Truth Matters, Life Matters More: The Unexpected Beauty of an Authentic Christian Life, Thomas Nelson. 2019.
For readers interested in past posts on Hanegraaff’s reception into the Orthodox Church and scandals at CRI under his presidency, see The Hankadox Files.
In the review, I provide a brief overview of the chapters. Then I point out what I think is good or beneficial about the book as well as criticism both structural and theological.
The book is divided into four sections- (1) Introduction, (2) an apologetic for the importance of truth, (3) an apologetic for the greater importance of the spiritual life and (4) the epilogue. Sections 2 & 3 consist of six chapters which constitute the heart of the book.
The introduction covers a recounting of CRI’s engagement with Witness Lee’s sect, “the Local Church” (aka “the Lord’s Recovery”) from about 2003 to 2009, and Hank’s change in thinking regarding the spiritual life.
Including the prefatory section, Hank recounts his early life and engagement with Christianity, specifically the Dutch Reformed tradition focusing on the necessity of truth. He then moves on criticisms of evolutionary theory, his apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus, and his apologetic for biblical reliability.
The second chapter briefly explains Hank’s take and exposition of biblical hermeneutics or how to interpret the Bible.
Hank utilizes his mnemonic acronym “DOCTRINE” summarize “essential” Christian doctrines to provide a basis to detect and ferret out counterfeit religions.
This chapter functions as a transition point for the book towards an account of Hank’s thoughts on the superiority of the spiritual life to truth. Here Hank discusses his take and understanding of theosis or deification intertwining material from Witness Lee’s sect, “the Local Church” with academic and Eastern Orthodox material.
Hank discusses the importance of books to the spiritual life, his acronym FACTS as a guide to prayer, as well as an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer along with discussion of fasting and other disciplines.
The last chapter is Hank’s take on supposed divisions within the church and how these inhibit the church’s ability to properly function to deliver divine life to the world.
The book has the benefit of being under 220 pages of text, which makes it something that the average person can finish in a reasonable period of time given the constraints of everyday life. The book is also written at an accessible level for the average person, somewhere I’d assess between a 9th to 10th grade reading level.
The book is somewhat disjointed. Some chapters are 8 pages in length (2) while some are 70 pages (5). There are some typographical errors occasionally (principal instead of principle for example) but these tend to be rare.
If you have listened to Hank on air, then many of Hank’s popular clichés will be familiar to you as they occur often in the text. Unfortunately, their inclusion at times smacks of undergraduate writing where one writes to utilize vocabulary to impress rather than to clarify or illuminate.
Fixing Future Problems
There are some substantial problems that Hank and his editors should seek to rectify in any future works. For example, while reading the book I noticed that many sections carried the note “adapted from” to indicate that they were taken from previous works under Hank’s name. This occurs at least 45 times in the book. Sometimes this is just a paragraph but at times Hank indicates that it is five paragraphs at a time taken from older texts under his name. This gives the book the appearance of just being rehashed and copy/pasted material Hank has already sold.
The book suffers from a similar defect with respect to historical and patristic sources. A substantial number of citations of historical figures were simply lifted out of secondary sources. The endnotes carry the phrase “quoted in” or similar phrases at least 46 times. If you didn’t read the endnotes, you’d think that Hank had spent time actually reading the primary sources. For example, many of the patristic citations are simply lifted from Ware’s The Orthodox Church or Lossky’s Introduction to Orthodox Theology. And for even the patristic (church fathers) sources that aren’t referenced in this way, many of the citations are well known in the secondary literature. It is doubtful Hank has worked his way reading through the Schaff and Wace series cover to cover and just found them. So, it is misleading because it gives the reader the false impression that Hank is actually conversant in and has read the primary sources. He’s just read some introductory books that any first-year Orthodox convert has read.
