Sunday, December 7, 2014

Jonathan Edwards: Excellence in Proclamation


by Michael R. Burgos Jr.

M. A. Noll has described him as “America’s greatest evangelical theologian, and perhaps the greatest of any variety.”[1] Stephen Lawson has called Edwards, “A towering figure of enduring importance…[he] remains a trusted voice that speaks to the present day church with authority and gravity.”[2] Even some 256 years after his death, his works remain widely studied both academically and devotionally.

Edwards was educated at the newly established Yale College, and he began his call at the Congregational Church at Northampton, Massachusetts. The academic rigor he exhibited under formal study paled in comparison to that which he accomplished while serving in the pastorate. Edwards is said to have “commonly spent thirteen hours, every day, in his study.”[3] There he consumed the Scriptures with an unbridled thirst. “Edwards maintained daily set times for prayer, when it was probably his custom to speak aloud.”[4] He viewed the study of Scripture and prayer as a divinely appointed means of survival. In what is nothing less than a classic example of his preaching he stated, 
“The neglect of the duty of prayer seems to be inconsistent with supreme love to God also upon another account, and that is, that it is against the will of God so plainly revealed.—True love to God seeks to please him in everything, and universally to conform to his will.”[5]
For Edwards, there was not a separation between that which he studied and that which he lived. He was a Calvinist, and as such he viewed the pulpit as the place in which he was charged to extol the excellences of Christ that he fed upon in his personal study. Murray has noted,
“His view of his public work as a calling to speak to men in the name of God was inseparable from his conviction that the first demand in such a calling was that his own knowledge of God should be personal and first-hand. He knew that the command of Christ that men should be evangelized could not be fulfilled without obedience to another command, ‘When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut thy door to pray unto thy Father which is in secret.’”[6]
Hence, for Edwards the proclamation of the Word of God was both duty and devotion; a divinely given charge and a delight-some endeavor to drink deeply of the joy found in Christ. 

To understand what marks Edwards as communicator par excellence, one must begin at the depth to which he pursued joy in Christ. His Religious Affections is an even handed biblical exposition joined with a relentlessly logical appeal to the praxis of the contents therein. In this volume he explicates his motivations:
“God is the highest good of the reasonable creature; and the enjoyment of him is the onlyhappiness with which our souls can be satisfied.—To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean.—Therefore it becomes us to spend this life only as a journey towards heaven, as it becomes us to make the seeking of our highest end and proper good, the whole work of our lives; to which we should subordinate all other concerns of life. Why should we labour for, or set our hearts on, anything else, but that which is our proper end, and true happiness?”[7]
Truly, for Edwards, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”[8]

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Life Changers Church International and Pastor Gregory Dickow

by Michael R. Burgos Jr.

Gregory Dickow
Gregory Dickow was born on September 18, 1964 in Detroit, Michigan. He was reared in a non-religious middle-class family. After having lost a friend to suicide, Dickow began a search for meaning and fulfillment in his life.[1] Initially, Dickow attempted to utilize drugs and alcohol as a means of fulfillment. However after having become addicted,[2] he discovered that drug and alcohol abuse provided a feeling of emptiness.[3] At the age of 17, Dickow was invited to attend a bible study,[4] and during that meeting Dickow became a Christian.[5]

Thereafter, Dickow “began answering the call of God on his life by attending Western Michigan University with the express purpose of evangelizing the lost.”[6] He earned a baccalaureate degree in Public Relations, and claims to have spent his summers “on the mission fields of Asia, making disciples and training leaders.”[7] Dickow claims to have established an on-campus church during his time at Western Michigan University.[8] 

In December of 1988 Dickow married Mary Grace Gattone. In 1993 Gregory and Grace Dickow planted Life Changers Church International in Elk Grove, IL. While LCCI began in a school gymnasium, it now has a membership of approximately 3000, operates a K-12 school, and is headquartered in a 30 million dollar facility in Hoffman Estates, IL. Pastor Dickow also operates a national television ministry in which his program is broadcast six days a week on four different networks, reaching “over 900 million households weekly.”[9]

LCCI is a non-denominational church which fits within the broad spectrum of Pentecostal Evangelicalism. There is much to appreciate in the statement of faith provided on the LCCI website.[10] However, the church has some distinctive teachings which are unbiblical and extremely problematic. Like many teachers that affirm biblical Christianity in their literature, in practice Pastor Dickow’s teachings distort the gospel, the biblical model for Christian living, and the bible’s teaching on faith. 

The Bible’s Teaching on the Gospel and the Christian Life

In 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, the Apostle Paul explicitly identified that the gospel as the message “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” Paul stated that the gospel is the “Power of God for salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Moreover, Jesus and his Apostles taught that while those who believe in him have eternal life (John 5:24), the life of the believer is one which is marked by trials (James 1:2), suffering (1 Peter 2:21), and tribulation (John 16:33). Scripture states quite clearly that, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). 

What Does Pastor Dickow Teach?

Like many popular televangelists, Dickow teaches the prosperity gospel;[11] a teaching wherein its adherents don’t merely receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life purchased by the work of Christ, but also a life of good health, financial prosperity, and relational well-being.

Dickow teaches that because God has entered into a covenant with Christians, Christians then have “the right to place a demand on that covenant.”[12] He teaches that Christians need to take the initiative and place a demand upon God for the various benefits of this covenant. Dickow claims that when Jesus went to the cross, he purchased freedom for Christians from the curses of financial lack, emotional problems, family problems, sickness and disease, terrorism, fear, failure, and defeat.[13] Thus, by virtue of God’s covenant, Christians have a right to freedom from these curses. Even more, Dickow has stated that, 
“he became poor on the cross that we through his poverty might be made rich. So, when I am lacking something in my life, I take up the cross daily and I say, today I take up the cross I declare…that I have what I need, I declare that sickness is finished, that depression is finished, that sickness is finished, that need is finished…”[14]
To Dickow, intrinsic to the work of Christ upon the cross is the promise of complete prosperity, financial or otherwise in the here and now. 

Dickow’s claims are not only the opposite of what Scripture teaches regarding the work of Christ, they mislead people into thinking that Christianity is a cure-all for the troubles of this world. The Apostle Paul taught that Christians ought to expect affliction in this world, and that through enduring suffering, Christians receive character and hope (Romans 5:3-4). In fact, if one were to compare the paradigm of Christian living being taught at LCCI with the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul, one would have to conclude that Paul was a colossal failure. Rather than declaring that “No curse of sickness and disease can dwell in my body or in my life,”[15] Paul sought for healing and was told by God,“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The Apostle’s life was marked by many trials and sufferings, and it was in his weakness God’s power was demonstrated. 

Dickow teaches that the way in which someone receives the aforementioned benefits is by engaging positive thinking and confession. That is, one must speak and think positively to enact the work of Christ. Dickow stated, “Use your words to direct the outcome of your life.”[16] In order to obtain the blessings of God, Dickow claims that Christians must literally speak blessings to one’s circumstances, effectively placing total control of one’s circumstance with man.[17] With Dickow’s theology, you are responsible for your circumstances, whether good or bad. Meanwhile, the bible teaches that while man is responsible for his actions, it is God who is sovereign, and it is he who ordains whatsoever comes to pass (Lamentations 3:37; Proverbs 16:9; Ephesians 1:11).

Furthermore, Dickow teaches that if a Christian is in need, the correct response is to give God a seed gift “to get God involved in your situation.” [18] According to Dickow one of the primary ways to “reverse the curse” of original sin is to “give a sacrificial gift to God.” [19] Thus, Dickow has created a gospel wherein the work of Christ is not effective until man gives God a gift. By contrast, God according to his own will has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:3). 

In addition to his unbiblical gospel and view of Christ’s work, Dickow also adheres to a give to get scheme. Dickow stated,
“There are very few pressures or points of contention in our lives worse than financial pressure and financial lack…God never intended for you to live this way. Jesus said in John 10:10, ‘The thief does not come except to steal and to kill and to destroy. I have come that they may have life and that they may have it more abundantly.’ You see God is a God of abundance. His name is El Shaddai, which translated means ‘The God of MORE THAN ENOUGH!’ Though the world may have a shortage, your company may have a shortage, your savings account may have a shortage, your checkbook may have a shortage—God never has a shortage!”[20]
Dickow went further to finish this teaching by telling his readers that to enact God’s abundance in their lives, they need to “Start by giving something away,” and to purchase his book and his “Financial Freedom Package.”[21]

Conclusion

In Summary, there are some things to praise in the ministry of Life Changers Church International and Pastor Dickow. However, there is also much to rebuke. Dickow teaches another gospel; a gospel that places its emphasis not on the Son of God, but rather on benefits never promised in Scripture. Dickow has an incorrect understanding of the sovereignty of God, and the role of man. Rather than teaching that God is working all things according to his will, Dickow teaches that “You are in charge! You are in control! “[22], Pastor Dickow does not meet the biblical qualifications for a pastor (Titus 1:9), and therefore he ought to be removed from church leadership. The members of Life Changers Church International need to embrace the biblical gospel of repentance and faith in the crucified and risen Christ, and they need to act like the Bereans who were “noble minded” because before embracing a teaching they tested it with the Scriptures to see if what they were being told was true (Acts 17:11). 
___________________________________________________

