Monday, January 28, 2013

Geisler Masters the Non Sequitur

I have a USDA conference this week, so I'm pleased to host Nick Peters' latest report on the latest Geisler shenanigans. The Ticker will return next week otherwise.


Norman Geisler has done it again. He still seems under the impression that since he is commenting on something and he is the evangelical pope, then his word is authoritative, without stopping to realize how that statement will look to people in the field who study it.

An example from the apologetics field we can often see can be found in objections to the Trinity. Jews, Muslims, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have all asked me, “If Jesus is God, was He praying to Himself?” I could understand someone being taught the Trinity for the first time wondering about that, but if someone wants to argue against the idea, such a claim does not show real in-depth study of the topic, but complete ignorance of the topic.

In his latest rant against Mike Licona, who for all we know might have been snoring too loudly at night this time around, Geisler has sought the authority of the early church fathers (ECF). It is a wonder that more authority is needed besides all the (cough) scholars (cough) of the ICBI (International Council on Biblical Inerrancy), but this is Geisler’s main game. A great man has spoken. All be silent!

In Geisler’s rant, one will never come across a discussion of Mike’s arguments. Geisler is banking on the fact that his readers will never bother interacting with them. I recall a discussion with a Geislerite one time where he told me I needed to read Geisler’s Systematic Theologies and Inerrancy that he edited and then get back to me. I told him I had already read them (which is true) and was ready to discuss. I never got a reply. I have no doubt this person never bothered to read Mike’s book and never will.

Geisler will keep going and pointing out all of his arguments without responding to his critics, all the while expecting his critics to respond to him or, if they do, like myself, JPH, Max Andrews, etc., then ignore them and hope that they go away, kind of like what happened with the Ergun Caner debacle. The authoritarian tactics are all we see.

For now, I am going to be dealing with just one part of Geisler’s rant. I can assure the reader that there will be soon (I am having someone fact-checking one) on my blog a fuller response. A link to my blog can be found below and my readers can know that this is a blog that JPH would recommend that you follow. For all interested, one can do a web search for Mike Licona (and in the interest of fairness, for all who don’t know, I will state what could be seen as bias upfront in saying that he is my father-in-law) and read the arguments I have up on my blog, arguments Geisler has never responded to.

What is it that Geisler has said that will be dealt with? The following:

Further, it is highly unlikely that a resurrection story would be influenced by a Greco-Roman genre source (which Licona embraces) since the Greeks did not believe in the resurrection of the body (cf. Acts 17:32).  In fact, bodily resurrection was contrary to their dominant belief that deliverance from the body, not a resurrection in the body, was of the essence of salvation.  Homer said death is final and resurrection does not occur (Iliad 24.549-551).  Hans-Josef Klauck declared, “There is nowhere anything like the idea of Christian resurrection in the Greco-Roman world” (The Religious Context of Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p. 151)

It is hard to know where to begin with a statement like this. It would certainly be news to scholars like N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, Richard Burridge, and others. Geisler must think he has discovered something that Licona does not know or any other NT scholars. Are they unaware that the Greeks did not believe in resurrection? (Interesting, since N.T. Wright says the Greeks were quite clear on that point in The Resurrection of the Son of God.)

In Volume 6, Number 1, of the Christian Apologetics Journal, Thomas Howe, who was one of Geisler’s students and is a professor at Southern Evangelical Seminary, wrote a piece called “Does Genre Determine Meaning?” His conclusion is that it does not. Instead, it enhances meaning. We agree with this. Normally, one would think Geisler would, yet this idea seems to go against it. It cannot be a Greco-Roman genre, because it has a resurrection in it.

Geisler is saying it could not be influenced by a Greco-Roman source. Why not? Are we to say the Christians lived in this culture entirely yet none of their writing or thinking was influenced by their surrounding culture? In a sense of course, we are not to think like the culture, but we do often speak the way the culture speaks and write the way the culture writes. If we want to express ourselves to a culture, we need to speak in a way the culture understands. It does no good to go to people who speak only Arabic and give the gospel in English.

Furthermore, Geisler should know that the terminology of the early church was influenced by Greek philosophical ideas. Who would doubt that Justin Martyr was influenced by Plato? Tertullian, the very one who said “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” was influenced by the Latin rhetorical style of his day. Augustine was heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism. Aquinas was heavily influenced by Aristotle. The Jesuits said that the Greek philosophers were gifts to the church and we should take what is true from their thought and use it to spread the gospel.

Yet none of these thinkers were determined by what influenced them. Plato held to a concept of reincarnation as a likely idea in Phaedo yet Augustine certainly did not hold to this. Aristotle said that there was no after-life, yet Aquinas certainly denied this. Instead, Augustine and Aquinas both took a style of thinking and methodology for uncovering truth and used them in the service of the gospel.

In the same way, the gospel writers used a style of writing that was known to their writers and adapted their writing to fit into that. It would be a way that the audience would understand and keep in mind, most likely the audience would not read what they wrote. Instead, most of them would hear what was written and the story would be told by someone skilled in the art who would add the necessary nuances and such to his delivery to make sure the point came across. This would be expected in a high-context society.

What Geisler is doing is saying, “If the genre style is Greco-Roman, all the beliefs must be Greco-Roman.” Genre styles do not have beliefs. Authors do. Authors express themselves through different styles and the genre is not a straitjacket. The style is just that.

