From the December 2009 E-Block.
Our last Popular Pastors feature was on Charles Stanley; this time we have another Charles -- or not. Charles Swindoll prefers to go by “Chuck” and that’s appropriate enough: Stanley, as uptight and as stern as he can be, isn’t the sort you’d expect to want to be called “Chuck”, but Swindoll’s easy humor and breezy style speak “Chuck” from every page.
It reflects something else here thematically as well. I am pleased to say that Swindoll is far less deserving of criticism than any popular preacher we have examined so far. This is not to say there are not problems, and we shall see that some of them may be expressed in terms of paradoxes (hence the title). Nevertheless Swindoll is the most earnest and most responsible of the authors we have examined so far when it comes to handling and interpreting Scripture -- though that in turn may not say very much.
Swindoll is gifted as a narrativist, drawing heavily on personal anecdotes and only infrequently taking more from Scripture than is warranted by the contexts. In most cases, when he does err in this fashion, it is from the sort of thing even scholars are guilty of (eg, reading modern ideas of “guilt” into the text, which would not cohere with the Biblical world as an honor and shame society). Yet it must be said that in this way, Swindoll paradoxically exemplifies the best of what is found in the worst: He is doing the absolute best that a popular pastoral preacher and teacher can do, which quite frankly, will never be sufficient and will always, inevitably, lead us down the same problematic paths we have found in our prior subjects: An overfamiliarity with God; epistemic problems with knowing God’s will, and too-easy surrender to non-knowledge.
Swindoll has produced an incredible number of books in his time, and as is custom here, we have engaged a sample for our report:
Strengthening Your Grip [SYG]
Flying Closer to the Flame [FCF]
Darkness and the Dawn [DAD]
The Family of God [FOG]
The Mystery of God’s Will [MGW]
As it turned out, between these 8 selections we ended up with a fairly comprehensive look at some of Swindoll’s views on topics we have been discussing here of late. And with that, let us begin with an evaluation.
The Scholarship Problem
I have said that Swindoll manages to be the best that a popular pastor can be, and that this isn’t very good. Why? Swindoll limits himself primarily to two types of sources when it comes to exegesis and interpretation: He appeals either to badly dated commentaries (eg, Matthew Henry, 1662-1714!) or else to other popular pastoral writers (Spurgeon, Tozer, etc.). In terms of apologetics, Swindoll apparently believes (sigh) that Josh McDowell offers the best that can be found.
For most of what Swindoll has to say, this is not problematic. His primary concern is with broad moral and relational issues, and such matters change little from one age to the next, and even manage to be similar across cultures. Nevertheless, there are a few times when Swindoll makes some rather embarrassing mistakes because of this lack, and we can deal with these samples by each book:
- SYG 45 – Swindoll claims that martyrdom in the 1st century was as common as “traffic jams are to us – an everyday occurrence.” This is not at all the case; social persecution of various types was that common, but it far overstates matters to say that martyrdom was.
- FCF135f, 158 – Swindoll wrongly defines the word “image” in Genesis 1:26 to mean we have personality, a heart, and emotions like God does. While not as egregious an error as the Mormon claim that it means God has a body as we do, it still misses the correct definition (which is that “image” is to be understood in terms of humans being God’s authorized representatives) and is used to derive false (albeit not heretical) conclusions about the nature of God.
- DAD – This book, which is a commentary on the passion narratives of Jesus, contains an extraordinary number of errors; I found myself wishing Swindoll would read our piece on the trial of Jesus. Swindoll makes the very odd claim  that Barabbas is mentioned by Josephus, but offers no citation in support of this claim. (Barabbas isn’t in the index for Josephus.) He also in this book [260-1, as well as in E96] uses portions of Mark 16:9-20 as though they were authentic (which any study Bible will tell you, it is not).
- M9,222 – Swindoll says that archaeologists have “unearthed obelisks and monuments and columns” validating certain events in Exodus, but no source is given for this claim. M37 – Swindoll notes that Josephus says that Moses was raised to take the throne of Egypt, since Pharaoh had no heir. Of this he says: “That seems like a sound assumption; no doubt, historians bear this out.” Unfortunately, rightly or wrongly, historians do not “bear this out” and tend to doubt Josephus on this point (though it may have a degree of truth to it). Swindoll is unwittingly encouraging a view of Christians as uncritical here.
- M308 – Swindoll argues that Moses broke the tablets of the Decalogue in anger and that God did not approve . In truth, Moses’ actions indicated the breaking of the covenant by the people and, whether he was angry or not, were highly appropriate.
