Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing in the 20th Century

Hospital Room Illustration by Denise Klitsie

CECIL M. ROBECK JR.: Tell us about your book on healing.

KIMBERLY ERVIN ALEXANDER: Pentecostal Healing: Models of Theology and Practice1 is a published version of my doctoral thesis. I’ve always been interested in the subject, having grown up in a Pentecostal church. My daughter was born in 1982 with unforeseen complications, but she received a dramatic healing. That made divine healing personal. Years later in my doctoral program, I started looking at a range of early Pentecostal literature and was amazed at how prevalent the healing testimonies, sermons about healing, and revival accounts were. I was surprised that scholars hadn’t focused on it.

CMR: You and I are both church historians who have studied the Pentecostal movement. Some might think that healing is a relatively recent phenomenon, but there is a long history. Can you give us a glance at what that looks like?

KEA: Healing actually connects Pentecostals with the larger Christian tradition. You can see the ministry of healing very clearly in the early church. In fact, many early Christian writers believed that this gift separated them from the pagan world. Christians never abandoned their sick but provided them with care. Later theologians reflected on the realities of healings to which they bore witness.2

CMR: I can’t help but think of Benjamin Warfield’s book, Counterfeit Miracles,3 where he argues that miracles ceased with the apostles.

Are you suggesting that it is not quite the way Benjamin Warfield described it?

KEA: That’s right! One of the proofs offered by 19th century healing practitioners—people like A. B. Simpson and A. J. Gordon4—against Warfield’s rhetoric was evidence of the continual presence of healing miracles throughout the history of the church. Warfield had a particular theological conclusion from which he worked. He was interested in delegitimizing Roman Catholic and Pentecostal claims. Catholics have always believed in healings and miracles.

CMR: I believe that Dr. Colin Brown here at Fuller once told me that Warfield was out to counter Catholics as you suggested, but was also out to counter the new ministries that were making claims of healing. One of the reasons for this was the fact that Mrs. Warfield wasn’t ambulatory and he had actually taken her to a meeting where she had not been healed.

KEA: Ah! Warfield doesn’t want to give any room for experience in his hermeneutic, but clearly his position is driven by experience if that’s the case.

CMR: Hermeneutics is always tied to one’s experience.

KEA: Absolutely. During this period in which Warfield and others were battling there was a blooming of the healing movement, beginning in Europe and picking up in the North- eastern United States. There were healing conventions with teaching on healing and special times for healing prayer. I think it was a real challenge to the Princeton School’s hermeneutic and their way of understanding the Christian life and church at that time.5 When the Pentecostal movement emerged in the 20th century, there was already a strong belief in “divine healing provided in the atonement” that you can see in the earliest faith statements. I think this belief is a major contribution of the 19th century Holiness movement. It’s not a Pentecostal innovation. What makes Pentecostal healing ministry different is the emergence of Pentecostal churches. You see the diminishing of healing homes that had been prevalent because now the church becomes a kind of healing center.

CMR: I sat on a dissertation committee years ago in which a School of Psychology doctoral candidate was looking at psychological healing. The study was on the pastoral counseling movement that comes out of the Boston area during the same period.6

KEA: The later charismatic renewal also helped us look at more than the physical with regard to illness. With Francis MacNutt there was an emphasis on the integration of psychology. You get that in Agnes Sanford and Morton Kelsey. Inner healing became a focus. Now that’s almost commonplace, even in Pentecostal churches where there’s a lot of openness to counseling and inner healing.7

CMR: I want to come back to your mention of healing being in the atonement. That’s a pretty standard line within Pentecostal circles, based upon Isaiah 53:5: “By his stripes we are healed.” Is that the best theory we have for divine healing, or are there other ways that have proven to be helpful to the charismatic renewal? I don’t think that all of them taught healing in the atonement.

KEA: No, not as much. I’ve suggested that part of the problem with interpreting that doctrine is which atonement model is favored over another. If the penal substitution model is prevalent, as in much of evangelicalism, then healing in the atonement becomes a bit problematic because you don’t want to say that everybody who prays for the work of Christ to be applied is going to be healed. Recovery of the Christus Victor model is helpful. That’s one of the things that even Pentecostal scholars like Gordon Fee missed when, in the 1980s, he was challenging the notion of healing in the atonement.8 But John Wimber helps us through his Christus Victor approach. In that model, the work of atonement is more than just what happens on the Cross—it is the entire work of Christ, particularly his incarnation.9 That much more comprehensive view of the work of Christ helps us understand that healing really is in the atonement and is the continuation of Jesus’ work through the Holy Spirit.

