Friday, June 24, 2011

A subtle error: idolatry in the camp of Protestants?

[Before I give my opinion on the topic of Evangelicalism vs Charismatism, I should give full disclosure of myself. (Full disclosure allows people to filter any biases that I have.) I invite you to read the full disclosure before or after my essay. It can be found at the end.]

I first joined an organisation with strong evangelical roots in 2000. I was a member of the Church of Christ at the time. Later in 2004 my wife joined with me, and we were evangelical Anglicans at the time.
The statement of faith of this particular organisation does something that many other evangelical bodies do. It lists its first item as:

WE BELIEVE that the Holy Scriptures, consisting of Old and New Testaments, were originally given by God, divinely inspired, without error, infallible, and are entirely trustworthy and the supreme authority in all matters of faith and practice.
I have no problems with the wording of this item as such, but I do have a problem with it coming before the Triune God in the statement of faith. This distinction is subtle, but very important.

Evangelicalism was born in the age of the modernist enlightenment. In the context of atheists arguing with logic that God could not possibly exist, protestants began to formulate their logical arguments of response. Christianity descended to these quarters, from something of mystery (God's ways and thoughts are not our ways; the Spirit blows where it pleases (John 3); no mind has conceived of the mysteries of the gospel (1 Corinthians 2)... etc), to logical systematic theology, ending up with such simple notions of "four spiritual laws" and the sinner's prayer.

Modern evangelicalism sought to explain all matters of faith. It sought to build a logical framework that could not be disputed. Step by step, the bible was dissected into easily understood and irrefutable logic. A point was reached where modern evangelicals could easily explain all things about God, as they understood the Bible in entirety. There was no room left for the Spirit to blow where he pleases. In modern evangelicalism the Spirit is only allowed to blow according to the strict formulas that are logically understood by a mathematical deduction of theology. In short, God was caught in a box, he had been captured, never again to be released.

I have often wondered why Evangelicals are so afraid of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is because rampant pentecostalism has exploited the Holy Spirit for its own materialistic gains, and hyper abusive spirituality. Or perhaps that is just an excuse on the part of evangelicals. Perhaps they are afraid of the Holy Spirit, because they don't want God to escape from the box, where he can easily be controlled. Evangelicals often don't seem to believe in the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, even though this is frequently evident in Acts. They claim that conversion (at the point of the sinner's prayer) brings the Holy Spirit. Even in Acts there were believers who had not yet received the Holy Spirit, such as Apollos. (See my earlier post.)

I have had my times to examine how the evangelical culture of my organisation operates. This has most often been in the context of international conferences. The first of these times was in Europe in 2007. A speaker attended the conference to educate people living in Europe on how to relate to post modernism. People were asking questions such as "how can we communicate the gospel to these post modernists", while I just sat there and thought "hello, I'm sitting right here, I am already a post modern Christian." At the end of the question and comment time a brave man stood up and said something that shocked the whole room at the conference. He said, "we need to go the God beyond the scriptures."  There was a collective gasp across the room. How dare he question the Evangelical God contained within scripture? (Sarcastic emphasis, my own.)  In reality this man was not for a moment saying that he did not believe scripture, he was just saying that God is bigger than scripture, and that God still has freedom to move outside of scripture. Evidently he had struck an evangelical sacred cow.

I sat there cheering this man along as he spoke. Later he was made to apologise before the conference for his errant statements. I participated in a discussion with him and some other leaders of the organisation after the session ended. The argument was made that we can only know who God is from scripture. I disagreed. I argued that we can know God in the following ways:

 1) Through the witness of God in creation.
For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities- his eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (The Apostle Paul's letter to the Romans.)

I.e- not only is it possible to believe in God from looking at creation, it is also possible to recognise his eternal power and divine nature, and worship him accordingly. I would argue that this is the first witness that every human being receives, not scripture. As the Christian Astronomer Hugh Ross says "God's book of creation, and God's book of scripture will never disagree with one another."  But it is very important to acknowledge that God has another "book" apart from the scriptures.

In the ensuing discussion I threw forth the question- "which Bible did Abraham read when he came to faith?"  This is also a very important question. God taught Abraham how to have faith, and so forth he taught his descendants (of which we are a part).

