Strange Fire – A Charismatic Response to John MacArthur

See also the following posts: 

Christians have a long history of disagreeing with each other over doctrine. There is nothing new about that. Sometimes that disagreement can get quite heated. So for example, in the time when Wesley and Whitefield were arguing over Calvinism, Charles Wesley wrote a shameful hymn called “The Horrible Decree” which says of Calvinism:

O HORRIBLE DECREE
Worthy of whence it came!
Forgive their hellish blasphemy

And much more besides.

As I concluded my post responding to MacArthur’s first session, such violent disagreements do dishonor to the one who saved us, and who prayed that we might be one.

I was saddened then by the hubris and the grandstanding, and even by the predictable confusion about exactly what happened when Mark Driscoll turned up (in a moment of high emotion its easy for people to get conflicting impressions of what transpired, see also this article).

Since I reported that MacArthur accused the Charismatic Movement en masse of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit I have been very concerned. That concern has not abated as the conference progressed.

During the confernce the following Tweet appeared on MacArthur’s account, and I replied with an open question to him:

To be clear, the only reason I mentioned “reformed” charismatics in that tweet was because it seemed to me that he had already determined that  the many non-reformed charismatics that I would count as my brothers and friends were not saved.

MacArthur’s closing address contained a few quotes that give an answer of sorts to that question (thanks to Cripplegate for the transcript from which these were taken):

“We have also been accused of being divisive. I would agree with that. Truth by its very nature is divisive. It’s why Jesus said I came to bring a sword, to divide people, families. Truth by its very nature is separated from error. And it is far more important to be divided by the truth than united by error . . .

There are others who criticized by saying, “You’re attacking brothers.” I wish I could affirm that. We’ve said this one way or another this week: this is a movement made up largely of non-Christians .  . .

I’m convinced that the broader charismatic movement has opened the door to more theological error than any other theological aberration in this day. Liberalism, psychology, ecumenism, pragmatism, mysticism, are all bad. Nothing is as bad as Charismaticism because of its extensive impact. And once that kind of experientialism gets a foothold, there’s no brand of heresy that won’t ride it into the church.

Charismatic theology becomes the strange fire of our generation and we have no business flirting with it at any level.”

So, there you have it, I am a part of a movement which, according to MacArthur, is worse than liberalism, and which he said in the first session, has nothing good to offer the church, oh and “most” of us are not even Christians.

To be very clear, I have no problem with other Christians holding to a different posisition on the gifts of the Holy Spirit than I do. Many cessationists are similarly inclined to see charismatics as brothers, see for example this quote from Packer.

I do also recognise, as I have outlined in my Charismatic Spectrum there are many different possible positions. MacArthur seems to have missed all these nuances and simply want to reject all charismatic thinking as heretical.

In particular there is little or no attempt in this conference to separate doctrine and experience. What I mean is, when MacArthur claims a long stream of Christians in church history were theologically cessationist, he is absolutely correct.  Yet, for many of the people he cites, including many of the reformers, (see this talk), the Puritans (see this talk), Spurgeon, and others, despite their views on the supremacy of  Scripture, there was a strong focus on an experience of God.

This experientialism was key to the worldview of the Puritans. An awareness of the power of the risen Jesus at work in us was once seen as vital to the Christian walk by all. MacArthur even warns against books on prayer by E.M. Bounds in one of the Q and A sessions. It is very sad indeed if, as it at least appeared to me from this conference, that strong tradition has also been rejected.   Phil Johnson seems aware of our concern on this point and even quoted me in his second talk, as follows:

“What I want to know about Phil is not whether he speaks in tongues . . . but rather does he have an intimate, experience of the Spirit?” He went on to suggest that cessationism portrays God as “a passive and absent figure who has left us only an intellectual relationship with the Bible.”

But in the rest of his talk he doesn’t address at all the sense some Christians have of a real relationship with God. Perhaps many cessationists do feel they have such a personal relationship, but as Packer has once pointed out today most people dont like talking about such things. Piper speaks openly about “meeting God” in his quiet times, and this would be very similar to countless experiences described by Christians of old. This experiential Christianity from the past is something I outline in one of the chapters of my own book Raised With Christ which deliberately does not mention charismatic gifts, but strongly advocates this historic stream of knowing Jesus. You can download that chapter free.

What is fascinating also is that there are many examples of respected Christian leaders who would not have had a charismatic theology but who had experiences which we today would call prophecy. So you see for example please do watch this clip of Sam Storms describing Spurgeon’s remarkable experiences with this while preaching:

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Clearly Spurgeon didn’t really have a category within his theology to explain things like that.

If MacArthur had said something like “Of course God grants certain experiences to people today, and they are even quite important at times, but we need to be more theologically precise about how we describe them,” that would have been one thing, to deny such experiences as demonic is something totally different.

