Strange Fire: A Refutation – Part I

In October 1994, I wrote a lengthy critique of John MacArthur’s controversial book Charismatic Chaos.

I was in my 20s at the time.

MacArthur’s Chaos contains his core arguments against the theology and practice of the charismatic community. That would include a polemic on why he believes the supernatural gifts of the Spirit have ceased from operating today.

(Note that I criticize much that passes off as “spiritual” within charismatic circles today in my book, Revise Us Again. So if you’re interested in those critiques, you can look at that volume.)

Over the next week, I’m going to post excerpts from my critique of Charismatic Chaos because MacArthur’s arguments in that volume are simply rehashed in his new book, Strange Fire, which is causing no small frenzy among Christians right now.

I will then make my entire critique available.

In this post, I’ve published the Preface to my critique of MacArthur’s book as it explains why I wrote the critique and why I think MacArthur’s main arguments are flawed.

Preface to My Critique of Charismatic Chaos

The Gospel According to Jesus and Charismatic Chaos are the only two books I have read by John F. MacArthur. After reading both books, I was somewhat taken back by the realization that both had been written by the same author.

While I found The Gospel According to Jesus to be a superb and refreshing discussion of the original content of the gospel that was proclaimed by our Lord Jesus, Charismatic Chaos was quite a disappointment.

Unlike The Gospel According to Jesus, I found Charismatic Chaos to be exegetically incorrect on a number of levels, full of misrepresentations and overgeneralizations, weak in Biblical and historical scholarship, and severely flawed in many of its conclusions.

Overall, the book lacked the qualities that reflect the mind of an objective theologian.

Many evangelicals share my sentiments regarding MacArthur’s Chaos.

Christianity Today’s review of MacArthur’s book had this to say:

While MacArthur should be commended for appealing to sola scriptura, the book vastly overstates the charismatic “threat.” MacArthur is all too willing to choose selectively the more extreme cases of charismatic activity to justify his argument, and at times he relies on second-hand sources to indict the defendants. Granted, the ambiguity of an unstructured, popular movement gives MacArthur a free hand, but the reader may wonder why the author fails to interact with evidence that might temper his judgment…Perhaps the major flaw of the book is more attitudinal than methodological. In claiming to see things so clearly–so black and white–MacArthur falls into a restorationist mindset, identified by historian Mark Noll as “intellectual overconfidence, sectarian delusion, and a stunningly naive confidence in the power of humans to extract themselves from the influences of history…” MacArthur fails to acknowledge any element of solidarity with the movement he criticizes. While he calls charismatics brothers and sisters in Christ, he fails to explore the historical and theological connectedness of Pentecostalism and evangelicalism and does not see that some of his criticisms in particular apply to evangelicals in general: both represent popular, democratic movements; both are organized around strong personalities; both foster individualistic faith…If he were aware of these commonalities, MacArthur might have written ‘Charismatic Chaos’ with greater sensitivity and humility–more as a pastor than as a preacher.

What appears in the following pages is a critique of John MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos.

I must confess that I would have never thought to write this critique on my own initiative, for my calling in the Body of Christ is not centered on correcting the errors of others. God forbid!

We’re all in process and that includes me.

However, when a brother with whom I held close fellowship decided to no longer associate with me and my church after reading MacArthur’s book, I felt the liberty before the Lord to engage in such a task.

This work, then, was not initially intended for a general audience. Yet because I have seen other cases of wounded and confused relationships resulting from MacArthur’s book, I felt the freedom to make this critique available to a wider audience.

While doctrinal differences among the Lord’s people are to be expected, division on the basis of such differences is contrary to the Lord’s thought and desire.

The basis for fellowship is the Body of Christ alone. If one is a member of the Body, possessing the life of Christ, we must receive him, no matter how deficient in light, overzealous, or immature he may be.

Hence, it is a gross inconsistency to call an individual a “brother” or “sister” and at the same time refuse fellowship with them on the ground of a doctrinal difference. As the Scripture plainly teaches, if God receives a person, then we must also receive them (see Romans 14:3;15:7).

I give thanks to the Lord that sometime after this brother read my critique, God restored our fellowship together.

Concerning myself, I am not a charismatic. I consider myself rather to be post-charismatic.

While I have had wide experience in various charismatic circles in the past, I do not belong to a charismatic church. Indeed, I believe in the perpetuity of spiritual gifts as described in 1 Corinthians 12-14 and I exercise them.

Yet, my theological views cannot be understood within the pale of what is generally regarded as “charismatic theology.” It is often overlooked that multitudes of the Lord’s people throughout the church history have embraced the perpetuity of spiritual gifts–many of them who were alive well before the “Charismatic movement” ever existed.

Spiritual giants of the past such as A.B. Simpson, Andrew Murray, R.A. Torrey, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Jessie-Penn Lewis, Watchman Nee, A.W. Tozer, et al., have all believed in the operation of miraculous gifts in their day.

Since my convictions and experiences regarding the perpetuity of spiritual gifts is similar to theirs, I disavow any label other than that of “Christian,” just as many of these brethren would if they were still alive today.

