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St John’s first letter tells us:

 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

This was the fruit of John’s own bitter experience with those he called ‘liars’, and who promoted a gospel other than the one they had ‘heard from the beginning’. John became aware, here, and painfully, of the limits of the view that inspiration by the Holy Spirit could unite a community; how do we know? Because his own community was destroyed by those making the claim to be inspired by the Spirit, but who taught something other than what John had heard from Jesus and taught his followers. These men claimed to have the anointing from the Holy Spirit, and yet what they taught was not what John had been taught. They clearly thought, and acted on the thought, that their revelation was superior to that even of the ‘beloved disciple’; they had met the Spirit and he had told them what was what; the problem was, for John, was that what they were teaching was not what Jesus had taught him. So, from this early on in the life of the Church we have had what here we call the ‘Bosco problem’ – someone claiming to be born again and ‘saved’ who tells us he has had a personal revelation and that others will be damned if they do not heed him. John gives us the answer – ‘test the spirit’. Is it in accord with what the rest of the community believed, was John’s test, and for us, nearly two thousand years on, it is whether what the Boscos of this world say chimes with what Christians have been taught.

Now this is more difficult than it was in John’s day, because of the variety of churches calling themselves Christian, but we return, as I do here so often, to the consensus reached on the important Christological matters at Nicaea. Christology matters because it goes to the heart of who Christ is; if we claim to follow him, we have to know who he is. So, for us, as for John, at the heart of the matter is that he is God and Man – fully both. Those, who, like Bosco, cite only those verses which emphasise he is a man, miss the point and do not know him; yes, Jesus is a man, but he is the Godman.

At stake here is what was at stake for John, it is indeed the same issue exactly; heresy is never new. So, John tells us, because his opponents denied it that: “Jesus is the Christ” (2:22; 5:1); that “Jesus is
the Son of God” (4:15; 5:5); that  “Jesus Christ has (is) come in the flesh” (4:1-3; 2 Jn 7) that he is: “the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ” (1:7; 2:1; 4:2, 9, 10, 14; 5:6; cf also 3:16). These three credal formulas reflect the basic Christological tenets of the opponents of John, as they do of those who follow the teachings of the Father of Lies to this day. These are the credal tenets of orthodoxy, and we do well to test any Spirit by them; if that spirit does not confess these things, then he should be turned aside.

So, for our friend and brother Bosco, this is how he should test the spirit:

  • Does your Spirit say Jesus is the Christ?
  • Does it say that He is God and Man?
  • Does it say salvation is by water and the Spirit?

There are many spirits in this world, and Peter warns the devil prowls around seeking whom he can destroy, and he does so by getting them to take snippets of scripture and encouraging men in their stubborn pride to teach what has not been taught from the beginning. Even the words of Scripture can be twisted to our damnation.


The idea, just elaborated by Bosco, that one ‘tests the spirit’ by listening to it is, shall we say, a little strange. If the Father of Lies is speaking to you, he is not going to want you to listen to any spirit but his own one.