John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference enters its third and final day today, continuing to stir things up with its message that the modern “Charismatic Movement” is not just wrong, but badly wrong, dangerously wrong. And MacArthur’s opening address kicked things off with a bang, but one that needs a closer look.
I wasn’t sure that I was going to weigh in on the conference, since plenty of people have already done so. But most of the coverage I’ve seen so far falls into one of two categories: (1) basic summary and (2) strong critique. What I haven’t seen is anyone try to comment on both the good and the bad in the conference. So that’s what I’m going to try here, which means I’ll probably just succeed in annoying everyone. But that’s what I like to do anyway.
The quotes in this post will come from the transcript amazingly compiled on the fly by Mike Riccardi. So the quotes may not be 100% accurate, though they look pretty close. You’ll have to wait until they release the audio/video if you want to double-check everything.
As always, let’s appreciate the good before we move on to the other stuff. And I think there’s quite a bit in MacArthur’s session that falls into this category, areas where MacArthur’s theological train is running just fine.
1. Worship is a serious task.
MacArthur opens the talk with an appeal to appreciate the awesome task of worship. And we should wholeheartedly agree that worship is both gift and responsibility, one that all believers should take seriously. No one can read the “strange fire” incident in Leviticus 10 without being reminded of the awesome task it is to enter the presence of the living God and worship him.
Of course, we need to be careful about so emphasizing the responsibility of worship that we miss the fact that it is also a gift, an honor, and a joy. In addition to Levitcus 10, we should be reminded of Hebrews 10 and the fact that in Jesus, our Great High Priest, we can enter the holy places with confidence and with full assurance of faith (Heb. 10:19-22).
2. Truth trumps experience.
MacArthur devotes considerable attention throughout his address with warning against developing our theologies on the basis of our experiences. And we need to be careful here. Experience shapes everyone’s theology. So when people say that we shouldn’t allow experience to influence what we believe, we usually mean that we can’t allow their experience to shape what our experience has helped us believe.
Nonetheless, MacArthur is right that we need to be careful with the roll that we grant experience in theology. It’s all too easy to give primacy to experience and make everything else fit what we already “know” to be true.
To me, the clearest evidence that we’ve put experience before truth is when we won’t/can’t allow anyone to question it. Of course, I can’t question whether you’ve had a particular experience. But I can and should ask questions about whether you’ve interpreted your experiences correctly. (And you can/should to the same for me.) When we’re not allowed to do that in any situation, then we’ve allowed experience to predetermine the outcome, and we’ve shown truth the door.
3. Don’t insult the Spirit.
One section in the address is devoted to not insulting the Spirit. And by that MacArthur means (1) doing things the Spirit would not approve and (2) saying that they come from the Spirit. This is a fine rubric that should be applied to every aspect of life. Nothing frustrates me more than hearing people say the Spirit has led them to do something that the Bible explicitly forbids. And “insult” is a fine way of describing that kind of arrogant action.
(The big question, of course, is what things fall in this category. And unfortunately MacArthur provides little detail at this point as to what aspects of the charismatic movement would qualify. More on this later.)
4. The Spirit Christifies people
Toward the end, MacArthur emphasized that the Spirit has come to make people more like Christ. It reminded me of Panayiotis Nellas’ description of salvation as a process of “christification,” become more and more like Christ. That’s an excellent way of understanding a major aspect of what the Spirit is doing in the world. (I would push back, though, on the suggestion that this is all that the Spirit has come to do. The OT promises of the Spirit coming to renew all of creation suggest that the Spirit’s work goes beyond just the transformation of individuals.)
Now let’s look at some things MacArthur said that I think were rather unfortunate. The train hasn’t crashed yet, but the engine is making funny noises and the people in the caboose are getting nervous.
1. Stop assuming we know what/who you’re talking about.
Throughout the opening address (and in many of the other sessions), I’ve been frustrated by an apparent unwillingness to be specific. I can understand why someone would be reticent to name names and specific practices in such a public setting. But this entire conference is dedicated to critiquing a specific group of people, its beliefs, and its practices, so now is not the time to hide in abstractions and generalizations.
So when MacArthur critiques the movement for an approach to worship that is “frivolous, superficial, shallow, trivialized,” I’m left uncertain as to what he means. Those are terms people have used to describe almost all contemporary worship. Is his target that big, or is he just talking about the more sensational aspects of charismatic worship? Don’t make us guess. If you’re going to critique someone/something, you have to be specific enough for the critique to work.
The same goes with specific individuals. When the only person specifically referenced in the opening address is Benny Hinn, I begin to wonder if you’re really being fair to the movement in question. (Hint: Benny Hinn is not a representative figure for all charismatics). And the unnamed “Charismatic leader” mentioned just before that doesn’t help either. If people have gone on record saying things you think are so clearly wrong that you need to organize an entire conference in opposition to them, don’t make us wonder who they are!
(Of course, to be fair, if MacArthur had named names, other people would be writing blog posts about what a terribly wrong thing that was to do. You can’t win.)
2. Don’t conflate idolatry and innovation.
As much as I appreciated MacArthur’s emphasis on taking worship seriously, I think we need to be very careful about moving so quickly from offering “strange fire” before God to anything that we might call a “corrupt” worship practice. The former involves an action that was explicitly forbidden by God, while the latter seems to include a variety of practices that MacArthur thinks are objectionable for various reasons. Again, it’s a little difficult to assess what MacArthur is doing here because he doesn’t specify which worship practices he thinks are corrupt. But we need to be very careful when we use the language of idolatry to describe a practice that is unfamiliar to or uncomfortable for us.
