Dr John White interviewed
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An article in Renewal Journal 10: Evangelism
Julia C. Loren, a psychotherapist and writer, interviewed Dr John White, psychiatrist and widely read evangelical author, about a theology of the supernatural.
Oh I’ve come home. This is what I want.
This is what I’ve been looking for all my life.
Q. How did you begin shifting towards a theology which included signs and wonders?
A. An obvious case of a shift in theology was when I met John Wimber. When I arrived at his course at Fuller Seminary (MC510: Signs and Wonders) I realized here was the Christ I was looking for all my life, the Christ who heals, the Christ who does this and it is all happening in front of my nose. The search had been going on for much longer and I’d been having visions for much longer without knowing that I was a charismatic. I suppose I was one then but I hadn’t entered into the fullness of being able to do these things.
Yet God had been preparing for that so‑called sudden shift for many years, both by my seeing the supernatural in operation among primitive tribal people and by my encounter with a Pentecostal guy while a medical student. And I thought there must be something in it. But I didn’t know what. I thought especially that I needed to be baptized by the Holy Ghost but the Holy Ghost wasn’t cooperating.
Q. Were you seeking such an experience?
A. I don’t think I was. Or it never occurred to me to seek it. I had read a writer’s work while in the New Tribes boot camp. He described the Holy Spirit’s activity in the 19th century. He talked about it, described his own experience and I thought, “Oh dear, I’d love that.” But it wasn’t clear enough to me to seek it actively.
Toward the end of my time pastoring the Winnipeg church, Ken Blue was at Fuller Seminary finishing his Ph.D., and he called me about this remarkable man John Wimber. I thought that was interesting and I’d like to sit in on his lectures. So Lorrie and I went down to Fuller. Fuller graciously gave us an apartment.
It was the sense of the presence of Jesus during John Wimber’s lectures; I thought, “Oh I’ve come home. This is what I want. This is what I’ve been looking for all my life.” And Lorrie was the same. The moment I got in I thought, “Christ is here.” It was remarkable. My hunger for Jesus has never stopped. And I felt that the anti‑Charismatics particularly also robbed me of Jesus.
Q. This is the first time you ever really encountered the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit?
A. Yes. What happened in the third lecture he gave ‑ he would have a lecture then a workshop ‑ he finished his lecture and asked people who had sicknesses of some kind to come forward. There were about ten of them. The first guy was a football player who was studying theology at Fuller. He came because his leg had, until that week, been in a cast and the cast had been removed after a month. It was his Achilles’ tendon that had been torn. So John propped him against the wall and asked him to demonstrate how much movement he had in both his feet. It was very limited in range as it would be after a tendon had been sown up.
Then John prayed for him and he started shaking. He finally went onto the floor. And I was worried because one leg was kicking wildly and I thought that was his injured leg. So I said to three guys, “Look stop him. Get hold of that leg and stop him from doing this.” When they got hold of the leg they were all shaking too. I was mad at them and said, “Stop it! Do what you’re supposed to do and hold that leg.” I was concerned about his leg but I was mistaken. It was the other leg that was injured and when he got up he had a full range of movement. I got used to seeing things like that.
I asked John, “How do we get into this stuff? Do we get zapped by the Holy Ghost or what?”
John’s reply was, “No, you just stick your neck out and start doing it.” He says in retrospect that he saw great faith in me. See a real Christian has the Holy Spirit and has potentially all the gifts of the Spirit. That was suddenly revealed to me. I thought, “Well, I don’t like his answer but I’ll start.” So we started praying for people’s headaches and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.
Q. Had it occurred to you to pray for people to be healed before?
Q. Despite Lorrie being healed just before you were married?
A. That’s right. And despite the fact that it was my prayers that apparently did it. I know that I was before long doing major stuff. I was so excited about it after completing MC510 I went around the world talking about this. I prayed for a little two year old girl in Malaysia. The parents brought her ‑ they were Haaka speaking Chinese. She had been running around the room. She had kept her parents awake for 36 hours and when they brought her to us, struggling, she was covered with her execma ‑ and as Lorrie and I prayed we saw the wet area shrinking. This was very exciting to watch the shrinking take place as we prayed. I thought, “Gosh what power I’ve got.” And then the suggestion came to me, “Oh but maybe it’s Lorrie’s prayers that are doing it.” And I was filled with wild jealousy. I suddenly saw how dangerous it is to have power. After that I was very careful. I saw that my own heart was corruptible.
