Nicky Gumbel, Questions of Life (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Cook Communications Ministries, 1993), 264 pp.

This book is better known as Alpha. It is the manual that is used by Alpha Course members. The behind-the-scenes object of this course is to get people into fellowship in order for faith to happen. This is the reverse of how fellowship and faith fall out in the New Testament: in there fellowship happens on the basis of faith. And while Jesus reproved sinners for coming after him just to get bread (John 6.26), this course uses the temptation of a meal to draw sinners to him. So right away, knowing only these facts, the course must be denounced because of its unbiblical approach.

But what about the content? The book starts out okay, and for awhile seems like it might be useful. Then the concerns begin to emerge. More concerns crop up as the pages turn. They increase in greatness as the chapters unfold.

On the positive side, some basic doctrines are touched upon: the substitutionary atonement, redemption, forgiveness, sanctification (pp. 51, 53, 99, 100.) There is a smattering of apologetics thrown in; there are good statements by the handful, and many touching anecdotes too. To give Nicky Gumbel due credit, his best moments need highlighting. On what the resurrection was (quoted from a source): “not the reversal of a defeat, but the proclamation of a victory” (p. 61.) This is an important point, for God’s actions are not reactions, but parts of his perfect, predetermined plan. On being saved from sin: “We have been saved from the penalty of sin. We are being saved from the power of sin. We shall be saved from the presence of sin” (p. 176.) This well-known biblical formula takes account of the battle we are in, and works to counter the tragic falsehood of easy-believism. On the psychological pain incurred through ‘casual sex’: since physical coupling effects a ‘one flesh union,’ people get hurt when the union is broken (p. 237.) It helps to have it put like that. Confronting the issue of sexual immorality is Mr. Gumbel’s strongest point. He hits on the sin that most persons, if not all, want least and last to give up. That’s good.

On the negative side, there is much to cover. (1) The false assumptions. Becoming a Christian will make for an orderly life, by which, is meant, probably, an easier life (p. 104.) This belief is very popular with those who are desperate to get ‘decisions for Christ’ out of people. And the spreading of this falsehood makes for disillusioned Christians, for so often, life gets messier after faith, just as the Bible warns. (See Luke 12.51-53; Romans 8.17; 2 Timothy 2.12.) Because of faith, life may become more orderly in some sense, true, for better decisions will be made; but will persecution (something the Bible warns converts to expect) not throw life into disorder? If you lose your job because of your faith, and during a recession no less, will that make for an orderly life or a messy one? The truth is, faith draws persecution; persecution causes disorder. That is the Christian expectation. False assumption number two: if you’d been the only person in the whole world, Jesus Christ would have died to save you (pp. 19, 54.) That is a comforting sentiment. But has anyone ever bothered to prove this by Scripture? Folks who lay stress on the generous belief that the Lord died for all, each and every person, sure don’t mind the selfish assumption that he might have died for just one! The same double-mindedness would use a passage of Scripture (Mark 16.9-20) to prove something, even when that section of Scripture is not believed to be Scripture at all, but something superfluous and irrelevant! (p. 205.) More on that later. Next, an assumption borrowed from Michael Green says that without Satan, the explanation for natural disasters and human wickedness would be so elusive that it would be hard not to conclude that God is to blame for it all (pp. 165, 166.) But without Satan, wouldn’t sinners be next up for blame, at least where human wickedness is concerned? And could not natural disasters then come about as the result of God cursing nature for man’s sake? Gumbel’s object here (if not Greene’s as well) is to pin the most obscene deeds, like torture, rape, and child sexual abuse on the devil alone (p. 167), or failing that, on God. But why lay a singular stress on the devil’s part in these horrors? Who grows in infamy year by year by the perpetration of these rank evils? What Church is Gumbel being careful not to offend in this book? It is the Roman Catholic priesthood that is notoriously guilty of such crimes and sins. Other church hierarchies are guilty too, but mainly that one is, the Roman Catholic one that Gumbel will not offend for anything, the one that either abuses children or enables such abuse to go on indefinitely. Is that really loving to Christ to speak of unity with a priesthood that harbors child molesters? Is Jesus on that side of the issue? Or is he on the side of abused children? Did Jesus not bless children? (See Mark 10.16.) Can you imagine Jesus uniting with a priesthood that shields and fosters pedophiles? And ‘foster’ is not too strong a word to use here; the heads of this Church not only protect their pedophile priests, but while they shuffle them around to mitigate the scandals, they take care to keep these foul priests nursed with employment, food, shelter, and luxuries. As far as history has shown me, even the Pharisees didn’t sink into that kind of sick depravity! And Jesus did not treat them as brothers, did he? In short, as pointed out a few lines ago, ecumenists would go so far as to risk charging God with the crimes of those they crave to unite with. Such is the spirit of unbiblical unity. Everything may be gambled in order to achieve it and maintain it. Questions of Life has little to say about what Christian unity really is. Christians truly united by the bond of Christ do not hide each other’s sins. They exhort one another to quit them. And they don’t turn a blind eye to crimes that are committed by heretical members of the Church (and orthodox members too, for that matter.) They disassociate, expose, and turn criminals over for punishment. That’s how the Church witnesses to the world. It doesn’t sacrifice justice and righteous conduct for blind partisanship. It keeps purity in its ranks; it’s supposed to, anyway.

