Answer to Open Challenge to Fans and Critics of Bill Johnson/Bethel Church
September 7, 2013 62 Comments
Since the original Open Challenge to Fans and Critics of Bill Johnson/Bethel Church has not received much interaction apart from regular readers here on CrossWise, it seems best to fully explain the selected text comprising that challenge in this separate post, as I deem this information critical to understanding the basis not just of Johnson’s Christology, but of his entire theology.
In the following message, taken from Bill Johnson’s 12/20/09 sermon Jesus is our Model (2nd service), all CAPS indicates Johnson’s emphasis, other emphasis is added, indicating portions important in understanding the overall message:
…Look at [ED: Luke 4] verse 3, “And, the devil said to Him, ‘IF you are the Son of God command this stone to become bread.’” Jesus answered Him saying, “It is written: Man shall not live by bread alone but by every WORD of God.” What was the first temptation? It wasn’t to turn stone into bread, it was to question who He was. Verse 3, “the devil said to Him, IF you are the Son of God’.” What did it say in verse 22, chapter 3? “YOU are My beloved Son.” “In YOU I am well pleased”. What was his first temptation? “IF you are the Son of God”.
We find Johnson here making the claim that Jesus’ first temptation from Satan was to question His identity, who He was. By this he means that “IF you are the Son of God” is the focal point of this temptation, rather than trying to persuade Him to turn the stone to bread. Johnson reaches this conclusion by going back to the Father’s words to Jesus in Luke 3:22. This is why he stresses “WORD of God” in Luke 4:4.
However, quite simply, the word if should be taken as since: “Since you are the Son of God command this stone to become bread.” The IF in the initial clause is not conditional; it’s descriptive. Satan knows full well Jesus is the Son of God (James 2:19); and, Jesus had been well aware of His identity as evidenced by His words to his mother Mary as a 12 year old, “Didn’t you know I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49, NIV). Therefore, from a Biblically orthodox perspective, this temptation was to persuade Jesus to use His own intrinsic power to satisfy His human need, rather than to fulfill the work He came to do by relying on the Father for His sustenance while in the wilderness.
Here’s the main problem with Johnson’s words above: His teaching posits that Satan was tempting Jesus not to believe the spoken words of the Father (from Luke 3:22). In effect, this turns Jesus into one who is dependent upon the so-called ‘present truth’, or ‘new revelation’ (“what God is saying and doing” below) that hyper-charismatics claim are greater than Scripture in terms of authority. This is made clear in the very next section of his message (“Do I honor what God has declared over my life or not?”). But, more importantly, note how Johnson is making the claim that Matthew 13 applies to Jesus, not just mankind:
Jesus explains this later to the disciples in Matthew 13; I’ll just read the one phrase to you that’ll help that concept to make sense. He was talking about people who had no root in themselves; they hear the Word but there’s no depth in their person. They’ve not been prepared for what God is saying and doing. And, then it says “for when tribulation or persecution arises because of the WORD [ED: 3 second pause for emphasis] immediately they stumble. Persecution, difficulty, conflict arises because of the Word. The WORD of the Lord attracts CONFLICT. It’s not punishment. It’s not to humiliate. It’s for two basic reasons: it’s because the Lord wants to give reward and He wants to honor character. Character is not formed in the absence of options. There has to be two trees in the Garden where I am honored for a decision. Do I honor what God has declared over my life or not? Do I consider other options, other possibilities?
According to Christian orthodoxy, the Parable of the Sower/Soils (Matthew 13:1-23) pertains to humankind, not to Jesus. The “Word” (seed) in this parable refers to the Gospel message that Jesus Himself, as the “farmer” (Matthew 13:3), was proclaiming, contrary to Johnson’s explanation. Moreover, this parable has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus’ temptation in the desert (Luke 4:1-13).
Given the potentially confusing nature of the above, we’ll recap. In making the claim that Jesus’ first temptation from Satan was to question His identity as the Son of God and then using the Parable of the Sower/Soils to explain his meaning, Johnson has reduced Jesus to one who is dependent upon the so-called ‘present truths’ for His identity and guidance, just like the rest of humankind, per Johnson’s theology. Consequently, as per Johnson, Jesus is potentially subject to stumbling when “persecution, difficulty, conflict arises because of the Word”, because Jesus Himself could have chosen to listen to Satan rather than God if He didn’t have enough ‘depth in His Person’.
