rational and empirical philosophy in general. But with Christian philosophy it created a human sphere of religious validation through sense perception, validating apart from and instead of divine revelation.

In Great Britain, philosopher and Oxford professor John Locke (1632-1704) published his Essay on Human Understanding in 1690. Locke, who was influenced by Descartes, agreed that the order of the world corresponded to the order of the mind. But, contrary to Descartes, Locke did not believe that ideas were innate or discoverable by looking inward. Locke held that all knowledge is derived from experience, both from outer experiences of the senses and the inner experience by which we know ourselves. In Locke’s view this meant that true knowledge is based on three levels of experience: (1) our own selves, whose existence we continually experience; (2) the outer realities that are presently before us; (3) and God, whose existence is proven at each moment by the existence of the self and its experiences. In Locke’s view, there is no certain knowledge apart from these three levels.

After Locke, Anglican Bishop and philosopher Joseph Butler (1692-1752), also of Great Britain, applied Descartes philosophy to religion and took the next logical step of determinative human reasoning with the “autonomous mind of man,” thus, making mankind determinative over God and His revelation. Butler’s reasoning began from the human mind, then to the outer natural world, and lastly to God. This, in effect, made the human mind the area of absolute certainty. This view of reasoning, from the known world to the unknown world, presupposes that the known world is like the unknown world. With this method, the mind or inner realm becomes more important and the outer realm becomes less important. It then becomes more important to believe in your inner experience over any outer fact or reality revealed by God.

German idealist Immanual Kant (1724-1804) is most well known for his work, “Critique of Pure Reason,” and therefore his philosophy is called critical philosophy. To Kant, things such as the soul and the existence of God were unknowable and unprovable. They were simply matters of faith. Kant saw the world that we experience via our senses the phenomenal world and the reality beyond, the “noumenol” world. In Kant’s philosophy reality is not an ordered universe waiting to be discovered by the human mind; but rather, the human mind takes the chaos of the universe and structures it into the reality that we perceive. Kant believed that we can never know the true nature of reality, therefore, he claimed, “perception is reality.” Kant combined rational and empirical philosophy and is regarded as revolutionary in his thinking. Kant insisted that practical or moral reason should be a guide to interpreting the Bible and preferred to any literal interpretation. He rejected the resurrection of Christ and believed biblical miracles to be irrelevant regardless of any historical evidence.

The infusion of humanistic philosophy to theology led to abstract concepts of “Holy History” or “my Holy experience” and experiential or existential religion. Existentialism stems from the belief that ethics and meaning must come from an “individual experience” of the world instead of God’s revealed law-word.

This concept rose to the forefront with theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Schleiermacher combined Kantian philosophy with pietism, emphasizing “feeling and intuition” as the basis of religion. Religion independent of doctrine was defined by Schleiermacher as the “absolute dependence on God.” His idea was to take authoritative, objective revelation and replace it with Gefuhl. Gefuhl is roughly translated “a deep inner awareness.” Some-time later he began to refer to it as “god-consciousness.” In this view, feeling became determinative over faith in the object of that dependence. Further, Schleiermacher’s “Doctrine of the Holy Spirit” defined the Holy Spirit as the “collective spirit of the church,” far different from the Biblical doctrine of the third person of the Trinity. Friedrich Schleiermacher is also considered the father of Liberal Theology.

Philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) emphasized subjective truth and experience. His existential dialectics dealt with the individual human existing “in the presence of God,” nearly excluding the idea of Christian community. Kierkegaard and others linked truth with individual knowledge and experience rather than external objective truth. Kierkegaard’s philosophy has had a tremendous effect on Christian theology and Christian life.

The American Unitarian preacher Octavius Frothingham (1822-1895) writing in the “Religion of Humanity,” said the Spirit of God is the “interior spirit of any age.” In liberal theology the “spirit of the times” or “the spirit of the age” becomes determinative of truth, thus, advancing the idea of “natural infallibility.” Truth in this view becomes relative to time and place, and history itself becomes god-like (historicity).