(2) Sin is minimized. Sin is minimized by saying almost nothing particular about it except when the Scriptures are quoted (pp. 64, 134, 172.) Leaving ‘the rubbish behind’ in order to enjoy the wonderful things of God is not saying very much about what needs to be repented of (p. 238.) Sins are mentioned particularly on page 45. But there they are called addictions. If bad temper, slander, and sexual immorality are addictions, then does that not leave room for negligence and indulgence? After all, we’re addicted! We can’t help ourselves! These are the excuses that are put forward by those who’ve been taught that sins as addictions. Bad temper is a sinful tendency, not an addiction. Slander and immoral behavior are sins that we commit and need to repent of, not addictions, or physical dependencies, that we need treatment for. Mistaking sins for addictions happens again on page 174. And to say so unequivocally, that ‘he [Jesus] has set us free from addictions’ takes no account of the trouble that some sincere, diligent Christians have with breaking their addictions. To pronounce delivery and victory in this way is to betray one’s blindness to the reality of life in Christ. This life is a struggle; it is a fight, the Bible says, ‘the good fight of faith’; sinful tendencies and addictions are not necessarily or even normally wiped away by the Spirit as if by magic. (See Romans 7.15.) To say that immediate, entire deliverance is the norm is to set Christians up for disappointments and despondencies that are beyond the pale, for falls and failures will probably happen. Gumbel is not being true here to what he says he believes on page 176: that we are being saved from the power of sin. Here he says that “Jesus broke the power of these things [addictions] and set us free” (p. 174.) This man is all mixed up. He doesn’t know what he believes. And because of this, many struggling converts reading this will be thrown into confusion if not despair. If addictions are supposed to be simply wiped out of all believers’ lives upon conversion, then the poor Christian who has but one fall will have to doubt his faith. 

(3) Hell is lightly and wrongly treated. Hell is almost entirely passed over in this Practical Introduction to the Christian Faith. About all that is correctly said about it is what is quoted from John 3.16. When hell is given more space, it is reduced, with help from C. S. Lewis, to almost nothing, “smaller than one pebble of your earthly world” (p. 178.) Not to argue here, about whether hell occupies space or not (though we know it will because resurrected bodies will be cast into it), but just to point out that statements like this tend to misrepresent and underestimate reality, a reality that it is critical to have a serious and full belief in. The fantasyland of C. S. Lewis does not always parallel reality. His fantasies are not always grounded on Scripture. Just because a Christian author is famous, popular, and beloved doesn’t mean all his words are true. No one should be quoted uncritically. Maybe some larger context would help to clear C. S. Lewis from a misrepresentation of hell. Maybe he means that hell will seem insignificant to saints who will never go there. I hope so. It is not the sense one comes away with, though, by the bit quoted by Gumbel.

Incidentally, Gumbel is uncritical in a similar manner by way of D. L. Moody. Here’s that quote: “The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge. It was given to change lives” (p. 84.) It is clear that what Gumbel is confronting is the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake, without application. Nevertheless, this extract from Moody does not support that. Maybe Moody’s own context would help, I don’t know. But since Moody is so respected, it is easy for a reader to take those quoted words of his as they are, plain and simple, and therefore to swallow the false dichotomy as if it’s the truth. Knowledge and practice should not be set at odds like Gumbel does by these borrowed words. Careless quoting just like this is how unbiblical mindsets are created or perpetuated. And anti-intellectualism is rampant enough! The Proverbs were written to give knowledge (1.4.) Knowledge comes out the LORD’s own mouth (2.6.)   

