Tuesday, October 29, 2013

John MacArthur's "Strange Fire" Conference: Some Belated Reflections

Let me be up front right from the start: I am a non-charismatic Christian. I am, to steal a neologism coined by my friend and former student Greg Baughman, an "Anglibaptisterian," raised and trained in the faith in staunchly "cessationist" circles. And, taking into consideration the Calvinist soteriology to which I give credence, one could easily (and rightly) hazard the guess that I belong to that subset of Christians often comically referred to as "God's frozen chosen." And anyone who knows me well might also guess correctly that I am temperamentally indisposed to appreciate, let alone practice, so-called "charismatic phenomena," in particular such "gifts" as tongues, miracles, and prophecy as advocated by Pentecostalism in any of its various manifestations.

I also highly appreciate the ministry of John MacArthur. From the time I first heard MacArthur in January 1976 in Arch Street Presbyterian Church's magnificent neo-classical sanctuary while a student at Philadelphia College of Bible, I judged him to be not only a powerful communicator, but also to be a man who took the Bible seriously and cared enough to use it responsibly in its function as the final word for Christian faith and practice. When he wrote his The Gospel according to Jesus in the mid-80s, I was thrilled at his frontal take-down of the sort of bastard-Calvinist easy-believism that was then running rampant in American evangelical circles. MacArthur may never have ever risen at the level of John Stott, Jim Boice, or S. Lewis Johnson as scholar-pastors, but he remains one of American evangelicalism's best preachers.

Nevertheless ... I have some serious reservations—I would use the term "concerns," but to do so would be to sound more pious than befits me—about the "Strange Fire" Conference held on October 16-18 at his Grace Community Church in Southern California (his book of the same title is due for distribution on November 12). Ostensibly the conference and book take on the Word of Faith and prosperity gospel movements, not to mention such unscholarly-yet-popular preachers as T. D. Jakes and Joel Osteen. So far, so good. As a New Testament scholar and theologian such preachers and movements get under my skin like few others do. Just the thought of so many people being influenced by such purveyors of mindless error boggles the intellect and reinforces the culture's regnant perception that the American Christian populace consists largely of gullible nincompoops.

But, as is his wont, MacArthur doesn't stop while he's ahead. Both in the conference and in his book, MacArthur lumps all charismatics/Pentecostals together. Indeed, the connection is made obvious in the blurb on the cover of his forthcoming book, which states: "The charismatic movement has always been a breeding-ground for scandal, greed, bad doctrine, and all kinds of spiritual chicanery. As a movement, it is clearly headed the wrong direction. And it is growing at an unprecedented rate." Apparently he considers such theological aberrations as the prosperity gospel to be, not aberrations simpliciter, but rather the inevitable fruit emanating from the poisoned root that is the charismatic movement itself. And he epitomizes the negative impact of the movement quite succinctly in terms of the utmost seriousness: charismatic worship is "counterfeit worship," akin to the "strange fire" offered by Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu who, according to Leviticus 10, were consumed by God's wrath for offering a sacrifice with unauthorized (and, hence, "strange") fire. And the matter, in MacArthur's mind, is eminently clear. What, then, explains its current burgeoning popularity worldwide? False teachers, of course, at the behest of Satan himself. As Melissa Barnhart reports:
I would like to say, in response to that, that if the issue is unclear – as some are claiming – it has only become unclear under the influence of false teachers. It was clear to the apostles. It was clear to the early church fathers. It was clear to the reformers. It was clear to the puritans. It is clear in creeds like the Westminster confession. It has been clear to reformed theologians like BB Warfield. It was clear to Spurgeon. It was clear, in the more modern times, to R.C. Sproul. Has it now become unclear, because of Aimee Semple McPherson, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and Kenneth Copeland? That's a ludicrous idea.
Once again, let me reiterate that I am not charismatic. I have biblical, theological, and historical reasons for caution when it comes to this movement. So I don't criticize MacArthur for his rejection of it. Nor do I fault him for courage in opposing it openly (Trevin Wax makes this point as well). Rather, I find fault with two aspects of his critique, viz., its lack of nuance and its consequent over-generalization. The lack of nuance is manifested in the aforementioned lumping of the charismatic movement as a whole in with particular instantiations such as its Word of Faith and prosperity gospel manifestations.

