If you haven’t done so already, please read the first part of “Summing It All Up” before continuing here.
Part 2 of the interview between Tim Challies and John MacArthur was published a few days after the first installment, and Challies says that several weeks have passed since the end of the conference. When Challies wrote his blog post, MacArthur’s Strange Fire book was to be released the following day, so from a marketing standpoint, the Challies blog was quite timely.
Kicking off the interview, Challies asked:
There are many areas of doctrine in which well-respected, godly theologians hold opposing views, and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit are just one of them. Again, we are thinking here of the best and most gospel-centered of the continuationists. Why focus on this area now when it threatens to inhibit unity and further divide true believers? Why not focus on baptism or eschatology or another issue?
That’s a good question. There are probably thousands of different expressions or variations of Christianity worldwide, and they all disagree with each other about something. MacArthur comes across as completely sure of himself about everything, and completely sure he understands 100% of the content of the Bible (at least that’s the impression I get from what he says), in spite of the fact that there are numerous New Testament scholars in educational and research facilities across the globe who continuously are exploring new understandings about the apostolic era and what it means to Christians today. How can MacArthur believe he knows everything there is to know about a subject in the Bible and why does he choose to take this specific issue head on?
All true believers are unified at the core on those distinctives in the Spirit; but it takes time and study to experience that unity in our relationships. That’s why love must energize our quest for practical unity (Phil. 1:27)—love for God and His truth and love for one another. Even in 1 Corinthians 13:6, in the heart of Paul’s discussion about spiritual gifts, the apostle reminded his readers that “love rejoices in the truth.” So, drawing attention to serious error—error that’s being tolerated even in some of the otherwise-healthiest of churches—in order to recover and uphold the truth is a loving thing to do.
While it might be hard for some to understand, it was love that drove me to write this book and have this conference: love for God and His honor, love for His truth, love for His church and her purity, and, in the cases of the prosperity gospel that pervades the global movement, a love for the millions of souls who are trapped by some of the most deceitful false teaching that history has ever seen. It is my earnest desire and prayer to see the church unified. But a unity that knowingly tolerates error is not the unity that Scripture promotes. So, if we want to be truly unified, we have to be willing to confront error for the sake of the truth. And that might mean that superficial unity is disrupted.
MacArthur also said that he has taken on other issues in the past but, as you can read, both above, and by clicking the links to the interviews, he considers this particular problem vital in the world of Christian faith. I’ll take him at his word and believe he really does love the people he’s discussing, although from some of the responses I’ve read, his critics don’t feel loved. I’m no fan of the prosperity gospel, but again, that’s just one manifestation of the Charismatic movement, and I still think it could have been addressed in a more focused and measured way.
We often hear today that many believers from a Muslim background—especially those from closed countries who do not have easy access to God’s Word—are claiming they had a vision of Christ and that in this vision he directed them to a place or person where they could hear the gospel. This proclamation of the gospel led to their conversion. Do you believe these stories? Do you consider such visions a valid means that God may work in our world today?
Oh, that. Of course, MacArthur believes such events are completely bogus and not even a single supernatural event revealed Christ to a Muslim (or anyone else) apart from the Bible.
But that also contradicts much of what a Chinese evangelist named Brother Yun wrote in his book The Heavenly Man: The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun. I reviewed this book nearly ten months ago (it was given to me by a friend), and Yun describes situations that occurred after China’s Communist Revolution, where Christ was supernaturally revealed to people who had absolutely no access to Bibles or Christian Missionaries. If you lock down a nation so tightly that no foreign Missionaries are allowed in and it’s nearly impossible to smuggle in even portions of a Bible, is God not going to act?
I can’t testify to the validity of any of these supernatural acts. I haven’t witnessed any of them. In reading Yun’s book, even I thought certain portions seemed exaggerated or fabricated. But then again, I can’t completely discount the possibility of God directly intervening in our universe, performing acts that defy the natural laws we are accustomed to in order accomplish His purposes.
According to what I’ve been told, MacArthur believes he was physically attacked, in front of witnesses, by a demon possessed woman but he doesn’t believe that even one person could have had a revelation of Jesus in a vision. Go figure.
Regarding the visions in question, it is important to recognize that those who have investigated such claims have found the evidence to be sorely lacking. For example, this article directly addresses the issue.
I suppose that brings us to the crux of the matter. Do I believe that people in the Muslim world are actually seeing Jesus Christ? No, I do not. Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 15:8 that he was “the last of all” to see the risen Christ. So, I believe that precludes anyone outside of those listed in 1 Corinthians 15 of being able to claim legitimate visions of the resurrected Savior. (The apostle John, of course, was one of those included in 1 Corinthians 15. Accordingly, I don’t believe the book of Revelation sets a precedent for believers to expect genuine visions of Jesus to occur throughout church history.)
Furthermore, it is important to note that these individuals are still unbelievers when they reportedly have these experiences. Consequently, these experiences (whatever they are reported to be) cannot constitute examples of the charismatic gifts having continued, since spiritual gifts are only given to believers (1 Cor. 12:7)—and these people do not come to saving faith until later.
Finally, the New Testament clearly states that the way in which the gospel is spread in this age is through preaching.
If performing a supernatural act were the only way for God to communicate to a non-believer in order to further His plan, would God be inhibited because the person He was trying to reach was a non-believer? Good grief, God even revealed Himself to Laban in a dream (Genesis 31:24) and he spoke directly with the evil magician Baalam (see Numbers 22:9-12 for an example) when Balak, King of Moab, wanted the sorcerer to curse Israel.