It does not matter if the Greeks disbelieved in resurrection. If every Greek believed in a resurrection, that does not mean that the way they wrote or their genres would have changed. That could change the content, but it would not change the means of communication. One can find many places in the ancient world where there is wisdom literature, but that does not mean that Proverbs cannot be wisdom literature since it has a different basis. There are many creation accounts in the ancient world, but that does not mean Genesis is not one since it has different beliefs in it.

Comments like this indicate that Geisler is out of touch with the NT field. In fact, it is news to him that so many scholars believe this about the NT. Unfortunately, his ignorance of the field is also affecting those who follow him and will unfortunately get them in a retreat mode from the scholarship. For the sake of argument, it could be correct that the Gospels are not Greco-Roman biographies. Some people see Luke as different for instance. There could be further evidence to change our minds that comes out in the future. We should always be open to that.

The mistake of Geisler is using a simplistic objection much like the one against the Trinity. It is absurd to think that no NT scholar has realized that Greeks do not believe this and Geisler presents it as if it is a devastating critique. If Geisler wants to argue against the possibility he needs to look at the opposing arguments and not just his own. Does he think Burridge is wrong? Then read Burridge and come back and say why he is wrong. Present a scholarly argument where his positions are stated and his arguments stated and then dealt with. Then, accept JPH’s challenge on the genre of the Gospels. (Link below)

We can expect neither of these will be done. There is no need after all. A great man has spoken. Who cares about the evidence? Let all be silent in submission.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Charles Stanley's Divine Dialogues

From the November 2009 E-Block.


We now begin a series under the title of "Popular Pastors." Like the Prosperity Preachers series, the intent is to check out and comment on the big-name authors who are having so much influence on our Christian lives and worldview; but unlike that series, we’re not going in checking for the possibility of heresy, though we are on the lookout (as we usually are) for any problems.

For starters, we’ve picked "America's Pastor" as our subject – Charles Stanley, the head on In Touch Ministries and pastor of First Baptist Atlanta for nearly 40 years now. He’s also the author of dozens of books, but given the constraints of time, we’ve had a look at only five. We’ll list those shortly.

I’ll begin with a summation of positives. Stanley is certainly gifted at explaining points, especially through the use of analogy. His stress on obedience and faith in God is faultless – Stanley has well recognized that Christianity provides the only anchor for a consistent and sound worldview. I believe Stanley is a fairly earnest expositor who truly wants to help people become better Christians.

But…? Of course there’s a but, or else we’d end this right here.

In truth, up until now I had read very little of Stanley’s books, and seen less than an hour of his preaching over the past two decades. I came to these books expecting to be disappointed to some extent: I thought the teaching would be as thick as water, suitable indeed for young Christians before moving on to meat.

I ended up far, far more disappointed than that. I found not water, but what might be aptly described as Osteen-Meyer Kool-Aid.

No, Stanley does not teach anything that might be misconstrued for Word-Faith teaching. However, nearly everything else I found problematic in Osteen and Meyer was present also in Stanley, albeit in much milder forms in some cases. This was surprising, even shocking to me, though perhaps it should not have been – it would well explain Stanley’s appeal as a preacher and author.

Before we begin with the critique, let us note that it is of no moment that Stanley is the head of a major church and of a popular ministry. So likewise Osteen and Jakes head large churches, and Meyer a major ministry (which actually takes in more than In Touch, sad to say). Status of this sort is no barrier to error – and I discovered much the same critiques of Stanley (that I came up with on my own) elsewhere after my reading and analysis was done.

For those who have not subscribed until more recently, it will not be necessary to read our earlier articles on Osteen, Meyer and Jakes to understand what we offer here, although it will make our critique of Stanley more intelligible.

Our five books by Stanley for examination:

In Step With God [ISP]
Finding Peace [FP]
God Has a Plan for Your Life [GPL]
The Reason for My Hope [RMH]
Finding Peace [FP]

Problem #1: The Familiarity Factor

The most serious problem we find in Stanley’s teachings is not an uncommon one in today’s church, and it is something we have repeatedly noted in other teachers. Put simply, Stanley regards God in a very overfamiliar way – not quite to the extent of seeing Jesus as some sort of "fishing buddy" (as in The Shack) but badly enough.

Briefly, we have noted that this concept of "intimacy" and familiarity with God is rooted in modern, Western individualism. The whole paradigm of a "personal relationship" with Jesus, so likewise: People of the Biblical world did not "get to know" each other as people in such intimate ways, save on very rare occasions, and the view of God in the Bible is that of an ancient patron – not quite the remote disinterested deity of deism, but also not the subject of what we’d call a "personal relationship" in modern terms.

I could offer innumerable references in which Stanley speaks of an [ISG ix] "intimate and loving relationship with the Savior" or some other such far-too-personal language, but rather than belabor this point with repeated references, I’d like to note that Stanley seems to erroneously view the matter in terms of two great extremes. This is exemplified by ISG viii, where he says: "[Moses] wanted to know God on an intimate level – something much deeper than just realizing he exists."

So there is no possibility between "intimate level" and "just realizing he exists"? What of something more rational, less familiar – such as would be exemplified by God as an ancient suzerain (Old Testament) or patron (New Testament)? In the same way, at RMH 41, Stanley suggests that we must view God as either a harsh judge or as an object of modern, sentimental love and a source of security and emotional fulfillment. There is no in-between.

Stanley offers little to support his belief in God as an "intimate" relationship subject. At RMH 10, he records an experience in which he was told to envision his own father (a harsh person who had denigrated him) picking him up and holding him. As a result, he had an emotional epiphany in which he "felt emotionally that God loved me". Epistemically, we may as well accept Joseph Smith’s First Vision. At worst it appears that Stanley is imagining God to be the father he never had but wished for.

