John MacArthur’s Strange Fire

Okay, being conflict-averse I don’t normally involve myself publicly in controversy on the internet, but I’ll start this blog off by wading into one: my take on John MacArthur and his Strange Fire book and conference. I’ve not read the book or viewed the conference, but essentially he’s made a renewed attack on the charismatic and Pentecostal movement for false teachings (i.e., heresy). Most of the criticism leveled at MacArthur has concerned his lumping together of the entire renewal movement with the excesses at its fringes. This has been a major topic all over the conservative protestant internets; an overview of the matter can be seen here, for instance.

To be honest, I’ve not been interested in MacArthur since his earlier work on the same subject, Charismatic Chaos. I find the cessationist argument extremely weak biblically and theologically; ultimately, it’s really based just on (a lack of) experience. There are so many good books I want to read by people I disagree with that I don’t want to waste my time on bad books by people I disagree with.

Moreover, such heat over this particular issue seems so… 1990’s. I can understand a cessationist writing a book or preaching a sermon on this, but an entire conference to attack a doctrine or Christian movement seems overkill in this post-denominational age. (What’s next? A conference against infant baptism? Amillennialism? Congregational church government?) Where I’m at, living and working with people from many different theological and denominational backgrounds, even if they don’t claim particular spiritual gifts, everybody believes that God still answers prayer and the Spirit of God still moves today. Everybody prays for the sick to be healed, and sometimes it happens. In my book, that’s kind of being a charismatic. (At the very least, everyone steals our music. Absolutely everyone.)

While its core beliefs are quite solid, I would never say that the renewal movement does not need introspection and criticism. Far from it. A common response to MacArthur’s criticism has been to stress that the Word of Faith movement (i.e., television Christianity) has only a minor influence and should not be seen as that characteristic of the broader movement. No, actually it is very widespread and influential, and it needs to be addressed more directly and frequently by the more orthodox sections. (Pastors, do you know what your church members are watching?)

Critiquing the theology of television Christianity is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel with a hand grenade. I don’t watch it (for many of the same reasons I don’t read authors like MacArthur), but some of it that I have been exposed to is so alien to what I understand Christianity to be that it is almost unrecognizable. I cannot square the “prosperity gospel” with the Jesus who said things like, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Faith is good and should be positive, but the extremes to which many preach the idea of the “positive confession” is far from Scriptural. (In fact, this teaching actually does not originate with the historical Pentecostal movement but some of the esoteric “mind science” groups like Christian Science.) While not Pelagian in their teaching of salvation—like all good Protestants they teach that people are saved only by believing in Jesus—many popular preachers are thoroughly Pelagian in their teaching of sanctification and the Christian life: whatever God is going to do for you is totally up to you doing the right things. Worse, some of the founders of the Word of Faith movement have made statements regarding core Christian beliefs about God and Jesus that are nothing but heretical.

That said, on the rare occasions I catch moments of some of the popular names associated with this movement, I encounter none of the above. Most of the time, most preach positive, practical messages of how to live the Christian life and be more faithful to God that are not at all harmful. Would I like to hear more and better theology come from them? Oh yes. More accountability and less showmanship? Definitely. Correction of aberrant practices and careless teachings? Absolutely. On the main, though, I think most should be judged (yeah, judging: it’s something we all do and technically part of my job description as a theologian) by the overall good that their work produces (the same probably should be said of MacArthur) rather than more obscure, cherry-picked statements that put in the worst possible light people who are, bluntly, not at all theologically minded (unfortunately the same cannot be said of MacArthur and his more reckless claims.)

Good. That’s that, then—hugs all around, right? Not quite; let me turn the pointing finger around. Others have rightly pointed out the problems and dangers of MacArthur’s particular brand of cessationism, which arises from a severe misunderstanding of the purpose of spiritual gifts in the Bible and why God performs the miraculous. I have further issues with those like him, the self-appointed, ahistorical neo-Calvinist judges (as opposed to historical Calvinist theologians, many of whom, if not in agreement I am on good terms with) of who is and is not a Christian today. (To see their activities, just search the internet a little bit.)

This neo-Calvinist (as in young, restless, and reformed) inquisition holds the following beliefs that contradict the Bible and the Christian faith as understood by the vast majority of churches and believers throughout its entire history:

  • That God does not love everyone (contra John 3.16)
  • That God does not desire all to be saved (1 Tim. 2.4)
  • That Jesus did not die for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2.2)

These errors are being presented as “the Gospel, and nothing else,” the true “doctrines of grace,” which the rest of the Christian church lacks. Discernment is needed here, too: how are the areas of charismatic belief that are commonly attacked any worse? We give these a pass because they are associated with a (small, minority) historical tradition and “good Bible teachers.” In reality, they represent a major internal threat to contemporary preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ, and they need to be called out for it.

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A note on comments and documentation: Writing a blog is something I do in my leisure, and as time=work=money & other responsibilities, there are real limits as to how thorough a blog post can be. I will elaborate more on this later, but in general I don’t have the time to give voluminous citations to backup every claim that I make, and often they would be from offline sources anyway. All the topics mentioned here I have addressed, at least tangentially, in my Master’s and Doctoral thesis. If you have any questions about the veracity of my statements, please make an effort to investigate them first. Thanks!

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