Alpha and Omega

It is important to understand that popular theologies, like popular sciences, are subject to fashion. A long life in Christ (mine is currently 55 years), like a long medical career, makes one very aware of this, and ought to lead to constant re-examination of one’s easy assumptions about health matters, as also the teaching and practice of one’s particular church or wider church “movement.”

For example, in the medical field the astonishing benefits of omega-3 fatty acids have been touted for a while now. I bet you can’t remember when you first heard about them, but someone (usually it’s a manufacturer!) started promoting them in the popular press in the 1980s. Great claims have been made for their role in preventing heart disease and particularly in psychiatric disorders, and sales of supplements have escalated. It has taken a few decades for scientists to cast serious doubt on whether there is any very good evidence for their benefit, possibly because it is quite unusual for people to be significantly deficient in them. I predict that to our children, omega fats will be as irrelevant as a daily dose of syrup of figs is to most of us now.

It is one thing, you see, to discover that a component of food is essential to health, and quite another to say that is is lacking in the average diet, or that one needs to seek out extra supplies. Some of the alleged benefits may not be real at all. But meanwhile, the whole thing becomes a widely countenanced fashion.

With that tenuous, but I think apposite, link, let me turn to the Alpha Course “Holy Spirit weekend” I helped at recently. Most people will know that Alpha is an evangelistic course – and an effective one – designed by Nicky Gumbel of Holy Trinty Church, Brompton, and now run worldwide.

First let me declare a few interests. I was actually a member of HTB during my medical school years, and was asked to join its governing Parochial Church Council in 1976. I declined because I was soon to leave London, but had I continued, I’d have met Nicky when he joined the church the following year. I’ve helped to run three Alpha courses since 1998.

I was also closely involved with the “Charismatic Renewal” from those early days of The Fountain Trust, “Jesus People,” “The Festival of Light,” and so on, and would have been regarded as on the Charismatic wing of the conservative Evangelical Cambridge University Christian Union during my undergraduacy. The CU’s caution about the new movement kept me from the worst excesses of dodgy doctrine and over the top praxis. But it was only after decades that I came to the realization that the constantly-required effort to steer a course between biblical truth and what is properly called Neo-Pentecostal theology is an intrinsic problem with the theology – it is a feature, not an aberration. You tend always to end up with an internally incoherent doctrinal scheme, which is maintained in the light of personal experience and claims about the unique power of the teaching, compared to all other streams of Christianity. Hence somebody’s observation that “The Charismatic Movement is an experience looking for a theology.”

My conclusion is that, whilst the early Charismatics were right to criticise an excessively cold and intellectualized non-experiential Christianity, unconsciously conditioned by Enlightenment anti-supernaturalism, still Neo-Pentecostalism is inadequate to correct it robustly, any more than self-flagellation is the best answer to legitimate critiques of Christian worldliness and sensuality. I’m not talking here about the frankly heretical excesses of the celebrity revivalists and “apostles,” but about the ordinary Charismatic in the pew. However, it is noteworthy how even the latter often maintain an unhealthy respect, sometimes fervently expressed, for some of the worst religious charlatans in the world. HTB itself bought heavily into the Toronto Blessing in the 1990s, and has never really distanced itself from the excesses thereof, nor explained its lack of discernment, given its strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s enabling, to which I now turn.

Let me insist from the outset that, overall, Alpha is a good apologetics and evangelism course, and that’s why it produces many true conversions. I’d expect no less coming from the HTB I knew in 1976. The basic credal themes are there: the universality of sin, substitutionary atonement through the cross and resurrection, and the need for repentance and faith in Jesus are all included. My beef is that the overly strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit – that is, on Neo-Pentecostalism’s theologically limited view of the Holy Spirit as personal power and experience – is unbalanced and, in a number of important ways, unhelpful. I think I only understood this when I read John Owen’s great treatise on the Holy Spirit of 1674, and realised just how much of importance the Charismatics leave out.

It would appear actually possible for an unconverted person to interpret purely social and psychological experience on an intense Holy Spirit weekend as conversion itself, as I will detail later. And for others, both enquirers and leaders, the weekend tends, despite the caveats in the videos, to encourage an endless quest for unachieved spiritual experiences of the requisite sort, more than for embracing the saving truths of the gospel by simple faith and gladness. Many of us, over the years, have found that such a quest can lead to frustrating feelings of spiritual inferiority or, worse, the manufacturing of experience in order to fit in.

A personal testimony is in order here. After five years as a somewhat powerless young Christian and during a period of doubt, I was invited to join a fortnight-long evangelistic student effort. I don’t think the Holy Spirit was even mentioned, but I emerged at the other end with a new zeal, a sense of Jesus’s closeness, a new conviction of Scripture’s utter truth which remains after half a century, and a new ministry of song-writing and musical evangelism. Through that change, I found myself in Charismatic circles, and because of their teaching began, like many of my peers, endlessly seeking how I might be “filled with the Spirit” in the sense of speaking in tongues or feeling electric pulses in my body. I never realised that all I thought I lacked had already come unbidden, because the fullness of the Spirit, in many different forms, is a promised fruit of all true conversion. And as even the early Pentecostals like Jessie Penn-Lewis knew, it is fullness for service of the Kingdom, not for my gratification.

