You Are Not A Canonical Actor Or How To Avoid Nightmare Alley

Episode 8 of the Christianity Today podcast, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” illustrates the degree to which the restless, feather-swallowing (according to Luther) anti-canonical spirit has influenced modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice. The Reformation principle (if not always its practice) was the sufficiency of the Scriptures for the Christian faith and the Christian life. The Latin slogan for this was sola Scriptura. The Scriptures are enough. In the Reformation there was a recognition that everything we need for our Christian faith and life is revealed in God’s Word and expressed there explicitly or implicitly (by good and necessary inference). There was not a quest for continuing revelation. The group that sought continuing revelation was the Anabaptists. It was at least some of their theologians and leaders, as Luther, Calvin, and the Reformed saw it, who were openly dissatisfied with Scripture and sought direct, continuing revelation from the Spirit outside of Scripture.

The episode begins with the story of the Cottingly Faeries. It was a prank, “a bit of fun” put on by a couple of young girls in England, c. 1917, in which they fabricated photos ostensibly of fairies. People took the photos as accurate documents of an actual phenomenon. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories) was taken in by them. He wanted to dedicate his life to investigating the phenomenon. It is hard to believe, however, that Holmes would have been duped by them. Eventually it came out, decades later, that the fairy photos were fakes. Podcast narrator Mike Cosper notes how people are looking for spiritual footholds and a community can create what Peter Berger called “Plausibility Structures” that make claims of apostolic-like spiritual phenomena credible to reasonable people.

Mark Driscoll helped to create and then manipulated those plausibility structures within Mars Hill Church in order to create the illusion that he had genuine, apostolic or quasi-apostolic abilities. The best way to understand what was happening in Mars Hill and what is taking place today in Trinity Church, Scottsdale is to think about the 1947 film, Nightmare Alley, which was a look at the world behind the scenes of the old carnivals. Across the USA for most decades in the twentieth century there were low-budget traveling carnivals. They still exist but what has changed is the midway. At the center of the carnival used to be “the midway” where one found the freak shows, e.g., the “two-headed man” or the bearded woman. In Nightmare Alley we meet an old Vaudeville act, in which one of the performers had become an alcoholic,  that was reduced to living, traveling with, and working in a low-end traveling carnival. It was the bottom of the show-biz barrel. The premise of their act is that they were able to “see” what was happening to people and what would happen to them. It was all just an act, however.

This sort of thing still exists, in some places, on a smaller scale. In Escondido we have a “palm reader.” For a fee, ostensibly, she will look at your hand and tell your future. What the carnies did and what every palm reader or fortune teller actually does is read you. This is the key to any good con man. The moment someone, the mark, walks into a palm reader’s or fortune teller’s dimly lit parlor the con knows that the mark wants something. What she has to discern, by asking a series of questions, is to which category the mark belongs. Is the mark seeking to contact a dead relative? Is he worried about his job? Is he looking for love? She pays attention to the mark’s body language. She holds his hand to feel his pulse and temperature. She watches his eyes, which unavoidably give away your responses. Anyone who knows how to read body language can do it. It is all an illusion.

American Christians are in love with the idea that, with enough faith and the right method, we too can replicate the apostolic phenomena, e.g., glossolalia, speaking in foreign languages, heal the sick, and raise the dead. Recently I called attention to Mark Driscoll’s claim to a direct, unmediated revelation from the Lord telling him to marry his wife, plant churches, and train men for ministry. More than that, however, as episode 8 of the CT podcast illustrates, Driscoll claimed to have visions from the Lord. He claimed to have had visions of men sleeping with their secretaries etc. These he interpreted as expressions of the “gift of discernment.” For those not old enough to remember, there was a fad among evangelicals in the late 1970s, as the charismatic movement swept through the evangelical world, of spiritual gift assessment. I took the test. Like Driscoll, I too am supposed to have the “gift of discernment.” Unlike Driscoll, I have never had nor expect to have any visions or direct revelations (see the resources below). Cosper calls this response “cynical” but it is not. It is the historic Reformed response to the Anabaptist claim to apostolic authority and power.

Cosper equivocates between the miracles of resurrection and the Driscoll’s claim to be able to see visions and to cast out demons. There is no question that the Reformed believe that the Holy Spirit supernaturally operates through the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and through prayer. It would be cynical indeed to deny it. What is at question is whether Driscoll or anyone has the sort of spiritual authority and power claimed by the charismatics and pentecostals.

What Driscoll did at Mars Hill and what he seems to be doing in Scottsdale, is capitalizing on the American Christian belief that American uniqueness entitles us to replicate the Apostolic phenomena. It does not. To put it bluntly: no one today has apostolic gifts. First, no one is an apostle. No one has seen the risen Christ. No one has been immediately ordained by Christ. No one has been recognized by the other apostles and no one has actual, real, genuine, immediate apostolic authority.