(4) The person and work of Jesus Christ are understated or mistreated. To call the Lord “still the most attractive and captivating person possible to know” (p. 7) is like the foot in the mouth mistake of telling someone he’s still handsome or still young. That word ‘still’ implies a possible change, even a change that has begun. This precious thought is from Sandy Miller’s Foreword. To make matters worse, on page 49 Jesus’ death is said to be ‘even more amazing’ than that of Father Maximilian Kolbe’s, a Catholic priest who sacrificed his life to save someone else’s (p. 48.) Sacrificial acts are commendable; some, like this Kolbe’s, are courageous. But Jesus’ death is even more amazing? Does this word ‘even’ not put Kolbe’s death just a little too close to par with Christ’s death? Why does Gumbel say this? This is most interesting. The Pope had called Kolbe’s death “a victory like that won by our Lord Jesus Christ” (p. 49.) And Gumbel wants to come as close as he can to agreeing with that blasphemous comparison because he is trying to please the Roman Catholic crowd. Next, one of Gumbel’s favorite descriptions of Jesus comes from some chap who goes by the name of Lord Hailsham, who “describes how the person of Jesus came alive to him when he was in college” (p. 34.) How does this description go? In part, “What they crucified was a young man, vital, full of life and the joy of it, the Lord of life itself, and even more the Lord of laughter…a veritable Pied Piper of Hamelin who would have the children laughing all round him and squealing with pleasure and joy as he picked them up” (emphasis added, page 35.) It is well known that there is no record of Jesus laughing or even smiling; this, for good reason: it was prophesied by Isaiah (53) that he would be ‘a Man of Sorrows,’ which of course, agrees more with how things turned out than the fantasy that shows his laughter to be one of his chief attributes! This mixture of fact and fantasy should make us wonder if Jesus really did come alive to this other Lord. And that this is one of Gumbel’s favorite descriptions ought to make us wonder at Gumbel’s knowledge of Scripture, or maybe at how far off track he’s willing to go in order to curry favor. You see, this Lord Hailsham was an Anglican. And Gumbel is trying hard to praise every branch of Christianity, his own included; he’s trying to bring every thing that calls itself a church under one doctrinally indiscriminate umbrella. I did a little digging on this man that Gumbel is so anxious to praise. And in a journal called The Third Way there are some remarks about a book he wrote, which book the following quote is lifted out of. Speaking about his faith, Lord Hailsham says “that it is possible rationally to believe in things which a man may neither touch nor see, in objective values which are neither verifiable nor mere emotive noises” (The Door Wherein I Went.) Strange language, but not among liberal scholars! We’ve got to wonder about nebulous, though self-condemning, rhetoric like that. To him, the objective values of Scripture need not be verifiable in order for one’s faith to be genuine. What this thought boils down to (as the context shows) is that you don’t have to be hooked into something that can be proven true in order for your faith to be valid. Can faith, in other words, be valid even if the ground it rests upon can be proven to be just another wives’ tale? Why was Peter so insistent to point out that “we have not followed cunningly devised fables”? (2 Peter 1.16.) It is because faith must be grounded in testable evidence in order for it to be true. That’s one reason, anyway. A belief like Hailsham’s is faith ungrounded, which agrees with his ungrounded description of Jesus Christ. His faith seems airy-fairy; no surprise that his description of Jesus would show likewise. Nicky Gumbel should pick his hero-props more carefully. Someone might just decide to check these people out, and their beliefs as well! There are true saints in the Church of England. I’m sure many of them would be more grounded in faith than was Lord Hailsham. And I’m sure many of them would be able to describe Jesus Christ more accurately than he was able to! Who knows why, but Lord Hailsham the politician had to be chosen for the Alpha prop. It makes the author look unwise though, if not clued out respecting what faith is and what Jesus was like when he ministered in Palestine.  