CMR: You mentioned that not everybody can expect healing and certainly not in the same way, based upon a prayer or laying on of hands or anointing with oil. What do you say to those who aren’t healed? What is the issue? How do you counsel such a person?

KEA: That is the question of the ages, isn’t it? Some have tried to answer that by looking first at the pastoral problem. But just looking at biblical accounts of illness and healing provides insights. One is that there are a lot of reasons why people are sick. Discerning the cause can be really important—but sometimes you just don’t know. Pentecostals, as a rule, have not been comfortable with attributing every illness to the Devil. We have a comprehensive view that sees the world, the flesh, and the Devil as a complex enemy. Early Pentecostals talked about people being sick from exhaustion, for instance. So it isn’t simplistic. There are some illnesses that are related to sin. We would be comfortable saying there are some that may be demonic. Some illness comes from natural causes. I think, in the final analysis, you must leave the question of causation up to God.

CMR: You are probably aware that at Fuller during the 1980s Peter Wagner, John Wimber, and Chuck Kraft engaged in studies in miracles and drew enormous crowds. I think we had a class of almost 800 students at one point and there was a lot of practical application going on in the classroom. Do you have any thoughts about that?

KEA: We had a couple of people from the Church of God in Cleveland who were doing their doctoral work at Fuller and attending some of those classes. Later, of course, I read Wimber’s work.10 When I began my doctoral research in the late 1990s, in England, Wimber had made a huge impact there, influencing the Anglican renewal movement. I remember one of my doctoral supervisors, an Anglican priest, saying he liked Wimber because he was willing to admit when he was wrong! I have a pretty high regard for Wimber as well. There are areas where I would differ, but Wimber’s work was really helpful in linking healing to the kingdom of God, building on the work of George Eldon Ladd.11 I wouldn’t use this language, but his “power encounter” can be a helpful way of thinking about healing miracles. Classical Pentecostals would differ with some of the developments from that time at Fuller with regard to the “demonic.” I am pretty comfortable with Wimber’s language of “demonized,” but Pentecostals are more comfortable with calling that “oppression.” We have wanted to safeguard against the idea that a Christian can be possessed by a demon, and exorcising a demon from a Christian is not something we see as scriptural. There are sanctification issues, works of the flesh, that I would not attribute to the demonic. I also am not comfortable with the notions of generational curses or territorial spirits as they’re normally spoken about. I think that’s much made about a little bit of Scripture.

CMR: Peter Wagner came to this subject out of his missionary experience. He was doing a degree in church growth at Fuller with Donald McGavran and became successor to McGavran as a professor of church growth. He asked at that time which churches were growing and came to the realization that it was the Pentecostal and charismatic churches. Then, he asked the question, why? That’s when he came to this whole understanding of signs and wonders. I would say, especially in the Global South, that there is a lot more dependence on God than on health care facilities, medications, and health care insurance because of the lack of availability. Here, we have those things available to us all the time.

KEA: You nailed what the issue is. I do believe that our ability to go to the medicine cabinet or the urgent care clinic across the street has become a first source. Prayer for healing and the miraculous, for most of us in the North, is a backup plan. But even in the United States, some in our congregations don’t have ready access to adequate medical care. That’s another reason always to pray. That said, I think it is wrongheaded to assume that what is normative in the Global South should necessarily be normative in a place where there are other provisions. It has to do with context. I am not saying that there shouldn’t be more emphasis on healing and miracles here—because, frankly, prayer for the sick in a lot of classical Pentecostal churches is now not all that common. I do think we need to listen to what’s going on in the Global South. In the classroom, for instance, I have relied on sources from scholars who are African Pentecostals to talk about deliverance and the demonic.12 I just don’t think we should view it as one-size-fits-all, because the contexts are different. We can learn from each other, but don’t need to dictate to each other.