I do know know of a single latter-day “apostle” who flies without the assistance of an aircraft. Of Philip Scripture says, “And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39; ESV). The Holy Spirit transported him away from the the Ethiopian. The Pentecostals cannot do that. They cannot even fake it. Creflo Dollar (could he be more obvious?) needs your dollars to buy a $70 million Gulfstream jet. Where is the Holy Spirit when Creflo needs him? Here’s another apostolic phenomenon that the Pentecostals cannot replicate:

When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it (Acts 5:5; ESV).

Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband (Acts 5:10; ESV).

These two lied to the Holy Spirit and died. Can the Pentecostals replicate this? No. Like Driscoll, they mainly claim unverifiable gifts that must be subjectively interpreted. They do not raise people from the dead but Peter did in Acts 9:40–41 but, like Driscoll they claim to cast out out demons (i.e., so-called “deliverance” ministries).

Why do evangelicals find these these claims plausible? Cosper explains it, in part, through the sense of connection that people found at Mars Hill. Doubtless this is true. People wanted to believe that something powerful was happening there, that what was transpiring was from the Holy Spirit but there is a deeper, structural reason evangelicals find the Charismatic and Pentecostal claims plausible: they see little difference between themselves and the canonical history of redemption. They see themselves as actors in the canonical story.

Driscoll has long capitalized on this hope, this wish, this dream. There are many ways in which we could think of this. My friend Warren Embree used to say that evangelicals think that they are little Christs. At the time I doubted him but over time I have realized that he was right. This is why Heidelberg 32 is so important. Christ is the anointed one. We are not. By analogy, neither are we apostles. The canon is closed. God is not speaking directly to you apart from Scripture or along side of it. Whatever God has to say today he says in Scripture. In the comments to this post someone will likely ask “but what about…? question. The answer is no. No one is receiving direct revelations from the Lord. “But what if it agrees with Scripture?” If it agrees with Scripture then why  not simply listen to Holy Scripture?”

Under the inspiration of the Spirit, the prophets and apostles recorded the history of salvation in which God, first in types and shadows and later in fulfillment, accomplished our redemption. We are recipients of that history, that story, but we are not actors in it. The Spirit illumines the Word and helps us to pray but he is not giving anyone direct revelations. The Spirit empowered the apostles to shake off snakes, to sustain stonings and drownings. With the death of the Apostle John in the AD 90s the last apostle died. We, by contrast, are mere Christians, united by the Spirit to Christ the Messiah, awaiting his return, serving the Lord, and making our pilgrimage to the heavenly city.

Americans love the idea of being canonical actors because they love what Mike Horton called “Power Religion.” Luther called those who wanted power, “theologians of glory.” Every “word of faith” and “health and wealth” preacher is a theologian of glory and not a theologian of the cross. At the moment it almost seems unfair to call them carnies, since the carnies know what they are and are not. Driscoll might even believe that he has apostolic or quasi-apostolic gifts. The Kansas City Prophets were not apostles. Dennis Bennett was not an Apostle. Topeka and Azusa Street were outbreaks of religious mania or enthusiasm. It happens. People sometimes become convinced that we are being beset by witches. The lives of some day care providers were ruined over false claims about child abuse during a panic. Indeed, we are almost certainly in a panic over the Covid virus now. In such panics, people lose their minds. They abandon their judgment to charismatic or even mediocre figures. Jim Jones and the Jonestown mass suicide happened centuries after the Enlightenment. People followed David Koresh to a fiery death outside of Waco because they were so convinced that he was receiving direct revelations from the Lord. People see and experience what they want to see and experience. People wanted to see fairies in the photos and they did but the Cottingly Fairies were fake. Mark Driscoll is a fake. If he has visions of your sex life it is not the Holy Spirit who is giving them to him. In any event you are much safer ignoring than indulging him or anyone like him.

There is spiritual warfare. There are spiritual realities. The Evil One is like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). Our battle is not with flesh and blood (e.g., with whomever occupies the White House at the moment) but principalities and powers (Eph 3:10; 6:12; Col 1:16; 2:15). Our weapon is not visions and demon-casting but prayer and the due use of the ordinary means of grace. The Evil One does not look the way Hollywood portrays him—Driscoll’s account of demons has more to do with Linda Blair than Holy Scripture. The Evil One more subtle.

Until Christians are prepared to accept their true position in the world, that of mere Christians redeemed by grace alone, through faith alone, taught by the Spirit in Scripture (and not direct revelations) they will will always been prey for the the traveling carnies of the evangelical-charismatic complex.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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2 comments

  1. “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”.

    BTW, it is interesting to remember the Camisards, french Huguenots, the distant relative of the modern Pentecostalism…

    • The Camisards weren’t mainstream Huguenots. They were radicalized by the revocation of the Edit de Nantes. They became alienated from the visible church and did what radicalized, alienated groups do. With their over-realized eschatology (a consistent feature of such groups) they turned to “prophets” and the like. Raymond Mentzer does link them to the later Pentecostal movement(s) but we shouldn’t lump the Huguenots with them.

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