Monday, December 30, 2019

Al Mohler's Misguided Critique of Bethel Church

Al Mohler recently critiqued Bethel Redding, calling Bethel "not a church," and "heterodox." Here are Mohler's two articles about this. I give my responses in [BRACKETED BOLD CAPS]. 

Amidst all the tumult of recent days comes a series of headlines from California. The New York Post ran an article with the headline, "California mega church tries to resurrect two year old girl through prayer." Yesterday's print edition of USA Today offered an article with the headline, "Church seeks to bring girl back to life."
Damon Arthur is the reporter for USA Today and he tells us, "After the sudden death of their daughter last week, one family has taken the unusual step of enlisting others at a California mega church to attempt to bring the child back to life. Since Saturday,” we are told, “members of Bethel Church in Redding had been using prayer, music and singing in the effort.” [NOTE: THE PARENTS WANTED THIS. WHO WOULDN'T? NOTE ALSO: NO ONE AT BETHEL PROMISED THIS WOULD HAPPEN. IT WAS, AS MOHLER WRITES, AN "ATTEMPT."]
The reporter goes on to tell us that the two-year-old girl who died was Olive Alayne Heiligenthal. Her parents are Andrew and Kalley, and of course they are grieving parents as well we can understand. The little girl, age two, was absolutely beautiful as the photographs testify. There is no doubt that the grief of her parents is beyond estimation and understanding. There is no report about how the child has died, but only the two year old died and that her parents who were involved with Bethel Church in Redding, California have turned to the church to ask for the church to act in order that the child would be resurrected from the dead.
A statement released by Bethel Church on Tuesday stated, "Bethel Church believes in the stories of healing and physical resurrection found in the Bible and that the miracles they portray are possible today." [I AGREE. ME TOO. I BELIEVE, AND HOPE FOR, THE KIND OF THINGS THE EARLY CHURCH SAW, AND WHICH JESUS SAID HIS DISCIPLES WOULD DO. BUT TO BELIEVE IN THESE THINGS IS NOT TO GUARANTEE THEM. I CAN BELIEVE IT IS GOING TO RAIN. I CANNOT GUARANTEE IT IS GOING TO RAIN.]
Kalley Heiligenthal, the mother of the child, is associated with Bethel Music with which she is both singer and songwriter, and much as is the case with Hillsong music from Australia, the music of this church in Redding, California, has spread far beyond the theological movement that gave the church birth.
But we need to look at that theological movement and understand what is going on here. Bethel Church in Redding has become rather well known, infamous might be another word, for its unique brand of prosperity theology that is centered on signs and wonders, on the special gifts and miracles, some of them far beyond human reason or for that matter acceptance. [THIS IS NOT “PROSPERITY THEOLOGY.” THE SIGN OF PROSPERITY THEOLOGY IS NOT AN EMPHASIS ON SIGNS AND WONDERS, AND MIRACLES, SINCE THAT WOULD MAKE JESUS A PROSPERITY THEOLOGIAN. AND, IT’S OK TO GO “BEYOND HUMAN REASON,” RIGHT? FAITH GOES BEYOND HUMAN REASON, CORRECT? THE MIND OF CHRIST GOES BEYOND HUMAN REASON, RIGHT? THE STANDARD OF "ACCEPTANCE" IS NOT "HUMAN REASON." AND, BTW, THIS IS NOT TO DENIGRATE HUMAN REASON. I TAUGHT LOGIC AT OUR COMMUNITY COLLEGE FOR SEVENTEEN YEARS, AND VALUE CRITICAL THINKING. BUT THE PRESENCE AND ACTIVITY OF GOD CANNOT BE CAPTURED IN THE STEEL NETS OF LOGIC.]
Bethel Church is actually heterodox. It teaches what historic Christians would recognize to be heretical teachings. [I DON'T BELIEVE THOSE IN THE BOOK OF ACTS CHURCH WOULD FIND SUCH THINGS ODD. THEY WOULD, I THINK, FIND THE ABSENCE OF SUCH THINGS ODD.] The founder of the church Bill Johnson holds to what he calls a “Jesus is perfect” theology, and in that theology he claims that it is always God's will to heal someone, someone who is ill, someone who has had an accident, or for that matter someone who is dead. [BJ DOES NOT BELIEVE IT IS ALWAYS GOD’S WILL TO RAISE SOMEONE, BACK TO THIS EARTHLY EXISTENCE,  WHO HAS DIED.]
