Tag Archives: Tim Challies

The Challies Chronicles: Summing It All Up, Part 2

strange-pyreIf 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.

Challies asked:

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?

heavenly-manOh, 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.

Receiving the SpiritIf 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.

Charismatic prayerMacArthur 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.

MacArthurBad 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.”

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The Challies Chronicles: Summing It All Up, Part 1

John MacArthurJohn 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
Challies.com

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.

Tim ChalliesEither 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.

Challies asked:

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.

Strange FireMacArthur did not escape these debates entirely. The rebuttals were simply managed in the blogosphere, in social media, and other venues rather than personally at the conference.

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.

The Challies Chronicles: How the Strange Fire Finally Burned

Woman in fireThe Strange Fire conference closed with a final address from John MacArthur. In this address he responds to seven accusations brought against the conference, follows with eight appeals to his continuationist friends, and concludes by walking through 1 and 2 Timothy, highlighting the need to stand firm in guarding divine revelation against false doctrine.

Before addressing the accusations against the conference, MacArthur charged attendees to carefully read their copy of Strange Fire and to measure it against the Word of God. He is convinced that this book, with its well-documented research and extensive footnotes, will withstand careful scrutiny. He reminds us that this book and conference is intended for the Church. He has no expectation for either one to be helpful to non-believers, which he suspects makes up much of the charismatic movement.

-Pastor Tim Challies liveblogging
Strange Fire Conference: MacArthur’s Appeal to His Continuationist Friends”
Challies.com

I decided to use this blog post to review not only John MacArthur’s summary of the conference but Tim Challies’ wrap up as well. Essentially, this is how each individual saw what came out of the conference, at least the day it ended and a few days after that.

I think I realized this before, but it was brought home to me that the reason I have “issues” with John MacArthur as a Christian is that he defines himself and his faith by what he’s against, not what he’s for. Sure, he makes a big deal out of “Biblical sufficiency” and “sola scriptura,” but in doing some wider reading about the man and what he’s done, he demonstrates a pattern of someone who has built his reputation on attacking others, whether other individuals or other belief systems.

I know this has been a problem in both the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements and it’s taken me quite a while to reduce this practice in my speech, writing, and thoughts (I suppose I still haven’t quite extinguished it within me). People or institutions that define themselves by what they are against must, because of that self-definition, always be on the attack. If your identity is based on being against something, then you are only “real” when you attack that something (or someone).

This is hardly the first time MacArthur has come out against Pentecostals and Charismatics. In 1993, his book Charismatic Chaos was published and I believe he wrote or made statements critical of Pentecostals/Charismatics before then. Sure, MacArthur has positive qualities attached to him. I commend his dedication to the Word of God and how he continually pushes others to read and study the Bible, but the skewed path he takes to understand the Bible, Jesus, and God is so rigid and occasionally (or more often) hostile to anyone outside of that path, that if I were an unbeliever and had to depend on MacArthur as my only model of what being a Christian was like, I’d never come to faith.

In fact, people like Jimmy Swiggart, Jim Bakker,and James Dobson (I know, an eclectic mix) kept me from even mildly considering Christianity as a path for decades. Outspoken “firebrands” who come across as highly opinionated and confident to the point of appearing arrogant do not represent my understanding of Messiah, Son of David.

MacArthur proved my point in his final appeal by including seven criticisms he and his conference had received:

  1. Accused of being unloving
  2. Accused of being divisive
  3. This is not a clear issue in the Bible
  4. This issue is only true of the extreme lunatic fringe side of the movement
  5. They are attacking a movement that has given us rich music
  6. They are attacking brothers
  7. MacArthur doesn’t care about offending people

macarthur-strangefire-confChallies said that “MacArthur then shared from his heart responses to seven accusations against the conference,” which told me that Challies probably wasn’t entirely objective about his assessment of MacArthur (but then again, neither am I).

