Where Does The 'Alpha Course' Stand in 2009?

Honestly Facing Up To

The Inadequacies of 'Alpha'





The 'Alpha Course' is the course in basic Christianity which has come out of Holy Trinity Church, Brompton Place, London (from now on in this article, 'HTB'). It is heavily associated with pastor Nicky Gumbel who is a commited charismatic preacher, and a minister of The Church of England.

This course has basically operated by sending it's lectures, study resources and materials out to numerous churches so that 'alpha groups' may be set up in numerous areas; the wholly commendable purpose being to lead many to Christ. Once a purely British matter, this study series is no longer confined to British shores but now goes around the world.

Pastor Nicky Gumbel

Pastor Nicky Gumbel preaching in Canada.

There is no doubt that some, probably very many, have come to Christianity through the Alpha Course, however, committed Christians must always monitor all such trends, initiatives and programmes to see what fruits are being produced. Matthew 7:16.

Having said that possibly many have come to Christianity who first started learning its basic truths through courses such as 'Alpha,' one would love to know how many such people - five or ten years later - remain committed Christians, but one must suppose that this is a question only too seldom answered.
In the opinion of many, 'Alpha' (as written), has carried an immediate flaw which is not too hard to detect; this is in it's approach to the Holy Spirit; the course is heavily Pentecostal/charismatic in this vital area of teaching, rather than reflecting established Protestant evangelical theology. Generally, the feeling among numerous pastors who have employed this resource has been that 'Alpha' is fine but the section on the Holy Spirit needs to be based on a sounder theology and, in fact, many local churches who have used this course have handled that section in their own way (which, we understand, strictly-speaking, breaks 'Alpha' rules).

But UK Apologetics does have several serious areas of concern about 'Alpha' - areas which we now feel we should address. Several reports have come into us that HTB (again, 'HTB' referring to Holy Trinity Church, Brompton Place, London) and 'Alpha' now teach the prosperity gospel. We firstly tended to dismiss this since we do know that pastor Nicky Gumbel is often excellent in the general area of Christian Apologetics. Of course his Pentecostal/charismatic approach was known to us, nevertheless we believed that certain extremes of teaching and behaviour associated with what one can only call 'charismania' would be wisely avoided by a preacher with such a concern for Christian Apologetics (that is, the defence of the Christian Faith).
Unfortunately our direct approach to HTB in November 2008 for a clarification on this issue was disappointingly unsuccessful (more on that towards the end of this article, which we encourage you to read to its conclusion).

Our Concerns About 'Alpha'

1. The 'Roots' of Alpha: Experiential, "Prophetic" and Emotional Theology.

Frankly, the roots of this whole approach are highly questionable. 'Alpha' really took off around 1990 (although it goes back longer than that, indeed as far back as the late 1970s), but we understand that it was from around 1990 that the course started to be more widely promoted and subsequently widely sent out to other churches as an evangelistic resource; it has been claimed that highly controversial preacher Paul Cain ministered at HTB in 1990. Cain's mentor was William Branham (1909-1965), sometimes considered to be the 'father' of the modern "faith healing movement." But Branham is now generally regarded with great suspicion, if not regarded as a clearly deceiving teacher by most of conservative evangelicalism. Branham denied the Trinity and was influenced by New Ageism, he also claimed himself to be the 'angel' of Revelation 3:14 and 10:7, although some deny that he taught this. He certainly appeared to teach that 'God wrote three Bibles' - the zodiac, the pyramids and the written Bible. There is no doubt that spirits appeared to be regularly involved in Branham's evangelistic life - but which spirits?

Holy Trinity pastor Nicky Gumbel also appears to greatly admire John Wimber (1934-1997). There was much good in Wimber, however, he sometimes employed very questionable practices, he also admired and was influenced by people like Kenneth Hagin and John Loren Sandford. These people have been associated with dangerous and subversive doctrines including, of course, the 'health, wealth and prosperity gospel' ('Word-faith'), and many of their extra-biblical teachings have a very clear New Age base. To be fair, Wimber himself rejected Word-faith theology but he nevertheless believed that signs and wonders should now be a normal occurrence among believers, and was firmly in the 'prophetic charismatic' camp (more about that brand of theology later).

In short, the whole foundation of promoting 'Alpha' as an introductory Christian course seems to be rooted in emotional and experiential practice and in a world of "prophetic" ministry (see 'Are There Prophets in Today's Church?'). At the very least this should mean that 'Alpha' must always be closely and constantly monitored.


2. The 'Holy Spirit' of Alpha: Insufficiently Grounded in Christ and in the Gospel.

Of course, 'Alpha' outlines the Lord Jesus Christ, however, the claim has often been made that whereas the New Testament is 'Christocentric' (placing Christ absolutely central in everything), 'Alpha' has a focus which is much more on the Holy Spirit, perhaps we could call it 'pneumacentric.'

