Strange Fire (Review)

Macarthur, John. Strange Fire.

Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a chapter on basic logic in this book.

For the review

Chapter 1 is simply a string of recycled sermon notes on how silly and evil various brands of charismania are. Okay, but anyone can play this game. I agree there are hucksters and there is a special place in hell for them, but this is not an argument. Macarthur does actually get to something like an argument:

Thesis: “It is the elevation of experience over the authority of Scripture that grieves and demeans the Holy Spirit most of all” (Macarthur 17).

I have several observations: 1) it is dangerous to elevate experience over theology, but where is the proof that it grieves the Holy Spirit most of all? How does Macarthur know this? The Scriptures he cites are about the Holy Spirit’s inspiring the Word and the Spirit’s testifying to Christ. Great, but that is immaterial to this thesis. Indeed, is this not Macarthur’s own experience?

2) If this is Macarthur’s thesis, and if he is successful in proving it (I don’t think he can be), then we should note that the truth of continuationism stands or falls independent of this thesis.

Chapter 2

This is a history of the modern Pentecostal movement and most of it, while interesting, is irrelevant to his thesis. Except for one part:

But here is the point to all of this history: if the Holy Spirit intended to recreate the day of Pentecost, is this really how he would do it? (27)

I really don’t know what to say. I suppose some early Pentecostals said something like this.

Why focus on these two men [Charles Parham and E. W. Kenyon]? The answer is simple. These two men are responsible for the theological foundations upon which the entire charismatic system is built (31)

At this point I have no idea if this historiography is true. I am not persuaded that one can make a 1:1 connection between the early Pentecostals and Wayne Grudem. Genealogical arguments are always dangerous to make and they rarely deliver on their promises.

Chapter 4, same contd.

Most of this chapter reads like the tabloids. Interesting, mind you, but not really germane to the thesis, except where noted above.

Chapter 5: Apostles Among Us

Macarthur has a twofold argument: the apostolic office has expired, and if the apostolic office expired, then other gifts may have expired (MacArthur 91). He further argues, “The Charismatic movement operates on the premise that everything that happened in the early church ought to be expected and experienced in the church today” (91). I agree with Macarthur’s definition of apostleship, but I dispute the conclusions he draws from it.

Quoting Sam Storms, he says, “But even he [Storms] acknowledges that ‘since no one today can meet the qualification of having seen the risen Christ with his own eyes, there are no apostles today’” (93). If Storms is correct, and I think he is, and if Macarthur thinks Storms is correct, and I think he does think that, then Macarthur has just contradicted his earlier statement on page 91 that the Charismatic Movement operates on the premise that everything” is in effect today (emphasis original).

We can leave that contradiction aside for the moment. Macarthur’s real target is Peter Wagner. I don’t feel a need to defend Wagner, so I’ll move on.

Macarthur argues that “The New Testament apostles were recognized as the revelatory agents of God, and as such they possessed an unsurpassed level of authority in church history” (94). This is a good statement and I think it lends evidence to the claim that prophetic words of wisdom are not in the same category as Scriptural revelations.

Can Prophecy be fallible?

(Edit: I don’t intend to prove whether prophecy is fallible of infallible, as I used to. Suffice to say this:  if it is indeed always infallible, then Paul should have given a warning in his letters that he would kill all fallible prophets.  This he did not do)

This is the toughest objection and where Macarthur is initially on stronger ground. Mind you, this objection, if it carries, presents a huge difficulty for continuationism but it does not prove the book’s thesis. Before we answer the question whether prophecy can be fallible, let’s ask if it is always authoritative? Presumably, the cessationist would answer “yes.” We’ll come back to that.

I think both sides are confusing an issue. Divine prophecy itself is always infallible because it comes from God, but does that mean that the prophet is always giving divine prophecy? Could he just be mistaken? Macarthur is quick to respond that false prophets in the Old Testament should die. Well, yes, because their false prophecy almost always involved going after other gods.

Still, the cessationist will urge that the Bible said fallible prophets should die. Okay, let’s reread some of Paul’s statements, like in 1 Corinthians 14: “Earnestly desire to prophecy but if you get it wrong I will kill you.” The text just doesn’t read that way. I think something else is going on.

The real question is this: Is prophecy-in-the-church always binding on me? Surprisingly, the answer is no. This leads us to the Agabus case (Acts 21 passim). Let’s grant Macarthur his point that Agabus prophecied with 100% accuracy. Here is the problem: Did Paul sin in not obeying Agabus? I don’t know of anyone who says he did.

One more point: if we should always expect prophets to be 100% accurate and if prophets are giving forth potential-Scripture, then why does Paul tell us to test the prophecies (1 Cor. 5:21)? If it is a divinely binding Revelation, you should not test it but obey!