You can go to the Challies blog post to read MacArthur’s responses as well as the points he wanted to make to continuists, but his response to the last point caught my attention:

He admits that he holds the truth with kindness and love. He does care about peoples’ feelings. He does care about offending them. Just not nearly as much as he cares about not offending God.

Especially on the Internet, but also in other venues, I can’t count the number of times supposedly good-meaning Christians have “told the truth in love” while simultaneously ripping other people to emotional and spiritual shreds. As long as you use words like “truth” and “love,” you can make any insult and rend anyone’s heart with total impunity.

I base the Comments Policy of this blog on the Jewish concept of Lashon Hara or wronging another in speech, which is based on Leviticus 25:17. It says, in part, that if you say something, even if it is truthful and factual, that you know will harm another or cause them embarrassment, you are guilty of wronging them. Based on that standard, John MacArthur would have to revise his presentation considerably.

But then, and I’ve asked this before, what if you have to tell the truth to prevent harm to others and yet, end up harming brothers? I don’t know the absolute answer to that, but I suspect MacArthur might have gotten more mileage if he had given “Strange Fire” another name, and emphasized the positives of what he believed in, rather than the negatives of what he was against (but then again, people are almost always more attracted to a good car crash than an encouraging and uplifting message).

In his blog post Lessons Learned at Strange Fire, Pastor Tim Challies seemed to generally approve of how the conference was offered. Challies called the issues presented at the conference:

This is a worldwide issue and I need to ensure I see it that way. We need to ensure we see it that way. Those who listened to the conference heard again and again just how many charismatics there are in the world—somewhere around 500 million. Conrad Mbewe made it clear that in many places in the world, and especially in the developing world, to be a Christian does not mean that you trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, but that you believe in and practice something akin to the miraculous gifts. Charismatic theology is a North American export that is making a massive impact elsewhere in the world.

The conference and its aftermath also revealed to Challies how intensely polarizing this issue is and sees the critical dichotomy as between feeling and believing through reason. He also defended MacArthur and the other presenters as being confident, not arrogant, and as I mentioned above, there is an exceedingly fine line between the two.

I saw at Strange Fire that we can sometimes confuse confidence with arrogance. And it’s not just we, but me because I suspect that if the tables were turned, I might react in much the same way. I am convinced one of the reasons so many people reacted badly to the event is that MacArthur and the other speakers are so sure of what they believe. They spoke with confidence about their understanding of what the Bible permits and what it forbids. Some of the reaction from those who were offended seems to imply that certainty is incompatible with humility. If this is what they truly believe, they have succumbed to dangerous and worldly thinking.

many peopleBut a person can be confident and still be wrong. How many people were confident that the Earth was flat, once upon a time? There are untold millions of children worldwide who are confident that Santa Claus exists and will indeed be coming into their homes sometime after they go to bed on December 24th to deliver gift wrapped toys under their Christmas trees. Even Chemists, Astronomers, and Geologists are confident that certain scientific principles and facts related to their fields are true until new evidence convinces them otherwise.

While I can’t defend the abuses attributed to the Pentecostals, I can’t defend MacArthur’s overly generalized attack on them, either. Even when the facts aren’t in question, how they are presented can make a tremendous difference, not only in delivering the desired message, but in communicating where your heart is during and after the delivery.

If you disagree with MacArthur, the best way to engage the conference is not by railing against the man, but by showing specifically the ways you think he caricatured your position and by providing a calm, sober affirmation of continualist claims, backed up by Scripture.”

My form of criticism is to step outside the polarity of the issue, to go “meta” on continualists vs. cessationists, and to invoke, as I have above, the principle of Lashon Hara. Biblical evidence, the desire for truth, and “doing it in love” aside, the ends never justify the means. If they did, then it would be perfectly acceptable to blow up abortion clinics and to shoot abortion doctors in order to save babies (I know, that’s an extreme example, but it brings the point home). “Going after” a people or a movement just because you can is wrong, not necessarily because your research is flawed, but because you can only get your message across by being against something, and not by being for something.

