Carrin, Charles, D.D. Spirit-Empowered Theology. Minneapolis: Chosen, 2007. 351 pages. $19.99 retail. ISBN 978-0-8007-9817-8.
I am not part of the signs-and-wonders (Pentecostal, charismatic, and Third Wave) movement, nor has this book tempted me to join up. Though my Reformed Baptist convictions remain intact, I did find Spirit-Empowered Theology enjoyable reading overall, sometimes edifying (96-7, e.g.), and a good survey of the signs-and-wonders way of thinking. I admit that Carrin’s overuse of “impact” reduced my enjoyment of some sections (see Charles Harrington Elster, The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly [New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010], 46-8), but this is a minor fault imperceptible to many of today’s readers. The book is not a systematic and detailed exposition of theology as signs-and-wonders advocates understand it. Rather, it is a collection of questions and answers, usually brief, of uneven quality, and conversational rather than formal. Its treatment of topics is more broad than deep. Where Pentecostals, charismatics, and Third Wavers disagree, it takes charismatic positions (speaking in “tongues” is a sign, but not a necessary one, of Holy Spirit baptism; demons cannot possess but can oppress true believers; and so on). Where Calvinism (in all things, including salvation, ultimate sovereignty resides in God’s decree) and Arminianism (ultimate sovereignty in salvation resides in humans’ choices) disagree, it stands with Arminianism (though Carrin may not be satisfied with every aspect of Arminianism proper). Though the book has an index (343-51), it lacks both a bibliography and in-text source citations or footnotes.
In a text aiming to be informal and pleasant to read, one might be able to justify minimizing or excluding in-text citations and footnotes, provided one includes a bibliography. Excluding the bibliography as well seems impossible to justify. Spirit-Empowered Theology’s failure to identify or acknowledge any sources, except for Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box (292), takes the quest for readability too far. Carrin makes many historical, factual, and scientific claims that critical readers might doubt (as I do), even dedicating whole sections to them (241-97), and he asserts debated doctrinal views and takes positions on debated biblical interpretations without acknowledging that there is any debate and without citing any sources showing that other faithful (so no less Spirit-guided) Christians, particularly those with topic-relevant expertise, have drawn the same conclusions. (Statements on 38, 43-4, 70, 76, 79, 91-3, 136, and 152-3 come to mind, but many more examples appear in the text. The statements on 152-3, it should be noted, also fall short by addressing only one of multiple relevant and much-debated verses on the subject discussed, though they do at least acknowledge that the subject is debated.) Carrin does at one point offer the support of unidentified “significant biblical scholars” (85), but this isn’t much better than no source acknowledgement at all. Carrin, in fact, omits citations even when quoting in English people who did not write in English (85, 220). In addition to being left doubting whether one should trust the translation quoted, one is often left wondering whether a quotation might be taken out of context, since the source is not identified and cannot be checked (109). I am surprised that Baker (Chosen is a Baker imprint) would publish a book that thus fails to acknowledge its sources. Surely the publisher has fact-checkers and researchers on staff who could at least have constructed a select bibliography, based on interviews with Carrin or their own research. In its present state (the complimentary review copy I have was sent to me at the end of July 2017), the book seems appropriate only for leisurely and skeptical reading, not as a reference, and certainly not as a text book. With the addition of references, which I hope both Baker and Carrin will consider, its range of uses could be broadened.
As a leisurely survey of signs-and-wonders beliefs, this first edition of Spirit-Empowered Theology is at least as good as the many Wikipedia articles flagged as needing references, so I give it a mildly positive rating (three stars out of five). People who agree with Carrin (Chosen’s target demographic) will enjoy the book most. People who disagree with Carrin but enjoy reading books they disagree with, provided the books make a good-faith effort to honor Scripture’s authority, and provided they tell the readers something they don’t already know, might also enjoy it (as I did). Reactionary anti-charismatics who clench their fists and fume whenever their charismatic acquaintances share an anecdote, on the other hand, would find the book intolerable and are advised to look elsewhere for reading material.
