Editor’s Note: Warren Smith conducted this interview with Norman Geisler in 2001, at a conference on cults at which Geisler was a speaker.
Warren Smith: Why should Christians spend time learning about cults?
Norman Geisler: The number one reason is that so many people are getting trapped into them. Number two: they are dangerous. They are doctrinally dangerous, and some of them are physically dangerous.
WS: How do you differentiate a cult from someone or a group that is merely in error about a single or a few doctrinal points?
NG: There are social and psychological dimensions to cults. But a cult by definition denies one or more fundamental Christian doctrines, such as the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the atonement, bodily resurrection, salvation by grace.
WS: What does it say about the evangelical church that these heretical teachings have been allowed to creep in so readily, and even when they are identified as extra-biblical, or cultic, a lot of evangelicals just wink?
NG: It says the evangelical church in America is about 3,000 mile wide and an inch deep. Doctrinally, we are very shallow. In North Carolina we are in what is called the Bible Belt, but our problem is that we don’t have enough Bible under our belts. We have enough religion to make us susceptible, but not enough doctrine to make us discerning. You can’t recognize error until you can recognize the truth. I’m told that when government experts want to train people to recognize conterfeit currency, they study genuine currency. The same is true with doctrine.
WS: Other than deep study on the part of pastors and other leaders, are there other possible solutions?
NG: Well, first it’s a lack of doctrinal depth. Secondly, it’s a lack of doctrinal discernment. And thirdly it’s a lack of church discipline — and in that order, because if you don’t know what doctrines your church policies should enforce, what you have is really just a hymn-singing Rotary Club. It’s not really a church. We need strong doctrine. We need to be very discerning about it, so that when people deviate from it the courage to discipline is there.
WS: What do you think the state of seminary education in the country is today?
NG: In one sense it’s very encouraging. When I started in the ministry there were only a handful of good seminaries and now there are 100 or 200 of them. So in one sense it’s good. In another sense, seminaries are subject to some of the same things churches are, going experiential or going “how to” instead of “what” or “why.” We are teaching them how to preach, but not what to preach. We see some seminaries with courses that might as well be in basket weaving. What we end up with churches that have programs that would succeed even if there was no God!
We are better trained than we were 50 years ago. We have better schools and we have more schools. We have a higher level of education in the ministry and in the people in Christian work. But for a full generation or two, depending on how you measure it, we withdrew from the culture. “Fortress Fundamentalists,” Carl Henry called it.
WS: What more needs to happen if Christians are to have a significant impact on the culture?
NG: We need two things. We need a revival and a reformation. One won’t do it. You can’t reform people who are not revived, and just reviving people is just not enough. Only then can we begin to make institutional changes.
WS: And you see Southern Evangelical Seminary as an instrument for that turnaround?
NG: Yes, I am very encouraged by our students and faculty. I see a lot of encouraging signs, though we have a long way to go.
WS: But it sounds like you are an optimist in this regard.
NG: I am a near term pessimist and a long term optimist. Things may get worse before they get better, but when they get better they are going to get really good. So I am not a pessimist.
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