Thursday, July 17, 2008


Enthusiasm means, to use the phrase of a German mystic, “intoxicated with God”.... Oswald Chambers*
Chambers has a chapter in “Biblical Ethics” called “The Ethics of Enthusiasm” based on Ephesians 5. Much of the chapter is more about emotions in general than enthusiasm specifically but his statement quoted above made me curious. What is the origin of the word “enthusiasm”? What I found is extremely interesting, especially in light of the spiritual road I’ve been on. For decades my spiritual life was punctuated by the rational--doctrine and knowledge more than anything else.

Then a dear friend was knocked down by the power of God when visiting the church known for “The Toronto Blessing.” She had gone, sceptical about what was happening there. She returned a changed person and because of the remarkable change in her, my life too began to change. I went to Vineyard conferences held in the city, attended Prairie Fire gatherings and saw things said to be from the Holy Spirit that I had never seen before: people shaking, falling, laughing uncontrollably, making strange noises, sobbing with great pathos, speaking out in prophecy and more. Yes, I was sceptical. I think some of that scepticism is still there—none of these things have yet happened to me—but my friend’s changed life told me that it wasn’t all a contrivance or a work of the devil. God’s presence and impact was real.

I have since learned that there have been many moves by the Spirit in the past with similar things happening: the Quakers, the Shakers, Jonathan Edwards’ audiences, the revival in Wales and even the beginning of the prophetic life of a woman held in high esteem by the church I grew up in—Ellen White. I learned even more this morning. Enthusiasm was a word that was originally used to describe such behaviour—behaviour far more widespread in the past than I would have guessed. I want to share some quotes with you:

Enthusiasm first appeared in English in 1603 with the meaning “possession by a god.” The source of the word is the Greek enthousiasmos, which ultimately comes from the adjective entheos, “having the god within,” formed from en, “in, within,” and theos, “god.”
"enthusiasm." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 17 Jul. 2008.

Interestingly, I once spent a week at a Christian conference centre called Entheos. At the time I had no idea what the word meant.

Term used pejoratively, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for irrational and disturbed states of religious fervour, especially as found among Puritans, evangelicals, and low-church born-again zealots. “enthusiasm." The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 1994, 1996, 2005. 17 Jul. 2008.

If you are an evangelical Christian, consider yourself “born again” and are not a member of high-church denominations such as Roman Catholic, Anglican/Presbyterian or Lutheran, your Christian roots stem from “irrational and disturbed states of religious fervour.” You have a historical connection to all those “crazy” goings on that so many believers eschew.

Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) first used the word "Schwärmer" to describe such radical reformers as Thomas Müntzer (c. 1489–1525), Andreas Karlstadt (c. 1480–1541), and the Anabaptists, on account of their elevation of religious experience over the literal words of Scripture.

"Enthusiast" was the English equivalent, used to characterize those thought guilty of feigned inspiration, impostures, sectarianism, and extremes of religious passion. Enthusiasm was also associated with sets of physical symptoms—convulsions, ecstatic dancing, prophesying, speaking in foreign tongues, and the "quaking" from which Quakers received their derisory designation. The expression was used of a variety of sects, including the original Anabaptists, Behmenists, Seekers, Familists, Ranters, Camisards, Quietists, and Quakers. [see citation below]

Even the origins of the Mennonites (Anabaptists), those staid, unemotional bearers of the Bible who comprise the third largest people group in Manitoba (or at least used to be), can be found amongst these enthusiasts.

... those designated enthusiasts were often regarded as a threat to the established civil and religious order. ... The seventeenth-century tendency toward rational religion can be regarded, at least in part, as a reaction against the putative dangers of enthusiasm. [see citation below]

I find this interesting. We seem to be people of extremes. Either we lose all control as we allow God to take over our bodies in an atmosphere of worship and praise or we become so controlling of our spiritual lives, living in the rational intellect alone, that we fear the trace of any but the mildest emotion. (Yes, I’m overstating it to make a point.)

Meric Casaubon (1599–1671), son of the famous classicist Isaac, devoted a complete work to the condition. In his Treatise concerning Enthusiasm (1655) he argued for a distinction between natural and supernatural enthusiasm. The former was caused by an excitation of the soul, spirits, or brain, the latter by divine or diabolical inspiration. Religious errors arose when natural or diabolical inspirations were mistakenly thought to have originated from God. [see citation below]

This remains a danger today. Not all spiritual enthusiasm comes from God and those who assume it does can easily be led into dangerous theologies.

Physiological accounts of enthusiasm and the application of the category to religious history are indicative of an important shift in Western understandings of the basis of religious belief. The quest for the natural causes of the diversity of religious beliefs, incipient in the treatments of Burton, Casaubon, and More, heralds the beginning of Enlightenment attempts to provide religious beliefs with natural, rather than supernatural, explanations. To a degree, these treatments also lessened the moral stigma associated with religious heterodoxy. Enthusiasm and its critics played a significant role in the secularization of European thought and culture. [Peter Harrison]
"enthusiasm." Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. The Gale Group, Inc, 2004. 17 Jul. 2008.

How sad that people have been so afraid of the emotional, the uncontrollable, the signs of the very presence of God that they have shut God out of their lives completely! Vibrant, living Christianity is all but dead in Europe, a religion of traditions and ritual embraced by the few who see it as part of their cultural heritage.

"Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn." - John Wesley
"enthusiasm." Quotations. Quotations Book, 2005. 17 Jul. 2008.

How “caught on fire” are you for God? Do people see you burning with that fire of God?

Lord, please set me on fire with the presence of your Holy Spirit. Enable me to recognize the difference between your Spirit and everything else, and keep me close to you in all things, please.

*“The Ethics of Enthusiasm” in “Biblical Ethics” in The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers page 112

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