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher who was influenced by the pessimism and atheism of the philosopher, Schopenhauer. Nietzsche took Schopenhauer’s philosophy to a nihilistic extreme. He did not espouse any particular cohesive theory but was highly critical of Christianity and often the non-religious as well. He referred to Christian morality as “slave morality” and criticized the secular (humanist) for being overly influenced by Christianity. He is known for his phrase, “God is dead” and thus, the idea that all absolute values died with Him. Nietzsche is also known for his philosophy of the “Superman” or “Ubermensch” and the will-to-power. He believed that all Christian morality should be done away with and replaced with values of right and wrong by man’s own will. Nietzsche thought morality and values should be “beyond good and evil” and not subject to the Church or society. His philosophy is somewhat of a super-existential, amoral, will to power. Much of his writings are proverb-like aphorisms; his most famous being, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Nietzsche has had a tremendous influence on philosophers, academicians, poets, society and religious thinkers.


Empirical and Rational philosophies greatly influenced theology, religious life, and culture in a variety of ways. From orthodox belief to liberal, Protestant and Catholic, the ideas formed by the philosophy of Modernism made their way into religious practice. Today, the ideas expressed in Modernism, Post-Modernism, and Post-Human philosophies continue to influence all of Western Christianity as well as the non-religious. Neglecting the ideas proposed by philosophy and theology, fails to acknowledge how biblical ideas are often influenced and reinterpreted. Christian religious life, in a variety of ways, reflects alien interpretations derived from humanistic philosophies.

Our current age embraces philosophical existentialism which influences much of contemporary western culture, religious and non-religious alike. Christendom, in varying degrees continues to barrow ideas from rational and empirical philosophies. The ideas from existentialism and eastern pantheistic mysticism increasingly influence Christian culture in relying on a personal inner experience over faith and reliance on God’s expressed will. Inner experience is often thought of as an inner feeling and not as the transformation of the Holy Spirit to a higher degree of holiness towards the will of God, as expressed in His law-Word. Contrary to God’s expressed will is the notion of freedom from God by the philosophies of existential autonomy. The will-of-man is an autonomous freedom contrary to the sovereignty of God which inadvertently places sovereignty in the hands of man and subsequently to the state.

The desire for a true Christian existence and experience is an innate feature of Christianity revealed throughout the history of the church. Without the proper balance of orthodox belief with the transformational experience of inner sanctification towards the will of God, experientialism tends to reduce itself to a self-determining, self-deceptive faith. The more existential religious life becomes, the more it is prone to reason from ‘human sense experience’ rather than divine revelation.

A strictly liturgical orthodox discipline, on the other hand, without a balanced view of the Christian experience and existence, often leads to a dry, lifeless, unmotivated faith that lacks spiritual joy; a so-called dead orthodoxy. This approach has its own dangers of making sacred, activities that are not commanded as sacred and forbidding expressions of worship that the scriptures do not forbid.

The desire to validate faith and spirituality via a spiritual feeling or emotional experience is inadvertently a human-inspired validation. This would be a faith that inadvertently seeks control of God’s will. Our human will often projects itself as being God’s will, even though we are instructed to live by faith, not by how we feel about our faith.

We experience spiritual transformation through the work and power of the Holy Spirit. Transformation through the Holy Spirit enables us to put off the deeds of the flesh (die to sin) and put on the righteousness of God, experiencing transformation by God into a reformed and renewed creation.

Love, humility, righteousness, submission, prayer, spiritual growth, spiritual discipline, discernment and wisdom are examples of the pursuits of the Christian experience. [Second] Peter says to; “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” [Second] Peter also tells us that Christ has given us divine power for all things that pertain to life and godliness. Peter reminds us to give all diligence to: “add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For, if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8)

Christian spirituality begins with faith in Jesus Christ and is carried out in obedience to God’s revealed will. Jesus said our righteousness must exceed that of the Jewish Pharisees. The self-righteous Pharisees continually came to Jesus with wrong attitudes. When they came to Jesus seeking a sign, the scriptures reveal it was to test Jesus (Matt. 16:1-4). Jesus taught the disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” He then explained the leaven is the false teaching of the Pharisees who taught the traditions of men, not the true teachings of God.

Regarding the Pharisees and worship, Jesus, quoting Isaiah’s prophecy says; “These people draw near me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15: 8-9). Here, Jesus links the teaching of correct doctrine with worship. Without a foundation based in correct doctrine, our worship is in vain. Furthermore, teaching and learning correct doctrine, and the attributes of the true God of the universe, is in and of itself, a form of worship. Jesus taught that there is false teaching and bad doctrine. These are “commandments of men” that are in opposition to the commandments of God. The commandments of men twist or deny the original intent and true purposes of God’s commands and thereby make worship vain and impotent.