- E78 – Swindoll believes that the people of Israel were silent after Elijah’s challenge to choose God or Baal because they were “linger[ing] in the neutral zone” of non-commitment. In that social setting, it is far more likely that the people were shamed by Elijah.
- FCF162 – Swindoll wrongly thinks that agape is a “uniquely Christian word”. This mistake was also made by the atheist Edmund Cohen (see here) and I have a suspicion, since he uses him as a source elsewhere, that Swindoll misread Barclay the same way Cohen did.
At E95 Swindoll warns readers to take Bible promises in their proper contexts and not falsely claim them for themselves. At FCF21 he affirms, “Sound doctrine gives us strong roots” and condemns the excesses of the charismatic movement. FOG9 relates: “The need for knowledge of Scripture is obvious. Everywhere I turn I meet or hear about well-meaning Christians who are long on zeal but short on facts...”
From these comments, one might suppose that Swindoll would be interested indeed in securing information from the most scholarly, up to date sources he could find. But therein emerges another paradox, for comments elsewhere are found which indicate that such security is the last thing he is interested in. Indeed, Swindoll sounds almost like an emergent church representative in some of his statements in this vein:
- FCF13 – Swindoll declines to get too deep into a subject, because “I have no interest in entering the arena of a debate that was going on long before I was born and will continue long after I’m gone.” Is that the attitude of a responsible teacher? Did Jesus decline to engage Pharisees on matters of legalism because legalism was a debate that was going on before he was born and would continue log after he ascended into heaven?
- FCF22 – Swindoll will not get into too much detail on some issues, for: “Why should it thrill anyone to be able to explain the difference between grieving the Spirit and quenching the Spirit? So what if the day-to-day evidences of His power are absent?” Is it not conceivable that some cult or wayward group might err precisely on some such point as that difference? And aren't the "evidences of His power" guaranteed by the evidences of God's actions in history -- not vice versa?
- FCF256 – Swindoll disdains those who “see themselves as answer-givers rather than question- askers.” Isn’t the object of questions to get answers?
- FOG12 – We are told that theologians “have done a poor job of communicating their subject” and have been using “clergy code-talk, woefully lacking in relevance and reality” “in-house jargon, seldom broken down into manageable units for people who aren’t clued in.” This is true to an extent, to be sure, but Swindoll apparently doesn’t realize that there is a “lower limit” to how far some things can be simplified, and at such points, readers simply need to buck up and become serious disciples. On the other hand, as a teacher, it is his responsibility to translate the "code-talk" and "jargon" for the average person as well.
- DAD177-8 encapsulates the whole paradox in one statement: “Dumbing down solid truth won’t cut it on subjects like these,” he says, but “there’s no reason for me to bore you with uninteresting theological trivia either.” To put it mildly, as expressed, these are contradictory sentiments.
Conversations with Your Inner Promptings
I am pleased to report that unlike our past subjects like Meyer and Stanley, Swindoll does not claim that God speaks to him in a conversational fashion. Indeed, Swindoll has a few choice words for people who believe that God speaks to them that way, as at MGW33-4 where he addresses those who hear God’s voice, mockingly asking if it is “a baritone or a bass” and jokingly adding that those who hear God’s voice in the middle of the night “probably just [have] a bad case of indigestion.” He says further to those who imagine they hear God’s voice, “Have you exhausted His Word so completely that you now must have a literal voice to guide you?”
In addition, Swindoll also has a few harsh words for those who engage in what he calls “theological voodoo” [MGW46] in supposing God is communicating with them. At MGW39 he uses the example of a man whose car stalled in front of the Philippine embassy, and took it as sign he was to be a missionary to Philippines.
These are certainly wise words from Swindoll. Nevertheless, what he offers in place has much the same capacity to lead the injudicious astray, and affirms yet again why prophets were subjected to the test of accuracy before they were accepted as prophets.
How does Swindoll then envision God communicating with us? Rather than a voice, Swindoll points to the occurrence of “inner promptings” – intuitions, if you will – and circumstances (other people, open doors of opportunity) as God’s primary means of communication. At M99 Swindoll lays it out most clearly: “He doesn’t speak vocally from heaven, shouting down his Word at you. He uses His Book, He uses His people, and He uses events in your life.”
In this, I would have to say Swindoll is much closer to the truth than others we have studied, both Scripturally and in social terms. As I have noted elsewhere, the Holy Spirit as an indwelling element in the life of the believer seems from these perspectives to function much like a conscience. Swindoll thus has the mechanism spot on, but what about the means? How are we to discern indeed when those promptings and circumstances are from God?
