John MacArthur’s Strange Fire, reviewed by Craig S. Keener

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Asen Shudov |

Another MASTERPIECE: John MacArthur’s Strange Fire, reviewed by Craig S. Keener

While offering some very needed points, John MacArthur’s Strange Fire unfortunately extrapolates from those points to an entire “movement.” As I note below, I also believe that MacArthur suppresses some biblical truth on the basis of a postbiblical doctrine, the very offense with which he charges others.
Nevertheless, there is much to be learned from his criticisms; he has brought again to our attention some serious errors that charismatic churches must be on their guard against. I start with some agreeable points in the book and then move to points where I believe MacArthur has clearly overstepped the bounds of reason and Christian civility; there my tone cannot be as conciliatory. (All pagination in this review refers to the uncorrected page proofs that I received shortly before the book’s publication.)
On the positive side, addressed first in this review, Strange Fire forcefully critiques some points that have needed very public censure. In this sense, it includes some elements that we might even call prophetic (though MacArthur himself would abhor the label). Indeed, those who have grossly abused the charismatic label have made many of us charismatics shy about the label at times, even though we affirm and practice spiritual gifts, something that Scripture teaches. (Every label eventually gets hijacked, including “Christian” and “evangelical”; perhaps “continuationist” will fare better.) Then again, as a charismatic evangelical Baptist, there are times when the activities of certain Baptists or evangelicals lead me to cringe also.
If MacArthur’s criticism can alert more charismatics to the vital importance of heeding criticisms that charismatic scholars have been raising for a long time, it will have served a beneficial purpose. Because it is so undiscerning in condemning everything charismatic, however, it could instead simply further polarize two groups of believers who need very much each others’ input. By redefining where the middle is, it may make some evangelicals more cautious about gifts than they already are, and may make some charismatics more cautious about evangelicals than they already are.
Striking Large Targets
Many of MacArthur’s specific targets needed to be hit. For example, though sex scandals have rocked everything from the Catholic Church to some conservative Reformed churches, there is no denying that very public charismatics have often brought great embarrassment not only to charismatics but to Christianity in general (p. xviii). Because charismatics lack any overarching authority structure, it is difficult for anyone to control what happens among some charismatics. But charismatics are certainly not immune from scandal, and celebrities (as well as targets of rival political movements) are particularly vulnerable to it (see more comments on scandals below).
Although MacArthur grossly exaggerates, some charismatics sadly do fit the stereotype he paints of speaking “incessantly about phenomena” and not much about Christ (p. xiv). The Gospels and Acts, of course, emphasize signs, but these signs always honor Jesus and seek to draw attention to him. Christian worship and teaching should draw attention most of all to Jesus and his death for us and resurrection.
Moreover, despite warnings from many leaders, there are circles where people particularly cultivate emotion and physical responses (cf. pp. 3-4). They come from a tradition that has come to substitute such feeling for the Spirit that once generated it, rather than the activity of the Spirit himself. MacArthur complains that many charismatics “seem to reduce the Spirit of God to a forceor a feeling” (5). As Jonathan Edwards noted, emotional or physical reactions could accompany God’s work but at other times could be counterfeit (34); one must evaluate revival by other, biblical criteria. Still, MacArthur throws out much more than Edwards. The context of his argument suggests that he has more than extremes in mind when he charges (xvi) that “many Pentecostals and charismatics … have thrown their theology into the fires of human experience and worshipped the false spirit that came out.” More on this subject below.
Although emotion and celebration are biblical (to a greater degree, I think, than MacArthur would find comfortable), many of us have witnessed abuses over the years at times—people trying to reproduce the effects of the Spirit rather than serving and worshiping the Lord. One generation’s experience (or sometimes quirks) becomes the next generation’s tradition and the following generation’s legalism. Not every legacy inherited from our predecessors in revival (whether charismatic traditions or MacArthur’s cessationism) is helpful; it is the Word and the Spirit we need.
Christian gods?
More substantially, some extreme Word of Faith teachers do promulgate teachings that, at least at face value, cannot but be viewed as heretical, especially believers being gods (rightly noted on pp. 11-12). But have such beliefs in fact “become the rule” among charismatics (p. 12)? Here I think my sample size should be sufficient to offer a decisive “No.” In my thirty-eight years as a charismatic, I do not think I have ever heard any charismatic I know personally repeat this extreme teaching, including those who imbibed Word of Faith teachings.