It seems you don’t have to be a believer to hear from God.
No one comes to God as part of a rational process, it’s a leap of faith, and I believe God does make Himself known in some manner, in order to bring people to Him. No, I never had a dream, saw a vision, or heard a voice from Heaven, but a long series of extremely unlikely events happened in my life in a period of six months to a year which ultimately brought me to faith. The process wasn’t entirely intellectual. I didn’t read and study the Bible with the result that I believed and came to faith in Christ. God did something inside to bring me to Him. I can’t articulate it. I just know it happened.
And preaching was really only a very minor part in my finally professing faith.
I suppose John MacArthur would think I’m some kind of fruit loop.
Challies asked a number of other important questions, but the last one really got my attention:
The Strange Fire conference focused primarily on the worst examples of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements. While the charlatans rightfully need to be exposed and rebuked, there are also many godly Christians who feel like they have been unjustly tarnished with an overly broad generalization.
Exactly! I think a lot of people feel unjustly targeted, insulted, and maligned by the multiple presentations at the “Strange Fire” conference.
MacArthur responded in part by saying:
First, I want to clearly state that I take no joy in being perceived as unloving or in hurting the feelings of fellow believers. My heart is deeply burdened by the errors and excesses that I have spoken out against in Strange Fire. I do not issue these criticisms flippantly. I would also direct readers to the first part of this interview, where I interact with the idea that I have made an overly broad generalization.
But for those who want to get angry at me, I would humbly suggest that such anger is misplaced.
MacArthur went on to say that after the conference, he read a blog post written by a Pentecostal named Josiah Batten called A Pentecostal in (General) Support of the Strange Fire Conference (Challies didn’t provide a link on his blog post but I’m inserting it here so you can read Batten’s content). In a nutshell, MacArthur was thrilled with this response because he had achieved his goal with the individual involved: MacArthur had gotten him to think, to consider MacArthur’s position without defensiveness.
Oh, MacArthur and Batten didn’t end up agreeing, but Batten did point out some of the obvious issues with the Pentecostal movement while also acknowledging that he thought MacArthur had made some mistakes in his theology.
The interview dribbled out and ended without much flourish. There were lots and lots of comments in response on both of the Challies blog posts (comments are now closed) which may add some dimension, but I don’t really want to read hundreds of these statements and then try to say something about them.
In trying to sum all this up in my head, it seems like the conference offered one general impression and these interviews presented a somewhat related or parallel process. I think the conference really did paint with an overly broad brush and depicted all or the vast majority of Charismatics everywhere are dangerous or potentially dangerous, rather than just “wrong.”
Given the opportunity, MacArthur (with a MacArthur-friendly interviewer) was able to add more details to his views and, in certain instances, soften them up a bit. He remains hard-line in the end that he’s right and that the people who disagree with him should change and join him. He bases this stance on the perception that his interpretation of the Bible must, because of his scholarship, be correct in an absolute or near-absolute sense, and that he cannot be wrong.
Granted, if he’s trying to convince people to change, he can’t actually admit that he could be capable of error in his interpretations and assumptions, so confidence (to the point of arrogance sometimes) is expected. On the other hand, John MacArthur is indeed human and as such, he is just as capable of being wrong as the next man, even a highly educated and well-read next man. A certain tradition drives MacArthur’s perception as much as a learned interpretation of scripture, although that tradition, by necessity, drives MacArthur to deny that tradition has anything to do with how he perceives the Bible.
I agree that the study and the quest for correctly understanding scripture is the first and best means of understanding the intent and will of God for our lives. I’m also aware that exactly how we go about it, what system we employ, and the set of traditions (whether we’re conscious of them or not) that filter our interpretations are going to result in different believers coming to different conclusions about what the Bible is saying to us.
Beyond all that, once we believe we have discovered “truth,” what we do about it is critical. We can choose to demonize those we disagree with or we can find another way to get our point across. Frankly, demonizing people is a better way to get attention. Holding a controversial conference will definitely draw a much bigger crowd than a less dramatic and perhaps more user-friendly approach.
And MacArthur wants to draw a big crowd. In fact, he wants to attract the estimated 500 million Charismatics in the world. Yes, he got his message across to a lot of people. The book, at least in the short run (once marketing runs out of steam, the popularity of the book will likely dwindle), will reach even more folks than the “buzz” about the conference.
Bad press is still press, so everyone who criticizes MacArthur, including little ol’ me, still makes sure that he’s not ignored. Being ignored is the worst possible outcome that could happen to MacArthur and the “Strange Fire” conference and book. If people just paid no attention to him or them (like they should have to the recent comments of Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame), then MacArthur and his views would have nowhere to go.
But MacArthur knows enough about human nature to make sure that he and “Strange Fire” would never be ignored and in fact, would grab lots and lots of attention and press in the Christian media space.
But as I said before, his entire goal wasn’t just to get attention, but to get Charismatics to think and even to change. Has he accomplished this? Making 500 million people feel insulted, abused, and harassed usually doesn’t get them to agree with you. I’m sure A&E’s banning Phil Robertson from being part of filming Duck Dynasty or GLAAD getting in Robertson’s face (figuratively) over their perceptions of his motives won’t elicit an apology and change of theological opinion from the Duck Dynasty patriarch anytime soon.
If MacArthur wants to transform even a non-trival number of Pentecostals into sola scriptura Fundamentalists, I don’t really know what he could have done differently to accomplish his task. I just don’t see what he actually did working, at least not for very many people. I think the audience that listened to him the most was the one that was already convinced. I think he was “preaching to the choir.”