It’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? We can’t all be right and we can’t both be right. Sooner or later we have to have a discussion about charismatic (continuationist) theology and whether or not the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit remain in operation in the church today (or, if you prefer, about cessationist theology and whether or not the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased in the church today). We have wanted to make sure New Calvinism is large enough for both, that it will not fracture along this particular line, and this has delayed the conversation. But at some point we just have to talk about it.
John MacArthur is forcing the issue with a book and a conference titled Strange Fire. The conference is still several weeks away and the book will not be widely available until a few weeks after that. However, I recently received an advance copy of the book and have read it a couple of times now. I want to begin a conversation today, and my purpose is really to get an idea of how people feel about the whole issue.
“John MacArthur and Strange Fire” (September 26, 2013)
I want to be fair. I imagine that there are some of you out there who don’t believe me, who find me terrifically unfair because I don’t agree with you, but I really do want to be fair. That’s why I’m posting this.
Not to long ago, I aimed more than a little criticism at MacArthur, Strange Fire, and the battle to control the Christian mind on my blog. My Pastor felt I wasn’t giving MacArthur the benefit of the doubt or looking at the positive aspects of his conference. He recommended Pastor Tim Challies and his blog as a good counterpoint to MacArthur’s critics.
If found out that Challies had a lot to say about Strange Fire. As far as I can tell, I quoted from his first blog post on the topic, before the conference even took place. It helps to address this Pastor’s impressions of Strange Fire in a chronological order. I guess he attended the conference and live blogged the different speakers.
I won’t attempt to blog on everything Challies wrote, but I do want to try to get a representative sample, just to get the flavor of what was said. Of course (please forgive me), I don’t expect Challis to be entirely objective (who is?) so part of my analysis will be of Challies as well as of the conference and the presenters who offer their own “fire,” so to speak.
For me, the issue isn’t who is right and who is wrong, but whether or not MacArthur was “playing fair” for the sake of edification and education. Was he being fair or could there have been other motivations? It’s possible the “Challies chronicles” will reveal this, but I don’t know for sure.
Challies’s pre-conference intro to Strange Fire won’t reveal much except at the very end. After Challies wrote his missive, MacArthur reviewed it and asked him to append one brief statement:
Tempting as it might be for my Reformed continuationist friends to read the last chapter first, that would be a mistake. The points in that chapter might seem arbitrary to someone who has not read the preceding material. Those early chapters trace the roots of charismatic teaching; they show the biblical rationale for cessationist conviction; and they demonstrate why aberrant doctrines and practices are not minor, occasional anomalies but the inevitable fruits of charismatic presuppositions. Anyone predisposed to disagree anyway would probably find it easy to be dismissive if they skipped to the end first. The final chapter is simply the logical conclusion to the arguments set forth in all the others.
I suppose that’s also a matter of being fair to MacArthur.
John MacArthur’s Opening Keynote
In reading Strange Fire Conference: John MacArthur’s Opening Address, I found out I was wrong. Challies did not attend, but listened via Strange Fire site. Unlike Challies, I don’t have time to listen to hours and hours of audio recordings, so I hope he took good notes.
When people ask MacArthur for his view on the biggest issue in the church, he always says it is the lack of discernment since, sadly, a great number of those who profess Christianity are lacking in discernment. The purpose of this conference is to be like the Bereans by looking at the work of the Holy Spirit through the lens of Scripture. He hopes to address it lovingly and compassionately, but in a straightforward way.
I can relate to that. I try to do a lot of studying and judiciously read the Bible. The interesting thing is that, even among people who all have the same intellectual and study emphasis, conclusions about what the Bible says vary, sometimes dramatically. And yet all parties say the same thing MacArthur said in his keynote. The desire to be like Bereans, using the Bible as a lens (then what lens do we use to look at the Bible?), addressing differences lovingly and compassionately…and in a straightforward way.
Why do the results of such words and intentions turn out badly so much of the time?
What is the scope of the issue? There are half a billion professed charismatics on the planet. He pointed out that we feel great freedom to confront Mormons and Mormonism, though there are merely 14 million of them. Yet we hesitate to address 500 million charismatics.
I live in Idaho and I used to live in Nevada. Both states have a large Mormon population. Even after I became a believer, I never felt drawn to confront every Mormon in my environment, which would be quite a lot. Is that what’s required?
He turned to Leviticus 10 to explain the name of the conference and the heart behind it, showing true and false worship from Leviticus 9 and 10.
The sons of Aaron had been given special privilege and were in line for the high priesthood. They seemed so godly and so secure, and yet God consumed them because they offered strange fire, worshipping in a way he did not sanction. What may have seemed like a minor matter was actually a serious and significant sin. This shows that the most serious crimes against God occur in corrupt worship.
I have to say that one thing about MacArthur that bothers me is that he seems so sure of conclusions he can’t possibly be that sure about. Look at his commentary on the sons of Aaron. Christian theologians have been trying to figure out exactly what happened with Nadab and Abihu (yes, they do have names) for ages, and Jewish sages have been studying the incident of these two sons of Aaron (he had four in all) a lot longer, but no one is sure what they did or didn’t do or what the “strange fire” was that resulted in such a dramatic and fatal response from God.
The fire they offered has been translated as “unauthorized,” “wrong kind of,” “strange,” and “unholy.” Most translations follow-up with something like, “which He had not commanded them,” indicating that whatever they did in making their offering, it was not what God asked of them…or maybe it was that they weren’t supposed to make any sort of approach at all right then. Maybe the problem was their timing was bad.