Two other problems deserve mentioning. The first is repeated “paraphrasing” (“virtually quoting” of sources or “adapting” quotes by Hanegraaff. This also occurs fairly frequently in the Endnotes. Generally, trained academics don’t engage in this practice or at least not as often in my experience as Hank does in this book. Moreover, since Hank has been publicly accused of plagiarism by notable public figures like D. James Kennedy and former high-ranking members of his own research staff (Robert Bowman Jr.) it is probably not a good idea to go around “paraphrasing” sources. (See U-Tube video on-line “D. James Kennedy On Hank Hanegraaff’s Plagiarism-this was created by another former CRI employee and not myself.) Either cite the source or don’t use it.
Lastly, a large portion of the sources listed in the Endnotes seem to be taken from on-line versions. There is nothing wrong with on-line sources assuming they are legitimate, germane and the usage of the material is fair and falls under fair use. With the advent of professional journals going digital it is not uncommon to see electronic versions of articles utilized by academics. That said though, I got the impression that a lot of the material was just harvested from on-line sources and mined for quotes. This impression was reinforced by the fair amount of use of “Google Books” in the Endnotes as well. It is one thing if you have read the work and are just using an electronic version to make documentation easier and it is quite another if you are just quote mining to give the impression that you have expertise when you don’t.
In sum, the structural and organizational problems of the book really don’t seem to fit someone who labels themselves as “one of the world’s leading Christian authors and theologians.” (p. 283) Of course, these problems might have something to do with the fact that Hanegraaff dropped out of college after a year, has no earned degrees in any field, has no academic publications and has never taught in any educational institution of higher learning anywhere. Like it or not, those are just facts.
My review of the content of the book generally follows the sequence of the book.
The Local Sect
The introduction of the book contains a defense of Witness Lee’s sect dubbed, the Local Church, aka The Lord’s Recovery (they have their own bible translation, the Recovery Bible) or Living Stream Ministries. Space does not permit a full recounting of their history so here I only sketch the basics for background purposes for readers who may be unfamiliar with this sect. The Local Church got its start after WW2 in China with Watchman Nee and then was handed off to Witness Lee. After the communist ascent to power in China, Nee was imprisoned and Lee fled with others to Taiwan. Eventually Lee made his way to the US, specifically Anaheim, California.
Lee’s, at best, less than clear statements on the Trinity, which appeared to many as modalism or quasi-modalism, along with less than clear statements on human deification, authoritarian behavior, secrecy and other issues caught the ire of various counter cult organizations in the 1960’s and 1970’s resulting in their being labeled a cult, cultic or finally “aberrant” by CRI. Starting in 2003, CRI under Hanegraaff began to overturn that assessment which culminated in not only a removal of past assessments by CRI but an actual endorsement of the Local Church. CRI’s chief financial officer, Paul Young is a current member of the Local Church since at least 2009.
One other salient piece of background information is important to know. It is called the Local Church or the Lord’s Recovery for two reasons. Lee was influenced by various Restorationist groups such as the Brethren. He consequently constructed a view of church history with a kind of general apostasy around the time of Constantine which according to him produced a “degraded” or “apostate” Christianity known as Roman Catholicism. While Protestant bodies “recovered” certain lost truths, they too were still fundamentally “apostate” or “degraded.” So Lee thinks that Luther, Darby and many other figures were appointed by God as the “man of the age” to “recover” certain truths, with the current period having Lee as God’s appointed “man of the age” to continue and apparently culminate the process with the teaching of “local ground.”
The idea of “local ground” in sum is that Christians should be organized primarily locally. So, there shouldn’t be a Presbyterian church on Main Street and say a Baptist church over on Fifth Street. There should just be the church in Seattle or the church in Los Angeles, etc. And of course, the Local Church thinks that they just are the church in any given city because well, they are the only ones with that idea. Everyone should be organized with and under them. Anyone professing to be Christian who doesn’t go along with their teaching is according to them apparently part of “degraded” Christianity. So according to the Local Church they alone have a kind of special divine commission to “recover” lost biblical teaching. That is what the term “Lord’s Recovery” means. Anyone familiar with Restorationist sects of the 18th and 19th centuries will find none of this new or surprising as Lee is in a long line of figures who made fundamentally the same claim-Everyone else fell away and God chose yours truly to fix everything.
