The Trinity, The Assembly, and Sweet Potatoes

Posted by Lyndon Unger

It seems like everyone and their dog is hearing “the voice of God” these days.

“Hearing the voice of God” used to be the mark of a prophet of God, but over the last century or so, it’s slowly become the mark of a “mature believer.”   These days, “conservative” folk (like Beth Moore or Francis Chan) regularly suggest that God speaks to them…not in audible voices, but definitely in some sort of propositional statements (ultimately the audible/inaudible distinction is meaningless).   The issue of “hearing the voice of God” is probably the most significant infiltration of bad Charismatic theology into non-Charismatic circles.  It’s a train hauling insanity and heresy that is steaming through Evangelicalism and it seems like there’s no stopping it.

Part of the danger of “God told me” train is that it’s seemingly immune to both Scripture and logic.  As illustration of that, I recently was doing some historical research into the foundation of Assemblies of God.  In 1906-1915, the “God told me” train was chugging like mad all over North America.  It was quite revealing to see how quickly the “God told me” train derailed when everyone and their dog was getting divine revelations.

In 1906, the Asuza street revival happened and Pentecostalism (at the time known as the Apostolic Faith movement) spread the “Baptism of the Ghost as exclusively evidenced by tongues-speaking” idea (among other ideas) throughout North America like wildfire.  For the record, I’m well aware that Asuza was preceded by an outbreak of tongues in 1901 in Topkea, KS.  There were also outbreaks of tongues every 5-10 years all the way back to 1830 (actually, long before 1830), so tongues wasn’t what was new.  The idea that tongues was the exclusive mark of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is what set the Topeka “outpouring” apart, and Asuza is what popularized that new idea.

By 1914, there were hundreds of Baptist, Methodist, Christian & Missionary Alliance, Congregational, etc. churches who had accepted this new “Apostolic Faith” and broken off from their denominations. 300 pastors and missionaries from these various churches/organizations (including several followers of John Alexander Dowie, aka “Elijah the Restorer.”  Here’s the nicest summary of his life I could find.  This one not so nice.) met together at Hot Springs, Arkansas in April, 1914, and banded together to form the Assemblies of God. (I just cannot resist mentioning something else. At that meeting in 1914, the closing address was by Bishop C.H. Mason, founder of the Church of God in Christ; America’s first and largest Pentecostal denomination.  He preached a sermon from Acts chapter 2, verses 16-21 [pg. 8] which was revealed to him by God speaking to him through a sweet potato.  You read that right.

In the summer of 1913, at a camp meeting at Arroyo Seco, CA, a man named John Scheppe had a personal revelation about the power of the name of “Jesus”, which led many folks to study the name more carefully.  A Canadian named R. E. McAlister preached Acts 2:38 and taught that the apostles never baptized in the common Trinitarian formula of the day, but rather baptized in Jesus name only, since “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” were all names for Jesus (thus making sense of Matthew 28:19…apparently).  Several people at the camp were convinced.  They promptly rejected the Trinity and were re-baptized into Jesus name only.  Shortly after the meeting at Arroyo Seco, a prominent Los Angeles pastor named Frank Ewert converted to this “Jesus only” teaching.  Along with Ewert, Charles Parham‘s former field superintendent, Howard A. Goss embraced the “Jesus only” teaching as well.  Thousands of others embraced it too; people were simply following the “new revelation” and didn’t want to miss this “new work” of the Spirit.

Then, at the Elton, LA, Bible Conference in Dec. 1915, the “new revelation” of the Arroyo Seco camp meeting was spread by David Lee Floyd, Charles A. Smith and Howard A. Goss.  Many of the leaders of the Assemblies of God were at this conference, and all but one (George Harrison of Hornbeck Assemblies of God) of them publicly denied the Trinity and embraced the “Oneness” teaching delivered at Elton.  Many of the attendees found motivation to accept this “Oneness” teaching since E.N. Bell, editor of the denominational magazine Word & Witness and general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, had already accepted this “Oneness” teaching and had been re-baptized.

After all, it was a new teaching from the Lord.  Who wants to miss that?

The atmosphere of the early Pentecostal movement was one of expectation; expectation of new moves of God, new revelations, etc.  The first generation of Pentecostals thought they were living in the last days and were also experiencing the complete fulfillment of the various prophecies of Joel 2.  So at the Elton Conference, the new teaching was embraced and 56 people were publicly baptized into the name of Jesus only — the public mark of receiving this new teaching (which they wrongly thought was the restoration of the true faith of the apostles).