The Lord also said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; and let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, ‘Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.
–Exodus 19:10-12 (NASB)
The long and the short of it is, “don’t get too close.”
I say all of this because MacArthur carefully chose the name of his conference and his book. In assessing intent, the symbolism involved and how it’s used can be revealing.
He paused to state that he is not discrediting everyone in the movement. He knows there are charismatics who desire to worship God in a true way. Yet the movement itself has brought nothing that enriches true worship.
That’s an important point. Naturally, discrediting anyone’s preferred method of worship is likely to elicit a harsh or hurt response, but that’s still preferable to naming names, so to speak.
In many places in the charismatic movement they are attributing to the Holy Spirit works that have actually been generated by Satan.
Invoking such a sentiment should be done with care because it’s only one small step from a statement such as that, to one saying anyone who is a charismatic is Satanic and even may be worshiping Satan. No, of course I don’t think MacArthur said that, but when addressing such an emotionally loaded topic, you have to pay attention, not only to what you are saying, but to how you know people will interpret (or misinterpret) your words.
I had to establish a comments policy on my blog recently in order to contain some otherwise negative statements being made. As part of my policy, I issued the following statement:
In Jewish religious tradition, Leviticus 25:17 which states “You will not wrong one another,” is interpreted as wronging someone in speech. This includes any statement that will embarrass, insult, or deceive a person or cause that person emotional pain and distress. Even statements believed to be true and factual but that cause another harm are considered wrongful speech.
You can’t hide behind, “but I’m only telling the truth” if you know that what you’re saying will directly result in injuring people. Something to keep in mind, although in both Judaism and Christianity, this mitzvah is not strictly observed for the sake of “truth.”
In the middle of recording the Keynote, Challies inserted his own commentary:
(Note: I am adding a clarifying note (3:57 PM EST). I do not take MacArthur to mean “nothing good has ever come out of the charismatic movement” but “nothing good has come out of the charismatic movement that is attributable to charismatic theology.”)
I found this part illuminating:
And despite this, Evangelicalism has thrown open its arms and welcomed this Trojan Horse, allowing an idol in the city of God. This idol has fast taken over.
MacArthur then contrasted Reformed theology with the charismatic movement and said that Reformed theology is not a haven for false teachers. It is not where false teachers reside or where greedy deceivers and liars end up.
Charismatics, Evangelicals, and Reforms all compared and contrasted in one fell swoop, with Reformed theology coming out on top. But then, anyone holding a conference is going to present their own point of view as advantageous, so I can hardly hold that against MacArthur. Although, being objective and outside of the Reformed theology framework, I wonder how MacArthur can know in absolute terms that there are no “false teachers” within his entire movement, right down to the last man? Also, what’s the difference between a “false teacher” and an erroneous one? Does he believe Reformed theology contains no teachers capable of making a mistake?
Once experience, emotion and intuition become the definition of what is true, all hell breaks loose.
In what seemed to be a brief aside, he called for the restoration of the true worship of the Holy Spirit in the church and said that it is zeal for God’s honor that consumes him here. As he sees and hears this false worship, he feels God’s own pain and wonders why the church won’t rise up to defend the Holy Spirit as it has done with the Father and the Son.
I was selected for jury duty in a drunk driving case many years ago. Part of the instructions the judge gave to the jury was to evaluate just the facts of the case without any emotional bias. And then both the prosecuting and defense attorneys did everything in their power to manipulate the emotions of the jury.
I put those two statements together in the quote just above (they don’t occur contiguously in the article) because I got the same feeling reading them as I did when I was on jury duty. Emotion can’t define truth (and I generally agree with this statement) but here, MacArthur seems to say, ” let me make an emotional appeal promoting my viewpoint by feeling ‘God’s own pain’ (I was also somewhat reminded of one of Bill Clinton’s iconic and often parodied statements) in order to evoke an emotional response from my audience.”
I’m sorry. I really didn’t intend to be this snarky and cynical when I started writing my blog post, but as I’m reading through the Challies report on MacArthur’s keynote, I’m “live blogging” my responses, which include emotional responses. I’ll try to end on an up note.
MacArthur concluded by saying we can see in Christ a picture of the perfect work of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit has committed to do in us what he did in Christ. The Spirit was the constant companion of Jesus; Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, matured by the Spirit, anointed by the Spirit at his baptism, sustained by the Spirit in his temptation, empowered by the Spirit for ministry, filled with the Spirit so he walked in perfect obedience while displaying the Spirit’s fruit, perfected by obedience wrought in the Spirit’s power, raised by the power of the Spirit, and even in his post-resurrection ministry was in the power of the Spirit. The Spirit is to us as he was to Christ. If you want to know how he works in us, look at Jesus. Ultimately, the work of the Holy Spirit is to take corrupted image bearers and to restore in them the likeness of Jesus Christ.
He ended with this challenge: “I will start believing that the truth prevails in the charismatic movement when I see the leaders looking more like Jesus Christ and I see that they really are partakers of the divine nature.”
Keep in mind that I’m receiving my impressions from a blogger who, as far as I can tell, should see the world in general and Christianity in particular in roughly the same way as MacArthur, so I’d expect his rendition of his experience to be positive and supportive of MacArthur.
At the same time, I keep wondering that if I found it necessary to challenge the Charismatic movement as a matter of principle and truth, and to try to prevent millions and millions of people from being swayed by what I thought was a harmful and error-filled theology, what approach would I take?
The next blog post in this series is The Challies Chronicles: John MacArthur and Joni Eareckson Tada.