Friday, December 15, 2023

The Problematic Manifesto of Jonathan Cahn — Part 11

This is part 11 of a multi-part review and critique of Jonathan Cahn's latest book published in 2023. You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, Part 5 here, Part 6 here, Part 7 here, Part 8 here, Part 9 here, and Part 10 here


So at this point you may be asking, “Brian, why did you take all the time and effort to read this book, and then write a detailed critique?” Good question.

As I mentioned in the first installment of this review, when pointing out errors in doctrine, teaching, and interpretation of the Bible, I usually opt for simply dealing with the erroneous teaching itself, and leave names out of it. After all, discernment is about much more than simply having a list of approved and disapproved authors and preachers. It’s about being able to tell when even a normally sound and reliable teacher is off on a particular subject. But in this case, since the first nine sections of Cahn’s book were all based on a faulty interpretation of the biblical Jubilee, and since I have seen Cahn’s works recommended more than once in the Pentecostal circles I am part of, I felt it imperative that I address this particular book head-on. When the error is this basic in its failure to exegete the Scriptures correctly, and is this pervasive in the book in question, it is time to name names. The Apostle Paul warned Timothy about Alexander the metalworker who had caused much harm, and called out Demas for loving this present world (2 Tim. 4:10, 14–15), and names Hymenaeus and Alexander who rejected the faith (1 Tim. 1:19–20).

As Dr. Vic Reasoner says in his review of The Josiah Manifesto posted on Amazon, “I agree with Cahn’s concerns about our culture, but not with his mishandling of Scripture.” I cannot in good conscience recommend Cahn as a reliable source when it comes to interpreting Scripture. To recommend his books to others, without substantive warnings about the problems his interpretations present, would be tantamount to tacitly approving of his hermeneutic, implying to others that Cahn’s methods are a proper way to read and interpret the Bible.

Interpretive Tricks

Yvie Baker, in her doctoral dissertation, notes several tactics used by many claiming to teach the Bible that I find descriptive of the writings of Jonathan Cahn.

The first characteristic of the interpretive methods used “is the propensity to read the Bible as a code that can be applied to today’s concerns and situations” (Baker, 300). Cahn spends a lot of time and effort trying to establish parallels between biblical narratives and modern-day America, as well as constantly talking about “ancient mysteries” and other hidden things that he has somehow now been chosen to uncover and reveal to the world.

The second characteristic “is to remove it [Scripture] from its context and original meaning to assign new meaning” (Baker, 301). Cahn drastically redefines the Levitical Jubilee. There is no text anywhere in the sixty-six books of the Bible that states, even by implication, that the Jubilee can be just the fiftieth anniversary of any event. The only places the Jubilee is mentioned, it has to do with the economic system of ancient Israel, as a method to prevent families from permanently losing their land allotment and thereby becoming destitute. But Cahn takes the biblical term and uses it to construct a narrative around all kinds of fifty-year anniversaries of events, going so far as to say that a “reversal” of the initial event is baked into the system and will occur on the fiftieth year. As this article  points out:

...despite all of these difficulties which should be known by a Jewish rabbi, and after acknowledging that no one knows when the Jubilee years are on the Hebrew calendar, Cahn apparently brushes these problems aside and begins discussing the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the Six-Day War in 1967, claiming that these amount to Jubilee years for the nation of Israel, whether or not they are legitimate Jubilee years in the eyes of God.

Cahn also regularly violates the standards of biblical typology, which are about types and anti-types within the canon of Scripture, and not about biblical events and persons as hidden templates or paradigms for happenings in the twenty-first century.

The third characteristic deals with “extra-biblical conceptions” (Baker, 302). Cahn’s reliance on an unnamed Jewish writer when trying to establish the significance of the twenty-third day of the sixth month for prayers to overturn evil decrees is a prime example. As Dr. Michael Heiser wrote in his article on Cahn’s first book, The Harbinger, “Cahn basically imposes an idea onto the passage and calls it interpretation. The idea of Bible study is to see what the text says, not to tell it what to say despite the clarity of the words in front of our faces.”

