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Monday, July 13, 2009

Confessions of a Heretic by Dave Hunt: a Book Review

Growing up in a Dispensational church, I had learned of Bible teacher Dave Hunt when I was in my late teens. He himself came from a Plymouth Brethren background, and as is characteristic of Brethren teachers, spent a fair bit of time teaching on issues of the end times, the subject which seems to draw most people to him. It was only sometime after having read a fair bit of his writing in his newsletters that I was told he had once claimed to have had Charismatic experiences, such as the Baptism of the Spirit and speaking in tongues, only later to deny that these things took place. He wrote of his experiences in a book called Confessions of a Heretic, which he had let go out of print after he determined he had falsely interpreted his experiences, and now spends a fair bit of his teaching criticizing Charismatic teachers. We're currently discussing Cessationism in Bible study, so since I had picked up Confessions of a Heretic a couple of years ago, I thought I would give it a read. In the midst of reading the book, I thought I would contact Mr. Hunt's ministry, The Berean Call, to see if he had in fact come to view his charismatic experiences as false. I was surprised to receive the response that Mr. Hunt saw no Biblical evidence to suggest that the more controversial gifts, such as prophecy and tongues, had passed away. His concern, the email said, is with those who carry out practices that claim to be the Biblical gifts, but which in fact are abuses and false expressions of the gifts. I doubt that many of those who read or listen to Mr. Hunt's teaching will know that he is, in fact, a charismatic of sorts.

The book itself tells of Hunt's experiences of many business-related miracles, particularly the near failing of a business he oversaw, in which God seemed to miraculously save the business repeatedly, in spite of bad business decisions, not to mention the illegal activity by Mr. Hunt of writing checks without funds backing them, on numerous occasions. Hunt goes on to tell of experiences of laying hands on his children when they were sick, only to find them suddenly and miraculously healed; the supposed experience of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as a second work of grace; Hunt's experience of speaking in tongues in private prayer; and many other seemingly miraculous events. All of these things led to Hunt's excommunication from the Brethren Assemblies, as anyone who knows the Brethren would expect. In the end, all the events appear to lead to the Hunts' moving to Europe, where the book closes.

So far as the style of the book is concerned, it reads like the typical Evangelical biography. It was an easy read, not particularly complex in sentence or narrative structure, and I finished it in a few days. Like the standard Evangelical biography, Hunt's book seems primarily concerned with communicating a series of events in an overly simplistic way, the point of which is to convey a message. In such writing, setting usually suffers, as it is mere window dressing, present only to convince the shopper to by the product featured in the display. This is Pragmatism in all its ugliness. Beyond this but connected to it, Hunt's book falls into a category I call "polemical narrative". Not only is Hunt seeking to tell of his experiences, he is attempting to make an argument through the story, particularly a defense of himself in each of the circumstances he tells of. In "polemical narrative", the desire to make an argument overwhelms the act of storytelling to the point that the art of storytelling becomes secondary to the "message" and therefore becomes substandard. Essentially, when a writer of narrative becomes more concerned with convincing the reader of a certain set of facts than creating a good story, you end up with a poorly written story. This, I would say, is a good way of explaining why writing by Evangelicals is often so bad, especially when they attempt to write fiction. For these reasons, I didn't find Hunt's book to be especially good writing. I stuck with the book because it was a nice break from some heavier reading I had been doing, and because of my curiosity about Hunt's Charismatic past. But the writing was barely engaging, and I often found it laborious to stick with it.

When it comes to the events discussed in the book, I must confess to mixed feelings. For some time in my life I held to the traditional Cessationist viewpoint with regard to miraculous gifts, but there have been questions in my mind about this viewpoint for a number of years, questions which have gradually produced significant doubt about it. I can't say that I am a Non-Cessationist at this point; certain of the traditional Cessationist arguments still carry weight for me. Nonetheless, I would not call myself a full-blown Cessationist. Simply put, it's a matter I'm studying and thinking my way through at present. If nothing else, the way that the debate has been carried out in recent history is something I believe needs revamping. Both Cessationists and Non-Cessationists tend to carry certain assumptions with them that owe more to a Newtonian, or even a Deistic, worldview than either side recognizes, the main assumption being that God stands outside of His Creation and aloof from it, only to occasionally stick His finger in to meddle with it. But this is contrary to Scripture, as demonstrated most clearly in the Psalms, and testified to in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 5. God upholds and governs all things in history, carrying them out according to His foreordained plan and for His own glory. When a person speaks in tongues, it isn't that God all of a sudden decided to step in and do something, whereas He hadn't been acting before. He is constantly at work, and if tongues are His doing, then He is simply at that moment acting in a way different than what we are used to. And if God doesn't ordain tongues for today, that doesn't mean He is generally inactive, for He is constantly at work in every corner of His universe.