            Jesus authoritative teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5: 1- 7: 27) describes the proper attitudes of believers in order to be a blessed people and enter the Kingdom of God. He tells us who we are God’s Kingdom and what we are to be. He tells us how to view God’s Law and Prophets, in grace through faith. And what our attitudes and actions should be regarding: anger, lust, truth, honesty, retaliation, love, prayer, and fasting, worrying, judging, practicing righteousness, money, giving to the needy, and seeking God. The Christian experience is in seeking these things and building up the Kingdom of God from generation to generation. Christ concludes with the Golden Rule – “So whatever you wish others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Jesus says the gate is narrow and the way hard that leads to life…and that, the wise will hear and do as He commands.  Christ closes the Sermon on the Mount with the admonition to beware of false prophets and those who (falsely) do mighty works in his name. Jesus final command to His disciples is to: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

Finally, there is this wonderful insight from Judy Allen over at https://connectingdotstogod.com/  in her article “Three Ways to Experience More of God’s Love.” Judy extends this added dimension of Christian experience to the subject of experientialism. She first quotes this verse:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named…that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:14-19)

Judy then notes we need to pray for the strength to comprehend the love God (refer to the verse). Next, she adds that we need perspective. We need to pray for the perspective that only Christ as Creator and Savior, can give to us.

Then Judy gives us this insight in her article on experience;

“No one person can fully understand the love of Christ through his or her own experience, because our experiences are limited. However, if we join with all believers (“with all the saints”) we will have a bigger and better picture of God’s love…We need inner strength for this. If we invest ourselves in the lives of others, we will rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. The rejoicing is easy; mourning is not. When you’re celebrating with a family member over good fortune, rejoice in the love of God. Conversely, when you are sitting with a friend who is mourning, look for expressions of the love of God. It may be more difficult to find, but it is always present. As we become familiar with other believer’s stories, we will see the faithful love of God in all circumstances.”

Judy Allen brings it home and nails it. God has chosen to work in and through His people, working and loving together, to accomplish His will on earth. He has made it possible for believers to be partakers in growing His kingdom with our families, friends, neighbors, those we work and interact with, and even in the mission field; to go wherever He leads us in spreading the gospel message. God has empowered us through His Holy Spirit to carry-out and further accomplish His will for this time in history, the era in which each one of us live. And we pass it on to the next generation just as it was passed on to us by our previous generation.

Christian Missionary Conversions

            The Christian experience in the 20th century took on a whole new dynamic with the missionary efforts in the southern hemispheres around the world. With Christianity stagnating in much of the world’s northern hemisphere, conversions are explosive in much of the world’s southern hemisphere. Africa, South America, China and even the Middle East are seeing Christian conversions above that of any time in history. This is also true of Korea in the northern hemisphere. The move of the Holy Spirit in evangelizing the world appears to be spreading like wildfire in many countries previously considered somewhat non-receptive to the gospel of Christ. May the Lord continue to grow His Kingdom to all peoples and nations throughout the world in the 21st century as well.



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  2. Evans, C. Stephen, Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics and Philosophy of Religion, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2002.
  3. Gonzalez, Justo, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2, Harper Collins, San Francisco, California, 1985
  4. Hill, Jonathan, Faith in the Age of Reason, InterVarsity, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2004
  5. Lane, TonyA Concise History of Christian Thought, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2006
  6. Morey, Robert A., How the Old and New Testaments Relate to Each Other, Christian Scholars Press, Las Vegas, Nevada. 2002
  7. Olson, Roger E., Pocket Dictionary of Evangelical Theology, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2007.
  8. Olson, Roger E. and English, Adam C., Pocket History of Theology, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2005.
  9. Piper, John, What Jesus Demands from the World, Crossway Books, Wheaton Illinois, 2006
  10. Rushdoony, Rousas John, The Biblical Philosophy of History, Ross House Books, Vallecito, California, 1969.
  11. Rushdoony, Rousas John, Lecture on Philosophy and Religion, 1985
  12. Rushdoony, Rousas John, Lecture on Modern Philosophy, 1985
  13. Schaeffer, Francis A., Escape from Reason, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1968.
  14. Shelly, Bruce, Church History in Plain Language, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee, 1982, 1995.
  15. Judy Allen, http://www.connectingdotstogod.com/

 Article by Pete Coker for Gospelbbq.wordpress.com

This entry was posted in All-Encompassing Gospel, Holy Spirit, Law of Christ, Theology/Philosophy, Unity, Worldview/Culture, Z-Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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