Book Review: Defining Deception, by Costi Hinn & Anthony Wood
Costi W. Hinn, Anthony G. Wood. Defining Deception: Freeing the Church from the Mystical-Miracle Movement. Southern California Press, El Cajon, CA. 2018. 175 pages.
The mystical-miracle movement—with its plethora of self-claimed apostles, prophets, and healers—is probably the deadliest heretical movement today. It appears to be proliferating on all continents, with its empty promises of miracles and prosperity. It often accompanies “charismatic” utterances as “holy laughter,” feathers and gold dust falling from the ceiling during meetings, “fire tunnels,” “spirit slayings,” congregants convulsing and rolling (reminiscent of the mystics of Kundalini), and trance-like states (like the possession of Kalabari spirits of Zulu religion).
A key figure in all this is Bill Johnson, senior pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California. His influence has spread across the globe, not merely through his itinerant preaching, but also through Bethel Music, their band Jesus Culture, and the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, which trains students to become revivalists. Bill Johnson is the next big thing, according to televangelist Benny Hinn, “massive fire over there” (61). Johnson concurs, prophesying a world-wide revival that will “harvest a billion souls,” centering on Bethel Church. By way of anecdote from my Swedish horizon, the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry is the Bible-school that currently attracts most Swedish youth, including indigenous Bible-schools.
The task of understandably refuting Johnson’s heretic theology is exceedingly laborious. He mixes truth and error in almost every sentence. He uses conventional theological terms and gives them new meaning, which enables him to say things that may seem orthodox at first glance, but with his new definitions are nowhere near historically accepted orthodoxy. The struggle is thus not merely a theological one but also lingual.
Bill Johnson’s worldwide influence and his notoriously deceptive teaching are just a couple of reasons why Costi Hinn and Anthony Wood’s book is so needed. Their goal is to “give readers the information needed to discern whether Bethel’s teaching falls within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy or harms the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (vii). They seem well-equipped for the task, with personal insights and experiences from the mystical miracle movement: “We’ve seen the backstage planning of a ‘miracle’ crusade, the pre-selection of those to be healed, the bravado in the green rooms, the falsified Twitter feeds, the manipulation of youthful naïveté, and even the post event cash-money exchanges behind hotel doors in some destitute third world nation . . . nothing but smoke and mirrors” (4–5).
The book is divided into seven short chapters and five appendices. The first three chapters sketch a historical and theological background. Chapter 2 lays out the “Hall of Generals,” the lineage of faith champions leading up till Bill Johnson, including names like William Seymour, Smith Wigglesworth, Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts, and Kenneth Hagin. Chapter 3 describes the advanced mystical-miracle movement which calls itself “Third Wave/New Apostolic Reformation,” primarily through the work of self-claimed apostle C. Peter Wagner (NAR), as well as Todd Bentley, Randy Clark, Heidi Baker, Che Ahn, John Arnott, and more.
Chapter 4 introduces the reader to “The Shady World of Stage Sharing,” i.e., Johnson’s network of apostolic associates and how they endorse one another’s ministries. Chapter 5 is called “Master Manipulation,” and it describes “the deceptive logic used by Johnson to strip the Scripture of its context [which] allows him and other mystical-miracle teachers to manipulate the emotions of their followers and build trust in their self-claimed apostolic authority for interpreting God’s Word” (85).
The sixth chapter, “Doctrinal Deception,” outlines and addresses five critical doctrinal errors in Johnson’s teaching under the headings: (1) “You and I Are the Same as Jesus,” (2) “Sick People Just Need More Faith,” (3) “The Kingdom of Heaven is Now,” (4) “The Dichotomy of Scripture and Spirit,” and (5) “My Experience Proves My Truth.” In the seventh chapter, the authors address the question of healing and the role of the Spirit as explained in Scripture.
The book concludes with five appendices. Two of them are basically chapters in their own right: one on a biblical understanding of tongues and one on the myth of being “slain in the spirit.”
How is this useful is this book for pastors?
For those who know little or nothing about this vast movement, the book is valuable in outlining its theological heritage and giving an introduction to the movement as a whole. I found the two chapters on the history of self-acclaimed prophets and faith healers and the more recent history of the Third Wave/NAR movement particularly helpful. The book also gives insight into the current network of self-acclaimed prophets and apostles such as “The Revival Alliance,” which anointed Todd Bentley with special revival oil and recognized God’s election of him to bear “much and lasting fruit at this Lakeland Revival,” and commissioned him as an apostle for further endeavors.
Again, why is this helpful? Because as pastors, we will, if we haven’t already, encounter young people who have grown weary of the slow and seemingly inefficient process of sanctification together with the saints at a local church, who have tired of submitting to a plurality of elders that conscientiously preach the Word week after week, who have become too impatient to wait for God to bring growth over decades of faithfulness. We’ll encounter people who have fallen prey to the allure of power, who feel like they’re “destined for more” than the dull church life of biblical worship, fellowship with saints, and mortification of sin. This book is helpful insofar as it shows where this teaching comes from and reveals some of the more sinister machinations of the movement.
I have to say though: I was surprised by how little theology the book offers. The sixth chapter, which sets out to address doctrinal errors, is undoubtedly the highlight of the book, but the mere disposition is telling. In this short chapter, at least four grave doctrinal errors are treated. The result is that Bill Johnson’s Christology is given about the same space in the book as William Branham (1909–1965), and less space than Todd White or Benny Hinn. A more rigorous theological treatise would have made the book considerably stronger.
Nonetheless, Defining Deception is a well-needed, well-informed treatment of an important subject. It will serve the church well.