What is interesting to me in the current incarnation of Alpha, apart from the fantastic production values of the videos, is to see how “software patches” have been applied to a basically Neo-Pentecostal system, as correctives to common Charismatic errors. But because they are patches, they sit uneasily with an underlying Pentecostalism that is fundamentally unchanged.

For example the importance of the Bible, and of reading it, is rightly emphasized in Alpha, and the Holy Spirit sessions include a (brief) reference to the fullness of the Spirit not leading to new doctrines beyond the Bible. But nothing is said about how to deal with experiences or “words” that overstep this bound, when the sole criterion of spiritual authenticity appears to be feelings. If sensing a breeze in the room is taken as a sure-fire sign of God’s presence, it’s not surprising that a vivid “picture” is accepted as a message from God, even if it contradicts sound doctrine.

In Alpha the Pentecostal stress on “baptism of the Spirit” is quietly sidelined by noting that all true believers come to Christ through the Spirit, and have the Spirit as a mark of sonship, and by referring to the experience as “filling,” as became the pattern amongst Evangelical Charismatics in my own day. Yet in practice it remains the same kind of second blessing: Luke 11:13 is recruited to encourage people to ask for a Pentecostal experience of filling, rather than noting the broader reference of Luke’s context. And Nicky uses Ephesians 5:18 to come perilously close to endorsing Toronto’s Vineyard’s “drunkenness in the Spirit,” divorcing the verse from its context, which clearly shows it is to do with the corporate, spiritual, experience of singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (not necessarily with a PA and lighting effects!) to each other, giving thanks for all things to the Father through Jesus our Lord. To be blunt, that verse does not require a weekend of opening oneself to an experience, but just a congregation, a church service and a hymnbook or psalter – and, sadly, the repeal of some recent draconian laws, obedience to which hinders that kind of filling with the Spirit!

Similarly, the old Pentecostal insistence on tongues as the sign of true conversion – maintained until his death by the popular prosperity evangelist Reinhold Bonkke – is denied. “Not all Christians speak in tongues,” Nicky tells us. But thereafter much is said about the wonders of speaking in tongues “of men and of angels,” on the basis, Nicky says, that it is so often what happens when people are filled.

Now a few things need to be remembered about this assertion. The first is that, historically speaking, Christian speaking in tongues was rare until Pentecostalism put it center stage and initiated “tarrying meetings” to encourage God to bestow it. The second is that nobody in the New Testament had to be prepared or coached in speaking in tongues: in all three of the instances Acts describes (which were, in fact, also at key stages in the church’s expansion, which is an important detail not mentioned in Alpha) believers manifested the Spirit and spontaneously spoke in tongues. The third is that such preparation, in an intense environment like the Holy Spirit Weekend (an updated tarrying meeting), is in fact a form of suggestion, such that susceptible subjects may manufacture tongues (which is quite easy to do and known in other religions), with no instruction being given to distinguish this from a real spiritual gift.

Now it is maintained by some Charismatics that such purely psychological liberation constitutes the gift of tongues, but with Nicky’s obligatory mention of an instance of a tongue being given in perfect Russian unknown to the speaker, followed by a reference to “angelic tongues,” the implication is that tongues is about genuine languages. Yet it is a fact that linguistic analysis of utterances in tongues do not show any linguistic structure at all in many cases. Here is another instance of the theology throwing up as many problems as it solves.

The problem of suggestion indeed underpins the whole concept of the Holy Spirit weekend, and probably the separate session on healing as well. Tell people in advance that they may experience uncontrolled laughter or tingling in their hands, and a proportion will certainly do so, especially since tingling is the commonest symptom of hyperventilation during excitement. What would they experience without such prompting?

It is clearly a good thing for enquirers and new converts (remember, most Alpha groups contain both at this point) to spend an extended period together with the course leaders, and explore the faith in greater depth than the weekly meeting permits. But this could take other forms, and arguably should. For example, a more detailed look at the Scriptures pertaining to Jesus, his work, and our required response could be done. Perhaps time spent in individual prayer, with some questions designed for self-examination of whether or not we are in Christ, would clinch conversion for many. Or perhaps time spent in worship based on a Scripture extolling God as Father, Son and Spirit, or an evangelistic exposition of the Lord’s prayer…

The reason for focusing this entire weekend on the Holy Spirit is, when all is said and done, to lead as many as possible into a particular style of experience based on the Pentecostal baptism of the Spirit. In effect this makes the Holy Spirit the key member of the Trinity, even though the video rightly reminds us that the Spirit’s role is to point us to the Father and the Son, not to himself. Yet neither the Father, nor the Son, get three sessions and a whole weekend focused on them in Alpha.