The last thing Challies said was:

Only time will tell of the long-term impact of Strange Fire, but as I think back to the past few days, I find myself grateful for it. I suppose that may be easier to say as a cessationist than a charismatic, but I believe the event and its aftermath will prove beneficial. I continue to pray that God would use it to strengthen His church and to glorify His name.

Conferences come and conferences go, and if “Strange Fire” only existed as a series of events occurring over several days last October, I’m sure it would swiftly fade away. But there’s MacArthur’s book to consider, and I don’t doubt that there will be other “marketing” activities in which MacArthur will be participating to keep the issue alive.

I’m keeping it alive (although only in a very minor way) by writing about it myself. I’m also planning on looking at MacArthur’s “Strange Fire” through the lens of First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ) book Gifts of the Spirit (which I previously mentioned).

spiritual-journeyMost of what I know about John MacArthur has been through Tim Challis and his liveblogging of the “Strange Fire” conference, so I’m several steps removed from knowing much about him (MacArthur) at all. In the end though, it’s not just what you do for God that matters, but how and why.

I’ll address John MacArthur’s detailed responses to his critics in a subsequent blog post and then start talking about my “Gifts of the Spirit” “re-experience”. Then hopefully, I’ll be done with this stuff.

 

 

The Challies Chronicles: Conrad Mbewe and Pentecostal Witch Doctors

Conrad MbeweThe first session of the final day at the Strange Fire conference brought Conrad Mbewe back to the pulpit. Phil Johnson introduced him by sharing how others have called him the Spurgeon of Africa. Today he brought message entitled, “Are We Preachers or Witch Doctors?”

Mbewe then contrasts Paul’s exhortation in 2 Timothy with the present picture in Zambia. He shares two newspaper clippings from July concerning evangelical preachers. In the first, a clergyman impregnated 10 women before his wife came forward about the scandal. She came forward after witnessing the scourge on the children in this church and the presence of the witchcraft taking place. In the second clipping two clergy men took two women into the mountains and sexually assaulted them. They first visited their home and took prayer requests and then led them into the mountain.

Pastor Tim Challies liveblogging
Strange Fire Conference: Preachers or Witch Doctors?”
Challies.com

As Conrad Mbewe chronicles the abuses of Pastors against members of their flock in Zambia, no one could possibly disagree with having evangelical preachers who are sexually assaulting women being called out, removed from their positions of authority, and hopefully arrested and incarcerated. How could any believer of good conscience support preachers and other church leaders behaving in such a destructive manner?

But, of course, the inference is that the Pentecostal movement is driving such abuses and as a denomination, are responsible for this criminal behavior, and therefore Pentecostalism must be stopped. Can a connection between the events being reported by Mbewe and all Pentecostals everywhere be reasonably made?

Conrad asks, “How can this be happening so frequently among so called evangelical churches today?” His response: a seismic shift in how people view the pastor. What is read in 2 Timothy is not the popular view today. It is because of how the view of the “man of God” has evolved today. Pentecostalism’s visit to Africa did not primarily emphasize the preaching and teaching component of the “man of God.” Now the “man of God” is primarily seen as the deliverer. Preaching has lost emphasis. It has become motivational platitudes followed by shouting and chanting.

The same thing can be seen in America on popular TV channels, but with different colored skin and nicer buildings. There are biblical quotes tossed about followed by a demon possessed, crazy and maddened looking preacher.

Yet, the important part of any service is what happens next. The “man of God”, wrested out of the context of 2 Timothy, takes on the role equivalent to a witch doctor.

