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Enjoying God Blog


John MacArthur’s Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Thomas Nelson, Nov 12, 2013) reviewed by Craig S. Keener

[Craig Keener wrote an extensive review of MacArthur’s book, Strange Fire, following the conference of the same name. It was originally published on-line at Pneuma Review on November 15, 2013. Since it is quite lengthy, I will post it in two parts. Below is Part One]

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 anti-intellectual (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.

To be continued . . .



Thanks for this Sam. I was greatly encouraged by this article. As a reformed, Evangelical Baptist who believes in the continuation of everything the scriptures teach us regarding the work of the Spirit in our lives today, I've been deeply troubled by MacArthur's claims. I even fear that at times he comes horrifyingly close to blaspheming the Spirit. That scares me not only for MacArthur, but for others who follow his teaching. It's incredibly sad also, that many miss out on the benefits of greater intimacy with God because of this extrabiblical thinking.
I deeply appreciated the article. I consider myself a conservative Charismatic, Reformed, Amillennialist and often find myself very uncomfortable identifying with the Pentecostal movement due to the abuses that are mentioned in this article. I am a charismatic; however, find myself embarrassed by the movement frequently.

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