Strange Fire – The Book, A Critique
I wrote this article in 2014, soon after Strange Fire Conference and the launch of the book. Having recently reviewed the article I realized how relevant it still is almost ten years later.
This book has to be one of the saddest books I have ever read. It is heartbreaking to see someone with the training, mind, and commitment to truth like MacArthur, turn his back on everything he believes about hermeneutics, the authority of Scripture and the need for dealing with the Scriptures with precision and integrity. While I differ vehemently with him on the question of cessationism, my disgust and disappointment is not because of his conclusions but because of the way he arrives at them. This book has to be a prime example of how not to discover the truth about any theological question.
Based on his personal testimony, MacArthur’s dislike of anything “spiritual” began when he was still a youth1. Later on he was (rightly) disturbed by the excesses and extremes in certain quarters of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. This resulted in his book “Charismatic Chaos” being published in 1992.
But more recently, as a result of knee surgery, he found himself watching TBN2. This rekindled his frustration with the errors of the prosperity preachers which resulted in the book and the conference3.
It is evident that he has based his cessationist views on personal (negative experiences) rather than on a sound analysis of the Scriptures. He begins the book and most chapters by quoting the horrors and often diabolical deeds and statements of the lunatic fringe of Pentecostalism. Note that he does not begin his arguments nor his theology with Scripture but begins with experience and then interprets the Scriptures in the light of that experience.
This is called experiential theology and he quite rightly castigates the Charismatic extremes for basing their theology on experience rather than the Word of God. On p78 he says: “At the practical level, Pentecostal churches regularly elevate experience over truth”. Yes, some Pentecostals do that – they believe something because they saw or experienced it, irrespective of whether it is Scriptural or not.
But MacArthur does exactly the same. Whereas some Pentecostals base their theology on positive experiences, he basis his on negative experiences. But just as a positive experience cannot be the basis of doctrine, neither can negative experiences be the basis of truth.
We must base our theology in Scripture alone, irrespective of whether our experience confirms or denies it. The basis of Abraham’s faith was not the negative experiences of years of attempts at Sarah conceiving, nor was it based on the very real knowledge of the deadness of his body and her womb, but it was based on the word of God which contradicted everything he could see or understand. Our belief in God, a six-day creation, the resurrection, eternal life and heaven are not based on anything we can, or have experienced (in fact we mostly experience evidence to the contrary) but on His Word. One of the fundamentals of our faith has always been that our doctrine is based on Scripture alone irrespective of what our experience tells us.
The whole book is an example of this kind of experiential theology but here is one example out of many:
In his chapter on “Fake Healings and False Hopes” (Chapter 8 – p155ff) he rightly discredits Oral Roberts as a heretic. He then shows a connection between Roberts and Benny Hinn upon which he (again correctly) points to the errors in Hinn’s theology and practice, concluding (again correctly) that Hinn is a charlatan and that Hinn’s “healings” are nothing more than showmanship and deception. Based on the fact that Hinn is a charlatan, he then concludes that “…there is no evidence that miraculous healings are occurring today as they did during the apostolic age” (p176).
Please note, he does not provide a single Scripture that says that healings will cease – because there are none. His total argument is that because Hinn is a fake, healings have ceased. Not only is this pure experiential theology but it is void of any semblance of sound logic. Furthermore he has based his entire experiential theology on one example and ignored the many examples of genuine healings.
Interestingly, MacArthur uses the word “counterfeit” on at least 55 out of the 311 pages of the book. By its very definition, a counterfeit proves rather than disproves the existence of the genuine. He devotes a half page (p55) to speak of “fool’s gold” or iron pyrite. But the existence of fool’s gold does not disprove the existence of real gold and fool’s gold would not be such a problem for prospectors if there was no such thing as real gold. Every counterfeit is based on the genuine and real.
In spite of MacArthur’s cry of sola Scriptura (only Scripture), he is actually non Scriptura (no Scripture) in this book. He does not have a chapter, page, or even a single sentence in which he quotes Scripture for his hypothesis that the gifts have ceased.
Sometimes the Scriptures do not overtly (openly) teach something, but by applying the rules of logic and deduction and by comparing Scripture with Scripture, we can come to a biblical conclusion. This is true, for example, of the doctrine of the Trinity, especially in the Old Testament. The doctrine of the Trinity can be proven in the Old Testament by applying acceptable rules of interpretation.
Yet, not only does MacArthur not provide a single Scripture for such an important issue but he also is not able to prove his point through logical deduction based on the Scriptures.
Here is the bottom line: If you were to strip the book of all the references to the excesses of Pentecostalism as well as the references to Calvin, the Church Fathers and other men and were to keep only the parts that interact with the Scriptures and handed those to a believer, he would read the book and come to the conclusion that the author is speaking nonsense – obviously the gifts continue! The book would also be reduced to a fraction of its original size.
