Friday, 13 June 2008

Toronto II - 2: How do we know?

In my first post about Todd Bentley - Toronto II and the Third Wave I looked at the recent history and growth of Charismaticism in the UK and began to consider how we are to judge this phenomenology. I referred to a friend who solved the problem for himself by asking God for a Bible verse when he gets a leading from God. I want to go on from there and think some more about discernment and how we can tell when a sense of leading is from God and when it is not. It has been argued that asking God for a verse as described might prove fruitless since the particular circumstances we face cannot be specifically found in Scripture, e.g. my home, culture, people and opportunities. I don’t think he means to be mechanical and I had my own thoughts but I asked for his:

“The Bible tells me that I should witness to people, therefore for I should have a desire to tell others about my faith. If I felt the Lord wanting me to witness to a solitary man on a park bench there’s nothing wrong in trying to present the Gospel to him because Christ wants everybody to hear the Good news. Mark 16:15 “Go into all the world and preach the good news.” If I submit and apply scripture to my life the word of the Lord makes me wise Psalm 19:7, and sanctifies me as Christ prayed that the truth would, thus God’s word saves me from the imagination of my heart in the process of sanctification so that I know the will of God.”

That is more or less how I would have seen it but there is more. How do we know when a sense of leading is not from God? I think Todd Bentley provides a good illustration of this. Apparently, he claims to have had several “third heaven” experiences (don’t they all?) and has spoken in some detail about them. He claims to have visited the wooden cabin where Paul lives (yes, that Paul) and was told by Paul that he, Paul, wrote the book of Hebrews with the help of one of the Major Prophets (Jeremiah I think). Isn’t that wonderful? Some think so but if you look at the Bible you find that a third heaven experience (whatever that is) is so utterly otherworldly that it would be wrong to speak casually of it. In the context of combating false apostles who routinely made great boasts of their experiences, Paul spoke of such an experience but, almost counter intuitively, he refuses to boast in what he had seen, writing:

“He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weakness” (2 Cor.12:1-6)

Based on Scripture, how should I think of this claim by Todd, who boasts of having seen and heard no end of things? He sounds more like those false apostles with which Paul had to deal than like Paul.

Now many Charismatics of my acquaintance would protest that I am putting God in a box, and that God can do a new thing. But I am not putting God in a box; rather I am using His Word to test the spirits, as he commanded. I am refusing to leave the One in which he has put me. If all you and I have to go on are impressions of what we feel God is saying then how are we to judge whether conflicting claims have any merit? What if a third person comes along with an impression that we are both wrong? How is he tested?

The problem is that so many Christians put their trust in these impressions, words, pictures that they are now prepared to swallow, or at least reluctant to deny just about anything that comes by those means. How far will they go? We have had barking dogs, clucking hens, “birthing” antics, revival around the corner (no not that corner but maybe the next – or the one after that). And what happens is that, because the default position is that this is a legitimate (even normative) means to hear from God, Christians don’t question it, rather, they endlessly seek interpretations and reinterpretations as prophets and followers produce rationalisations to explain why something didn’t come true. It is exactly like this in a cult, i.e. the ‘authority’ cannot be wrong so we must have misheard, misunderstood, misinterpreted – but the ‘authority’ can’t be wrong.

I think his final observation is especially apposite and should be painted up above the pulpit of every Charismatic Church:

“If I submit and apply scripture to my life the word of the Lord makes me wise Psalm 19:7, and sanctifies me as Christ prayed that the truth would, thus God’s word saves me from the imagination of my heart in the process of sanctification so that I know the will of God.”

A shorter version:

Scripture applied to my life saves me from the imagination of my heart so that I know the will of God

That is a code to live by as a Christian and it would save us from “you never know”, “maybe God is saying” and “let’s all pray for clarity on this” Christianity, with which churches seem rife as though God mumbles and we have to strain to make him out. He has spoken clearly through his Son and in Scripture and, while he still speaks by his Spirit, it is to point us to the Son and in accord with the written Word. Even Jesus, while he spoke on his own authority (“truly, truly, I say to you”) nevertheless, appealed to Scripture to show continuity with what God has said and done, and not novelty in what God is saying and doing today.

Nor do I believe my friend or I wish to give up the experience of the Holy Spirit and, certainly, I have known the leading of God in my life and value it highly. Indeed, without wanting to make any special claims, I feel God’s Spirit leading me in forming my views as I express them here. I can’t tell you how agitated I have felt about something that I could just as easily forget about and get on with other things but I say in all modesty that God’s Spirit compels me. It is a mistake, in my view, to see this as an either/or situation but perhaps it is indicative of where the influence such extreme practices in Charismatic circles lead us, i.e. as they insist that what they have is God’s best and the rest of us are somehow settling for less.

