I had a call last week from someone who had been involved with and influenced by Bill Gothard’s ministry and teaching nearly or perhaps even from the beginning. They have a Master’s degree and taught in public school for most of their career. They called because they are troubled and trying to figure out why they have such a difficult time with Scripture and sorting things out in the life of faith. We talked for a lengthy period of time and I recommended a couple of books. I am well aware that many who leave false teaching have difficulty in navigating through biblical issues at times and some can’t even make what we would consider easy decisions in areas of daily life such as what they would like to eat or wear.
The next day I received an email with a link to an article by a Myron Horst titled, ATI: Designed Around a False Education “Principle”. I have to admit, as I and MCOI spends the majority of our time reviewing and critiquing teachings. In this case what Bill Gothard and the Institute teaches but had not really considered how he teaches it. That is a question that never even crossed our minds. I think Myron Horst is on to something though. He writes:
The education concept that was supposed to make ATI curriculum “advanced” is that of teaching by using analogies and training young people to think in analogies.
Horst demonstrates the importance Gothard placed on this at conventions and conferences and writes:
The ATI Wisdom Booklets do not give systematic and comprehensive training in the various subjects. Because of the training with analogies and trying to integrate the various subjects around a verse in scripture, the training in science, medicine, history, English, etc. is hodge-podge and piecemeal instead of systematic and logical. Students are not trained to think in a logical progression and to be able to analyze things in a logical and analytical way. Logical thinking is vital for advanced reasoning processes.
As he develops his case he confesses the adverse impact this has had on his own children:
But after 14 years of training them on the farm, and daily working side by side with them, I felt like often they were still only able to do “procedure intensive” tasks that they had done repetitively. Jobs that needed understanding and creative thinking usually required my close supervision. I rebuked, disciplined, explained in great detail, all to little avail in helping them to have true understanding and to apply their minds to their task.
Those who have read much of our material will know that I am not a fan of psychiatry but I think Abraham Maslow’s 1966 statement, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail,” is true and in this case applicable. A hammer is a very good tool and for some a favored tool but it cannot be properly used for everything. Similarly, analogies can be helpful but usually only in a passing way. Sometimes analogies are used to try to explain to someone a truth they are unfamiliar with or for which there is no human equivalent. They can point us in the direction of understanding. Overuse or over extension can be harmful. I see this happen fairly often in theology.
For example, when we think about the doctrine of the Trinity, a difficult concept to nearly everyone, we try to find ways to explain it. Some have used the example of a 3 leaf clover. 1 clover but three leaves. Others have used the triple point of water the point where H2O coexist as gas, liquid and solid. Same substance but different forms or modes of being. The problem with both of these is that they are in actuality heretical. This is what is termed modalism and was a 4th century heresy which was condemned. God is a being that is so outside of our experience that it is easy to go too far with any analogy.
In discussing this I often will explain that in the First century the Greeks spoke of something as having “the form of…” This meant a particular thing had the properties of being which differentiated it from something else. A cat had the form of cat, or what we might call “catness.” A table had the form of table or “tableness.” The “form of” are the properties that make something what it is. (This, by the way, helps us understand Philippians 2:5-7 where Paul’s “form of” statements are communicating that Jesus had all the properties of being God and all the properties of being human.)
Once this is understood I suggest that when we began the conversation I had a candle near my right hand with the flame burning. I now will take another candle and dip it into the flame on the first candle and now have flame on two candles. I then ask which flame is older. Typically the response is that the flame on the first candle is older. My response is that they are focused on the candle and how long it has had a flame not on the flame itself for they are both the same age. The one on the second candle always existed within the first candle but was generated to the second candle more recently. This is an analogy and at this point I have to stop and explain that flame can do things that humans cannot do because it exists differently than humans do. But the analogy is only good to demonstrate that different things exist differently and like flame, God exists differently than humans and therefor can do things differently than humans. At this point we have to put the tool of analogy away and delve more deeply into the world of ideas to embrace God’s description of Himself as He reveals it in Scripture. Holding on to the analogy too long will take us to heresy eventually.
After I read Myron Horst’s article I called the individual back and let them know I was sending them a copy as I think this has a big bearing on the difficulties they are having in thinking through the issues of the faith. They are not applying the type of rigorous thinking they would apply to other areas of life and learning. Bill Gothard has been able to muddle people’s thinking and in many ways has handicapped them into a dependence on his material instead of on God Himself.
I appreciate the discipline of logic in the study of Scripture and the Christian life. Both logic and analogy will ultimately fail when it comes to truly knowing God, which is why Christ became incarnate for our salvation, so that we can have an experiential encounter with Him through the Holy Spirit in His Church. Both the necessity of the prophets and apostles of using human language (including logic and analogy) to describe God’s revelation, and its limitation, are why the Church in the East has always emphasized “apophaticism” (i.e., what cannot be said of God) alongside what can be said of God, in its approach to the verbal theological descriptions of that revelation. This apophaticism is often misunderstood by those outside the Eastern Christian tradition (as saying that God is “unknowable” in any sense, which is not what it means), but it seems to me it has largely preserved classical theology in the Eastern Churches from devolving into what can become misleading and distorted literalisms from Scripture about the nature and activity of God and of our life in Christ.
On the other hand, Bill Gothard takes that distorted literalism to a whole new and absurd level with tragic results for the gullible. His system is not truly biblical or Christian in anything other than name–rather, he’s adopted that all-American idol of “external success” (in his case the appearance of a very idiosyncratic “righteousness”) and is the consummate pragmatist about developing and selling his product. I’m so sad for all the spiritual confusion and destruction that have followed in the wake of such a “ministry”!