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

Are Pentecostals offering Strange Fire? (Panel Discussion)

MacArthur Strange Fire

John MacArthur, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Thomas Nelson, Nov 12, 2013) 9781400205172.

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 force or 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.

Prosperity prospering?

I have usually been more concerned about, and taught more vigorously against, the dangers of prosperity teaching than the dangers of hard cessationism. Just as many evangelicals need more spiritual experience, charismatics are growing fast and need more teaching, so my own gift in teaching tends to pull me in that direction. If MacArthur did not use prosperity teaching to try to discredit charismatic experience more generally I would probably not pause to comment much here.

Prosperity teaching is not historically part of Pentecostalism’s DNA; early Pentecostals would have largely opposed it, so if one extrapolated from that period (as MacArthur likes to do with more questionable early figures) one’s conclusions would be different. If prosperity teaching has spread, it has done so not because of Pentecostalism’s embrace of spiritual gifts and dependence on the Spirit for mission but in spite of it. Materialism appeals not to those embracing God’s gifts but more generally to base human nature. If sound teaching flourishes (or reality shakes proponents up), perhaps prosperity teaching will wane in the coming generation. Reactionary teaching like MacArthur’s, however, is more likely to polarize than to invite.

Is it true that “Word of Faith teachers represent the current drift of the larger movement” (9)? Solid statistical evidence remains to be gathered, but certainly they are enormously widespread, and in some places forms of this teaching may be the majority. Nevertheless, it is wise to recognize a range of views rather than lumping all “faith” teachers together; certainly some who hold to some elements of “faith” teaching would reject the sort of “we are gods” element noted above.

I have heard various versions of positive confession and prosperity teachings, but sometimes from Christians who were nevertheless so committed to Christ and his work that they lived sacrificially. Danny McCain, a non-Pentecostal friend who has devoted decades of evangelical ministry to Nigeria and has helped lead a study of African Pentecostalism, tells me that despite many serious problems in Pentecostalism there, the Pentecostals tend to be among the most devoted Christians and preach salvation very clearly. As a non-Pentecostal he concludes that, “if I had to chose the faith of one over the other, I would take the Pentecostal version.”

Many claim that the majority of African charismatics (or African Christians more widely) teach prosperity; whether or not this claim is accurate, the survey evidence on which it rests is not as clear as some suppose. Certainly the extreme teaching is widespread in Africa, including on television, and many young Christians eagerly believe whatever they are taught. Nevertheless, many Africans do not read the survey question about the connection between faith and prosperity the way Western evangelicals expect, that is, against the backdrop of materialistic teaching. (The question, reported on p. 30 of the Pew survey, reads, “God will grant material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith.” The survey thus summarizes, “In nine of the countries most pentecostals say that God will grant material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith.”)

My wife, for example, is not charismatic, and she and other African Christians who firmly reject prosperity teaching tell me that they would have viewed the question as ambiguous and answered it positively. Their understanding of the question is simply that we must depend on God to supply our needs—an unquestionably biblical concept. It is questionable whether the “vast” majority of charismatics (p. 15) support prosperity teaching in the sense in which we normally use the phrase.

There are degrees of “prosperity teaching,” from simple faith in God’s provision to the kinds of extremes MacArthur rightly denounces. Moreover, I suspect that most noncharismatic North American evangelicals expend more resources on themselves than Jesus might approve; that they, unlike prosperity teachers, do not seek theological justification for their practice does not make it any less unbiblical.

Using the characteristics of some, many, or even most members to characterize a group as a whole can be an example of the composition fallacy in logic. MacArthur’s reasoning against charismatics is little different from some secularists’ reasoning against evangelicals. Some protest with alarm, for example, that extreme Christian dominionists plan to take over the United States; they blend their view of these dominionists with all on the “religious right”; they note that three-quarters of white evangelicals voted Republican in the last election; and they then conclude that evangelicals are a threat to democracy. Examples of such overreaching could be multiplied: both Luther and many church fathers uttered harsh anti-Semitic statements; Christians are therefore anti-Semites; one could then reason further, though obviously illogically, that religious people (including Orthodox Jews) are all anti-Semites. Many megachurch pastors or other leading Christian figures have been shown to be corrupt; therefore MacArthur must be corrupt. And so forth.

Why God would use John MacArthur to challenge us

When we fail at self-critique God sometimes raises up outsiders to help us (gently or not). While it is true that many (most?) evangelicals desperately need charismatics’ emphasis on living out biblical teachings about the Spirit, it is also true that many (most?) charismatics desperately need evangelicals’ emphasis on carefully understanding and explaining Scripture. (Full disclosure: as a charismatic evangelical, I might have some bias here.)

