A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 8:1-40. Philip the evangelist.
2). Philip, the Samaritans, the apostles and the Holy Spirit. We return now to the questions about the gift of the Spirit which the Samaritan story raises. How is it that through the ministry of Philip the Samaritan believers received only baptism, ‘that and nothing more’ (16, NEB), and that they received the Holy Spirit later through the ministry of the apostles Peter and John? What did the apostles have that Philip did not? How are we to understand the interlocking relationships between Philip, the Samaritans, the apostles and the Holy Spirit? Behind these questions, however, there lies another and more crucial one. Does Luke intend his readers to understand the Samaritans’ divided experience (first faith-baptism, later the gift of the Spirit) as typical or atypical, normal or abnormal? Is it set before us as the usual pattern for Christian experience today, or as an exception which we should not expect to be repeated? Opposite answers are given to this central question. According to the first, Christian initiation or becoming a Christian is a two-stage process, consisting first of conversion and water-baptism and secondly of the gift or baptism of the Spirit, so that the Samaritans experience must be judged normal.
According to the second, initiation into Christ is a one stage event, comprising repentance/faith, water-baptism and Spirit baptism, so that what happened in Samaria must be judged abnormal.
a). Two-stage initiation. Acts 8 is a major proof text for two large groups at opposite ends of the ecclesiastical spectrum, on the one hand ‘catholic’ people (Roman Catholic and some Anglican Catholics) and on the other ‘pentecostal’ people (classical Pentecostalists, together with some neo-pentecostal or charismatic Christians in the other denominations). Both claim warrant from this passage for their belief that Christian initiation is in two stages, the second (receiving the Spirit) being accompanied by the laying on of hands with prayer. True, there are differences between them, in that the catholic scheme is largely outward and ceremonial, while the pentecostal scheme is largely inward and spiritual.
Yet a striking parallel remains. Catholics believe that the first stage of initiation is baptism, and the second is confirmation by a bishop regarded as a successor of the apostles, through whose imposition of hands the Spirit is given. This position can be traced back to Hippolytus and Cyprian in the third century. Cyprian commented on the Samaritan incident thus: ‘Exactly the same thing happens with us today; those who have been baptised in the church are presented to the bishops of the church so that by our prayer and the imposition of our hands they may receive the Holy Spirit’. Modern Roman Catholic writers tend to give similar teaching. For example, George D. Smith writes that the Samaritan episode ‘bears all the marks of a normal procedure’. Relying on the same passage, Ludwig Ott systematizes the Catholic position in this way: ‘(a) The Apostles performed a sacramental rite, consisting of the imposition of hands and prayer;
(b) The effect of this outward rite was the communication of the Holy Ghost…’;
c) The Apostles acted in the mandate of Christ….The (sc. their) matter-of-course manner … presupposes its ordinance by Christ.’ Similarly R.B.Rackhan, the devout Anglo-Catholic commentator, reasoned that because in Acts 8 the Spirit was given through apostolic hands, ‘the church has accepted this as the normal method’, and has perpetrated it in the rite of episcopal confirmation. The Anglican Prayer Book of 1928 gives the same impression. True, the text of its Order of Confirmation speaks only of the Holy Spirit ‘strengthening’ those he has already ‘regenerated’. Nevertheless, the preface to the service declares that ‘in ministering confirmation the church doth follow the example of the apostles of Christ’, quotes the Acts 8 passage as warrant, and explains it as teaching that ‘a special gift of the Holy Spirit is bestowed through the laying on of hands with prayer’, without clarifying what this ‘special gift’ is. The Pentecostal churches, together with some (but by no means all) Charismatics, also teach a two-stage Christian initiation, but formulate it differently. To them the first stage consists of conversion (the human turn of repentance and faith) and regeneration (the divine work of new birth), while the second is ‘baptism in or of the Spirit’, often (not always) associated with the laying-on of hands by a Pentecostal leader. For example, paragraph 7 of the Assemblies of God “Statement of Fundamental Truths’ reads ‘All believers are entitled to, and should ardently expect, and earnestly seek, the Baptism in the Holy Ghost, and fire, according to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This was the normal experience of all in the early Christian church….’. Similarly Myer Pearlman, an Assemblies of God bible teacher writes: ‘While freely admitting that Christians have been born of the Spirit, and workers anointed with the Spirit, we maintain that not all Christians have experienced the charismatic operation (i.e. baptism) of the Spirit, followed by a sudden supernatural utterance’. In seeking to evaluate these viewpoints, we are concerned at this point to ask only one question: is the two-stage Samaritan experience to be regarded as the norm for Christian initiation? We do not deny that the Samaritan experience did, in fact, take place in two stages. Nor have we any right to deny that, having happened once, it could happen again, especially if the circumstances are similar. We must not infringe the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit.
But we press the question: is it God’s normal purpose that the reception of the Spirit is a second experience subsequent to conversion and baptism? To this question we need to give a negative answer (we come to the positive alternative later), because what happened in Samaria diverged from the plain and general teaching of the apostles. Initiation into Christ, according to the New Testament, is a single-stage experience, in which we repent, believe, are baptised, and receive both the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, after which by the indwelling power of the Spirit we grow into Christian maturity. During this period of growth there may indeed be many deeper, fuller, richer experiences of God; it is the insistence on a two-stage stereotype which we should reject.
Moreover, no imposition of human hands is necessary for the accomplishment of the initial saving work of God. To be sure, the laying-on of hands is a significant gesture accompanying prayer for somebody, whether for blessing, comfort, healing or commissioning. And the Anglican Church has retained it in episcopal confirmation, although its purpose in this context is to assure candidates of God’s acceptance of them and to introduce them to full church membership, and emphatically not to bestow the Holy Spirit on them. Therefore the Samaritan situation, in which there was a two-stage experience, together with the apostolic imposition of hands, was exceptional and is not to be taken as a norm for us today, either in Catholic or in Pentecostal terms.
Tomorrow: b). One-stage initiation.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.