The main work defending the Local Church was written by Elliot Miller, a long-time researcher at CRI and pretty much the last original remaining one. Some of the counter-cult literature on the Local Church criticized their view of deification which was characterized by the term “mingling.” It was thought, given various texts from Lee, that Lee was teaching that humans were “blended” or “mingled” with the divine essence to produce “god-men.” To assess this claim would require a book all by itself, but even CRI’s own defense piece by Miller gives us reason to doubt that this gloss of Lee is fundamentally wide of the mark . Note below the quote Miller and Hank bring forward in the CRI Journal that is supposed to exonerate Lee from the charge of thinking we are mixed with the divine essence.
“The early church fathers used the term deification to describe the believers’ participation in the divine life and nature of God, but not in the Godhead. We human beings need to be deified, to be made like God in life and in nature, but it is a great heresy to say that we are made like God in his Godhead. We are God not in His Godhead, but in His life, nature, element, essence, and image.” (Miller, “We Were Wrong” Christian Research Journal, Volume 32, Number 06 (2009), p. 26)
The other proposed exculpatory statements read similarly. Usually Eastern Orthodox theologians, as well as some theologians in other Christian traditions will say that we become divinized in that we participate in the divine life, divine power (immortality, love, holiness, etc.), while careful to avoid saying that we are divinized in that we partake of God’s essence. That’s the standard demarcating line in the history of Christian theology. Yet Lee here, and in the other quotes supplied by CRI says we become divine in terms of God’s “essence.” That is problematic all by itself and it looks like it substantiates the long-time criticism of Lee’s teaching. And so, it is difficult to take Hank’s defense of the Local Church seriously.
As to the doctrine of “local ground”, their claim to restore true Christianity, Witness Lee as God’s appointed “man of the age” and their de facto view that they are the only true church in a given locale, Hank doesn’t address these in a substantial way in the book. Yet these are not only distinctive to the Local Church but the basis for fundamental objections to them by Christian bodies. At one-point Hank does attempt to engage the Local Church’s de facto claim of being the only true church by simply quoting a comment by a member of the Local Church he spoke with. (p. XXIV) The Local Church’s argument is that they “do not believe we are the only church- we are only the church.” This is the same line that the Local Church has been using for decades and it is at best a dodge. (It is also used by many other sects who make the same claim to be the only true church on earth today.) Because when you ask if there are any other true churches in a given locale you get a negative answer or another dodge. Or if you ask, if the “recovered” doctrine of “local ground” is essential to being a true church and they respond in the affirmative and then ask if any other bodies have it and they respond in the negative, the logical conclusion is that they believe they are the only true church, full stop. In short, there is nothing in the book that really critically engages the claims of the Local Church on this fundamental point.
Pre-Reformation historical bodies such as the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and perhaps the Copts also make that claim of being the only true church, but they have a distinct advantage that generates initial plausibility. They simply show up in the historical record. The Local Church like all sects doesn’t until 19 centuries later, which is why they have to have an apostasy story to account for their prior historical non-existence. Hank being persuaded by this reasoning shows that he lacks real world experience dealing with cultic or aberrant groups and the requisite discernment and is so duped or something worse. From someone who is supposed to be “one of the world’s leading theologians” and is supposed to have thirty years of experience in ferreting out truth from error, this is a major flop in the book.