Of course, “some thinking charismatics” (as MacArthur rightly calls Michael Brown and J. Lee Grady) have rightly criticized abuses, and MacArthur readily cites them in support of his argument (pp. 202-3). (In subsequent reviews, one should note, neither Brown nor Grady have considered MacArthur’s polemic fair.) Concerns are also widespread, for example, among many teachers in charismatic and Pentecostal schools. As one reviewer has pointed out, however, those who depend on what they hear on television have not listened to charismatic critics and will not listen to MacArthur either. (Those who get their ideas about evangelicals mainly from what they see on television or hear on the radio, whether of the religious or secular variety, are often likewise uncritical.)

Although many charismatics are not guilty of the genuine offenses charged, there has been a recent tendency to boast in charismatics’ numbers and growing respect. I suspect that when we cite the highest figures for the numbers of charismatics in the world, we recognize that not all of them are those we would feel comfortable embracing as spiritual or theological kin. Nevertheless, some of us have been eager to boast in the numbers. Many Majority World Christians have sacrificed to spread the gospel, but many Western charismatics are living less sacrificially than in the past. If we are triumphalistic, we are boasting in other people’s labors. We should be grateful if God uses cessationists to chastise us before we can grow more arrogant; God’s use of Babylon to judge Judah’s arrogance was much less gentle.

The Broad Brush

Although I never watch horror movies, for once I think I can identify with the thrill some people get from watching them. Reading MacArthur’s astonishingly broadbrushed condemnation of all charismatic experience was so over the top that I would have been tempted to find it entertaining were it not for the tragic likelihood that some readers will accept it uncritically. (As noted below, he does make exceptions for some of his friends, but treats them as idiosyncratic and seemingly as exceptions that prove the rule; e.g., 235.)

MacArthur’s aim is so scattershot that he unknowingly blasts even many of his fellow critics of excess. He practices guilt-by-association in such an indiscriminate way, and sometimes with such limited research, that some will be tempted to charge him with slandering fellow believers. The biblical foundations for his defense of hard cessationism are so fragile that they barely warrant me squandering space to critique it in this review; I have also addressed these elsewhere. Thus I focus primarily on his broad-brushed criticisms.

MacArthur’s indiscriminate condemnation of anything charismatic is little different from some bigoted secular condemnations of all evangelicals because of the behavior of some. Someone prone to generalize could even use the offenses in the book to blacklist all evangelicals, or all Christians, using the same logic that MacArthur uses against the entire charismatic movement. MacArthur complains when outsiders extrapolate from scandals that include many charismatics to evangelicals (6), yet he does the same by lumping the entire charismatic “movement” together.

Whereas MacArthur is happy to cite a Pew Forum study on Pentecostals and charismatics accepting prosperity teaching, he for some reason ignores that the same study claims that these groups are likelier than others to affirm that Jesus is the only way of salvation and to share their Christian faith with nonbelievers. That is, MacArthur wants to emphasize that charismatics identify with what he considers a false gospel, but not that charismatics are in many places among the most evangelical of evangelicals.

Examples of the broad brush

Especially (though not exclusively) in his introduction, MacArthur treats the charismatic movement as Satanic and harmful to the church as a whole. That he intends his critique to apply to the movement as a whole, in all its forms, is clarified in the second note of the book (263n2): “Throughout this book, all three waves of the modern Pentecostal and Charismatic Movement are generally treated together—using the broad term charismatic as a way to refer to the entirety of classical Pentecostal, Charismatic Renewal, and Third Wave Movements.”

He claims that (xiii) “the many irreverent antics and twisted doctrines brought into the church by the contemporary Charismatic Movement are equal to (or even worse than) the strange fire of Nadab and Abihu.” He also claims (xv) that “The modern Charismatic Movement” attributes “the work of the devil to the Holy Spirit.” He speaks with somewhat more restraint merely of (xvi) “millions of charismatics” who worship a false spirit; these he compares with the Israelite idolaters that God killed in Exodus 32.

MacArthur condemns not simply certain theological movements; he attributes the exercise of supernatural spiritual gifts to Satan (p. xv). Also, he links the charismatic practice of tongues with that of “voodoo doctors” and heretical groups (137), having tried to discount any link between charismatic tongues and the New Testament. Yet such cultic tongues are not well-attested in the first century, when biblical tongues arose, and MacArthur neglects occurrences of tongues in subsequent church history before modern Pentecostalism (e.g., in an indigenous Christian revival in India in the 1860s), except for those (such as Jansenists) that he deems heretical (p. 137).

His treatment of tongues as demonic is regrettable. Because he discounts as subjective charismatic claims that such prayer helps them feel closer to God, he would presumably discount my own claim to this effect as well—but I do believe that the inward spiritual renewing I experience when I pray in tongues strengthens me in my work for the kingdom.

I first experienced tongues two days after my conversion from atheism, as I was worshiping the God who saved me; I had received no teaching about tongues and did not know that there was a name for it. I was later ordained a Baptist minister in 1990 and minister far more often in noncharismatic circles than in charismatic ones. Yet in those circles, I find that many of my colleagues (Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and the like) pray in tongues, have eyewitness accounts of supernatural healings, and the like. A close scholar friend who has not had those experiences, a colleague at another seminary, told me that he likes to hire charismatics as faculty colleagues because they tend to be more orthodox and more zealous. None of us to whom I have been referring fit the characteristics that MacArthur ascribes to “the Charismatic Movement.”