3. Please define what “charismatic” means.
I probably could have fit this in the first category, but I was very surprised not to see a definition of “charismatic” in the opening address. Again, don’t make us guess or come up with our own definition. I know what I mean by charismatic and how it relates to both classic Pentecostalism and modern renewal movements. But I can’t assume that’s what you mean.
Now the train jumps the tracks.
1. In spite of, not because of
Without question the moment that has sparked the most outrage was when MacArthur claimed that the charismatic movement has not produced anything valuable in its own right.
“The Charismatic movement as such has made no contribution to biblical clarity, interpretation, or sound doctrine. We’ve had an accurate biblical interpretation and sound doctrine long before the Charismatic movement happened, going all the way back to the Apostles, a clear stream of truth. The Charismatics haven’t added to that, but have brought chaos, confusion, misinterpretation.”
Some have objected to what sounds like a pretty straightforward statement that no charismatic has ever done anything useful in biblical studies or theology. But MacArthur knows enough about contemporary scholarship to know that this simply is not the case. So I think it’s far more likely that he was saying, as he states explicitly later in the address with reference to whether charismatics know the gospel, that anything of lasting value “doesn’t come from the movement, but in spite of it.” (Although Adrian Warnock thinks that we shouldn’t interpret MacArthur’s statement this charitably unless he explicitly says this is what he meant, it really does seem to me like the most likely way of understanding what he meant in context.)
Even understood charitably, however, this is a terrible statement. What movement couldn’t be dismissed this way? You just take anything good produced by the movement and attribute it to something else. That is about the least charitable way of assessing a movement imaginable.
On top of that, how do you conclude that the modern explosion of interest in the Holy Spirit in both Bible and theology was not produced by the Pentecostal and charismatic movements? How can all of that interest and research not be a good thing?
I think you get the point. Even understood charitably, the claim that charismatics have only produced good things in spite of being charismatic is a terrible claim to make.
2. Playing the salvation card
One of that statements that concerned me the most is the following.
“On the other hand, the movement is loaded with non-Christians, who don’t know God, who are involved for carnal reasons/desires and emotional experiences. I’m grateful for those who do know the truth, but the vast majority are in the dark.”
I would be willing to offer a charitable reading of the first sentence. It’s possible that MacArthur is claiming that there’s something about the charismatic movement that makes it attract more than its fair share of disingenuous “believers.” Of course, any church living in a fallen world must be mindful of the ways in which its message can be co-opted by fallen people and used as a way of advancing their own selfish agendas. But if MacArthur has an argument that this is a larger problem for charismatics than for other Christians, I’m open to hearing and evaluating it.
The fact that he puts “the vast majority” of charismatics in this category, however, raises more disturbing questions. This is particularly so in light of the fact that he thinks the charismatic movement is actually “based on an orthodox Gospel.” So we have a movement based on the gospel in which the vast majority of people in the movement are unsaved. I would very much like to hear how MacArthur knows this to be the case. It would be one thing if he was saying that they don’t have the gospel. But his claim seems to be that they do have the gospel, that they say they believe the gospel, but that they are still unsaved. At that point we begin to run into serious questions about the nature of the gospel and its power for the salvation of those who believe.
3. Blinded by the Reformed light
Finally, MacArthur makes the unfortunate mistake several times of equating his understanding of Reformed theology with the absolute truth of God. (And, by the way, I’m sympathetic to Reformed theology. So my problem isn’t with his theological system but with the hubris of the claim.)
Here is MacArthur quoting an unnamed Charismatic leader and offering his response:
“Here’s a quote from a Charismatic leader: “The greatest satanic deception which has ever been offered is the false doctrine of once saved always saved.” But: who is it that secures us forever? That seals us forever? Who is the earnest of our inheritance? The Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is to secure it forever. This is a quote from a charismatic leader. You’ve just accused the Holy Spirit’s work of being the work of Satan.”
No. Although I think the charismatic leaders’ quote is pretty awful, MacArthur’s response isn’t any better. As quoted, the leader did not accuse the Holy Spirit’s work of being the work of Satan, he said that a particular Reformed interpretation of the Bible is the work of Satan. Yes, that is a horrible claim to make as well. But equating your interpretation of the Bible with the Holy Spirit isn’t a great move either.
Elsewhere MacArthur holds up Reformed theology as the shining light to the church in a way that can only come across as arrogant and short-sighted to anyone not part of a Reformed church (and hopefully to many who are!):
“By contrast, Reformed theology, sound doctrine, is not a haven for false teachers. It’s not where false teachers reside. Reformed theology, sound doctrine, faithful biblical exposition among the long line of godly men, is not a place for false teachers, where frauds, deceivers, liars, and misrepresenters of the truth go.”
In the End
That’s enough from me. I hadn’t intended for this to be so long, but you know what they say about how hard it is to look away once the train starts to crash. Although I want to reaffirm that I found much to appreciate in this address, and I don’t want that to be overlooked with the length of my more critical comments, I still found myself more concerned than encouraged in the end.
If you’re looking for other perspectives on the conference, here are some suggestions. For coverage in the “summary” category, follow along with Tim Challies as he live blogs the conference or check out the “transcripts” that Mike Riccardi has posted of several sessions. For coverage of the more “critical” variety, check out Luke Geraty’s excellent compilation of links.