Neil Anderson

Question
Are you familiar with Neil Anderson and his material? Do you think that he is a trusted biblical teacher? Why or why not? Would you differentiate his view of sanctification, which seems to be a form of perfectionism or the "higher life" movement, from the biblical view of sanctification?
Answer
I am somewhat familiar with Neil Anderson. A number of years ago I taught an adult Bible study that used Victory over the Darkness as one of its texts. I had a sufficient number of difficulties with the teaching in that book, and can comment based on the notes I made at the time and on my current review of his materials. I believe that he is a Christian, and that in certain areas his teaching is accurate, but I would not recommend his matierials to any layperson. The reason for this is that his accurate statements are mixed quite thoroughly with theological inaccuracies and misrepresentations of biblical teaching. Those who do not have extensive training in theology and Bible content probably will not be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Further, his "proof texts" frequently do not support his arguments, but most laypeople don't bother to look up proof texts. They simply take the author's word for it, especially if the book is recommended by a trusted pastor or church.

Positive aspects of Anderson's teaching revolve mainly around his often helpful insights into the human psyche, especially as it relates to the way Christians think and feel about other believers and about God himself. He also offers many practical suggestions as to how believers may improve these relationships. His emphasis on the believer's new identity in Christ is also helpful in getting some Christians to reevaluate their self-deprecation. Although Anderson does not state it this way, because man is created in the image of God, man has inherent dignity and value. Moreover, redeemed man is God's wonderful, prized possession. We no longer need to think of ourselves as worms in God's sight because now we are clothed in Christ and adopted into God's family as his beloved children (e.g. Gal. 3:25-29).

On the negative side, however, Anderson finds this fact of our new identity in Christ to be so compelling that he himself goes overboard in the opposite direction. His reactionary approach can be a good rhetorical technique against those who are too focused on their sin -- it can shock them into considering a completely different view. However, to those who are not stuck in such a rut, and to those who are stuck but who are also easily persuaded, the overemphasis is quite dangerous. There are areas in which Anderson's core teachings are dangerous, and others in which his minor teachings are dangerous. A few examples follow:

Anderson's view of man is quite problematic. He believes that only our "inner self" is created in the image of God. By "inner self" he allows the meaning "soul" for those who believe that man has a body and a soul, and "soul and spirit" for those who believe man has a body, soul and spirit -- Anderson himself believes the latter (Victory..., p. 91), a position with which I disagree. He does not believe that man as a whole is created in God's image, meaning that he denies that our bodies are part of our image-bearing (Victory..., p. 24). This is quite reminiscent of the early heresy Gnosticism, as well as of Greek dualism (spirit is good; body is bad) which John refuted (1 John 4:2-3; 2 John 7). This becomes especially dangerous when Anderson moves to define "flesh" primarily as learned indepence from God (e.g. Victory..., pp. 83,90), and not as the physical aspect of man's being. Notice that by this definition flesh cannot be anything but sin, which is extremely problematic when we consider the Bible's teaching that Jesus Christ came "in the flesh" (John 1:1,14; 1 John 4:2; 2 John 1:7). It also becomes dangerous in that Anderson seems to deny the bodily resurrection of believers: "the inner man ... is the eternal part of me" (Victory..., p. 83); "as long as I live in the physical world, I must do so in a physical body" (Victory..., p. 25); "the body is left behind at death when the true self goes to be with the Lord" (Victory..., p. 24). Physical death is also conspicuously absent from his list of the effects of the Fall (Victory..., p. 28ff.). Whether or not he would actually deny this central tenet of the gospel (1 Cor. 15), his language implicitly denies it, which is bad enough for laymen who are not well-established in their theology. Personally, I can't imagine how he migh reconcile these statements with biblical orthodoxy.