In MacArthur’s view, the spirit behind the movement “represents a massive stumbling block to true spiritual growth, ministry, and usefulness.” I cannot but view these claims as seriously misinformed; the direct leading of the Spirit and even healing in answer to prayer has helped me lead people to Christ. If the gospel that I preach—salvation from sin through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ crucified and risen—is not the true gospel, I do not know what it would be called.

Charismatics a cult?

MacArthur does recognize (81) that “there are sincere people within the Charismatic Movement who … have come to understand the necessary truths of the gospel.” Nevertheless, appealing to respect for our evangelical predecessors, he notes (xvi) that in the early 1900s, conservatives mostly viewed Pentecostals as a cult, and that (xviii) “In earlier generations, the Pentecostal-Charismatic Movement would have been labeled heresy.” (MacArthur is undoubtedly unhappy that Billy Graham welcomed Pentecostals into the evangelical fold, that the majority of members in the National Association of Evangelicals are Pentecostals, that about half the itinerant evangelists at Billy Graham’s 1983 conference in Amsterdam were charismatic, that Pentecostals have served as evangelical seminary presidents and deans, and so on.)

One gets the impression that MacArthur preferred the older conservative view about Pentecostals. Although one might hope that MacArthur would appreciate Pentecostalism’s fervent evangelism in the Majority World, he denies that it is spreading the genuine, saving gospel. Thus (xix): “the gospel that is driving these surging numbers is not the true gospel, and the spirit behind them is not the Holy Spirit. What we are seeing is in reality the explosive growth of a false church, as dangerous as any cult or heresy that has ever assaulted Christianity. The Charismatic Movement was a farce and a scam from the outset; it has not changed into something good.”

In explaining how prone charismatics are to heresy, MacArthur notes that Catholics, Oneness Pentecostals and prosperity-believers together make up “a vast majority within the modern Charismatic Movement” (52-53). MacArthur automatically dismisses as heretical the one-fifth of charismatics who are Catholic, because he condemns the Mass and veneration of Mary as idolatrous and argues that Catholics deny justification by faith (49).

Other evangelicals have debated these issues more thoroughly than I can here, but it goes without saying that many current evangelical leaders differ from MacArthur’s conclusions. In the interest of avoiding sidetracking, I should not even open this can of worms. Nevertheless, we are justified by faith in Christ, not by faith in justification by faith; it therefore should be possible for many people to trust Christ as their savior without understanding their church’s doctrine or even Paul’s explanation. I suspect that if God’s Spirit moved only among those whose theology perfectly reflected his, none of us could be drawn to his truth to begin with. If, because we depend solely on Jesus as savior, it is heretical to believe that one must belong to the Catholic church to be saved, it is therefore also heretical to believe that one must belong to the Protestant church to be saved.

He also rejects the faith of the minority of Oneness Pentecostals, whom he numbers as 25 million worldwide (a quarter of U.S. Pentecostals; p. 50), perhaps 5 percent of global charismatics. Yet Trinitarian Pentecostal groups such as the Assemblies of God stress the Trinity in their doctrinal statement more elaborately than do most other evangelicals, partly in reaction against the modalists. My experience in Assemblies of God schools was that Baptists were seen as much closer allies than the more suspect modalists. Nevertheless, I know from many conversations with both Oneness Pentecostals and Trinitarian Christians that in practice, most ordinary Christians are unfortunately not theologically schooled enough to know the difference between three persons and three “modes.” Further, if one wanted to taint all Pentecostals for theological carelessness because some Pentecostals (to other Pentecostals’ dismay) are modalists, one might also be tempted to taint all cessationists because of the Arian, though firmly inerrantist, cessationist Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Charismatic/continuationist theologians

MacArthur complains (xvii) that “In recent history, no other movement has done more to damage the cause of the gospel, to distort the truth, and to smother the articulation of sound doctrine.” Although charismatics ourselves do not all agree on what “charismatic theology” looks like, apart from us being noncessationist, MacArthur charges (xvii) that “Charismatic theology has turned the evangelical church into a cesspool of error and a breeding ground for false teachers.”

Reasoning circularly—in that any charismatic contributions are dismissed as error—he contends (xviii) that “charismatic theology has made no contribution to true biblical theology or interpretation.” “True biblical interpretation, sound doctrine, and historical theology,” he warns (113) “owes nothing to the movement—unless an influx of error and falsehood could be considered a contribution.”

MacArthur is not saying that no one charismatic makes such contributions, but that the contributions are not because they are charismatic. I cannot speak for all charismatic scholars, but my charismatic experience has certainly helped me and fortified my faith in times of intellectual challenges—possibly in some ways that may have made a decisive difference in why I am still a believer. It has also helped me appreciate more sensitively some descriptions of spiritual experience in the Bible, just as experience with house churches, Majority World believers, Messianic Jews (and other Jewish circles) and so forth have helped me hear aspects of the texts more sensitively.