At LEL 48, Stanley provides the one and only exegetical argument for his ultra-intimate view of God: He notes that God being described as "Father" appears 245 times in New Testament, and supposes that this is meant to reveal God as "a loving, personal, heavenly Father who is profoundly interested in the details of our lives" (as opposed to the other extreme of God as a "transcendent force somewhere in the universe"). But this neglects the contextual facts that 1) ancient fathers were rarely "profoundly interested in the details" of their childrens’ lives – this is a modern conception of family; 2) the title "Father" was taken by secular leaders (such as the Caesars, and like George Washington as "father of our country") to indicate far less intimate and far more authoritarian relationships.

If I seem to be making too much of this, allow me to explain something. My concern in matters such as these is a simple one. I believe based on a contextual study of the Bible that Stanley’s idea of knowing God "intimately" is an anachronism – and that such teachings give young Christians a false assurance that God will be there to be a personal psychologist or discussion partner. Some (as I think is the case with Stanley himself) in order to maintain this belief, I would say are actually constructing a false image of God with which they maintain a fictitious relationship – in the manner of the so-called "imaginary friend" some atheists claim Christians believe in.

I wish to be clear that I do not believe such a belief endangers the salvation of someone like Stanley – though it is a recipe for cognitive dissonance, especially for those who are not able to maintain the illusion as well as Stanley can. I also wish to be clear that I am not saying God is incapable of the sort of "personal relationship" Stanley describes. Rather, the point is that this is simply an anachronistic template, designed to suit unique, modern psychological "needs" – and thus has no grounding in Scripture (which itself is wrongly interpreted at times to support this view).

On a related note, Stanley has also been criticized for having a too heavy emphasis on self-esteem. And indeed, I did find many statements like ISG 195, "I want to reassure you that from God's perspective, you are somebody." Statements like these would also be foreign to the social perspective of the Biblical world, in which people garnered their identity from the groups of which they were members. (See article here.)

Problem #2: Conversations with God

It is not for no reason that I have placed this article in this issue after the one on John Bevere’s tendency to have "conversations with God." In that and past issues, I have commented on the epistemic nightmare that accompanies such claims. Teachers like Bevere and Meyer claim to practically have ongoing dialogues with God, and do so without any greater validation than a Mormon might have from a "burning in the bosom." Stanley is not quite that extreme – he does not envision God speaking him as frequently as Meyer or Bevere, but the problem here is not quantity, but rather quality: He offers little more epistemic basis to think God speaks to him than Meyer or Bevere does – and would probably be no more willing to submit himself to a "Deuteronomic Test".

The key questions:

How do we know when God is speaking? Stanley regrettably offers less than even Meyer did in terms of figuring out whether one is hearing God’s voice, or one’s own imagination. We have noted elsewhere that unless one is a prophet, the most that ought to be expected of the Holy Spirit in these terms is a function much like that of a conscience. Stanley acknowledges this [ISG 43] as a function but goes farther, occasionally referring to God speaking to him as though in an audible voice, but more frequently speaking of the communication in terms of him "sensing" that the Spirit was telling him something.

In terms of an objective measure, Stanley offers nothing, and what little he offers is dangerous. At ISG 44 he says, "...there should be a warmth burning inside us that reminds us of His intimate care." The semblance to the Mormon "burning in the bosom" is frightening – and no more epistemically valid.

At ISG 98, Stanley responds to the skeptic who thinks he is imagining God communicating with him: "...I know this person is missing something absolutely awesome – a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ." In essence, Stanley doesn't answer the question: He circularly appeals to his experience as validation of his experience. While we are hardly sympathetic to skeptics here, as readers well know, the question deserves a better answer than, "I know because I know."

But that is indeed all we get. At ISG 130, Stanley speaks of discerning God's voice: "If you seek Him, the Lord will give you the wisdom to make the right decision." We might note that the same principle was followed by Joseph Smith when he considered James 1:5. To the person who may "question whether it is God or your own thoughts," Stanley does not counsel objective tests, but rather says, "let go and let Him guide you." Isn’t this exactly what the cults advise us to do?

Advice offered at GPL 116is little more useful:

"You may think about a certain job and decide that there is no way you can do it, but God has placed His dream within your heart. Over time, and as you pray about it, begin to imagine what it would be like to have that certain position. This is when you actually realize that God is leading, and if you will follow Him, you will experience a great blessing."

The epistemology here is a recipe for disaster as well: In essence, the validation that God is speaking is our own internal realization that God is speaking. How, again, is this any better than the Mormon "burning in the bosom"? Stanley may say that the "great blessing" we receive is a validation, but the problem there would be that he also (see below) adheres to a "parking space" theology that manages to find validation even in failure.

RMH 112-3 refers to a "sense of enthusiasm and eager desire" or a "sense of foreboding, danger, caution, or need for silence" as indications of what God wants us to do. LEL 12 says that God can use a "restless spirit" to move us – "something you sense but cannot quite identify." Once again, the measure is not objective and external, as was the test of prophets, but subjective and internal. Validation is accomplished by ourselves, and also under the circular assumption that we have already heard God’s voice [LEL 46]: "The more frequently you spend time with the Lord, the more familiar His voice becomes. It’s like a cloud clearing from your mind. You know God is speaking." But how does this avoid the trap of being a matter of us convincing ourselves that we are hearing God speaking? This, again, is why Deuteronomy recommended an objective test of prophecy – not an internal witness.