Formal Criticisms

The first and most obvious criticism is Macarthur’s oscillating thesis. From earlier in the book he appeared to attack the elevation of experience over theology, which thesis is independent of whether the gifts continue today. So even if his thesis is successful, he has not disproven continuing gifts. Much of the book, however, is either a running catalogue of charismatic abuses or it is a comparison of all forms of Charismatic theology with cults like Mormonism.

Misleading Statements and Inaccuracies

Macarthur’s account suffers from a number of either misleading statements or theological inaccuracies. These errors aren’t serious enough to refute the whole book, but they are worth pointing out. I think at best they show that Macarthur’s arguments aren’t serious enough to fully take down the continuationist thesis.

The Canon

What makes a book canonical? Or rather, what gives it apostolic authority? Macarthur answers, “If a book or epistle claiming to speak with prophetic authority was written by an apostles or under apostolic oversight, it was recognized as inspired and authoritative” (95). Please note that Macarthur gives at least two necessary conditions for canonicity: 1) prophetic authority AND 2) apostolic connection. (1) isn’t the issue under question, which makes (2) the clincher. Here is the problem: who wrote Hebrews? This is where Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists have a field day with us, and who can fault them?

On another point, if the canon is “closed” today, then how do you know it is closed? Mind you, I think the canon is closed for all functional purposes, but I don’t see how you can have fully epistemic confidence it is closed. Which book of the Bible says it is closed? Revelation 22 doesn’t count, because it’s just talking about Revelation (and this is a bigger problem if you accept an early date for Revelation). If you can’t prove the canon is closed from Scripture alone, which is impossible to prove, then you can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that people are adding to the canon.

Theological inaccuracies

Macarthur defines sola scriptura as “the only divinely revealed word and therefore the believer’s true authority for sound doctrine and righteous living” (214). This is a half-truth. For the Reformers, Scripture was first of all the norm that normed lesser norms. It is not the only source of truth, but the final source of truth.

Leaps in Logic

Speaking of the charismatic movement, he writes, “The entire movement is nothing more than a sham religion run by counterfeit ministers” (113). Yikes. The entire movement? How do you get from cases like Oral Roberts and Benny Hinn and then derive a universal statement from them? This would fail a freshman logic class.

And then we have basic, old-fashioned “begging the question.” He writes, “It is also important to remember that Paul wrote these words [1 Thess. 5:20-22] at a time when the revelatory gift of prophecy was still active” (126). He is using this to explain away Paul’s command not to despise prophetic utterances, but he is assuming the very thing he is trying to prove.

Factual Inaccuracies

Speaking of miracles and healings, Macarthur asserts (not argues!) “Such biblical-quality healing miracles are not being performed today” (175). So what of sane, sober accounts where people were healed? Macarthur, like David Hume, would simply say that’s not possible. Don’t let facts get in the way of theory.

Scriptural Contradictions

Macarthur: “There is no warrant anywhere in Scripture for Christians to listen to fresh revelations from God beyond what he has already given us in his written word” (115).
The Apostle Paul: “especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1); “desire earnestly to prophesy” (v. 39).

Cessationism and the missing premise:

Cessationists use “revelation” in an equivocal sense. This is a problem when we examine practices in the 1st century church. Paul tells the church to prophesy (and one can find numerous other examples). How does the cessationist respond?

First, let’s look at the argument:

1: God’s speaking is what constitutes revelation, and revelation was eventually codified in the canon.
This seems to entail the following:

2: The canon is closed (let’s leave aside messy issues like who had the authority to close the canon and how do you know).

I think Ephesians 2:20 affords the cessationist another premise:

3. The church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Assuming apostles means those associated in one way or another with Jesus’s ministry, I think we can safely affirm (and this would be the position of many continuationists) that apostles aren’t around today. Therefore,

3.1. Prophets aren’t around, either.

The Continuationist Responds,

Is (P1) true? I agree with the first half if it is phrased like this: God reveals himself and this usually happens by speech or in words (whether internal or external). The second half of P1 is unproven.

What about P2? Practically, we have to assume that the canon is closed, but we have no evidence from God that it is. Honestly, how do you know the canon is closed? I think wiser Protestants were right to say that the Canon is “a fallible collection of infallible books” and leave it at that.

As to P3, my question is: are all acts of “prophesying” in the New Testament establishing the foundation of the church? Are Phillip’s daughters part of that foundation? When Paul acknowledges different men are prophesying is that, too, part of the foundation? Maybe, but we have no evidence that such is what Paul meant.

The only way the cessationist can salvage this position is to add another premise:

P4: Paul’s command to prophesy only functioned until the canon was closed.

The main problem with that statement is there isn’t a single verse that says

Evaluation:

Not all of the book is bad. The sections on the Holy Spirit and Sanctification were quite good. Unfortunately, Macarthur engages in huge leaps of logic, misleading statements, and unfocused arguments. I think this is the end of cessationism.

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About Ephraim's Arrow

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism
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