As for charismatic experience contributing to my scholarly work, there were times when I felt that God spoke to me about what my next academic project should be. In one case, before I could contact the publisher I felt led to contact, they contacted me and asked me to write a commentary on the very book I had felt led in prayer to write about. Otherwise, I probably would have turned that project proposal down because of how busy I was. Certainly the charismatic interests of Gordon Fee, Michael Brown, and many other charismatic scholars have shaped the focus of their work. (Our conclusions, based on solid exegesis, admittedly could have been reached by others, but the interests shaped where we have made some contributions.)

Despite strong claims, MacArthur focuses on the most extreme or questionable examples, and avoids explicitly condemning some of the more balanced voices; he even cites in support of his critique some “thinking charismatics.” I appreciate his selectivity in this way; the most balanced teachers usually escape his named critique. The problem is that readers, and apparently MacArthur himself, view the extreme and questionable examples as representative, based on statistics (discussed above) about what most charismatics are held to believe.

Scandals versus MacArthur’s friends

MacArthur tries to strike the right balance between acknowledging the orthodoxy of his Reformed continuationist friends (he seems less willing to exempt non-Reformed continuationists) and condemning most charismatics because of visible scandals. MacArthur has the right information but I believe he has the wrong balance: immorality does not characterize most Pentecostals.

MacArthur rightly admits (59) that “financial improprieties and moral failures can surface from time to time even in the soundest of churches.” Nevertheless, he charges, those claiming to have the Spirit ought to have fewer of these, yet they have more. Personally, I suspect that what Pentecostals mean by the empowerment of the Spirit is especially for ministry (evangelism and gifts), and that spiritual power for purity is equally available among all believers. Nevertheless, scandals are naturally more public among more public figures, perhaps especially among many televangelists without proper grounding. The majority of televangelists have been charismatic, and the antiintellectual bent noted above has often kept biblical training and sometimes counseling from being properly valued. Those who focus on self-promotion rarely have much time for careful exegesis, even if they have the training to do it. In his book I Was Wrong, Jim Bakker admitted that at the height of PTL, he did not have much time to read his Bible, and he later recognized that his earlier prosperity teaching contradicted Jesus’s message.

On pp. 59-64 MacArthur offers a long list of scandals from charismatic and Pentecostal figures over the years. Some of these claims represent allegations that were never proved, making their inclusion something like gossip. The majority, however, are genuine, and some represent long-term, rationalized sin. Again, most of these are from highly visible ministers with no oversight; the figures for scandals would be different for the average pastor in, say, the Assemblies of God, where sexual infidelity is treated very strictly.

These figures should serve as a warning for all of us in ministry (cf. Matt 24:45-51), but MacArthur unfortunately draws the wrong moral. He charges (65) that the scandalous behavior is rooted in false teaching about the Holy Spirit. False beliefs about what the “anointing” means may play a role in some cases, but such behavior is far more widespread than among prominent charismatics and is rooted most fully in human sinfulness. Temptations afflict us all, and the Bible gives us examples of moral failings unrelated to teaching about the Holy Spirit, including Jephthah, Samson, and David, Peter’s denials, and the like.

Despite painting the charismatic spirit and thus most charismatics with the brush of these scandals, MacArthur explains (231) that “I do not view my continuationist friends in the same light as these …frauds.” He recognizes that “many reformed continuationists have courageously condemned” prosperity teaching. Here is a very important caveat, one not really consistent with condemnation of the entire “Charismatic Movement.” Yet there are far more charismatics like MacArthur’s continuationist friends than he recognizes.

Selective use of history

MacArthur’s selective approach to history is meant to substantiate his approach. Yet his appendix on church history, if intended to be representative, cherry-picks only statements that agree with him. Yes, cessationists existed; but not all orthodox believers have been cessationists. Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian all claimed eyewitness accounts of healings and exorcisms. Historian Ramsay MacMullen shows that these sorts of experiences constituted the leading cause of Christian conversion in the third and fourth centuries.

MacArthur cites Augustine as an advocate of cessationism (252-53) without noting that he later changed his mind and reported numerous miracles, including raisings from the dead and some healings that he personally witnessed. John Wesley valued weighing prophecy rather than rejecting it, reports healings, and offers his own firsthand report of what he believed to be a raising from the dead. Late nineteenth-century evangelical leaders such as Baptist A. J. Gordon (for whom Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary is named) and A. B. Simpson, founder of Christian and Missionary Alliance, were continuationists and recounted healing reports.

As noted above, MacArthur emphasizes (xvi) that in the early 1900s conservatives mostly viewed Pentecostals as a cult. As noncharismatic evangelicals grew to know Pentecostals, however, their views began to shift, and for good reason. On this point, however, MacArthur wishes to turn the clock back.