There is also the matter of Rationalism, which Cessationism tends to fall into. The assumption, probably more implied than clearly stated, is that God never works through non-verbal means to communicate to people, or, at least, that non-verbal means are substandard to the point of being nearly worthless. But this is more than dubious. While it is clear that non-verbal means are not sufficient in themselves for communication, God regularly used non-verbal means to communicate in Biblical history. Therefore, to raise an objection against all non-verbal means of communication is not merely to raise an objection against non-verbal means, but against God as the One Who has seen fit at times to work this way. And to assume that God no longer works in non-verbal modes of communication since the completion of the canon of Scripture seems very clearly to contradict Scripture's own teaching on Creation and Providence.

I have been intrigued with those in the Reformed community who have either rejected Cessationism outright, or else offered the possibility of a sort of modified Cessationist view. Certain well-known names come to mind immediately, such as John Piper, Wayne Grudem, C. J. Mahaney, and Joshua Harris. But there have been others such as Vern Poythress, James Jordan, David Chilton, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Gordon Fee. Then one encounters innumerable professions of miracles, more often from what may be called the looney Charismatic fringe, but not entirely so. I think, for instance, of the occasional claim of miracles that comes from Evangelicals on the mission field. None of these things are fully convincing in my own mind. But they should at least cause one to think carefully before pronouncing all such claims as false.

Therefore when I encounter Mr. Hunt's experiences, I'm hesitant to make a declaration about them. I wouldn't doubt Mr. Hunt's record of what actually happened. But I would doubt his interpretation of the events. While I can't claim he didn't have some sort of dramatic, post-salvation experience, to go labeling it as the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" seems to be a bit presumptuous. This is apart from the fact that Scripture seems to teach very clearly that no such "baptism" is normative in history, but rather was confined to certain circumstances in the period of transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A. D. And if God worked miraculously in particular situations in Mr. Hunt's life, which it seems He apparently did, it makes more sense to consider it God working patiently with Mr. Hunt in the context of his immature presumptions and wrong understandings. Just because God saved the business Mr. Hunt was overseeing from bankruptcy, and that on many occasions, doesn't mean that it was right for Hunt to follow his feelings and the nebulous "what God seemed to be saying to him" in his decision making. It simply means that, as in many cases in our lives, God acts in our favor in spite of us more than we know.

So while I wouldn't claim to know exactly what was going on in every situation that Mr. Hunt tells of, I didn't find the book convincing enough to make me a Charismatic. Certainly, some of the circumstances are more easily explained than others. But it will take a Scriptural argument if I ever become completely convinced of the Non-Cessationist position, and Hunt's book, for the most part, doesn't provide that argument.

8 Comments:

Blogger Jason said...

Kerry,

I don't know where I am on this issue. Sometimes I consider myself a cessationist with a small "c" and other times I consider myself charismatic to some degree.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Dave James said...

Kerry,

I am wondering what you have in mind when you note that God regularly communicated in non-verbal means throughout the Bible? I assume you also mean non-visual. Are you suggesting it was some sort of direct infusion of knowledge? I'm only aware of one passage that might be understood that way with any degree of confidence (and even then I'm not sure).

(I realize this is an old post, but I just came across it.)

Dave

9:37 AM  
Blogger Dave James said...

Could you please let me know if you respond to this? I forgot to check the email followup on the previous post.

Thanks.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Kerry Lewis said...

Hi Dave,

It has been awhile since I wrote this, so I can't say exactly what I had in mind when I wrote that one paragraph. I imagine what I had in mind was things such as the symbolism in the Tabernacle and the Temple, various miracles such as the crossing of the Red Sea, the fall of Jericho, the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, and so on. Of course, those things are always accompanied by the Word, and do not stand alone. But they in themselves are non-verbal. The same is true in the Christian life, and, according to Romans 1, true to non-believers as well. All of creation, whether touched and reshaped by the hand of man or not, testifies to God, and is Him communicating something of Himself. In the Reformed tradition, of course, we emphasize the necessity of Special Revelation, i.e., Holy Scripture, for one to be saved, as distinct from General Revelation. That, there again, is Romans 1. But Luther said that if an unbeliever looks to General Revelation to find Christ, he won't find Him there. After having been saved, however, if that same person looks to General Revelation, he will see Christ in every green leaf. That is non-verbal communication, testified to even in the verbal communication of Scripture, and testifying to that which is testified to in the verbal communication of Scripture. The non-verbal is saving when accompanied with the verbal.

