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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

John MacArthur's Blowing Smoke About "Strange Fire" - A Response

In recent weeks, a fundamentalist Reformed/Calvinist megachurch pastor in California by the name of John MacArthur has created a bit of controversy with a conference he hosted at his church, Grace Community Church, called  the Strange Fire Conference.  Essentially, what this conference entailed was a series of talks which sought to establish that the spiritual gifts it speaks of in such places as Acts and I Corinthians are not for today, but only for the Apostles' times (a view known as cessationism) and the concluding premise of this position is that the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements must be false, of the devil, etc.  This is a whipping-post MacArthur has wailed on before, as evidenced for one by his earlier book Charismatic Chaos.  Although he does make some legitimate points regarding some extremes in the Charismatic movement, overall MacArthur's position is extremely problematic in that in one sweeping assertion he has condemned half a billion Christians in the world to eternal damnation based on their belief in the spiritual gifts, etc.  I have been following this for some time, and now wanted to just provide some of my own perspective on this issue.

John MacArthur, author and popular Fundamentalist megachurch pastor

Not all MacArthur has said or done over the years is necessarily bad, and I am less inclined to totally dismiss everything he has preached on the basis of the stupidity displayed by this conference.  On many basic things, MacArthur is actually theologically orthodox, and he has also made a commendable stand against the growing apostasy promoted by the Emerging Church movement, and I share much of his convictions on that.  Therefore, in writing this, we must remember to not have a blanket condemnation of the man, but rather to stand against some of the false accusations he has made in regard to other Christian traditions. 

The main issue with MacArthur in regard to Pentecostals is that he is theologically a cessationist, meaning that many of the supernatural manifestations of the past, and the spiritual gifts that make them possible, are things limited to the Apostolic era and do not exist in the Body of Christ today.  Therefore, the only logical conclusion someone like MacArthur could come to is this - if genuine manifestations of the Holy Spirit are limited to the Apostolic dispensation (yes, MacArthur is also a premillenial dispensationalist doctrinally as well - more on that aspect of his theology later), then anyone claiming to possess them today must be either charlatans or of the devil.  However, this presents an issue for MacArthur, who claims also to be a proponent of Biblical inerrancy.  If the gifts were for one age and not for another, does that mean God is not immutable then?  What would someone like MacArthur do then with a Scripture like Hebrews 13:8, which affirms that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever?   Or John 1:1 - in the beginning Jesus was (or, being the phrase for "in the beginning" in Greek is dative, it can also be translated "from the beginning" and be placed at any position in that verse without altering its meaning).  So, if Jesus was from the beginning and is immutable (unchanging), by MacArthur denying spiritual gifts, is he not guilty then of "adding to and taking from the Word of God," (Proverbs 30:6 and Revelation 22:19) which in term would bring damnation upon him?  It also makes God unsure of himself too - after all, if you are a new Christian and someone like MacArthur stands up in a pulpit and says "well, God did that then but now he changed his mind," what would that do for your faith?   These are some interesting questions, but unfortunately this is something that is common in much of Reformed/Calvinistic Fundamentalist thinking.  To clarify that, let me just say that not all Reformed/Calvinists (or even Fundamentalists for that matter) think like this; even among Charismatics, brilliant Reformed theologians such as J. Rodman Williams have provided a great service to the Church, and others like D. James Kennedy and Francis Schaeffer have written a tremendous wealth of material that has also enriched the Body of Christ tremendously.  However, it also must be conceded that not all Reformed Calvinists are cessationists either, although the overwhelming majority of cessationists are Reformed Calvinists.  It is important for these cessationists to take heed to what Catholic apologist Karl Keating wrote when he said "They too (fundamentalists - my add) believe things that are not found in the face of Scripture.  There are peculiarly fundamentalist doctrines that find no warrant in Scripture that should, by the fundamentalists' own rationale, be thrown out." (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism {San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988}p. 67).  This is an interesting observation, because being raised fairly conservative myself, I have noticed over the years a sort of pragmatism even among the strictest Fundamentalists that means God can all of a sudden change his mind at whim, based on man's changes in societal norms (think, for instance, of how many Emergent Church people and Rick Warren disciples once described - and some still do! - themselves as "Bible-believing Fundamentalists." Hmm....).  And, this is something author David Bercot addresses when he talks about the Western Christian tendency towards legalism - reducing the truth of God's word to formulaic legalisms (David Bercot, Common Sense {Tyler, TX: Scroll Publishing, 1992} p. 96).  Unfortunately, when that happens, the risk is that some things in Scripture become relativistic based on legalese, and the Calvinist tradition has unfortunately produced a whole spectrum of heresies, ranging from the cessationism of John MacArthur to the "Christian Universalism" of Rob "No Hell" Bell, that have plagued American Evangelicalism for generations.  In time, this idea that God can all of a sudden change his mind has catastrophic consequences, as churches change positions on things much like Madonna changes husbands.  Archbishop Haverland correctly notes this mentality when he writes that this individualistic view of Scripture and theology on the part of American Evangelicals will in time cause secularization, and indeed we are seeing that today (Mark Haverland, Anglican Catholic Faith and Practice {Athens, GA: Anglican Parishes Association, 2011} p. 63).  In short, Fundamentalist ideas about Scriptural inerrancy may ultimately lead to their own crisis, and the Calvinistic idea of eternal security (which is a misappropriation of Augustine's theology of justification on Calvin's part) will not do them much good when the apostasy foretold in Scripture hits them too.  Given time, John MacArthur (or some of his disciples) may follow in the path of the Emergent Church crowd, as both their positions share a common root.  And, all this because MacArthur thinks God can change his mind about his own Word.