Now, this is not something completely new in the history of Christianity. It is not even new in the history of this kind of fringe movement going back over the last several decades in the United States. Several years ago in Pensacola, Florida, there was a movement known as the Brownsville Revival and similar kinds of teachings and patterns were evident then. In the Jesus is perfect theology [DOES THIS MEAN: OUR THEOLOGY {OUR WORLDVIEW}] SHOULD SYNC WITH THAT OF JESUS? THAT'S GOOD THEOLOGY, RIGHT?], again that's what Bill Johnson calls it, he teaches, "How can God choose not to heal someone when he already purchased their healing? Was his blood enough for all sin or just certain sins? Were the stripes he bore only for certain illnesses or certain seasons of time?" He went on to say, "When he bore stripes in his body, he made a payment for our miracle. He already decided to heal. You can't decide not to buy something after you've already bought it." [THIS IS THE TEACHING THAT HEALING IS IN THE ATONEMENT. A LOT OF GOOD FOLLOWERS OF JESUS ADHERE TO THIS. MINIMALLY, LET'S NOT CALL SUCH PEOPLE HETERODOX, OR NOT PART OF THE CHURCH.]
Now when you look at that, you recognize this is a certain use of Scripture, taking Scripture out of context, but it is also an active fight against human rationality [SO…??? AS MUCH AS I VALUE HUMAN RATIONALITY {PHD IN PHILOSOPHICAL THEOLOGY}, DO NOT THE WAYS OF GOD MASSIVELY TRANSCEND HUMAN RATIONALITY? MOHLER, IT SEEMS TO ME, HAS BEEN ENLIGHTENMENT-IZED.] and not only the teachings of Scripture, but what might be defined as the normative Christian experience and normative Christian teaching over the course of the last 2000 years and more.
What are we talking about here? Well, we are talking about a health and wealth and prosperity gospel that goes far beyond what is normally found even within that context. In the teaching of Bill Johnson, the founder of Bethel Church, is the claim that God wills to heal everyone unconditionally, or at least every Christian, but that simply is not so. That is not what we are promised in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Here's the big issue. Biblically minded Christians need to recognize that in the gospel of Christ, we are not promised less than Bethel Church promises, we are promised more. [ONE OF THESE PROMISES IS FROM JESUS: WE WILL DO THE THINGS HE HAS BEEN DOING.] There can be no doubt that in the Bible there are several dead people who are raised to life. Think of the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Think of the apostle Paul with Eutychus who fell out of the window and was dead until the apostle Paul stretched himself out upon him and the Holy Spirit brought him back to life. Think, of course, most famously of Lazarus coming out of the grave as Jesus called him out of the grave, but you can also think of incidences such as Jesus healing Jairus's daughter who had also been dead.
Here's the point: Jesus does not promise that that experience will be our experience in this life. [REALLY? WHAT ABOUT JOHN 14-16? HERE JESUS TELLS HIS DISCIPLES THEY WILL DO THE THINGS HE HAS BEEN DOING.] Instead, Jesus Christ who is himself the resurrection and the life and whom the Father did raise from the dead for our salvation, he promises that there will be a resurrection and that every single one of us will be raised to everlasting life, but he does not promise to us no sin, no sickness, no accident, no death. [LADD’S THEOLOGY HELPS HERE. ULTIMATELY, I SITUATE BETHEL'S THEOLOGY WITHIN THE SPHERE OF LADD'S THEOLOGY.] He does not promise to us resurrection in this life to a continuation of this life on earth. Rather, he promises us resurrection to eternal life in his kingdom, amongst his own, his redeemed.
But one of points we need to understand here is that you do not arrive at this kind of argument out of a vacuum. It comes out of a far larger, contorted and misformed theology. For example, in Bill Johnson's book entitled The Physics of Heaven, he writes, "There are anointings, mantles, revelations and mysteries that have lane unclaimed literally where they were left because the generation that walked in them never passed them on. I believe it's possible,” he wrote, "for us to recover realms of anointing, realms of insight, realms of God that have been untended for decades simply by choosing to reclaim them and perpetuate them for future generations." [OK. BUT THE CURTAIN, THE VEIL, IS TORN, AND WE NOW HAVE ACCESSS TO HIS PRESENCE. THERE IS AN "OPEN HEAVEN."]
Now, one of the things we need to note is that when you are looking at a phenomenon like Bethel Church in Redding, it comes from a misunderstanding of Scripture, a miss teaching of Scripture, a contortion of biblical theology. It comes from a corruption of the gospel of Jesus Christ from eternal life and the promise, most importantly, if forgiveness from sins to the promise of health and wealth and prosperity, and it comes in very strange forms at Bethel Church. [THIS IS INACCURATE. ONE OF THINGS AT BETHEL IS BELIEF IN THE WORDS OF JESUS ABOUT HIS KINGDOM, THAT WE ARE PARTICIPANTS IN WHAT GOD IS DOING, AND THAT WE WILL DO THE THINGS JESUS DID. SEE ALSO, E.G., DALLAS WILLARD. FOR EVIDENCE SEE THE MANY PAGES IN KEENER'S MIRACLES, WHERE HE CATALOGUES MIRACULOUS HAPPENINGS.]