Implying compromise with liberal theology, he notes (xvii) that in the 1960s charismatics spread in mainline denominations “that had embraced theological liberalism and were already spiritually dead.” In fact, this is a caricature, because many committed Christians remained in some of these denominations (there were some even in the prototypical “dead” church in Rev 3:4); a decade later, I discussed the gospel with many of them. Many Pentecostals from that era, however, shared MacArthur’s prejudice; David du Plessis, who ultimately bridged the gap, was himself initially reluctant to reach out.

MacArthur charges (xvii) that “The emotional experientialism of Pentecostalism” sparked growth in these churches. In fact a renewed emphasis on the gospel and evangelism had much more to do with it. In most of these denominations, charismatics have been among the strongest evangelical forces, at least in cases where they have felt welcome to remain.

MacArthur complains that Parham was the founder of Pentecostalism, noting that this is a dubious source for the movement (26-27). The moral charges against Parham, never proved, may stem from the enmity of W. G. Voliva, known to have fashioned such charges against other rivals. Many of Parham’s views, conversely, were quite problematic, and there are reasons why Pentecostals today often look to other early figures in the movement (such as William Seymour or William Durham) as more representative. Parham played a major role in the view that tongues was the evidence of baptism in the Spirit, but the movement’s major emphasis on Spirit-empowered missions belonged to the radical stream of evangelicalism from which it arose. Its rapid growth among Holiness churches also fit their broader seeking of spiritual outpouring at the time.

If the Holy Spirit intended to recreate the day of Pentecost,” MacArthur challenges (27), “is this really how He would do it?” Why not? Jesus did not choose theologically astute scribes for disciples; Peter was a sinner (Luke 5:8) and Paul was a persecutor (Acts 9:4). What kinds of fallible vessels did God use in the OT? Not just morally successful people such as Joseph and Daniel, but also people who failed after their calling, such as Jephthah, Samson and a king named David. Primary leaders and initial figures in some other awakenings, such as the Welsh Revival (Evan Robert apparently suffered emotional breakdowns) and the 1960s Indonesian revival, had some serious personal problems. Whitefield and the Wesleys differed on points of doctrine yet God used both to bring fruitful awakening in the 1700s.

Although noting the valor of the Reformers, MacArthur also rightly emphasizes (213) that revival did not flow from them but from God’s Word. Movements of the Spirit are not limited to the frailty of their vessels. Luther became a virulent anti-Semite whose rhetoric later provided fodder to the Third Reich, but this does not diminish what God accomplished through him. God often likes to remind us that what he does is not about us but about himself. Apart from the one human who is also God incarnate, humans are not the heroes of the story of God’s acts in history.

MacArthur may be correct to emphasize (28-30) the oft-cited New Thought background of Word of Faith ideas through the noncharismatic teacher E. W. Kenyon. (That Kenyon was a source for some Word of Faith teaching is beyond dispute.) But while I would not wish to risk being seen as defending Word of Faith theology, more recent research has underlined some other, more direct historical sources for some of the teachings. Despite the more balanced approach of A. J. Gordon, some late nineteenth-century evangelical views on healing in the atonement led to “claiming” healing by faith (building on the approach of Phoebe Palmer and others who emphasized accepting the finished work of Christ spiritually by faith). Prosperity teaching drew from broader cultural currents, such atheist Andrew Carnegie’s The Gospel of Wealth (1889) as well as from the more positive model of faith missions trusting God to provide (modeled by George Mueller, Hudson Taylor and others). Prosperity teaching distorts positive precedents such as Mueller, but we should not ignore historical precedents that are not negative.

The claim, then, that (31) Parham and Kenyon “are responsible for the theological foundations upon which the entire charismatic system is built,” is questionable. What many would regard as more important elements of charismatic theology, especially its practicing noncessationism, show the historical influence of radical evangelicals such as A. J. Gordon and especially A. B. Simpson, and earlier influences such as that of Johann Christoph Blumhardt.

MacArthur’s Cessationism

Because I have addressed the continuance of spiritual gifts in much fuller detail in my book Gift & Giver (published by Baker, 2001) I focus here on just a few points raised by MacArthur, without elaborating the abundant biblical evidence for the gifts.


Soft cessationists have no problem with God working miracles today when he chooses to do so, and such miracles do not happen only in charismatic circles. (Contrary to some press it has received, my book on miracles challenged antisupernaturalism, not cessationism. Documentation for many cases that I cite below, however, appear in that book.) I am not here challenging soft cessationism but what appears to be MacArthur’s harder cessationism.

Contrasting modern reports of healings, MacArthur claims (170-71) that the genuine healings, the ones in the Bible, were “undeniable.” In fact, while some cures, such as healed blindness or paralysis or raisings from the dead, might be obvious, others, such as healing a flow of blood, might not be so obvious to onlookers. The Gospels detail some of the most obvious cases, but undoubtedly many who came to Jesus came for the range of conditions people come for today in many parts of the world.

