Lutherans and Alpha Course
Q: I’ve been hearing about Alpha Course, a new Christian meeting group. Their site leads me to the conclusion that it is more about spiritualism than about Christianity. Have you heard of this course, and as a Lutheran, why should I participate in it?
A: Although I had heard about it, I needed to further educate myself before replying. Actually, Alpha Course isn’t all that new. According to their flagship web site in the United Kingdom, “It began at Holy Trinity Brompton in central London, in the late 1970s.” In 1990, its leader decided to adapt what had been used for internal instruction into a tool for reaching outward to the unchurched.
However, hanging about the Christian Church for some thirty years doesn’t automatically make it acceptable, good, excellent, or the best thing since sliced bread. After all, some of the early heresies took decades, even centuries to root out. And once they were banished, some disguised themselves and sneaked back in.
Although I don’t know exactly where I’d place Alpha in a spectrum ranging from “damnable” to “divine,” I certainly wouldn’t put it anywhere near the best that the Church has to offer. Nor would I state that it has absolutely no merit. If you pinned me down, I’d probably say that if you could find nothing better, think about examining it more closely and maybe use it if you were completely without recourse.
From what I’ve read of their materials, Alpha Course begins with a fairly decent focus on the person and nature of Jesus Christ. However, as the weekly talks continue, the emphasis shifts away from an objective proclamation of the Gospel to a subjective, experience-oriented practice. The salvation won by our Savior becomes secondary to reception of the Holy Spirit. In fact, along with the regular weekly sessions, Alpha Course includes a special weekend devoted to four questions: 1. Who is the Holy Spirit? 2. What does the Holy Spirit do? 3. How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit? 4. How can I make the most of the rest of my life?
Not to denigrate the Spirit, but He puts Himself in the background, instead testifying to salvation in Jesus Christ. Article V of the Augsburg Confession cites Holy Scripture in making this very point: “Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given [John 20:22]. He works faith, when and where it pleases God [John 3:8], in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake.”
Article Five’s John 3 citation refers to a portion of our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus, where Jesus spoke of salvation by grace through faith. Jesus confounded the Pharisee by saying that “unless one is born again [or ‘from above’] he cannot see the kingdom of God. (v. 3)” Salvation, or entry into the Kingdom, comes by being “born of water and the Spirit. (v. 5)” Regarding this, He continued, “The wind [or ‘Spirit’] blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (v. 8)”
Instead of contenting itself with allowing the Spirit to work through His chosen “instruments” of “Word and Sacrament,” Alpha Course tries to manipulate His coming, indwelling, and works. In this, it resembles portions of the Charismatic movement and experience-based Evangelicalism. Such practice counters Scripture’s central emphasis on Christ. Thus, Alpha Course can cause people to rely on their our own preparations and works to attain and maintain faith. This, too, Article V condemns when it says that we are “received into grace ... not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake.”
In my mind, such “Holy Spiritualism” differs only by degree from any run of the mill spiritualism. This “Christianity Lite” may still live within the boundaries of Biblical Christianity but it resides far from Christ’s own definition of the primary purpose of God’s Word, for “the Scriptures” lead to “eternal life” because they “bear witness about” Him that we may come to Him and therefore “have life. (John 5:39-40)”
Why would any believer want to replace true life in Christ with a life divided between Him and oneself? And why should the Church sanction teachings that in any way veil, weaken, water down, or distract from the pure Gospel?
Augsburg Confession quoted from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, © 2005 by Concordia Publishing House.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #569:1