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Timothy George on “Strange Fire”

Timothy George on “Strange Fire” November 5, 2013

John Macarthur’s Strange Fire conference with its militant critique of the charismatic movement has raised no little bit of controversy. Some audio and video is available here, see Mark Driscoll’s open letter to Macarthur, and note Trevin Wax’s cautious words over at TGC.

Now me, personally, I’m not charismatic. I don’t dance on pews, I don’t raise my hands in church crying out “whoo-hoo,” nor do I ever pray to God with the words, “untie-my-bow-tie-who-stole-my-honda.”  I also loathe the charlatans of the prosperity gospel like Joel Osteen and company, who, make God out to be  a cross between a slot machine and a cosmic therapist. Such theological oxygen thieves do for the kingdom of God what Hannibal Lecter does for vegetarianism.

However, I do have charismatic friends and students, and they are a gift to the church. They are full of holy energy, zeal for the Lord, love Scripture, and effuse radiant joy, and I mean “Toyota-joy,” in the sense of, “Oh, what a feeling … Jesus!” They also remind us that the Holy Spirit is a member of the Triune God-head and not simply a contractor who works for mega-pastors to make them mega cool. What is more, the Holy Spirit is a maverick. He goes and blows where he wishes. You cannot own  him. He does not pledge denominational loyalties, he is not respector of theologians or theologies, and he sometimes does some real amazing and freaky weird stuff. He is an uncontrollable fire! What is more, as my friend David Meredith said on twitter, not all fire is strange.

To judge all charismatics on the basis of extreme varieties like Joel Osteen is like judging all evangelicals on the merits of someone like, well, John Macarthur. I’m pretty sure that Macarthur and his TMS/GCC posse don’t spend all their days ragging on charismatics and pentecostals, their ministries have their own strengths and blessings, but suffice to say, Macarthur’s Strange Fire conferences has been divisive and prompted a myriad of critical responses.

The best response I’ve read so far is from my favourite Southern Baptist Timothy George, who writes at First Things:

Within the worldwide charismatic movement, there are no doubt instances of weird, inappropriate, and outrageous phenomena, perhaps including some of the things MacArthur saw on TBN. Many Pentecostal leaders themselves acknowledge as much. But to discredit the entire charismatic movement as demon-inspired because of the frenzied excess into which some of its members have fallen is both myopic and irresponsible. It would be like condemning the entire Catholic Church because some of its priests are proven pedophiles, or like smearing all Baptist Christians because of the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church.

When told that his all-charismatics-are-outside-the-pale approach was damaging the Body of Christ because he was attacking his brothers and sisters in the Lord, MacArthur responded that he “wished he could affirm that.” This is a new version of extra ecclesiam nulla salus—except that the ecclesia here is not the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church but rather an exclusively non-charismatic one.

One of the wisest appraisals of the charismatic movement as a whole has come from the estimable J. I. Packer. Like John MacArthur, he is Reformed in theology and a cessationist in his understanding of spiritual gifts. Packer finds in the New Testament both a creedal and a moral test for judging whether movements are truly inspired of God or not, principles the apostles themselves applied in letters like Galatians, Colossians, 2 Peter, and 1 John. Packer writes:

“When we apply these tests to the charismatic movement, it becomes plain at once that God is in it. For whatever threats and perhaps instances of occult and counterfeit spirituality we may think we detect around its periphery (and what movement of revival has ever lacked these things around its periphery?), its main effect everywhere is to promote robust Trinitarian faith, personal fellowship with the divine Savior and Lord whom we meet in the New Testament, repentance, obedience, and love to fellow Christians, expressed in ministry of all sorts towards them—plus a zeal for evangelistic outreach that puts the staider sort of churchmen to shame” [J.I. Packer].

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