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.

No comments: