In the letters page of last month’s issue of Evangelical Times certain questions were raised about the Alpha Course. It was pointed out that it is unjust to criticise without substantiation, and the question posed by the correspondents amounts to this: Is the Alpha Course biblical, and if not, what evidence can be brought forward to demonstrate its shortcomings?
Scripture inerrant and inspired
To begin with, we must acknowledge that the Alpha Course is ‘biblical’ in many respects. In chapter 5 of Questions of Life, the textbook of the course, Nicky Gumbel gives a forthright defence of the divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.
He points out that ‘if Jesus is our Lord, our attitude to the Scriptures should be the same as His’, and that for Jesus ‘what the Scriptures said, God said’. Mr Gumbel insists that the Bible must be our supreme authority for faith and practice. Moreover, Questions of Life is full of quotations from the Bible. This bears witness both to Nicky Gumbel’s intention that the Alpha Course should be biblical, and to the effort he has made to provide relevant biblical support for his statements.
The introductory chapter competently expounds John 14:6 and demonstrates the relevance and truth of Christianity, and the fulness of life which it brings. The next two chapters concern the person and work of the Lord Jesus. They are packed with apt biblical quotations to back up the claim that Jesus is both God and man, and that his death was a substitutionary sacrifice in which he paid the penalty our sin.
The centrality of Christ’s death in the message of salvation is clearly stated, as is the truth that ‘my entry into heaven … does not depend on me. It depends on what Jesus has done for me’. Moreover, Nicky Gumbel is quite clear that our greatest problem is sin and our greatest need forgiveness.
The Christian life
From lesson 4 onwards, Alpha begins to address issues of concern in the Christian life. It assumes that people are becoming Christians as they pursue the course, and that they need help and guidance as they embark upon life with Christ.
There is plenty of sound biblical material in this section also. The fundamental importance of the Word of God for assurance of faith is stressed, and the biblical teaching on the work of Jesus is further underscored as the basis of Christian hope. When it comes to the moral challenge of discipleship, the demands of biblical lifestyle are hammered home without restraint.
What is the problem?
In the light of all this, we have to ask, ‘What is it about the course which leads some of us to conclude that it falls short of biblical standards and that, in the end, its principles are actually unbiblical?’
We could flag up any number of weaknesses in Mr Gumbel’s handling of many issues. For example, the use of ‘the sinner’s prayer’ at the end of lesson 3 could give the impression that a person can become a Christian merely by reciting the words with due sincerity, whereas true conversion is a sovereign work of God’s Spirit (John 3:8). However, in this article, I shall restrict myself to discussing what I perceive as the one fatal flaw at the heart of the course.
The main problem is not so much with this or that detail of Alpha but with its overall thrust. Even though the biblical gospel, which hinges on the work of Christ, is discernible, its place within the total context of the course is greatly reduced relative to its biblical proportion. In effect, the biblical gospel is finally sidelined by the course taken as a whole. A different message is the dominant concern. The gospel of the grace of God in Christ is replaced by a message which centres on the Holy Spirit.
It is necessary now to present the evidence for this claim. Those who complete an Alpha Course attend fifteen lessons. Right in the middle are three lessons on the Holy Spirit. These are taken together on a weekend or a day away.
At the International Alpha Conference which I attended at Holy Trinity, Brompton, last year, Nicky Gumbel described this occasion as the ‘key ingredient’ of the course. The first of these three lessons is entitled ‘Who Is the Holy Spirit?’ There is little to quibble with here. The biblical doctrine of the person of the Holy Spirit is accurately presented by reference to various texts, and then his activity through the Bible is traced from creation to Pentecost.
The next session of the weekend raises the question, ‘What Does the Holy Spirit Do?’ Again, there is much solid and heart-warming biblical content. Nicky Gumbel speaks from John 3 of new birth by the Spirit, and from Romans 8 of the work of the Spirit in testifying with our spirits that we are God’s children. He links the enlightening work of the Spirit with our reading of the Bible in developing our relationship with God.
Next, the importance of the fruit of the Spirit is stressed, so that ‘we are transformed into the moral likeness of Jesus Christ’. It is proved from Scripture that the unity and the growth of the family of God is the work of the Spirit, and appeal is made to 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4 and 1 Peter 4 in discussing the gifts of the Spirit. Mr Gumbel suggests that ‘spiritual gifts include natural talents which have been transformed by the Holy Spirit’.
However, these two largely acceptable lessons pave the way for the final session of the weekend, entitled ‘How Can I Be Filled with the Spirit?’ Nearly half of this lesson is on the subject of speaking in tongues. The stated reason for this is that ‘many today are puzzled by this gift’.