[1]Christian Broadcasting Network, "The Testimony of Gregory Dickow," http://www.cbn.com/tv/1416907341001, see segment 00:27-1:07. 
[2] See http://store.gregorydickow.org/aboutus.asp, (Last accessed: 01/11/14).
[3] Dickow CBN Testimony, see segment 1:12-1:39.
[4] Ibid, see segment 1:40-3:25. 
[5] Gregory Dickow, “Pastor Dickow’s Personal Confession,” Gregory Dickow (Blog), May 2006, http://gregorydickow.blogspot.com/2006/05/you-will-receive-power-to-be-changed.html, , (Last accessed 01/11/14).
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid. See also http://www.thepowertochangetoday.com/, (Last accessed: 01/11/14). 
[8] Ibid.
[11] The prosperity gospel is the message espoused by those who affirm what is known as Positive Confession Theology, also known as the Word-Faith movement. The prosperity gospel is essentially the teaching that included within the work accomplished by Christ, Jesus secured a life of physical, relational, and fiscal blessing and prosperity. However, integral to this doctrine is the belief that these blessings can only be accessed by a verbal affirmation of their receipt prior to their actualization (i.e., a positive confession). See Stanley M. Burgess and Eduard M. Van Der Maas eds., The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charasmatic Movements, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 992-994.
[12] Gregory Dickow, “Placing a Demand on the Covenant,” The Power to Change Today, Dec. 29, 2013, 6:50-7:09, http://www.itbn.org/index/detail/lib/programs/sublib/Gregory+Dickow/ec/J1czBiajpc8aS5F6htsZvF2Nx3swuRoT, (Last accessed: 01/11/14).
[14] Gregory Dickow, “Redeemed From The Curse: How To Live In Your Covenant Blessings!,” The Power to Change Today, Aug. 26, 2012, 10:30-11:05, http://www.itbn.org/index/detail/lib/Networks/sublib/TBN/ec/9nbzdxNTrFR5ewRkjoiPANn2DJEoF_lb, (Last accessed: 01/11/14).
[15]Gregory Dickow, Healing, http://www.lifechangerschurch.com/component/content/article/82-confessions/144-healing, (Last accessed: 01/11/14).
[16] Ibid. Similarly, Dickow wrote, 
“The words of the Bible are described as the seeds that, when planted, will surely produce the satisfied life. You can truly be happy and confident, for your abundant future lies within your hands.” 
Gregory Dickow, The Power to Change Today: Simple Secrets to the Satisfied Life, (New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, 2009), 172.
[17] See Gregory Dickow, “The Power of Spoken Blessing,” The Power to Change Today, Nov. 13, 2011.
[19]Gregory Dickow, Reverse and stop the Curse in YOUR LIFE Today, http://www.lifechangerschurch.com/watch-mainmenu/practical-help-teachings/80-life-solutions/87-reverse-and-stop-the-curse-in-your-life-today, (Last accessed: 01/11/14).
[21] Ibid.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Some Thoughts on Formal Theological Education and Accreditation

by Michael R. Burgos Jr.

Endeavoring to acquire an education from a Christian institution of higher learning can be a rather contentious pursuit. The prospective student must carefully identify and consider his or her educational goals, family life, church service, and fiscal outlook. Based upon these considerations, a set of criteria is formed which serves as the concept or mold of the ideal school.

The wise student forms this mold around realistic and biblical criteria. This is especially true for someone who is given to the care and nurture of a family. Obviously, Christians ought not abandon an obligation to their family to enter into school. Nor ought one plunge willfully into a substantial amount of debt to gain a Christian education. The great irony is that many believing persons do just that. Myriads of God's people become willfully enslaved to lenders (Proverbs 22:7), ignoring God's principles regarding the wise stewarding of his resources.

In my own pursuit of a Christian education, I've considered these things. I realized a call to ministry in my own life and I have sought an education accordingly. I found that the institution that fits my mold of of the ideal school is hard to come by. As a full time employee and the sole provider for a large and growing family, an expensive traditional education was ruled out from the start. Having no suitable institution nearby, I decided upon utilizing distance education. However, as I began to parse through the almost endless number of Christian colleges and seminaries that have a distance program, I noticed an abundance of schools that lacked an accreditation recognized by either the United States Department of Education (USDE, or USED if you like...), or The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Initially I enrolled in an accredited secular institution via distance so as to complete the general education courses required by virtually all reputable colleges and seminaries. I have taken courses using both traditional classroom learning and distance learning. I've taken classes in the "hard" sciences and the humanities in both formats. What became rather evident during this time was the profound differences between the two. Distance courses are far more dependent on the study of text books and other literature. I have found that they also typically require more writing and research and hence more work. Frankly, the amount of work and discipline required to get a good grade in a distance course exceeded the work required for the traditional method.