One thing that might help explain this flop is that this book seems to have existed in a previous form, under the title “The Authentic Christian Life: Moving from Doctrine to True Intimacy With God” under Hanegraaff’s name, that was due to come out in 2015, but for some reason, never made it to market. The book is still listed on Amazon and the blurb for it and the fact that it was to be released also in China (Taiwan), where the Local Church is based, also make it appear as if it was going to be Hank’s announcement of joining the Local Church. At the point that book failed to be released, is the same point, according to Hank, that he began exploring Eastern Orthodoxy. Why Hank never joined the Local Church remains unclear as he never discusses it in the book. The current book then seems to be a reworking of that unpublished work from 2015, which would explain Hank’s use of distinctive Local Church jargon such as “leading ones” to denote Local Church leaders as well as other distinctive Local Church terms.
In any case, the major irony is that the initial and main published critics of the Local Church, Jack Sparks and Jon Braun became Eastern Orthodox priests. To Fr. Sparks’ dying day he never retracted his view of the Local Church and neither has Fr. Braun who is still living. This view is not limited to them only but to other current clergy of the Orthodox Church who converted out of the Jesus Movement and other groups or movements and had first hand and long term dealings with the Local Church.
The next chapters of the book cover Hank’s attempts to critique evolutionary theory, provide a defense of biblical reliability, and give a historical case for the resurrection of Christ. Unfortunately, there really isn’t much of anything new or substantial here. The critique of evolution is pretty much a rehash of Duane Gish, Henry Morris and other YEC arguments with a sprinkle of Behe and others thrown in. Hank tends to focus on the typical lines of criticism such as claims of no transitional forms, evolutionary forgeries and debunked concepts such as punctuated equilibrium. Unfortunately, there is nothing here that would really move anyone who has taken some college courses in biology and evolutionary biology because little actually touches the theory of evolution per se. For example, archaeological forgeries passed off on the antiquities market, don’t imply that the NT documents are unreliable. I find it strange that Hank claims that this is the apologetic issue and presents the matter as if it were a slam dunk. If that is so, then Hank should simply find the most prestigious evolutionary biologists in the field and publicly debate them, but Hank has only one debate to his name and generally doesn’t do debates. I’d think it be wise to restrict yourself to areas where one has expertise. And just a plain fact, Hank has no expertise in the sciences.
Much the same goes for the material on biblical reliability and the resurrection of Christ. If names like Strobel, Craig, Habermas, McDowell and company are familiar to you, then you aren’t likely to find anything here you haven’t read previously. The same goes for his material on hermeneutics, which can pretty much be gotten from Sproul’s little book, Knowing Scripture, or any other introductory work on biblical interpretation.
Deification & The Spiritual Life
The second half of the book comprises Hank’s discussion of the spiritual life and why this is of superior value to merely knowing information. Chapter 4 covers deification which pretty much presents the same material you’ll find in any introductory work on the subject or introductory work on the Orthodox Church, such as Ware, Lossky, etc. Hank weaves into the discussion material from the Local Church as if there is some single common tradition on deification. This is strange since the other sources are by recognized figures and experts in that area of historical theology and the writers from the Local Church are not, so this appears strained and artificial. It is also strange because the Local Church would take those other figures or traditions to be “apostate.” In sum, there is no substantial explication of the concept, its background, etc. that would go beyond the basics already long since in print that would give someone a clearer grasp of deification in the Christian tradition.
There are a few interesting things in that chapter though apart from deification. Here Hank admits his doctrinal error in rejecting the perpetual virginity of Mary, so contrary to his earlier statements that his views have not changed on doctrinal matters, his views have in fact changed on doctrinal matters. How far this doctrinal change extends remains unclear. Whether Hank rejects past protestant beliefs such as Sola Fide or accepts Orthodox teaching on say, the Dormition/Assumption of Mary remain unanswered in the book.
Chapter 5 covers the Church as the source of divine life. Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is discussed as well as various spiritual practices that Hank advocates for spiritual growth such as fasting, abstinence and of course prayer. On prayer includes a brief explication of the Lord’ prayer as well as the well known acronym ACTS (adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication) but with Hank’s added term “F” for faith as his own distinctive addition so as to function as a mnemonic device. I did find it very strange that Hank uses his own temporary inability to play golf due to a minor injury as teaching him the value of abstinence. Somehow, I don’t think the Desert Fathers would count that you can’t play golf on your multimillion-dollar country club estate as spiritual abstinence.
