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Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Strange Fire" (John MacArthur)

TITLE: Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship
AUTHOR: John MacArthur
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2013, (352 pages)

What exactly is strange fire? What makes worship a counterfeit one? In what ways can the Holy Spirit be offended? According to author John MacArthur, he targets the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement as the culprit for a lot of things. He lumps all three waves: the classical Pentecost; the Charismatic Renewal; and the Third Wave all together. First, on classical Pentecostalism, he blames Charles Parham as the source of the four marks of Pentecostalism: salvation; baptism; healing; expecting Christ's second coming. He is adamant that Parham is the source of false teachings about the Holy Spirit, pointing out several deficiencies in Parham's character and track records, failed prophecies and the misleading of many believers into error. Second, he blames EW Kenyon for the rise of Charismatic Renewal which essentially puts experience above all, and using gibberish languages that are nothing near the tongues of the Bible. Third, he says that the Third Wave is even more "devastating" because it infiltrates churches at large. Pointing a finger at Peter Wagner, efforts to restore apostolic offices is actually a disguised way to grab power and authority over others.

MacArthur spends two-thirds of this book to confront the counterfeit revivals and to expose the counterfeit gifts. Using selected examples of abuses of apostolic authority, the trickery of the prosperity gospel, the many moral failures of some prominent Pentecostal ministers, and how people fake healings and gifts, MacArthur does not mince his words, reserving his heaviest artillery on people like Benny Hinn, Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Charles Parham, among others. He even makes a reference to a Wikipedia article that lists the "fifty well-known, publicly disgraced church leaders." I don't know about you but quoting from Wikipedia is not exactly wrong, but it is poor scholarship. He then leads readers through the different ways to identify the gifts and work of the Spirit. This is among the most commendable part of the book, and bears a powerful witness to MacArthur's biblical knowledge and theological grasp. Unfortunately, the way that he applies these knowledge to the Charismatic movement is at best over-generalizing and at worst condemning well-intentioned and genuine believers touched and moved by the Holy Spirit. The examples that he had explicitly named are also likely to be shunned by a lot of my charismatic friends. Benny Hinn for example is not as widely accepted as what MacArthur has rebuked him to be. In other words, many of my Charismatic and Pentecostal friends will also avoid people like Benny Hinn, the excesses of prosperity theology, and the fraud healers.

For a more detailed review from a Pentecostal scholar, I refer you to Monte Lee Rice's excellent review/critique. The part that will be most relevant to many of us is "An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends." "Continuationist" is a term that is used to describe people who are more or less sympathetic to people in the Charismatic movement, and who refuses to condemn the movement outright. Although not completely, I count myself leaning toward such a "continuationist" position. For that reason, his eight reasons deserve some personal responses.

First, MacArthur writes: "The continuationist position gives an illusion of legitimacy to the broader Charismatic Movement." What he is saying is that those who remained open are actually supporting the movement's legitimacy. This is arguable. One can be open without having to explicitly support or deny any particular movement. In other words, being open means being open both ways, and not just one way. MacArthur seems to suggest a unidirectional position which is not the complete picture. For example, the "one of the most respected New Testament scholars" MacArthur alludes to is probably Dr Gordon Fee. My point. Being open means being fair-minded to both or more interpretations.

Second, "The continuationist position degrades the miraculous nature of the true gifts that God bestowed upon the first-century church." My question is how exactly is the degrading? What do we do with people who glorified the Triune God with their gifts? What about those who have been spiritually transformed by the endowed gifts?

Third, "The continuationist position severely limits the ability of its advocates to confront others who fall into charismatic confusion." I am not too sure about this. In fact, the reverse may be true. It is the fact that those who are open and relatively "friendly" will get a bigger hearing and level of seriousness. That is why spiritual discernment remains necessary and such discernment is done when we are in an "open" position rather than a totally "closed" mindset which can also "sharply limits." Put it simply, the argument works both ways.

Fourth, as I look at "By insisting that God is still giving new revelation to Christians today, the Continuationist Movement opens the gates to confusion and error," I would cautiously agree. That is why there is a need to be vigilant against false teachings and clear about biblical revelation. The trouble I have is MacArthur's using a few personal examples to paint everybody else the same colour. I know of people who do not easily accept people's opinions about new revelation just like MacArthur. Whenever "confusion" or "error" is approaching, time to seek clarity is needed rather than quick judgment. I would argue that clear cut events are easier to decide. Things that are not so clear, we need to take time to pray, to seek spiritual counsel, and to sense what God is telling us. Remember how Jesus described the movement of the Spirit to Nicodemus in John 3:8?