Beyond the obvious answer that these things will not contradict God’s Word ( “those unidentified inner promptings won’t contradict anything biblically”, FCF150), Swindoll comes very close to providing an excellent test when he says at M97-8, “...I’m not saying that every coincidence is God’s burning bush in your life” and refers to “extremely unusual events” as guideposts for when God is speaking through promptings and circumstances. The only difficulty then seems to be that Swindoll is too ready to define events as “unusual” when it is questionable whether they are.
For example, at MGW43, Swindoll describes how he believes God kept bringing back to his mind a career change option he kept refusing: Phone calls from friends, advice from others, and other events, he was persuaded, were God’s way of telling him to take this option, which he eventually accepted. Is this as good as a Deuteronomic test? I have my doubts. It seems just as likely, if not more so, that Swindoll’s friends and associates wanted to be an encouragement to him because they thought he would do well in the new position. This of course would still be good reason to take the position, but not sufficient reason to think God was behind the encouragement in a direct, managerial sense.
At FCF71-3, Swindoll indicates that he believes that the Spirit was a calming influence on him at a time of tragedy. Perhaps He was. Or perhaps this was a sort of psychological comfort that came from recognizing God’s ultimate sovereignty. There is simply not enough information to say.
At FCF171, Swindoll refers to a woman who had uneasy feeling as she went down aisle to be married, and notes that her marriage failed. From this he thinks this proves that she should have trusted her feelings. Perhaps. Or we may just as well ask, where were these feelings during the dating and engagement period? Did this woman in some way cause the marriage to fail, because she thought the feelings may have genuinely been from God?
Only at MGW194-5 do I find any incident reported by Swindoll to pass the “prophet test”. It is a story of a man who wondered if he could become missionary to Uganda. As a member of the Navigators, a well known evangelism ministry, he went to Uganda to check things out, and ended up in an obscure motel room staying with another guest – who, it turned out, had previously obtained some Navigators literature and had been praying for someone to Uganda from that organization. And as it so happened, the Ugandan man had the resources to help the missionary get set up in the field, find place to live, and so on. All coincidence? That hardly seems likely. The combination of unlikely correlations testifies rather that there is some level of divine influence at work.
So in summary, I am pleased to say that Swindoll has the right idea when it comes to God’s methods of communication, but is still nevertheless to ready to hear those communications where it is not warranted to suppose they are there. My own default is that the Spirit is not moving where it is not obvious. In contrast, Swindoll’s default is that the Spirit is moving, and his reason for thinking so is essentially, “Well, why not?” (FCF93) This is not as disastrous an epistemology as the Mormon burning in the bosom – but it still has a certain degree of pending disaster within it.
The Devil Didn’t Do It
It was a relief to find that Swindoll is not inclined to see Satan under every rock, wishing to ruin family barbeques and parties just to get in a little temptation action. Indeed, I found Swindoll crediting Satan for effects less than a half dozen times in these 8 books (as at SYG 35, where he refers to the “devil’s strategy for our times”). This is not an unreasonable way to regard Satan’s activities if indeed one assumes that Satan is still active in our day and age: Not as a micromanaging party pooper, but as a broad, sweeping influence on the cultural zeitgeist.
Still Too Personal With God
With this issue we again enter into a paradox. On the one hand, at DAD217, Swindoll warns against treating God as a “Divine Bellhop” and at M269 refers to the “pitifully shallow” ideas of God as “our buddy – a great pal to have in a pinch.” He further [M270] refers to such ideas as “man’s feeble attempt to make God relevant” and denigrates the “cheap twang of such a concept of God” as opposed to a view of God as holy.
In spite of these few warnings, however, elsewhere Swindoll offers statements that are little different than those that have emerged from those with an overfamiliar concept of God:
- At FOG38, he claims that the 3000 converts in Acts “had the unhindered, boundless joy of Christ’s presence in their inner beings” as the source of their faith. What about the evidence offered in the sermons, of Jesus’ miracles and Resurrection, and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy? These are in the sermons, but there are no references to the “boundless joy of Christ’s presence.”
- At M277, Swindoll says we need a place “where you can sit down and enjoy some uninterrupted fellowship with your Lord” and “meet regularly with God.” However, he does at least indicate that these times are to be entered into with serious preparation.
- At SYG46, Swindoll says that Jesus gives us “immediate access to the throne room of God the Father.”
- At SYG155, Swindoll commends young Christians who pray and “talk to God like He’s their friend”.