Because he begins with a preconceived idea, the logical result is eisegesis – instead of drawing from the text its meaning (exegesis) – he foists on the text his own ideas. This is exactly what he accuses Pentecostals and Charismatics of doing.
Here is what he says on the subject – speaking against Pentecostals:
What we mean by the word “exegete,” means to draw out. Eisegesis is reading into from eis, the word “into,” reading into the text, putting into the text your own ideas. Exegesis is drawing out from the text. When we talk about exegesis in seminary, that means we’re teaching students how to let the text speak for itself. Rather than reading into it, you let the text speak for itself.4
He is exactly right – we cannot read our own ideas into the text. But that is precisely what he does throughout the book whenever he approaches Scripture – he interprets it, not to discover what the text says, but to make it support his personal views, based on his personal experience and preconceived ideas.
Use of Caricatures
In order to make his point, the author paints a caricature5 of Pentecostals and Charismatics. Every example he quotes is from the lunatic fringe of the movement. That there are extremes and a lunatic fringe to the Charismatic movement is obvious. But the extremes are hardly normative of the entire movement. Any group of people have oddballs on the extremes of that group. You simply cannot study the excesses in order to understand the whole.
People like Benny Hinn and TBN are by no means representative of the entire movement. Westboro Baptist Church are the people who protest and disrupt the funerals of servicemen who have died in defense of the USA. Westboro Baptist Church is a Reformed church – the same as MacArthur. But it would be foolish to say that all Reformed people, or all Baptists, are like the Westboro people and MacArthur would be insulted by being lumped in the same mold as Westboro.
Within the Pentecostal camp there have been many who have spoken out against the errors of Word of Faith, Prosperity, the fake healings and so on. The books, websites and sermons of those Pentecostals are all over the world and all over the internet. These Pentecostal discerners have been speaking out against the hype and heresy long before MacArthur began to do so6 yet in MacArthur’s mind there is little or no difference between them and people like Hinn and TBN.
Lack of facts
In order to write a book on any subject, some background research is required. More complex subjects require more in-depth research. In order to pronounce on a movement as complex and varied as the Pentecostals and Charismatics require a massive amount of research and even ten books would not begin to explore the many variables in these movements. MacArthur himself quotes a number of 500 million Pentecostals and Charismatics world-wide7. A movement this size can scarcely be understood by watching TBN for a few afternoons or by collecting hearsay evidence from disgruntled members of the movement.
As a result of this selective sampling, the book contains massive errors in fact. Here are some myths perpetuated in the book:
- Continuationism and belief in a closed canon are mutually exclusive. (A continuation of the gifts does not contradict a closed canon as many Pentecostals are explicit that the gifts do not add to, or supersede Scripture)
- Pentecostals do not believe in a closed canon – p242. (The majority of Pentecostals believe in a closed canon)
- Pentecostals hold Spiritual gifts at the same level, or higher than Scripture. (This is not true; the gifts are subject to the Scriptures and cannot supersede, replace, contradict or even be held at the same level as the Scriptures.)
- Pentecostals and Charismatics are exactly the same. (They have two totally different movements with different origins, have developed differently and have different emphases and doctrines.)
- The Charismatic movement flows directly out of the Pentecostal movement (when he does draw that distinction). (The Charismatic movement started totally independently of classical Pentecostalism and mainly remained separate from classic Pentecostal churches.)
- The Pentecostal movement passed its errors to the Charismatic movement. (On the contrary, the Charismatics contaminated the doctrine of the Pentecostals)
- The book contains many more such errors of fact.
Some of MacArthur’s “misunderstandings” of the facts are based on his revisionist version of history. His version of the history can be summarized as follows:
The gifts were there only for the initial phase of the planting of the church but they gradually faded away so that around AD 50 they were already much diminished and by the turn of the first century they were no longer operating. The gifts then resurfaced in the early 1900’s. During the entire period those who were in “the line of truth” from the Apostles to himself consistently taught against the continuation of the gifts.
This is simply not the truth. There are many records of various manifestations of the Spirit in every age from the Apostles through today8. Many of those that MacArthur quotes in his appendix “Voices from Church History” as being Cessationists actually manifested various spiritual gifts and MacArthur’s quotes do not line up with the facts of these men’s testimonies.
He emphasizes that cessationism is fundamental to the Reformed view and quotes several reformed leaders as pro-cessationism. At the conference at which the book was launched MacArthur promoted the Westminster Confession as a solid model for any church’s statement of faith. Yet the Westminster Confession itself and a significant number of the authors of the Westminster Confession were not Cessationists9.
Thus one of the cardinal legs on which he has built his theory does not exist and rather than prove his point, history clearly contradicts it.
