In the lead up to a major Christian event in Melbourne’s gargantuan Marvel (formerly Etihad) Stadium, a dispute has broken out about the theology of one of the main speakers.
Awakening Australia will be held at the indoor AFL ground, over three days on November 16-18 with crowd expectations of over 30,000.
An article on the Gospel Coalition Australia website (TGCA)by church planter Stephen Tan published three weeks ago says of Bill Johnson, a main speaker at Awakening who leads Bethel Church, a large influential pentecostal church in California: “While it appears that Bethel worship Jesus as God in their songs, their understanding of the incarnate Christ is that he was less than divine while he walked the earth.” Tan’s story featured quotes from Johnson’s When Heaven Invades Earth: Jesus “performed miracles, wonders and signs, as a man in right relationship to God, not as God. If He performed miracles because He was God, then they would be unattainable for us. But if he did them as a man, I am responsible to pursue His lifestyle”. Tan drew special attention to attention to Johnson writing that Jesus ““laid aside his divinity as he sought to fulfil the assignment given to Him by the Father.” The article was also critical of Bethel’s emphasis on signs and wonders in evangelism.
In a comment to Eternity Tan said that “I think some people (like myself) would use a middle category of ‘heterodox’. What that means is that it is a departure from biblical orthodoxy (the faithful teaching of the church historically on core doctrines) but not bad enough to be considered ‘heresy’.”
Awakening leader Ben Fitzgerald, and some of the other event organisers met with Stephen Tan and members of the Gospel Coalition team on Friday. He has provided Eternity and the TGCA team a text from Johnson.
“Without question, Ben, I believe that Jesus is 100% God and Jesus is 100% man. That is the great and beautiful mystery of the gospel. Some people think that I believe that Jesus isn’t God. It isn’t true. But it probably comes from my emphasis of his humanity. I do that only to encourage the believer – Jesus gave us an example that could be followed. I certainly understand anyone who opposes me if they think that I believe Jesus is not God. It would be well-founded. But in this case it isn’t. He never stop [sic] being God. He is eternally God.
“Paul thought the equality with god was not a thing to be grasped. That is a tough thing to communicate well. And I am sure that in my efforts to do that I have created misunderstanding. I am sincerely sorry for that, but I also try in every setting where I teach on the subject to emphasise the divinity of Jesus.”
Johnson’s made a small grammatical slip in his text but an earlier one from 2012 makes things clear: “Jesus is God, eternally God and he never stopped being God. But he was also man, completely man. In his earthly…”
Johnson has made his position clear on the divinity of Jesus.
The Gospel Coalition has added this note to the Tan article: “We welcome this clarification, but find it hard to understand how he reconciles this to his other public comments. More importantly, we remain concerned about the way his argument erodes the distinctiveness of Christ. The miraculous signs of Jesus are not, in the first place, examples for us to follow—they are testimonies to his unique relationship to God the Father (e.g. John 2:11 c.f. 1:14). When Jesus raises the dead, our response shouldn’t be “I can do that!” but to honour him as we honour the Father (John 5:23). Legitimate questions about how he did his miracles must not distract us from what they reveal about his personal identity as the eternal Son of God.”
Andrew Moody, TGCA executive editor, comments: “There’s nothing wrong with saying that Jesus does his miracles by the Spirit like other human beings – that is a consistently Antiochene/Calvinist way of understanding the incarnation (and I think it’s correct).” He adds a qualifier for Eternity; “the real problem comes when we think that the humanity of Christ requires the second person of the Trinity to suspend his divinity. This leads to all kinds of problems for our doctrine of God.” He adds: “We are reassured to hear that this is not what Bill Johnson intended to communicate.”
As this writer reads the correspondence, Facebooking, texting and other contacts between Awakening and the Gospel Coalition Australia team, Bill Johnson has apologised for his loose use of words about the Trinity and established that he is clear that Jesus has always been God.
Believing that Jesus performed his miracles in the power of the Holy Spirit has been part of what many orthodox Christians have believed for centuries. Pointing out that this means Christians filled with the Holy Spirit can or should perform miracles has been preached by Pentecostals since the start of that movement.
Awakening has attracted support from several hundred churches. They include several C3 churches, the Christian Revival Crusade, Salvation Army Corps (churches), and many independent churches. They include mostly Pentecostal, independent and “Wesleyan” churches. Some large Charismatic/pentecostal churches are not on the list. Few if any “reformed” churches have signed on. But despite this there is little doubt that it will be Melbourne’s largest Christian event of 2018.