Anderson is also inconsistent in his warnings against the sources of temptation. In some places, he ascribes all sin to the work of the Devil (Victory..., p. 82), and in other places recognizes the more traditional sources of the world, the flesh and the Devil (Victory..., pp. 159-160). With regard to the temptation of the flesh, he specifically identifies the flesh as having learned independence from God from all our years as unconverted souls. One obvious problem with this is that it does not account for Christians who were raised in covenant households and regenerated at very early ages, believers who have not spent years learning sins but who may still fall into them. Sins such as idolatry, murder and adultery are not learned in our earliest years, yet any believer can commit them. Anderson does admit that the "flesh" can still generate new sins, but states that these are based on "old habits and thought patterns," as if there were no new negative input to/from the flesh: "Any negative thoughts and actions you cannot control spring from a stronghold. Somewhere in the past you consciously or unconscioulsy formed a pattern of thinking and behaving which now controls you. Don't think that simply putting on the armor of God at this stage will solve your dilemma" (Victory..., p. 166). The reader who is not careful enough to follow these intricacies may well come away with the understanding that he need not guard too strongly against these sins since he never established a pattern of such living prior to his conversion. He also may be discouraged from using things like prayer and petition to find release from the sin, since Anderson suggests the full armor of God really won't work (contrary to Paul's teaching in Eph. 6:13). Now, it is important to admit that the armor of God is does not cure the problem of indwelling sin in the life of the believer; the struggle still continues. My point is simply that Anderson's phrasing is likely to discourage people from even trying to resist sin by means of the armor of God.

Instead, Anderson emphasizes "unlearning." This is part and parcel with his teaching that believers are susceptible to the Devil's deception primarily due to their ignorance and misbeliefs. While there is some truth to the idea that misbeliefs make us more susceptible to the Devil's wiles, the idea that we can solve every problem through education is the philosophy of Socrates, not of the Bible. The Bible's answer to combating sin (even sin specifically encouraged by demonic forces) includes truth, but also includes things like righteousness, faith and prayer (Eph. 6:12-18). Anderson, however, sides with Socrates: "If your behavior is off in a certain area, you need to correct your belief in that area because your misbehavior is the result of your misbelief" (Victory..., p. 124).

Another significant area of error is Anderson's view of emotions. He teaches their value as guides, but insists that they are "amoral," being neither right nor wrong (Victory..., pp. 181-182). This is a terrible error, as it not only denies explicit biblical teaching, but also encourages people to feel vindicated in their emotions. The Bible, however, teaches us that loving wickedness is itself wickedness -- and love is an emotion. Our responsibility is to hate evil (Ps. 97:10) -- and hate is also an emotion. On the other hand, if we hate our brother, we are in great sin (1 John 3:15). Moreover, when Jesus summarized our responsibilities, he did so by telling us to love God and to love our neighbors (Matt. 22:36-40). If we hate God or hate our neighbors, those emotions are not amoral, they are blatantly sinful, and we must repent of them.

I could go on writing of the significant errors in this work, but I think these are sufficient to demonstrate that it would not be responsible to hand Anderson's work to anyone who was not theologically astute. There is simply too much chaff for the average layman to tell it from the wheat.

Regarding Anderson's view of sanctification, in Victory over the Darkness, Anderson does not directly address the doctrine of sanctification in very many places, though he does speak primarily about issues related to actual sanctification. What he does say seems to imply that sanctification is not instantaneous but that it is progressive: "The description of the spiritual person is the ideal. It's the model of maturity toward which we are all growing..." (Victory..., p. 93). However, Anderson does not present a view of progressive sanctification that aligns with the traditional Reformed doctrine because he also sets up what I would call "perfectionism" as an attainable goal in this life. The paragraph quoted above continues: "God has made every provision for us to experience personally the description of the spiritual person in His Word (2 Pet. 1:3). But most of us live somewhere on the slope between this mountaintop of spritual maturity and the depths of fleshly behavior... But as you walk according to the Spirit, be assured that your growth, maturity and sanctification toward the ideal model are in process" (Victory..., pp. 93,95). As he seems to teach throughout the book, the ideal is attainable in this life -- only "most" live on the slope, indicating his belief that some are on the mountaintop. He also says explicitly that "God has made every provision for us to experience ... the spiritual person," which he has already told us is "the ideal." Clearly, this agrees with the "higher life" movement in its assertion that perfection is attainable in this life. It also contradicts the traditional Reformed teaching that sanctification progresses toward the ideal, but never reaches the ideal prior to our deaths. Further, because he believes that our "flesh" does not receive new sinful input after regeneration, he implies that we have a rather limited amount of sin to conquer in our lives, suggesting that "the ideal" of sinlessness might not be that hard to attain if we really try. The Bible, however, teaches that such an ideal is impossible to attain this side of glory (e.g. Rom. 7-8), so Anderson sets up his students for certain failure.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.