(5) Sundry other theological weaknesses. Man and woman come together, he says, and the result is a baby. So far so good. And so a new spiritual being is created by the union of man’s spirit or woman’s spirit (both sexes are mentioned for political correctness) and the Holy Spirit (p. 133.) That’s his deduction. Is that fair to the doctrine of regeneration? This is the best that an ordained staff member of an Anglican church is capable of? Regeneration is an act of God. It’s not the consequence of a merger! Even compared to a Sunday school standard, this merger theory is weak. Converts to Christ “were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1.13.) Does that sound like a merger? Or does it sound like a work of God? Next, he says that Satan and his demons are afraid of Jesus’ name because they were defeated at the cross (p. 174.) Is it as simple as that? Actually, the truth must lie further back than when the defeat of demons at the cross happened, all the way back to who Jesus is, for the Bible records demons being afraid of Jesus before the crucifixion happened. (See Matthew 8.29.) Gumbel seems not to have the whole Bible in view. Next, he claims that God prohibited adultery because he did not want people to get hurt (p. 78.) You see how selfish this pulp-theology is? It always comes back to sinners being so special. The truth is, God prohibited adultery, not so much because he did not want people to get hurt, but because his holy nature demands purity in his creatures. (See Leviticus 20.10, 26.) It’s about him, not us. Mass-market, pop-theology is usually about how much God loves us, seldom about the holiness we owe God. Is the Bible a ‘love letter’ like Nicky Gumbel and other mushy ministers tell us? (p. 78.) Or is it a Testament about death being required for sin? Next, he trades the name ‘Holy Ghost’ in for ‘Holy Spirit’ on the basis that the former sounds too frightening (p. 120.) Wouldn’t a little fear be healthy? After all, the Holy Ghost can destroy both body and soul in hell, can he not? (See Matthew 10.28.) It doesn’t matter what member of the Godhead is spoken of in this verse. All three have each the power to destroy the created order. God, by whatever name, Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, has that power. Next, is ‘Jesus’ other self’ an adequate name for the Holy Spirit? (p. 120.) Doesn’t that argue against the fact that there are three persons in the Godhead? Next, his advice for being filled with the Spirit includes the eschewing of feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy (p. 162.) But doesn’t the Bible say that God gives grace to the humble? (See James 4.6.) Who does Jesus declare to be blessed but those who feel themselves unworthy? “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are they that mourn….” (Matthew 5.3, 4.) Is Nicky Gumbel not familiar with the beatitudes? This man is an ordained minister? Next, he says that Satan tempts us with a ‘tiny unimaginative list of prohibitions’ like drinking and promiscuity (p. 170.) Ask any man, even Nicky Gumbel, if sins of the flesh are imaginative or not. Ask all the Christian men who regularly peruse pornography if promiscuity is not imaginative. This man is so much on the lookout to proclaim easy success against the proximate devil that he overlooks the putrid flesh bubbling up inside his own heart, the sin nature that lies corrupting the insides of each one of us, whether converted or not! (See Romans 7.23-25.) This is a classic case of ‘ivory tower’ exhortation. This man has had to go out of his way to disconnect with the Bible and reality in order to write such platitudes! Next, he can see no necessity at all for persevering prayer, even when the truth is right under his eyes. “We don’t need to jump up and down to get His [God’s] attention!” (p. 140.) (But see Luke 11.5-8; 1 Thessalonians 5.17) Nicky Gumbel’s life must be so satisfactory and carefree. “If we ask for the Holy Spirit and all the wonderful gifts he brings, that is exactly what we will receive,” he says (emphasis added, p. 162.) He cites Luke 11.13 in proof of such casual success, even though this verse is the conclusion to a parable on perseverance in prayer! If his interpretation is correct, then this parable isn’t, and gifts like healing and prophecy are simply ours for the asking, period. But just try that out and see how far you get. Then if you still maintain that his superficial, simplistic reasoning from the Scriptures is correct, you’ll have to lie about what you received, and you’ll be no better than so many charismatic leaders are. It says in that verse that the Holy Spirit will be given to those who ask, not that all the gifts you ask for will be given. As surely as we give gifts to our children, just as certainly will the Father give his Holy Spirit to his children when they ask. That is the sense. 

Many of these interpretative failures can be ascribed to an endeavor to please all parties and persons professing Christianity, no matter how heretical some of these might be. Certainly, this ecumenical bent is the main fault with the Alpha project. Gumbel claims that Jesus Christ has ‘two billion followers’ today (p. 9.) Where did he get a number like that? That’s the kind of round, generous figure that you find in encyclopedias, where the design is to divide the religions of the world up into neat categories. And just as I suspected from page 9, this is exactly where his numbers come from (p. 219.) (By the bye, this is where yet another assumption is gotten from, this tiresome bit of nonsense he calls attention to on page 242 about more Christians having died for their faith in the 20th century than in any other. Leaders professing faith say this in order to garner sympathy from wherever they can and for whatever cause they happen to be passionate about. The ridiculous assertion could only be true if whole armies or even whole peoples can be said to be Christian, which is never the case.) Even at the micro level of a local church we soon learn from one-on-one correspondence that many people who profess faith in Christ do so on dubious bases like having been baptized or else reared in a certain way. How much of this dubiety could we discover on the level of parishes or provinces? How many of these ‘two billion followers’ even believe that Jesus is God, or that works can’t save, or that the Bible is infallible? How many of these understand faith to be no more than a blind trust? Polls have shown that the lion’s share (or the ‘roaring lion’s’ share) of professing Christianity is empty nominalism. It is clear from the first page of this feat to please and coalesce the professing multitudes that Nicky Gumbel is concerned for nominal membership: “The Church in England has been losing members at an alarming rate” (p. 7.) Who cares? We already know that so much membership is nothing but nominal. It doesn’t matter if such membership is fat or lean. It makes no difference at all. Just ask an average Anglican about his beliefs. See for yourself if you can count his membership as true. To unite with nominal professors does not make for diversity, but perversity. These so-called ‘two billion followers’ do not make up ‘an almost fantastic variety of saints’ (p. 225.) (Maybe they do if we use the word ‘fantastic’ in its original sense.) This fantastic mix is not diversity in unity, but a mass of wheat and chaff, saints and hypocrites together. This mix will be found out at the end of the age by the Lord when he comes to judge. But we’re not supposed to cultivate this confusion while we wait! How many of Gumbel’s fantastic two billion are different from the worldlings who ‘are so monotonously alike’? (p. 225.) Most of these ‘followers’ are not only alike amongst themselves, but just like the worldlings they’re supposed to be so different from! The Roman Catholic Church believes in salvation by works, just like what so many multitudes of worldlings believe. Many Anglicans believe homosexuality is okay, just like so many worldlings believe. So many churches are filled to spilling over with sissy-men and bossy-women, just the sort of role reversal that you find going on in the Western world among the worldlings. Like I already said in parentheses, and it bears repeating, these statistics from the encyclopedia about how many Christians there are is also where the Gumbels of the world get this idea that more Christians have been martyred in the 20th century than in any other (p. 242.) Nominal faith is so visibly widespread that only a person unhinged from history, theology, and critical thought would repeat such an absurdity. It seems that virtually all Christian leaders trumpet this claim, sometimes to promote the idea that a certain war is just, sometimes to make churches or even whole nations look more blameless than they are. I just heard (August 2011) over the radio that there are 28 million Christians in Egypt. This is the sort of stat that I’m talking about. Now if that segment of the population, regarded in toto as Christian, were exterminated by some fanatical dictator, your zealot statisticians, for some selfish, pragmatic advance, would mark this down as mass martyrdom. And of course, only Christians, true or false, would pull a conniving number like that, for these are the ones who would be seeking to gain by the conjecture. Anyway, there’s an example of how false numbers are gotten into textbooks. There are genuine followers of Christ in Egypt, I’m sure. But these large round figures that are tossed out there are not come by through any critical analysis whatsoever.   

