The Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit’s Power

J. P. Moreland Zondervan, Grand Rapids May 5, 2007
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As Moreland, distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, ably predicts in his conclusion, the first two legs of his “triangular” call to a dramatic Christian life should not be surprising. The recovery of the Christian mind, with an emphasis on trustworthy knowledge, is refreshing, especially in the context of postmodern whimsicalness. Postmodernism, having critiqued the bankruptcy of scientific naturalism to account for human identity, dignity, and morality, has created a reality itself, a defective alternative to Christian epistemology. This discussion is typical of Moreland’s writings, though he later approvingly cites a criticism of the Western traditional church as “primarily” word- and proposition-oriented (p. 175). Perhaps he should have written “excessively” so, for he too holds that words and propositions provide the core of “trustworthy knowledge.”

In the second leg, “the renovation of the soul,” the author excels in assessing the “empty self” of a narcissistic culture. This problem, which overflows into Christian spirituality, can be significantly redressed by (a) Christian cross-bearing, (b) becoming individuals of Christian character, and (c) practicing Christian disciplines in view of a larger cause, the outworking of God’s plan in history (p. 148). Moreland does not speak of the role of the Holy Spirit in spirit-ual formation, but it is safe to assume that he is confident of the transforming effectiveness of the Scriptures and the Spirit. Heart-formation (by the Spirit, and based on the Scriptures) will precede habit-formation (by the disciplines of abstinence and engagement).

The third leg of the book, “restoring the Spirit’s power,” “may come as a shock,” Moreland says, “to many of my readers” because it is about “the supernatural power of the Kingdom and contemporary miraculous manifestations” (pp. 196–97). In the postscript he notes, “My passion in writing this book is to foment a revolution in how we do church and how we conceive of our presence in the world as Jesus’ apprentices and representatives” (p. 200). However, “revolution” seems too strong a word, when an “adjustment” may be what should be fomented, unless all of Moreland’s prior convictions are in error—something he would disavow when he speaks appreciatively of the concerns of cessationists (pp. 180–82).

This reviewer comes from India, with its vibrant, supernaturally charged religious context that is often credulously gullible in its openness to expecting God to work. The reviewer has experienced God’s extraordinary and timely provisions and seen occasional exorcisms and healings. But he has been unable to document the kinds, frequency, and effect of miracles premised in Moreland’s book—miracles of healing, demonic deliverances, resuscitations from the dead, and divine interaction through dreams, visions, words of knowledge/wisdom, and prophetic utterances. In more than thirty years of extensive ministry in more than eighty countries the reviewer has looked for reports and documentation of such phenomena across a wide spread of theological distinctives, denominational perspectives, and missiological observations, and has not been significantly surprised by a post-1980 (the author’s cited date, p. 171) intensification of God’s miraculous interventions on the mission field.

Interestingly the reviewer opened this fine book on his way to the Congo and began writing this review in Bangladesh, at large cross-denominational pastors conferences, not knowing that Moreland’s opening and closing stories are of incidents in those very nations! Stimulated by the third call of the book to “restore the Spirit’s power,” the reviewer again wanted to record and verify hearsay reports of the miraculous.

Are there more miracles occuring in the developing world than elsewhere? Yes, but this fact is not adequately argued biblically and theologically in the book in support of the supernatural power of the kingdom. It is better explained by cultural and spiritual reasons.

 In an epistemological context, where the split between earth and heaven, nature and “supernature,” ordinary and extraordinary, is not impenetrable, and in a socioeconomic context of extreme deprivation, the Christian’s first recourse (rightly) in facing any kind of obstacle (spiritual, physical, financial) is God Himself. Believers pray, they ask, and they trust the omni-competence of God, and God answers—sometimes in unimaginable, tangible, powerful ways. Of course God does not have to answer in order to prove His ability or to grow His church. He answers simply to display and express His love for His children who ask. An observable correspondence exists between asking and receiving. Presenting requests to God, in response to biblical injunctions (e.g., Matt. 7:7; John 15:7; Phil. 4:6) helps avoid self-sufficient secular schemes that drive believers to the prayer-answering God only as a last resort.

What can be learned from the non-Western church is not so much church-growth modeling and motivation by the experience of signs and wonders, but the spiritual tenacity, sacrifice, and dependence that permeates the bustling, younger churches, especially in Africa. In spite of Moreland’s reports from the Middle East, the numbers of Christians in the most difficult Muslim lands are in decline, as in the West. Suggesting that the only driving force for church growth is the miraculous weakens Moreland’s point. Moreover non-Western believers not only reveal a keen dependence on the Almighty God but also display a readiness to face suffering that hardly gets attention in the book. They teach that suffering makes a powerful contribution to the spiritual life, all without focusing on the apparently wonderful works of God. Spiritual fathers of old have argued that believers need to accept suffering, even with thankfulness, to weaken their self-obsessed spirit, and do so without stipulating how God must receive glory. One could also mention judgment miracles (e.g., Acts 5), which seem woefully absent in discussions of God’s performance on behalf of His people.