Such is my general overview and recommendation. I do think other aspects of the book deserve criticism, and I will discuss some of those aspects below. I will not attempt to refute, nor will I even mention, all the ways I think Carrin errs. Instead, my criticisms will focus primarily on Carrin’s portrayal of and attempt to refute Reformed doctrine, aka Calvinism. His portrayal of its content and effects is inaccurate, and his refutation of it fails. I will also address some aspects of his descriptions of God and of the Holy Spirit and things spiritual that I find troubling. Though he usually seems soundly Trinitarian (e.g., 36), he opts for modalistic wording in some places. And, though the physical manifestations of God and his non-human servants in Scripture makes speaking of spirit and things spiritual in physical (including energetic) and spatial terms tempting, I find doing so problematic, so I’ll discuss some instances of such physical-spatial language in Carrin’s work. I may also address other topics.
Before criticizing, I should point out at least one positive aspects of the book, since my general overview admitted there were some. One aspect of signs-and-wonders thinking that Bible-believing Reformed people might do well to study and reflect upon is its unapologetic attempt to understand contemporary phenomena in light of biblical supernaturalism. Carrin’s supernaturalism in such subjects as demonic influence (157-71, 203) might serve as a corrective to the naturalistic tendency of even Christians, particularly those who think themselves learned, to not take into account Scripture’s tracing to demonic influence of phenomena that our secular therapeutic culture attributes entirely to physical and mental causes, namely, physical disease and “mental illness.” (I admit to seeing no value in Carrin’s weird physicalizing of demons at one point , and I do not claim to see biblical justification for some of the practices he endorses for dealing with them. Where I do see value is in his basic willingness to allow for supernatural causation of phenomena normally assumed natural.) Whether demons are, like Satan, fallen angels (as most suppose, and as the Authorized Version’s “devils” translation suggests, making demons lesser versions of the same sort of being as the Devil, Satan), or something else, as Carrin believes (161-2), a humble reading of Scripture in its plain sense finds demons, unclean spirits, responsible for many problems that contemporary culture assumes invariably mundane in their causes and cures. If one is much motivated by a desire to be respected by the elite of our secular culture, this thoroughgoing supernaturalism will be hard to embrace. Though various signs-and-wonders doctrines may not match Bible-affirmed phenomena (treating the ecstatic utterance of nonsense, a phenomenon found across the religious spectrum, instead of the miraculous speaking of unlearned languages, not so widespread, as biblical “tongues” may be an example), suggestion of demonic activity aback some seemingly natural phenomena does seem in accord with the Bible.
The same might be true of other signs-and-wonders claims, such as claims to dreams of supernatural rather than natural origin, a phenomenon affirmed in a matter-of-fact way throughout Scripture. I admit that I am troubled by the lack of any obvious way to determine a given dream’s origin with certainty, but I must grant that Scripture seems to treat dreams given by God as obviously and undeniably so. As those to whom God manifests himself in Scripture never ask, “How do I know you’re really God and not an impostor?,” so those to whom God sends dreams never say, “Well, maybe God didn’t give me that dream after all.” Belief in miraculous healings also seems scripturally sound, though not everything signs-and-wonders advocates claims may comport with the Bible. Most Christians, even learned Christians of the Calvinist variety, grant that miraculous healings do occur, so the only point of contention is the signs-and-wonders claim that God grants some people today miraculous healing ability. Unless one believes the biblical and historical case for cessationism too strong to be doubted (I admit I do not*), this is a matter for empirical investigation and beyond the scope of this review. (*To my eye, cessationism resembles dispensationalism in that both systems can be made to fit with Scripture, offering plausible explanations for its contents, but neither arises naturally from Scripture. Carrin’s views on prophecy and the relationship between Israel and the Body of Christ, as it happens, seem to line up with those of dispensationalism. As well, he makes some statements suggesting that the nature of salvation has changed since Old Testament times, so that, for instance, David somehow managed to be a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22) without being regenerated .)