Gumbel goes all the way back to Martin Luther in his plot to soften would-be Reformers to the idea of unholy ‘Christ with Belial’ alliances. He wants us to believe that the Roman Catholic Church, just like Martin Luther did long ago, has since adopted a biblical dogma with respect to Scripture (p. 74.) What do we have to say to this except that Rome’s abounding, prevailing Mariolatry proves that Rome still respects Tradition over Scripture? Some of us will never unite with them who worship Mary and who believe that measures of grace may be obtained through her. Gumbel preaches unity from Ephesians 4.3. But he conveniently leaves out the precious truth that unity must be based on mutuality in essential doctrine (p. 143.) The unity of faith concerns ‘the knowledge of the Son of God’ (Ephesians 4.13.) That knowledge must include, must it not, the fact that he is the Mediator between God and man? How does Mary the Mediatrix fit into 1 Timothy 2.5? John Wesley is quoted on page 223, as if the kind of unspiritual, unscriptural unity of faith that Gumbel promotes could be gotten support from him. But Gumbel ought to dig into some reliable history books. In J. C. Ryle’s Christian Leaders of the 18th Century Gumbel would find that his own Establishment (the Church of England) did all it could to prevent that great preacher from preaching the gospel that unites all faithful followers. This church refused him a pulpit, even though he was one of its ordained ministers! (See the footnote on page 107 in Ryle’s worthy work.) Gumbel says that when we quarrel (meaning denominational or theological camps that disagree), we say to God, ‘Choose between us and them’ (pp. 222, 223.) And he says that this would be wrong to do. Let’s test that. Some religious hypocrites tried to stop the apostles from preaching in Jerusalem. The apostles replied, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye” (Acts 4.19.) Observe the phrase, ‘in the sight of God.’ This is the apostles asking God to judge between ‘us and them.’ When John Wesley refused to be silenced by the Pharisaic hierarchy in the Church of England, in effect he was asking God to do the same thing, which is a far cry from preaching unity with hypocrites! To use John Wesley like Gumbel does is so unjust. I don’t know how a Christian can abuse a worthy name in that way. It seems to defy the very unity that Gumbel claims to have with the old worthies. He admits that “unity is brought about as theologians and church leaders get together to debate and work through theological differences” (p. 222.) But his idea of what a Christian is and what a Christian may believe shows that statement to be thrown in just for show. You can tell that he does not mean what he says there even by what immediately follows: “But it is also achieved, often more effectively, by ordinary Christians getting together to worship and work together.” What he means is that it’s better to never mind differences of belief; just come together as if everything’s fine. It is not important what denomination you espouse, he says, whether “Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Episcopalian, or independent” (p. 143.) That’s like saying the beliefs of each don’t matter; your creed doesn’t matter; doctrine, if it divides, doesn’t count. This is his message. Oh, he’s so kind to try and include everyone! He even tries to bring all the varieties of size together: “small groups, congregations, local church, and the worldwide church” (p. 144.) Truly, the only time denominational differences should not divide is when the churches of different denominations already agree on the essentials, which is usually no longer the case. Some Anglican priests don’t even believe that Jesus is God, or that he ever lived! Some Roman Catholic priests are more interested in raping kids or enabling child sexual abuse than doing the Mass! not to mention how evil the Mass is all by itself, which is ‘another gospel,’ and which, therefore, forbids unity on its own account! How many Roman priests ought to be locked up for their crimes?! How many of these molesters are turned over by the Roman Machine for prosecution? None, they all have to be plucked out of that Monster Religion’s bloody, pedophile-protecting arms! To speak of unity with Romanism is to care nothing for the gospel and to thumb your nose at all the kids that Roman priests have devoured! Gumbel even quotes Puritan-minded men in this book: Thomas Goodwin, C. H. Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones (p. 153.) As if they would have anything to do with hypocritical unity! or ill use of Scripture! or sloppy interpretation! or homosexuals in pulpits! or the Mass! or prayers to Mary! or protecting pedophile priests! or the chaotic charismania that ends up being commended and recommended near the end of this sordid Alpha affair! You would be giving the right hand of fellowship to all of that and more by embracing the broad, queer ‘unity of faith’ that Gumbel pretends to be taken from the Bible. We should no more side with that sort of unity than stand side by side with the prophets of Baal. Better to stand with the lonely, often downcast Elijahs than have unity like that.