After a serious struggle regarding this “new issue,” which almost entirely assimilated the Assemblies of God in a year, a few men faced it straight on.

On Oct. 1-7, 1916, in the fourth general council of the Assemblies of God, there was fierce debate about the “new issue”.  Eventually, the Bible won out against the “divinely-revealed” heresy of the “prophets,” and the Assemblies of God adopted a statement of beliefs that was prepared (mostly) by D. W. Kerr, an ex-Christian & Missionary Alliance pastor. The statement was thoroughly Trinitarian, and the momentum to accept the Trinitarian statement was magnified when E.N. Bell and others publicly confessed their error in accepting a “Jesus only” message and renounced their “Jesus only” baptisms.  Apparently, as many folks studied the Scripture (and church history), they realized that this “new teaching” was neither “new” nor in the Bible at all…and it seemed really strange for God to be promoting something so overtly against the teaching of Scripture.

Not all were convinced though.  Of the 585 members in the Assemblies of God in 1916, 156 gave the new “revelation” preeminence above Scripture, left the Assemblies of God, and started a new Oneness Pentecostal denomination.

It is absolutely frightening to see how these early Pentecostal pioneers were essentially defenseless against blazing heresy until they, in a moment of sanity, abandoned (at least in practice) their belief in modern prophetic revelation.  Remember that this was in the days before people believed in fallible revelation  (that’s a development of Charismatic/Pentecostal theology from the late 1970s).  Either God had revealed this “Oneness” teaching or he hadn’t, but almost everyone immediately adopted the teaching because they had little to no defense against it.  Like today, nobody wanted to quench the Spirit or risk missing what he was doing in someone else’s backyard.

The leadership of the Assemblies of God weren’t stupid people either.  Many of them were trained in the Scriptures and many of them had been in ministry for several years (since most of them came out of other church traditions into Pentecostalism). Once God started “speaking,” things went south really fast.  The Assemblies of God was basically a Oneness Pentecostal organization for around a year and a bit.  I praise the Lord that they finally renounced the heresy of that cursed Canadian.

Our look at history doesn’t prove that the idea is unbiblical, but only illustrates the practical dangers and inherent theological instability of thinking that God still delivers propositional revelation. If God “speaks” to both of us, what do you do when God tells me something that openly and directly contradicts what he tells you?  By what standard do we judge between “words from the Lord?”  We can appeal to Scripture, but if we have to twist Scripture to support our position on contemporary prophecy anyway, we’re at a really bad starting point to evaluate anything else objectively.  In other words, if someone suggests that John 10:27 (“my sheep hear my voice”) teaches that Christians should get propositional revelation from God as part of their Christian experience (especially through sweet potatoes), they’ve already abandoned any reasonable interpretation of the text of John 10 and have, in practice, thrown hermeneutics out the window.

If John 10:27 doesn’t mean what it says (and I’m not talking about a simple, surface reading of the text, but rather a careful exegesis of the text), then there’s no real reason to assume that any other text does either.  What’s worse is that if God can authoritatively tell a person that “this verse means [insert bizarre idea],” then any biblical correction of heresy is quite difficult.  A person cannot be bound to Scripture if the meaning of Scripture is no longer tied to the words found in Scripture.  If there’s some sort of “Holy Ghost decoder ring” to the Bible, the Bible can have any meaning. And to say the Bible can mean anything is to say the Bible means nothing.

Of course every Charismatic/Pentecostal is wildly inconsistent at this point, and that’s a good thing.  The reason that many hang on to orthodoxy (in other areas) is in spite of the hermeneutics they use to arrive at their distinctively Charismatic/Pentecostal beliefs.  I rarely encounter Pentecostals and Charismatics applying the “Holy Ghost decoder ring” to ideas like the deity of Christ…though that’s not always true.

I agree with the early leaders of the Assemblies of God who had to deny that God had prophetically revealed the Oneness teaching to R.E. McAlister, and did so because the revelation given to McAlister contradicted the biblical teaching on the Trinity.  I just suspect that if the same hermeneutics and exegesis that supported the biblical teaching on the Trinity would have been applied to the biblical teaching on prophets and prophecy, the “new issue” would never have found support in the first place…and the Assemblies of God would currently have a noticeably different statement of faith.

Online source: The Cripplegate.

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