How often does God speak to us? As noted, Stanley doesn’t assert that we will have ongoing dialogues the way Bevere claims to; we will not hear God's voice "every waking moment," he says, but "when we need to hear what He has to say." [ISG 44] But how often is that?

It appears that Stanley finds himself "needing" to hear what God has to say not just in important matters, but in pedantic, trivial ones -- and so contradicts himself. The example that had me most shaking my head was GPL 86-8, in which Stanley says that God told him to eat chicken soup for a cold, then later told him to see a doctor. This advice helped him recover in time to preach. In this I am reminded of Joyce Meyer claiming that God told her to open her eyes during sexual intercourse with her husband, rather than keeping them closed. Is God really going to rhetorically ask us where we go to find a can of chicken soup? It is not, again, that He is incapable, or that He is the remote deity of deism. It is, rather, like supposing that the President of the United States has no dignity of office, such that we should feel free to call the White House to ask when we ought to put out our garbage. Stanley’s perception of God in such overfamiliar terms is inadvertantly insulting, and the product of little more than modern perceptions.

Despite his "not every waking moment" comment, however, in GPL 105, Stanley contradicts himself by saying that "at every turn in our lives, [God] is present, leading, guiding, and providing for us." At RMH 90 he says that God wants to communicate with us "on a daily basis," which is apparently "as often as we need to hear from Him," even several times a day. At RMH 112-3 he says, "You can never ask too many times of the Holy Spirit, ‘Should I do this? Yes or no.’"

It seems that on the balance, Stanley’s idea of when God will speak to us in some way is closer to Bevere’s model than it ought to be.

The inadequacies of Stanley’s approach to his "conversations with God" may be illustrated by how he made use of these "conversations" in decision-making. At 11-12 ISG, regarding the hiring of a person at his church, Stanley notes that this person was recommended by another pastor, and that the rest of Stanley’s staff agreed that the person was right for the job. But Stanley tells us: "...I sensed God's Spirit warning me not to move forward by hiring him." How? He had a "deep, inner rustling that I believed was from God..."

The semblance of this event to Bevere’s story of how his lead pastor told him to cancel cell groups is quite disturbing. The same sort of questions arise: Why was Stanley the only one to get this "deep, inner rustling" and why was it not given to the rest of his staff and to the one who recommended this worker? Why is it that the fact that it came only to Stanley did not raise questions in his mind about whether he indeed was hearing from God?

Stanley would likely note, as he does in ISG, that he ended up having to fire the man a year later. But he offers no specifics, which leads to the obvious question of whether Stanley biased the outcome: Did that "deep inner rustling" which he imagined he had cause him to somehow undermine or discourage the employee, or to overstate evidence that was used to terminate him? Is what he did really any better than what was done by Bevere’s lead pastor?

The one account that comes closest to being a "prophet test" from Stanley is one he repeats in several books, including RMH 67-9. As pastor at a smaller church in Florida, Stanley had received an impression that he was to move to a new position sometime soon. He asked when, and then, according to Stanley, "it seemed as if a movie screen appeared" and a word – the name of a month -- appeared on it "before my eyes". After this, recruiters from First Baptist Atlanta identified Stanley as the only person that was placed before them for an opening at their church, and Stanley ended up moving there – in September. True prophecy? Perhaps. Or perhaps it is self-fulfilling. As we note here here even Joseph Smith was capable of such predictions. It is simply not detailed enough, and not free enough of Stanley’s own ability to influence the outcome, to be validated as a true word from God.

One final telling indicator that Stanley is not really "having conversations with God" is that he recommends at RMH 112-3 that the believer direct questions to God which can be answered "yes" or "no" because it is "easier to receive the direction of the Holy Spirit" that way. Can the Spirit not speak in complete sentences? It is hard to escape the conclusion that Stanley recommends a restriction to "yes or no" because it lessens the chance that the believer will objectively question whether they are speaking to God or their own imagination. Stanley certainly should be more sensitive to this as a problem, as he admits that we can deceive ourselves readily (e.g., at GPL 44 he tells the story of woman convinced it was God’s will that’s she buy a car, who ended up in serious financial trouble because of the purchase).

Of course, it must also be asked: If Stanley has his ear to God’s mouth at any time, why isn’t Stanley being corrected for his erroneous exegesis of some Biblical passages? The question is a serious one: I have asked the same of Joseph Smith in another context. Stanley doesn’t make a great many exegetical errors (one is tempted to say, because he does so little exegesis in the first place!), but the ones he does make are hard to miss.

For example, at ISG 8, Stanley misreads Mark 8:27, in which Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" As we have noted in our article here, the purpose of this question was relevant to the collectivist society of the Biblical world. It can have nothing to do with modern psychological categories, but this is precisely the template that Stanley imposes:

"[Jesus] was focused on the fact that He had been with the disciples for nearly three years, and they still did not understand who He was...He wanted his closest companions to realize that He was the Son of God."

Far from Jesus "wanting his companions to realize He was the Son of God," Jesus’ question is predicated on the fact that someone in the pack would recognize who he was, and acknowledge it in a way that was honorable in a collectivist society. Stanley’s explanation is little more than a crude anachronism.

Problem #3: The Devil in the Details

Like Joyce Meyer, Stanley sees the devil at work everywhere – thankfully, he’s not so far into this that (like Meyer) he sees Satan stepping in to ruin barbeques, but he is still blaming Satan for things to a rather disturbing extent, even for someone who is not (as I am) a preterist (and believes Satan is now bound).