- CF15, Swindoll refers to the “sheer ecstasy of walking more intimately with God”. At FCF27, Swindoll describes the role of the Spirit: “There are scars He wants to remove. There are fractured feelings He wants to heal.” How can Swindoll disdain the idea of God as “Divine Bellhop” while endorsing an idea of God as Divine Personal Therapist?
- MGW151 offers the most “overfamiliar” commentary I found. While praying and reading Scripture, Swindoll advises us: “Say nothing. Just sit silently. Let Him talk. Let Him reassure you that you are fully and completely forgiven and that your shame is gone. Feel His arms reach around you. Understand the cleansing that He’s bringing. Feel again the freshness and relief of His presence.”
The dedication of MGW contains an interesting comment in this regard. Swindoll says, “[God] has sometimes been so close we could almost feel the flapping of angels’ wings...but at other times, He has seemed so distant we felt strangely confused, even abandoned.” I would suggest in response that this paradox Swindoll is wrestling with is the result of his presumption that God is, to some extent, meant to be familiar to us. In contrast, we have resolved the issue here by saying that, like the ancient patron, God is not meant to be that close and familiar to us – that the desire for closeness is a product of a modern, Western development of personality, and a case of moderns remaking God in their own image. I believe Swindoll is earnest in his wrestling here – but that he will not be able to find an internally consistent solution as it now stands.
Parking Space Theology
Although Swindoll does not have a story of being blessed by finding a good parking space (!), as Osteen and others have, the sort of theology such stories imply is present to a less controversial extent. In line with the above question of the familiarity with God, the critical question is, how involved indeed is God in our daily affairs? Our answer is that there is little reason to suppose that God is involved with the world on a microcosmic scale – and that human sin (which is in essence a message to God that we do not want His interference) ensures that God will intervene only when it suits His larger purposes. Nevertheless, it is also not our place to say when or if God in indeed intervening in a situation; the only way to be sure is through some sort of “prophet test” as described above – though even then, of course, God can intervene any time He pleases. The question is whether He does.
In this regard, Swindoll again has his default on the side of “God does intervene” – and again one of his reasons is, as at M201, “How do you know He doesn’t?”...”[H]ow do you know He isn’t calling you?” It is true that we cannot know with certainty when God is acting, apart from something that functions as a prophetic test. Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that this seems to be Swindoll’s attempt to add God to an equation, where reason or available opportunity is sufficient causation – and that, in turn, is based on Swindoll’s presumption of God as the subject of intimate familiarity.
As we have noted in other contexts, such a view of God inevitably leads to rationalizations that are difficult to maintain the more they are appealed to:
- At M46, Swindoll describes a hypothetical situation in which a
person was making plans for a large home Bible class, but despite
publicity and preparation, no one shows up. Swindoll’s advice: “That’s
the time you need to face the music, get quiet, fall back to your knees,
and ask, ‘Lord, are you in this? Or is this just someone’s great idea?’
“ At M331 Swindoll adds, “when God is given proper control of a
ministry there is no such thing as failure.”
The resort to supposing that God’s being “in” or “in control of”
something is what determines success runs into immediate difficulties:
What then of highly successful yet questionable ministries like
Osteen’s? And the question is also raised as it was for our report on
ST 277 offers a memorable account of how to have ministry like Meyer's: "...if God calls you, He opens the doors. He apprehends you, prepares you, provides the money, gives you favor, and makes it happen." Indeed? Some years ago, the same advice was given me by a Christian magician named Felix Snipes. Snipes engaged in tactics like "pew packing" to build his audience; and yet he would say that if people did not show up for your ministry services, then this indicated that the Holy Spirit was not in what you were doing. Nonplussed, I asked Snipes how one might discern between the Holy Spirit not being in what one was doing, and the audience simply not being receptive to things they needed to hear and see. Snipes had no answer for me on this, but merely fumbled about vaguely saying that that was something you needed to figure out. Indeed so. Meyer and Snipes arrive at their views via a notion of God as a micromanager; why is it not simpler to say that this is a view of God that is wrongly read into Scripture?
In this light, I believe authors like Swindoll too frequently resort to pious but misguided rationalizations: “You’re moving in the realm of the flesh.” “You’re not waiting on God’s timing.” “God is using this failure to test or hone or humble you.” “You’re supposed to learn something from this failure.” “It’s part of God’s unsearchable plan.” And so on. Do these sorts of responses really suffice, as Swindoll supposes, when we are faced with a young person dying too soon with an inoperable brain tumor? [MGW206] Is it really reasonable, satisfactory, and respectful towards God to say (as as MGW64-5) that a promising seminary student who died a few weeks after graduation, may have actually ended up blessing more people because of his premature death than he would have had he lived? Apart from the evidence of being able to view multiple timelines, there is no way such rationalizations can stand the text of examination.