This issue of cessationism (146-7) deserves further comment. Since God may sovereignly reduce or increase his open and visible activity in the world as he deems appropriate, for reasons he needn’t reveal, appeals to history seem to me to carry little weight unless they can be firmly tied to biblical statements suggesting that likely historical facts should be interpreted in a certain way. If signs and wonders became exceedingly rare among God’s people for a time, as Carrin seems to grant (131, 146), I’m not sure either the cessationists’ explanation (having served their purpose, supernatural gifts and signs found in the New Testament went away permanently) or Carrin’s explanation (God’s people were disobedient and had stopped believing in Spirit manifestations, so the gifts and signs went away temporarily) is needed. History might tell us what God did, but only Scripture can tell us why he did it, assuming Scripture speaks to the issue. In any case, arguments that certain things did not happen in history are typically the weakest sorts of arguments, arguments from silence. Most of what happened in the past is lost to us, having never been written about and having left no physical evidence. Countless strange and wondrous things might have happened that we will never know about until God tells us about them in the world to come.
At least since Old Princeton (think B. B. Warfield), it could be argued, leading Reformed people, and leaders in the broader evangelical community, have tended to treat scholars and scholarship as a Protestant substitute for the Roman Catholic magisterium (minus the validation of apostolic succession). Since the skeptical spirit of the Enlightenment permeates contemporary academia, even the most dedicated Christians can end up doing their scholarly work in a way more compatible with unbelief than with faith. Were I a signs-and-wonders person, I might well suspect that cessationism owes more to unbelieving presuppositions than to humble submission to Scripture. Even as a non-signs-and-wonders non-cessationist, I’m inclined to suspect such is true of various things widely believed by the most educated Christians, such as the conclusions of naturalistic textual criticism, including rejection of the “long ending” of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). Whether or not this suspicion is justified in the case of cessationism, there is nothing about Reformed doctrine that makes cessationism necessary. Calvinism and cessationism are separate issues, so even those wholly dedicated to the perpetuity of New Testament signs and wonders should not fear to explore Calvinism. (An excellent way to do that without spending any money is to download or request printed copies of some of the works available free from Chapel Library.)
By the way, like other signs-and-wonders people, Carrin accepts Mark 16:9-20 as genuine and sees verses 17 and 18 as applicable to believers from New Testament times through today. While this is a possible reading, one may just as naturally read Mark 16:17-18 as a prophecy wholly fulfilled during the apostolic era. Though, at the moment, I don’t recall anyone remaining unharmed after drinking poison in the book of Acts, I do recall seeing all the other signs there. If this is a prophecy rather than something intended to apply to believers in every generation, no doubt someone in that founding generation did drink poison and remain unharmed, whether or not the record of this event appears in Scripture itself. Jesus does not say that everyone who ever follows him will manifest these signs, so all that is needed for what he does say to be correct is for each of the signs to be manifested by at least one of those who believe in him in the days and years following the prophecy. The case for signs-and-wonders doctrine and against cessationism does not hinge on this passage: viewed without bias, insofar as that is humanly possible, the signs-and-wonders and cessationist readings of the passage seem equally plausible. (Even signs-and-wonders people do not infer from these verses that all these signs should be manifested by every believer, so the way some advocates of naturalistic textual criticism poke fun at the passage, asking listeners to act on the basis of these “promises” and see what happens, is misleading and unfair.)
Prior to the aside on the closing verses of Mark, I urged those dedicated to the signs-and-wonders way of thinking not to fear exploring Calvinism. By “explore,” I mean “reflect upon in a serious way, giving honest consideration to the possibility that Calvinism is true, the very teaching of Scripture.” One has not explored Calvinism if one has simply researched ways to refute it, or (which is more common) to refute caricatures of it. Carrin’s discussion of Reformed or Calvinist doctrine inclines me to believe he has never sincerely explored Calvinism.