Nicky Gumbel is particularly eager to endorse charismatic religion and to convince Christians to adopt charismatic beliefs and practices. ‘Pulpit-centered or altar-centered’ churches are discouraged by him in favor of the kind of lay situation that goes on in Pentecostal assemblies (p. 226.) To comprehend how wide this view is of the biblical mark, one has only to realize that preaching the death of Christ for sin, or ‘Christ crucified,’ as one holy apostle put it, is exactly the center (pulpit and altar) that Gumbel would like to push to the side. He would have the sacrifice of Christ continually reminded though (p. 228.) Empty words! When he quotes Gordon Fee on how ‘games, walks, concerts, outings, and a myriad of other things’ are so pleasurable because of the shared Presence, there is your key to the kind of religion Gumbel wants to replace pulpit and altar with (p. 227.) You can tell that this is it, for soon after this quote he gets explicit and speaks for himself: “The way in which we worship and the way in which we communicate the Gospel must resonate with modern men and women. For many this will mean contemporary music and language” (p. 231.) What does this amount to but songs without doctrine, paraphrases instead of translations, and ‘a myriad of other things’ just as bad? Yes, let’s ‘resonate with modern men and women.’ Anything goes then. ‘Anything’ is going on already in churches where pulpits and altars have been sidelined or, for all practical purposes, gotten rid of altogether. 