So what does Stanley blame Satan for?

ISG 25: Stanley blames Satan for causing discontentment, as well as false guilt (56 – "he will do anything to prevent you from experiencing the goodness of God."). Satan also whispers discouraging messages to us (210)

GPL 42: The goal of Satan is "to prevent every believer from reaching his or her full potential."

LEL 115: "Discouragement is one of Satan’s favorite forms of attack."

LEL 123 "Satan wants to help program your mind so that you will rationalize and conclude that what you want to do is okay."

LEL 153 "One of Satan’s most effective weapons is to cause you to have feelings of worthlessness before God."

LEL 155 "...many people do not recognize the work of Satan; they mistake his assault for the struggles of everyday life."

At LEL 160, Stanley issues one cautionary note: "We would be remiss to give Satan credit for everything that goes wrong in our lives." He doesn’t give Satan credit for every bad thing, but he seems to give Satan credit for about 60% of bad things, which is bad enough. I will say as I did regarding Meyer that it seems rather imaginative (and arbitrary) to blame Satan for such pedantic interferences when humans are more than capable of causing their own discontentment. While Stanley does not use Satan to abdicate from personal responsibility, it is hard to leave statements like the above with any other conclusion than that it is an easy matter to do so.

Problem #4: Parking Space Theology

The final issue for discussion will require me to again quote from our earlier article on Osteen, particularly for readers who have not seen that issue.
[Osteen’s] system too easily redefines problems out of existence. Thus in YBL (41-2) he gives the example of searching for a parking spot in a crowded lot. Osteen thanks God for a good space when he finds one, but what if you do not find one? Then, he says, " get out and walk, and with every step, you thank God that you are strong and healthy and have the ability to walk." And he explains further of a time when he didn't find a parking space close by (43): "...God has my best interests at heart...He is working for my good. A delay may spare me from an accident. Or a delay may cause me to bump into somebody that needs to be encouraged, somebody that needs to see a smile."
There is good reason for this methodology to disturb us. Atheist Dan Barker, in his original book Losing Faith in Faith tells much the same story of his quests for parking spaces - even having used the same Scripture that Osteen does, Romans 8:28: "All things work together for good to them that love the Lord." Before long, the logical strain becomes apparent: What of the person whose delay in finding a space caused them to get into an accident? To be sure, we are counseled to always be thankful to God, and we should be. Nevertheless, if we persist in a vision of God as a micromanager to this extent, then inevitably, we are compelled to rationalization as Barker was, ending up as he did, driving in random directions under the prompting of an inner voice, and ending up in the middle of a vacant lot thinking it was a test of our faith.
I am not saying of course that God cannot by His power arrange for a good parking space! However, I do find it presumptuous to think that He does such things on the microscopic scale that Osteen envisions. To claim this is to leave the system open to rationalization at the crux point of failures.
I found similar ideas in Meyer as well, and have now found them in Stanley too:
ISG 50: There is no shortage of invention when Stanley needs it; to illustrate that a man who felt need to quit his job found a better one, and so was blessed for his obedience, Stanley argues that Paul spent so much time in jail so he'd have time to write several of his letters! "Paul's schedule was full" otherwise, Stanley tells us. Really? How does Stanley know this? How does he know Paul could not have written more letters? Indeed, given that the letters we have were likely selected from a larger pool of letters by Paul himself, Stanley’s argument bears every hallmark of an inventive contrivance.

GPL 22-3: Stanley needed money for college, and mentioned it to a friend who in turn mentioned it to his pastor who had come up to them during the conversation. As a result, the pastor set up scholarship. Stanley says: "There was nothing coincidental about it. God set up the circumstances in my life, and He provided the answer I needed exactly when I needed it most."

Did He? Perhaps He did. Perhaps also it was not "coincidence" but a matter of Stanley using his contacts well. Here again, Stanley posits two extremes: Either it had to be "coincidence" or it had to be God actively "setting it up." Why no alternative in between?

Stanley tells several stories like this, of people who happened to be in the right place at the right time. But apart from an objective test of the sort proposed in Deuteronomy, these are merely anecdotes that tell us nothing substantive. Are we only hearing the "success stories" and not being told of the failures, where people thought God was speaking to them, but He was not?

The philosophical problems raised here, by each of these four problems, are well illustrated in LEL 75. According to Stanley, after his family moved to Atlanta, God was telling him to wait to find the right house to buy, but they became impatient, and bought another house which was not ideal.

The next day, however, they found a house that did fit their ideal, and Stanley says, "I realized the results of my lack of trust." But the story didn’t end there: A storm flooded the basement of the house they purchased, thus invalidating the sale and allowing them to purchase their ideal home.

The problems are manifest: It seems insulting to suppose that God does so little to assist suffering Christians in places like Sudan and China – people equal to Stanley in the body of Christ – while helping Stanley out of a personal mistake that does little to seriously affect his welfare. Is it not arrogant (apart from direct, tested revelation) to reduce God to one’s personal cleaner-up of messes? Doesn’t it seem a little much to suppose that God flooded someone’s property, thereby causing them exceptional expense and distress – or else timed matters that way – for Stanley’s sake? (Not unless they were being judged, perhaps, but we have no information on that.) Wouldn’t it make better sense to suppose that Stanley would have to just live with a house that didn’t suit his ideal – and frankly, not be so spoiled about it?

