In a post Using Reason to Judge Revelation Henry Neufeld asks an interesting question:
The problem is that if God reveals something to you that you cannot know in any other way, by what means do you determine that it is true?
The following is the main part of a comment I made on that post, addressed to Henry:
But the way you answer [this question] shows a lot about how you think. You seem to assume that the truth of a statement about God, or at least about the Bible being inerrantly inspired by God, can and should be demonstrated by human methods and reason. This is a fundamental presupposition of Enlightenment liberalism, but not of biblical Christianity. The biblical or at least pre-Enlightenment approach to such questions is rather that they should accepted by faith. I understand the objections to that approach taken on its own.
But to me there is another basic aspect to this which you do not mention, and that is the link between knowledge and relationship. If your wife tells you something, I hope that you don’t require that she demonstrates the truth of it to you, but that you accept it on trust because you know her and trust her. And if you get a message which purports to be from her, you can very often recognise whether it really is from her or not from the language and tone – and if it is not [clear] you can call her and ask. On the same basis, I have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Because of this I am in a good position to recognise whether any message purporting to be from him actually is, from whether it ties up with his character. And if I am unsure I can ask him in prayer and trust him to guide me by his Holy Spirit about whether it is true or not. So I don’t need any external demonstration of whether the message is genuine or not.
This does not completely resolve the issue of “how can one possibly tell the difference between divine and demonic?” But it does imply a consistency: either I have a genuine relationship with God and can know the truth about what he says from him; or (as some people have suggested in response to my defence of Todd Bentley) my relationship is really entirely with demons which are deceiving me. At this point I have to go back either to the Bible or to general revelation about morality, and appeal to them to argue that the good things that come out of my relationship show that it is with God and not demons.
I thought it was worth turning this into a post here because I think it illustrates a basic difference between my approach to Todd Bentley and that of most of the critics of Todd that I have been interacting with on this blog and elsewhere. No, this is not another post about Todd (and I will not allow comments here which are just about Todd and his ministry), but it is about how Christians can discern what is from God and what is not – in matters both of personal guidance and of whether to endorse or criticise ministries like Todd’s.
As I see it, the majority of the critics of Todd who claim to be applying “discernment” to him are in fact using Enlightenment principles of rationalism to reason for themselves an answer to this question. Now I don’t want to discount human reason and Enlightenment principles. They have led to major advances in understanding of this world and great scientific and technological discoveries which have mostly benefited humanity. But I do not consider Enlightenment rationalism to be helpful in discerning the ways of God.
The Enlightenment has given rise to two diverging streams of Christian thinking about God, both of which I consider to be fundamentally wrong.
The first, the more consistently based in Enlightenment thinking, rejected all kinds of appeals to authority including that of the Bible in favour of a thorough-going rationalism in enquiry about the divine, and about the events recorded in the Bible. This is basically theological liberalism. I understand this approach because I used to share its underlying worldview, but I have moved away from it.
In a second stream of theological thinking based on the Enlightenment all authorities were rejected, at least in principle, except for one, that of the Bible. The Bible was taken to be authoritative and inerrant, not really on any rational grounds (although sometimes rather weak rationalistic defences of it are put forward) but essentially as an axiom, something which cannot be proved but has to be assumed. The Bible was also read as a set of propositions about God and what he does. From these propostions were developed, using Enlightenment principles of reason, the system of theological thought labelled as “evangelical” and “fundamentalist”.
I prefer the label “fundamentalist” here because, it seems to me, all Christian fundamentalists think like this, whereas this is only one of a range of approaches taken by people who call themselves evangelical. OK, maybe it is also because I want to use a slightly pejorative label for a way of thinking I reject, rather than a label which I accept for myself. These are more or less the same people who I have called Bible deists and whose approach to studying the Bible I have previously criticised.
To be fair to at least some of the evangelicals and fundamentalists who think like this, they might be arriving at their axiom that the Bible is authoritative by the kinds of method that I outlined in my comment quoted above. This is basically the “Reformed” position as I understand it. It is also the fundamental reason why I find myself believing that the Bible is authoritative, although not inerrant on matters e.g. of science and history which it does not intend to address. But I would differ from fundamentalists in applying the principle of knowing what is true through a relationship with God much more widely than to the axiom of biblical authority.
I had written most of the above when I came across Nick Norelli’s review of what Roger Olson has to say about conservative and post-conservative evangelicalism. I think Olson is trying to make the same kinds of distinctions that I am, and he follows McGrath in showing how conservative evangelicalism, basically what I have called fundamentalism, is dependent on the Enlightenment. I’m not sure whether my own position, in Olson’s categories, is more pietistic or more post-conservative. I accept Nick’s criticisms of some directions in which post-conservatism might go, especially into anti-intellectualism, and I certainly don’t want to go there.
Some of the criticisms of Todd Bentley which I have read have come from the theologically liberal camp; I would put Doug Chaplin‘s and Jim West‘s critiques in this category. These are people who are fundamentally sceptical about claims of miraculous healing because this does not fit within their essentially rationalistic and materialistic worldview. I have some sympathy with their position because I too struggle with accepting the place of the miraculous in my worldview – but I know that I have to because I have seen with my own eyes (quite apart from Todd Bentley’s ministry) the evidence that prayers are answered and miraculous healing takes place today.
But most of the criticisms of Todd I have seen have come from people apparently following the fundamentalist way of thinking, that is, applying Enlightenment methods of reasoning, although often rather incompetently, to the Bible understood as a set of propositional truths. To this many critics add another axiom, or perhaps they claim to deduce this from the biblical text, that God cannot do anything which is not explicitly described in the Bible. So when they find Todd saying or doing things which are not exactly in line with the scheme they have deduced from the Bible text, they denounce him as a heretic and false teacher. They absolutise their own rationalistic theological system and don’t allow even God to do anything which does not fit within it.
Sometimes these people ask me how, when I defend Todd against certain charges, I can be so sure that I am correct. They expect me to answer them according to their own principles of Enlightenment rationalism. Well, sometimes I am able to do so, by appealing to the basic principle of Enlightenment scholarship that one argues from the facts – and unlike many of them I make some efforts to get the facts right, whether about what is written in the Bible or about what Todd has said or done.
But very often the only answer I can give to these critics is one which they seem unable to understand, because within their thoroughly Enlightenment worldview they have no concept of how God can communicate with people today – even while in principle believing that he did so in Bible times. My answer is that I have a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit, made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that it is because of that relationship that I am able to recognise when God is at work, even in apparently unlikely places. To that I could also add that I have a relationship with others, such as my pastor and his wife, who have a closer relationship with God than I do and help me to recognise when God is at work. In this way, and not through reasoning from Bible verses, I have been able to discern that, despite some less than perfect teaching and practices, God is indeed at work in and through Todd Bentley. And, gradually and always provisionally, I am able to discern what else God is saying to his church, and in particular to me.
NOTE: I repeat that I will not allow comments on this post which are just about Todd Bentley and his ministry without addressing the main issues of this post.