Particularly egregious are MacArthur's comments on the so-called "clarity" of the issue. For such clarity is, in reality, phantasmic. The cessation of the "miraculous" or "sign" gifts was, according to MacArthur, "clear to the apostles." To what he is speaking I can only hazard a guess, for the fact of the matter is that there is no certain or unambiguous New Testament evidence that such gifts were limited, by design or otherwise, to the apostolic era. Scholars may dispute, and have done ad nauseum, the precise nature of the tongues, healings, and prophecy that St. Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians. But—and this is the point that needs emphasizing—such matters are not amenable to simple, let alone simplistic, solutions. And the only temporal indicator provided by the apostle of when, if ever, such gifts would be rendered redundant is found in 1 Corinthians 13:10, where he states that such things as tongues, knowledge, and prophecy will be done away with (katargÄ“thÄ“setai) when "the perfect" (to teleion) arrives, transparently an oblique reference in context to the state of affairs consequent upon Christ's return. This is a matter on which nearly all New Testament scholars agree, and is why the vast majority of even noncharismatic scholars see the text as allowing in principle for these gifts' continuance until the end of the age (e.g., N. T. Wright and D. A. Carson, neither of whom, one might add, are prone to spontaneous bursts of "enthusiasm").

The same goes for MacArthur's claim that the "early church fathers" clearly saw the cessation of these gifts. Yes, the church rejected enthusiastic Montanism in the late 2nd century. Yet Irenaeus knew of glossolalia in his churches in the mid-2nd century (Adversus Haereses 5.6.1), and Novation (de Trinitate 29) and Ambrose (On the Holy Spirit 2.150-52) may indicate their presence in the 3rd and 4th centuries, respectively. On the other hand, Chrysostom (d. 407), in his Homilies on 1 Corinthians (no. 29 [on 12:1-11]) explicitly states that these gifts had ceased. Thus it would be better to make claims to which the evidence actually leads, to wit, that such gifts gradually became marginalized in the second century and, more importantly, that the historical evidence suggests that it has not been God's purpose to distribute these gifts or charisms as normative or universal aspects of the Spirit's gifting work for the church. That, however, is not the same thing as to say that these gifts have definitively and principially been withdrawn. And such nuance makes all the difference, both in substance and in tone.

Most troubling (oops, there goes that faux piety again!) egregious, however, is MacArthur's contrast of such confident cessationist champions as the Reformers, Warfield, Spurgeon, and Sproul with such water-muddiers and agents of confusion as Aimee Semple McPherson, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Kenneth Copeland. On the one hand, no one denies the certainty projected by MacArthur's list of heroes. Certainty, however, is no virtue in and of itself. After all, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin likewise exudes absolute certainty in connection with all her political and social convictions. But only the most inveterate right-wing "true believer" would view her snide certainty as anything but the easy, unexamined certainty of the simpleton.

More important is MacArthur's transparent use of shameless guilt-by-association rhetoric. In MacArthur's hands, Such rhetoric is designed to sway the listener/reader by contrasting the intelligent, accomplished, and virtuous cessationists with a number of cherry-picked charlatans who are paraded, like subdued provincials in Caesar's train, as continuationist champions. But such an argument is as invalid as it is disingenuous. It is a basic rule of argument to cite the best representatives of a given position against which one is arguing, not cartoon-character bad guys whose presumed representative character can hardly be taken for granted. Indeed, MacArthur's listeners/readers would hardly know, unless they had come by the knowledge antecedently, that there are a number of world-class New Testament scholars who not only are continuationists, but full-blown charismatics as well. Two such scholars are Gordon Fee, former Professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and Regent College, who affiliates with the Assemblies of God and has written one of the standard critical commentaries on Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, and Craig Keener, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary and a prolific author, who is in the midst of raising the bar of Lukan scholarship with his ongoing, already two-volume commentary on Acts. Neither of these men could be accused of 'promot[ing] a “Christianity” without Christ, a Holy Spirit without holiness', or advocating 'chaotic fits of mindless ecstasy' as a substitute for true worship (from the book's cover). Indeed, charismatics could, if they followed MacArthur's practice, turn the tables by comparing such men as Fee and Keener to Reformed/Calvinist "leaders" or teachers such as Reconstructionist hero Rousas Rushdoony or, even worse, Westboro Baptist Church "pastor" Fred Phelps. Reformed Christians such as myself would rightly take offense at such a comparison, rightly noting that such men are hardly characteristic of the broader movement as a whole. If so, we Reformed Christians who are not charismatic should show the same courtesy to our charismatic brothers and sisters that we expect from them. Not to do so is at best uncharitable. At worst it is slanderous.

This brings us to MacArthur's main point, viz., that charismatic worship is a false, inauthentic worship prompted by the great deceiver Satan himself, and hence is a grave offense to the Holy Spirit. Now I would be the first to admit that I find the charismatic worship format shallow and distracting. Likewise, I agree with MacArthur that today's regnant "seeker-sensitive" Protestant services are in large measure charismatic services without the tongues, playing as they do on emotion and the desire for entertainment while eclipsing the role of the worshipper's mind. And I would likewise agree with his assessment of the worst sort of Pentecostal services where disorder is the real order of the day, thereby ignoring St. Paul's admonition to the tongues-crazy Corinthians that everything in their church assemblies should be done "decently and in order" (1 Cor 14:40). Indeed, many, if not most, charismatic and Pentecostal churches of which I am acquainted largely fail to abide by the apostle's strict guidelines in 1 Corinthians 14 for regulating and prioritizing the exercise of the Spirit's gifts in the assembly.

