Doctrine has significance because Christianity is based on the truth
Spiritual renewal movements sometimes have low interest in doctrine or even in the Christian use of the mind. They can seem only to be interested in producing emotional responses. They sometimes seem, in fact, to say that the mind is simply an obstacle in the spiritual life. As if God has to insult our intelligence to enter our hearts.
What is the role of our mind in the spiritual life?
Doesn’t the mind have any role in the spiritual life? To be sure, the mind can be a major obstacle to the grace of God. Paul reminds us that the message of the cross of Christ often seems like folly to the unconverted. God’s truth is beyond what our minds can come up with. If we insist on having everything make sense on our terms, we will never get far in following God. Our minds need to confess that they cannot fully understand the things of God.
Yet we cannot be Christians without our minds, because Christianity is based on the truth. It is based on teaching about God’s word and his revelation. Eastern and modern spiritualities are often based on the ability to produce spiritual experiences or to enter spiritual states without believing truths about God and the human race. Christianity is different.
Even more, our minds can be spiritualized. In fact, if they are not, we will not enter the kingdom of God. We have to love God with our whole minds.
The conversion of our minds
To be spiritual, our minds need to be converted. They need to turn away from their old ways and turn to God’s way. That comes most specially by faith or belief. “Faith” and “belief’ are two different translations of the same Greek word. Faith involves trust, relying on God. But faith begins with believing the gospel. We cannot connect with Christ unless we believe.
When we believe in the gospel, we have to believe that what God said is true. When we believe in Christ, we cannot just believe that he will help us. We have to believe that he will help us, because we first believe he is who he said he is. “He who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God” (2 John 9). We abide in the doctrine of Christ when we “acknowledge the coming of Christ in the flesh” (2 John 7), that is, when we accept the doctrine of the Incarnation.
It is when we believe Christian teaching that the mind starts to become spiritual, because it has to replace its own understanding of the world with God’s. That is part of being converted as a Christian. If we do not replace our understanding of reality with God’s, we are not converted. The more we do so, the more converted we are, and the more spiritual our minds can be. Learning Christian truth, in other words, is one way to become more spiritual.
Repentance is also part of conversion, but we cannot truly repent if we do not learn Christian truths. Repentance is more than just regret or feeling bad about something that we did. When we repent, we have to change, reject sin and bad ways of approaching life, and take on good ways. We cannot repent, however, if we do not know what is bad and what is good, what is wrong and what is right. Repentance is more than thinking differently. It involves a personal change, and we certainly need God’s help and healing to repent. But it does involve thinking differently, and we can only be converted if we accept God’s views on how we should live and change our lives. Repentance begins by giving up our ideas on how to live, if they are not the same as God’s ideas. Therefore, repentance involves learning about God’s teaching on how to live.
Spiritual wisdom and understanding
The mind also plays an important role in exercising the charismatic gifts. The charismatic renewal has brought a renewed emphasis on spiritual gifts, especially tongues, healing, and prophecy. It has taught us to recognize and respond to God’s willingness to work through us in spiritual gifts by sensing some movement inside or by having an impression we should respond to. All of this has been a great help.
At the same time, there are some very helpful gifts that are often neglected by the charismatic renewal. The Lord also inspires teaching and gives wisdom and understanding. These gifts cannot function unless the mind is able to understand truths and speak them. Moreover, God teaches us directly (see 1 Corinthians 2:9-13). He not only gives us senses about things, he also gives us light about truths. As our minds become spiritualized, they can be a vehicle for God’s work. To receive the full blessing of God, we need to be renewed in our minds.
Using our minds and knowing Christian teaching not only allow us to grow spiritually and to receive spiritual gifts well but also protect us against spiritual currents that are not so good or that bring problematic things as well as helpful things. Here the traditional wisdom of the church can be very helpful. One of the most important pieces of traditional wisdom is based on Paul’s injunction not to quench the Spirit but to test everything, holding fast what is good (see 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). That testing is more than checking out senses about a prophecy; it also involves testing the prophecy against Christian truths. We need to know Christian teaching well enough to know when preaching and teaching are not in accord with orthodox belief and so know when we have to discard some of what is preached to us.
One of my most helpful lessons along these lines came from hearing an account of William Branham by a man who worked with him. Branham was one of the most powerful Pentecostal evangelists in the US in the years after World War II. He exercised striking revelational gifts; impressive healings occurred at his rallies. Yet he gradually became more and more unorthodox, and ended up teaching against the Incarnation. He even said that Trinitarianism was of the devil. Though he preached heresy, his miracles did not cease.
The man who told me about Branham was one of Branham’s coworkers. As Branham became less orthodox, this man was in turmoil, because he could see both power and unorthodoxy in the same man. He finally had to decide that he could not accept much of what Branham said because it was not true, even though Branham could still do miraculous things. This coworker had to test what Branham said by holding fast to Christian teaching. Orthodox Christians who knew about Branham had a variety of views as to why his revelational and healing power did not cease as he became unorthodox, but he is, at least, a clear example of the need to test everything against orthodox Christian teaching.
We need evangelists. We need powerful preaching. The more the action of God becomes visible through healing and revelation, the better. But our preaching and renewal also need to be based on sound teaching so we can know God’s will and distinguish what is Christian from what is not Christian. When God’s truth abides in us, then we bear fruit that is truly pleasing to him.
[This article was first published in New Covenant Magazine, June 1991, copyright © Stephen B. Clark]
Top photo credit: man reading Bible and thinking, by Imabase from istockphoto.com, Stock photo ID:146960551
Steve Clark has been a founding leader, author, and teacher for the Catholic charismatic renewal since its inception in 1967. Steve is past president of the Sword of the Spirit, an international ecumenical association of charismatic covenant communities worldwide. He is the founder of the Servants of the Word, an ecumenical international missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord.
Steve Clark has authored a number of books, including Baptized in the Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, Finding New Life in the Spirit, Growing in Faith, and Knowing God’s Will, Building Christian Communities, Man and Woman in Christ, The Old Testament in Light of the New.