Pentecost Was Not An Occasion for “Enthusiasm”

The amiable classicist, John Bird Sumner, was the Protestant archbishop of Canterbury from 1848 to 1862. Amid theological controversies about baptismal regeneration and the like, his opposition to a parliamentary bill removing Jewish disabilities was unquestionably retrograde, but he assumed the progressive mantle in approving obstetric anesthesia which was opposed by some Christian fundamentalists, whose misogyny was not alien to current Muslim advocates of female circumcision. It will be allowed that he had little choice after Queen Victoria had been anesthetized for the birth of Prince Leopold. As a son of Cambridge rather than Oxford, his propensities were more Evangelical. Nonetheless, he is said to have blessed missionaries to India in the imperial radiance of the Raj with the counsel that they were to “convert the heathen and discourage Enthusiasm.”

Now, among the Anglo-Saxon race, one of the more sober insults was to label a man as “hearty.” But Enthusiasm understood with a capital E was Methodism and its ancillary non-conformist forms, which emphasized emotion over reason.

When the apostles and the women with them in the Upper Room received the Holy Spirit as promised by the Lord who never lies, they were filled with a power that has changed the world. It did not change their intellect. There is no literature in the classical corpus more replete with incontestable reason obedient to the divine Logic than the preaching of the apostles.

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Our Lord promised that the Holy Spirit would lead into all truth. This activates the intellect and does not replace it. Enthusiasm is not spiritual zeal if it asks reason to move over so that emotion might take its place. The Enthusiasm that Dr. Sumner abjured displaced the Logos with the Ego. That of course is an old story, elegantly and eloquently documented in the masterwork of Monsignor Ronald Knox, Enthusiasm. While not unsympathetic toward the noble integrity of John Wesley, he holds up the spiritist movements from the second century Montanists to the latter day Quakers, Jansenists, and Quietists as examples of how people go to extremes to confuse themselves emotionally with the Holy Spirit.

At Pentecost, the Apostles spoke the languages of the far-flung regions of the Jewish diaspora. Modern “speaking in tongues” is not the equivalent of the manifestation of real languages. Even when there was such, Saint Paul diminished it, subordinating it to interpretation. Saint Irenaeus mentions contemporaries who spoke “through the Spirit” in all kinds (pantodapais) of tongues. Saint Francis Xavier much later preached in tongues he had not learned, but they were real languages and, if one is willing to accept it, on only two occasions: in Travancor and again at Amanguci.

It is curious that the charismatic movements after the Second Vatican Council should have neglected the Latin of the Universal Church, before affecting exotic and unintelligible speech. As an inveterate and unapologetic New Yorker whose pastoral obligations require speaking various languages, it seems that a really miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit would enable people in Manhattan to speak grammatical English, the equivalent of the dialect of the Diaspora spoken at Pentecost, and the contradiction of faux glossolalia.

False Pentecostal enthusiasm tries to energize the emotions but not the intellect. It is a wise policy, issuing from experience, and one hopes not from cynicism, to distrust email messages that begin by saying that the writer is “excited to share” something. This inevitably includes an overuse of exclamation points. Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald equally disdained the use of exclamation points as a kind of laughter at your own jokes. Exclamation points signal a failure to get a sober point across, and are the grammatical equivalent of the vaudeville performers who waved the American flag and held a baby to prevent the bored audience from throwing objects at them.

In religion, various movements that in practice move nowhere, keep pumping themselves up with excited promises of something great about to happen, some new committee or rally or bureaucratic program for evangelization that blurs the distinction between the Good News and novelty.