- M132-3 offers another epistemically problematic tale of a
man who was turned down for a loan because he didn’t make enough money.
As Swindoll reports, the man did not get angry or try to correct the
problem; rather he put it in God’s hands.
A few hours later, the lending organization called back, saying there
had been an error in the calculations; he did make enough money for the
loan after all. As a result, the man credited God with a blessing.
But is this epistemically sound? Hardly so: Did God originally cause the mistake in the figuring, in order to bless the man with the reversal? It is well that the man did not get angry, but would it have been wrong to ask that the figures be checked? Can we find examples of people who put things like this “in God’s hands,” then did not get the loan (or what have you), although they would have, had they been persistent and unearthed he error – and then, explained away their loss as “part of God’s unsearchable plan” or “a way God has of teaching us a lesson”?
- At MGW19, he argues that either the world is “out of control, spinning wildly through space” or God is micromanaging. This is a simple black and white fallacy – is there no in between view?
- At MGW177, Swindoll rejects the view that God is not “involved” in our lives as contrary to Scripture. But what he quotes as proofs as Biblical statements of God’s omniscience (Job 28:24, Ps. 139:3, Prov. 5:21) – all from proverbial literature, as it happens. These verses say much towards God’s awareness of events, but say nothing of His involvement in them.
- Finally, at FCF57, Swindoll advises, “We need to take God out of our man-made box.” It is good, on the one hand, to remember that we cannot limit God. Yet paradoxically, Swindoll also warns at FCF125, “Don’t start looking for the face of Jesus in an enchilada,” and so on. Isn’t it “putting God in a box” to say He can’t put Jesus’ face on an enchilada? Once again, the problem is where Swindoll decides to draw the line – he preserves a box around God at one level while insisting we can’t box God in on another level. Epistemically, Swindoll’s position is internally inconsistent.
Finally, we noted something unique to Swindoll: In some places, Swindoll makes comments which seem to verge on expression of the philosophy of the emergent church (e.g., like Brian McLaren). Swindoll has definitely not crossed the line into emergent thinking, but it is easy to see a nascent version of it in a few of his comments:
- SYG 22, 26: Swindoll heavily emphasizes relevance and authenticity in his teaching. He does not cross the line into emergent thought here because he offers this emphasis while not also sacrificing accuracy (at least not intentionally) and while not becoming so “relevant” that he refuses to offend anyone.
- FOG72-4: Swindoll refers to Phil 1:15-18 and says of it, “Rather than being discerning, you may have become too narrow and rigid!....Even ministries that may employ a few deceptive motives, even churches that you choose not to attend, Paul said, in effect, ‘I rejoice that at least Christ is proclaimed.’ “ Further he says, “Don’t waste your time criticizing other ministries.” Attend to your own, he says, and furthermore, if that isn’t what Phil 1:15-20 teaches, “then, frankly, I’m at a loss to know what it means.” His point: Don’t assume your church is the only one with answers; there is a range of churches from the “superconservative to the loosey-goosey extreme.” But: “People attend every one of them. They choose to go there because they are ministered to and because they are comfortable with the style, the approach , the objectives.” Here again, Swindoll does not quite cross into emergent territory because he is only dealing with “style, approach, objectives” – an emergent teacher would go farther and include “doctrine” in that mix. Nevertheless, Swindoll’s rendering of Phil. 1:15-20 is not accurate. He supposes that because Paul rejoices in Christ being preached even by those with bad motives, this means we should not correct or stop ministries that are “deceptive”. Swindoll has failed to perceive that Paul is, first of all, implicitly criticizing those who teach with bad motives for doing so; that they still manage to preach the Gospel is a coincidental side benefit, but hardly inures them from his criticism. Second, in terms of honor, Paul’s rejoicing in this matter is essentially a slap in the face to those who oppose him by teaching with bad motives. Finally, the critical issue here is indeed honor: These others seek to steal from Paul’s own honor as an apostle. This is far from giving license to ministries who use “deceptive motives”!
I have said that in Swindoll, we have the best that a “popular pastor” can do. He is earnest, he is a gifted writer, and he clearly has an authentic concern for his readers. Nevertheless, shallow scholarship will not be erased by such factors, and in the long term, will do harm that can effectively erase the good that come of those factors. If indeed Swindoll would add effective scholarship into his arsenal, he would become a much more credible (and incredible) force for change.