Truly, distance education is little more than a timed and directed form of self-education or autodidacticism. Surely there are those who agree and argue that because of this, distance education is a poor substitute for the "real thing." Recently a rather affable and seminary educated friend of mine stated something to this effect. He said, "I don't generally recommend distance programs. Education should be a communal thing." But, this kind of objection fails to recognize that many students are more apt to learn via distance due to the fact that as adults, they have spent years learning primarily by self-education. Hence, many adult students may be better suited for distance learning than that of the traditional methodology and therefore proponents of the traditional methodology cannot legitimately lay claim to having the only "real" methodology.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine [Review]

I recall the first time someone told me the story of the events surrounding and during Nicaea. I was enthralled. The story was one marked by a clear dividing line between good and evil as are all of the best stories. There were those who espoused a truly biblical faith, and the pretenders whose "Christian theology" was the result of drinking deeply from pagan philosophy. There was of course, faithful Bishop Alexander and his pupil Athanasius; the seemingly tireless defenders of the deity of the Son of God. In opposition was the insidious Arius and a legion of churchmen whose doctrinal commitments were informed by Satan himself. 

If you've heard this story, Khaled Anatolios wants you to know that you've bought into a generalized portrait of a complex set of historical circumstances, people, and doctrines. While he does admit that characterizing the councils of "Nicaea and Constantinople as a struggle between 'Arians,' on the one side, and Nicene theology, defended most prominently by Athanasius and the Cappadocians, on the other"[1] "is not entirely lacking in either historical foundation or theological justification,"[2] Anatolios wisely incorporates pertinent examinations of the relevant theologians and their respective theologies. 

The author begins by laying a bit of historical groundwork by providing a retelling of the theological conflicts just previous to Nicaea. Thereafter he provides the reader with a brilliant means so as to differentiate those theologians who were for and against the theology affirmed by the council. This is no easy charge, since there existed a diversity of theologies not just between the two sides, but on each side. Anatolios draws his dividing line between "those theologies that spoke of the unity of the Trinity as a unity of being and those that spoke of a unity of will."[3] This is the best means of differentiation that I have encountered. Take for example the person and theology of Marcellus of Ancyra. While Marcellus affirmed Nicaea and argued fervently against both Arius and Asterius, his theology resembled the form of unitarianism embraced by Oneness Pentecostals (i.e., a form of modalism). Thus, it is not enough to merely draw the line between those who affirmed Nicaea and those who didn't. Rather, Anatolios draws the line directly at the sweet spot, allowing for the actual diversity of theologies. 

Anatolios provides a model for the doctrinal development of the various theologies. This developmental framework is an adaptation of the work of French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, and it relies upon a recognition of experience such that the initial receipt of that experience is subsequently followed by "breaks" in cognitive apprehension. Thereafter these breaks, one engages in a secondary reevaluation of said experience in an effort to achieve coherence and thus understanding. Therefore, Anatolios notes,
"From this perspective, the inherently systematic character of doctrinal development becomes readily apparent, inasmuch as the process, at its deepest level, entails reconstructing coherence in the face of the threat of incoherence."[4]
This means of understanding Trinitarian doctrinal development is decidedly accurate and subsequently helpful. It is true that the various theologies were the result of men grappling with the biblical data within the context of their personal affirmation of Christianity (i.e., the experience). While such a model serves to help the reader understand how these theologies developed, it would seem that Anatolios utilizes the model so as to incorporate a kind of legitimacy of the those theologies that deny the ontological co-equality of the Father and Son. That is, Anatolios identifies those theologians as "Trinitarain Theologians of Unity of Will."[5] Truly though, what kind of Trinitarian theology did Arius affirm? How could a theology that denied the eternal Fatherhood of God ever be given the moniker Trinitarian? If the word Trinity has an actual historic meaning that specifically affirms not only a particular identity of God but also a certain hermeneutic, utilizing the terminology of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit does not a Trinitarian make. Many throughout the history of the church people have misapplied titles to themselves and others, but virtually no one consistently consents to the abuse of terminology therein.[6]

Anatolios then provided an outstanding analysis of each of the major theologians involved in the controversy. Arius, Asterius, Eusebius of Casarea, Eunomius, Alexander, Marcellus, and more. I have yet to find such a fine concise treatment of these men and their theologies. That being said, the treatment of Athanasius is absolutely masterful. In fact, it is so good that one would do well to purchase, read, and re-read this work on the basis of his description of Athanasius alone. His treatments of all these men is evenhanded, rigorous, and an outstanding asset to any library. That being said, I can't wait to read the Anatolios' full length volume on Athanasius. 
__________________________
1. Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 28.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid, 30.
4. Ibid, 35.
5. Ibid, 41.
6. Truly, this issue is one of secondary importance regarding Anatolios' excellent work. However, in my opinion, such a characterization (i.e., affirming that those who deny the ontological equality of the Father and Son are in any sense Trinitarian) not only confuses the issue, but also empties the term of actual objective meaning.

Monday, January 6, 2014