It’s worth remembering, too, that even the checks and balances of the videos are subject to what happens in the personal “ministry” built into the weekend. Nicky Gumbel may well mention that speaking in tongues is not for all, but that may not necessarily prevent course leaders earnestly praying with you until you do so, if only to shut them up.

Jaded? Well, no. The course video itself has a worrying instance illustrating the possibility. In, if I remember rightly, the first video of the weekend, an artist gives his own testimony. I believe he may be the artistic consultant of the course. His account takes place in his studio, filled with quirky artworks and artifacts, and that same quirkiness and originality makes the piece one of the most entertaining of the course.

He describes arriving at the weekend thoroughly cynical, his main aim being to avoid any contact with the leaders, and escape for a cigarette after sessions, despite being a non-smoker. When one of the leaders offers to pray with him he refuses, but when the request is repeated the next day he agrees, just to shut the guy up. He describes how the first thing he noticed was the smell of kippers on the leader’s breath, then the movement of his Adam’s apple, and that’s all that happened. Except that when he sits down afterwards, he has a great sense of peace.

The message is, “Even the most cynical and creative people can be touched by the Spirit.” Now I don’t doubt his account, nor its significance to him, nor his present status as a Christian. But as an account of someone getting filled with the Holy Spirit, it’s decidedly odd. For Alpha has used the “cynical guy attending Alpha on sufferance” before, to show the power of the gospel proclaimed on the course to convert even a confirmed atheist. And it’s as just such a skeptic that the artist comes across. If he were a Christian converted on, or before, the course, but doubtful about the Holy Spirit, would he not be likely to be at least inquisitive to hear about him? Would a Christian normally refuse to be prayed for, or take up smoking to avoid the leaders? We are not told if he’s even attended the rest of the course, but it seems he doesn’t really want to be there.

So, we learn, he gains a deep sense of peace. But does this mean that a cynical unbeliever, too, can be filled with the Holy Spirit even without having committed his life to Christ? Peter in Acts 5:32 says the Spirit is given to those who obey God, and believe in Christ. John 7:39 says the same, and Paul says the Spirit is the deposit guaranteeing eternal life to believers. Unbelievers may certainly be acted on by the Spirit, but not filled with him.

It is easy to imagine someone on the course expecting an experience of the Spirit apart from a commitment to Christ, when one remembers that a good many on such courses will not yet have accepted Christ. That is only increased by the encouragement, at the weekend, for everyone to ask to receive the gift – and indeed, by Nicky’s use of Acts 2 to say that since Pentecost the Holy Spirit is now available to all, and not just to specific people, omitting to mention that “all” is highly conditional in that chapter, as 2:38 clearly states.

Without Peter’s clear linkage to repentance before the Father and belief in Christ as God, and with such an emphasis on the filling with the Holy Spirit as a wonderful experience, it would be easy for someone to conclude that they will settle for the experience, and consider Jesus an optional extra, or at best only the means by which one gains access to the real McCoy – the peace and joy of the Spirit. Better the God you can know within you than the one far off in heaven.

I don’t think that’s totally unrealistic. Without blaming Alpha for it (but definitely implicating its Neo-Pentecostalism), the whole emphasis of mega-churches like Bethel and Hillsongs is on cultivating an ecstatic experience of the Spirit, in which God’s acceptance of and love for Me is paramount, through loud and repetitive rock anthems. The belief that Christianity without frequent miracles is somehow deficient also indicates a preference for the phenomena of the Gospel over the saving word emphasized in the Bible.

A recent survey by Ligonier Ministries show that 30% of US Evangelicals agree with the statement that “Jesus Christ was a good teacher, but not God.” Nearly as many of the general public believe in Jesus’s deity. How did Christology get to be so deficient within Evangelical teaching? I suspect it may be that it was widely replaced by a skewed Pneumatology. When the importance of Jesus becomes that he was a man doing wonders by the Spirit, and that we can do all he did by the same means, then his divinity becomes a bit of an afterthought. Faulty kenotic theology may easily become adoptionism.

I am not naive enough to think that any critique of Alpha by me will make a difference. The brand has too much invested in it now to challenge its theological foundations, and the ubiquity of Contemporary Christian Music in the mold of Hillsongs and Bethel will continue to make Charismatic theology the popular default for a while to come, even though its promises of world-changing power have failed to materialise in the last half-century of western church decline. Local churches may look to the mega-churches and their celebrity pastors as role models in the supernatural, but they are still full of people who, like me in 1973, are looking for reasons why their own experience and power are lacking, rather than being communities of people taking their divine indwelling for granted and getting on with effective witnessing and growing in holiness.

Possibly, Neo-Pentecostalism will be gradually displaced by this year’s fashionable theology, which is considerably more malign – it seems that fullness of the Spirit is not providing discernment about the evils of “Woke Church” now overtaking Evangelicalism. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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