While Mbewe lays the blame for the abuses he reported above fully upon the Pentecostals and their lack of emphasis on scriptural sufficiency and preaching, others who commented on this Challies blog post didn’t agree:

There are certainly issues that need to be studied, analysed and discussed in the contemporary pentecostal movement in Africa and worldwide. We need to understand their theological and liturgical practices–their strengths, weakness, meanings and innovations. Scholars of contemporary pentecostal movement have been at it for more than two decades. It would be very helpful to dialogue with their findings and suggestions. One of their major findings is that contemporary pentecostal movements underline that their members must “make a complete break with the past,” that is, they must completely disassociate themselves with African Indigenous Religions (henceforth ATR)–contrary to Mbewe’s claims. Scholarly findings also associate its theology of prosperity, deliverance and breakthroughs with the neo-liberal economy of the globalization era. On the overall, I find Pastor Mbewe’s take on it simplistic, upsetting and misleading. Basically, he blames it all on ATR. In the process, his comparisons are misleading misrepresentations of ATR, that serves to demonize the latter. If indigenous healers were to be brought into this conversations, they would not recognize the picture that is painted about them. But since evangelicals are unlikely to want to hold such dialogue with indigenous healers, it is as that proverb warns us: until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero. The image given about Indigenous healers is of course colonial, as attested by Mbewe’s reference to indigenous healers as “witchdoctors.” Mbewe’s colonial perspective is also attested in his wish to call for the West to rescue Africa from itself. His two opening stories harp on the colonial stereotypes of Africa as sexually immoral. His reference to western medicine as conventional medicine is so telling. Since Christianity has existed side by side with ATR for more than two centuries, why is this only happening now? Why has ATR not confused the church before, until now? Both the contemporary pentecostal movement and the indigenous healers would be appalled by Mbewe potrait (sic) and interpretation of the phenomena. Mbewe’s approach is suspect and must be heard as such. Those who hear him will do well to hear him with a pinch of salt.

Musa Dube

I am a charismatic Pastor in East Africa. Sadly however, I can confirm that what is said here is quite true. Of course, I do not agree that this is a charismatic problem but rather an aberration that claims to be Christian and Charismatic but is in fact neither. It would be wrong however, to say that the problem is confined to “charismatic” churches.

This problem manifests itself in these pseudo churches as false miracles etc. etc. But in the churches more palatable to McArthur (sic) and others, it manifests itself in double lives that pay mere lip service to the theology of the church. Polygamy, tribal politics, regular visits to the witch doctor (the traditional kind rather than the Bible carrying one) all thrive in Calvinist churches across the continent of Africa. They are preached against in the pulpit of course but hey, everyone does it. In very high number of cases, even the Pastor does it because of course that is just for preaching

This is because the problem is not charismatic theology but syncretism and This is not confined to any one church as anyone who has lived in Africa knows.

We may be charismatic but we are working hard to preach against hypocrisy in all denominations. Our focus is upon the work of the cross which unites us and demands a response from us all.

Sean McIntyre

Witch huntOf course, the larger body of people commenting on the blog post expressed split opinions, but I think it’s important to understand that a simple comparison between what Mbewe reports and what all Charismatics represent cannot be made. Mbewe’s logic goes something like:

  1. Some Pentecostal-influenced preachers in Africa are sexually abusing women and practicing witchcraft.
  2. Therefore all Pentecostals, Pentecostal teachings and Pentecostal/Charismatic preachers everywhere support abusing women and practicing witchcraft.

I agree with Musa Dube to the degree that Mbewe’s presentation is rather two-dimensional and lacks sufficient depth to establish the point he’s trying to make. Also, we have a report that such abusive activities are not confined to churches with Pentecostal affiliation but are rather multi-denominational.

Again, I want to say that in no way can I or any reasonable person of faith support sexual abuse of women, whether by clergy or anyone else.

Mbewe was invited to a radio broadcast panel discussion in Zambia about miraculous healing. There was a Catholic trying to ride the fence. Then there were two charismatics invited. One could not come because he was sick. He lied. Conrad saw this man shopping in the mall with his wife directly afterward with a trolley of goods.

During the broadcast the other charismatic and Mbewe locked horns. He challenged listeners to call in if they had been healed. Like a New Testament Elijah he taunted the charismatics for an hour due to the lack of calls. Two calls came in. The first a man who attested to a girl with unequal legs being healed 8 years ago, a very stale testimony for a country that claims to have healing crusades from prophets, bishops and “the man of God” all the time. The second came from a woman who chastised Mbewe as a dead theologian. There were only two calls in a nation where miraculous gifts happen all the time. The charismatic pastor responded that the people are shy. Unfortunately a week later he suffered a stroke and died after being in a coma for a week. None of his friends came to his aid and raised him because they knew it was all a fraud and a lie.