For example, there have been claims that during worship at Bethel Church, there has been the experience of gold dust falling from the air. There has also been the claim that during the course of worship, angel feathers have come out of the air and materialized within the center of worship. They have claimed that at the center of worship, there is often what they identify as a glory cloud. That is to say something that looks like a collection of dust and smoke that they claim is nothing else than the Shekhinah glory of God present in the congregation in a cloud form. [I HAVE NEVER SEEN THIS. BUT PEOPLE IN THE BIBLE SAW STRANGE, BEYOND-RATIONAL THINGS. WHY DON'T WESTERNIZED, SECULARIZED, ENLIGHTENMENT-IZED CHURCHES SEE SUCH THINGS AS WELL?]
Over the course of the last several years, we've seen several bizarre headlines come out about this church and its movement. One stated, "Meet the young saints of Bethel who go to college to perform miracles." It's interesting to note that the reporter for USA Today clarified, "Attempting to bring someone back to life is not widely accepted in the Christian faith, but may be more particular to Bethel Church." That's a citation attributed to Patrick Blewett, who's identified as dean of the A. W. Tozer Theological Seminary at Simpson University in Redding. Now, that's a university that's associated with the charismatic and Pentecostal movement located right in the proximity of this church.
This professor went on to clarify, "This fits more into Bethel Church and to what they're teaching." This shows you just how far outside even of modern charismatic and Pentecostal circles Bethel Church actually operates. For example, the USA Today article states, "The Bible associates miracles of resurrection in reference to Jesus either through his own or in bringing others back to life,” and attributes that teaching again to professor Blewett there at Simpson University in Redding. But he went on to say that he and others at the university are praying for the family during its time of grief. You will notice what's absent from the professor's statement. Even coming from historic Pentecostalism, he is not stating that he and his colleagues are praying for the child to be raised from the dead in this life.
Writing for Christianity today, Craig Keener, a prominent New Testament scholar who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary wrote, "Miracles are a foretaste of a perfect future, but they remain a foretaste. They offer present signs of the kingdom, but not its completion." That's an extremely important statement. Indeed, miracles are a foretaste of the kingdom of Christ to come, but they remain a foretaste. That's a very careful statement and it is a very accurate statement. We are not taught in Scripture that we should expect that we or our loved ones are going to be resurrected from the dead in order to continue this life on earth. That is not the promise. [OK… BUT…   HAS MOHLER READ KEENER'S BOOK MIRACLES?]
There are miracles of resurrection unto continued life in the Bible, but they are themselves extremely rare, and the point in every one of them is that these rare occurrences point to the work of God, the sovereign work of God, in such a remarkable way that in this extremely out of the ordinary circumstance, whether it be in Elijah's ministry or Elisha's or the apostle Paul's or most importantly in the life and ministry of Jesus, they are pointing to not the normative experience of that kind of resurrection, but rather something that is far greater, and that is the absolute promise to every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ of the fact that Christ’s resurrection from the dead shall be our own experience, but not in order to continue this life on earth, but rather to know the perfect life with Christ in his kingdom yet to come.
When we look at this story, we see absolute heartbreak and our hearts are with these parents and with the entire family. Our hearts are even with all of those who are grieving in this church, but I just used the word “church” and actually, by biblical definition, I do not believe that Bethel Church is a church. [!!!]
I understand that sociologically when you look at headlines it's going to be referred to as a church, but it fails the test of the reformer Martin Luther when he rightly identified the first mark of the church as the right preaching of the Word of God [BUT NOTE THAT THE WORD OF GOD TELLS US WE WILL DO WHAT JESUS HAS BEEN DOING. WE ARE GIVEN AUTHORITY. THERE ARE OTHER CANDIDATES FOR "FIRST MARK OF THE CHURCH," SUCH AS: GOD'S PRESENCE, EXPERIENCED; LOVE; POWER; ETC.], which as Luther made clear means that the gospel of Jesus Christ is clearly preached from Scripture. That is what is absent from the picture at Bethel Church. [I GREW UP IN THE LUTHERAN CHURCH, AND AM NO LONGER LUTHERAN, FOR THEOLOGICAL REASONS {WHILE REMAINING GRATEFUL FOR THE MANY THINGS I DID RECEIVE FROM THE LUTHERAN CHURCH}.]