Early in the text, Carrin expresses dissatisfaction with both Arminianism and Calvinism (61-2). Many Calvinists, such as A. N. Martin in his audio series on God’s sovereignty (available online from Sovereign Grace Audio Treasures), admit to having long sought a mediating position between Arminian human-willism and Calvinist God-willism, resigning themselves only after long struggle to the reality that the comprehensive sovereignty of God works all things, including the free decisions of humans (which we know free simply by experiencing ourselves making them freely, under no compulsion), decisions both good and ill, according to his own will (Ephesians 1:11), comprehensively foreordaining absolutely everything. With this resignation, they come to see “freedom” in the human context as something under God’s sovereignty, not something independent that limits its scope. Humans are free and responsible, but the choices they make freely and responsibly are all foreordained of God. Rationalists may bristle at this formulation, and aberrant forms of “Calvinism” may claim to wholly and neatly resolve all human-perceived tension,** but the normal and orthodox view of Calvinists is that humans are indeed free and responsible, and that they are so under the sovereign direction and all-encompassing eternal decree of God. (** Since it is human finitude, with assistance from fallenness, that makes humans perceive tension between God’s comprehensive foreordination and their own freedom and responsibility, it is impossible for any system trying to resolve the tension to succeed.)
Despite professing early on to be dissatisfied with both Arminianism and Calvinism, for the reason that they both attempt to resolve tensions in biblical teaching that cannot be resolved (61-2), an accusation that isn’t true of orthodox Calvinism, through the remainder of the book Carrin shows a strong preference for Arminianism’s brand of tension-resolution. Rather than resign himself to the truth of Calvinism, and accept the specific tensions that go with that viewpoint, he chooses to redefine the “saving faith” that is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8) as, not actual belief given by God at God’s sole discretion, but as an enabling to believe should one choose to do so, that is, should one voluntarily choose not to resist this enabling gift (183). Since this verbal trick makes human decision the ultimate determiner of salvation, and since human decisions are no less human works than are human physical actions, persons saved under Carrin’s system do have cause to boast in their works (Ephesians 2:9): they may boast in their works of making decisions superior to those made by the unsaved. As well, since the word translated “of faith” is a form of a word (πíστις pistis) for which “belief” is a primary meaning, along with related meanings like “trust” and “commitment,” it seems linguistically impossible to claim that any form of “faith,” much less faith that is “saving,” can fail to include actual belief. See, for example, Timothy and Barbara Friberg’s Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (2000) and Barclay Newman’s A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (1993), both included in Bible Works™ version 7 (2005). (Those without access to these sources may be able to find equivalent references through The Sword Project and such free Sword-based software as Xiphos.) No honest reader of Scripture should have trouble seeing that Carrin’s interpretation here is not only unlikely but impossible. If the term eisegesis did not already exist, one would have to coin it to describe such a desperate attempt to evade the truth that dreaded Calvinism is just what Scripture teaches.
Carrin also does violence to language in his interpretation of biblical references to God’s “foreknowledge” (178-9). Like most professing Christians today, Carrin understands the word “foreknowledge” in Scripture to always refer to how “God not only knows everything that will ever be but knew it before time began” (178). That God indeed knows all this is certainly true, but this sense of the word “foreknowledge” doesn’t fit with the verses Carrin cites. For instance, Carrin cites the verse noting how Jesus was “delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). The verse does not say Jesus was “delivered by the determinate counsel, and in accordance with the foreknowledge, of God”; rather, it says that both God’s counsel and God foreknowledge “delivered” Christ into the hands of those who would wickedly crucify him. Knowing that something will happen in advance does not cause it to happen; simple knowledge in advance did not “deliver” Christ. Scripture does use “know” to mean something other than to know facts or know about events: to love intimately, as when husbands in Scripture are said to “know” their wives when they consummate their marriages. Since God delivered Christ because of his love for those he would save (John 3:16), and since he chose these loved ones well in advance (Ephesians 1:4), it is perfectly reasonable to refer to this intimate love in advance as God’s “foreknowledge.” Unlike fact-and-event foreknowledge, this foreknowledge could “deliver” Christ, and it did so.
