Strange Fire by John MacArthur
Pastor John MacArthur is no stranger to debate, argument, and attacking movements among the church that he deems doctrinally and spiritually destructive. His latest book, Strange Fire, is a look at the modern Charismatic movement from a critical and cessationist point of view. Rather than just trying to add a few thoughts from his previous book, Charismatic Chaos, John seeks to confront the movement from a two pronged approach; namely, pointing out the unbiblical nature of both the extra biblical gifts (tongues, prophecy, healing), including the radical distorted views of the leaders of the charismatic movement, and also, to help the reader understand the Spirit’s work in relationship to the word, salvation, and sanctification. At the end of the book, John poses a letter to his continuationist friends who align with his gospel truths but maintain the use of the gifts today. After reading the book, you feel as if you’ve just endured a rant from a college football coach who felt the refs got it all wrong.
At the outset, John’s goal of understanding the Spirit’s work to ‘exalt Christ, especially to elicit praise for Christ for His people,’ (xvii) is a noble and worthwhile endeavor. To point to Christ is the Spirit’s primary goal from start to finish in the New Testament. John counters the notorious prosperity gospel for its incipient desire to bring material wealth to its listeners rather than pointing them to Christ. The consequence of this teaching is ‘disappointment, frustration, poverty, sorrow, anger, and ultimately unbelief.’ (10) By pointing out the worst examples of this kind such as Paul Crouch, Oral Roberts, and Kenneth Copeland, John posits the extreme abuse these men cause upon the millions that they influence. This kind of preaching that teaches that God desires every believer to be rich beyond their wildest dreams is an aberration of the truth that God calls his followers to endure suffering, especially as they strive to live faithfully in a broken world.
Second, I would point out that John helpfully leads us back to the Scriptures to see if the use of the Spirit in modern charismatic circles coincides with sound biblical teaching. John writes, “The shocking implication is that a serious study of God’s Word limits or thwarts the work of the Spirit.” (68) The overemphasis on experiencing the power of the Spirit through signs, tongues, and healing can lead to a mistrust and lack of study in the Scriptures. Further, experience eventually trumps Scripture by providing an immediate sensation for the Christian life rather than a normative written word that speaks truth for all ages. Yet, if there is a balance between proper use of the spiritual gifts and serious study of the Bible, then this is a point to contend with.
As others have said, John goes after the worst cases of abuse both spiritually and morally in this book in regards to the modern charismatic movement. He does mention the work of Wayne Grudem (few references) and D.A. Carson, but his main opponents are men like Benny Hinn, Jack Deere, Peter Wagner and others who have/had a great influence upon the movement. This kind of argument does not deal with those who love Christ and follow him while maintaining evangelical convictions within a continuationist framework. John also makes blanket statements without references that are misleading. For instance, he writes, “I am convinced that the broader Charismatic Movement opened the door to more theological error than perhaps any other doctrinal aberration in the twentieth century (including liberalism, psychology, and ecumenism)” (247) How are we supposed to test this opinion? Doctrinal aberrations come in various sizes and forms, even within the evangelical community. Lastly, John is very close to positing that those who follow the Charismatic movement, even within more evangelical convictions are promoting wickedness.
Ultimately, this book will be more fodder for those already convinced of the cessationist position but also will stir the pot with those in the charismatic community. I don’t think this book furthers the discussion between continuationist and cessationists namely because of its tone.
hanks to BookSneeze for the copy of this book in exchange for review.