While this is all very dramatic, and while it likely establishes that claims of a large number of miraculous healings taking place in Africa are false, it still doesn’t make the larger point in painting the entire Pentecostal church with the same broad and tainted brush.

I know Mbewe’s presentation is only one among many, and I know that “Strange Fire” is meant to be taken as an entire unit, but even putting Mbewe’s discussion in the context of the entire conference doesn’t make what he is saying any more applicable to the entire world of Pentecostal believers. I may not agree with the basic premises of Pentecostalism, but I don’t believe they are all abusive and criminal either.

OK, maybe I’m being a little harsh because Mbewe didn’t come out and indict the Pentecostal church in such a manner. He only said that any church that does not depend solely on scripture and its sufficiency in building and leading the body of Christ is ripe for an infusion of witchcraft, sexual abuse, and other demonic influences.

And speaking of demonic, I know I quoted this above, but of everything Mbewe said, it especially drew my attention:

The same thing can be seen in America on popular TV channels, but with different colored skin and nicer buildings. There are biblical quotes tossed about followed by a demon possessed, crazy and maddened looking preacher. (emph. mine)

Although Mbewe called the preacher “maddened looking” as opposed to “maddened,” he declared that the preacher in his example (I don’t know if he was thinking of any TV preacher in particular or just throwing out generalizations) was “demon possessed” as opposed to something such as “like he was demonized.” As I’ve said before, I find it interesting that cessationists can say there are no longer any “gifts of the spirit” given to human beings, but that human beings can certainly be possessed by demons and exhibit strange and even supernatural behaviors. The equation doesn’t seem to balance out and gives the impression that evil forces have more influence than God.

But that’s just my personal observation.

Don’t worry. There’s only one presentation left, MacArthur’s final appeal, then Challies writes his own summary of the lessons he learned from the conference. After that, Challies writes two additional blog posts, both on MacArthur’s answers to his critics. I’ve briefly scanned those answers and MacArthur comes across as somewhat more reasonable than I found him and the others while presenting at the conference.

I know the conference was last October and it may seem as if I’m beating a dead horse, but these issues won’t go away just because a couple of months have passed. Beyond that, there’s the influence of MacArthur’s Strange Fire book (which I’d like to review, but I’m not willing to shell out cold, hard cash for the privilege) to consider.

doveThe topic is wearing on me too, which is why, in addition to Life of Pi, I’ve just started reading Gifts of the Spirit, which is a compilation of the presentations given at the First Fruits of Zion Gifts of the Spirit Conference held last Spring during Shavuot at the Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin.

I attended the conference and wrote numerous blog posts, including this one describing my experiences. However, all that was before MacArthur, “Strange Fire,” discussing MacArthur and “Strange Fire” with my Pastor, and my blogging on “Strange Fire,” so I need to even things out, so to speak, and revisit the spiritual side of the coin by reading “Gifts”.

So far in “Gifts,” I’ve learned (relearned) that a number of the presenters, including First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) staff, previously worshipped in and even grew up in the Pentecostal church. I look forward to going back to the “Gifts of the Spirit” and comparing that conference experience with the Challies Chronicles of “Strange Fire.”

The Challies Chronicles: The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura

The Westminster DivinesThe final session on day two of the Strange Fire conference was led by Steven Lawson who spoke on “The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura.” This was another historical message meant to demonstrate how our forebears were committed to the doctrine of Scripture alone.

Tonight the focus of our study will be another historical theology overview of a critical issue that ties in wonderfully with this entire conference.