Baker states that for these teachers, “Scripture is not used as a guide to interpretation but rather it is an instrument; a device that is applied to a pre-conceived idea and used as a mechanism to persuade the reader they are apprehending a biblical truth” (Baker, 303). Jonathan Cahn doesn’t look first to Scripture, but rather to current events, and then attempts to find something in the Bible which he can mold to fit his ideas about what is going on today.

The Need to Engage

Some scholars may consider engaging thoroughly with writers in the mold of Jonathan Cahn to be a waste of time and mental energy. The late Dr. Michael S. Heiser, a noted Old Testament scholar, had the following to say about Cahn’s earlier book, The Mystery of the Shemitah:


Would a doctor read a book on why giving yourself an appendectomy is a bad idea? Would an astronomer read a book on the evidence for a flat earth? Would a computer programmer pour through a manual on MS-DOS? People who have a serious grasp of any given field don’t waste their valuable time on reading material that is utter nonsense and cannot result in learning anything of value. 

However, as Baker points out, “Scholarly silence that abdicates the publicly-accessible platform of theological discourse to louder and better marketed but ultimately untutored voices” simply allows such voices to grow exponentially in influence within the church (Baker, 284). 

Now, the last thing I want this blog to turn into is a “discernment ministry” that has nothing better to do than go through the writings and videos of multiple pastors and teachers with a fine-toothed comb, just looking to see what error can be discovered and called out. I would much rather spend my time reading theologians and biblical scholars who have something substantive to contribute to the Christian church, and then share those gleaned insights with my readers, recommending good material to them.

But sometimes, you have to sacrifice your preferences in order to become better aware of the bad stuff that is out there and thus be able to warn others about it from an informed position. I am not on staff anywhere as a pastor, yet I do believe that part of my task as a Bible teacher is to do the work of a shepherd. While a big part of a shepherd’s job is making sure the food that he/she gives the sheep is solid and nutritious, it is also the shepherd’s responsibility, as much as possible, to keep the sheep from consuming noxious weeds that could harm their spiritual health. As one quote at this article (on a completely different topic) points out, “If a sheepdog doesn’t know what a wolf smells like, you have a problem. If a pastor has no discernment, they have missed their calling and have put the entire flock in danger.” So when I see an erroneous teaching (or a teacher who consistently commits major interpretive errors) gaining popularity among those closest to me theologically (Pentecostals), I have no choice but to bark loudly (or “blow my shofar” in this case) and sound an alarm of warning.

In some respects, Jonathan Cahn does seem to have a meaningful message of concern and warning for the contemporary church. Yes, we must stand up against evil every time and everywhere it rears its head. We must be ever vigilant to avoid syncretism and compromise with the fallen world systems around us.

However, whatever good advice or exhortation may be found in Cahn’s writings is overshadowed by all the hype and mysticism that surrounds it. The pervasive manipulative language (interrogative sentences beginning with “could” and “is it possible”) seems to be merely a rhetorical device meant to build expectation and suspense around what Cahn is going to “reveal” next, rather than legitimate questions provoking the reader to think deeply. Cahn is constantly talking about “ancient mysteries,” “templates,” and “paradigms” which apparently only he has been clever enough to decode and uncover after two millennia of Christianity.

The Challenge

One review of one of Cahn’s earlier books boldly says, “A Christian enthralled by this twaddle deserves the label of biblical illiterate.” That statement is strong, and may come across as condescending toward those believers who have not had the privilege of engaging in academic study of the Scriptures. But it doesn’t take a fancy degree or special training to be able to spot the kinds of errors found in Cahn’s books. All it requires is being a serious student of the Word who is constantly immersing himself or herself in the biblical text and paying close attention, even to the seemingly irrelevant (for New Covenant believers) portions such as Leviticus. Just knowing one’s Bible decently will help people spot distortions when they appear.

