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John MacArthur and Strange Fire

It’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? We can’t all be right and we can’t both be right. Sooner or later we have to have a discussion about charismatic (continuationist) theology and whether or not the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit remain in operation in the church today (or, if you prefer, about cessationist theology and whether or not the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased in the church today). We have wanted to make sure New Calvinism is large enough for both, that it will not fracture along this particular line, and this has delayed the conversation. But at some point we just have to talk about it.

John MacArthur is forcing the issue with a book and a conference titled Strange Fire. The conference is still several weeks away and the book will not be widely available until a few weeks after that. However, I recently received an advance copy of the book and have read it a couple of times now. I want to begin a conversation today, and my purpose is really to get an idea of how people feel about the whole issue.

I am going to make just a few observations about the book and what I think MacArthur is attempting to accomplish. First though, some terminology.

  • Continuationism is “the teaching that (at least some of) the miraculous gifts assumed and described in the Bible ought to continue in the church and, in fact, do continue to be given to the church.” When we think of miraculous gifts, we typically refer to prophecy, speaking in tongues, and miracles.
  • Cessationism is the opposite and “teaches that all the miraculous gifts have ceased to be given to the church today.” (Both definitions are taken from Sam Waldron’s To Be Continued?)
  • Continuationism is a subset of charismatic theology, and generally refers to more moderate and theologically-minded charismatics who are attempting to distance themselves from a wider and more distressing movement that includes all of your least-favorite prosperity preachers, miracle crusaders, and anointed prayer cloth hawkers.

By way of context, John MacArthur is a cessationist while leading continuationists include men like John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and D.A. Carson.

And now, here are a few observations to get us started.

Observations

Self Examination. I want to begin with this: We will learn a lot about ourselves in this conversation, about the maturity of whatever this theological movement is. This is going to be a difficult conversation because for each of us to explain what we believe is to state that others are wrong, to explain how they are wrong, and to suggest why it matters. Here’s the thing: If the continuationists are right, cessationists are calling good evil, ascribing to Satan what is of God if the cessationists are right, the continuationists are calling evil good, ascribing to God what is of Satan. We all love to be outraged, to react indignantly, and a conversation like this one may push our buttons and cause us to lash out with anger or self-pity. We are about to learn if we can have a conversation like this with maturity.

The Purpose. As far as I can tell, MacArthur did not write Strange Fire because there are reformed charismatics in the church today. He wrote the book because in many places in the world charismatic theology in its most destructive form is dominating the conversation and perverting the church. This book is about Benny Hinn far more than it is about Bob Kauflin. All across the world charismatic theology in a radical form is leading millions of people astray, bearing false witness to the gospel, and heaping contempt on the cause of Christ. Few of us would disagree and, in fact, continuationists like John Piper have spoken out boldly and clearly against this. However, it is difficult to speak about the charismatic theology of charlatans like Benny Hinn without on some level speaking about the people who genuinely love the Lord and who have carefully and prayerfully drawn their continuationist theology from the Bible. While most Reformed writers have no voice in that charismatic realm, MacArthur does through his global radio ministry, through his study Bible, and so on. We Reformed folk tend to have a narrow view of the Christian world, so we will have to work to keep this wider purpose in mind.

Chapter Twelve. Most people who read this site and who decide to read Strange Fire will turn to chapter twelve before they read the first eleven. This chapter is titled “An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends” and here MacArthur affirms that he has many dear friends who are continuationists and agrees that they are together for the gospel. He speaks of their contribution to his own life and faith and that of his church. But the heart of the chapter is eight dangers of continuationism he would like them to consider. He closes with a plea to these people to examine what they believe, to examine what they teach, and to see the danger in it.

Strange Fire. Using the term “strange fire,” drawn from the story of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), explains the way MacArthur understands this issue: as a matter of approaching God and worshipping him in inappropriate ways, ways God does not sanction, desire or appreciate. I suspect MacArthur would not use this phrase if he were thinking only of the reformed continuationist crowd. But as he thinks of charismatic expression across the world and throughout the visible church, he sees much that can only be deeply offensive to God. Again, consider the primary purpose for which he has written this book.

Illumination. One area of theology that has probably not been explored and explained enough, and especially in relation to this discussion, is the doctrine of illumination. MacArthur touches on it, but does not write about it at length and I find myself wishing he had done so. A robust understanding of how the Holy Spirit illumines the Bible to Christians may keep cessationists and continuationists from speaking past one another when they use differing terms to express and explain the same reality. Where the continuationist may say, “God told me,” a cessationist may say “I learned from the Bible” and they may be speaking about the very same thing. Continuationists do not believe in a dead Bible and cessationists do not believe in a dead Spirit.

Listen. Sometimes we just need to listen, even when it makes us uncomfortable or even when it hurts our feelings. Now I will not pretend that I view John MacArthur objectively; though of course I do not agree with him in every area, I respect him deeply and have benefited immensely from his ministry. But I still want to challenge myself and all of us with this: If anyone has had a life and ministry that has earned him the right to be heard, it is John MacArthur. Whether or not you agree with him, at the very least listen! When you cry out without first listening, you may well be saying more about yourself than you are saying about him or about this issue.

I am eager to hear from you. But please, do weigh your words and perhaps pause for just a few seconds before you submit your comments.

NOTE (4:30 PM). John MacArthur read this and asked if I could append one brief statement. Here it is:

Tempting as it might be for my Reformed continuationist friends to read the last chapter first, that would be a mistake. The points in that chapter might seem arbitrary to someone who has not read the preceding material. Those early chapters trace the roots of charismatic teaching; they show the biblical rationale for cessationist conviction; and they demonstrate why aberrant doctrines and practices are not minor, occasional anomalies but the inevitable fruits of charismatic presuppositions. Anyone predisposed to disagree anyway would probably find it easy to be dismissive if they skipped to the end first. The final chapter is simply the logical conclusion to the arguments set forth in all the others.