This understanding of God’s foreknowledge also works better with other verses Carrin cites. Romans 8:29 speaks of “whom he [God] did foreknow” (179). Note that the verse does not say, “whom God foreknew about.” The wording used does not say that God foreknew something about the people “whom” identifies. Rather, it says that God foreknew the people themselves. Taking this to mean that God fore-loved these people, loved his people, the elect, is both natural and reasonable. Twisting this verse to say that God knew in advance that some people would accept his offer of salvation and so, based on that advance awareness, he acted accordingly, is neither natural nor reasonable, nor even marginally acceptable. The case with Romans 11:2 is the same. As for 1 Peter 1:2 (179), taking it to mean that God fore-loved and so elected certain people seems most natural to me, but I can see how construing the verse to mean that God elects those whom his foreknowledge informs him will accept salvation might seem plausible. At least, it might seem plausible were that understanding of “foreknowledge” not patently incompatible with verses like Romans 8:29.
When he undertakes to summarize Calvinism (207-11), Carrin starts with the famous five points of TULIP. Though Carrin opens his book with a quote from the zealously evangelistic Calvinist Charles Spurgeon (7), and though he includes known Calvinists among those whose zeal he praises at various points in the book (e.g., 121), he asserts here that “Calvinism…has shown less motivation for missions and evangelism” (207). As throughout the text, Carrin offers no references to support this assertion, and I think it is purely bias and caricature, not a true inference from history or observation. If there is a more powerful motivation for any action than the command of the God who controls absolutely everything, I don’t know what it could be, but apparently Carrin believes that thinking human choice is ultimately sovereign is more motivating than trust in God’s absolute control and obedience to his commands. This would be an interesting topic to explore, had Carrin done anything but make the unsupported accusation.
In any case, back to TULIP. Though Carrin does not go into much detail on its five points, an exploration of a few of those points can serve as a way to correct some of Carrin’s misrepresentations of Calvinism and its implications. It should first be noted that the five points of TULIP were refutation points against the Arminian Remonstrants: they are not a comprehensive summary of Reformed doctrine. Were it up to me, the acronym would be abandoned entirely since the wording required to create it has led to more confusion than clarity. The “L” for “limited atonement” is the worst culprit. The point of the doctrine is that Christ’s atoning work was particular, that is, limited in scope, not in value. Christ’s work does indeed have infinite value, unlimited value—how could the work of the infinite God have any less value?—but Christ died only on behalf of, and so atoned only for, the elect. Not even free-willists should have a problem with particular atonement, provided they still grant that God’s omniscience includes knowing in advance who all the individuals are who will be saved (which we’ve already seen Carrin does grant). Infinite value joined to foreseen finite application yields particular (scope-limited) atonement. Were Christ to have died for all individuals without exception, as anti-Calvinists like Carrin seem always to insist (209, e.g.), then all individuals without exception would necessarily be saved—unless one wishes to reject substitutionary atonement in favor of an alternate “theory of the atonement.” (My impression is that Carrin holds to both substitutionary atonement and universal atonement, though some of his references to Christ’s suffering [e.g., 76] may suggest a movement toward the alternate theory favored by the most determined and self-consistent Arminians. On this, see the Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism DVD series, 2 ed. [2007, dir. James Gelet]. I may have viewed the first rather than second edition of this series, but I assume the content I have in mind remains intact.) Assuming one retains substitutionary atonement, perhaps because it is so clearly taught in Scripture as to make switching to an alternate theory seem heretical, one must reason as follows. God does not exact punishment for the same sins twice: this would be unjust. Therefore, anyone condemned to hell in the end did not have Christ die in his place. So, Christ did not die for anyone who will not ultimately be saved, only for the elect, that is, everyone who will be saved. Therefore, Christ’s atonement is particular (“limited”), not universal. Q.E.D.