Nothing could be further from the truth if we pay attention to the Bible. Rather, we have God’s provision “for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work”. This does not preclude the work of the Spirit but it does bring the impressions of our hearts before the benchmark of Scripture. The following prayer from John Piper, published at the time of the Toronto excitement is, I think, the balance needed:

“Oh, Lord, if there is a wind of true, biblical, spiritual power blowing in our day with signs and wonders and healing and prophecy, forbid that I should stand in the way! Don’t pass Bethlehem by. Make me the leader you want me to be for the greatest blessing of this church, and the greatest missionary effectiveness.” But then, on the other hand I pray, “Oh, Lord, forbid that we should lose our biblical bearings; forbid that we become trendy or faddish and begin to substitute the sand of experience for the rock of revealed truth. Show us the fullness of the power of the gospel, Lord, and keep us from preoccupation with secondary things, no matter how spectacular.”

There seems a worrying lack of discernment such that people who are concerned about these things do end up “in the middle” because they have bought the story that to question God’s moving in this way is to somehow risk something; perhaps taking a step backwards, losing the Spirit’s leading or missing out on the blessing, so they make a provisional decision and sit on a fence, worrying all the time about whether they will come down on the right side. Does God really leave us in such a dilemma?

Of course, there will be many who would insist that “it simply works”; “by their fruits” etc. (If ever there was a misuse of Scripture...) This is an old ploy of postulating what has to be proven by proposing a position, i.e. God is speaking through this means, and basing your claim on the strength of the proposition you have made, i.e. by the standards of my proposition “it works”. But this is simply begging the question because it is the test that is being applied that needs testing. How do we test it; By God’s Word in Scripture. I feel that it is not a question of not knowing, but of knowing from God’s Word, as illuminated by God’s Spirit, unless and until God’s Spirit shows me differently from God’s Word. It is rather like booting up a computer (a crude example I know). There has to be a tried and tested program that boots up the computer before you can add on any peripheral programs. The program that “boots up” our faith, and into which all others must be made to fit, is God’s Word in Scripture as illumined by God’s Spirit. Whether we come to faith by crisis or process we must end up making sense of it from Scripture.

My own testimony illustrates this. I came to faith from a position of crisis over my previous faith position, was invited by John to “come and see”, experienced God’s Spirit moving among God’s people in a church service and then was given a New Testament and advised to read Romans in order to “understand” what I had seen. I moved from crisis to experience to scriptural confirmation.

Similarly, the disciples experienced Jesus first of all and had all sorts of misconceptions about who he was and what he was about but it was from firm, Spirit-illumined, Scriptural teaching that they finally “got it”. Jesus made clear the importance of this: “You are mistaken in not knowing the Scriptures”; “Do you not know that the prophets said this must happen?” etc. I don’t see this pattern in churches that follow these “prophets”. People seem content with the position that you don’t look in an old book to understand when God is doing a new thing.

I have been reading Davis Middlemiss, Interpreting Charismatic Experience and he puts his finger on the problem when he contrasts the traditional Christian approach of ‘knowing’, which entails looking at Scripture and interpreting experience accordingly, with the Charismatic approach, which routinely interprets Scripture according to experience. This makes it a form of liberalism in which the Bible is understood, not on its own terms, but according to the subjective experiences and preconceptions of the reader. What strikes me as a classic example of this is Ephesians 5:18:

“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead be filled with the Spirit”

On the basis of experience, Charismatics use this as a proof text to explain the appearance of drunkenness in those ‘slain in the Spirit’. However Galatians 5:22 says:

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against these things there is no Law”

Using only the Bible we might reasonably conclude that the drunken debauchery of the winebibber is being contrasted with the sober self-control of the Spirit-filled believer. Only someone who abandons this reasonable and traditional approach for what seems like private interpretation could think otherwise and yet that is exactly what seems to be happening in these so-called moves, waves and revivals.

Monday, 9 June 2008

This Bread Always: Remembering June 8 - another day the revelation changed again for Mormons forever

Mormons are "celebrating" - perhaps that should be "marking" - 30 years since Negroes were admitted into the Mormon priesthood. Think of it; at a stroke men who bore the Mark of Cain, were for almost 150 years considered low, mean and lazy, not positively proselytised, and unworthy until the end of time were told that it was all a terrible mistake and now no one can understand or remember why they were barred for so many years. It must be great having a prophet.

This blog entry from "This Bread Always" is a succinct, piercing and thoroughly biblical response to this infamous anniversary.

This Bread Always: Remembering June 8 - another day the revelation changed again for Mormons forever

Sunday, 1 June 2008

The Language of Origins

I am currently reading a fascinating book, The Language of God, by Dr Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, in which he attempts to show evidence for God in 21st Century science. The book has received mixed reviews. Alister McGrath, a believing scientist, molecular biologist and theologian of international reputation and author of Dawkins' God and, with his wife, The Dawkins Delusion, says of the work, "A remarkable book...Compelling reading for anyone reflecting on the relation of science and faith", while the secularist, Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, writes, "To say that he fails at his task does not quite get at the inadequacy of his efforts." It does seem inevitable that, no matter how qualified and respected a scientist may be, once he mentions God his credentials mean nothing and his reputation is considered compromised.