The Christian Research Network Journal has stated that,

Alpha’s ‘Spirit’ appears to work in ways that lie outside the confines of Scripture. Whoever it is that people are ‘introduced’ to at the Alpha Weekend, it is not the Holy Spirit. But whoever this mysterious guest is, he is equally at home with the ecstatic gatherings of New Age enthusiasts and non-Christian religions alike.

Alan Howe has further written:

“Central to the Alpha Course is not the Christian gospel, but the so-called ‘Holy Spirit Weekend’ which is in fact a thinly-disguised opportunity for initiation into the Toronto Blessing experience. Nicky Gumbel, curate at Holy Trinity, Brompton had received the ‘blessing’ from Eleanor Mumford of the South-West London Vineyard following her return from Toronto in May 1994. Subsequent to this event, Toronto-style teaching concerning the reception of the Holy Spirit took centre-stage. An unknown evangelistic tool had thus become a syncretistic mixture of orthodoxy and heresy.”
(The Christian Research Network Journal, Spring 1998).

Certainly the 'Toronto Spirit Experience' has been much involved in HTB and at Alpha 'weekends' and Gumbel seems to be guilty of teaching an explanation of the Holy Spirit which is much too loose, too experiential and too dangerously vague, whereas the New Testament urges believers to 'try the spirits' (1 John 4:1-5). John's original warning here concerned proto-gnosticism; these people believed that Jesus had not literally come 'in the flesh,' but only on the level of an apparition, but today John's warning, along with all the other New Testament warnings about false teachers, effectively warns us to check out the orthodoxy of all preachers. Isaiah 8:20 points to the 'law and the testimony' as the yardstick for all preachers. Where do such preachers stand on the The Apostle's Creed and the other great creeds of the Faith? Biblically, the Holy Spirit magnifies Christ - but not Himself - but in 'Alpha,' the Holy Spirit sometimes seems to be doing 'his own thing.' Some of those who have been involved with HTB and 'Alpha' claim that they have felt a force, or an unseen power, impelling them to do some very strange and even unchristian things, such as laughing uncontrollably. All responsible Christians - at length - must surely question such things in order to evaluate the fruits of a movement.

The aforementioned Christian Research Network Journal attributed this quote to Gumbel,

“Sometimes, when people are filled, they shake like a leaf in the wind. Others find themselves breathing deeply as if almost physically breathing in the Spirit. ... Physical heat sometimes accompanies the filling of the Spirit and people experience it in their hands or some other part of their bodies. One person described a feeling of ‘glowing all over.’ Another said she experienced ‘liquid heat.’ Still another described ‘burning in my arms when I was not hot.'”

Surely we must be very alert to the dangers of allowing feelings, frenzies, tingles, sensations and subjective impressions take over from sound, logical teaching and an acceptance of such when in a clear and controlled state of mind? What did Paul the Apostle write to Timothy on that matter?

'For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.' (2 Timothy1:7).

In complete contrast to that, several have informed us of a real fear to attend Pentecostal and charismatic services because of deeply disturbing and frankly weird 'strange manifestations.' Some who have come through 'Alpha' tell us that they were encouraged to seek guidance through visions, voices and dreams. This, of course, is monumentally irresponsible and dangerous, but one never knows just who might be lecturing at any point and, in fairness, the organizers of 'Alpha' cannot always control everything.

3. Alpha is Too Worldly.

Whereas the New Testament appears to encourage Christian believers to put a certain separation between themselves and the world, in other words, to avoid 'worldliness' (James 2:1-7; 4:4-6; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18, for instance), 'Alpha' seems pretty much disinterested in that. In fact, a chief criticism of the course and of HTB is that they readily buy into modern and popular concepts of pseudo-spirituality, much of it seemingly New Age influenced.

Moreover, 'Alpha' publications never seem to present some sort of consistent doctrine of God, with virtually nothing about the attributes of God, His character, His omnipresence or His personhood. Now it is true that Jesus should be our starting point, nevertheless, in a society which is often obsessed with "spirituality," but with no real understanding of it, surely more should be clearly stated on this topic in order to avoid confusion and in order to avoid New Age contamination. Overall 'Alpha' does seem to lean toward a mystical and undefined view of God.

