Friday, March 11, 2005

Surprised by the Power of the Spirit?

This book was given to me by Bill Lees and the mission support guys at Wycliffe Baptist Church. It tells the story of professor Jack Deere's journey from cessationism to charismatic theology in the 1980s, leading to his dismissal from Dallas Theological Seminary and a move into the Vineyard Church.

The charismatic theology Deere teaches centres on the ongoing presence of miraculous healing in the church today, and some comment on prophecy - which a later book expands. Through the ministry of John White (author of The Fight), Jack Deere encountered healing and deliverance for the first time in the late 1980s. This, he tells, led him to examine the Bible afresh, and also to meet Vineyard founder John Wimber who influenced him greatly.

Deere outlines many of his newfound concerns about his prior cessationist theology along with many of the concerns people have about charismatic theology. His declared intent is to examine scripture on his own terms, admitting that experience influences both his new charismatic theology, and his prior theology. His observations on Dallas interview processes, challenging students to found their convictions (such as the deity of Christ) in scripture rather than tradition are provocative.

One argument is often stated in the book. Deere argues that a new believer left in a locked room with a bible would conclude that the miraculous is a normal part of Christian life. This thesis seems compelling but also slightly flawed. As one who believes in the value of scholarship and the ministry of teachers (as presumably Deere does) I'm reluctant to presume a new belivers conclusions to be entirely correct! It's not entirely impossible but neither is it guarenteed.

Deere directs us to examine the Scriptures for ourselves to find our theology there. This is something we all ought to do on all matters. The danger with books that instruct in good bible handling is that we trust them too easily. Deere's words ought to be tested in the berean style he commends. Deere is honest about the abuses of the miraculous in the church, but one wonders 12 years after he wrote is book, whether many have heeded his words. My own experience of the charismatic movement, has been of much enthusiasm and less caution.

Suprised by the Power of the Spirit was written in 1993 (notably, pre-Toronto) and I can't comment on any of Deere's other theology or works since, but this book is one of the most careful examinations of the issue I've seen. It is encouraging to see Deere's experience tested against scripture since this is not always the case. I was also encouraged to see God's transforming lives in the stories he tells.

As with all Christian books it should be weighed and tested against the Bible. A cursory google search indicates that many vigorously disagree with Deere and they should be listened to. Whilst Deere makes many careful arguments from scripture there are others texts that I would have appreciated further discussion of which were merely cited, and other overlooked.

Inevitably, as someone whose theological position has changed radically, Deere is hailed a hero by many and a heretic by others. The benefits of his book will (ironically) vary by experience. Some will find his story useful to ground their experience in scripture. Others who are suspicious of the charismatic movement may find it helpful to at least understand more of the issues invoved and hear him out.

I'm not entirely convinced by his case, but I find that Surprised by the Power of the Spirit offers much helpful insight. Reading the book has awakened me again to both study the scriptures more intently, and to look for the Holy Spirit's power at work in my daily life and those around me.

Further reading:
Sam Storms on Divine Healing
"Are Miraculous Gifts for Today" edited by Wayne Grudem, in which Sam Storms writes the third wave view that Deere supports whilst interacting with Cessationist, Cautious and Pentecostal views.

What frustrates me about books such as Deere's is not so much they desire to see God miraculously at work. I sympathise, and actually agree that God is miraculously at work in his church. What sadly seems absent in the desire to seek miracles is any emphasis on those works that strike me as most displaying God's power through the Holy Spirit.

1. The Spirit as the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (Galatians 3v14) to bring the presence of God to dwell with sinners because of Jesus death.
2. The power of the Spirit to give boldness to speak about Jesus to the world that remains under God's judgement until they repent and believe in him(Luke 24v45-49, Acts 1v8).
3. The power of the Spirit to fight against the sin in my life (e.g. Galatians 5v16-17) which I need far more than any healing or miracles. In fairness to Deere he does address this a bit, but too often sin is viewed as something that hinders full-life rather than the terrible offense to God that it actually is.
4. The Spirit who inspired the Bible. Whilst I accept prophecy as ongoing in the church it pains me when we think it more likely that we'll hear God there than when God's Word is read and preached. The old word is still God speaking.

A theology of the Spirit that builds from here remains centred upon the gospel and can never get caught in excesses that distract from the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ultimately the Spirit must direct our attention to him, and if our vision is on him and hearing his word then we'll be on the right track!


  1. 'Ultimately the Spirit must direct our attention to [Christ]'

    Absolutely... I see far too much prayer focused on healing not for the glory of God, but as a convenience store open for believers.

    Yes, God loves us and gives us great things, but without a primary focus on the glory of God, our prayer is lopsided...

  2. Interesting post. OK, I'll admit it - I'm a cessationist, so I am biased. But I rather suspect that charismatics can't read the scriptures 'in their own terms'. Let's face it, who can - we all have our prejudices. But it's important that we know what they are.

    I do take issue with the idea that you can put a new Christian in a closed room and he/she will get to the truth. I don't know where this idea comes from. It rather suggests that the church does not need to be gifted with teachers and preachers. This goes to show that though everyone at least has the potential (from our perspective) to accurately exegete scripture, not everyone has the ability or the work ethic!

  3. Hi Stephen,
    You're welcome with your bias! Deere's "closed-room-new-believer" thesis is fatally flawed... even though I do agree with some of his conclusions. At the end of the day, just because a doctrine is believed doesn't make it true.

    We are in desperate need of gifted teachers and preachers... There's a spiritual gift to get excited about and to earnestly seek for the church today.

    It's one of the things I find refreshing in my church, having a leader who is determined to develop gifts in his congregation - particularly when it comes to teaching/preaching.

    Do drop by again!

  4. Well now, here's a strange situation - I must join the consensus. The idea that you can develop and live your faith in a closed system is very mistaken in my view. Privitised religion, without the insights and carefully explored traditions of a faith community context, can so easily go awry. At the very least Church tradition offers a calibration to some of the wilder excesses, though further it can provide helpful guidence, lessons, stories, and insight along the faith journey...

  5. Some thoughtful comments. I think i'd agree partly with both the further reflection, and Paul's subsequent remarks that the power of the Spirit should focus our attention on Christ. However, in scripture, it's kind of like that but not quite. Jesus often preached the kingdom message, and then demonstrated the power of the kingdom in the form of the miraculous. This swept aside resistance to the Word, and resulted in people turning to Christ. Whilst you may not agree with his theology, Wimber's 'Power Evangelism' describes this quite well. Incidentally, Wimber was also formerly a cessationist, and a very conservative theologian. Read 'The Radical Middle'...

    With the whole closed-room & Bible metaphor, I don't think Deere was commenting on their beginner's ability or lack thereof to exposit scripture, or that someone would come to faith there: he assumes they already know Christ. Rather the point he makes is that someone as yet unprejudiced by the theological slant of their home church would probably conclude that the miraculous was not out of the ordinary in a Christian life. Didn't Christ say you will do all these things and more (John 14:12)?

    There is nothing, however, to suggest that we should be able to do these things, but I would venture to suggest that it is our Western modernistic and scientific mindset that informs us it's impossible. Someone living in a society with an animist culture wouldn't bat an eyelid at it. Whilst there's nothing in explicit in scripture to suggest that spiritual gifts extended beyond the closing of the canon, there's nothing to deny it either. I'd merely point to the evidence and the fruit that has been grown. If good fruit is produced, then the Bible says...

    I do agree that some people go OTT with the whole emphasis on spiritual gifts, but equally, others do not give them the attention they deserve. It's like going out to battle with half your gear missing (2 Cor 10:4).