Calvinism is the only true tradition
Throughout the book MacArthur emphasizes the importance, value and virtual infallibility of the Church Fathers and the Reformers. He unapologetically claims that the only true version of the faith flows from the Church Fathers, through the Reformers to modern Calvinists such as himself, RC Sproul et al.
He says: “…the broader Charismatic Movement… is not restrained by the sound doctrine of reformed theology.”10
In the conference that launched the book he said: “By contrast, Reformed theology, sound doctrine, is not a haven for false teachers. It’s not where false teachers reside. Reformed theology, sound doctrine, faithful, biblical exposition among the long line of godly men is not a place for false teachers. It’s not where frauds go.”
Just as he promotes a caricature of Pentecostals, his reformed theology promotes a caricature of God who indiscriminately condemns people to hell without ever giving them an opportunity at salvation.
He also forgets that Robert Schuller and Norman Vincent Peale (a 33rd degree mason) were Reformed. Calvin and Luther’s tortures and murders of anyone whose doctrine differed from theirs are overlooked and so is the fact that, the founder of one of the worst cults ever, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Charles Taze Russell, was a Presbyterian (reformed) minister before founding his cult.
One of the most serious attacks against the Scriptures and one that has caused the most serious damage to the authority of the Scriptures came from Tübingen School – the heart of Reformed Theology in Germany in the 19th century. Liberal theology was wholly born out Calvinism.
When he says that Calvinism is the haven of truth and not of error, he has obviously forgotten that Apartheid was founded on, empowered and blessed by Calvinism. He has furthermore also forgotten about the millions who have gone to hell in Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian and many other Reformed denominations because they were given the false message that they were saved because of paedobaptism and the millions more who are damned because their church never preached the Gospel to them, believing that predestination makes the preaching of and a response to the Gospel redundant.
Arguably the ugliest church in America has to be Westboro Baptist – the people who protest at servicemen’s funerals – another shining example of the “purity” of the “reformed tradition”. In dramatic contrast to Westboro, another reformed church was the first denomination to ordain homosexuals to ministry (United Church of Christ – 1972).
The prosperity, Dominionist and Kingdom Now heresies find their theological roots in the Amillennial, Post-millennial and replacement theology of Calvinism NOT in any of the theological positions of Pentecostalism. The root of these errors is not in Pentecostalism, as MacArthur claims, but in the very Reformed theology he promotes as the answer to every theological problem.
But there is a deeper philosophical issue here. Traditionally, Evangelicalism has always been regarded as the antithesis of Calvinism. Part of Evangelicalism finds its roots in a reformation of sorts as a direct response to the increasing deadness and liberalism of Reformed theology. MacArthur, however, having begun solidly in the Evangelical tradition has moved from his Evangelical roots ever deeper into the Reformed tradition. It would be similar to the Reformers returning to Rome!
Not only does he appeal to the reformers for his theology but he frequently quotes Augustine and others of the Church Fathers. He has obviously forgotten that the Church Fathers were not the fathers of the true church but of the false church – of Rome. In his and Calvin’s frequent appeal to the church Fathers they reveal a closer allegiance to the church of Rome than with biblical Christianity.
When he says that “…reformed theology…” is not the place for false teachers, we have to assume that he thinks that replacement theology (one of the tenets of reformed theology) in which God is portrayed as a covenant breaking God is sound doctrine.
We further have to assume that he thinks that an allegorical approach to eschatology is pure doctrine (even though he teaches otherwise).
Presumably he has no problem with the heresy that someone is saved because they were baptized as a baby. The social gospel that feeds people but does not give them the gospel is a direct result of Reformed theology and one has to assume that he thinks that is purity of doctrine.
If these are examples of the shiny purity of Reformed theology then MacArthur has slid much faster and further than we could ever have imagined possible.
Not only is this book “non Scriptura” but it is “extra Scriptura”. The thesis of the book is not based on the Scriptures but rests on the three legs of experience, history and the teachings of men.
One of the frequent false indictments he brings against Pentecostals is that they add to Scripture and do not hold to a closed canon (pp16-18). The truth is that Continuationist theology is based purely on the Scriptures whereas his theology has no Scripture as a base and in the absence of a Scriptural argument, he adds to the Scriptures – experience, history and the doctrines of men. He is therefore guilty of the very thing he falsely accuses Pentecostals of.
Since he does not have any Scripture that teaches a cessation of the gifts and there are many texts that show that it is God’s intention that the gifts continue, he has no option but to discredit the Scriptural base of the Continuationist. This he does by twisting those scriptures to mean what they do not mean (again something of which he accuses others).
Here are a few examples out of the many:
On p150 he says: “Paul would never extol prayers that bypass the mind as many Charismatics do.” Yet, on the same page he makes reference to 1Cor 14:211 which clearly says that “…he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries”. What else does Paul mean when he says: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.” (1 Corinthians 14:14).
