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|“The LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep SILENCE before him.”|
A Book Review by Samuel Joseph
Defining Deception: Freeing the Church from the Mystical-Miracle Movement (El Cajon: Southern California Seminary Press, 2018) is written by Costi W Hinn and Anthony G Wood. The subtitle of the book gives a sense of the authors’ deepest desire – to see those in the grip of the Third Wave movement “saved and appropriately living out their Christian faith according to what the Bible teaches.” Toward this end, Hinn and Wood take particular care to emphasise their intention to avoid any semblance of aggression, building on their belief that “theological error can be addressed in a way that provides clarity without hostility.” The result is a book that hopes to win a hearing among all Christians, to provoke and promote a widespread and thorough examination of the theology behind one of the most spiritually destructive forces in Christendom today.
Overview and Synopsis
Hinn and Wood restrict their attention to the Third Wave or “New Apostolic Reformation” (NAR) movement, with a particular focus on Bill Johnson and Bethel Church as key representatives of the movement. The book is not intended as a refutation of Pentecostalism as a whole, or of the continuationist position regarding the nature of the spiritual gifts present in the church today.
After spending some time on a general introduction to the issue and definition of the key terms involved, Hinn and Wood proceed to outline the precursors of the Third Wave movement: both biographically, sketching out the personages whose life and practice have been an inspiration to Bill Johnson and his cohorts; and historically, describing the events that led to the rise and spread of the now-worldwide movement. Subsequent chapters attempt to deal more particularly with Bill Johnson and Bethel Church, examining their associations with other prominent figures of the NAR, their manipulative strategies, and their aberrant doctrines.
Introduction to the Third Wave
In the first chapter the authors outline the seriousness of the issue at hand, drawing on their own pastoral experience of the effect of Third Wave theology on a generation of youths across the world. Young people yearning for an encounter with God more radical than that provided by “stuffy” traditional church services are easily swayed by the promise of miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit, and the emotional high accompanying such signs, wonders, and tongue-speaking. The authors show that “miracle manipulation” of this kind is by no means new. Examples may be found in Scripture (Simon the sorcerer, in Acts 8) as well as church history (from Montanus in the second century to the “ecclesiastical trickery” exposed by Erasmus in the 16th).
Clearly the concept of a “miracle” is key to this discussion, and the authors thus attempt a definition. Here the major weakness of the book becomes apparent, however, as the definition offered is somewhat confused. Miracles are initially defined as distinctive phenomena attributable only to God, yet coming either indirectly or directly through an authorized agent; phenomena observable by man, and attentiongrabbing, yet clearly pointing to something greater. This indeed seems to be a reasonably complete and serviceable definition — but it is immediately followed by “a simple way of saying it” which essentially reduces a miracle to nothing more than God working counter to the laws of nature. Confusion arises here because the authors intend their definition to serve as a “litmus” for examining the claims of the NAR — but their second definition is far too loose for such a purpose.
Sadly, the confusion only continues as the authors assert that one strength of their definition is that it “doesn’t cross into deism” — but surely any admission of the miraculous would by definition avoid “crossing into deism.” Hinn and Wood further assert that another strength of their definition is its recognition of God’s “ongoing providential guidance” — but neither of their definitions actually cover God’s providential activity. The authors’ aim is to emphasise the vast difference between the miraculous claims of the NAR and the miraculous chronicle of the New Testament — but it appears, to this reviewer at least, that a good deal more clarity is needed: especially on so central and definitive a point as this.
Precursors of the Third Wave
Hinn and Wood give the background of the Third Wave first biographically, focusing particularly on those individuals publicly revered by Bill Johnson. The authors are keen to point out that their intention is not simply to be judgmental, or to smear the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement as a whole, but to evaluate these teachers and their teachings in accordance with the biblical principle of “keeping teachers accountable.” Not just the doctrines, but the character of these men and women is examined: again, in light of biblical qualifications given for church leaders. Nor is this a dispassionate evaluation – Hinn and Wood confess to being “heartbroken” at the millions who have been led astray from the truth.