We also need to note something else. The theology of Bethel Church actually detracts from the gospel of Jesus Christ. [ACC. TO MOHLER. IS HE A CESSATIONIST? IF SO, CESSATIONISM, AS I UNDERSTAND IT, "DETRACTS FROM THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST." I BELIEVE CESSATIONISM IS FALSE THEOLOGY. BUT I'M NOT WILLING TO MAKE THE MOHLER-MOVE OF CALLING CESSATIONIST CHURCHES "NOT A CHURCH."] It also sets up the reputation of the Christian Church for an incredible humiliation and embarrassment when promised miracles do not happen. [I’M NOT SURE BETHEL IS “PROMISING” SPECIFIC MIRACLES. I’M NOT EMBARRASSED WHEN I PRAY FOR A HEALING MIRACLE AND DON’T SEE IT HAPPEN. IF YOU ARE MY FRIEND, AND YOU ARE SICK, I AM PRAYING FOR YOUR HEALING. IF IT DOESN'T HAPPEN THE WAY I AM PRAYING, "EMBARRASSMENT" IS NOT SOMETHING I FEEL. THAT WOULD BE ABOUT ME, NOT YOU, NOR GOD.] As some have pointed out, the grief of these parents and the death of their child is likely to be multiplied by the grief that comes when a resurrection they believe they are promised does not happen, when the miracle that they believe is promised does not come.
Just a couple of final thoughts on this. One of them comes down to this: I was called by a reporter years ago for a major American secular newspaper who asked me on background to identify who I thought was the most credible amongst the faith healers than operant in America. I stated that I wouldn't consider anyone to be credible in the so-called field of faith healing unless they were, oh, I don't know, something like 200 or 300 years old. [SO, ALL JESUS’ DISCIPLES ARE EXCLUDED? BY THIS ABSURD STANDARD, EVEN JESUS IS EXCLUDED. BTW - THE MANIFESTATION OF THE SPIRITUAL GIFT OF HEALING IS GIVEN TO THE CHURCH. IT'S NOT ABOUT INDIVIDUAL "FAITH HEALERS." IT MANIFESTS, BY THE SPIRIT, WHEN THE COMMUNITY GATHERS.]
What was my point? The faith healers tend to die right on time. [BUT... SO DID THE DISCIPLES. WHICH MEANS..., WHAT? SEE, E.G., LADD'S THEOLOGY OF THE KINGDOM FOR ONE RESPONSE TO THIS, AND THE PURPOSE OF HEALINGS. MOHLER'S CESSATIONIST LOGIC LOOKS LIKE THIS: 1) THE DISCIPLES PRAYED FOR THE SICK AND SAW PEOPLE HEALED. 2) BUT THE DISCIPLES THEMSELVES DIED. 3) THEREFORE, THE DISCIPLES WERE NOT CREDIBLE. THE HIDDEN ASSUMPTION IS: IF SOMEONE PRAYS FOR A SICK PERSON AND SEES THEM HEALED, BUT THE PRAYING PERSON EVENTUALLY DIES, THE PRAYERS OF THE PRAYING PERSON ARE INVALIDATED. ] ] They who are promising the power of even resurrection from the dead and the continuation of this life, who are promising in the gospel of Jesus Christ, healing from all of our diseases, they tend themselves to die right on time. So do those who are attracted to their religious meetings. [OF COURSE. NO MEANINGFUL POINT FOLLOWS FROM MOHLER'S THINKING HERE.]
But even as our first response is heartbreak for these parents and this family, we are also heartbroken for the damaged reputation of the gospel that comes by this kind of headline. But there's something else we do need to note, and there's a bit of common grace in this. These headlines and these news stories tend to have to state explicitly, this is not a common normative definition of biblical Christianity because even secular reporters have to ask the question, “Why isn't this going on at every church?” [THAT IS A GOOD QUESTION. MOHLER USES IT TO SUPPORT HIS CESSATIONIST THINKING. BUT THE TYPICAL SECULAR REPORTER IS USING IT TO INVALIDATE THE WESTERNIZED CHURCH. SO, MOHLER MISAPPROPRIATES THE QUOTE. SO, AGAIN, WHY ARE THERE MANY MIRACLE CLAIMS IN NON-WESTERNIZED CHURCHES, EVEN RAISINGS FROM THE DEAD, BUT LITTLE TO NOTHING IN THE AMERICAN CHURCH? SEE, E.G., KEENER'S MIRACLES.] 
Finally on this story, let's just remind ourselves that we cannot possibly understand how anyone would survive the experience of this kind of loss, the death of a precious little girl, unless we genuinely believe that all of Christ's promises are truer than true, and that all that he has done for us and promised to us will indeed happen. In that resurrection, everything will be made right, and as the Scripture says, everything will be yes and amen. Every eye will be dry and every tear will be wiped away. His promises realized then in truth will be far infinitely greater than the confusions of his promises that are in this case communicated to the entire world through the words of a grieving set of parents and a very biblically confused congregation.