-Pastor Tim Challies liveblogging
Strange Fire Conference: Scripture Alone,” October 18, 2013
Challies.com

I have a strange relationship with Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) having written about it on a few occasions. My general understanding is when a Christian says “sola scriptura,” they mean “only scripture” in the sense that any contextual cues that the original audience may have had available to them that would have modified their understanding of scripture beyond the plain meaning of the text are never allowed for us in the 21st century. It would interfere with too much of our Protestant tradition if we had to read the various sections of the Bible in a manner consistent with the original authors and readers, that is to say, with a Jewish perspective.

So you can imagine as I approached this next “strange” and “fiery” presentation, I was a little hesitant. Nevertheless, I said I would see this project through to its end and so I shall.

Rome said “We accept Scripture, but also Church tradition, ecclesiastical hierarchies, etc.” But the Reformers said “No, it’s sola scriptura. If anything else is added to the foundation of the church, the foundation will be split and unable to hold the rest of the doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If I’d been in the room when Lawson made that statement, I’d have had a terrifically difficult time keeping a straight face. Is Lawson actually suggesting that the Catholics view scripture through the lens of Church tradition but the Protestant Church in the modern age (inheritors of the “Reformers”) does not?

Upon the foundation of sola scripture are three massive pillars which frame and uphold the gospel in its most basic formulation—by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. And when this foundation and these pillars are in place, the crown can be erected across which is written soli Deo gloria.

And you don’t call that artificial structure a “tradition?” Where does it say such a thing in the Bible directly and how much inference and interpretation through the lens of tradition does it take to create this structure of pillars?

What are the distinguishing marks out of the Bible itself regarding sola scriptura?

Lawson then goes through a list of the “distinguishing marks” of sola scriptura as defined by the Westminster Divines, which according to Wikipedia, are “a synod composed of theologians (or “divines”) and members of Parliament appointed to restructure the Church of England…The Assembly met for ten years (1643–53), and in the process produced a new Form of Government, a Confession of Faith, two catechisms (Shorter and Larger), and a liturgical manual for the Churches of England and Scotland.”

bet_midrash_temaniI don’t suppose they consulted a more ancient Hebraic lens in looking at scripture before making such decisions. Probably not.

In that case, I have to believe they missed a step or two (or three or four).

You can read the Challies blog post to get the full list of “distinguishing marks,” but I think Lawson must have been building up to point number nine:

Ninth, and finally, sola scriptura implies the finality of Scripture. That there is no new revelation to be given to man after the close of the canon of Scripture, the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

There is no adding to the Bible once canon is closed. I think most people can believe in that. We don’t see radically different versions of the Bible circling around different streams of Christianity and Judaism (keeping in mind Christianity has a whole section of the Bible that Judaism discounts).

Whenever God opens the heavens to bless his people, the devil opens his mouth to blast them. At the exact same time as the Westminster Divines were writing the Confession, the Quakers were forming. They claimed to be receiving new revelations and prophecies. They were lead by a man named George Fox. At the heart of their theology was this message, that one can be saved apart from the Scripture, that there is an inner light in all man, and this inner revelation makes salvation for all humanity possible. They called this light within the “indwelling spirit” which they claimed was even in unbelievers.

As they gathered together, the Quakers claimed that they had the Holy Spirit within them. Their worship services had no ordained pastors. They would all sit in a building like we’re sitting here and would be encouraged to meditate, and as you would feel prompted, you were encouraged to stand up and speak your thoughts to others. This commitment to be open and uncautious led them into all kinds of bizarre behaviors and beliefs, including going naked as a sign of judgment to others.

I’m telling you, if you take one step off of sola scriptura you have put your foot on a theological banana peel that will send you down till you hit bottom.

OK, I see where Lawson is going with this. The Puritans were giants for establishing sola scriptura but the Quakers undermined that principle by claiming direct (and new) revelation from the Holy Spirit detaching themselves from scripture entirely, thus Lawson draws a comparison between Christian Evangelicals (MacArthur, et al) and Pentecostals/Charismatics.

I like the banana peel analogy. I think it’s cute.