I noted the above to address MacArthur's allegations from the viewpoint of historic Church teaching on the issue.  The Church has first of all never advocated the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  Do we believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God, divinely authored and enshrining His true revelation of salvation to man?  You bet we do!  However, the Church is the custodian of God's Word, and our understanding of that truth must be grounded in what the Church historically has taught concerning those truths.  Many things we have some liberty, as the Church presents a number of positions on minutiae, but on the major, essential doctrines there are no compromises.  For one thing, the Holy Spirit is seen as God, or as the Creed presents him, "The Lord, the Giver of Life."  As such, the Holy Spirit indwells every believer.  And, over the centuries, the Church has affirmed, documented, and testified that God, through the Holy Spirit, can and does work in miraculous, supernatural ways in the lives of individual believers.  The Biblical conduit for that, naturally, is the provision of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, although there are also "diverse works" of the Holy Spirit that the Church affirms Scripture doesn't specify but bear witness of the Lord's presence.  People have been healed, raised from the dead, and have often been given visions, prophetic insights, and other such things for the edification of the Body.  MacArthur, therefore, speaks a heresy against the Holy Spirit when he says these things have ceased, and it is the Pentecostals who are correct in that regard.  Although I have not agreed with Dr. George Wood, the current General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, in recent years over some other issues, I do believe he summed up classic Pentecostal understanding well in his statement regarding MacArthur's allegations when he noted, based on Acts 2:39, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are given to us and our children (meaning future generations) as a promise of the New Covenant - well spoken, Dr. Wood! (accessed 11/19/2013 at A more conservative Pentecostal pastor and overseer of the Bible Holiness Fellowship Association, Dr. Joseph Chambers,  who responded that MacArthur's position is even unique among Calvinists he knows, and is an utterly hopeless view that gives the believer little hope.  This is what Dr. Chambers said:

We could study lives of the great leaders of church history from the disciples, Apostle Paul, and thousands of the Greats. John MacArthur is the first one I have ever heard say that said that God no longer speaks to men. Something is seriously missing in His theology. He is the first and only Calvinist that I have ever heard state this kind of theology. This may not be believed by most ministers in their ranks. I also confess that I have no interest in a system of theology that must depend on flesh and mind without Holy Ghost inspiration in the present. This view of "Total Depravity" is the reason that this theology is a hopeless theology. Not only do they believe in "Total Depravity," but also that the Holy Spirit has ended His supernatural work in human lives. If we are totally depraved to the degree that God cannot give us His anointing, and if the Holy Ghost is done with us, then our theology is going to be dead and empty as is most evident in this message by John MacArthur. We can only know truth by the power of His supernatural Spirit working in us for Christ’s glory. (accessed from

