A closer look. That is what I did recently in our local park. I was intrigued by a small object near a tree. I went nearer and looked closely at the object on the ground. It was only a twisted, rotten piece of wood.
This month I take a closer look at cults in general. My aim is to describe and then assess their ideas in the light of the Bible. In other words, this will be an introductory theological analysis of what cults teach.
There is no need to be frightened. Our discussion will be user-friendly and helpful. It may help some to understand more what the Bible teaches and to marvel at God’s grace.
I have chosen four theological criteria from the Bible in order to evaluate the teaching of cults. They are not the only criteria I could use but they are four major biblical principles.
The first principle is the reality of revelation. Underlying the biblical usage of the word ‘reveal’ are the ideas of ‘nakedness’ and ‘unveiling’ something hidden. Because God is transcendent, wholly other, impenetrable, and beyond our natural abilities to discover, revelation is necessary if humans are to know God. Thus God took the initiative in disclosing to humans his character and purposes.
Truth, therefore, is not constructed or invented by individuals or groups; rather, it comes from the disclosure of a personal and moral God who makes himself known in general revelation (that is, in creation and conscience) so that all are without excuse (Romans 1:19; 2:14-15).
God has also made himself known more extensively and gloriously in ‘special revelation’ (that is, through his mighty deeds in history, and the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ).
But above all, he reveals himself propositionally in the sixty-six books of the Bible. That self-revelation in Scripture is accurate, complete and final; it is found exclusively in the Bible.
I now want to apply this criterion in two ways.
No continuing revelation
Firstly, there is no continuing revelation outside the Bible. The reason is that ‘the faith was once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3). It cannot be added to in any way.
Whether it is Joseph Smith’s claim to have received private revelation in the most extraordinary circumstances; or the Rev. Moon’s claim to have seen Jesus Christ in 1936, then gain an experience with an angel in 1945 and later in 1972 to see God ‘appearing’ to him; all such claims must be rejected on the criterion of divine revelation being canonical and complete in the Bible. This Bible is a sufficient and final divine revelation to us.
Secondly, the truth of revelation is not variable or dated. Despite his Bible background, David Berg, leader of the Family of Love, eventually came to regard the Bible as God’s ‘inspired word for yesterday’, while his own ‘Moses letters’ were presented as ‘the word of God for today’!
But that is wrong. The Bible continues and abides for ever as God’s Word — it is ‘truth unchanged, unchanging’.
Similarly, the New Age claim that we have moved out of the age of Pisces, which is the age of Christianity, and into the age of Aquarius with its new ‘power-points’, gnostic enlightenment and supposed spiritual evolution of the human race, is also wrong. God’s objective, permanent and eternal Word is found in the Bible alone.
God and creation
The second principle concerns the ‘relationality’ of revelation, namely, that it reveals God’s relationship to creation. This criterion has profound implications for the doctrines of God, man and salvation. And it is the doctrine of God where the challenge is most acute for Christian theology. A small sample of cultic views illustrates this challenge.
About ten years ago, the American actress and dancer Shirley Maclaine stood on the shores of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by hundreds of people. During her speech, she declared: ‘I am God, I am that I am, I am God’.
This famous woman, known as the High Priestess of the New Age Movement, meant what she said and, sadly, believed it.
For Maclaine and most New-Agers, the real world and all its life-forms constitute God. This is pantheism with its claim that ‘all is God’. On this view, humans have unlimited potential and can actualise their ‘divine nature’.
Walk with me through one of the annual Mind and Spirit exhibitions in London and talk to the hundreds of exhibitors about the nature of God. They will give a similar answer.
Tell me about God
One exhibitor is Christian Science which follows Mrs Baker-Eddy’s Science and Health with her Key to the Scriptures, published in 1875. ‘God’, they tell me, ‘is substance, the All-in-all and there is no reality or existence outside of him’.
God is also ‘divine mind’ and mind is all that exists. Humans are therefore part of God and there is no distinction between creature and Creator.
Then we talk to the Spiritist exhibitor. ‘Tell me about God,’ I ask. ‘There are as many gods as there are people’, comes the reply, ‘And it is useless worshipping only one God because “God” is the infinite intelligence expressed in the physical and spiritual worlds’. Here is pantheism again.
The Theosophy exhibitor will tell you a similar theory: ‘God is all that exists and we are God…’ Hundreds of cultic exhibitors in this Mind and Spirit conference tell you the same thing — Eckankar, Yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Elan Vital and Pagans.
Paganism has various streams, some are polytheists, but a very popular goddess for some pagans is ‘mother-earth’. She has several names but is often called Gaia and is believed to be all in all, the living totality of all nature. Here again is pantheism, for the goddess of earth shares her divinity with the entire natural order.
Close yet distinct
Our second criterion concerning the relationality of revelation is, therefore, of major importance.
In contrast to pantheism, God’s relationship to creation is revealed in the Bible as being both intimate and distant. He remains transcendent, independent of creation and wholly other; yet at the same time he is immanent (all-pervading) in his omnipresence. Humans are not divine and are incapable of ever becoming part of God. Nevertheless, the transcendent God is still near to us.
There is one important aspect of our relation to God which needs emphasis, namely, humans are created in the image of God. Although humans have a shared creature-ness, we are also unique as God’s image-bearers.
Theologians describe this image as a ‘relational image’, that is, a relation between the Triune God and humans that is both corporate and moral.
Point of contact
For humans it means that we reflect God’s likeness in possessing personality, self-consciousness, rationality, freedom, a moral nature and a spiritual dimension. Humans, therefore, are utterly unique and have priority within the created order.
We instinctively know what is right and wrong because the law of God is written on our hearts (Romans 2:12-15). Conscience gives evidence of man’s universal sense of obligation to conform to God’s will — we cannot be amoral.
Cornelius Van Til describes this as ‘the point of contact’. He adds: ‘every man knows that he is the creature of God and responsible to God’. And the laws of God are not arbitrary; rather, they express the holy, gracious character of God who knows what is best for us and creation.
For New-Agers, therefore, to deny absolute moral standards revealed in the Word and conscience, or to seek oneness with dogs or trees as an expression of monism, is to rebel wilfully against God and his revealed will.
Our evangelism and apologetics in this situation need to be theocentric, with a biblical perspective on man’s relationship to God.
Accountable to God
Humanity’s fall into sin in Adam is also relational, for it concerns the spoiling of man’s relationships with God, with other humans and with nature. The Fall was a disaster of cosmic proportions and introduced physical, spiritual and eternal death.
Nevertheless, the image of God in man has not been eradicated and the voice of conscience still speaks to us even in the depths of sin.
Revelation, then, is relational and is given in the context of man as the divine image-bearer. Man is accountable to God even though he is fallen in sin and persists in rebellion and unbelief.
Next time we will look at our two other criteria: the ‘redemptive-ness’ and the ‘restorative-ness’ of revelation.