Sympathetic Criticism

[1 Thess. 5:19-21]---'Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.'

The first beginnings of any movement are always fraught with great possibilities in either direction; when all are swept along in a floodtide of enthusiasm, when plans are conceived and foundations laid for the developments of the future. It was such a time in the history of the Early Christian Church at Thessalonica to which the missionary apostle sent his Epistles to the Thessalonians. These two brief writings are most revealing as throwing floods of light on the actual life-situation of typical new Christian churches of the first century. They are intensely human writings. There were discords and party division, an occasional instance of unseemly conduct, tendencies to idleness in anticipation of the looked-for return of Christ and the coming end of the age. The situation was not ideal. But it had the redeeming merit of spontaneity, sincerity, and a certain lively quality such as the Church was never able to recapture when once the congealing process had set in. They were spirit-filled groups in whom the domination of the Spirit was all-pervasive. It occasionally led to excesses of enthusiasm. But the wise Apostle recognized that the dangers of excessive enthusiasm were less than the perils incidental to an attitude of conventional luke-warmness. Hence his counsel to the Thessalonian Church: 'Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings.' He was supremely concerned with the preservation of the life of the Spirit; above all else he desired that it should not be stifled.

St. Paul's phrase---'Quench not the Spirit'---carries a notable suggestion. These vehement motions are as the flames, which leap upwards in wild freedom while fuel and air are given. They are flames kindled from no earthly hearth, but from the altar of heaven.

When we endeavor to find some counterpart in our own experience to these extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, perhaps we may accept some such version of St. Paul's language as this: ' Do not be hasty to stamp out what is novel and alarming, lest you suppress the free movement of genius, and disallow the unconventional methods of enthusiasm.' There is an element of Divine power in genius and enthusiasm, and it is not fitting that men who believe in an inspiring Holy Spirit, ruling in the affairs of men and wondrously guiding His chosen instruments towards the ends of His providence, should be eager to stamp out movements which may be the effects of His presence.

When writing to the Church in Rome, Paul, though he did not exhort them 'Quench not the Spirit,' yet put the command positively, 'Be fervent in spirit'---after the example of Apollos. Put quite literally, this command would read 'boiling in spirit,' suggesting that as the fire under the vessel causes the water to boil, so the Spirit burning within the believer's heart should heat his powers to ardor and enthusiasm. 'Where the Spirit is He burns.'

St. Paul passes to another and different manifestation of the Spirit. ' Despise not prophesyings.' In the Epistle to the Corinthians we find a striking comparison instituted by the Apostle between the 'gift of tongues' and the 'gift of prophecy.' The one is private, enriching the spiritual life of the individual Christian; the other is public, bringing advantages to the whole assembly of Christians. "He that speaketh in a tongue edifieth himself: but he that prophesieth edifieth the Church.'

If we may paraphrase the Apostle's language, his counsel would run somewhat thus: 'Take care that, in the enthusiasm of a religious movement, you do not despise and depress the intellectual activity of the Church. At the moment, indeed, zeal and eloquence may seem to carry all before them, and there needs nothing more than the 'multitude of preachers' and the fervor of crowded assemblies to conquer the world, but churches cannot really afford to despise intelligence and to neglect learning. The 'understanding' has its place in the religion of Christ, as well as the emotions, though these are not to be crushed, and the imagination, though this is not to be disallowed.

'Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings'---the two commands should not be disconnected by full stops as in the A.V., and need not be separated by semi-colons as in the R.V.; commas would better mark the relation they bar to each other. Dr. Findlay thus punctuates and comments: 'Quench not the Spirit,' despise not prophesyings; but test everything.' From this carefully balanced warning we gather that the false fire mingled with the true caused the more skeptical minds in the Pauline churches to distrust prophetic gifts, while the ardent and credulous fell into the opposite mistake---the uncritical acceptance of anything that looked like prophecy.

As the Apostle declares, the right way to handle all religious phenomena is not to quench but test, to bring our own mind to bear on whatsoever we are asked to approve, to make nothing at its own valuation but to give a fresh and deliberate application of intelligence to the problems of Christian duty. 'Prove or test all things.'

And this deliberate, responsible, free exertion of our own private judgment must always be conditioned by two broad considerations. On the one hand, we must distinguish, disentangle, and refuse to abandon the sound cord [if there be any] of every movement and every proposal which claims our support. On the other hand, we must be quite relentless against any tampering with Christian principles, and set our face as a rock against any course, however seemingly expedient, which we can clearly see is at bottom morally indefensible. 'Hold fast that which is good.'

Such then, is the advise which St. Paul gives to the Thessolonians at a time of great perplexity, when 'the fountains of the great deep were being broken up,' and the most blessed and permanent of all reformations was beginning to make its presence felt among men. It may not be thought extravagant if we claim for our age some striking similarity with the age which witnessed the first preaching of the gospel.

Both in the ancient and in the modern world 'the powers of heaven are shaken,' and men are restless and perplexed, looking for some better solution of the problems of human life than any that the established institutions and hereditary wisdom of society can offer. Both then and now 'the Spirit of God moves on the face of the waters,' and the tokens of His motion are visible in many directions. Ideas are visiting men's minds; change is in the air; movements, religious, and social, are many and perplexing.

To be sympathetic with new ideas, to be just to new movements, and yet never to underrate the wisdom of the past or to suffer the clear workings of intelligence to be tampered with by emotion and sentiment; to uphold before the mind, as the governing principle of a true independence, loyalty to every element of truth and right---this is to carry into all Christian service the honorable name of Christ.

Therefore 'never quench the fire of the Spirit, never disdain prophetic revelations but test them all, retaining what is good and abstaining from whatever kind is evil.'

In Christ, timothy.


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