This week John MacArthur launched his Strange Fire conference at his southern California church; a conference that bears the name of his forthcoming book, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship.
In the opening remarks of this conference, MacArthur reportedly stated, The charismatic movement continually dishonors God in its false forms of worship. It dishonors the Father and Son, but most specifically, the Holy Spirit. Many things are attributed to the Holy Spirit that actually dishonor him. In many places in the charismatic movement they are attributing to the Holy Spirit works that have actually been generated by Satan. Is this assessment accurate? Consider these two components of Mac Arthur’s view that I find to be highly problematic.
Before I begin, let me say that there are many components of MacArthur’s view that I find to be highly problematic, but I only have space in this entry to cover two of them. However, I believe that these two components of his view are central enough to sufficiently demonstrate the heart of my concern.
My first concern is that MacArthur repeatedly refers to the charismatic movement as a whole. Charismatic Christianity is far too diverse of a phenomenon to be generalized in such a way. The charismatic movement is actually a diverse constellation of movements that include (but are not exclusive to) the Pentecostal Movement that flowed out of the Azusa St Revival of 1906, the Charismatic Movement that flowed out of the charismatic renewal that hit mainline denominations in the 1960s, the Third Wave (or Neo Pentecostal Movement), which included John Wimber’s Vineyard Movement, the Toronto Blessing, and many other streams.
If you were to get a group of constituents from each of these movements into a room together, you’d find a divergence of theological views, worship styles, hermeneutical strategies, ecclesial traditions, etc. The only thing that this group has in common is that they all believe in the ongoing validity of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit for contemporary Christianity. To speak of the “charismatic movement” as a whole is to treat it like a denomination.
MacArthur’s book hasn’t hit the shelves yet, but when it does, I’m sure he will provide anecdotal information regarding actual instances of spiritual abuse from within charismatic churches. But that is all they are: anecdotal. To take a few instances of abuse and use it to come to the general conclusion that an entire movement is engaging in strange fire is utterly irresponsible! In order to make such a claim, MacArthur would have had to conduct a thorough study of every individual group of charismatic ministries to ensure that he only leveled his accusations against the churches that are actually engaging in spiritual abuse. Seeing that there are more than half a billion charismatics in the world today, I seriously doubt his relatively short book of a few hundred pages comes within a hundred miles of such an assessment.
My second concern is that MacArthur’s understanding of the charismatic movement is historically limited. Pay attention to the language in this quote from his opening statement at the conference:
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.
Do you hear the language? “We’ve had an accurate biblical interpretation . . . long before the Charismatic movement happened, going all the way back to the Apostles.” Who is “we?” His assumption is that the charismatic movement is a historically recent phenomenon. Perhaps he means to suggest (and I’m sure his book will spell this out) that the charismatic movement began in earnest in 1906 at Azusa St? Regardless of how he dates the start of the charismatic movement, he clearly sees it as a historically recent development.
Here’s the problem with that assumption: Since MacArthur defines the charismatic movement so loosely as all Christians who believe in the ongoing validity of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, he would have to assume that before 1906 no Christian believed in the ongoing validity of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit since the days of the apostles. Good luck demonstrating that historically!
Just take a look, for instance, at Eddie Ensley’s Sounds of Wonder, which documents an unbroken stream of the the gift of tongues all the way back to the first century. Or how about Stanley Burgess’ three volume series on the Holy Spirit that documents the major teachings on and theologies of the Holy Spirit going all the way back to the first century. See if you find evidence of a historically accepted Cessationism there!
The fact of the matter is that the charismatic movement goes all the way back to Acts chapter 2. It didn’t start on Azusa Street; it started in the upper room. Belief in the ongoing validity of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit is not a historically recent development; in fact, the opposite is true! Cessationism is far more recent than Continuationism.
At the center of MacArthur’s critique is a theological conviction: he truly believes that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit are no longer valid for today, and I can respect (not agree with, but respect) that he has that view. The problem with that view is that it lacks a clear biblical foundation, and no doctrine that lacks a clear biblical foundation can be used as a theological shibboleth. Because MacArthur believes that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit have ceased, he sees all claims to their expression as examples of deception and spiritual abuse. But the core issue is not the expression, but its doctrinal foundation.
If MacArthur wants to discuss the validity of the Cessationist position over against the Continuationist position, there are many of us who would welcome that discussion. For starters, I’d love to see a real response to Jon Ruthven’s On the Cessation of the Charismata. That would be a good starting point for a discussion!
The heart of my appeal is this: We need to learn how to disagree without dividing! MacArthur, if you disagree with a theological position, disagree with it. But don’t call the entire charismatic movement an idolatrous movement!
That’s all I’ve got today. What do you think?