Most of the undeniable and obvious cases in the Gospels have plenty of parallels today, if observers are ready to accept the same standards of evidence. Christian eyewitnesses with known integrity claim instant healings of blindness and raisings from the dead; I have interviewed many of these eyewitnesses, and know a number of them very closely. Such healings in Jesus’s name also often among non-Christians (i.e., not just in the public healing meetings that MacArthur criticizes).

If MacArthur denies the eyewitness claims, he also supports the very epistemic challenges skeptics make against trusting the basis for miracle claims in the Bible. Today, in fact, we sometimes have medical documentation, which was naturally lacking in the biblical cases. We also have solid reports of millions of people who have converted to Christianity from completely non-Christian backgrounds, in China and elsewhere, because they were convinced that they or someone close to them was healed through prayer in Jesus’s name.

If one argues that those raised today who were cold, stiff, not breathing for many hours, and had their eyes were rolled back in their heads were not genuinely dead, how does one know that Jairus’s daughter, not breathing for only a short time, was genuinely dead? We can say, “Because the Bible says so,” but my point is that the sort of skepticism being applied against strong miracle claims today is precisely the same approach used to challenge the Bible. Hume used earlier hard cessationist dismissal of eyewitness evidence for miracles to dismiss biblical miracles as well, and other skeptics have followed suit. The late nineteenth-century evangelical continuationist approach recognized the importance of consistency in handling evidence. A hard cessationist who does not want others to dismiss eyewitness testimony from the first century should not dismiss it a priori today, always looking for ways around all the evidence.

If by cessationism one means simply that God does not always do things the way he did in the Gospels and Acts, I suppose that I (and many other continuationists) would be considered cessationist. I do not believe that Jesus heals everyone everywhere who prays for healing. Yet God also did not always do things the same way throughout biblical history, but was more lavish with signs surrounding certain events than others. Jesus’s coming was the key event, and in Acts we see that another key “event” accompanied by signs is the preaching of the gospel. MacArthur notes that “healings authenticated a true message” (173). That is correct: and as that true message continues to go forth, God often continues to authenticate it.

Far from Acts being merely a historical record of an earlier authentication, it leads us to expect that healings may continue, as they did even in the final chapter of Acts (Acts 28:8-9). Accounts from credible witnesses around the world (not just those that MacArthur could easily dismiss as extreme) suggest that such healings do in fact continue. I myself have sometimes been a witness.

In my opinion, MacArthur also confuses Paul’s “gifts of healings” for the church, which are not really described in Scripture, with the more conspicuous signs in evangelistic contexts in Acts (245); but it is unwise to digress further afield.

Prophecy and revelation

MacArthur confuses prophecy with canon, a confusion that distorts his treatment of prophecy. He supposes that “If the Spirit were still giving divine revelation, why wouldn’t we collect and add those words to our Bibles?” (69). Belief in new revelations, he contends, “tacitly denies the doctrine of sola Scriptura” (242).

MacArthur’s confusion on this point leads him to accuse people of heresy through his own misunderstanding. Thus when Jack Deere argues that Satan developed a doctrine “that teaches God no longer speaks to us except through the written Word,” MacArthur understands him to call “the sufficiency of Scripture a demonic doctrine” (69)—something that Deere does not say, at least where MacArthur has quoted him. Yet Scripture nowhere says that God is done speaking, an approach that actually contradicts what we would expect from the pattern in Scripture. Thus if MacArthur wants to attribute his own view on this point to the Spirit (rather than Satan, as Deere suggests) MacArthur must find himself in the curious situation of building this theology at this point on a postbiblical revelation.

Although Scripture and prophecy overlap in some cases, they do not otherwise perform the same function. Continuing prophecy is not opposed to a fixed canon, and MacArthur’s view of their opposition echoes postbiblical tradition rather than Scripture itself. Prophecy, like history, worship songs, or laws, is merely one genre in Scripture, and is by no means coextensive with it. Most prophecies in biblical times do not appear in Scripture: thus, for example, we read of a hundred prophets whose prophecies are not recorded anywhere (1 Kgs 18:13), and multiple prophecies in weekly house church meetings (1 Cor 14:29-31) that in the first few decades of early Christianity may have altogether numbered in the tens of thousands. Prophecy, then, could occur independent of Scripture; revelation in that broader sense was never limited to Scripture.

The meaning of “canon” is not all that God has ever said, but the critically agreed-on measuring stick for evaluating other revelation. Further, when we speak of God speaking today most of us are speaking not of new doctrine, but of personal intimacy with God or personal guidance from him. Discovering one’s calling or where one should settle in ministry—at least sometimes—includes being open to subjective leading by the Spirit, incomplete as this is.

Depending on God for personal direction, sometimes through sensing an inner guidance, is not the same as inventing a new, postbiblical doctrine. By contrast, cessationism is a postbiblical doctrine that must explain as irrelevant the entire pattern of biblical revelation to support its view of the present, different, postbiblical state, without any biblical warning of the coming, postbiblical change. Which approach, one might ask, risks promoting an unbiblical teaching?

