Strange Fire is God’s Fire

strange fireEven as I write this, well-known pastor John MacArthur is hosting a conference entitled Strange Fire. Based on his upcoming book of the same name, the purpose of the conference is to offer a heavy critique of and warning against the Charismatic Movement. As the promotional material for the book indicates, MacArthur’s believes:

…what’s at stake is nothing less than our understanding of salvation and sanctification, and our view of Scripture’s authority. In his new book, Strange Fire, John MacArthur critiques the charismatic movement, exposing the faulty—and in some cases blasphemous—teaching and practices that are misleading hundreds of millions of people.

To further quote some of his words (as found in a piece critical of him in Charisma magazine): “As a movement, they have persistently ignored the truth about the Holy Spirit and with reckless license set up an idol spirit in the house of God, blaspheming the third member of the Trinity in His own name.” Oh my.

As you might imagine, I disagree with MacArthur. Strongly. As a Pentecostal and member of what I would consider to be the broad stream of Christianity involved in the Charismatic Renewal, I take great exception to the rather broad strokes with which he is painting my fellow coreligionists. Reading through his material yesterday and watching some of his pre-conference videos made me realize how deadly serious he is in taking aim at the movement.

While I could write for pages on this and I’m sure that many others are (for a little taste of the kinds of debate taking place, take a look at the Strange Fire Twitter feed or this takedown piece from Charisma), I’ll only list a few of my many thoughts here.

First, there is the potential that MacArthur and I agree on certain points. Even though he’s used inaccurate language to 412991_300critique the whole of the Charismatic Movement (and, it would seem, Pentecostalism as well), I concur with some of the questions he raises about aberrant or damaging theologies arising from it (prosperity gospel, Word of Faith, etc.). These teachings, though, are not uniform throughout the movement and their legitimacy is debated even amongst Pentecostals/Charismatics.  So when his conference seems to claim that the vast majority of the Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition falls into this pattern, it is off base.

It thus appears that even when I would concur with some of his warnings, the harsh, dismissive, and inaccurate way in which he chooses to interact with my brothers and sisters in Christ betrays not only a rather ungenerous Spirit but a real lack of understanding of what Pentecostalism is all about.  I want no part in this.

But this isn’t the only problem. For even as he attacks “the Charismatic Movement” (whatever he seems to mean by that), he also wants us “good” Pentecostals to know that we’re not the problem. (Whew. And here I was worried.) I take this approach by MacArthur to be patronizing at best. At worst, it is simply a lie. MacArthur is known to be a cessationist (i.e. one who believes that miraculous signs and wonders ceased after the Apostolic era). He therefore has little use for Pentecostals–“good” or “bad”–in any case.

Besides that, his conference’s stated effort to attack the problems of the Charismatic Movement actually ends up insulting all Pentecostal-style believers.  Further, it rejects foundational ideas and experiences of not only certain heretical or questionable elements within Renewalism, but the orthodox Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition as a whole. His thoughts about our view of the Bible are pertinent here.

Pentecostals can and do read the Bible differently, as I’ve claimed. We are not evangelicals in the way we interact with Scripture, even while we assert that it is the norm by which we test our doctrines and theology.  I do not think our approach marks us as heretical or subChristian.  Take a look at what this conference asserts:

To claim that charismatics do not value the Bible is patently false. To imply that they regularly or normatively receive revelations that are added to the canon the Scripture is nonsense. To assert that our tradition does not have any real biblical scholarship is laughable. Does they even know about Gordon Fee? The Society for Pentecostal Studies? The faculty members at my school?

This doesn’t even begin to touch his underlying assumptions about and rejection of Charismatic belief in the miraculous or accompanying personal experience. Strange fire? You bet it is strange fire. This is the Spirit of God we’re talking about here, and God is holier and stranger and more different from us that we can possibly imagine.

There problems within the Charismatic Movement just as there are in all streams of Christianity. We are sinful human beings. But these problems do not define us, and certainly do not warrant a wholesale “throw out the baby with the bath water” approach.

indexI think that MacArthur is upset about some legitimate abuses that have been made in the name of the Holy Spirit. Fine. It seems he has some theological disagreement with the way the Pentecostal tradition exegetes Scripture. OK. But to attack fellow believers so broadly, publicly and inaccurately? This is not charitable. Talking down to me and my fellow charismatics like a disappointed grandfather? Insulting.