One heresy that I did on occasion run into, which probably took matters more literally than did those MacArthur mentioned, was the Manifested Sons doctrine (or at least its extreme version that I encountered). Its proponents taught that overcomers by faith would achieve physical immortality before Jesus’s return, becoming “the many-membered Christ” on earth.
One thing I do know is that the charismatic Spirit I have experienced was not compatible with this teaching. On one occasion I recoiled inside when I heard a guest speaker at a noncharismatic congregation teach on a completely different subject. I felt that he carried the same spirit as the Manifested Sons teachers. Afterward I asked him if he had known a certain Manifested Sons teacher. “Yes,” he replied, astonished. “We were good friends.” He was himself a Manifested Sons teacher. The Spirit I experienced regularly in sounder charismatic circles clearly testified against this false teaching. False teachings exist, but they do not come from the same Spirit that has fanned most of the revival of spiritual gifts.
Studying the Bible
MacArthur rightly insists that the primary basis for our teaching should be Scripture, and warns against replacing it with tradition, culture, or, as in some charismatic circles, experience. In some places, charismatics are among the Christians most faithful to Scripture; often they also seek to return to the Bible far more than MacArthur’s own hard cessationism would permit. Nevertheless, many of us are familiar with charismatic circles where testimonies and claimed revelations supplant rather than support biblical teaching. One charismatic (albeit, over the course of years,only one) told me that she received her own revelations so she was not very interested in the ones already in the Bible. (Predictably and painfully, this approach soon fell apart for her.)
In cases like this, MacArthur’s warning is important. Indeed, far more widely (and not only in charismatic circles), greater understanding and more faithful exposition of Scripture is essential. Paul urges Timothy not to neglect the gift he received through a prophecy when the elders laid hands on him (1 Tim 4:14). But he also urges Timothy to devote himself to public Scripture and exposition (4:13), because his teaching would be a matter of life and death to his hearers (4:16). Neglect of solid biblical teaching in some circles does not excuse the unbiblical overreaction of those rejecting legitimate prophecy in others (see discussion below). Nevertheless, there is a reason why God gave us a Bible as a canon, a “measuring stick,” by which all other claims may be evaluated.
MacArthur notes that Pentecostalism has often been antiintellectual (73-74). Like much of American Christianity associated originally with the frontier revivals, however, it arose among less educated people who experienced an aspect of God’s activity less appreciated among the intellectual elite. Perhaps if more intellectual Christians would humble themselves they could learn something from charismatic experience—and gain more of a hearing among those whom their training might serve. We need the Word and the Spirit together, and quenching either one—whether as traditional Pentecostalism sometimes has done or as hard cessationist intellectuals sometimes now do—is not helpful.
MacArthur says that believers should renew their minds, not bypass them (244). Charismatics (and others) do need a greater emphasis on renewing the mind (one of my soon-planned exegetical projects addresses this), but MacArthur urges a forced choice; there is also an affective dimension to our personality. In critiquing mindless worship, MacArthur cites in an endnote Gordon Fee’s explanation that the Spirit sometimes bypasses the mind. Yet Fee simply follows Paul’s teaching here (1 Cor 14:14-15), and Fee, a careful and honest scholar, is certainly not the person to cite in support of mindlessness.
Nevertheless, unbiblical teachings do proliferate. Of course, the Bible does not have to address something directly for Christians today to consider it; it does not explicitly mention abortion, nuclear weapons, and genetic engineering, for example. But many currently popular teachings on spiritual warfare, church government and so forth rest on extrabiblical “revelations” that must be examined more carefully. At least some of these teachings contravene the Bible, and many of the others seem at best irrelevant to practical ministry for the kingdom.
For good or for ill, as someone whose primary public gift is teaching I confess that I often feel more comfortable among cessationists, with whom I share a common basis for discussion, namely Scripture, than among extreme charismatics who neglect it. I know many charismatic teachers, however, who are not extreme, and even many influenced by extreme teachings often are humbly devoted to Christ. In one location necessity forced me to do my evangelism and prayer with charismatics, my intellectual advocacy for evangelical faith alongside a cessationist, and my other ministry with whoever would welcome me.