Let’s take a closer look at the charismatic elements Gumbel wants churches to be filled with and then see how Spirit-filled and biblical such charismatic worship must be. In place of tongues coming upon persons by surprise like in New Testament cases, he believes that a Christian might have to kick-start the gift by beginning to speak of his own accord (p. 160.) Did New Testament disciples have to prime their gifts like this? There is no record of that. He also believes that Jackie Pullinger, just because she began to speak in tongues regularly, soon had gangsters fall to their knees before her, and women healed, and heroin users set free (p. 158.) In the New Testament the disciples spoke in tongues to tell foreign visitors the wonderful works of God. But now, imagine, you can pray in tongues in secret, all by yourself without foreigners hearing you or even being present, and the next time you go out miracles happen! What if the ‘tongues of angels’ were used, maybe? Let’s deal with that just in case. Does the apostle teach in 1 Corinthians 13.1 that tongues can be quite literally in the language of angels? (p. 155.) No, clearly not. When this is read without preconceived notions, it becomes as clear as glass that the apostle is simply saying there, by the use of hyperbole for effect, that a tongue without charity is nothing but an irritating noise. If Gumbel liked poetry as much as he values wives’ tales, maybe he’d know better than to assume literal meanings from figurative language. Take the wrong thing in the Bible literally, and you’ll have to give the nod to all sorts of anarchy. His discernment on healing is no better than it is for tongues. Though he used to be a lawyer, Gumbel cannot see, apparently, the illogic of using a passage that he believes to be inauthentic (Mark 16.9-20) to prove that the gift of healing is either normative, or that it at least should be! (p. 205.) He tries to build on that sinking sand, nevertheless (even though the gift of healing was barely normative in the ministry of Christ himself!) (See Matthew 13.58.) Who says that the greater things Jesus prophesied disciples would do (John 14.12) has to include healings, or that, if it does, the prophecy must mean the gift will be widespread or for all time? Why can’t the prophecy mean that consequent to Christ’s ascension and the sending of the Spirit, more conversions will happen? Why insist on healings, the inferior, temporal thing? Because people like Gumbel are obsessed with earthly things, just like the worldlings are, that’s why. Some Church Fathers did claim that healings were done in their day. This is a fact. But take Origen, for example. Can you believe all that a man says who was most infamous for allegorizing truth into oblivion like he did? Church Fathers, by and large, even including Augustine, are unreliable where a full orthodoxy is desired. Read The History of Christian Doctrines by Louis Berkhof and see. Their lack of spiritual sight should cause us to question whether all that they claimed to see by the naked eye was actually seen because false doctrine always carries flaws of character with it. Chapter 13 of Alpha, Does God Heal Today?, should be read in parallel with B. B. Warfield’s Counterfeit Miracles, my preferred helpmeet on the controversial subject of the charismata. Healing claims are put to a fair, rigorous test in there; all, or nearly all of them, are found wanting when weighed. Here are some results from Warfield’s competent, serviceable research: “Origen professes to have been an eye-witness of many instances of exorcism, healing, and prophecy, although he refuses to record the details lest he should rouse the laughter of the unbeliever” (Warfield, p. 12.) That’s pretty telling. When Augustine was believing in marvels being wrought aplenty (for he did not always believe this was possible in his day) we find him complaining “that so little was made of them. Each was known only in the spot where it was wrought, and even then only to a few persons” (Warfield, p. 44.) That’s very telling also. The reason miracle-stories even survive for the telling today is because of the immediacy of communicating worldwide. Otherwise these stories would fall to the ground right where they were dreamed up. The following suspicion-inducing observation about the miracles that were alleged during the Patristic period applies perfectly to those we hear of being wrought today: “The miracles of Scripture are, on the whole, grave, simple, majestic; those of ecclesiastical history often partake of what may be called a romantic character, and of that wildness and inequality which enters into the notion of romance” (Warfield, p. 54.) When you hear of women getting healed as the result of someone praying in tongues to God in secret, think, romance. Here is the rule I follow for whether I should believe a marvel is true or not (besides watching for this romantic element and besides what the person’s character tells me who’s making the claim.) Surprisingly, it comes from Augustine. His words are paraphrased by Warfield: “Miracles alleged in the interests of false doctrines are self-condemned” (Warfield, p. 52.) There’s a saying for the superstitious mind, including my own! Or in other words, in the more legal terms of Lyman H. Atwater, “A corrupt doctrine destroys a pretended miracle just as strong counter circumstantial evidence would invalidate the testimony of a single witness” (Warfield, pp. 52, 53.) When you hear of gangsters falling to their knees because someone prayed in tongues in secret, think, allegation self-condemned by false doctrine. Time will tell, says Gumbel, whether a person who feels he is healed actually is healed (p. 213.) Warfield shows that time usually tells that healing claims are false. Secular journalists have shown the same thing in our day, like when The Fifth Estate examined the ‘healings’ of Benny Hinn. Not even one of his healing claims could be validated. Nicky’s own gift is not all it could be either. The child he prayed for, well, he got much better than he was before, the operation was a success, but the Down’s syndrome remained (p. 214.) There are so many wonderful stories of modern healing to tell that Nicky doesn’t know what stories to pick for the telling (p. 209.) For sure, there is nothing about the sham-artists in here. No place for that! Gehazi (2 Kings 5) tried to make some gain from a healing (p. 201.) I guess he must have been the last one who tried that! Gumbel reread the whole Bible just to try to understand the doctrine of healing (p. 200.) Unless that boy with Down’s syndrome becomes normal soon, he’s going to have to go over it all again, hopefully with some help this time. Healing can and does happen. I believe it. But these ‘gifts’ people speak of having today, they very rarely and seldom show themselves true, or perhaps not at all. God does not have to heal through supernatural agencies. He can heal through natural means, or else by his own adjacent intervention.  