Our answer to these questions has been that it is better to understand God in terms of an ancient patron – one not obliged to enter into a "personal relationship" of the modern sort with us, nor obliged to run interference for us on each smidgen. Stanley’s ultrafamiliar ideology of God causes far more problems than it solves, for it exacerbates the problem of evil, creates manifest, unjustifiable inequalities in the way God treats those who are equal members in the body of Christ, and invites tortuous rationalizations (eg, "maybe you’re suffering because God is testing you"). Again, our point is not that God eg, never tests people with suffering, but that we are far from being in a position to decide such things – and it is for that reason that prophets were subject to tests. The idea that we are now all prophets with an ear to God’s mouth is what has forced teachers like Stanley into a vicious circle of rationalizations coupled with imaginations.

One final point that must be addressed, anticipating an objection: Don't we see examples in the Bible of God doing what might be called "trivial" miracles for people? For example, one might argue that making an axehead float as Elisha did is far less important than helping Stanley make sure he got the house he wanted. But to use this as a case example: In an age and place when iron was a scarce commodity, and an axe was an essential tool for survival, this was the equivalent not of making sure someone had a better house, but that they had a house to begin with -- or actually, something even greater than that. We should not make the mistake of scaling Biblical miracles by modern presuppositions. In addition, unless Stanley is conducting a ministry as critical as Elisha's was in Israel -- something we would very much tend to doubt, despite his widespread influence -- there is little cause to suppose that God would extend Stanley the sort of credibility needed to run that kind of interference.

Miscellaneous Issues

So are the main problems; what remains?

Stanley also has an unfortunate (but infrequent) habit of inserting psychoanalysis of the motives of Biblical characters into the text. For example, at 19 ISG, Stanley comments on the interaction of Jesus and Martha: "Jesus did not want to discourage Martha because He understood her desire to prepare a wonderful meal for those present." Indeed? How does Stanley know this was what Jesus’ intent was? If anything, in that social world, Martha’s concern to "prepare a wonderful meal" would have been related to gaining honor in the eyes of others, or else showing normal hospitality as part of the principles of corporate mutual aid and survival. An ancient person would hardly have the mentality of a Martha Stewart in such circumstances. At ISG 193, Stanley says Zaccheus "longed to know love and acceptance" and "who he was as a person." This, too, is anachronistic; Zaccheus would want to belong to an ingroup, but this is not "love" as we know it, and knowing "who you are as a person" is a modern fancy; as a collectivist personality, Zaccheus would not have such problems of self-identity.

RMH 59 says: "...I still have new insights into God’s Word every time I sit down to read it....Often I find that God leads me to read a particular passage just when I need it most...he wonder of God’s Word is that you can never understand it fully. God’s Word holds countless layers of insight and meaning, and it is applicable in unique ways to an infinite number of situations. The more you grow in your relationship with God, the more insight you have into His character and into the way in which God operates."

The arrangement here is circular and epistemically dangerous: How does Stanley knows about these "countless layers on insight"? How do we know that these "layers" are not products of his exegetical imaginations? Unfortunately, since he gives no examples of how this works in practice (in other words, perhaps he could name at least three "layers" in Romans 8:15 or 2 Kings 9:8?), and resorts to the nebulous understanding of God in an overfamiliar way, there is no way to evaluate this statement.

Finally, we can see a result of this in Stanley’s view of how we arrive at faith. At LEL 167, Stanley says that it is essential to know what we believe and why, even cites 1 Peter 3:15-16 (168). So far, so good. But the "why" amounts to fideism: The reason we believe is "because the Bible says so". Not because of evidence, but because of the authority of the Bible – which we accept because of the Bible’s own authority.

It is on this last point that we close – appropriately. Fideism lies at the heart of Stanley’s methodology: An assumption that God speaks because we know He does, and we know He does because He does. I would have hoped that "America’s Pastor" – and a man who was once head of the Southern Baptist Convention – would provide a sounder basis for faith. As it is, it speaks to the crisis in the modern church that this is best that can be found from one of our greatest leaders.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Where's the Apology from Horn and Putnam?

We're now three weeks into 2013, and a month past the date when, so any number of strange people said, we'd see the beginning of the end of the world. Some months ago we documented how two of those strange people -- Thomas Horn and Cris Putnam -- made an especially loud (but especially weak) case for 2012 being the Year of Heading for the Hills. Horn in particular seemed intent upon the idea that it was the year that the old pagan deities like Quetzalcoatl would gallop in through the stargates and start using us humans as Purina God Chow.

So anyway, now I have a question: 

Where's their apology and retraction?

You won't find one on their websites. Putnam's blog so far this year has entries plugging the duo’s new tome of lunacy, which claims that the Vatican is preparing us to accept aliens as saviors, plus a couple of entries about other issues. But as for the 2012 blunder, it may as well be that we skipped from 2011 right to 2013.

Horn has a presence on more than one website, but the two most prominent -- a news website, and his "survivalist" supply website -- don't offer a clue that the basis upon which Horn sold surfers his wares has passed without so much as a whimper. One of them is also plugging the same nutty new book about aliens, as well as announcing a new prophecy conference for 2013. One wonders when they planned this one – if they did so before the end of the last year, what would that say about what they really believed?

Obviously I'm being facetious to make a point. It took Harold Camping decades to man up and make an apology for his blunders, though he had the advantage of multiple dates he could hang his hat on in order to kick the can; Horn and Putnam don't. Edgar Whisenant was able to extend his warnings a year, strain them even more -- but did he apologize, much less issue a refund to everyone who bought his 88 Reason tome? Perish the thought. John Hagee kept shifting the goalposts when his setups failed. So does Hal Lindsey. And yet the church keeps supporting them with book sales and television time.