Unfortunately, in my opinion the best argument for cessationism is extreme charismatics; it would certainly make things neater if we could reject all prophecies. At the same time, it might also save us needing to use discernment if we could reject all teaching because we know that some teaching is false. MacArthur contends that prophecy subsequent to the close of the canon denies the sufficiency of Scripture (116). Did prophecy before the close of the canon, not specifically recorded in the Bible, deny the sufficiency of prior Scripture, since it was not adding to it? This is mixing apples and oranges, different forms of God’s leading for different purposes. More relevant to the issue of doctrine, and thus to the sufficiency of Scripture, would be whether explanations of Scripture, such as commentaries, deny whether Scripture is sufficient by itself without them. Since MacArthur and I both write commentaries, I assume that we would both answer “No,” but it should be clear that someone given to polemic could extend the range of targets.

The New Testament model for believers is not to reject all prophecy but to discern what is right from what is wrong (1 Cor 14:29; 1 Thess 5:20-22). From the context in 1 Corinthians, this practice must include weighing prophecies by believers within the congregation. MacArthur applies Paul’s exhortations for testing prophecy to distinguishing true from false prophets, the latter being charlatans and deceivers (124-25). It seems, however, inconceivable that house churches that rarely held more than forty persons would need to regularly test for false prophets; how many false prophets could have remained after several weeks of weeding them out?

MacArthur also argues that passages about judging prophecy now apply only to evaluating teaching, since he believes that prophecy has ceased (126). Of course, if he allows as little latitude for erroneous teaching as he allows for erroneous prophecy, very few pastors could remain in ministry. (Continuationists might even argue that this standard would exclude hard cessationists, but that is another question.) Why might prophecy require evaluation?

Prophetic limitations

Many of MacArthur’s modern examples are patently false prophecy. But he is so intent on citing the perfect standard in Deut 18:20-22 that he neglects some other aspects of Old Testament prophecy that support the New Testament model. In the Old Testament, senior prophets sometimes mentored junior ones; prophets also exercised different levels of authority (e.g., Moses and Samuel versus the “sons of the prophets”). Moreover, prophecy was sometimes figurative and usually conditional, a pattern specified by Jeremiah (Jer 18:7-10; see e.g., Jon 3:4-10).

Prophecy and teaching are both limited in scope; after all, we both “know in part, and prophesy in part” (1 Cor 13:9). Thus when John the Baptist heard of Jesus merely healing instead of fulfilling John’s prophecy that Jesus would baptize in the Spirit and fire, John questioned whether Jesus was the one he had announced (Matt 11:3 and Luke 7:19). Prophets knew enough to warn Elisha that Elijah was about to be taken from him, yet—unlike Elisha—misunderstood what this would entail (2 Kgs 2:3, 5, 16-18). In Acts 21, believers warned Paul “through the Spirit” not to go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:4), yet Paul more fully knew that God wanted him to go to Jerusalem (cf. 21:13-14). In other words, Christians with genuine yet partial insight from the Spirit misapplied it; the Spirit was in fact leading them but Paul’s understanding was more complete. Even biblical prophets whose writings became part of Scripture did not foresee all the details regarding their prophecies’ fulfilment (1 Pet 1:10-11). None of these caveats justify the faulty prophecies that MacArthur recounts, but they are often what continuationists mean when they speak of prophecy being limited through the finite vessels God uses.

MacArthur goes so far as to compare prophecy to tarot cards or Ouija boards (115). Attributing the Spirit’s works to the devil is dangerous business (Mark 3:22, 29-30). Although some errant prophets merit severe criticism, MacArthur seems to extend the criticism to even the most moderate voices for God speaking, since he has just mentioned Southern Baptist author Henry Blackaby.

MacArthur may be genuinely unaware of prophecies that proved stunningly accurate, but I could provide many examples. One of the first that always comes to my mind is that at least three prophets in Congo independently prophesied to my wife that she would someday marry a white minister with a big ministry. On one of these occasions, she and the person prophesying were both refugees in the rainforest. Needless to say, there were not many white people around.

Immediately after she and I decided to marry, when it was still a secret, someone I knew pulled me aside and noted that God had told her that I had now found my future wife, and not to worry that we were from different cultures and continents. I could list many more examples, but just to say: discernment makes more sense than rejecting all prophecies because some are false. Some teaching is false, but we do not for that reason reject all teaching; we would not, of course, trust a teacher whose teaching is consistently false, but neither would we reject teaching from others whose teaching is consistently accurate.

Cessation of prophecy?

Few would doubt that the Spirit can speak to our hearts in the general sense of reminding us that we are God’s children (Rom 8:16). If one is not a cessationist on this basic point, why not allow that God might lead some to hear from God in greater detail? MacArthur allows that God can lead our hearts, but only through illuminating Scripture (117). He denies the Spirit leading individual believers internally and on p. 115 even condemns Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God, a source of great renewal in the church.