More disturbing is the facile classification of theological attitudes toward the miraculous as cessationist and noncessationist. All believers are cessationist in some ways. For example all adhere to the uniqueness of Christ (Matt. 11:27) and the uniqueness of the apostolic band of the Twelve (19:28; Rev. 21:14). Evangelicals are not like those who hold to continuous, normative revelation through any one person or body (as in, for example, Mormonism). However, all are “continuationists” in other ways. No theist can a priori rule out any interventions by God. Even the most conservative cessationists hold that miraculous events will occur in the Tribulation. The reviewer has come across some cessationists who think that the outer geographical edges of Christianity manifest the miraculous more frequently, or that a miracle-filled time will prepare the earth for the horrific final period. And yet the most ardent divine healer today still seeks to discern between the “miracles” of the Holy Spirit and those of evil spirits. A case can even be made (often by non-Christians) that miracles are more often manifested in non-Christian hands. The god-men of southern India (whether by magical or demonic practices) are (in)famous for “miracles” as remarkable as those of Christians. Then there is the greatest miracle of all, that of Jesus’ own resurrection that cannot be outdone by any Christian (or non-Christian). Also for every story of God’s spectacular intervention (p. 168), many more stories can be told of God’s apparent absence and silence, with God using the ordinary and mundane course of life, even death, to produce evangelistic fruit.

In all this one should be careful not to turn the need for the Spirit’s power into a “mandate” (author’s word, p. 172) toward divine performance. Turning the third side of the triangle into an imperative, “restore the Spirit’s power,” goes beyond what is given in the Scriptures for the Christian life and ministry. One may take exception to some of the author’s exegetical work (e.g., cross-referencing Matt. 28:18–20 with 24:14, p. 173) where the “gospel” is not explicitly mentioned in the former and verbal proclamation is the focus of the latter), or to his treatment of the “ordinary” meaning of John 14:12 (p. 174) without mentioning the next two verses, which refer to greater works, as well as prayer requests that would result in God the Father being glorified.

God’s present kingdom seems “weaker” than the author suggests. Why is it that the supernatural power of God over disease, death, and the kingdom of darkness cannot overwhelm a Western skeptical secularism into spiritual submission and church growth? Perhaps this is because the presence of Christians in the world does not guarantee the physical manifestation of God’s miraculous power. Does human salvation always result from observing the physically miraculous? The author narrates the story of some Buddhists becoming Christians because a calf was raised to health, but this result is not consistent with all examples in Scripture (e.g., those who did not believe Jesus in spite of Lazarus’ spectacular resurrection, John 11:45).

Contrary to Moreland’s view that “things are too much in control, too predictable, and too, well, American” (p. 180), many people overseas see the culture and the church in America as being out of control. This is one of the reasons non-Christians hesitate to believe American presentations of the message about Christ. Also the same “North America versus the rest of the world” feel is found in the author’s call to “North American Christians to join their brothers and sisters worldwide in engaging in the supernatural works of God’s Spirit and Kingdom” (p. 182). Unfortunately some Christians view any human peculiarity, oddity, or fleshly response as demonization. Also a flat reading of Scripture by untrained but dynamic pastoral leaders, who preach, for example, that Christians need to climb trees physically as Zacchaeus did to see Jesus, can be gently corrected by Western scholars. Certainly the normal expressions of the extraordinary are not a necessary part of Christian living and ministry.

The reviewer suggests the following counsel. First, miraculous gift-cessationists should fill their prayers with faith in God, rather than carefully guarding them with self-protective, face-saving verbiage. Prayers are not to be professional chants like those expressed by non-Christian priests. Believers’ prayers are to be vital requests to the living, Almighty God, from whom one can anticipate unimaginable responses (Eph. 3:20). Also cessationists should genuinely rejoice on hearing testimonies of the unusual and miraculous. To be skeptical at firsthand may be the legacy of a secular worldview. However, one need not apologize for seeking to be discerning. Believers should also recognize and declare God’s answers to prayers.

Second, miraculous gift-continuationists should fill their prayers with the parameters of God’s will. For example the promise of asking for a mountain to be cast into the sea (Mark 11:22–24) is tempered by Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer of willing submission to the Father’s will (14:36). Individuals ought not seek to take onto themselves the Spirit’s miraculous power but should instead humbly and simply ask for God’s provision, direction, protection, and correction. Faith is not to be viewed as a source that stimulates God to act; instead it is merely one of several means to God’s responsiveness. Nor should believers seek to manipulate God in any way. If a person follows God simply for what he can get out of Him, that too is an erroneous attempt to fill Moreland’s “empty self.” Of course God is not to be limited to public action. Nor should believers call presumption faith, for that can easily fall into divination—a non-Christian, folk religion habit in many countries. Believers should seek His face more than His hand.

All Christians, whether cessationists or noncessationists, should “expect nothing,” for they cannot obligate God. Yet they should “anticipate everything,” thereby acknowledging that God does all things, miraculous and ordinary, perceivable and imperceivable, for His glorious purposes.

—Ramesh P. Richard

April 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2009 vol. 166 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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