Rev. K. D. Macleod
A review article on FALLING SHORT? The Alpha Course Examined, by Chris Hand.
Paperback, 103 pages, Day One Publications, £4.50.
Available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom, 133 Woodlands Road, Glasgow, G3 6LE.
WRITING just over 150 years ago, the great Swiss historian of the Reformation, Merle d’Aubigné asked himself why the Scottish Church had attained such a prominent place in the Protestant world. His reply was without hesitation: “Her attachment to sound doctrine.” Sadly, her attachment to sound doctrine, and therefore her greatness also, are now things of the past. Yet any worthwhile effort to revive the greatness of the Church in Scotland must be consistent with sound doctrine, however old-fashioned such an approach might seem today. The glory of God ought to have first priority in any attempt to extend His kingdom in this world, and He most certainly is not glorified when the doctrine proclaimed in His name is inconsistent with the Scriptures.
The Alpha Course, the subject of the book under review, is a programme of Christian teaching intended to be a powerful evangelistic tool, which is obviously relevant to the non-churchgoing public. In a clear and concise fashion, the author, a Baptist minister, describes this course and makes plain its very serious shortcomings.
Unquestionably the course is successful in its own terms. Alpha has been welcomed across almost the entire spectrum of professed Christianity, having been used all the way from Free Church of Scotland congregations to Roman Catholic parishes. Besides a glowing endorsement by a Roman Catholic bishop, the book includes the following enthusiastic tributes: “It is such a thrill to see every single person, including leaders and helpers, touched by the Holy Spirit. It is simply beyond human belief,” “The evangelist can say that it is the most effective form of evangelism and nurture he’s ever experienced,” and, “Alpha is the most effective and transferable introductory course to the Christian faith that I know.” The numbers taking the course have increased dramatically year by year since 1991 and, by the end of 1997, it was estimated that the total exceeded half a million.
The origins of the Alpha Course should ring alarm bells. It was developed at Holy Trinity Church, Brompton. This is the central London church which has been most closely associated, in the UK, with promoting the bizarre behaviour known as “the Toronto Blessing”.
What then is the Alpha Course? It consists of a series of 15 talks over a period of 10 weeks, given by a speaker or on video. Each talk is followed by coffee and biscuits, after which the audience splits up into smaller groups for discussion and questions. “By stripping the gospel down to its bare essentials,” its promoters claim, “it makes Christianity accessible to men and women of today’s culture.” The whole emphasis is on an atmosphere where no one need feel at all embarrassed. This attitude extends to the content of the course; every attempt is made to avoid saying anything which might make participants uncomfortable. Alpha has accordingly been praised as “cringe free” and “totally non-threatening”.
Thus the doctrine of sin is played down almost to the point of extinction. “Alpha,” says Mr Hand, “simply has no grasp of the holiness of God and of His wrath against sin. It has no concept of man having offended God.” The Saviour spoke repeatedly and strongly about judgement and a lost eternity, yet the Alpha Course makes only the most meagre of references to the judgement and describes hell in no stronger terms than this: “eternal isolation from God”. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus would presumably be totally out of place here! On the other hand, when Mr Hand examines examples of preaching recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, he has no trouble making clear that they did not spare their hearers’ consciences.
When the course presents such a feeble doctrine of sin, we need not be surprised to find in it an equally feeble atonement. Mr Hand sums it up: “We are never told why [Christ’s] death was necessary to remove our guilt. A sufficiently compelling reason is never found because there is never any real grasp of the holiness of God or the wrath of God. All we are left with is love without a context seen in the self-sacrifice of Christ who died in order to make our lives better.” In typical Arminian style, the Alpha gospel presents us with a universal atonement: “God loves each one of us so much and longs to be in a relationship with us as a human father longs to be in a relationship with each of his children. It is not just that Jesus died for everyone. He died for you and for me.” Here the course speaks with an assurance which is not based on Scripture. Christ did not die for everyone. But all who hear the gospel are called to look to Christ as the Saviour of sinners, who assures them: “Him that cometh unto Me, I will in no wise cast out.” At one stage in the book, Mr Hand might have written more clearly on this doctrine but, when he returns to the subject later on, he tackles these issues perfectly satisfactorily.
Just as the Alpha Course leaves participants with the idea that sin is much less serious than the Bible teaches, it assumes that conversion will automatically result from presenting the course participant with appropriate information. So the quotation in the previous paragraph goes on: “Once we see the cross in these personal terms, our lives will be transformed.” This is to ignore the implications of the scriptural doctrine of the corruption of the human will. All the unconverted deserve the Saviour’s rebuke: “Ye will not [that is, ye are unwilling to] come unto me that ye might have life.” Because of this corruption, clear teaching on the doctrine of the deity of Christ, for instance, which the Alpha Course does provide, will not in itself bring sinners to salvation. God is not the helpless God portrayed in the Alpha Course; He is the one who through the Holy Spirit works effectually in the hearts of sinners to bring them to Himself.
Particularly seriously, the course seems to assume that, after Week Three, all participants have become true Christians. All that is now deemed necessary, accordingly, is to bolster their assurance of salvation which is, all too often, solemnly to confirm them in their self-deception. The author makes the further comment, “There is nothing in Week Four to test whether true repentance and saving faith have been experienced.” He goes on to give a clear warning about the danger flowing from the apparent success of this course: “If the success of the Alpha Course is spurious, it means that currently there are many people under the illusion that they are Christians.” And again, “The presence of unconverted people, some of whom would subsequently reach positions of power and authority, would be ruinous for the health of the church.” One would only add, and Mr Hand would doubtless accept the truth of the statement, that the number of unconverted people presently in positions of power and authority within the Church has already proved ruinous for her health.
Central to the Alpha Course is the “weekend away” (though the material in these sessions may be presented in a single day), when “the Holy Spirit is introduced”. This part of the course consists of standard charismatic teaching, where “people are being prepared to accept phenomena [especially speaking in tongues] and bodily manifestations as being evidences that the Holy Spirit is at work and that they are being filled with Him”. Mr Hand goes on to comment on tongues-speaking as follows: “It is something that is conducted outside of the orbit of the rational mind. When in this state of mind, it is astonishing what can happen and what the human body is capable of feeling. . . . It has nothing to do with the Spirit of God.” In a significant section, the author points out that other charismatic phenomena, including faith-healing, are also claimed by those who make no Christian profession whatever: “People being overwhelmed with feelings, crying and not understanding why, tinglings, electric shocks and sensations, this is identical to what happens on the Alpha Course. The only difference is that Alpha attributes these things to the Holy Spirit rather than some impersonal force. Put bluntly, these are not genuine spiritual experiences. These are brought about by inducing people into a highly emotional state where they lose self-control.”
Given that the charismatic emphasis is an important part of the course, one wonders how Free Church congregations, for instance, can possibly use this material. The course’s copyright statement allows users to make minor adaptations but they “must not change the essential character of the course”. Presumably they could drop the favourable references to liberal theologians and Roman Catholic figures such as Mother Theresa, but it seems unlikely that they have any right to eliminate the charismatic sections. And even apart from that major difficulty, how can they possibly use a course which is so unscriptural in its doctrines of sin and salvation? Sadly, it goes to confirm one in the belief that “attachment to sound doctrine” is no longer the strong point of the Scottish Church.
In Falling Short? The Alpha Course Examined, the author succeeds in pointing out the very serious deficiencies in the Alpha Course. He has performed a useful service for the Christian community by doing so. It is a great pity, however, that Scripture quotations are generally from the NKJV rather than from the AV.