This work, then, is not a defense nor an apology for the charismatic movement. Like MacArthur, I myself have found the “movement” to be flawed in many ways.

There is so much diversity today among charismatics and charismatic churches that I think the word “movement” is inaccurate to describe them. The charismatic world is certainly not a monolith by any stretch.

For instance, Francis Frangipane and Benny Hinn are light years apart in their theology and practice. Jack Hayford and Kenneth Copeland are as well. The late Ern Baxter and Mike Murdock are so radically different that they appear to come from different planets!

Nevertheless, I’m using the term “movement” to describe people and groups who describe themselves as “charismatic.”

However, the excesses, errors, and weaknesses present in charismatic circles do not discount the reality of spiritual gifts. Nor do they leave the “movement” without any value to the church as a whole.

While it would be quite easy for me to write a critique on the abuses within the charismatic movement and the underlying causes for those abuses, these are beyond the compass of this small manuscript.

The central focus of this critique is simply to show that both Scripture and church history yield strong evidence that spiritual gifts are still extant in the church today.

My primary intention in writing it is to help my non-charismatic brethren who have been influenced by MacArthur’s book to reconsider and re-examine their understanding of the present-day work of the Spirit. My desire is that my non-charismatic brethren will open up their hearts more fully toward their charismatic brethren and sistren.

Furthermore, I want to inform my readers that I am releasing this work to a general audience with much hesitation. It is merely a brief and preliminary response to MacArthur’s book. Consequently, it is neither complete nor exhaustive.

Many of the concepts that I raise are not fully developed and some of the questions that revolve around the matter of spiritual gifts are not addressed.

For the most part, I have retained the conversational and informal tenor that this manuscript originally contained when I wrote it to my friend.

In many places it reads more like a personal letter than a formal theological treatise.

Nevertheless, due to the extreme position that Chaos takes and the harm that I believe it may cause in the Body of Christ, I felt at liberty to set forth this critique, with all its weaknesses, with the hope of enhancing a mutual humility, understanding, and fellowship among the Lord’s people on this important issue.

Finally, each subtitle in this manuscript corresponds to the chapters in MacArthur’s book. Yet, because of the way the manuscript is formatted, it’s not necessary to read MacArthur’s book in order to follow my line of thinking.

I now commit this work into the Lord’s hands and ask that He use it to clarify the truths surrounding the Holy Spirit’s operation in a time where much confusion and hostility abounds concerning it. And ultimately, that He recover the many cases of broken fellowship that have resulted.

Warmly in Christ,

Frank Viola

October 3, 1994

Over the last few years, I’ve written a number of blog posts on the ministry of the Holy Spirit–including spiritual gifts, the baptism of the Spirit, and the “five-fold ministry.”

If you find any of the articles helpful, you are free to link to them (but please do not copy them).

Click Rethinking the Holy Spirit’s Ministry to view all the posts on the subject.

Read Part II

See also Adrian Warnock’s article on the issue.

If you find this post helpful, you are free to ADD A LINK to it on your blog or website. But don’t copy and paste the post as this violates Google’s guidelines.

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About Frank Viola

See my About page. Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be "affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Google+

  • Frank Viola

    Search the Internet for it. It’s file away somewhere in my archives.

  • http://christiananswers.net/ Conservative Lifer

    Maybe John MacArthur is going the way of the liberals of our day, making issues out of nothing in order to keep from addressing his own church’s issues?

  • Steven Scott Alt

    Frank, can you please provide the source of that interesting quote from Christianity Today’s review of Charismatic Chaos?

  • Wolfgang Jung

    Great article. Needed!

  • Seeking Disciple

    Great post and well written. I pray that MacArthur would openly repent for trying to lump all charismatics into the same mold. I have been part of charismatic groups for over 20 years and you cannot simply define the movement based on what you see on TBN or what you read from one Pentecostal. The movement has over 500 million people and yet MacArthur believes he can sum up the movement by pointing to a few weird preachers or teachers. How wrong must he be!

  • http://www.TovRose.com/ TOV ROSE

    Frank, thank you for revisiting this important issue.

  • http://www.cherylricker.com/ Cheryl Ricker

    Praying your articles repair the breach. And we need to be unified–for the sake of the world. Thanks for speaking up. Lord, keep us all passionate for You–however You want that to translate in each of our lives.

  • http://www.frankviola.net/ Frank Viola

    Bingo! Thanks for commenting.

  • http://www.frankviola.net/ Frank Viola

    It’s been sometime since I read it, but I don’t think you can separate Jesus as Savior and Jesus as Lord. That’s an artificial separation. The message of the gospel was Jesus is this world’s true Lord. See http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/gospel/

  • Pat Cook

    So, nearly twenty years later, what do you feel about MacArthur’s message of Lordship Salvation? I know you didn’t say you agreed with it, but you did consider the book to be a worthwhile discussion piece. What do you think now?

  • http://brandonacox.com Brandon A. Cox

    Frank, I’m with you, especially on the part about the basis of unity. Anytime we erect tests of fellowship based on standards that go beyond the Bible, we’re guilty of dividing family.


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