Obviously, Johnson is way off base Biblically here, but to what ends? Why has he conflated and reinterpreted Scripture so?
Interestingly, Johnson’s interpretation of the first temptation as Satan questioning His identity, with Jesus’ replying that He/we are to rely on “present truths” is found in New Age / New Spirituality teaching. In the following note how “Satan” is equated with “Ego”, which, in occult terminology, is the so-called “lower self”, the human nature. This is as opposed to the “higher self”, the divine seed/spark, or “Christ” within. This particular author is using the parallel passage in Matthew of Luke 4:3-4:
“And when the tempter (Satan / Ego) came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he (Jesus) answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:3-4).
Our ego always compromises the truth by masking true reality for the grand illusion; in essence, the ego is the anchor to the physical perspective. But Jesus overcomes this perspective. He tells Satan that man does not live by bread alone (physical existence), but by every word from the mouth of God (spirit). In fact since Jesus denies the bread completely, we understand that ultimate truth lies beyond the veil of the physical realm and instead resides in the spiritual realm, or the realm of consciousness that operates beyond this 3D physical experience [bold and parenthetical remarks in original; other emphasis added].
Bill Johnson has used (as have others in hyper-charismaticism) this very same physical realm vs. spiritual realm false dichotomy more than once. Here’s one example:
The focus of repentance is to change our way of thinking until the presence of His Kingdom fills our consciousness. The enemy’s attempt to anchor our affections to the things that are visible is easily resisted when our hearts are aware of the presence of His world…
If the Kingdom is here and now, then we must acknowledge it’s in the invisible realm. Yet being at hand reminds us that it’s also within reach…That which is unseen can be realized only through repentance [ED: aka, “intimacy with the Father”, “ascended lifestyle”, etc.]. It was as though He said, ‘If you don’t change the way you perceive things, you’ll live your whole life thinking what you see in the natural is the superior reality… [WHIE p 38. Italics in original; emphasis added. Cf. SPTM p 41]
Keep in mind that in Johnson’s dictionary repentance comes from having “intimacy with the Father” (which leads to the “ascended lifestyle” or “renewed mind”), performing “Biblical meditation” (which, as Johnson describes it, is not Biblical, but just like contemplative prayer, or centering prayer in method), aka “soaking”, etc. [see here for more explanation]. Contrary to Scripture, Johnson teaches that to repent is to perceive the spiritual realm, with increasing “repentance” providing more and more access to the “invisible” realm. As he states, “Repentance is not complete until it envisions His Kingdom” [WHIE p 38; cf. SPTM pp 42-45].
Going back to Johnson’s sermon, it’s the rest of this particular section in Johnson’s monologue that puts all the pieces together in this specific teaching:
The Scripture, this story in Matthew 13, the parable of the seed and the sower, actually gives this picture of soil; and the seed of God’s Word, the sperma of God, is released into the seed, through His Word, into the soil. And, then it says, but other things grow and they choke out the life of that seed of God. Think about it: the Word of God, the most powerful thing in the universe, is put into an environment that if we give attention to other IDEALS, other VOICES, other WORDS, we actually give them a place in our heart to take root and they choke out the Word of God, the most powerful thing in the universe. For a season, the Lord has allowed our choices to affect the power, the effect of the most powerful thing in the universe. It’s stunning.
Note that there are two seeds – one external and one internal. To differentiate, the internal seed here is in green colored font. The above underscored “seed of God” is ambiguous in the context; it could refer to the external seed or the internal seed.
This section of Johnson’s message above will be explained in-depth, as it’s very confusingly worded.
The external seed is “the seed of God’s Word, the sperma of God”. This could be construed one of two ways. The first is that God’s Word has a seed which is called “sperma of God”. That is, the “seed” / “sperma” (of God) is a subunit of God’s Word. The second possible understanding is that God’s Word = the “sperma of God”. In other words, this could be rephrased as ‘God’s Word, which is a seed, also known as the sperma of God…’ The first view seems to make the most sense in this context.