In his review Harris paints a worrying picture of a mindless Christian world in which people believe the earth is six thousand years old; science is considered the enemy of faith and thinking is the preserve of beleaguered secularists. Of course, Harris has his own agenda and is an Evangelist for Atheism just as much as Collins is one for Christianity, both claiming to base their views on sound socio/scientific theory. (For a truly thrilling and thoughtful account of scientist as evangelist I recommend Clare George's The Evangelist ) Of course, neither will Dr Collins' observations sit easy with those of my Creationist friends who subscribe to a young earth theory since Collins' views sit squarely in the theistic evolution school of thought.

Collins points out that "science is not static. Scientists are constantly reaching into new arenas, investigating the natural world in new ways, digging deeper into territory where understanding is incomplete. Faced with a set of data that includes a puzzling and unexplained phenomenon, scientists construct hypotheses of the mechanism that might be involved, and then conduct experiments to test those hypotheses. Many experiments on the cutting edge of science fail, and most hypotheses turn out to be wrong. Science is progressive and self-correcting: no significantly erroneous conclusions or false hypotheses can be sustained for long, as newer observations will ultimately knock down incorrect constructs. But over a long period of time, a consistent set of observations sometimes emerges that leads to a new framework of understanding. That framework is then given a much more substantive description, and is called a 'theory' – the theory of gravitation, the theory of relativity, or the germ theory, in instance.

One of the most cherished hopes of a scientist is to make an observation that shakes up a field of research. Scientists have a streak of closeted anarchism, hoping that someday they will turn up some unexpected fact that will force a disruption of the framework of the day. That's what Nobel Prizes are given for. In that regard, any assumption that a conspiracy could exist among scientists to keep a widely current theory alive when it actually contains serious flaws is completely antithetical to the restless mindset of the profession."

This addresses an issue that has bothered me for some time concerning the approach of some Christians in trying to make sense of their faith and scientific progress in the question of origins. I am no scientist and cannot claim even an amateur enthusiast's grasp of the arguments but some Christians' faith approach to issues of science and origins seems sometimes to lack a basic integrity. Too many Christians decide on their conclusions based on one, usually literalist interpretation of the Bible then set about finding 'proof' to back up these conclusions; then they insist this is science. Question their approach and/or conclusions and they look at you with suspicion as though suspecting that you are part of this imagined conspiracy to which Collins refers. Not everyone does this by any means but enough to make it too easy for people like Sam Harris to feel justified in dismissing us all as the lunatic fringe.

It is not that I think that faith has nothing to say to science but it is really important that faith should speak the language of science and demand of itself the same level of integrity it demands of science; otherwise, why should anyone listen?

A common enough mistake that has been repeated down the centuries is to lay over the basic tenets of Scripture the received wisdom of the day and treat that as though as inerrant as Scripture. Collins explains that the church can attach itself to a prior view of things and incorporate that into its core belief system. Any attempt to revise the received wisdom of the day in light of new scientific observations is resisted and denounced as a betrayal of the truth, a heresy.

Galileo's experience presents us with a very good example of this. Many saw in the Bible irrefutable arguments that all heavenly bodies orbited the earth:

"The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved" (Psalm 93:1)

"He set the earth on its foundation; it can never be moved" (Psalm 104:5)

"The sin rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises" (Eccl. 1:5)

But Galileo observed four moons orbiting Jupiter, showing that the earth was certainly not their centre. However, over a thousand years earlier Augustine had already established the idea that God accommodates himself to our peculiar circumstances and what we see when we look out at the world. Each of those verses accurately represents the way we see things from where we stand.

That is not to say they are scientifically accurate but then, as has often been pointed out, that was never the purpose of God's communicating with us. He did not say to Moses "E=MC2" and, again, Augustine took the view that the biblical text should not be interpreted literally if it contradicts what we know from science and our God-given reason. He bemoaned the folly of those who stick doggedly to a view of the world long shown to be erroneous by simple human scientific progress, bringing the church into disrepure by such dogmatism:

"It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly someone meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation."

(The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19–20, Chap. 19 [AD 408])

These are things with which thoughtful Christians wrestle and on which we don't all agree while Christians who fail to reflect thoughtfully, preferring an instinctive approach to faith, tend to cling to what they believe they 'know' and often do end up speaking idiotically about them, misrepresenting science as almost totally conspiratorial in its nature and the Bible as fully vindicating their personal prejudices. In a world that needs desperately to hear the gospel it serves the world ill and God unfaithfully if we present it such that it is robbed of all credibility and of even a fair hearing.