He Did What!? Evaluating Experientialism

miracles for free signI recently had someone approach me about one of those, shall we say, “unusual” stories she came across in her children’s school curriculum. It told the story of St. Simon, also known as Simon the Tanner or Simon the Shoemaker. During the reign of Fatimid (I smile at his first name) Caliph al-Muizz li-Din Allah in the 10th century, the Abraham of Syria, pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, got into a debate before Fatimid 🙂 with a Jew named Yaqub ibn Killis in Cairo, Egypt. Yaqub challenged the Christian with Matt. 17:20 – …for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.

Long story short, Fatimid (*disclaimer! He also commissioned the invention of the first fountain pen) asked Abraham if this was of his religion. He said it was, and Fatimid gave him three days to move a mountain or all the believers would be put to death. Abraham prayed and received a vision from Mary who told him to find Simon the Tanner, and they all prayed and the Mokattam Mountain in Cairo, Egypt was moved by their faith.

There’s a lot of stories like that floating around… especially in Roman Catholicism, and particularly from the middle ages. I understand why they would subject themselves to such legends… where Scripture is not the authority for what you do, you have to find authority elsewhere – and that authority most easily comes from legends (a.k.a – experientialism). “How can you say our religion is false? Look at what this person did according to our religion.”

just because you think something is true...Roman Catholics aren’t the only ones guilty of this though. We’ve all heard those stories before… you know, the ones that have been on every cessationist to answer for. They usually go something like, “I have a friend who knew a missionary, who said he did this miracle in a remote jungle in Africa. What do you think about that?” Some stories are plausible, and others are outright absurd. But they all stand something in common – “How can you deny continuationism in view of these people’s experiences?” Then they’ll go to the same passage Abraham of Syria had to defend… after all, Jesus did say we can do anything if we only have enough faith!

In fact, I remember visiting a Bible study while I was in college. That night, there was a girl in a wheel chair and she declared that she had never walked in her whole life – she was paralyzed at birth from the waste down, but she was claiming Matt. 17:20 and she had the faith that she could walk. We prayed and prayed and she finally got up and walked across the room, turned around with a huge smile on her face, and walked back again! It was amazing! But it wasn’t the power of God that was amazing. It was how willingly deceived everyone was. As she sat there and as we were praying, I noticed she didn’t have muscular atrophy – and she should have had if she truly never walked before.

She was a fake. fake

But Matt. 17 is among the most abused passages in contemporary evangelicalism, especially since the rise of Pentecostalism and establishment of continuationism in the last century. The logic goes like this:

“Jesus said, ‘If you have enough faith, you can move mountains.’ In other words, your power is limited by your faith, so if you have unlimited faith, you’ll have unlimited power to cast out demons, heal the sick, speak in tongues, etc. The disciples were not able to cast out the demon because they didn’t have enough faith.”

Obviously this wasn’t what Jesus was teaching at all. Power is not limited by faith. Power is limited (or unlimited) by the object of your faith. So, what Jesus is teaching is that God is all-powerful and can accomplish anything and your faith needs to be in Him who can do all things. Only in that context is “nothing impossible for you,” so long as it’s in the framework of God’s will.

Ironically, the story of Mokattam Mountain is a hallmark example of what the Jews demanded Jesus do, but that He refused to do. They wanted Him to validate that He was the Messiah by performing these kinds of pointless miracles (cf. Matt. 12:38-39) and He wouldn’t do them. So, if Jesus refused to perform such a miracle, why would He tell His disciples they could – and then consider that they never took Him up on it!?

Mokattam MountainI mean, if Jesus just told you that you could literally move a mountain by your faith, wouldn’t you want to try just for the sake of doing it? I would! But that’s not what Jesus meant. He wasn’t referring to literally “moving mountains,” but this was simply a common figure of speech in the first century. A great teacher was said to be one who could uproot or pulverize mountains – so Jesus is emphasizing His greatness here.

As to whether or not Abraham of Syria and St. Simon actually did move a mountain? Or for that matter, what about all those other stories we hear about miraculous miracles happening out in obscure places of the mission field? How do we interpret those? None of us have actually seen those things so how can we be in a position where we say they aren’t true? This is the problem with “experiential Christianity.” How do we interpret those experiences? We especially come to a dilemma when those experiences contradict biblical Christianity (which many times they do), and experience is “self-authenticating” – at least so far as most of the world is concerned (hence postmodernism).1 So, we evaluate experiential claims to see if they’re consistent with what Scripture teaches.

As far as the story of Mokattam Mountain? Being that Abraham of Syria and St. Simon completely misunderstood what Jesus was saying in Matt. 17:20 anyway, I don’t buy it. Jesus wasn’t saying that you could literally move a mountain by your faith. The point was that God has the ability to do whatever He wants, so put your faith in Him! But He isn’t promising to move mountains, so why would He grant you the ability to do something that you’re misunderstanding in Scripture anyway? That would only validate your wrong interpretation of the text.

telephone gameFurther, the funny thing about all these kinds of stories is that their sources lack credibility. It’s NEVER first hand is it? And they never occur in a place where their stories can be verified. In fact, just like at the Bible study I went to in college, many have been proven to be nothing more than a scam.

Those passing along such stories might be noble… or those even exaggerating them as they return from the mission field. They wants to strengthen the faith of their listeners by providing an example of how God’s words were miraculously proven to be true. Unfortunately, they  actually do more harm to genuine faith than good because our faith becomes dependent on experience. So, what happens when a beloved family member is diagnosed with cancer, and goes through two years of unbelievable excruciating pain and then dies… all while you were absolutely confident that you had the faith that God could heal that cancer – and He didn’t? You had the faith, clearly God didn’t come through with His promise.

The right question from Matt. 17:20 is, “Do you have faith that God will accomplish HIS will?” Not, “Do you have faith that God will accomplish yours?”

  1. For instance, modern usage of speaking in tongues is CLEARLY not the usage described in the NT. Even renowned continuationists will readily admit that – i.e., they’re not speaking human, nationalistic languages. This makes little difference though, because experience is the ultimate authority