Fifth, I disagree with "By insisting that God is still giving new revelation to Christians today, the Continuationist Movement tacitly denies the doctrine of sola Scriptura." Denial is a strong word. Just because we want to remain reverent to how God moves and to trust that God still moves in mysterious ways does not necessary mean we deny Scripture. On the contrary, it is a way we affirm the trustworthiness of Scripture. Who helps us interpret? How we do first understand the Scripture? How else can we understand new revelation from Scripture itself? Surely none of us are arrogant enough to say that we already have understood all perspectives that flow out of the Word of God? I know people who are staunchly Bible-based even when they call themselves Charismatics.

Sixth, "By allowing for an irrational form of tongues-speaking (usually as a private prayer language), the Continuationist Movement opens the door to the mindless ecstasy of charismatic worship." There is some truth in this but again, Paul has also said such private worship should remain private. Tongues uttered during public meetings ought to be accompanied by interpreters and others gifted with understanding the words uttered. Just because one does not understand the "gibberish" language does not give us the right to caricature it as "mindless ecstasy."

Seventh, "By asserting that the gift of healing has continued to the present, the continuationist position affirms the same basic premise that undergirds the fraudulent ministries of charismatic faith healers."  Healing is something rather sensitive. Even in conservative circles, people often come together to pray for healing. We cannot be overly dogmatic about how the Holy Spirit can work. Remember that in 1 Samuel 3:1, it was written that the Word of the LORD was rare and there were not many visions at that time. Could that not be an indication that vision and manifestation of God's presence comes with the revelation of the Word of God? If no one has the gift of healing, then why do we read in James that those who are sick ought to seek prayer? God is the healer, and God can choose to use anyone to exercise his healing. What is necessary is to point out the frauds and not to throw away the baby with the bathwater. On that note, I acknowledge it is much easier said than done, and in all fairness, MarArthur's default approach to say "the apostolic gift of healing has ceased" while simple to implement, is too dogmatic for me.

Eighth, "The continuationist position ultimately dishonors the Holy Spirit by distracting people from His true ministry while enticing them with counterfeits." Distracting people can come in many forms. Believers need to be vigilant against all kinds of counterfeits. I agree with MacArthur that the primary tool to sanctify believers is the Word of God. What I hesitate is the way he lumps all continuationists as those who dishonours the Holy Spirit.

Truth be told, I find MacArthur writing with full of conviction as if he is right and others is wrong. That in itself is worrying. At the same time, he does not wear the same lens of critique when it comes to selected quotes from the voices of Church history, which makes me suspect that MacArthur picks and chooses according to the polemics he is engaging in. It does seems to me that way the book was written has painted these past voices as pure white and the rest of the Charismatic people as black. Of course, with the dogmatism he has (bless him) and the way he has tried to bring clarity to the "confusing" arena of healing and signs, he has helped to paint something more black and white to enable the general reader to know for sure where he is coming from. At the same time, I find his work not sufficiently nuanced and overly uncompromising. For example, his blanket suspicion of "subjective feelings, emotional experiences, and imaginative encounters" as something barren makes me wonder whether his own negativity toward it is "barrenness" in the other direction. By saying it, he has unwittingly isolated a lot of people who have been genuinely transformed in amazing ways through the Charismatic churches. For me, he has confused emotionalism with experience. Gregory Boyd recently wrote a book called "Benefit of the Doubt" that essentially attacks the "idol of certainty." It is a critique of one's overwhelming sense of rightness that it has become an idol per se. What is the point of winning the battle of being right and still lose the war of righteousness? Why burn bridges of understanding with brothers and sisters of the Charismatic and Pentecostal faith? Are they not elevating the Cross of Christ and worshiping the Triune God? Can we allow a few bad apples to become examples to label everyone else bad apples? Indeed, one can do all the right diggings and still come up on the wrong side of the fence. At the same time, one can fumble all the way and end up on the right side of things. It is eventually the grace of God that will lead us home. The Holy Spirit will lead. The community will gather in the Name of Christ. God will be glorified in the way that He wants: In Spirit and in Truth. Both must be affirmed.

I recommend this book for general reading in the spirit of openness even though I do not agree with all that MacArthur has said. He is a wonderful Bible teacher and a sincere brother in Christ. He is a defender of the faith and my urge is that he tone down on the criticisms and focus on the bigger world that the gospel needs to risk. Already the harvest is plentiful and the workers are few. We need every worker willing to be used by the Holy Spirit. Every one of them. That includes people in the Charismatic movements.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Thomas-Nelson Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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