What ranks as most pathetic here is that no doubt there were many who became Christians on the strength of alleged "end of it all" predictions. It certainly happened with Whisenant and Camping; perhaps it happened less so with Horn and Putnam -- for after all, they were more clearly loony than those past names. Even so, you don't need imagination to follow the potential paths: Disillusion, cognitive dissonance, perhaps even apostasy, and the perpetuating cycle that also involves.

Once again, if you ever wonder why I'm so hard on these sort of people...once again, you know.

Friday, January 18, 2013

John Bevere's Holy Hotline?

From the November 2009 E-Block. Yep, we finally stared Vol. 2. Kind of ironic, too, because John Bevere will be speaking at a church near me sometime this week. What a shame.


The text for this article is John Bevere's Under Cover, a book that is about issues of authority. However, authority is not our main subject this time. Rather, the main subject here relates to that Bevere is one of these persons of the persuasion that God talks to them, and indeed carries on full-fledged conversations with them.

In our study of Joyce Meyer some time back, we noted that Meyer gave very little that could be called useful in terms of deciding when God was actually speaking to someone. There were a few good points for knowing when God was not speaking (eg, the voice contradicts the Bible) but nothing at all to discern God's voice once past those few gateways. Bevere offers no more guidelines in this regard than Meyer, though to be fair, given the subject of this book, we would not necessarily expert a diversion into the epistemology of hearing God's voice.

Nevertheless, to the end of discussing the dangers of this sort of epistemology, we will be using Under Cover as an example of the problems inherent in thinking one is having "conversations with God." Sadly, Bevere often lapses to these "conversations" any time some critical point cannot be supported by logic, argument, or Scripture. It is, so to speak, argument from unverified or, dare we say, imagined authority -- which makes it particularly dangerous. We'll have a look at two "cases" from Bevere that are the most detailed and exemplary.

Again, we will not look at Bevere's case for being "under cover" or how he thinks "authority" is to be respected. However, it ought to be noted briefly that his teachings on that subject are also not without serious problems, and we will pursue that in the next issue of the E-Block.

Case #1: The Spirit Denies Home Cell Groups

Bevere tells a story of how, as a youth minister, he worked to set up a new aspect of youth ministry at his church. [12ff] As a new hire, he visited a highly successful youth program with about 1500 attendants, where the teaching was solid and sound. One of the factors in the program's success was the use of "home cell groups" (or, as might be said, parties for the youth). Bevere attended several functions, talked to several church leaders, and got the enthusiastic approval of his senior pastor. Then he spent eight months planning to implement the program.

It should be noted that Bevere indicates that throughout this process, "the Lord spoke" to his "heart" and gave him plans. He even indicates that God specifically told him to choose twenty-four leaders for the program and train them.

Three weeks before launch, however, Bevere's senior pastor called a meeting of all pastors and said: "Gentlemen, the Holy Spirit has shown me that the direction of the church is not to have home cell groups. So I want you to cancel any smell groups meetings you are having in members' homes." [15] Bevere, stunned, asked if this included the youth, and the pastor simply repeated what he said. Bevere reminded him also of the success of the program he visited, and again, the pastor repeated the same words -- and did so again and again to Bevere's continued objections.

I will begin with a frank assessment of this situation, which leads to our issue of supposed "conversations with God": I see no reason to think that Bevere's pastor was anything but deluded in thinking that the "Spirit" had told him anything. It would have been interesting to see if the pastor would have been willing to subject himself to a "Deuteronomic challenge" and have his supposed communications verified by a test of prophecy like this one:
But if a prophet presumes to speak in my name an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak, or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.' "If you say to yourselves, 'How can we recognize an oracle which the LORD has spoken?', know that, even though a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if his oracle is not fulfilled or verified, it is an oracle which the LORD did not speak. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously, and you shall have no fear of him.
One wonders: Would those who so easily say "God told me this" or "the Spirit told me that" be as eager to speak if their own lives were at risk for speaking wrongly?

The pastor's constant repetition signalled a man with no answers, no arguments, no logic, and above all, no Scripture to back his position. Just as sad, however, is the way in which Bevere resolved the matter in his own mind: The "Holy Spirit" -- the same Holy Spirit, we are to suppose, who told him to appoint 24 people and gave him other specific plans, began to "speak to his heart" -- in detailed, complete sentences -- about how Bevere was sent to serve the senior pastor of that church, and said further that he would be judged according to how well he served that pastor -- irrespective of how effective the youth ministry would have been had it proceeded.

Bevere so convinced himself of the Spirit's involvement in this affair that when telling his 24 appointees of the cancellations, he "spun" it into a positive by saying "God has spared us from birthing and building something that is not from Him." [19] In a different instance later, God says to him of information also not previously shared: "...I will show [a certain authority figure] things I don't need to show you, and many times I will keep the wisdom of his decision from you on purpose, to see if you will follow him as he follows Me." [146-7] Then concerning the youth program situation again he says, "I didn't know it was a test, and often God's tests are never recognized until after the fact since they always expose our hearts." [158]

What has happened here is little different from the sort of rationalization we first detected in Joel Osteen back in the November 2008 issue -- and found also again in Meyer:

There are three disturbing aspects to Osteen's epistemological system.
First, his system has an unsatisfactory accounting for failures which makes it non-disprovable. Osteen seems to want to say as little as possible about what to do when you follow the principles he lays down and still do not achieve a result. In BBY (359), to the question, "What if nothing happens?" he says:
What if you do this and it does happen? Even if it doesn't turn out the way you had hoped, you'll still be better off to live your life positively and hopeful.
Similarly, in YBL (16) he says:
What if you do that and it does work? Whom are we kidding here? What do you have to lose by keeping your hopes alive?
In short, Osteen really does not answer for failures. To that extent, his system for success is no more verifiable than a Mormon internal witness.

