Why, they ask, do not those miracles, which you preach of as past events, happen nowadays?  I might reply that they were necessary before the world believed, to bring the world to believe; but whoever is still looking for prodigies to make him believe is himself a great prodigy for refusing to believe where the world believes.

St. Augustine, The City of God

 

The Vineyard movement, led by John Wimber and Peter Wagner, is a growing phenomenon and concern of our time. Just as Wimber’s Vineyard Christian Fellowship grew from fifty members in 1978 to thousands, other Vineyard churches are springing up all over the country with similar results. Though very charismatic in nature, Vineyard leaders claim to be on the crest of a totally new wave of spiritual renewal.

Three Propositions. The Vineyard movement makes at least three claims to legitimacy. First, they are the Third Wave of the Holy Spirit (the first being the Pentecostals, the second the Charismatics) which is arming the church for the last days. Second, they alone are combating Satan through ‘‘power encounters’’ (signs and wonders are the ‘‘calling cards’’ of the kingdom) as the power of God challenges the power of Satan. Third, the church of the Western culture (including the Reformers) has adopted a secular world view and needs to learn a spiritual world view from Asian cultures. The West has been guilty of an ‘‘excluded middle’’ in their world view i.e. a physical world and a heavenly world but no middle world where the two really meet.

Five Evaluations. I would make these criticisms of the material I have collected and read from Wimber and Wagner. (1) The Vineyard Movement is historically naive. Why has the Holy Spirit only challenged Satan’s kingdom in the twentieth century? The only examples we have, historically, of charismatic-type phenomena were by known heretics. To say that the twentieth century Anglo-American worldview (which has wonderfully eliminated mysticism from our normal life) is inferior to the Asian worldview (Wimber, Power Evangelism, p. 129) and, therefore, has been a great detriment to the spread of the gospel, is to not see the forest for the trees. We are being asked to return to the pre-Reformation (p.139) spiritism when demonic activity and encounters were prevalent rather than be thankful that Western Christianity has largely delivered us from such things.

(2) The Vineyard movement is spiritually anemic. In a typical attempt to grant true spirituality only to the initiates of the movement (i.e. experiencing a power encounter), it has actually reduced biblical spirituality to outward showmanship. In all the literature I read there is almost no emphasis placed on anything like the fruit of the Spirit. Those things alone leave the believer out of the Third Wave mainstream. That type of Christian evidently is not living in the real world. D. A. Carson rightly said that this spiritual view, ‘‘Represents not only the triumph of triteness, it reflects a profoundly secular worldview broken up by moments of divine intervention. That is sad; it may also be dangerous.’’ (Power Religion, p. 115).

(3) The Vineyard movement is exegetically trite. The pattern of these books is a biblical reference followed by numerous examples of power encounters with virtually (I am being careful) no exegesis of the text. In fact, Wimber approves of saying, ‘‘The historical-grammatical method is inadequate, in other words, because it does not address piety’’ (Power, p. 192). He means that biblical interpretation often gets in the way of our experiences. A typical example of this piety would be Wagner’s presentation of the four levels of faith: saving faith, sanctifying faith, possibility thinking faith and fourth-dimension faith, the last of which is a fantasy faith from Paul Yonggi Cho (Third Wave p. 37).

(4) The Vineyard movement is experientially overloaded. A major thesis of this movement is that the initiated believer receives revelations from God on a constant basis and that these experiences are equal to biblical revelation. Wagner’s words speak volumes. ‘‘In the early years . . . I focused mostly on Bible study and not enough on a personal relationship with God. . . Jesus said ‘the sheep hear his voice.’ I am beginning to distinguish the voice of God from my own thoughts and to allow him to speak to me directly. I still study the Bible but I find this other dimension of personal intimacy equally important’’ (Third Wave p. 129).

(5) The Vineyard movement is prophetically skewed. The key belief is that the kingdom of God has come (in one of its two senses) and we are battling Satan to advance God’s kingdom. It sounds almost like Catholic amillennialism. Any passage, therefore, that mentions the kingdom of God can be immediately applied to the church today. Wimber directly applies millennial prophecies like Amos 5:24 and Psa 146:7 (Power, p. 163) and any passage from the New Testament he chooses. By doing this, no room is left for a concept of pilgrims and strangers, much less suffering for the kingdom of God’s sake.

Three Major Factors. The first factor to be considered in evaluating the validity of the Vineyard movement is the nature of God’s revelation. Is it still being given even after the completion of the Bible? This is a serious question and has always been at the center of charismatic controversy. If God is indeed revealing new information to the world, it is as binding on all of us as the Bible.

The second factor to be considered is whether we are supposed to be out looking for ‘‘power encounters’’ in order to live the full Christian life. James Boice quips, ‘‘If I believed that casting out demons and performing healings was the way to do evangelism, what would I do? Either I would go around looking for a lot of demons to cast out, or I would begin to interpret demonism to include a lot of other things I encountered’’ (Power Religion, p. 128).

The third factor to be considered is the validity of miracles in the age of grace. There is more disagreement among non-charismatics on this question than the others but it must be addressed by any thinking person. It is not a question of God’s ability but of His volition.  God has the ability to flood the world tomorrow but we know it is not His will to do so. Similarly, if this is the kingdom of God, where is the lion lying down with the lamb? Am I saying I don’t believe they can? No. I am asking when such a thing will take place.

Three Options. If you have ever conversed with an experience-oriented person, you know that a major contention is between what he has experienced and what you read in your Bible. In considering the demonic and spiritual encounters of the Vineyard movement, one or more of three options seems to be necessarily true. 1) It could be that the movement is led totally by hucksters and charlatans and the so-called miraculous happenings are only staged. This may be true of some, but I don’t believe it characterizes the movement as a whole. 2) The people of the movement may be very sincere and the so-called miraculous events are normal but coincidental happenings. This is obviously more correct than they would like to admit. The so-called miracle healings usually involve head-aches, back-aches and other ‘‘invisible phenomena.’’ 3) The movement may be dealing in real occurrences with real power of the kind that Moses met in Pharoah’s magicians. Even the ‘‘good’’ power may be Satanic power disguised to deceive even the elect (this is common in scripture, see Acts 16:14-18). I think this is a real possibility.

To underestimate the power and deceptiveness of Satan is a tragic mistake. To think that he can be manipulated like a page-boy when he can sift you like wheat is deadly. Thank God the light of the gospel has delivered Christian nations and individuals from the effete life of animism and spiritism. May our goal always be to deliver, not to enslave.