But let’s take a look at what else the “Divines” believed in:

While the issue of biblical inerrancy, the belief that there are no errors in the Bible, did not arise until the eighteenth century, the divines clearly did not believe the Bible to contain any errors. Many of the divines held a rather mechanical view of biblical inspiration, believing that not only the words but the letters and vowel points of the Hebrew text were inspired by God, while often acknowledging that the text was at the same time written by humans in their own styles. They did not make any distinction between essential and incidental matters with respect to biblical inspiration.

Source: Letham, Robert (2009). The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context. The Westminster Assembly and the Reformed Faith. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing. ISBN 978-0-87552-612-6.

This doesn’t torpedo the “Divines” as a valid information source for Lawson’s presentation, but it does add an interesting bit of color to this assembly, or at least some of their members, since according to Jewish Virtual Library:

Because of this system of assigning numerical values to letters, every word has a numerical value. There is an entire discipline of Jewish mysticism known as Gematria that is devoted to finding hidden meanings in the numerical values of words. For example, the number 18 is very significant, because it is the numerical value of the word Chai, meaning life. Donations to Jewish charities are routinely made in denominations of 18 for that reason.

oral-tradition-talmudThe point I’m trying to make is that you can’t hand-pick the little bits and pieces of history that support an argument without dragging along the rest of the historical, cultural, and theological context to which those bits are attached. I seriously doubt that Lawson would take on board a belief that each letter and vowel point, or for that matter, the numerical value of each Hebrew letter, were particularly significant let alone inspired by God.

One “slippery slope” I think Lawson failed to take into account in his presentation was how difficult it would be to apply a “good guys” and “bad guys” paradigm to the current Evangelicalism vs. Pentecostalism debate using a historical precedence. While I certainly don’t support the historical Quaker’s method of worship and how they conceptualized theology (from what little I know about it), I can’t say that it directly speaks to the current debate, anymore than “the Divines” (and their views on the significance of the letters and vowel points of the Hebrew in the Bible) could be considered directly applicable to Lawson’s and MacArthur’s side of the conversation.

My conclusion is that, while Lawson’s presentation may have carried with it some interesting historical information, it contributed little if anything to the overall presentation of “Strange Fire” and their case against the Pentecostals/Charismatics. I know where he was going with this, but Church history has many strange and even cruel (and even murderous) aspects. One must take great care in summoning history into the present as if they are indistinguishable. They’re not, as I’m sure the apostle Paul could attest.

The Challies Chronicles: Interlude Courtesy of the Rabbis

Ismar SchorschA third-century Palestinian amora, Rabbi Hanina bar Yitzhak, posited that three common experiences are merely unripened fruit (novelet) of phenomena unknown to us: sleep (foreshadowed death), dreaming (prophecy), and Shabbat (the world to come). Hence to dream is but a faint reflection of the intensity of a direct communication from God. The Talmud speaks of the ratio of these relationships as being one-sixtieth. Together, these views of Rabbi Yonatan, Rava, Rav Hanina, and the Talmud add up to a consistent effort to limit the potency of dreams as recorded throughout the Tanakh, without fully denying the possibility of fleeting contact with the Divine.

The shift away from revelatory dreams mirrors what Rabbis had done with prophecy itself. They declared it to have ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, to be found henceforth only among “fools and children.” In a culture reconstituted around the centrality of a sacred book rather than a sacred space, the scholar outranked the prophet. Exegesis replaced prophecy as the key to determining God’s will.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Living in Two Worlds,” pg 157
Commentary on Torah Portion Miketz
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

This is another brief interruption in my Challies Chronicles series which seeks to take the live blogging of Pastor Tim Challies on John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, and use it as a platform for analysis and critique.

As I was reading Schorsch’s commentary on last week’s Torah reading, the above-quoted text jumped out at me. The essence of what Schorsch writes, that the Rabbis shifted away from certain “gifts of the Spirit” and toward a more “Bible-based” platform for understanding the revelation of God, seemed like it should be something MacArthur would agree with. Of course, the framework of Judaism would probably result in MacArthur immediately rejecting this information, since it comes from an “alien” (i.e. “Jewish”) source.