As Karl Vaters writes in a recent blog article, there are some key benefits to knowing how to properly read and interpret Scripture:


It’s An Essential Aspect of Equipping Believers

You can’t have a mature church if it’s filled with biblically illiterate members.


If the only time people are hearing what the Bible says is when it’s being filtered through someone else, they won’t become mature in their faith, but when people are given the tools to study the Bible for themselves they can go deeper in knowledge, faith, and action.


It’s A Defense Against False Teaching


When two pastors or Bible teachers are giving opposite interpretations of scripture, which one should we believe? The one we like the most? The one with the biggest platform? The one with the longest string of letters after their name?


If people know how to “correctly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15) they will be less confused by the mixture of false voices, and they can more readily identify, and support good teaching over bad.

It is troubling to see church leaders recommending Cahn’s books to those under their influence. As Canadian pastor and blogger Tim Challies writes about Cahn’s The Harbinger: 

It’s not that The Harbinger has nothing good to say, but that so many of even those good things are built upon a poor and even dangerous foundation. The book depends upon a fundamentally flawed way of understanding and applying the Bible, treating the Bible as a mystery to be solved rather than a clear and sufficient explanation of what we are to believe concerning God and how we can live in this world to His glory. There is no good reason to read or recommend this book. 

The same statement applies to The Josiah Manifesto.

Some people will cite the old proverb, “Chew the meat and spit out the bones.” But doing so requires a certain level of spiritual maturity to be able to differentiate the meat from the bones. Following that analogy, it’s fairly easy to “chew the meat and spit out the bones” when it comes to a T-bone steak, pork chop, BBQ ribs, or even hot wings. But fish is another matter. Fish bones can be very fine and blend in almost imperceptibly with the meat. I remember in my childhood, when my grandmother would fry up catfish that my grandfather had caught that same morning from the Arkansas River, my mom would pick through the fish on my plate and mash it up thoroughly to make sure all the bones were removed before I started eating. She didn’t want to risk having me get a bone lodged in my throat.

The problem with Cahn’s writings is that he uses lots of biblical terminology that makes his teachings look like meat, yet the way he redefines their meanings to fit his alternative teachings turns them into bones that can choke the reader (or in the lesser instances, into spiritual-sounding fluff that may taste good, but has no actual nutritional value to help one grow). We must always remember that simply because something sounds “Bible-y,” that doesn’t necessarily make it biblical. The continuing decrease in biblical literacy (and more critically, biblical fluency) among professing Christians these days means that many well-meaning believers, who are seeking for good teaching and truth, may end up swallowing a lot of stuff that is simply false and distorted. (Heiser addresses the issue of people desirous to learn more about the Bible, but often ending up using bad resources, in this interview.)

I want to close with a challenge to fellow believers to become serious consumers and students of the Bible. Start out with simply knowing the Bible well. Read the Bible through yearly (there are lots of great reading plans to help you do this, most requiring no more than 15-20 minutes a day). If reading is tough for you, there are plenty of apps that will let you listen to the Bible being read aloud, many of which have one-year plans to get you through the entire text every twelve months. The simple practice of constantly having the words of Scripture in front of your eyes, entering your ears, and cycling in your mind will help you to know what’s really in the Bible rather than simply taking someone else’s word for it. You will develop a sense of discernment, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to be able to tell when something is “off.”

In addition to immersing oneself in the Scripture, one needs to know the basics of good biblical interpretation. A couple of good books on the subject that are non-academic and accessible to any believer are How to Read the Bible forAll Its Worth by Fee and Stuart, and Living by the Book by Hendricks. The principles taught in these books will assist you in being a better reader of Scripture, and to be able to detect when preachers or writers are taking something out of context, or in a way that is contrary to what the Word of God is actually trying to tell us. 

I’ll conclude this series with the inspired words of the Apostle Paul:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Tim. 2:15)

χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη

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