On p151 he does the most amazing intellectual gymnastics in order to deny that Paul said he spoke in tongues “more than you all” (1Corinthians 14:18-19). These smoke and mirror tactics are idiosyncratic for MacArthur, generally, but are the hallmark of almost every time he refers to the Scriptures in this book.
It is therefore significant that he closes the book (p248, before the appendices) with a blatant misquote of Jude 23 which says: “but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.” The fire here can only be understood as the fire of Hell. MacArthur twists this verse to say: we should “…apply the mandate of Jude 23, rescuing souls from the strange fire of false spirituality”.
Dispensationalism is contrary to Reformed doctrine yet MacArthur does not only embrace Dispensationalism but takes it to a whole new level. For him, the first part of Acts is part of an entirely different dispensation to the rest of the “church age”. (It is not clear where the cut-off is. Sometimes he says it is in the middle of Acts sometimes he says it is at the end of the first century.) The fact is that according to him the way God worked and the things that were the norm during the “apostolic age” are totally different to the rest of the church age. This leaves one to wonder what else changed and whether we should still be preaching, praying, reading the Scriptures and fellowshipping – you simply cannot discount certain things you don’t like and retain others that you do like. Furthermore one is left to wonder how many more dispensations he sees between the Cross and the end of the church age.
We could write a book analyzing every page that contains errors in fact or of eisegesis, and most pages contain such errors. But it is sufficient to conclude that the basic methodology of the book is wrong. You simply cannot base doctrine on negative experience, a revised version of history and the doctrines of men as MacArthur does here. We must base our doctrine on Scripture alone, even if Scripture contradicts our opinions, experience or tradition. “…let God be true but every man a liar.” (Romans 3:4).
It seems the beam in MacArthur’s eye has severely impaired his ability to see that he is guilty of the very things of which he accuses the Continuationists.
January 6, 2014.
1 “When I was in junior high, and, you know, there was never a time when I didn’t believe in the Lord and I read Thomas à Kempis. I didn’t even know what he was talking about. But I thought, you’re missing something, you don’t have it. I’ve never had these mystical feelings of the presence of God.
So I got a book on prayer by E.M. Bounds, remember that, Phil? And it got worse. What is this? Then I got, Tom will identify with this, Witness Lee, and I’m a junior-high kid, I’m a high-school kid. I’m basically your average football player, baseball player guy who just loves the Lord and is wondering if I’m missing everything. I mean, they’re literally…they’re literally dupes for this kind of thing. You take a kid who knows his life isn’t right, who sees this kind of esoteric, almost transcendental kind of religious experience being portrayed before him, he has no idea what’s out there, he’s not theologically informed…I can just tell you from my own personal experience, I read things about people who wore holes in a wooden floor from praying for so long in the same place…I couldn’t comprehend that kind of behavior, couldn’t even grasp it.
And fortunately by the goodness of God, I was kept from that path into which a whole lot of other young people went even in those early years of my life. So I think it is…it is a preparedness of their hearts that comes from knowing they’re short of what real spirituality should be. And they know that. And they get suckered in to this kind of thing. And before they know it, they’re caught up in it and the emotional falsification, the illegitimate substitute they buy into. And they carry that back and they go to the church and they hear people sing, “Amazing Grace,” and the preacher gets up and explains a few verses in Scripture and they will think that he doesn’t have it either and they don’t have it either because they got it at the Jesus Culture deal.” (http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/TM13-17/strange-fire-panel-question-and-answer-session-2
2 “I don’t watch much television, and when I do I generally avoid the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). For many years TBN has been dominated by faith-healers, full-time pain in my leg might distract me from the physical suffering of post-surgical trauma. And I suppose on that basis the strategy was effective.
But it left me outraged and frustrated—and eager to challenge the misperceptions in the minds of millions of unbelievers who see these false teachers masquerading as ministers of Christ on TBN.” http://www.gty.org/resources/articles/a392
3 Strange Fire conference held in October 2013 at Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, California.
5 A caricature is a description of a person or thing using grotesque exaggeration of some characteristics and oversimplification of others in order to cause the object to appear ludicrous.
6 Personally, I already began to speak against Oral Robert’s Seed Faith in 1971 and have consistently spoken and written against every charismatic excess since then. Jewel and Travers vd Merwe published a booklet in 1995 drawing attention to the Gnosticism of many in the Charismatic movement. The title of the booklet is “Strange Fire” and it is still available on the internet http://www.discernment-ministries.org/StrangeFire.pdf.
8 For a list of some of these contact the author of this review for details.
9 Wayne Grudem. The Gift of Prophecy. Crossway. Wheaton IL. 2000. pp347ff.
11 In his commentary on 1 Corinthians (p372) he says that this verse should not be translated “…speak to God” but should be “speak to a god” since they are speaking to idols and not the true God! He seems to have dropped that notion for the purpose of the book under review.