But reference to 1 Corinthians 14 is a double-edged sword, and wielders better beware lest they be hoisted with their own petard. What I mean is this: public worship on the Lord's Day in more "traditionalist" Western Protestant churches—and this includes both the aesthetically beautiful liturgical/sacramental services of the Anglicans and Lutherans and the more "Word-centered" approaches of Baptists and Presbyterians in their "preacher box" houses of worship—rarely if ever looks like the type of worship gathering described by Paul in this chapter. And that in itself gives the lie to those who pride themselves on adhering to the so-called "Regulative Principle of Worship," according to which the church dare only to worship in the way commanded in Scripture. Such a principle certainly sounds pious, but in reality it is both anachronistic and unsympathetic to the fragmentary and descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) character of the New Testament texts relevant to the discussion.

The point is this: all traditions, including my own, have their blind spots. All traditions, including my own, have theological elements that, at minimum, need some fine-tuning. I certainly have both major and minor quibbles with charismatic theology even as I prefer the Anglicanism of the 39 Articles and the Presbyterianism of the Westminster Confession. Neither of these two venerable confessions is infallible, however, as even their subscribers would (or should) attest. Indeed, as a New Testament student I have quibbles with bits of both, particularly in the realm of their theologies of baptism, which in any tradition must be considered a rather important aspect of worship. Yet deeming Anglican or Presbyterian worship (let alone Lutheran worship with its peculiar view of the Eucharist) to be "strange fire" is out of the question. Mutatis mutandis, the same should be one's stance with regard to the charismatic movement, especially when such worship is Christ-centered and sensitive to Paul's guidelines in 1 Corinthians 14. Of course, it is quite easy to dredge up examples where such strictures are not in evidence. But such examples are no more necessary to such an orientation than burning heretics at the stake and avoidance of evangelism are endemic to the Calvinism which I hold dear.

One final matter, almost as an afterthought: MacArthur boldly accuses the charismatic movement of "offending" the Holy Spirit by its false worship. No doubt he is correct in a large number of instances. But his assertion is notably uncoupled to an awareness of the delicious irony that unavoidably attaches to it. For, you see, Jesus was accused by Jerusalem's venerable teachers of the Torah of being possessed by an unclean spirit because of his striking success in casting out demons (Mark 3:22). In response, Jesus accuses them of "blasphemy against the Spirit" (Mark 3:29) for their attribution of the Spirit's work to Satan, a rather serious matter in that such is a sin Jesus says will never be forgiven. Consider me skeptical of charismatic claims to genuine possession of the gifts spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12-14. This is a considered view, with my innate temperamental reticence fully taken into account. But, I must ask myself, am I confident in the correctness of my judgment? No. Therein lies the rub. I don't believe I am, but what if I (and, a fortiori, MacArthur) am wrong? To what, then, would we be attributing that which in at least some instances would be a genuine work of God's Spirit? And even if cessationists like I are right, that begs yet another question: Is it impossible that God could be working to build his people through the instrumentality of a theologically-muddled movement? After all, that has been his modus operandi throughout church history, cocksure pronouncements of Roman Catholics and Protestants notwithstanding.


  1. Jim, again I affirm your work here, especially in warning against attributing to Satan that which might be a genuine work of the Holy Spirit. I, like you, am a soft cessationist, but am very careful to avoid dogmatism on that which might be God's work in special circumstances.

  2. I have read a number of reviews on the book and conference and yours is by far the fairest. I was raised in a Pentecostal circle, became a "Bapticostal", then a strict cessationist, and now a reformed believer with cessationist leanings. Having known many charismatic believers throughout the world (including my own dear, late father- who led "false worship" as a laymen) I can wholeheartedly agree that MacArthur goes too far and the rhetoric is deeply offensive to many well-meaning charismatic believers. Unfortunately, I have no doubt that many charismatics will be turned off to even having the conversation now (some of whom, may even own a MacArthur Study Bible).


  3. Egregiousness is in the eye of the beholder. The reference to Sarah Palin was contumelious. You are smarter than that, and smarter than I am as well. It wasn't necessary. If she's a simpleton, (in your view) I would wonder what are such as sit in most evangelical churches. A friend with a Ph.D. for Southern Seminary was overheard saying "They don't just pass out doctorates to anybody you know!" That is because most of us aren't smart enough to get one (and that probably includes Mrs. Palin). So why the need to put her down??

    1. The reason is that she weds an absolute certainty to self-satisfied smugness and an aversion to facts. SHe has done incalculable harm to the image of evangelical Christians here in the Northeast, reinforcing every stereotype in the book. Such unexamined absolute certainty manifests a faulty, naive epistemology. My point was that I expect better things from men like MacArthur, who demonstrably is smarter than that.