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John MacArthur’s Strange Fire as Parody of Jonathan Edwards’ Theology, by William De Arteaga

The Rev. Chauncy did precisely what Edwards warned not to do. Chauncy collected letters only form clergy antagonistic to the revival. He made an arduous horseback circuit of New England where he gathered every story of exaggerated exercises, imprudent sermons, and tactless acts of extremism and cobbled them together as a picture of the revival. That work, called Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England (1743), greatly pleased the now frightened clergy. It outsold all of Edward’s works and effectively put an end to the Great Awakening.13

We should note that a significant minority of clergy understood what Edwards had said, and recognized the good fruit that revival had brought to their churches. This faction was called the “New Lights.” They passed on Edwards’ writings to the next generation, so that when the Second Great Awakening occurred (1801-1830), the revival preachers understood the “exercises” in the Edwards’ sense and were not disturbed by them, neither were they stopped by the inevitable Pharisees of the time. The Second Great Awakening succeeded marvelously in transforming America from a Deist country (as its president Thomas Jefferson had become) into a majority evangelical nation.

The opposite happened with the Pentecostal Revival of the 1900s. By that time, Edward’s writings were passé and not read by the clergy or taught in seminary. Thus, when the Pentecostals began manifesting body agitations and fallings, it was incomprehensible to its critics and the new Pentecostals were derided as “holy rollers,” a disparaging moniker that stuck.14

MacArthur’s Misunderstanding and Parody of Edwards

MacArthur’s understanding and critique of the Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement is an empty shell of Edwards’ classic insights, and ultimately a parody of it. MacArthur takes Edwards five criteria from Distinguishing Marks to assume the cloak of Edward’s wisdom and discernment (Chapter 4: Testing the Spirits: Part 2). But that is the only element of Edward’s discernment system he incorporates. He violates every other element. Unlike Edwards, MacArthur begins with the assumption that all the “exercises” are inauthentic, fraudulent or perhaps demonic.

Unbiblical practices—like speaking in gibberish, falling backward to the floor, laughing uncontrollably, or withering on the ground—are seen as necessary evidence that the Spirit is moving (6).

This is the very opposite of Edwards starting point. His examination does not begin with discernment by asking what the general fruit of this is, but a prejudice and a priori judgment based on cessationist theology. Consistently, MacArthur cites only the extremes of Pentecostal and Charismatic incidents, sermons and personalities without citing other, more mature elements that should enter into the discussion. Edwards warned against this. It is not accidental that MacArthur endorses Chauncey’s critique of the Great Awakening (32).

Parodying Edwards’ criteria for discerning revival

Let me now give several specific examples of how MacArthur used Chauncy’s “discernment by extremes” (Phariseeism) rather than Edwards’ true methodology of discernment.

In two chapters in Strange Fire, “Testing the Spirits” (Parts 1 & 2), MacArthur takes the five discernment criteria developed in Edwards’ Distinguishing Marks and applies them to the Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. In every case he highlights examples of extreme preachers, imprudent remarks, and unbalanced ministers, and draws a picture based on these extremes. From such a skewed perspective, the failure of these movements to live up to Edwards’ test for a true revival is a foregone conclusion. An essay of this size does not permit me to examine how he uses each one of Edward’s five criteria to bash Pentecostals and Charismatics, but let me highlight just one.

In chapter 4, MacArthur explains Edwards’ criteria 3, that a true revival is marked by an increased study, and appreciation of the Scriptures as the Word of God and true.

MacArthur claims that both Pentecostals and Charismatics demean the role of the Scriptures and render it less important than their own prophecies and experiences.

Yet the modern Charismatic Movement drives a wedge between the Bible and its divine Author by endorsing unbiblical experiences and espousing extrabiblical revelations—as if the Holy Spirit speaks in his own initiative or operates in the church today in a way contrary to the truth of the Word (67-68).

This is an extreme mischaracterization. I have been in the Charismatic movement from the 1970s, and every teaching I heard on prophecy stressed that all prophetic utterances must align with the Word of God or be considered false.

MacArthur’s attempts to marshal several fringe examples to bolster his claim.

Churches that appeal to new revelations that are often valued over the Bible include the Church of the Living Word, founded by John Robert Stevens, and the United House of Prayer for All People. Steven teaches that the Bible is outdated and needs to be supplemented by prophecies inspired by the Spirit for our time.15

Why doesn’t MacArthur bring into the discussion the doctrine of prophecy from some established Pentecostal denomination such as the Assemblies of God? Using extreme examples one can smear any large group. For instance, MacArthur is a Baptist and fundamentalist Calvinist. If one searched out among the millions who adhere to that mix of Protestantism, one could pick out The Westborough Baptist Church in Kansas, and its pastor Fred Philips. These folks pickets soldiers’ funeral on the bizarre notion that their deaths express the wrath of God on our nation for accepting homosexuality. They are self-described as Baptist and Calvinist, so I could throw in some innuendo to suggest John MacArthur is similar to them in his theology, especially since MacArthur is concerned about and has written about the wrath of God.16

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Category: Spirit, Winter 2014

About the Author: William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include Quenching the Spirit: Discover the Real Spirit Behind the Charismatic Controversy (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015), and The Public Prayer Station: Taking Healing Prayer to the Streets and Evangelizing the Nones (Emeth Press, 2018). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He continues in his healing, teaching and writing ministry and is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations. Facebook

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