Further discussion includes forgiveness, alms-giving and other items. Curiously absent is any discussion or analysis of repentance, which if you are familiar with Orthodox spiritual texts, or just the Bible, repentance plays a central role. There simply can be no advancement or maturity in the Christian life without it. Or rather, there can’t be any Christian life without it. This appears to be a major oversight on Hank’s part in the book.
The material of chapter 5 is unfortunately not anything really new or groundbreaking. As I noted above it seems to be mostly “adapted” from material already under Hank’s name that was published in years past. If someone instead read the Orthodox Fr. Jon Braun’s Divine Energy or the Anglican, Martin Thornton’s Christian Proficiency, they’d learn a lot more and those books are cheaper to boot.
Chapter 6 turns on Hank’s cliché use of the difference between nuclear fission and fusion, with the former being the splitting of atoms releasing toxicity and the later uniting atomic material to produce clean energy for human utilization. The basic idea is that the Church is in Hank’s assessment divided and this is fission with all of the negatives of human squabbles. If the Church were to become united, this would substantially increase the divine effectiveness of the Church. In the book Hank expresses the idea that all these different groups are a kind of tribe and the problem is that people have a loyalty to their tribe. And in this he includes the Orthodox as one “tribe” among many.
Hank rightly acknowledges that any unity though would require doctrinal agreement. And that doctrinal agreement has to be on the grounds of the “essential” Christian doctrines. That said, the ecclesiology he offers here is fundamentally Protestant and not Orthodox. First, on Orthodox grounds, the Orthodox Church takes itself to just be the Church of Jesus and the Apostles, full stop. There is no schism in the Church, but only schism *from* the Church. This doesn’t mean non-Orthodox are viewed as completely non-Christian, but the Orthodox do not recognize Protestant *bodies* as true churches. (And of course, Confessional Protestant bodies (Lutheran, Reformed and Reformed Baptist) don’t even recognize each other as true visible churches, let alone Rome or the Orthodox which is Protestant bodies have no formal intercommunion for the last 500 years.) And Rome doesn’t view Protestant bodies as true churches even though they recognize the Orthodox as such albeit in schism and illicit. And the Orthodox at best aren’t of one mind as to whether Rome counts as a true church either and that is on a good day. This is so because these traditions (Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox) all have incompatible theologies and hence different criteria for what constitutes a church. So, Hank is inconsistent with his own Church’s teaching in a major area of theology. There isn’t some unhistorical and nebulous church out there that we all belong to.
His position on the “essentials” is also untenable. Unity in essentials is a handy quip taken from Augustine of Hippo but of course Augustine was a bishop, sacramentalist, etc. so he is working in a context that Hank is not. That aside, the space carved out for a distinction in essentials and non-essentials in contemporary usage was meant to work in a Protestant context, which is why CRI’s doctrinal statement up until 2018 included the two main points of the Reformation-Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura, as well as a penal model of the atonement and other Protestant distinctives (These were unilaterally removed by Hank in 2018). Unfortunately for Hank there simply is no agreed upon set of essentials all Christian traditions agree on. Take Catholicism for example. Papal supremacy is a dogma of Catholicism. That means it is an essential or foundational truth of the apostolic deposit, yet Protestants reject this, as do the Orthodox. Protestant Sola Fide is rejected by Catholics and Orthodox, yet Protestants take it to be essential. Even the canon of Scripture enjoys no common set of contents between the three traditions. Commensurability is hard to come by.