CMR: Do you have any advice for pastors today on the whole question of healing?

KEA: What drove Dr. Charles Cullis in Boston in the 1870s was James 5:13–16. What does this text say? It says that the elders of the church anoint with oil; that the sick person is to call for the elders and use self-examination to see if there is something that needs to be forgiven. Providing a safe space for the sick to be prayed for is vital and scriptural. I also think that text is helpful because it doesn’t put the gift of healing on one person.13

CMR: On the other hand, James 5 says the prayer of faith will ultimately end up in healing. Is it not correct?

KEA: That’s what it says: the prayer of faith saves the sick. The way I interpret James 5 is that everybody prays, and somebody in that community may have the prayer of faith. But the faith also can be on the part of the sick person. The person who acts by coming to the elders saying “pray for me” seems to be extending some faith. The faith is in the community. There’s a lot of safety in that.14

CMR: I’ve come to a very similar conclusion. I am quite ready and willing to lay hands on anybody who asks, anoint them, and pray for them. I am willing to accept that kind of prayer as well. But in the end, it’s still God. My wife worked with HIV patients before they knew what AIDS was. People would want to come pray over them and command demons to come out. She would say, “My experience of working with these patients and others who die over the years is that the healing comes for them when they come to terms with the realization that they are not going to be healed in the way you want.” I think it’s important for us to keep an open mind, keep an open heart, allow God to be God, and not to put condemnation on people who come to us for healing when it doesn’t take place in exactly the way they think it should.

KEA: That’s a very wise and pastoral approach.

CMR: Thank you very much for this time.

KEA: I appreciate the opportunity to speak about this. Fuller has been an important place to discuss this, and keeping this discussion on the table is important. I don’t want to come across as sounding as if I think only classical Pentecostals have the answers here, by the way. That’s simply the context out of which I work and read texts. Cross-pollination is helpful between the different movements. But I think Pentecostals do have something to offer regarding healing.

1. Kimberly Ervin Alexander, Pentecostal Healing: Models of Theology and Practice (Blandford Forum, Dorset: Deo, 2006).
2. See Amanda Porterfield, Healing in the History of Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
3. See Benjamin B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918). See also Jon Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Post- biblical Miracles (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993). 4. See A. J. Gordon, The Ministry of Healing: Miracles of Cure in All Ages (Chicago and New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1882), and A. B. Simpson, The Gospel of Healing (New York: Christian Alliance Publishing Co., 1890).
5. The “Princeton School” here refers to a particular conservative interpretation of Reformed theology, viewed by them as a kind of Protestant orthodoxy, developed by a succession of theology professors at Princeton Theological Seminary over most of the 19th century and into the 20th. These theologians included Archibald Alexander, Archibald Alexander Hodge, and Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield.
6. See Stephen King, Trust the Process: A History of Clinical Pastoral Education as Theological Education (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2007).
7. See Francis MacNutt, Healing (Notre Dame, IN: Ava Maria Press, 1999); Agnes Sanford, The Healing Light (Minneapolis: Macalester Park Publishing, 1947); and Morton Kelsey, Healing and Christianity (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 973).
8. Gordon D. Fee, The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels (Beverly, MA: Frontline Publishing, 1985).
9. See Christy Wimber, The Way In Is the Way On: John Wimber’s Teachings and Writings on Christ (Boise, ID: Ampelon Publishers, 2006). See also Ronald A. N. Kydd, Healing
through the Centuries: Models for Understanding (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995).
10. John Wimber and Kevin Springer, Power Healing (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1987).
11. See George Eldon Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).
12. See, for instance, Opoku Onyinah, Pentecostal Exorcism: Witchcraft and Demonology in Ghana (Blandford Forum, Dorset: Deo, 2011), and Spiritual Warfare: A Centre for Pentecostal Theology Short Introduction (Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2012).
13. See Kimberly Ervin Alexander, “The Pentecostal Healing Community,” in Toward a Pentecostal Ecclesiology: The Church and the Fivefold Gospel, ed. John Christopher Thomas (Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2010).
14. See John Christopher Thomas, “Chapter 1, James 5:14– 16,” in The Devil, Disease, and Deliverance: Origins of Illness in New Testament Thought (Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2011).