More important is the internal seed called “the seed” (and possibly “seed of God”). The internal seed is the one which “the seed of God’s Word, the sperma of God” is released into. To state another way, the external seed, “the seed of God’s Word, the sperma of God”, is released into the internal seed, which is in the individual’s “soil”. To put yet another way, through the Word (of new revelation) the external “seed of God’s Word (“sperma of God”) is released into the internal “seed” in the soil of the hearer:
… the [external] seed of God’s Word, the sperma of God, is released into the [internal] seed, through His Word [new revelation], into the [internal] soil.
So then, “His Word”, the so-called “present truth”, aka “new revelation”, is the vehicle by which the external seed, the “sperma of God” is released into the internal “seed” in the soil of the individual. Bear in mind Johnson’s claim above that Matthew 13 also pertains to Jesus. This means that Jesus Himself had a seed in his soil, and that “through His Word” (present truth, new revelation), the “sperma of God”, aka “the seed of God’s Word” was released into His internal “seed”, which is in His internal “soil”.
Tying it all Together by Going Back to the Roots
Putting all this together, Johnson is teaching that Jesus, like all men, has a seed within Him, which can either grow by paying heed to so-called present truth, aka new revelation (“the most powerful thing in the universe”) such as “YOU are My beloved Son”, or the seed can be choked out by other “IDEALS”, “VOICES”, “WORDS”. Jesus’ first temptation in the wilderness is an example of these other ideals, voices, words, yet Jesus withstood this temptation, providing an example for the rest of mankind.
A form of this teaching, known as Gnosticism, goes all the way back to the second century (and perhaps the first century). Early church leaders (some term them “fathers”), perhaps most notably in the writings of Irenaeus, battled against the Gnostics, using the pen as their sword. The basic worldview of the Gnostics was dualistic, such that all matter is evil, while spirit is good. Humankind, while inwardly spirit and hence good, was enfleshed by evil matter, the outward body. The goal was to escape the flesh, thus attaining self-redemption. This was accomplished through secret knowledge, or gnosis (new revelation) that came by way of mystical experiences from mystical practices.
This doctrine is reprised or repackaged in varying forms in the New Age / New Spirituality teachings of today. In Levi Dowling’s popular book titled The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, originally published in 1907 and still in print today, is an introduction that recounts these teachings. The following two quotes describe the basic doctrine, comparing remarkably well with Johnson’s “sperma of God” concept. First, there is a “Christ” within (internal divine seed, spark of divine light), which was deposited in all of creation at the very beginning:
…Christ, the universal Love, pervades all spaces of infinity…
Perfection is the ultimate of life. A seed is perfect in its embryonic form, but it is destined to unfold, to grow. Into the soil of every plane these seeds, which were the Thoughts of God, were cast…and they who sowed the seeds, through Christ, ordained that they should grow…and to each be a perfection of its kind. [AGJC, p 6; capitalization from original, emphasis added]
These seeds then are the “Thoughts of God” lying dormant in each and every thing or being. The key is to awaken, or “sow” the seed through Christ, that is, the “Christ” without, the external “Christ”/Word:
Christ is the Logos [Word] of Infinities and through the Word alone are Thought and Force made manifest.[AGJC, p 6; CAPS from original, emphasis added]
Let’s compare this directly to Johnson’s teaching above:
… the[external] seed of God’s Word, the sperma of God, is released into the [internal] seed, through His Word [new revelation], into the [internal] soil.
In each case, the vehicle is “through the/His Word”. Levi states that “Thought and Force” are “made manifest only “through the Word”, while Johnson’s doctrine above is such that new revelation/present truths are made manifest “through His Word”. These are striking similarities. The only difference is that Levi is explicit that the seed inside all things is divine; Johnson is ambiguous with his seed.
Levi’s doctrine is explicitly panentheistic, i.e., God is IN all [pan = all; en = in; the, from theos = God]. Bill Johnson’s is not incongruent with panentheism, though, as noted, he’s ambiguous. Is Johnson’s internal seed divine like Levi’s, which would mean he’s teaching panentheism?