The various “all”s free-willists use to “prove” that Christ died for all individuals without exception must be interpreted contextually in light of this inescapable particularity of the atonement. One of the “all”s most popular among free-willist insisting on universal atonement is found in this verse: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Free-willists invariable read the “us” in this verse’s “us-ward” as meaning all humans. In light of the first verse of the letter, however, this is not the most natural reading. That first verse reads, “Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). This clearly identifies to whom any “us” references in the epistle must refer: people with the same faith as Peter, that is, born-again Christians, God’s people. God is not willing that any of his people, even those succumbing to sin and in need of repentance, should perish; rather, he desires that they should repent. And, if they are truly saved, we have good reason to expect that they will repent, since God does not leave his work of salvation and sanctification unfinished (Philippians 1:6). It may be that other such “all”s are likewise naturally interpreted in a way that does not imply that the atonement is unjustly universal or that God’s will is thwarted by the supremely free will of his creatures (contrary to, e.g., Isaiah 55:11, where God states, with no suggestion that this sometimes fails to be true, that his word accomplishes what he intends it to accomplish). Where such interpretation seems strained (such as I Timothy 2:4, perhaps, given the sense of “all men” shortly before in 1:1), recourse to mystery may be required. That God might, in a way that our finite minds cannot grasp, desire (“will”) the salvation of everyone while at the same time foreordaining (“willing”) the salvation of only some (as shown by the fact that only some, not all, are actually saved), is not unthinkable. (In the case of I Timothy 2:4, one could take God’s preceptive will to be in view. That is, one could understand the verse to be speaking about God’s will as he expresses it in precepts or commands, in this case his command to “all men,” in the sense of all people everywhere, to repent and believe the gospel. God’s decretive will, God’s will as it actually comes to pass through his eternal decree, in contrast, foreordains that only some be saved. Should the preceptive-decretive dichotomy strike one as a human contrivance rather than scriptural concept, however, recourse to mystery may be necessary.)
“L” is not the only TULIP point that presents difficulty and that may have helped Carrin come to his inaccurate understanding of Calvinism. “Irresistible grace,” needed to provide TULIP’s “I,” is an unfortunate substitute for “sovereign grace.” God indeed “hath…mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Romans 9:18), but he does this by giving unmerited new life, including a spiritually alive will, to some, so that “they come most freely, being made willing by His grace” (Westminster Confession of Faith 10:1). The issue of “resistance” has no relevance to saving grace, since the effectual grace that grants new life and provides saving faith (true Christian belief) is willingly accepted by all upon whom it falls, for those given new life want to accept Christ. God does issue a general call to all individuals without exception to repent and believe the gospel, but only those he has sovereignly graced with saving faith respond to this call. For all others, it is the “savour of death unto death” (2 Corinthians 2:16). In light of all this, sovereign grace is better described as “never-resisted” than “irresistible.” No one who receives this sovereign gift ever thinks to resist it.
Finally, the “T” for “total depravity” (sometimes, “total inability”) merits comment. Human depravity, as I understand it, is a thorough corruption of the will, of the wants or desires. This depravity of will leads to misuse of all the faculties, even though the other faculties remain largely or wholly intact. So, for instance, though the volitional faculties still have in them all that is needed to make free choices of any and every sort, depravity of will ensures that the unregenerate will never of themselves choose the truly good for truly good reasons. Were it not for God’s restraining influence on the depraved impulses of fallen humans, were it not for God’s “common grace,” the unregenerate would behave much more badly than they do.
Though all human faculties are affected in their use by this depravity, the faculties themselves do not differ fundamentally from their unfallen state, except that they are now affected by disease and degeneration. “Total depravity” is total depravity of the will only, but it is comprehensive in its effects, since use of every faculty is affected by the will. “Total depravity” is accurate terminology, but “total” can easily be misconstrued to imply that humans, for instance, lack the functional volitional equipment necessary to permit moral responsibility. They do not lack such equipment. The unregenerate fail to choose the good, not because they lack the functioning faculty to choose it, but because they want to choose otherwise.
The only way those who want evil rather than good can be made to choose good is for their wants to be changed. “Prevenient grace” (183) to enable free choice of the good rather than the evil is no help here, since the unregenerate are already so enabled by their own intact faculties. They fail to choose the good, not because they lack the power to do so, but because they lack the will, this is, they do not want, do not desire, to choose the good. The moment this desire is changed, they will choose the good. One either wants the good, having been regenerated, or one does not want it, being unregenerate. There is no want-less middle ground where “prevenient grace” can make salvation subject to human sovereignty through “free will.”