Q. You were quick to see that and to write about it. You mention in The Pathway to Holiness the error of considering manifestations as evidence of superior spiritual power. Is that also a criticism of the Vineyard movement?
A. It is more a criticism of people who have been affected by miraculous power whether Pentecostal, or so‑called “Second Wave” or Vineyard. I think the Lord saw to it that I recognized it right away and I’ve seen it ever since. I’ve seen what it does to people to have that kind of power.
To me Christ is central to everything. Signs and wonders isn’t everything. They probably will be helpful because God loves people and loves to heal their diseases but its no credit to us that we can do it. We should all be able to do it.
Q. After reading about Jack Deere’s theological shift I have a sense that you’d agree with him that the evangelical, intellectual mindset fights against the spirit but that we need both word and spirit.
A. Yes it does. I feel that intellectuals among the evangelicals are not what the Puritans were. I make a distinction between J.I. Packer and many other Bible scholars and theologians. Packer was part of Lloyd‑Jones studying of the Puritan movement. Lloyd‑Jones had an experience of the Holy Spirit, an experience of being picked up in the arms of the Father so to speak. He studied the Puritans and the Puritans knew about the Holy Spirit. That is why John Owen, who was a puritan and I think the vice‑chancellor of Oxford University at one point, was able to write about the difference between those who have the Spirit and those who didn’t.
Q. You have emphasized the healing gifts of the Spirit in recent years. Do you believe that people can operate in the gifts of the Holy Spirit without having an experience such as a “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” in the Charismatic sense?
A. Yes. I think the focus on the baptism of the Holy Spirit came with the Pentecostal movement. It was the Holiness movement at that time. They decided to wait on God until they had something like that. I’m not even sure that the disciples needed it. When Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”, at that point they received the Spirit of God. He was in them. But I supposed they needed something extraordinary to initiate the powerful testimony that came. That’s how it was in my own life anyway.
I don’t think there is any difference between Charismatics and non‑Charismatics. That is to say, I think those Christians who do have the Holy Spirit in them, many don’t, may never have repented and those are not true Christians. There are many who are powerfully anointed and that is why their speaking is so effective. They may not realize that they can heal the sick but that seems to come in waves anyway. It seems to build somehow.
Q. Your recent though unpublished book tentatively titled Control, reveals the way control and manipulation dominates individuals in evangelical and charismatic ministries. You cry out against this “witchcraft” or abuse of power and advocate a humility and dependency on God to further the work of His kingdom. You offer your subjective experience of being a “controller, con-artist, and manipulator” as the log you believes God revealed and removed from your eye so that he may remove the mote in the church’s eye. Your subjective experience of an encounter with God leads you to call this “witchcraft” in your lectures. Are you encouraging a more experiential interpretation of scripture?
A. I would say first of all, it enters the whole realm of the objective versus the subjective. That was what God said to me when my computer crashed one day. I was filled with fear for some reason when the computer crashed and I said, “Lord what have I been doing?” It was then that he said, “You have been practising witchcraft since you were three years old.” That was a subjective impression.
I deplore an increasing tendency in scholarship to overemphasize the letter of Scripture and minimize subjective experience of Scripture. The two ‑ objective and subjective ‑ are inseparable. It is only as the Holy Spirit illuminates our understanding of Scripture that we will truly understand it. Jack Deere has taught us that when we speak of our convictions we are often speaking of what we were taught in church or in seminary. Divided seminaries and divided churches are an evidence that we follow human opinions as frequently as we follow divine. Two and a half centuries ago, John Gifford taught John Bunyan this very lesson.
Q. How have you learned to hear the subjective voice of God?
A. That’s a tough one. You see, nobody explained to me as a child that such communications had ceased, so that from earliest childhood I did hear, or else I thought I did. I subjected my impressions to “scientific” checks. I am most certain of God’s voice now as I read Scripture. Even when I was a psychiatrist I would be listening to the Lord. I would pray with my patients whether they were Christian or not. And I would have hunches about them which really were prophetic.