So no, I didn't mean non-visual, and I didn't have a direct infusion of knowledge in mind. Of course, when Charismatics speak of God giving revelation, or those who don't consider themselves Cessationists, they don't necessarily have non-verbal communication in mind either. They sometimes, at least, believe God speaks to them in their minds. That would still be verbal.

It has been a long time since I've read this post. It's an ongoing question for me, though not something I'm currently focusing on, as I've had to give my attention to other things as of late. I welcome any questions or dialogue though, so thanks.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Thanks, Kerry.

What prompted my comment was your point that cessationists tend to fall into rationalism. I am a firm cessationist and teach on this regularly (I was saved through the ministry of a Pentecostal pastor 25 years ago). However, I would not consider myself a rationalist in the least and of the many cessationists I know personally, I am not aware of anyone who would come close to fitting that description - although I realize this is a fairly common charge (with rationalism sometimes replaced with "Deism" - but with the same intent).

From your reply I would say that we agree completely on the issue of special versus general revelation and their relative efficacy in someone coming to Christ. So, given the non-verbal communication (I would prefer revelation because it is a bit less confusing) of God through the things you note, these things are anything but "nearly worthless."

So, I'm not sure this is quite a fair characterization of Cessationism - and far too much of an extrapolation of the position of most Cessationists.

Dave

So, my

11:20 PM  
Blogger Kerry Lewis said...

Let me note at first that I was speaking of a tendency toward Rationalism. This isn't to say that Cessationists are full-blown Rationalists; if they were, they wouldn't be Christian. But the tendency remains. I grew up in Evangelical churches, and have interacted with Cessationists all my life. So I stand by my statements.

On the charge of Deism, while I can see the influence there, I wouldn't call Cessationists outright Deists. The question for you and other Cessationists is whether you believe God is continually active in the world? I would assume you would say yes, and then it would just be a matter of in what ways He is active, some of which we may disagree on. Does God heal today, for instance? I'm not talking here about a laying-on-of-hands demonstration, just plain old healing. Or more properly, when a person is healed of an illness, is it God that does the healing? Or is it nature? How you answer this question makes all the difference in the world - or in the worldview.

Let me also address the question of the sovereignty of God. The question would be whether you agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith's teaching on Providence. In other words, are you a Calvinist? If not, then the influence of Deism, though I still wouldn't call you a Deist, is clearly seen. To be a true Deist in my book you would have to deny God any working in the world through time. Yet the denial of God's complete sovereignty results in the exaltation the power of Man, just as the Enlightenment did. And as all of Western culture has been shaped by the Enlightenment, particularly with regard to man's free will, its influence would be partly responsible for the position you hold.

On the issue of non-verbal communication being worthless, a real test here is how you regard the Sacraments, or, if you prefer, the Ordinances of the Church. Are Baptism and the Lord's Supper actually Means of Grace? Or are they merely symbols? If you say the latter, then you've just confirmed what I was getting at. From the Reformation onward, there was a tendency that grew rather quickly to see the Sacraments as mere symbols, signs that did nothing. The real work, it was believed, happened only in teaching and preaching - through the communication of ideas. This is demonstrated in things like infrequent observance of the Lord's Supper, and in Evangelical churches whose sermons tend to be little more than lectures on Biblical passages. There is also the tendency to reject infant baptism, and to defer to a position of believing in the notion of an "age of accountability" for children, since it is believed that they can only be saved if they understand certain logical propositions. This is in reality a denial of original sin, though it is rarely realized to be as such. You can comment on where you stand on the structure of corporate worship if you like. But the charge still stands that if you reject the belief of the Sacraments as means of grace, you are, to some degree, a rationalist.

While I have not reached a conclusion on this to the point that I would definitely consider myself a non-Cessationist, the reality still stands that this position didn't exist until after the Enlightenment. And the fact that there is a connection between the two, for good or ill, is more than obvious.

Let my lastly say that even if somehow none of this convinces you, do you think that, since this is a common charge against Cessationists, as you've noted, that perhaps there is some truth in the charge? And if you, or these other Cessationists you speak of, had any tendency toward Rationalism, what do you think would that look like?

11:32 AM  
Blogger Paul Nathan said...

Hi Kerry,

I don't know if this is relevant to you anymore - I stumbled on your blog through trying to figure out what the 'confessions of a heretic' was-

I believe that the 'spiritual gifts' conception and experience is both Scriptural and historical, as well as the 'baptism of the Holy Spirit' experience.

Feel free to contact me (if you care anymore) - my Google account should provide that mechanism. :-)

12:59 PM  
Blogger Kerry Lewis said...

Thanks Paul. It hasn't been a matter of current study, but certainly something I want to return to as opportunity arises. I would certainly entertain your thoughts, if time allows. So you might be hearing from me.

5:04 PM  

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