I realize that, in a culture where popular entertainment turns Pelagius into a heroic martyr (King Arthur, 2004, dir. Antoine Fuqua) and portrays human choices as creating multiple universes (too many science fiction, fantasy, and super-hero productions to list), the idea that human free will is not the ultimate force can seem alien, but this only goes to show how alienated from biblical principles America has become. To become more consistently biblical, Christians like Carrin may have to become just a bit less American.
In addition to misrepresenting Calvinism and its implications, and failing in his attempted refutation, Carrin makes some statements about God, the Holy Spirit, and spiritual reality that strike me as defective. For one thing, though he seems soundly Trinitarian in most of what he says (e.g., 36), he opts in a couple places for wording easily taken as modalistic. In one place, for instance, he writes this: “While maintaining absolute unity within Himself, God sovereignly manifests His Being in three divine Personages: Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (27). This doesn’t sound like the Trinitarian God who eternally is three hypostases; rather, it sounds like a unitarian God who only “manifests” himself in three different modes, albeit in all three of the modes simultaneously. Carrin offers a similarly bad description later in the text: “God is One but Trinitarian in revelation of Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (203), he writes. Here again, it is hard to avoid understanding this as saying that God is a unitarian entity that presents “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” versions (modes) of himself to humans. Why Carrin opted to word these descriptions as he did is a mystery to me, but I hope he will consider revising them to better comport with his more orthodox statements.
Spirit-Filled Theology is also rife with descriptions of spiritual things in physical terms. At one point, for instance, Carrin writes of Acts 19:12 that “The proximity of Paul’s garments to the Holy Spirit made them agents of power “(114). Though I would view being “filled” with the Holy Spirit as being most fully influenced by him (the high point of Christian spiritual life and something that comes and goes, not a permanent gift or achievement), Carrin’s physical-spatial way of speaking about the Holy Spirit and spiritual realities—where he even speaks of spiritual and divine “dimensions” (28, 34, 53)–makes me suspect he thinks of the Spirit as a sort of fluid, different amounts of which can be “poured” into one, until one is “filled” with Spirit fluid. Referencing Acts 8:17 and 5:15, Carrin writes that “it was Peter’s temple-body and the anointing radiating from him that brought miraculous results,” even without the laying on of hands. (In Carrin’s usage, “the anointing” is the same as “baptism with the Holy Spirit” and being “filled with the Holy Spirit.”) It is hard to read this and not conclude that Carrin imagines that the Spirit is a fluid, able to flow from one particularly full person to others. In light of such passages as these, when Carrin writes that “While the Father occupies the throne in heaven, Jesus at His right hand, His Spirit permeates the universe and all regions beyond” (30), one can hardly avoid a mental picture of a divine Fluid flowing out from the heavenly throne to fill everything. Is God pleased to have us draw such a mental picture? I’m inclined to say “no.”
Since Scripture says that God “filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23), saying that the Holy Spirit “permeates” everything only seems problematic when tied to language suggesting the Spirit is a spatially extended fluid, partially present everywhere but fully present nowhere. If the Spirit is not material, meaning he is neither matter nor energy (these being just two forms of the same thing), he needn’t be spatial at all. He can be fully present, present in his fullness, at every point everywhere in space and every when in time (assuming time is just a spatial dimension we humans perceive differently than the other three, as most have assumed since Einstein, Harold Aspden excepted). One also needn’t posit a divine “dimension” as Carrin does, for the non-spatial Spirit transcends dimensionality. While this transcendent Spirit can manifest himself through all manner of created and controlled material forms and energetic phenomena, none of these manifestations is that Spirit. (On this idea that the Spirit is neither spatial nor physical, see also my 15 July 2016 post to the Pious Eye site, “The Materialist Face of Bouw: Do Omnipotence, Omnipresence Make God a Plenum?”) Though I believe this understanding correct, and though I believe it comports with all that Scripture says about God, and that it is in fact the understanding granted me by the Spirit’s illumination (which Carrin much emphasizes), I grant that it is a philosophical understanding compliant with Scripture, not something explicitly stated in Scripture. Believers who prefer not to go beyond what Scripture explicitly asserts about God may prefer to draw no conclusion on the matter prior to hearing the full truth from God directly in the next life.