It is true that Nicky Gumbel writes: ‘It is not the only gift or even the most important gift’. However, he continues, ‘There is no reason why anyone who wants this gift should not receive it’. It is hard to square these statements with the apostle Paul’s rhetorical question, ‘Do all speak with tongues?’ which clearly implies that all did not do so (1 Corinthians 12:30).
As Sandy Millar explained at the conference, they do not suggest that you won’t get to heaven without the gift of speaking in tongues, but they cannot think why anyone would want to get to heaven without it.
It is not my purpose here to discuss the issue of the cessation or otherwise of the sign-gifts of the Spirit, though it is an issue which could do with more serious biblical discussion on the Alpha Course. The problem with the course at this stage is that this lesson is meant to lead into a time of prayer and laying-on of hands with the express intention that participants should ‘receive the Spirit’.
The expectation is that ‘receiving the Spirit’ will be accompanied by some definable experience, whether outward phenomena or inner sensation. Now I recognise that, from some points of view, there may seem to be little objectionable about that. So let me pinpoint the fatal flaw.
It is the intention of the organisers of Alpha that the ‘Holy Spirit weekend’ should be perceived by the participants as the highlight of the course. The earlier weeks are used to build up the sense that something special will happen at this weekend. Consequently, when participants arrive for the occasion they are full of expectation.
As a result, the teaching given at the weekend is perceived as the heart of what the Christian faith is all about. The focus is entirely on the Holy Spirit who holds centre-stage at this, the high point of the course.
How profoundly this contrasts with the biblical testimony! In Christ’s own words, the Scripture says of the Holy Spirit: ‘He will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak; and he will tell you things to come. He will glorify me, for he will take of what is mine and declare it to you’ (John 16:13-14). The role of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is to reveal, uplift and glorify Christ. In the Alpha Course, the Holy Spirit eclipses Christ.
The prize: knowing Christ or the Spirit?
The centrality of the Holy Spirit rather than Christ is evident from many of the cited testimonies. Here is just one example which was read to us at the conference and can therefore be considered definitive of Alpha’s ideals. ‘I was longing for the ministry time on the Saturday of the weekend. The talk seemed to be going on and on. The prize was so near and we were getting there so slowly. I felt like screaming, “Do it now!”’
This person evidently saw ‘the prize’ as the experience of the Spirit. And here is the heart of the problem with the Alpha Course. In the end, its overall emphasis displaces Christ from the centre of attention and puts the Holy Spirit in his place. For the apostle Paul, the prize is Christ himself. He desires to ‘gain Christ and be found in him, not having my own righteousness which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ’ (Philippians 3:8-9).
At the conference, Nicky Gumbel mentioned that because Christianity is Trinitarian, they do not just pay lip-service to the Spirit, but give him his appropriate place. My contention is that the place given to the Spirit is both wrong and disproportionate. It is wrong because it robs the Spirit of his primary role of glorifying Christ. And it is disproportionate because it promotes the Holy Spirit to a prominence which is at variance with the self-effacement that the Third Person exhibits throughout Scripture.
Hungry; but for what?
It is for these reasons, therefore, that I maintain that Alpha’s overall message deviates from the biblical gospel. The filling of the Spirit has supplanted repentance and faith in Christ as the goal of the message preached. In the Acts of the Apostles, with all its mighty manifestations of the Spirit at Pentecost and other times, it is Christ whom the disciples preached, never the Spirit ( see e.g. Acts 5:42; 8:5, 35; 9:15, 20; 10:36).
Sandy Millar has written: ‘The teaching and the experience of the Holy Spirit has brought the Course to life from beginning to end. Hunger is created, in the hearts of those who are taking part, for the reality of God. The Spirit alone can satisfy that hunger’. This is not the message of the Christ of the Bible, who said: ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger’ (John 6:35).
It would be foolish to imply that no one has been converted through doing the Alpha Course. There is sufficient biblical truth present for God to use to save his people if, in his sovereign grace, he so chooses. Some of the testimonies published in Alpha News are deeply moving and breathe an air of authenticity.
However, this may be in spite of Alpha, not because of it. Many other testimonies are profoundly disturbing. People speak of their experiences at the weekend, and make scant reference to Christ and his saving work on our behalf. As far as it is possible to make an assessment, one is driven to the reluctant conclusion that many of the professed conversions are likely to be spurious. Taken in its totality, the Alpha Course fails the biblical test, that we should know nothing ‘except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2).