I would argue that Abraham had God's book of creation, as well as the oral stories that make up the first 11 chapters of Genesis- the prehistory of the the Bible. This was indeed a lot. In fact we see from Genesis that Melchizidek had this same faith and so did Job who lived in the era of the patriarchs. But most of all Abraham had an active living relationship with the Living God. They related back and forth. Dare I say that he even had a relationship with the Holy Spirit.

2) Through the witness of the saints. This may be a bit scary for some evangelicals. It may even sound a bit Catholic or Orthodox. But think about it for a moment. Early believers in the Old Testament all talked about their belief in "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."  It was the witness of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, by which they believed, not by a huge body of scripture that we have today. Think about how you came to faith yourself. My guess is that you received the testimony of another believer. This testimony was then confirmed by the Holy Spirit speaking to you, prompting you and then convicting you of sin and righteousness. I know that I came to faith this way myself. It was only much later that I began to understand about the Bible, and how it is useful for teaching and discipleship (2 Timothy). Even Paul, in the context of saying that Christ's death and resurrection are spoken of in the scriptures (he is referring to Old Testament prophecies) goes on to list the testimony of 500 witnesses who saw the risen Christ. (1 Corinthians 15). This witness of the 500 is paramount in establishing his claim for the validity of the entire Christian faith. "Without the resurrection of Christ, we are all fools." So Paul argues that we can be sure that Christ rose because of the witness of the saints. And to add a little fuel to the fire the writer to the Hebrews lists the Heroes of the faith who are our "cloud of witnesses" in chapters 11 and 12.

3) The witness of scripture. In reality, scripture becomes a good way to underline and confirm the witness of creation and the witness of the saints. Also, scripture is a collection full of the testimony of the saints, recorded for all time. Just as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, words spoken without love are as a clashing cymbal; in the same way words on a page do not impact the lives of others without the embodiment of the love of Christ. The words of scripture are as often used to falsely condemn others as they are to point to Jesus' love. This does not mean the words of scripture are somehow bad, it just means that when people do not act in love they have a way of twisting the words of scripture to their own ends. Jesus exhorts us that the world would know that we are his disciples by our love for one another. So even when we use the words of scripture, the testimony of the saints remains imperative.

When it comes to the Bible and God, which came first? It is nonsense to say that we believe in God because the Bible tells us so. This is circular reasoning (and even according to an evangelical framework of logic, must fail the test). The Bible is God's word spoken to us, for sure, but it is like a photo negative that needs to have light come through it for people to see it. The words of scripture are understood under the illumination of the Holy Spirit. We believe in God because of his witness to us through his creation. Later we believe in the Bible because it came to us from God, via the testimony of his saints through the ages. The Bible is a sure and reliable testimony because of the the first two witnesses. God spoke through the prophets. The prophets wrote the words on to the page. Through out the ages, and even today God continues to work through the Holy Spirit and though people. I believe in the Bible because it comes from God. I don't believe in God because it comes from the Bible.

These ideas become controversial in evangelical circles. An evangelical is usually comfortable with the words on the page, but becomes uncomfortable when asked to trust the Holy Spirit while closing the book. But God will never contradict himself, so it is possible for the evangelical to come back to scripture at a later time and find out that the things the Holy Spirit has said remain in the same vain. But we need to learn to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said "my sheep know my voice." Sometimes we don't have time to open up the book, and we need to respond to the voice of the Holy Spirit immediately in our lives.

Another moment at an international conference came recently. Sadly the speaker said something classically evangelical, and classically in error. He wanted to encourage evangelicals to seek the Holy Spirit more. But as his talk unfolded, this was not what he did. He pulled out two scriptures as his proof texts, and then put them through an evangelical filter:

Colossians 3:15-16  Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

Ephesians 5:18-19 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.