While there are a number of different views of panentheism in the varying religious systems in the world, there are some consistencies in the doctrine with respect to how it relates to Jesus Christ and Christianity in esotericism. For perhaps a clearer understanding, here’s Richard Smoley from his book Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition: with a general view of “Christian” esotericism and the doctrine of panentheism:
…The Father is the ineffable, transcendent aspect of God; the Son [ED: Christ] is God’s immanent aspect. This divine spark or Logos is the first sounding-forth of existence from the depths of infinity: “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men” (John 1:3-4). Christ is the embodiment of this immanent aspect of God.
So are we. “Without him was not any thing made that was made.” Nothing comes into existence unless this divine spark of consciousness, no matter how faint or dim, lies at its center. This was true of Jesus, it is true of me, and it is true of you…We may not be as exalted as Christ…But at the core we are the same [IC, pp 134-135; all emphasis added].
Note the two separate aspects of God: the transcendent, which is the ineffable (inexpressible) Father, and the immanent (within all of creation) aspect, which is the Son (Christ). This immanence is alternatively called divine seed, divine spark, divine (spark of) light, logos, or Christ. So, the Son/Christ is a divine entity, and this divine entity was diffused throughout creation as a seed / spark / light. This view of panentheism is such that all is in God (the transcendent Father is wholly outside, surrounding all of creation) and God is in all (the Son/Christ is within all of creation).
Yet, observe that Jesus Himself is called Christ (“Christ is the embodiment of this immanent aspect of God”), rather than merely, for example, Jesus of Nazareth. Smoley quotes from A Course in Miracles to describe Him:
The name of Jesus is the name of the one who was a man but saw the face of Christ in all his brothers and remembered God. So he became identified with Christ, a man no longer, but at one with God [ACIM, Teachers Manual, p 87; emphasis in original].
Smoley then quotes the “Jesus” of the Course as saying all can do what He did, describing Him as an intermediary, making the impossible (the distance is too great between us and the Father) into possibility [IC, p 135]. The author goes on to affirm that all are Christs, at least potentially [IC, pp 135-136].
But what of the Holy Spirit? Smoley describes this false trinity, to include the integral role of the Spirit:
How do these two, the Father and the Son, interact with each other? What enables them to have any connection at all, while still in some way remaining distinct? There is…a principle that makes this interaction possible. It is called the Comforter, or the Holy Spirit.
Here, in essence, is the Christian Trinity…Between them [Father and Son] is the Holy Spirit, the divine principle of relatedness, which accomplishes perhaps the most astonishing of all miracles: uniting two separate entities while still allowing them to be separate [IC, pp 103-104].
Levi Dowling either conflates and/or confuses the Holy Spirit (“Holy Breath”) with the ‘external Christ’, or he’s trying to convey the same thing as Smoley above [AGJC, pp 8-9]. That is, it may be that “Holy Breath” activates the Christ/Word within and/or communicates the Word from the Father to the inner Christ. Either interpretation brings forth the same basic idea as Smoley’s description. What has Bill Johnson said about the relationship between the Father and the Son? Keeping in mind the foregoing, look for the similarities in Johnson’s words below with so-called “Esoteric Christianity”:
The Father, by the Holy Spirit, directed all that Jesus said and did [F2F, p 108].
It was the Holy Spirit upon Jesus that enabled Him to know what the Father was doing and saying [DWG, p 136].
If we were to assume that Johnson’s internal seed is indeed the divine seed (spark, Christ, etc.) concept, his theology would fit right into the above. Even his “eternally God” statements would have no trouble being synthesized, as certainly if everything has a seed/spark of the divine within, then it’s not a stretch to claim all are, in essence, God, to include the human Jesus Johnson portrays. This is precisely why New Agers can call themselves “Christs” or “gods” with a straight face.
This “seed”/”sperma of God” concept is equivalent to “the anointing”, that is, Johnson’s teaching that Christ = “the anointing” or “anointed one” (of many) [see The Christ Anointing section here for in-depth look], with “the anointing” itself coming from the Spirit which brings the Word of new revelation. Johnson’s view more closely aligns with Levi’s; the first quote below comes from Dowling’s book, the others are from Johnson’s Face to Face with God:
The word Christ is derived from the Greek word Kristos [ED: actually Christos] and means anointed…The word Christ, in itself, does not refer to any particular person; every anointed person is christed [sic]… [AGJC, p 6; italics in original; bold added.]