The leaders dealt with in this section comprise such notables as Charles F Parham, William Seymour, Smith Wigglesworth, Aimee Semple McPherson, Kathryn Kuhlman, William Branham, Oral Roberts, and Kenneth Hagin. In each case, both doctrinal aberrations and deficiencies of character are briefly noted. The authors helpfully trace the links between these individuals in terms of the development of the modernday “prosperity gospel” and “word of faith” theology. They show how what began with tonguesspeaking moved into strange manifestations of ecstatic behaviour; then into a focus on miraculous healing; and from there the additional teaching that God wanted everyone to be wealthy as well as healthy. The authors also bring out the more practical links between these “heroes” of Charismatism, in terms of the development of such things as service order and various tactics for manipulation. Hinn and Wood end with a sobering call to Christians to arm themselves for the defence of the gospel, in light of the staggering extent of this deception.
Following on from this biographical approach, the authors trace the historical split within the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, resulting in the formation of the Third Wave or NAR. Hinn and Wood describe how the holiness movement of the 19th century gave rise to Pentecostalism in its initial form, leading eventually to the socalled “Charismatic Renewal” of the mid20th century. From this grew the Third Wave, led by men such as C Peter Wagner and John Wimber. In contrasting the views of these two men, the authors attempt to show that Wimber, along with the more “mainstream Pentecostal denominations,” is actually more “biblically responsive” (ie, he is willing to speak out publicly against unbiblical practices) than most of what is now the NAR. As a result, Wimber’s false views are largely overlooked by the authors, although Wagner’s views on apostleship receive a substantial critique. Another issue of clarity arises here as Hinn and Wood appear almost to defend Wimber, asserting rather obscurely that he is not a heretic, although guilty of many “Third Wave errors.”
Associations of the Third Wave
In this section the authors document some of the connections between Bill Johnson and other leaders in the Third Wave movement: namely Benny Hinn, Todd Bentley, and Todd White. In each case, the authors show the common practice within this movement of leaders endorsing and promoting one another. Along with increasing profits for each ministry, such a practice also allows for a sordid cycle of scandal and restoration, by providing a way to recover from otherwise fatal blows to their respectability.
The particular case of interest here is the subsection dealing with Benny Hinn, since one of the authors (Costi Hinn) is in fact Benny Hinn’s nephew, and has personally worked with him in many of his miracle crusades. After describing at some length the personal struggles faced in trying to rescue family members from deception, the authors outline the false teachings and deceptive practices of Benny Hinn, as well as his connection with Bill Johnson – without going into the kind of detail that personal experience might allow (almost the only exception to this is a personal anecdote meant to illustrate the “love of money” that forms the motivation behind Benny Hinn’s ministry).
The authors do, however, make the important point that putting aside the sensational antics, “Christians need to focus on examining the evidence of [Benny Hinn’s] words.” In this regard, the authors mention some of Benny Hinn’s false teachings, including the doctrine that men can be like God, and the ancient heresy that the Holy Trinity actually comprises “nine distinct persons” (with God the Father consisting of three persons; likewise the Son and the Spirit). In the face of such evidence, the authors emphasise the need for discernment in evaluating ministries and their associations.
Strategies of the Third Wave
Hinn and Wood undertake to expose the manipulative strategies of Bill Johnson and his ilk; strategies that help to explain the phenomenal success (from a worldly perspective) of such teachers. The authors identify the promise of pleasure and prosperity as a major factor in Johnson’s ministry, and in response state clearly and strongly that anyone preaching a gospel that focuses on material rewards is preaching a message not from God.
Once again, however, much more clarity is needed in Hinn and Wood’s analysis of Johnson’s methods. For instance, the authors present an extract of one of Johnson’s sermons, and call the reader’s attention to the “various false analogies” used — but these are not clearly pointed out and refuted; instead, the reader is merely given a list of the assumptions made by Johnson in his sermon. Johnson’s misinterpretation of Psalm 91:4 is cited as an example of his not taking the Bible literally — but in fact Johnson uses this verse to support the literal covering of his congregation with feathers; in other words, he takes the verse too literally. This is also the only substantial example given of Johnson’s misapplication of Scripture.
Hinn and Wood do draw attention to Johnson’s use of modern technology and social media to globalise his reach and appeal: particularly his use of modern music via his band “Jesus Culture” and his founding of several educational institutions – but given that the centre of all this lies in Johnson’s mishandling of the Word of God, this reviewer cannot help feeling that this section of the book sorely lacks depth. [To be continued...]
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