Were I to try to answer all of MacArthur’s individual arguments for hard cessationism here it would be tedious. I have addressed the question of continuation of the gifts elsewhere (in more detail, see my Gift & Giver), although for open-minded readers of the Bible it does not require much argument. No one, given a Bible without contrary instruction, would find cessationism there, and in many parts of the world, Bible readers who were taught cessationism rejected it because it did not fit what they found in Scripture. MacArthur quickly dismisses (236) as lacking “exegetical basis” D. A. Carson’s possible hypothesis about tongues. Hypotheses about issues not fleshed out in Scripture inevitably do lack a full exegetical basis; yet cessationism not only lacks an exegetical basis, it contradicts the norms that Scripture invites us to expect.

Even if we went back to the Old Testament level of the Spirit, true as well as false prophets existed. Since Jesus’s first coming, however, we anticipate an even higher level of the Spirit’s activity. Acts 2 declares that a new era began with Jesus’s exaltation; the Holy Spirit is poured out, and prophetic empowerment is part of what marks us as God’s community. This marks the same period as calling on the Lord’s name for salvation; to deny that we are still in this era today requires hermeneutical gymnastics, for it is hardly less the “last days” now than it was then.

Further, despite protests, 1 Cor 13:8-12 is clear about when the gifts will pass—when we see Jesus face to face. MacArthur tries to make the passage ambiguous, arguing that timing is not its point (149). However, simply claiming that a clear passage is ambiguous is not an argument. Nor does MacArthur mention that there is certainly no passage that has as its point the cessation of gifts before the end of the age. In fact, Scripture offers no warning of that alleged new situation, and therefore can only be argued, at best, from church history. Yet gifts continued in church history; and even had they not, the pattern in Scripture would invite us to look for them anew.

Paul warned the Corinthians to seek prophecy and not forbid tongues (1 Cor 14:39). MacArthur contends that this verse is inapplicable to modern charismatic prophecy and tongues, because he deems these counterfeits. Even were all modern charismatic cases false (and I argue that they are not), taking this verse seriously in light of lack of biblical evidence supporting cessationism should lead us to seek the real gift of prophecy today. Likewise, it should warn us not to suppress real tongues when, as noncessationism would lead us to expect, it will sometimes occur. That is, even if MacArthur were right to condemn all modern charismatics (and I argue that he is not), he would still be wrong to practice cessationism.

If the Bible is really our sole authority, then we should follow the model of personal experience with God and hearing from God that appears regularly throughout the Bible. That does not mean, against some charismatics, that we are experiencing internal guidance incessantly; a few key, genuine experiences, along with Scripture and wisdom, may be enough to shape many of our lives in the right directions along with God’s providential leading. But prophetic experience seems to have been common in Paul’s churches. If some people are doing this in the wrong way today, it does not absolve us from the responsibility of finding the ways to do it right.

Concluding Thoughts

MacArthur offers some valid insights, but lack of balance prevents his approach from being as constructive as it should be.

When we speak of “charismatic,” we are speaking of those who embrace the Spirit’s gifts for today. That shared element does not technically constitute a common movement or agreement on even fundamental points, any more than denial of the Spirit’s gifts for today must constitute a movement—since that is a belief that MacArthur shares with atheists and others who deny that the Spirit exists. (Jehovah’s Witnesses are cessationist in a stricter sense.) If some charismatic circles do not practice true gifts of the Spirit, the biblical response is not to rule out all gifts of the Spirit but to discern the true from the counterfeit.

MacArthur has abandoned the task of discernment by condemning all the gifts. Yet in the era of the Spirit, the era since Pentecost, this will not do. Acts 2 is quite clear that the era of salvation is also the era when Jesus pours out his Spirit on all his people to empower them to prophesy. MacArthur’s circle cannot and does not claim to be fulfilling this prophecy. In fact, his interpretations circumvent biblical injunctions to “be eager to prophesy” and not to prohibit speaking in tongues (1 Cor 14:39), as well as not to reject prophecies but to test them (1 Thess 5:20-21).

His attempts to evade these commands’ relevance for today belong to his larger theological system of hard cessationism. This approach undercuts the dramatic character of the new era of the Spirit underlined in the New Testament as for this age between Jesus’s comings. As such, he defends a system that runs precisely counter to a primary evidence that early Christians sometimes cited for themselves as the Messiah’s end-time movement (e.g., Acts 2:17, 33). Similarly, as Robert Bruce Mullin has shown, it was hard cessationism on which antisupernaturalists drew to dismiss biblical as well as postbiblical miracles, since the epistemic character of the evidence was no different. Like it or not, MacArthur’s broad backlash against all charismatics plays into the hands of enemies of the church eager to deny all evidence for divine activity and eager to highlight the church’s disunity.

Strange Fire offers some very needed points, and many of us can learn from these warnings. Nevertheless, because it tars all those who practice charismatic gifts with the critiques appropriate only to those abusing them it ultimately falls short of bringing correction in a constructive way. Hopefully others will take up that task more helpfully.

Reviewed by Craig S. Keener


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Category: Pneuma Review, Spirit, Winter 2014

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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