Such was the case in Phrygia of Asia Minor in what is now Turkey during the second century. A convert priest named Montanus stirred up a lot of excitement when he confused himself with the Holy Spirit and proclaimed various “prophecies” while in a trance like a sort of divine ventriloquist. In the manner of a typical fanatic so defined, he was confident that God would agree with him if only God had all the facts. In a languid and dissolute period, the local churches already having become formalistic and arid (contrary to romantic depictions of the uniform zeal of all early Christians, and not unlike the motivation of John Wesley to stir up the dormant Church of England), the ardor of Montanus attracted many as far as North African and Rome itself, not all of whom were innocent of neurosis. Even the formidable mind of Tertullian welcomed it. Sensational outbursts of emotion were thought to be divinely inspired, and the formal clerical structure of the Church was caricatured as the sort of rigidity that quenches the spirit. Avowing that prophecy did not end with the last apostles, new messages were pronounced, false speaking in tongues pretending to be actual languages was encouraged, and women like Priscilla and Maximilla left their husbands and decided that they could be priestesses and prophetesses.

In the twentieth century, the Montanist heresy sprung up again. The Pentecostal sects, and even many Catholics were attracted to “re-awakenings” that gave the impression that the Paraclete promised by Christ who never lied had finally come awake having slumbered pretty much since the early days of the Church. While its extreme forms were bizarre, such as dancing in churches and uncontrolled laughter and barking like dogs while rolling on the floor, any quest for novelty quickly grows bored, for nothing goes out of fashion so fast as the latest fashion.

In preparing for the celebration of Pentecost the Church prays for a holy reception of the truth “ever ancient ever new” which comes not through a Second Pentecost or a Third Pentecost, but through an embrace of God’s timeless grace. Christ makes “all things new” and does not superficially make all new things (Rev. 21: 5).

Heresies are fads. The estimable Servant of God Father John Hardon, whose talks would never be called ecstatic, bluntly said that the modern Charismatics are Montanists. It is true that the Charismatic movement in the Catholic Church wisely was blessed insofar as it not denigrate from or add to authentic dogma. But in the second century the pope Eleutherius was inclined to condone the Montanists too, until the anti-Tertullian theologian Praxeas explained its problems.

Chesterton described the romance of orthodoxy whose Church is like a chariot “thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the while truth reeling but erect.” The truth needs no artificial excitement or orchestrated exclamation points, for when the mystery of God is revealed, all and every element in the cataract of creation collapses into silent awe (Rev. 8:1) and then … the Great Amen.

Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would enable human intelligence to embrace depths of reality beyond the limits of natural experience. Here at work is the principle of Saint Thomas Aquinas: “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.” The apostles became more intensely human when they received the power of the Holy Spirit, to the extent that they traveled to lands beyond the limited environs of their early years, with a courage never before tested. They received the “glory” that Christ, on the night before he died, prayed that his disciples might share. Because that participation in the divine nature bridges time and eternity, there is an invigorating terror about it: not the dread of being diminished or annihilated, but the trembling awesomeness of breaking the bonds of death itself.

When the Holy Spirit moves a man from aimless biological existence to what Christ calls the “fullness” of life, the reaction is a little like that of someone who has heard simple tunes but then encounters a symphony. Simple pleasures may evoke smiles, but the deepest joys can move one to tears, and that is why there is that curious experience of not laughing for joy but weeping for joy, and the equally enigmatic experience of lovesickness. Oft quoted is the diary account by Samuel Pepys in the seventeenth century after attending a concert: “ …that which did please me beyond anything in the whole world was the wind-musique when the Angel comes down, which is so sweet that it ravished me; and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife.”

An admirer of Jascha Heifetz told him after a performance that his violin had such a beautiful tone. The maestro placed his ear against the Stradivarius and said, “I hear nothing.” By way of metaphor, it may be said that we exist biologically as wonderful instruments: the brain itself is the most complex organism in the universe. But we make celestial music, attaining the “tone” of virtue, only when the Holy Spirit conjoins our human nature with the Source of Life.

At Pentecost, all who worship God are transfigured by his holy light. No man-made enthusiasm can equal the transporting eloquence of the unutterable Logos. So spoke Saint Cyril of Jerusalem: “As light strikes the eyes of a man who comes out of darkness into the sunshine and enables him to see clearly things he could not discern before, so light floods the soul of the man counted worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit and enables him to see things beyond the range of human vision, things hitherto undreamed of.”

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from”The Descent of the Holy Spirit” painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1308-1311.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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