Bad theology: Vassula Ryden and Benny Hinn
What do you do about bad theology?
This week has seen two responses: the excommunication of Vassula Ryden by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and a group of South African Protestant theologians being moved by the prospect of a visit by Benny Hinn to start a web site to examine Prosperity Theology.
Vassula Ryden has been travelling round teaching on “True Life in God”, and has visited South Africa before. She has spoken mainly at Roman Catholic venues, but her meetings have been publicised in Orthodox Churches, and indeed by Orthodox clergy. Here is the programme of a recent visit:
VASSULA WILL BE SHARING THE TRUE LIFE IN GOD MESSAGES AT THE FOLLOWING VENUES:-
- Johannesburg: Sunday 10th May after 6pm youth Mass – Maronite Catholic Church, Cnr Western Service Rd and Mount Lebanon, Woodmead, Contact: 011-4354530 084 7547034
- Durban: Saturday 16th May 2pm Durban City Hall, West Street new name Dr Pixley Ka Seme St. Contact: 031-5638832 0828435221
- Cape Town: 17th May 2009 4.30pm at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, St. Dominic’s Street, Matroosfontein, Elsies River. Contact. Merle Taljaard 021-9753958
The publicity leaflets announcing these gatherings said:
Who is Vassula Rydén?
Vassula Rydén is Greek, born in Egypt and belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church. Mother of two sons and wife of a Swedish foreign aid worker, she lived most of her life in Third World countries. She did not practice her faith, but was busy with the chores of life, worked as a painter and played tennis on the level of national competitions.
In 1985, she was called by God to serve Him, by transmitting His divine words to all people. Vassula receives these inspirations through the form of locutions and through interior visions. God asked her to call these divine inspirations, “True Life in God”.
These leaflets were distributed in Orthodox Churches, and clearly give the impression that Vassula Ryden is an Orthodox Christian. But any educated Orthodox Christian reading this should immediately be put on their guard by terms like “locutions” and “interior visions”, because such things are prima facie evidence of what is called in Russian prelest and in Greek plani, that is, spiritual delusion. Such things should immediately be checked with an experienced spiritual elder (starets, geron, gerondissa) before proclaiming them to the world.
And even the briefest glance at Vassula Ryden’s teachings will show that they are far closer to the New Age movement than to Orthodox Christianity.
Now there are lots of people who follow, to a greater or lesser extent, the teachings of the New Age movement, but most of them do not pretend that what they teach is Orthodox Christianity, or the teaching of the Orthodox Church. When one puts forward such teachings as part of, or compatible with the Orthodox Christian faith, then it is heresy, and this is why, after examining these teachings, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has excommunicated Vassula Ryden and any members of the Orthodox Church who propagate those teachings.
In this spirit, and for the beneficial protection of our pious Orthodox plenitude from dangerous spiritual confusion, who do not know well matters underlying the risk of delusion, rejects from the Mother Church Vasiliki Paraskevis Pentaki – Ryden, widely known as ‘Vassula’, and her organization founded under the title ‘True Life In God’ which rashly and frivolously proposes teachings based on the supposed ‘direct dialogue between her and the Founder of the Church Jesus Christ our Lord’, and those conquered by her and the supporters of ‘True Life In God’, which deviate arbitrarily from the God-given teaching of the Church, but also scandalize the Orthodox phronema of pious believers.
Hence, we call upon the proponents of these unacceptable innovations and the supporters who maintain them, who henceforth are not admitted to ecclesiastical communion, not only to not be involved in the pastoral work of the local Holy Metropolis, but also to not preach their novel teachings, to prevent the appropriate sanctions under the Holy Canons.
The question that arises here is “What took them so long?”
While one doesn’t necessarily expect Sunday-school pupils to be accomplished heresy-spotters, surely the clergy, at least, should see the heresy sticking out a mile, and instead of publicising such meetings should explain to people that what is being taught at them is not Orthodox? Why did it have to take someone at the Ecumenical Patirarchate to examine Vassula Ryden’s theology and find that it wasn’t Orthodox?
The other instance is Benny Hinn.
Like Vassula Ryden, Benny Hinn is of Greek descent. He was born in Israel, and his father was Greek Orthodox under the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, while his mother was Armenian and he was raised in the Orthodox tradition (see here). After the Six-Day War in 1967 the family emigrated to Canada, where Benny (Toufik Benedictus) converted to Protestantism and became a travelling evangelist with a healing ministry, and part of the Pentecostal movement. He is known for preaching Prosperity Theology, which is was developed by Kenneth Copeland and Kenneth Hagin in the USA. Prosperity theology, however, is unacceptable to many Protestant theologians, including many Pentecostal ones. It is said by some to have its roots in New Thought, where the roots of Vassula Ryden’s teachings can also be traced.
One significant difference between Vassula Ryden and Benny Hinn is that Benny Hinn was not excommunicated by the Ecumenical Patriarch. That doesn’t mean that his teaching is any more acceptable to the Orthodox Church than that of Vassula Ryden; rather it is that in leaving the Orthodox Church to join a Protestant body he effectively excommunicated himself, and he doesn’t try to create the impression that his teaching is endorsed by the Orthodox Church, as Vassula Ryden and her supporters have tried to do for her teaching.
But that does not mean that Orthodox Christians are in no danger from the teachings of Benny Hinn. You might never think of attending one of his meetings, but the underlying philosophy and the values on which Prosperity Theology is based have found widespread acceptance in our society, and they do not always appear in explicitly religious guise. One of the best-selling books in South Africa in recent years has been The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, which is a compilation of extracts from “self-help” books. Most of these self-help books are not necessarily “religious” (though some of them do claim to be “spiritual”). The fact that these books sell so well shows how popular and influential this thinking is.
Benny Hinn is not the first preacher of the Prosperity Gospel to visit South Africa, and he will not be the last. Nor is he even the most influential. Those who went for a Night of Bliss with Pastor Chris a couple of weeks ago probably outnumbered those who will hear Benny Hinn.
But the answer to bad theology is not to be found in denouncing the Vassula Rydens and Benny Hinns of this world, and say how wicked they are for teaching heresies. As we pray the Prayer of St Ephrem in Lent, “O Lord grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother,” we can see that we are not called to engage in the relatively undemanding activity of confessing other people’s sins. Rather we are called to guard the doors of our own minds and hearts with watchfulness and prayer. Nepsis (watchfulness) is one of the things we should especially try to cultivate in Lent. That is one of the teaching of St Gregory Palamas, of which we are reminded on the Second Sunday in Lent.
Tone 8 Troparion (St Gregory Palamas)
O light of Orthodoxy, teacher of the Church, its confirmation,
O ideal of monks and invincible champion of theologians,
O wonderworking Gregory, glory of Thessalonica and preacher of
always intercede before the Lord that our souls may be saved!