The speaker then went on to explain that these two scriptures are so similar that they are essentially the same, and that therefore "the word of Christ" (which he explained is the Word of God; which is the Bible) fills us with the Holy Spirit in our lives. He used the texts to explain to us that reading the Bible more would fill us with the Holy Spirit. He went on to subtly twist these words and make people feel guilty for not having good enough "quiet times". Following his talk there were people in tears, repenting for not reading their Bibles enough. He had successfully condemned them through proof texting an evangelical maxim, that God can only be known through the Bible, and that if you are not reading it (as much as him) then you are not filled with the Holy Spirit. In my opinion his talk was nothing short of spiritual abuse. Pentecostals have been (rightly) accused of spiritual abuse. They have used their position of "touch not the Lord's anointed" to say what ever they please and exert power over people. But this was the evangelical equivalent of spiritual abuse. This man, because he was a "learned bible scholar" and speaking from the pulpit was not to be questioned. His interpretation of the Bible was the "correct" one, and with it he wielded great power. I was saddened and shocked. He had spent an entire sermon, with other proof texts too, telling people that the Bible is essentially the Holy Spirit. This fits into the evangelical trinity: Father, Son and Holy Book.

It is a subtle but grave error that evangelicals can often make. The Bible contains the words of God given to us via his saints. (Yes they are all true- I am not detracting from that for one moment.) But when the Holy Spirit is pushed aside and replaced by a book, this is nothing short of idolatry. This may be hard for people to see. But ask anyone- who is greater, God or the Bible?- the answer must surely be God.

Allow me to offer a different interpretation of the scriptures given. (Admittedly I also have my biases, but I surely hope that I am allowing the scriptures to speak instead of forcing them as my own proof texts.) At the time that Paul wrote his letters, the "scriptures" were what we now know as the Old Testament. When he exhorted believers to let the "word of Christ" dwell richly in them, what could he have meant? I would argue that he was not referring to words on the page. Many of those early believers would not have had words on the page. They would have had stories yes. But until Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote them down, they did not have access to many of those particular words of Christ. But they were not lost. They had the Holy Spirit! In fact, this was the whole point. Jesus told the disciples not to worry when he was leaving, because he would send the Holy Spirit to them who would lead them into all truth. Was this just for the disciples so they could then later write the stories down? No! It was for all believers, the Holy Spirit was abundantly made available to all flesh at Pentecost in Acts 2.
So this scripture is referring to the believers all getting together as priests, all sharing a word of wisdom with one another, all keeping one another accountable, all bringing songs to worship the King, all bringing words of prophecy to glorify the Lord and encourage one another. When they all did this together it brought a full, wholistic and broad body contextual representation of the body of Christ, with Jesus as their head. This was the actual Word of Christ. Just as John teaches us that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the full participation of all priests in the royal priesthood of all believers brings about the Word of Christ, Jesus incarnate, this time not as flesh walking but as the Spirit blowing amongst us. The Holy Spirit is the Word!  The Bible is not the Holy Spirit. It is all a question of priority and sequence.

To remove any confusion, it comes down to our definition of the phrase "the word of God."  The Word of God is a person. John teaches us this. The Word of God is not the  Bible. The Bible is the words of God, but not The Word, that must be reserved for Jesus and the Holy Spirit.


I was raised in the Lutheran church. The Lutheran church is a liturgical church that recites the Nicene creed every Sunday. One of the things I like about the Nicene creed is that it declares faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, while only mentioning briefly the scriptures in the context of Jesus raising from the dead. It also mentions that the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets (a reference to the scriptures). But the scriptures are never placed in priority before the Triune God.

My family flirted with charismatism and pentecostalism when I was a child. There was a charismatic renewal movement in the Lutheran church. This mostly happened outside of Sunday services in home groups and at retreat style camps. Over the years it did creep into some congregations. This happened more successfully in South Australia and Queensland. In Victoria the Lutheran church carried out a campaign against the charismatic renewal. Over a period of about 20 years they successfully "assassinated" all sources of what they believed to be heresy. This resulted in a lot of people being hurt and abused, including my parents. I left the Lutheran church at the age of 16 in this environment.

My teenage years included membership in a more rampant form of pentecostalism under the banner of the Assembly of God. I was actively involved in the youth group and Sunday evening services. It was in this time that I experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit and took on the concept of boldness for Jesus in my faith. In those years I erred on the side of boldness but lacked gentleness and respect. Over the years I learnt the importance of gentleness and respect for someone, when sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Never in my experience though have I rejected my pentecostal experience of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is still very much a part of who I am. 

For some years I did subscribe to the notions of the prosperity gospel that are regularly preached in the pentecostal church, under the likes of Kenneth Copeland and many others. I now consider those doctrines to be in error.