The outpouring of the Spirit also needed to happen to Jesus for Him to be fully qualified. This was His quest. Receiving this anointing qualified Him to be called the Christ, which means “anointed one.” Without the experience [ED: the anointing] there could be no title [F2F, p 109; italics in original, bold added].
…The outpouring of the Spirit comes to anoint the church with the same Christ anointing that rested upon Jesus in His ministry so that we might be imitators of Him… [F2F, p 77; emphasis added].
Keep in mind that Jesus’ “anointing”, as per Johnson in the above, is referring to the Spirit descending as a dove upon Him, which is subsequent to His baptism in water by John, and that this is how He received the title of Christ. In the Apocryphal/Gnostic Gospel of Philip from the 2nd century is the same idea. In the following, there is a specific distinguishing between water baptism and ‘anointing’ [chrisma (not chrism as in the text) is the Greek transliterated word meaning anointing]. The “anointing” here is identified as the mark of a Christian, rather than true Christian conversion upon which one receives the Holy Spirit indwelling – just like Bill Johnson’s teachings:
The chrism is superior to baptism. For from the chrism we were called ‘Christians’, not from baptism. Christ also was (so) called because of the anointing. For the Father anointed the Son. But the Son anointed the apostles. And the apostles anointed us. He who is anointed possesses all things. He has the resurrection, the light, the cross [GoP, p 200; emphasis added].
Integral to the Gospel of Philip is the divine seed / spark ideology. Bill Johnson’s overall Christology would fit nicely into this same Gnostic framework, with his seed as the divine seed / spark. Assuming Johnson’s seed is divine, with each subsequent “anointing” by the external “seed”/”sperma of God” (which is the “word” of new revelation, or “what God is saying and doing” as per Johnson above), the internal “seed” grows towards maturity (perfection).
Again, assuming Johnson’s seed is divine, then the “spiritual DNA” teaching, which is becoming more prevalent, would be yet another way of stating this concept. That is, when the “seed”/”sperma of God” [anointing] is “released into the seed [inside the individual], through His Word, into the soil [ED: which contains the individual’s ‘seed‘]” initially, then this is the point in which the individual’s divine spark/seed is activated, which is equivalent to one’s latent “spiritual DNA” activated. [See Getting Down to the DNA of Spiritual DNA section here.]
It seems that the interpretation of this internal seed as being the divine seed concept (divine spark, Christ within, etc.), as used in “esoteric Christianity”, makes the most sense of Bill Johnson’s usage in the context above when viewed in the light of some his other teachings (“the anointing”, “spiritual DNA”).
Cf. (cf.) = compare, or see also
ACIM = Helen Schucman A Course in Miracles: Combined Volume, 1992 (2nd ed), Foundation for Inner Peace, Glen Ellen, CA
AGJC = Levi Dowling The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ: The Philosophic and Practical Basis of the Religion of the Aquarian Age of the World, © 1907 Eva S. Dowling and Leo W. Dowling, © 1935 and © 1964 Leo W. Dowling, (11th printing, 1987), DeVorss, Marina del Rey, CA
DWG = Bill Johnson Dreaming with God: Secrets to Redesigning Your World Through God’s Creative Flow. 2006, Destiny Image, Shippensburg, PA
F2F = Bill Johnson Face to Face with God: The Ultimate Quest to Experience His Presence, 2007, Charisma House, Lake Mary, FL
GoP = “The Gospel of Philip” in Wilhelm Schneemelcher; transl. R. McL. Wilson New Testament Apocrypha: Volume One: Gospels and Related Writings. © J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tubingen, 1990; English Translation © James Clarke & Co. Ltd, 1991 (Rev. ed.), Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY
IC = Richard Smoley Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition,2002, Shambhala, Boston, MA. In the Acknowledgements section is “Reverend” Cynthia Bourgeault (author of The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His Message. 2008, Shambhala, Boston, MA, which has been quoted from on CrossWise), Jacob Needleman, among others. Endorsements include Jean Houston and David Spangler.
SPTM = Bill Johnson, The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind: Access to a Life of Miracles, 2005, Destiny Image: “Speaking to the Purposes of God for This Generation and for the Generations to Come”, Shippensburg, PA
WHIE = Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles, 2003, Treasure House/Destiny Image, Shippensburg, PA