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Strangers To Fire: When Tradition Trumps Scripture, reviewed by Tony Richie

For the time being, I simply wish to wonder aloud about whether the avalanche of responses to JFM says more about us than it does about him. Perhaps it’s due more to our own continuing (no cessationism here!) insecurity in tandem with an overweening desire to vindicate ourselves in the eyes of others than it is anything else. As a third generation Pentecostal myself, I know that we tend to have a very high level of confidence in our experience oddly coupled with much less comfort in articulating it. But, of course, we keep trying. Mostly that’s a good thing but the polemical mode may not be the best manner to do it. And isn’t it ironic that more people have heard JFM’s offbeat views against us through our own publications than ever would have happened through his own venues? That might make us wonder some. Nevertheless, there are many important topics that Christians have been debating for centuries without any sign of abatement. It could be that this subject simply falls into that category too. Yet neither all opposition nor reactions to it are equally valid. Are we giving JFM more attention than he warrants? It’s entirely possible. Yet I don’t deny that to an extent it may be necessary. Perhaps JFM’s unprovoked attack set up a teachable moment for us all. However, even in such a contingency, a bit of balance might still be best.

I have a couple of other concerns too—a brief, basically methodological one, and a more extensive, primarily theological one. First, as much as I like this work in itself, that is, in terms of its contents, I perceive a certain incompleteness and/or unevenness in Strangers to Fire. It’s great to read under one cover pastors, teachers, apologists, theologians, administrators, and various churchmen and churchwomen (Oops! Okay, women are not included! Isn’t that sort of “strange” [pun intended] for a Pentecostal text of this kind?). Here the wonderful diversity of the Body of Christ comes to the fore with a refreshing vitality. Yet I felt bumped around a bit as I read from one to the other. The first major section, although the briefest too, responds directly to JFM in seven chapters. Then the next and final section has twenty-eight more chapters that seem to be pretty much a hodge-podge collection that samples everything ever written against cessationism or abuse of charismata. It might’ve been helpful at least to organize this huge amount of admittedly helpful material into sub-categories such as “pastoral,” “academic,” “polemical,” “exegetical,” “theological,” “historical,” and so on. The literary and intellectual transitions at least would’ve been smoother and possibly easier to follow.

I’ve already mentioned my aversion to an almost exclusively defensive posture. But what is our alternative? Pentecostals and Charismatics are in fact perennially attacked—at least by a vocal minority—for our beliefs about glossolalia, divine healing, and other spiritual gifts. How are we to counter? This question brings me to my second, and primarily theological, concern with Strangers to Fire. I could call it a lack of progressive development. Perhaps in addition to “Part One: Responses to John F. MacArthur, Jr.’s Strange Fire” and “Part Two: Classic Replies to Cessationism and Misuses of Charismata” could’ve been added something like “Part Three: Progressive Theological Development on Glossolalia and Charismology”? Admittedly, that would’ve made an already long book even longer, but it may well have been worth it in my opinion. Perhaps the disproportionately long Part Two could’ve been trimmed somewhat—although I wouldn’t envy the editor (my friend, Robert Graves) having to make hard choices about what to include or exclude. Fortunately, there are chapters in Part II that could’ve been included in a Part III such as I propose (e.g. Moreland, or even Graves’ own Christology, pneumatology, and anthropology in delving into the nature of glossolalia).

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Category: Fall 2014, Spirit

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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