So 'Alpha' seems to be very affected by the modern concern for enjoyable and experiential living with a suspicious concern for experiencing one's 'whole personhood.' The situation of Mankind as being in a state of 'falleness' until receiving redemption in Christ is also largely missing from this system of teaching; Indeed, it has been claimed that, "the plight of man in 'Alpha' is not as serious as in the Bible," again this seems to be a very fair critique. Alpha understands and teaches sin much more as something which can be seen in the way we have ‘messed up our lives,’ or caused ourselves 'needless misery and unhappiness.' Yet the Holy Bible teaches sin as being a very grievous matter which made the sacrifice of Christ necessary. It would probably be unfair to state that 'Alpha' never touches on this at all, yet the balance is certainly wrong - much too anthropocentric, especially in a highly irreligious, anthropocentric and materialistic modern age. In 'Alpha' one does not feel too bad about onself for too long; this may be contrasted with the complete 'brokeness' which repentant sinners experienced during the great revivals when confronted with the reality of sin. Indeed, having mentioned 'repentance,' that appears to be a much lighter thing in 'Alpha' than in the New Testament and in more established Protestant evangelical theology.


4. Alpha is 'Prophetic charismatic' and 'Triumphalist' in Theology.

Again, if one should quickly refer back to our first point of considering the 'roots,' or foundation of Alpha, this is exactly what one might expect.

Apologist Hank Hanegraaff's appraisal of this form of theology goes like this:

“Leaders of the Counterfeit Revival demand the Kingdom now! — in this life, with all of its attendant material wealth, public accolades, physical health, and earthly power.”
(Counterfeit Revival, pg. 108, Dallas: Word Publishers, 1997).

Now we must understand that the New Testament does indeed teach that Christians enter God's kingdom even in this life, however, the dramatic and supernatural manifestations of this were only granted to the original Apostles and possibly to certain others of God's choosing (not ours!). The reader is strongly encouraged to read 'What are the Signs of an Apostle'?. This approach has been widely accepted by Protestant and Orthodox theology alike because it is what many hundreds of years of Christian life and experience have taught us. So whilst the New Testament teaches that Christians enter God's kingdom in this very life, all the fullest and greatest manifestations of that kingdom are reserved for the life to come, that is, Eternal Life.

In contrast, 'prophetic charismatic' tiumphalist theology tells us that we can tap into these things right now as long as we have sufficient faith ('faith' frequently being defined differently to the biblical definition - see 'All About Faith; What Is It? What Isn't It?'). This theology only arose in the United States of the 19th century. This new brand of theology led to the appearance of numerous "prophets." One especially consistent characteristic of the new prophets was (and is) their insistence that the New Testament prophets do not have to be subjected to the 'genuine prophet' tests of Deuteronomy (13.1-3 and 18.22). The 20th century saw this movement develop even further through the activities of people like William Branham, the 'Kansas City Prophets,' and many others. 'Word-faith' is also of this lineage through teachers like E.W. Kenyon, Kenneth Hagin and numerous others. John Wimber of the Vineyard Movement too was very typical. Current preachers such as Paul Cain and Benny Hinn (both very high-profile and extremely controversial), as well as Joyce Meyer and Creflo Dollar stand securely in this theological lineage. This theological approach, of course, stood at the very centre of both Pentecostalism and the successive 'waves' of the charismatic movement.

Much within 'Triumphalist' theology is based on Mark 16:15-20 and John 14:12, so let us give some consideration to these scriptural texts:

a. Mark 16:15-20.
First of all, the Mark 16 passage has been very hotly disputed as to it's authenticity. The problem is that most of the more reliable and older biblical manuscripts do not even contain these words. The most reliable texts only go to Mark 16:8, which is why verses 9-20 are not even included in some Bibles, yet it has long been established that Christian doctrine should always be established upon strong and corroborated biblical references. There seems little wrong with most of the verses from Mark 16:9-20, however, verses 17-18 do present a problem and it is foolish for any of us to deny this, yet these verses are vital to 'Kingdom Now' teaching. The first part of verse 18, for example, states this as a sign which would follow the Apostles,

'They will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all;' (Mark 16:18a, NIV).

Again, perhaps a little strange, however, if these verses are authentic they would still only apply to the original Apostles (Mark 16:14).

b. John 14:12.
The concept that the "greater works" which Jesus promised His disciples would do (after His ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit) simply refers to the miraculous and the supernatural (a central plank of 'Kingdom Now' theology), will not stand up on any semantic ground whatsoever. As Dr. Harry Ironside has well pointed out:

“When you realize that when Jesus left this scene, committing His gospel to a little group of eleven men in order that they might carry it to the ends of the earth, at that time the whole world, with the exception of a few in Israel, was lost in the darkness of heathenism. But in three hundred years Christianity closed nearly all the temples of the heathen Roman Empire, and numbered its converts by millions. These were the greater works, and down through the centuries He still carries on this ministry.”
(Harry Ironside, Addresses on The Gospel of John. Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux Brothers, 1984, pg. 619).

But we have a separate article which considers the message of John 14:12 in much more depth and detail here.