Second, his system too easily redefines problems out of existence. Thus in YBL (41-2) he gives the example of searching for a parking spot in a crowded lot. Osteen thanks God for a good space when he finds one, but what if you do not find one? Then, he says, " get out and walk, and with every step, you thank God that you are strong and healthy and have the ability to walk." And he explains further of a time when he didn't find a parking space close by (43):
"...God has my best interests at heart...He is working for my good. A delay may spare me from an accident. Or a delay may cause me to bump into somebody that needs to be encouraged, somebody that needs to see a smile."
There is good reason for this methodology to disturb us. Atheist Dan Barker, in his original book Losing Faith in Faith (and now also in Godless, a book reviewed in this very issue), tells much the same story of his quests for parking spaces - even having used the same Scripture that Osteen does, Romans 8:28: "All things work together for good to them that love the Lord." Before long, the logical strain becomes apparent: What of the person whose delay in finding a space caused them to get into an accident? To be sure, we are counseled to always be thankful to God, and we should be. Nevertheless, if we persist in a vision of God as a micromanager to this extent, then inevitably, we are compelled to rationalization as Barker was, ending up as he did, driving in random directions under the prompting of an inner voice, and ending up in the middle of a vacant lot thinking it was a test of our faith.

Note well: The pastor's only proof that this was not the time for home cell groups: The "Spirit". Bevere's only proof that God prevented a disaster from happening when the program was introduced: The "Spirit". The whole idea is hard to see as anything but Bevere's rationalization for a highly irrational situation: Rather than even consider the option that the senior pastor was in error, and not even trying to resolve in a rational way the question of why the same "Spirit" told him to radically alter the lives of 24 potential leaders for months at a time for a program the "Spirit" knew He would urge the senior pastor to cancel 8 months later, Bevere rationalizes the whole thing as an experience he and the others "grew" [19] because of and a "test" he was put through.

Deuteronomy prescribed the testing of prophets precisely to prevent situations just like these. Would Bevere or his former pastor have the temerity to make such pronouncements if their proclamations had to be accompanied by a detailed prophecy -- and they would be killed if it did not come true? Would anyone, indeed, feel so free to claim the authority of the Spirit and to claim to have had detailed conversations with Him?

Of course, there are issues here beyond these, concerning what might have been and the epistemology of such cases. Perhaps indeed the youth program would have failed miserably had Bevere defied his senior pastor, but perhaps it would have failed because either the senior pastor undermined it because he was insulted by Bevere's defiance; or it would have failed because Bevere, lacking a sound epistemology, was not sure enough of himself to support the program. Thus we cannot say that if the program had failed, this would have proved that the senior pastor really had the Spirit speaking in his ear. This, again, is why the test of the prophet was necessary in Deuteronomy.
Here's a second, briefer example.

Case #2: Bevere's Sickness
Bevere writes of a time when, we are told, "the Lord gave us a clear directive not to accept an opportunity for the ministry just because it looked good until we first knew His will." Years later, Bevere says, God spoke to him again regarding a particular opportunity and said "no". Bevere took the opportunity anyway, and "on the day I moved forward with this opportunity, I became sick and couldn't shake it." [81] He had caught a virus, which was cured with antibiotics three weeks later. Then he caught a cold; later he injured his knee, and so on: Multiple health disasters which he interpreted as God putting him under a "curse" for his disobedience. [82]

Bevere admits the obvious point that even obedient people get sick. However, what is his proof that this particular bout with health problems was connected to his disobedience? Again, note well: Bevere's only proof that he was supposed to "seek the Lord's will" on such issue: The "Spirit". Bevere's only proof that God put a curse on him for disobedience: His supposition that God spoke to him in the former instance.

These two cases are enough of a prelude to have illustrated the dangers of the "God spoke to me" paradigm. I believe we are well advised to start "testing the prophets" when people like Bevere claim to be speaking for God. They need to be challenged to produce a prophecy that can be tested -- and be willing to pay a price if they fail: Not death, since we are not under the Deuteronomic covenant, but some loss of reputation, privilege, or status.

Of course, none of this will likely ever happen. Teachers like Bevere will accuse those who seek verification of "testing God" or come up with some other rationalization, and will refuse to produce a prophecy. Nevertheless, there is a way to test such people even if they do not wish to be tested, and how to do so relates to an item I wrote on Joseph Smith: Smith was a proven failure in terms of "restoring" certain original elements of the Gospel message. So likewise, we will see in the next issue, Bevere fails quite obviously as an interpreter of the Biblical text -- leading to the conclusion that he can by no means be having "conversations with God."

In close, let me indicate that I am by no means saying God cannot speak to people in the way described. However, I believe that "God spoke to me" is being overused as an epistemological basis by people who resort to it when more rational avenues fail them, and that they are overpersonalizing God beyond what can be contextually supported by Scripture. We shall speak more of this in the article in this issue on Charles Stanley.