But since I stand outside of MacArthur’s own framework, I am at liberty to see the parallels. Evangelical Christianity didn’t invent this shift in perspective nor is it the sole owner of the material. It is true that Ismar Schorsch is only one author and represents the Conservative branch of Judaism, nevertheless, he is mining a rich field of Rabbinic knowledge and wisdom.

But I like what he writes next:

But neither the rupture nor disparagement were total. How could they be? The reality of God’s presence permeated every aspect of the Rabbi’s discourse, piety, and daily lives. In their religious quest, they crafted a Judaism that enabled one to live in two worlds — the material and the spiritual, the transitory and the eternal, the here-and-now and the here-after — simultaneously and harmoniously.

-Schorsch pp 157-8

Tom Pennington at Strange FireWhile Tom Pennington in my recent Strange Fire commentary acknowledges that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in the current world, restricting its activity only in the areas of such direct spiritual gifts as prophecy, miraculous healings, and “tongues,” I wonder if he’s saying something similar? I’m sure he didn’t mean to sound like the Rabbinic sages, and after all, much of what the Rabbis taught were in the form of midrash or commentary, not directly pulled from scripture. On the other hand, while the Strange Fire speakers present their arguments as based only on scripture, the reality of what they produced at the conference was all inferred information, so both “camps” can be accused of standing on less than absolutely solid ground.

In other words, the Strange Fire speakers have a theory that just happens to fit words in the Bible.

At the heart of their arguments, “Cessationists” exist in a world of polarity. Either you believe this or you believe that. Either the Holy Spirit always enables prophecy in human beings or it never does.

While I myself am a skeptic of many of the strange claims regarding holy vomiting (though I don’t think the practice is mainstream Pentecostalism) and other highly dramatic experiences where the Spirit of God seems to perform on command (tonight and tonight only, on this very stage…), I’m not willing to say that God is quite so rigid as to be subject to such terms as “always” or “never,” at least not as defined by mortal human beings.

I suppose that’s one reason why I’m attracted to Jewish thought. It allows God a little “wiggle room” should He decide to supernaturally act in our world in a way our doctrine doesn’t always anticipate.

Schorsch wrote, “But neither the rupture nor disparagement were total. How could they be?” How could they be, indeed. God is an ethereal substance that, once we are open to Him, we soak up like a sponge. If the Holy Spirit really in-dwells within all believers, then we are each a nexus point for a simultaneous connection of physical and spiritual reality. This doesn’t make us spiritual super-people, capable of “leaping tall buildings in a single bound,” but it does expose us to realities that a mere secular individual would be blind to.

But you have to be willing to see beyond the visible light of the universe into a spectrum that exists only in the realm of God. That’s a place we enter when we pray, a sort of doorway that leads from one room of existence to another. We can’t really enter into that other room in this life, but once we gain awareness of it, we can no longer afford to ignore it, either.

torah-tree-of-lifeWe stand in two worlds if we’re willing to see it. My beef with MacArthur’s perspective is that he seeks to define that other world in concrete and quantifiable terms when, from my perspective, the vastness of God extends far, far beyond what can be crammed into our understanding of the Bible.

If I can paraphrase the bard (Hamlet to Horatio), “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I suppose MacArthur and party could say the same of me relative to demonology, but my orientation tends to naturally seek the positive aspects of the “spiritual plane,” which in this case, is the Spirit of God.

While I always will remain a devotee of Jesus of Nazareth, I think Judaism, or certain areas of Jewish thought, does a better job of allowing God to be God, than certain areas of Christianity.

Schorach said that the Rabbis crafted a Judaism post-second Temple, that could exist in two worlds. That makes it sound like the Judaism of the Rabbis is “man-made,” a common criticism of Judaism by the Church. But did the Christian Reformation start and Fundamentalism continue to craft a different kind of Christianity than what existed at the end of the first century of the common era?

Maybe both Christianity and Judaism are products constructed as much by their “revered sages” as molded by the hand of God.