Some of you would be aware that American pastor John MacArthur has been holding a three-day “Strange Fire” conference which is a criticism of the charismatic movement. Next month a book by the same title will be released. For those not in the know theologically speaking, much of the controversy centres on continuationism and cessationism.
That is, do the miraculous gifts of the early church continue today, or did they cease with the early church? Obviously those in the Pentecostal and charismatic movements believe they do continue, while many, especially those in the Reformed camp, think they have ceased.
Now it is not my purpose here to weigh into that particular controversy. Can I say that I am fully aware of the arguments pro and con from both sides, and I have been involved in both camps over many years. And plenty of resources can be mentioned here for both sides. Those pushing the cessationist line of course might appeal to the classic 1918 text by B.B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles, or MacArthur’s 1992 volume, Charismatic Crisis.
Careful and scholarly continuationism defences would include those made by folks like John Piper, Michael L Brown and Wayne Grudem. For example, see Grudem’s 1988 volume, The Gift of Prophecy, or Craig Keener’s 1996 work, 3 Questions about the Holy Spirit.
Books featuring various positions on this debate include Are the Miraculous Gifts for Today?, edited by Grudem (Zondervan, 1996). This of course is just a fraction of what is available on these contentious, controversial and often emotive topics.
These issues have long been the stuff of debate, and will certainly continue to be so. So this conference is just a continuation (no pun intended) of this long-standing discussion. Plenty of debate has already gone into all this. See just a few thoughtful columns here, from varying positions:
Of course I suppose before I go any further I must display my own hand here on these matters. Those who know me or have read some of my stuff can probably figure this out by now. But let me very briefly discuss my take on all this. The truth is, I have shifted on these matters over the years.
As a new and feisty Christian I was dead set against the charismatic movement in all its forms. I was certain that speaking in tongues and all the rest was of the devil, and as a hard-core pre-mil, pre-trib dispensationalist, I thought I had all the theological warrant I needed for my stance.
I recall having a friendly debate with my buddy Joe at a mid-west Bible college around 37 years ago now. I was happily citing Warfield and others as I made my case, while Joe replied, “Yes, but we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”.
Well, over the years I have obviously moved in his direction. I have come to see that I was throwing out the baby. Sure, there are heaps of unhealthy excesses here, aberrant and cultish practices and activities, and often plenty of just plain heretical teachings thrown into the mix.
But I believe the Holy Spirit is real, is active, and seeks to be very much a part of our lives today. So yes I now believe the miraculous gifts are still for today, and that we must be open to what the Spirit has for us. But again, as anyone who knows me even a little understands, I still will fight tooth and nail against any unbiblical and anti-biblical extremes or excesses that may accompany the work of the Spirit.
For example, it is the Pentecostal and charismatic world that tends to be the biggest promoter of clearly aberrant if not cult-like and heretical teachings such as the Word of Faith movement, the Name It and Claim It gospel, the Positive Confession movement, the Health and Wealth gospel, and so on.
I have written plenty on this elsewhere. See here for over 35 articles on these topics: billmuehlenberg.com/category/theology/the-health-and-wealth-gospel/
Indeed, my stalled PhD thesis was on this very issue, and the 186,000 words I have there may one day be turned into a book – if not a finished PhD as well! So I continue to hammer away at any sloppy thinking, false teaching, and unbiblical behaviours when I find them.
But again, we must preserve the baby as we toss out the bathwater. Of course folks like MacArthur will seek to argue that the baby itself in this case is just as bad as the bathwater. Indeed, they would argue that the reason we have excesses and errors here is because the fundamental premise (that the gifts are still for today) is flawed entirely.
So let me speak a bit more about the man at this point. I quite like John MacArthur and have enjoyed much of his ministry over the years. I have many of his books (ten to be exact) and always look forward to anything new that he has on offer. Thus next month when his Strange Fire volume comes out I will grab that as well, and may even do a review of it.
Although I like much of what he says and writes, that does not mean I go along with everything he says. Indeed, in some areas I have quite strong disagreements with him. Consider his 2000 volume, Why Government Can’t Save You. In it he basically said Christians are wasting their time with political and social involvement, and should just stick to preaching the gospel.
Well, as those who know me can expect, I fundamentally disagree with him on that. The gospel demands our social and political involvement. We are commanded to be salt and light, and that does not just mean getting souls into heaven. But I did a review of that book here: billmuehlenberg.com/2001/11/28/a-review-of-why-government-can%E2%80%99t-save-you-by-john-macarthur/
But as I say I generally like the guy and what he has to say. Another review of one of his books can be found here:
And I especially love the two volumes he has written defending Lordship salvation from the hyper-grace folks. See my two-part article on this here:
And the funny thing is, one of the biggest – yet most gracious – opponents of the Strange Fire conference and book is a top biblical scholar who has also written extensively against the error of the hyper grace teachers. Michael Brown takes the same hard line defending the biblical notion of Lordship salvation. Indeed, he will have a new book on this out in a few months.
So, I like MacArthur for the most part, but I think on this issue he is indeed chucking the baby out as he gets rid of the bath water. As I say, this article is not meant to be an exhaustive, or even a cursory discussion of these matters. And I already fear the possible hard core comments which will come in here from friend and foe alike.
Thus it is not my purpose here to get into a major war over these issues. I have been on both sides of the fence over the years, and I am quite aware of the various arguments and counter-arguments being used. However I wish to look a bit more closely at the conference and this topic, so please go to Part Two of this article: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/10/18/on-strange-fire-part-two/