John Kissinger [01/12/2016 7:50 AM]
De Arteaga, Charles Carrin, Keener and Frank Viola

John Kissinger [01/12/2016 9:23 AM]
Keener did the first preliminary review before the book actually hit the market and just about killed the book at publishers level. It was all downhill for MacArthur’s Strange Fire after Craig S. Keener tore the book apart. Here’s more by De Arteaga, Charles Carrin, Keener and Frank Viola

John Kissinger [01/12/2016 8:19 PM]
Ricky Grimsley John Conger MacArthur is a solid scholar and his rapture teaching is beyond approach. That’s why it was so wired that he went with secessionism and this book after having a similar one back in the day. This time, however, there seemed to be tension in the Calvinistic camp because the conference began the end of Mars Hill’s Mark Driscoll. But that’s a different story. Like Dr. Vinson Synan wrote: “Write another book John.”

Ricky Grimsley [01/12/2016 8:58 PM]
John macarthur is dead wrong about the rapture and he is sooooooo wrong about the mark of the beast. How can you trust a cessationist to be lead by the spirit.

John Conger [01/12/2016 9:01 PM]
He’s a solid scholar? Cause he agrees with you on the rapture? He’s a cessation is who teaches you can be saved after having the mark of the beast. Feel free to follow him if you want

John Kissinger [01/12/2016 9:05 PM]
Let’s be fair now! His study Bible with his early commentaries is really well pieced theologically. We cannot agree with his cessation and therefore the critique to his book.

Link Hudson [01/12/2016 9:21 PM]
I haven’t read the book. I did see the main sermons at the Strange Fire Conference on youtube, and a break out session or two. I really don’t see why real students of the Bible would jump on the cessationist band wagon after listening to this. They didn’t make a Biblical case for cessationism that holds water.

The main argument seems to be that they don’t believe the gifts continue because it goes against their doctrine of scripture–which isn’t in the Bible. Using II Timothy 3 for it doesn’t make sense. If II Timothy 3 means the gifts have ceased, then they would ahve ceased before Paul got done writing the epistle and all the prophetic stuff John experienced in the book of Revelation couldn’t have happened.

Link Hudson [01/12/2016 9:26 PM]
Nadab and Abihu offered ‘strange fire’ that the Lord had not commanded them in the tabernacle. Some of the Reformers taught that doing church wrong was like offering ‘strange fire’. John Knox preached a sermon about it that you can hear on YouTube.

If we accept the premise that doing church wrong is analagous to offering the wrong kind of fire in the tabernacle… and I’m not saying that’s write, then who is offering the strange fire? I Corinthians 14 contains certain ‘commandments of the Lord.’ Look at the commandments in the passage. I Corinthians 14:26 commands ‘let all things be done unto edifying.’ So how is not allowing ‘every one of you’ do the things the verse mentions within the guidelines given in the passage obedience? The verse mentions having a psalm, doctrine, tongue, revelation, interpretation. The passage’s commands allow for speaking in tongues and interpretation, prophets speaking, and yielding the floor to one who receives a revelation.

If a prophet stands up to speak in the church where John MacArthur preaches, he would likely get escorted out by security and taken to the police like that one guy who stood up to rebuke John MacArthur for his cessationist error a few months ago.

Wouldn’t forbidding tongues and interpretation and the operation of the gift of prophecy fit more into the ‘strange fire’ category than some of the other things conservative Reformed folks are worried about in church? Some of these people try to apply the ‘regulative principle’ to what kinds of musical style they see in church, but ignore what is plainly stated in the one lengthy passage we have about what to do when we ‘come together.’

John Conger [01/12/2016 9:31 PM]
Well said

Ricky Grimsley [01/12/2016 9:31 PM]

John Kissinger [01/13/2016 5:20 AM]
We received reviewers’ copies before the book ever hit the market. Dennis Balcombe Hanny Setiawan @Marius Lombaard did the review from the international point of world missions that no one else has done since. MacArthur was absolutely right on ch. 2 (I think it was) dealing with C. Peter Wagner and NAR. It would be great to read the book before actually commenting wholeheartedly 🙂


  • Varnel Watson
    Reply May 26, 2017

    Varnel Watson

    William DeArteaga This is a good one Street Preacherz

    • Street Preacherz
      Reply May 26, 2017

      Street Preacherz

      People used to be scared to talk bad about the Holy Ghost. But with all the excesses I can understand it. My grandfather told me, being Pentecostal was enough to get you fired. In the 30’s

    • Varnel Watson
      Reply May 26, 2017

      Varnel Watson

      Your grandfather was a wise man 🙂

  • Scotty Searan
    Reply May 26, 2017

    Scotty Searan

    John MacArthur, does have some good teaching, but this book, I feel is not scripturally sound.
    He uses the phrase about uneducated people were the ones that the Pentecostal experience fell on at the turn of the 20th century.
    I feel like I am in good company when he made that statement.
    Apostle Paul was stating that fact in the following scripture:
    1 Corinthians 1:25-27 (KJV)
    25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
    26 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:
    27 But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;
    I love it when people unknowingly build up the case for us Pentecostals, Charismatics or whatever you may call us..
    There are 3 key issues I have with John MacArthur and his interpretations
    1. The Holy Spirit and it’s working of the Gifts.
    2. Pre-tribulation Rapture Theory.
    3. Eternal Security.
    There are 3 Bibles I recommend that have commentaries.
    1. Dakes annotated Study Bible.
    2. Life In The Spirit Bible.
    3.. The Expositor’s Study Bible by Jimmy Swaggart.

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