The above puts Hank in a very difficult position given his defense of the Local Church. His own Church doesn’t recognize the Local Church as a church in the first place. If he follows his own Church’s teaching, he has to say that the Local Church is not only materially heterodox (for the same reasons it says Confessional Protestantism is and for Local Church distinctives as well) but that the Local Church is not even a church. In sum, Hank has to say that the Witness Lee was fundamentally in error on doctrines the Orthodox Church teaches are essential and likewise Lee was wrong on what he thought were essential doctrines as well. So, is Hank’s church wrong on essentials? Is the Local Church wrong on essentials? Or is Hank’s cliché about essentials wrong? They simply cannot all be true and at least one of them is wrong. And this is why the position Hank attempts to carve out in the last chapter is not only heterodox by his own Church’s standards, but is incoherent. Hank therefore needs to decide whether he’s going to be an Orthodox Christian, and teach that, or something else.
The Good Life Matters More
As to the thesis of the book and Hank’s own life as a public figure, Hank really doesn’t have any credible support. In general, the thesis of the book is not all that surprising. Anyone who has read St. James’ epistle, specifically chapters 1-2 would find it there. Faith without works is dead. True religion is not mere talk, but feeding the hungry, assisting the sick, clothing the naked and so on. It isn’t just about the truth of the message and a true message or living a life of self-sacrifice. It isn’t one or the other, but both in synergy. And this life requires a life that includes a fair measure of self-denial.
This is why Hank’s book is really out of place. As someone who lives off of the sacrificial gifts of others much poorer than himself, it is morally incumbent upon him to live that sacrificial life and to live modestly to be consistent with Christian principles, both as laid out in the Scripture and in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. Given that Hank along with his wife (she is also on the CRI board) make about $500k a year, plus royalties and such, (See CRI’s public 990 forms) live in a 3.1 million dollar, 9200 sq ft, seven bedroom, eight bathroom mansion (see *public* tax records for Waxhaw in Union County, NC cf w/ Zillow) this does not seem consistent with the claim that the Christian life matters more. The same goes for the fact that his mansion sits on a country club golf course (see “The Club at Longview“) whose entrance fee is $65k a year and the monthly membership is about $800 (or at least was, but seems to have gone up). All of this is public record.
And all of this is on top of Hank apparently getting caught using ministry “loan” money to purchase a somewhat smaller mansion when he resided in Southern California in violation of ECFA standards, (See the U-Tube video “Did Hank Hanegraaff Lie About His House?”, See L.A. Times, Audit’s Lesson Was ‘Painful’ for Evangelist, AUG. 17, 2003, & L.A. Times, “Hanegraaff Wasn’t ‘Handpicked” APRIL 30, 2000) using ministry funds apparently, to buy Lexus cars for his children and other apparent abuses. This includes losing ECFA status without informing donors while still apparently using the ECFA seal on CRI correspondence. There has been purge after purge of whistleblower employees going back thirty years to the time of Walter Martin’s death. And this includes dozens of former employees from every level of the organization who have sought to meet with Hank, both individually and corporately, following Matthew 18 right up to last year. This includes one by yours truly just last year when Hank visited my church in Southern California. All of those attempts have been consistently rejected by Hank in contradiction to basic teaching of Jesus.
Consequently, following St. James, I really can’t take Hank’s claim that he thinks the spiritual life matters more when he obstinately rejects basic clear biblical requirements concerning repentance and reconciliation for thirty years, even with people like me who are members of his own church. He can say whatever he likes, but actions speak louder than words. (And the facts I noted above are public and easily accessible for verification). His actions tell people what he values more apparently. For this and the reasons given above, the book is, in my opinion, just popular fluff written by another grifter. You’d be better served by reading works by people who have the academic credentials and are recognized in their field as experts, rather than someone who has no expertise, reads from a teleprompter and reads prepared answers or cribs from the books of others on air while passing them off as his own.
But if you feel it is important to pay for Hank’s millionaire country club lifestyle, by all means buy the book, because while truth may matter, Hank’s good life matters more.