So it’s bad enough that Gumbel seeks to convince readers and Alpha course members that Roman Catholicism should be welcomed just as if the Reformation was all wrong. But he is equally anxious, maybe even more so, for everyone to accept as true the flightiest wings of charismania. From one extreme to the other, the heretical tradition to the church of wild goings-on—he would have us embrace all. One of his main avenues for bringing us into an acceptance of, and into a conformity with, this wild branch, is John Wimber, the major influence for spreading the Vineyard Christian Fellowship into virtually all the world. Christianity Today says that through Wimber’s leadership the Vineyard movement has blossomed into more than 750 fellowships worldwide. There is a lot said about this man on the internet, both positive and negative, from unmingled acclaim to whole sites of scorn. Much of the rest includes a mix of praise and doubt. The most responsible and efficient way to come out on the right side of a mongrel debate like that is to go to the source. And so I watched a video of this man’s pulpit performance. For ease of identification, it’s hard to know what to call the sermon. It says there: ‘Program 7, Part 1, Signs and Wonders’; but it also says: ‘The third lecture of the Signs and Wonders and Church Growth Conference in Anaheim, Ca, in the mid-80’s.’ Now what stands to face us in this sermon? A man dressed in his laissez-faire happy-go-lucky short-sleeved golf shirt, cracking jokes and making light of sacred matters, even of Jesus Christ himself! There is no more respect or decorum here than if he were strolling along the beach feeding seagulls! There is absolutely no salvation worked out here with ‘fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2.12); neither is there any service to God here in ‘reverence and godly fear’ (Hebrews 12.28) Instead we have mockery, scorn, irreverence, and godlessness. Here are some extracts. How did Jesus receive notification of Lazarus’ death? The disciples ‘called him or sent him a wire.’ What answer did Jesus send back? He told them ‘that he’s going to check in at the Ramada, and he kicked back for three days.’ Why did Jesus delay his coming? God had said something like this to him, ‘Hold on Son, we’re going to do something hot!’ Are we to believe that God speaks like a windbag? Only a windbag would speak for God in this manner. Wimber is a Windbag. There is no obligation even to check whether or not the man ever held to an orthodox creed. God does not anoint with power, windbags who do windbag impersonations of God! No further research necessary! If the disciples exhibited ‘humanity at its worst’ by discouraging kids from coming to Christ that one time like Wimber says, then is it unfair to say that Wimber exhibits the pulpit ministry at its worst by mocking God through irreverence? He actually imitates Jesus as a yelling, complaining whiner in this sermon! This he does after at least 25 years into his ministry, and from a pulpit! And we are supposed to charitably believe that this man’s ministry has done wonders for the Church of God! We’re supposed to believe that all the falling, shaking, snorting, twitching, babbling, barking, gobbledygook, and turkey-talk that goes on in churches of his making is nothing else but the blessed New Testament religion of Jesus Christ the Saviour! We’re supposed to believe that this rioting, produced by dark, unholy preaching, is the religion of God for saints who walk in light! I refuse to believe that this man was ever saved! And I am convinced, and not afraid to say it, that all, or nearly all, of the hysterical charismata you hear of going on out there, not just here but even more now in the Third World, is barbarous, pagan religion. Its mask has certain Christian markings on it. But look closely with the biblical eye and you’ll see that these markings form a distorted glaze that overlays a base of wizardry. Gumbel warns of occult powers, horoscopes, channeling, and ouija boards, obvious dangers (p. 168.) But charismatic hypnotism, spirit-slaying, mantras, and freakish words of so-called ‘knowledge’ are just as unbiblical and witchcraft-like. He has nothing negative to say about any of that, though. As a matter of fact, this latter class of sorcery is more concerning than the former because it presents itself in the garb of Christianity. The black stuff you know enough to stay away from. But the stuff that’s dipped in a Christian hue will appear safe and full of blessing, just as we might expect from shades of the devil appearing as light. Are there Christians in the Vineyard movement? I believe there might be many. But any Christian who would follow a man like Wimber can be no more grown up spiritually than a babe just born. And we are all called to grow up.      

Though Nicky Gumbel counters easy-believism by a quote or two, the tendency of this mediocre exertion is to assure persons of salvation on the basis of very little, even no, evidence that they’ve obtained it. On the cover we read that this is an Introduction to the Christian Faith. By this is meant a dual purpose. He’s attempting to instruct Christians about the faith they have and should learn about. And he’s also trying to introduce persons into the Christian Faith. This latter object is clear from the sinner’s prayer drawn up on page 68 for unconverted sinners to assent to. By page 88 he is instructing his readers, without further warning or preaching, to pray to God ‘our Father.’ This he deems justifiable, I suppose, only because he assumes they’ve received salvation through that written prayer they were told to repeat twenty pages earlier. Does a prayer, if repeated as instructed, ensure salvation? I’m not saying that sinners can’t be converted to Christ through meager means and weak agents. There’s at least one conversion attributed to the Alpha means (p. 187.) What I’m saying is that it is presumptuous and dangerous to assume sinners have become converted just because they may have repeated a ‘sinner’s prayer’ that we drew up.  Gumbel is all zeal for getting Christians to tell others about Jesus Christ (pp. 146, 147.) He’s very critical about that. But he has no criticism for those who are most to blame for the situation in Church, if not the World as well: pastors like him. This Alpha book is a parade of doctrinal errors, with numerous repetitions of gullible assumptions peppered in between and on either side. It’s business, besides making money from all the Alpha products, is to unite Christianity with Hypocrisy and Heresy. When the heroes by which we are lured into this are put to the test, we find misunderstanding and misrepresentation (like in the case of Lord Hailsham) or showboating and mockery of God from the pulpit (like in the case of John Wimber.) Neither one appears to have had any faith to speak of, let alone boast about. And I chose to research these two men at random from among Gumbel’s many heroes, not knowing what I would find, for I knew nothing at all of either one before doing this book report. My suspicions of them were dead on, as they also are in Nicky Gumbel’s case. Nicky Gumbel is na├»ve, poorly trained, and blinded by ecumenical motives. This is my verdict. If we believe him, and receive as true all that he approves of, there is next to nothing that we can exclude from our Faith once delivered (Jude 3.)           

Content: C (Lots of stories and cartoons, little doctrine.)
    Style: C (There is no style.)
    Tone: C (Nice, but with a sinister purpose.)
Grading Table: A: a keeper: reread it; promote it; share it.
                         B: an average book: let it go.
                         C: read only if you have to.