He speaks to me on many channels now. He speaks to me in the night when I sleep and I remember it exactly when I wake up. This is something new for me. He also speaks in night visions which are not the same as dreams ‑ which may emerge out of dreams ‑ but suddenly you know that you’re in a different space. In a dream you don’t usually recognize you’re in a dream but there becomes something different about it and I can’t explain what it is.
Q. You went from hearing God’s voice to seeing visions?
A. Though I resisted it at the time, I was also having visions during my residency and I knew those weren’t hallucinatory experiences. There is something about a vision that you know that you know that you know. First of all in a vision I can understand everything. It’s immediately self‑apparent. I can’t explain this but it is. Even though the vision is symbolic I don’t need anyone to tell me what it’s about.
Q. In other words, you know what your vision means but with psychiatric patients suffering hallucinations and delusions, they don’t know?
A. They don’t know. Many of them have hallucinations that they are demonized. They hear demonic voices. I think psychosis reduces your ability to discern, to discern between the demonic and the differences between the two. Satan mimics God’s voice superbly. But God has taught me to distinguish by the darkness that comes on me. I can’t explain it.
Q. Do you have a sense that those who walk into a growing awareness of the power of the Holy Spirit also come into greater awareness of the demonic?
A. You can’t have with one without the other. The moment you are in touch with the Lord you are open to the whole bang shoot. It’s spiritual sensitivity. Sensitivity to spirit beings.
Q. In the wake of your theological shift towards signs and wonders, a fury of criticism followed. Many evangelical doors have slammed shut against your ministry while charismatic doors swung open. How do you view this shift?
A. I wish the two sides would get together. That’s the only thing that I regret. One door closes and another door opens wide. I long for the day when people realize that the “Charismatic curtain,” as I call it, is not necessary. Real Christians are real Christians.
Q. Where do you believe the church is going?
A. I’m concerned about apostasy and the parable of the wheat and the tares. All the reformers spoke of apostasy. Certainly Calvin did, Arminius did. Calvin said it was impossible for them to have seen the light but John Owen explains it the best of all.
The Seventh Volume of Owen’s works is a careful exposition of Hebrews 6, focusing particularly on versus 4 through 6. His attempt is to understand apostasy. Owen maintains that one may operate in all the power of the Holy Spirit, without any of the inward graces of God’s character, that is, without being “saved” at all. You do not have to be a Christian to display spiritual gifts. Non‑Christians can display them also, since the Spirit falls on whom He will.
What John Owen says is that you can have the Holy Spirit and still apostatize and you do that because you opt for power rather than for the brightness of the glory of Christ himself. In other words you are not pursuing Christ, you are pursuing power. So it means that on both sides of the Charismatic curtain, there are wheat and tares.
Q. Apostasy as you see it, is more than lapsing into chronic sin, renouncing Christ and abandoning the profession of faith. It is an abuse of power. Frightening thought.
A. It is a very frightening thought. When I first began to understand this I thought, well, what about me? My fear about this personally was countered when Jesus said to me, “He who comes to me I will never reject.” And that filled me with great relief.
Q. Throughout your ministry and particularly in The Pathway of Holiness, you mention a vision of darkness “that falls on men and women when they do not let God be God in their lives,” referencing Romans 1:21‑23. What do you foresee will happen if the darkness is not lifted off of the church?
A. The darkness will be lifted off of the church. There are some Christians who develop so far and then they lose their curiosity and become worshippers of mammon or whatever unwittingly. God doesn’t seem to go on doing things in them. See, in my life, God has been merciful and constantly dragging me into something new. Sometimes against my will.
The church free of darkness would look marvellous. The marvellous church cannot occur unless there is a split ‑ a split between those who have the Holy Spirit and those who haven’t ‑ the wheat and the tares. At what point that would occur I don’t know except that somehow it’s involved in world war and all that’s going to happen in the next little while. Individuals will have to give God control and they will find one another.
© Renewal Journal 10: Evangelism, 1997, 2nd edition 2011.
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Renewal Journal 10: Evangelism