The UK Apologetics Attempt to Obtain Clarification From Pastor Gumbel

As briefly mentioned earlier, following several reports to us that HTB now teach the 'prosperity gospel,' UK Apologetics attempted to obtain a clarification on this issue from pastor Nicky Gumbel in late November, 2008. Unfortunately we were unsuccessful. Our e mail was answered by a lady who, apparently, is 'Executive Assistant to Reverend Nicky Gumbel.' In answer to our frank question regarding whether HTB now preach the 'prosperity message,' this lady's response was, very simply,

"... I have never heard Nicky preaching such a message."

Since we felt that this was a wholly inadequate reply to a genuine enquiry, we e mailed back in the following manner,

"Look I don't blame you personally because you are perhaps very busy, however, with respect, this was not a very good response....surely this should be put in front of Nicky for a much fuller response??"

The final response which we received from HTB was this (highly defensive) message:

"Many things are attributed to Nicky which are not true and he feels it best to stand by what he has written. In his book 'Challenging Lifestyle', he has a chapter on ‘How to Give’ and one on ‘How to Handle Money’. These two chapters best represent Nicky Gumbel’s position..."

We were a little disappointed that pastor Nicky Gumbel himself apparently did not see fit to directly reply to us, but, there again, it is possible that he was outside of the country at the time. Our final response to HTB was,

"Thank you for your comments. I don't entirely blame you but this remains a very unsatisfactory response overall. You are referring us to a 2001 book to see where Nicky and HTB currently stand on a particularly serious matter within modern evangelicalism. I am going to get a copy of the book and look it up and write an entire article on 'Alpha' and where things currently stand. I must confess that we have major concerns in several areas of Alpha teaching.
Thanks anyway.
Robin.
UK Apologetics."


The Alpha Approach to Prosperity and Giving Based on 'Challenging Lifestyle'

I have now obtained the recommended Nicky Gumbel book and carefully perused the two chapters, one titled, 'How to Give,' the second called, 'How to Handle Money.' These chapters are very fine Christian mainstream teaching on Christian stewardship and responsibility. If I had written these myself, I don't think I would have stated anything differently; the words 'tithe' and 'tithing' do not occur anywhere and there is certainly no evidence of 'positive confession.' This book, however, was first printed in 1996 and the difficulty which I have is that when UK Apologetics were told that the prosperity message was now in HTB, and 'Alpha,' this was only around one year ago (2007).

This book also operates at a very basic level with an assumption that the reader is new to Christianity; it seems, therefore, that if the prosperity message occasionally occurs at HTB, it would not be included in such a very basic-level book!

I am naturally very reluctant to think that Pastor Gumbel's executive assistant had purposely sent me in the wrong direction, but I do wonder a little about this. Certainly, on the basis of this, Nicky Gumbel himself does not preach the prosperity message. But I would just say that if HTB operate within the world of 'triumphalist' theology (which they certainly do), then various guest preachers at HTB could still preach the prosperity gospel, and very possibly do, even if Nicky Gumbel himself does not. This is as much as one can say.

Conclusion

We would never claim that 'Alpha' has never done any good, indeed, it is unquestionable that many have come to Christianity who were first introduced to it's basic doctrines and teachings through this course. The course has now achieved great popularity - this is very commendable indeed, and Holy Trinity Church, Brompton Place, London, deserve congratulations for what they have accomplished.

UK Apologetics, however, would respectfully suggest to pastor Nicky Gumbel that it is surely time that this course moved on in order to reflect a more mature, and less naive, Christian theological approach. One is encouraged that the pastor has always stated that the course is not above future revision, therefore, with Christian love and concern, we would suggest the urgent revision of this course. In particular, we would encourage the teaching on the Holy Spirit within the course to more fully relect New Testament teaching, removing it from any mystical or New Age associations, and from any concept of an immature seeking of the sensational.

In our humble opinion, this needs to be accompanied by a thorough revision of 'Alpha's underlying 'Triumphalist' theology with a return to a more established evangelical Protestant approach. In this area 'Alpha' should surely feel a responsibility to a wider theology, that is, the theology of our fathers who established Protestantism. This is not to say that the course should be a strictly Reformed (Calvinist) course - far from it! Rather, that it would only be beneficial for it to have a wider grounding than in a comparatively narrow theological approach which came out of the 19th century United States.

Finally, we would suggest a much firmer control in areas such as 'Alpha weekends' and in the way individual lectures are handled, with elements of hyper-emotionalism and 'charismania' ruled firmly 'out of bounds.' Some of the claims of excessive behaviour which have come into us are probably beyond the control of HTB, therefore, again, we would encourage stronger and firmer recommendations from 'Alpha' regarding the suitability of those who conduct these lectures within local congregations.

At this moment we feel that Christianity Explored (very similar to 'Alpha' in certain ways but stronger on the Holy Spirit), is a better and far more biblical course; however, we do not think that that course is without faults either.
Robin A. Brace, December 1st, 2008.

UK APOLOGETICS

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