I agree with Dr. Chambers on this, in that MacArthur has chosen to rely on his own fleshly wisdom and reason rather than the clear testimony of both Scriptures and Church history.  The verse I would have for Dr. MacArthur at this point is a harsh one, but may be a dose of medicine he needs to shock him back to reality - professing wisdom, he has become a fool (Romans 1:22).  God's ways, we must always have the humility to remember, are not man's ways, and sometimes what God does goes against the way we think (I Corinthians 1:25).  Tongues-talking looks foolish to our Enlightenment-minded Western thinking, but God has given it as a gift.  The idea that one can be healed without the aid of some professional doctor that will just give you a huge bill you can't afford anyway is unconscionable to the rational mind, but think of millions  God has touched - many people don't have the means of being healed in a hospital, so God comes to them, especially in Third World countries where medical care is sloppy at best.  Critics of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements like MacArthur often use the justification that "frauds" and "fake shows" can occur, based on the outlandish excesses of some TV preachers.  But, here is the problem with that - there are people out there trying to scam others with religion all the time, and if there wasn't a real, they wouldn't be faking it; think about it!  At the same time MacArthur's Charismatic Chaos was published around 1993 or so, another Evangelical author by the name of Hank Hanegraaff published Christianity in Crisis which documented the false teachings of many TV preachers, in particular the "Prosperity Gospel."   The main difference between Hanegraaff's and MacArthur's books is fundamental and can be found in the opening pages of Christianity in Crisis  - Hanegraaff specifically stated that his book was not a book targeting Pentecostals or Charismatics, nor did it have anything to do with positions on spiritual gifts.  As a matter of fact, Hanegraaff actually maintained that the "Prosperity Gospel" was cultic and didn't represent Charismatic spirituality as well.  MacArthur made no such distinction in his writing, but rather chose to paint every Pentecostal and Charismatic with a sweeping allegation that they were "abhorrent," and in that blanket accusation MacArthur also condemned Hanegraaff even, who is a member of Calvary Chapel, a Pentecostal denomination.  Yet, I also find it curious that MacArthur may actually hold to a few heresies himself, including dispensationalism.  Mind you, I am a premillenialist, but as a premillenialist I maintain that there will be only one resurrection, and only one Second Coming of Christ - a dispensationalist has Christ coming back more times than Shirley McClain's reincarnation cycles she brags about!  As a classic dispensationalist, MacArthur has essentially given consent to a non-Biblical heresy, namely that there may be as many as four "Second Comings" in the scheme his theology is constructed around.  This is worth mentioning because despite supposedly being "biblical inerrancy" advocates, people like MacArthur are really writing their own versions of Scripture, which in many cases are more infallible to them than the real thing.  Yet, they condemn us Catholics for our stand on Holy Tradition - even we would not go that far!

More could be said on all this, but I wanted to make a few concluding observations.  One, the same mentality that MacArthur espouses - essentially, the cessationist view that God is all of a sudden fickle in what he promised - is also the same mentality his biggest opponents, the equally-wrong Emergent Church crowd, have.  Both of these schools of thought have their roots in Reformed Calvinism, although they take the same premises to different extremes.  MacArthur would say that God doesn't give spiritual gifts for modern times, while Brian McLaren and Rob Bell would use the same reasoning to throw the organs out of churches, reject doctrines of sin and hell, and also slowly come to accept some bad behaviors such as homosexuality and abortion as "relevant for the age" (these are guys who think Sodom and Gomorrah's sin was inhospitality, and that prohibitions against homosexuality are not relevant today as a result - they are sort of cessationists as well).  Both extremes - MacArthur and McLaren - are wrong; the Church has an established doctrine and position that has not changed since the time of the Apostles, and on issues such as spiritual gifts and morality, the Church has had a consistent response and witness.  It is too bad that MacArthur, who is often bound up in the inerrancy of his own reading of Scripture rather than the way the Church has historically taught it, misses the whole point.  I am not ready to write him off yet, and do not believe he is un-Christian, but will say that if he doesn't learn to discern better his position, he will regret that choice later.  It is really too bad, because MacArthur has done some amazing things for the Kingdom in other areas.  If he can just get past his own biases now, he'd do well.   Any rate, that is my perspective on the issue, although much more could be said.  God bless.