There are many who will say that dialogue needs to happen here. Very well. Talking can’t hurt. I wish MacArthur were doing the same thing right now instead of whatever this is. He’s taking a combative stand for his paleo-Reformed tradition, and in the process is ignoring so much of the rich fabric of Church history–a broad stream involving Wesley, Pietism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the mystics, and more.

Disagreements between Christians are not unknown. But MacArthur’s approach isn’t helpful. How about affirming differences but seeking conversation? Working through the related issues? Why the attack?

As Pentecostal ecumenist David du Plessis once said to a gathering of various non-Pentecostal Christians in the 1950s (and I’ll paraphrase): “I believe you have the truth. But you have it on ice. You need fire.” That’s the Holy Spirit. Fire is light, warmth, heat, and life. But it is also fire, and it can burn. Pentecostals would rather have it than not. Non-Pentecostal believers would rather not take the risk. Fine.  Generally speaking, both sides have come to accept the legitimacy of the other’s perspective. MacArthur’s approach? Well, it is something else entirely. His desire seems to be that fire of a different sort rain down on our Pentecostal/Charismatic heads.

An ecumenical Spirit is needed here, even while I’m doubtful we’ll end up there. It’s funny–in my historical studies I had christianity-todayalways read about cessationists and/or those Christians who thought that Pentecostalism was “of the Devil.” But I’d never met or really interacted with any until now. I thought that in light of the Holy Spirit’s transformative work around the world over the past 100 years most if not all of these people had repented or given up. Apparently I was wrong.

So: is this the last cry of a dying cessationist movement in a world where 1 in 4 may now be Pentecostal/Charismatic, or is it being giving new life through linkage to the trendy “new Calvinism?” For the sake of the Church, I hope it is the former.

But hey–in an irony of ironies, Mark Driscoll’s on our side. So there’s that.


12 comments on “Strange Fire is God’s Fire

  1. Luke Geraty says:

    Good read! I enjoyed it. I’m adding it to a lengthy blog I wrote today on the subject:

  2. […] Update: Joshua Ziefle wrote an interesting blog from a Pentecostal perspective in response to Strange Fire t…. […]

  3. brambonius says:

    Aren’t some of the ‘new calvinists’ charismatics too, including Mark Driscoll and John Piper for exxample?

  4. << Can you imagine the Creator of the universe cheering on this #StrangeFire conference. For the life of me, I can't. If all Charismatics are nut jobs, then all Baptists are Westboro?

  5. Erin Wan says:

    Hey Josh! Thanks for defending us! I too am a calvinist-minded pentecostal. I think another point to consider is how culture plays a part in our denominations. The average time oriented American baptist versus the event oriented African pentecostal. The Lord loves his people, created us differently and can relate differently to his creation (obviously still under the testing of the spirits)… All I know is that He is the same God yesterday today and forever….yet to one he can say “go your child is alive” and to another he rubs mud in their eyes in order to heal. Just because we don’t understand how the spirit works doesn’t mean it catches Him off guard. Unfortunately there have been abuses worn on the sleeves of charismatics. But atleast we see these blatantly. Some abuses in other denominations are more subtle and those could potentially be more dangerous.

  6. Tim Shey says:

    John MacArthur doesn’t care for Christians who live outside the box.

    “Those who are led by the Spirit of God shall be sons of God.” (Romans 8: 14) There is no doubt that MacArthur is justified by faith, but since being led by the Holy Ghost is foreign to him, he is not a son of God.

    The power of the Holy Ghost is definitely outside the box. The life of Jesus, John the Baptist, George Fox, John Wesley and many others were outside the box. My life of hitchhiking is outside the box. If I met John MacArthur, he would immediately try to straighten my out and correct me and try to bring me back into his little, myopic, man-man box.

    Churchy church churchianity loves to nail Jesus to the Cross.

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