Carrin makes some relevant remarks late in the text. After expressing agreement with identification of time as “a stubbornly persistent illusion,” attributing the identification to Einstein but (as usual) not noting his source, Carrin writes that God “is the unchanging, constant great I AM, and ‘Endless Now.’ Ultimate salvation,” he adds, “is when eternal life, which has been infused into us with God’s eternal nature, coalesces in a way that makes time, space, past, present, future disappear” (331-2). Though Carrin’s idea of ultimate salvation sounds more Hindu or Buddhist than Christian, his conceptualization of God as existing in (or, as he words it, being) an “Endless Now” does seem to fit with what it would mean for the divine Spirit to transcend spatiality given an Einsteinian universe. Since this “Eternal Now” conception of God would mean that God’s creation would be, as I noted in my review of John Wallace’s Starting at the Finish Line, a creation of “the entire sweep of events that make up space-time,” it fits quite well with the Calvinist belief in God’s comprehensive foreordaining of absolutely everything, including free and responsible human decisions, but doesn’t fit at all with Carrin’s anti-Calvinism. In a divinely created Einsteinian space-time universe, comprehensive foreordination would necessarily be correct, since creation of that universe would mean creation of its entire history, start to finish.
As for Carrin’s inadvertent replacement of Christian eternal life in glorified resurrected bodies with a timeless and spaceless nirvana, I would note that Scripture gives us no good reason to expect that humans, even in glory, will ever perceive time as anything but the continuous and ordered sequence of events they perceived it to be as embodied mortals. The intermediate state, the time between physical death and bodily resurrection, might possess a timeless and spaceless quality (though this is speculation), but spatially embodied beings, which all the saved will be after resurrection, will necessarily also be temporally embodied, at least if Carrin and Einstein are correct about the unity of space and time. Presumably, Carrin’s belief that glorified humans will transcend time is based upon the common misunderstanding of Revelation 10:6’s “there should be time no longer” as an indication that time shall cease to exist. It is clear from the context that the sense here is along the lines of the English idiom, “time is up,” that is, “there shall be no further delay.” So far as I know, Scripture nowhere refers to “time” as a “thing” that could cease to exist. In Scripture, “time” and is various units (watches, hours, and so on) are what they were always assumed to be prior to modern physics, just ways to describe the constant flux of creation in general, descriptions of the quality of directionality, of sequence, in events. It would be exceedingly strange if John were to introduce an alien “time” concept from the future into a work written to encourage believers of his day.
Finally, Carrin, like many involved in unusual movements claiming to restore things allegedly lost over the years since the apostolic age, shows an inclination to jettison Christian tradition (e.g., 21, 118-9). Those who would honor the Holy Spirit, however, must not simply follow what they perceive to be the Spirit’s leading today (58). They must respect his leading of his people throughout church history (Matthew 16:18; John 16:13; though the latter may have the completion of Scripture in view, it seems odd to claim that this divine Guide has not also guided all God’s people to some extent, given that he indwells each of them). Tradition may certainly err and be in need of biblical correction, but human innovations imagined to be Spirit-inspired are even more prone to error. In theology, more often than not, the old should be preferred over the new (Jeremiah 6:16). That so many of today’s signs-and-wonders practices draw inspiration from relatively recent times (202-3, 206, 262-4, 280-3, 284-7) seems good reason to approach them with caution.
In spite of my disagreement with Carrin on these and other issues, and in spite of Carrin’s failure to document his sources, I still enjoyed reading the book and think others, including those who disagree with it as I do, may find it worth reading. For good or ill, the ideas Carrin promotes are spreading rapidly among professing Christians. Reading Carrin’s discussion of these ideas is one good way to become acquainted with them, provided one reads with some healthy skepticism. In the words of a folk proverb one of my seminary professors loved to quote, “If you believe everything you read, better not read.”