Yesterday I put up an article about the Three Streams, One River concept and promised some further reflections over the coming week. This is the first of these, wherein I want to consider some of the particular characteristics of these three streams.
First off is the issue of the names. Evangelical, charismatic, and catholic words that each carry a lot of baggage – positive and negative. The stream entitled the evangelical stream is more akin to classical evangelicalism than the current face of American Evangelicalism, because as it stands today, it’s got a pretty strong impression from the charismatic stream, particularly in the area of the value of the individual and the emphasis on spiritual gifts. The catholic stream, likewise, is a tricky name because many people only ever use the word ‘catholic’ to refer to Roman Catholicism, and thus there’s a temptation to think that the Roman Catholic Church is the “most” catholic of all churches, or is the best example of the catholic stream. It’s certainly a strong example, but the East Orthodox is just as catholic in this sense, and many Anglicans as well as some Lutherans would argue that they’re just as validly catholic too.
One way to avoid these associations might be to pursue a different naming convention for the three streams, or to focus upon their key characteristics before revealing their names. I’ve thought up six one-word categories to help define each stream.
- Each stream has its own banner under which it gathers to define its primary concern for shaping the Church. For the evangelical stream it’s the Bible, for the charistmatic stream it’s the Spirit, and for the catholic stream it’s truth. Sure, this could very well start a fight among them, because they all care about the truth, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit, and think that their banner-word encompasses the other two. But it’s a matter of emphasis. “If it’s in the Bible, it’s true,” says the evangelical. “If it’s Spirit-led, it’s true,” says the charismatic. “If it’s true, the Bible and the Spirit will confirm it,” says the catholic.
- Each stream sees valid authority in the Church stemming from a different source. The evangelical stream looks to a definite confession of faith, such as the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and so on. The charismatic stream looks to the unction of the Holy Spirit, which is the least clear-cut and the most fluid of the three. The catholic stream looks to apostolic authority, trusting in the continuous work of the Church through history rather than tying themselves down to a single theological treatise.
- Each stream has a different hero figure (or alternatively, different favorite descriptions of Jesus’ ministry). For the evangelicals it’s the preacher, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God. The charismatic stream favors the prophet, the one who speaks forth God’s word (similar to preaching, but less teacher-like and more focused on the present state of the Church and the world). The catholic stream favors the image of the priest, who facilitates the worship of the community.
- Different streams could also be defined by different major holidays that represent their emphases. The evangelical stream is most into Easter, focusing on the death & resurrection of Jesus Christ. The charismatic stream is most into Pentecost, bringing out the emphasis of the ministry that Jesus passed on to the Church in his stead. The catholic stream is most like Christmas in its focus on the incarnation – the Word made flesh – and its implications for the Church as Christ’s Body today.
- Each stream also has its own key buzzword that brings out something that it often squabbles over with the other two (for better and for worse). For the evangelicals it’s literalism. In particular this refers to how the Bible is understood and interpreted and applied. Among charismatics it’s authenticity, referring to how the life of the Church is supposed to be a natural organism, not an artificial construct. For catholics, the word is tradition, referring to the continuous life of the Church that runs through every generation.
- Finally, each stream carries with it a major risk or shortcoming which the other two criticize when it flows alone. The biggest danger with the evangelical stream is partisanship, due to its focus on the primacy of Scripture over any unifying interpretive lens. For the charismatic stream, the main risk is subjectivism. By this I mean the danger of reducing the faith to purely individual experiences to the expense of external standards or means of accountability. The catholic stream’s biggest risk is dead tradition, which is what happens when people imitate the old ways without actually appropriating them for themselves.
Bits of these characteristics have already shown up in the original article, but now I’ve set them out in a more orderly fashion in parallel to one another.
Next time, I’ll bring in some verses from the Bible to comment upon in relation to these three streams.