In late teenage years I became involved with an independent charismatic church. It had a lot less hype than the Assembly of God. This church was on a devolving journey away from institutionalised religion. Over the years the pastor stopped calling himself a pastor, and simply became an elder, along with other elders in the fellowship. The building we met in evolved from hard chairs and rows, to couches and soft chairs in a circle. The style of worship evolved from one priest led to open participatory worship. People began reading books with titles such as "The Open Church".  As a fellowship we began relating to an itinerant Apostle.

I was eclectic in my worship experience. For all the years that I went to the devolving open fellowship, I also continued to associate with hard core pentecostals at a church my sister attended. In those years I also experienced the "laughter phenomenon" that came from the Holy Spirit via the Toronto Blessing. While such experiences have not been normative in my journey- they continue to line up with my relationship with the Holy Spirit as a person who is gentle and loving, yet also extraordinarily powerful.

In my early twenties I left behind both the hard core pentecostal circles and the open church circles, and landed in an extremely post modern embryonic emmergent church. It was called South Melbourne Restoration Community, and was a member of the Australian Churches of Christ (a protestant denomination- not the Boston movement). This fellowship was led by the now famous Alan Hirsch and his wife Debra Hirsch, along with other leaders who are no where near famous, but desired after the heart of God also. My six years in that context led me through a lot of post modern questioning that has been very helpful in my faith. It enabled me to find synergy in all of my previous Christian experiences.

I still look back fondly on my years in South Melbourne Restoration Community. I consider them to be formative, but not conclusive in who I am as a Christian. Alan Hirsch used to talk about "simplicity before complexity" and "simplicity after complexity."  We were all exhorted to wrestle with our faith, to go through the complexity and come out the other side into a deeper and purer simplicity. That is, a simplicity that is grounded in the Eternal God and an active relationship- having tested the truth, but not a naive simplicity that is founded in dogmatism- i.e accepting something as true just because other people say it is, and should never be argued with.

After my time in the post modern emmergent church, I moved to live in Saskatchewan, Canada, where I married my wife. At the time there were no such concepts in Saskatchewan. I sought out a Vineyard fellowship, which advertise themselves as holding the tension of the "radical middle." The Vineyard of course are far from perfect, still being an institutional church. We even currently attend a Vineyard fellowship in our city of residence. It often disappoints for its shallowness.

During this season in the Vineyard in Canada the actual fellowship began to implode under crises of personality in leadership. (A problem that should not exist if everyone is allowed to participate in ministering- but often exists when personalities compete for leadership.) My wife and I again became eclectic, attending the Vineyard sometimes and also the childhood church of my wife, the Anglican church. At first I resisted the Anglican church, because I had come to dislike the stuffiness of a liturgical church. But at such a small country side fellowship it became easier to slot in and appreciate the good things.

Upon returning to Australia, my wife and I sought out an Evangelical style Anglican church in Melbourne. This is the closest that I have come to being Evangelical. Many of the attitudes of people are quite evangelical, but not the same as the Baptist evangelicalism of America. The Anglican church in Australia is still a liturgical church, that recites the Nicene creed (even if the evangelical variety no longer do this every service).


Kate said...

Great post, Paul!! Once again, I'm reminded that many churches tend towards one extreme or the other when it comes to the Holy Spirit. Does middle ground (neither ignoring the Spirit or excluding all else) seem too passive?
I didn't realise you'd been involved with the Hirsches. I was thrilled to be able to hear them speak last year while they were visiting Australia. xx :)

Lisette said...

Very well constructed, written and argued Paul. Can you please explain a little more what you mean by 'hard core pentecostals'?

Pasha said...

Hi Lisette, those that have said things like, "you can't argue with the pastor, he's the Lord's anointed- touch not the Lord's anointed."
Or "Serve the pastor's vision... then when you are approved God will give you your vision."
Or "All must speak in tongues to be filled with the Holy Spirit."
Or the basic "God wants you to have more money" coming from Brian Houston.

I am still very much pro moving in the gifts of the Spirit... all of them. But I am very much in favour of the priest hood of all believers, and I am have seen so much abuse in pentecostal circles, stopping people from being priests.

I have spent many years decrying the abuses of the pentecostal church. Now I am slowly turning my attention to the abuses of the evangelical church.

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