John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference has come and gone and the book will be shipping next week. Whatever you felt about the conference, there is little doubt that a lot of work and a lot of discussion remain as we, the church, consider the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the aftermath of the event, and with the book on its way, I think we all have questions we’d like to ask Dr. MacArthur. A week ago I asked for your questions and sent them through to him. Here are his answers to the first batch of questions. I anticipate adding a second part to this interview within the week.
What was the purpose of such a controversial conference like Strange Fire? Why did you choose not to invite one of the best of the reformed continuationists to speak at your event and to defend his position? Wouldn’t that have strengthened the cessationist arguments while also showing an earnest desire for unity?
-from an interview of John MacArthur by Tim Challies:
“John MacArthur Answers His Critics,” November 4, 2013
This, and the second part of the dialog between MacArthur and Challies is a forum for Pastor MacArthur to respond to the criticism he received as a result of his Strange Fire conference. I’m going to put my impressions into two blog posts as well (a single blog post would be over 4,000 words) and afterward, there are no more Tim Challies articles for me to read about Strange Fire. It probably won’t be the end of what I have to say about the conflict between sola scriptura Christianity and spiritual Christianity, though.
You can follow the links I’ve provided to read the full content of both parts of the interview. I just want to draw attention to some of the highlights, so to speak.
In response to a question of Challies’ in the first part of the interview, MacArthur states:
On the one hand, I would agree that this is a second-level doctrinal issue—meaning that someone can be either a continuationist or a cessationist and still be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. I have always maintained that position, and I reiterated that point several times during the conference. I have good friends who consider themselves continuationists, and I am confident that these men are fellow brothers in Christ. But that doesn’t excuse the seriousness of the error. In fact, I would appeal to my continuationist brethren to reconsider their views in light of what Scripture teaches.
Here, MacArthur states that although he believes the continuationists are in serious error, they are still his brothers and sisters in Christ.
Except that directly contradicts something MacArthur said in his closing statement at the conference in response to seven points of criticism. In response to point 6, “They are attacking brothers,” MacArthur said:
MacArthur wishes he could affirm this. From his vantage point, this is a movement made up largely of non-Christians that lacks accountability. No one polices this movement. Every faithfully reformed elder, pastor, scholar and teacher of the word should bear the responsibility of policing this movement. People accuse MacArthur of being fixated on this issue, yet in 45 years of ministry he has only held one 3-day conference on this matter. Rather he has devoted his time to preaching the New Testament verse by verse and exalting Christ.
Either MacArthur is separating the continuationists he speaks of in part one of the interview from whoever he was discussing on the last day of the conference, or he contradicted himself. You can’t have it both ways. Either the continuationists / Pentecostals / Evangelicals are considered faithful Christians by MacArthur or not.
The only other response he could make would be to say that he believes some of the people in these categories are not believers while others are, but then he would have to describe his criteria for telling the difference. MacArthur goes on to say:
On the other hand, I am firmly convinced that this secondary issue has the very real potential to taint a person’s understanding of the gospel itself. In such cases, it becomes a primary issue. For example, charismatic theology does corrupt the gospel when it expresses itself in the form of the prosperity gospel. Moreover, the global charismatic movement happily shelters other heretical movements—such as Catholic Charismatics and Oneness Pentecostals. Taken together, the number of charismatics who hold to a false form of the gospel (whether it is a gospel of health and wealth or a gospel of works righteousness) number in the hundreds of millions, which means they actually represent the majority of the global charismatic movement. That is why we took such a strong stand both at the conference and in the book.
So apparently there is, as far as MacArthur believes, a line to be crossed within the Charismatic movement. On one side of the line, you are a believer, and on the other, having gone too far, you’re not.
You acknowledge, of course, that many godly, respected theologians are continuationists. How would you explain the continuationist theology of faithful men like John Piper, D.A. Carson, and Wayne Grudem if the cessationist position is so clearly taught in the Bible?
In part, MacArthur responded:
As I noted at the conference, I believe their openness to modern charismatic gifts is an anomaly. Obviously, I cannot read minds nor do I desire to judge motives. But I do wonder if perhaps their positions are evidence of either the influence of personal relationships with charismatic friends and family members, or the pervasive impact charismatic theology has had on the wider culture.
Wayne Grudem, as I mentioned earlier, openly acknowledges that there are no apostles in the church today. John Piper says that he does not speak in tongues. And I’m fairly confident that D. A. Carson does not personally practice any of the charismatic gifts. In that sense, then, I think they may be more cessationist (in terms of their personal practice) than their published positions would suggest.
If I’m reading MacArthur correctly, his understanding of Charismatics may be more “nuanced” than the conference made it seem. He may recognize more variability of belief and variability of practice among individuals and groups of individuals to identify with the Charismatic movement than he previously presented. It’s easy to say for most of us, given how MacArthur speaks and presents himself, that he’s a really “black and white” type of guy, that there are no colors in his universe, especially when quoting Thabiti Anyabwile, he states:
He wrote, “First, we have to admit that there’s a correct and an incorrect position on this issue. Somebody is right and somebody is wrong… . Second, we have to admit that how we view this issue substantially impacts the nature of the Christian life. It matters. It’s not an inconsequential idea. Someone worships God appropriately, someone doesn’t… . Third, we have to admit that this issue practically impacts Christian worship and fellowship. It’s not only a private matter, but a corporate one as well.”
I agree with all of that. This is an issue of critical importance because it affects our view of God as well as our understanding of how to live out the Christian life, both individually and corporately.
But hopefully, no one is quite as rigid and uncompromising as we make them out to be during a disagreement.
Finally, I think those who accuse me of using too broad of a brush are being naïve about the actual composition of the global charismatic movement.
I’m among those who have accused MacArthur and other presenters at the conference of painting with too broad a brush. That’s certainly how I read them on Challies’ blog posts. Of course, these presenters are speaking to a large audience and this is a one-on-one interview, so MacArthur has the opportunity to answer specific questions, when, at the conference, he and the others were “preaching” not discussing.
Our decision not to host a debate at the Strange Fire Conference was intentional. Debates are rarely effective in truly helping people think carefully through the issues, since they can easily be reduced to sound bites and talking points.
There’s both good and bad in what MacArthur said. It’s true that debates, if not properly moderated, degrade into name calling sessions and nothing gets resolved. On the other hand, during Presidential elections, the opponents present multiple public debates for the purpose of clearly offering American voters a (hopefully) clear understanding of the different platforms of each candidate.
MacArthur ended the first part of the interview this way:
So, coming back to your question, I understand that some reviewers will find my tone too harsh and my brush too broad. But I think the problem is a whole lot bigger than anyone realizes. And it breaks my heart to think that hundreds of millions of souls are being caught up into a movement where they are being seduced by false forms of the gospel.
That is why I wanted to sound such a strong warning. And I’m willing to be accused of broad-brushing in order to get that message out.
I don’t doubt that he’s sincere in his belief and desire that he’s doing the right thing and that he’s doing it the right way, and I’m not commenting today to come out as pro-cessationists or pro-continuist. I’m stepping outside the narrow corridor of that argument and trying to understand how MacArthur sees himself and if what he did will have the response he desires. Only MacArthur can explain himself (well, God can explain him too, and probably better than MacArthur can), and I want to hear what he has to say.
For the sake of length, I’ll conclude my summation of the Challies Chronicles in Part 2.