Indeed, it is very possible to argue that between some more moderate cessationists and some more moderate charismatics many of the differences are ones of semantics.  Vern Poythess has argued this case in a couple of papers that are worth reading.  But MacArthur is apparently eager to throw out any chance of such experiences, and even the modern worship songs written by charismatics. To be consistent he would have to reject what is possibly the most popular modern hymn: In Christ Alone.

But to be fair to MacArthur, he does seem to allow two exceptions to the rule that even Reformed Charismatics have nothing good to offer: John Piper and Wayne Grudem.  But it is interesting the way he speaks about them in a Q and A session:

With John Piper, that is a complete anomaly. That is just so off everything else about him. It’s not that he speaks in tongues or prophesies. He admits that. But there’s this anomaly in his mind that’s open to that. He’s always stated it that way. He’s even made statements like, “I don’t know, I’m not sure, I don’t know exactly what to think.” That’s’ a far cry from propagation. Even Wayne Grudem. I look at this as an anomaly [in his theology]. I don’t know and don’t need to know where this impulse comes from. But I do know the great body of work that John Piper has done is true to the faith. John is a friend not only whom I admire but whom I love. I don’t know why on this front he has that open idea, but it’s not an advocacy position for the movement and he would join us in decrying the excesses of that movement for sure, and even the theology of it.

MacArthur doesn’t seem to give any credence to the idea that Piper may think the way he does about the charismatic because he is convinced by biblical arguments. But throughout the Strange Fire Conference there was no real attempt at interacting with charismatic theology, and our actual reasons for believing what we do. So RC Sproul outlined his case for baptism of the Holy Spirit not being a subsequent experience, but didnt address Lloyd-Jones famous comment:

“There is nothing, I am convinced, that so ‘quenches’ the Spirit as the teaching which identifies the baptism of the Holy Ghost with regeneration. . .  Got it all? Well, if you have ‘got it all’, I simply ask in the Name of God, why are you as you are? If you have ‘got it all’, why are you so unlike the Apostles, why are you so unlike the New Testament Christians?” READ MORE

Perhaps the closest to actually engaging us was Tom Pennington’s talk, The case for cessastionsim, but even there little of what we actually think was addressed as my friend Andrew Wilson has ably pointed out.

As another example of a failure to engage with other perspectives, several times during the event the blatantly unbiblical claim that prophecies and other gifts were only ever given to authenticate Scripture-writers was made. As I outlined in a post before the conference began, it is patently clear that much prophecy discussed in the Bible had nothing to do with creating Scripture.

Instead of engaging theologically with our views, they either outlined their own, or as is in both the talks by Conrad Mbewe went into detail of the many horrid things that some in the charismatic movement do. Some sessions were spent watching video clips and simply mocking the extremes which are then used as a stick to beat us all over the head with.

To be honest, watching Phil Johnson’s first talk did make me ask myself: do I speak out about charismatic abuses often enough? Its not that I don’t recognise the problem. For example, I could easily speak volumes about the horror I felt when I watched the broadcast of God TV rehabilitating Todd Bentley and justifying restarting screening his bizarre meetings. Once I start down that route, though, where do I stop? As I said, in a tweet do I really have the time?

For that matter, surely spending my focus on highlighting the good things is a better use of my time? If people are taught to recognise real money by studying it, when fake currency turns up they will identify it in an instant.  I am surprised how much time some of these folks seems to spend hunting out increasingly bizzare YouTube videos. Surely building and declaring a true model of the Christian life is a better use of our time?

Some of what MacArthur said during this event was patantly and blatantly untrue. For example he claimed that charismatics are not engaged in social action:

People who have any connection to Judaism and Christianity have a connection to philanthropy. It is a striking anomaly, however, that there is essentially zero social benefit to the world from the charismatic movement. Where’s the charismatic hospital? Social services? Poverty relief? This is a scam. SOURCE

Has he never heard of YWAM’s Mercy Ministries, of Rick Warren’s PEACE campaign?  The list goes on and on. It is simply an untruth to claim that charismatics don’t care for the worlds poor.

I’d like to end with a video which demonstrates that it is possible for us to talk about issues that we disagree strongly about without rejecting one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Thanks to Justin Taylor for posting this earlier this week.

But before I do, may I encourage you to read the rest of my posts about this conference and book, as well as  Frank Viola’s Refutation of Strange Fire in 7 points.

About Adrian Warnock

Adrian Warnock is a medical doctor, a writer, and a member of Jubilee Church, London since 1995, where he serves as part of the leadership team alongside Tope Koleoso. Together they have written Hope Reborn - How to Become a Christian and Live for Jesus, published by Christian Focus. Adrian is also the author of Raised With Christ - How The Resurrection Changes Everything, published by Crossway. Read more about Adrian Warnock or connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.

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