Friday, June 29, 2018

Review of John MacArthur's Strange Fire

This book is an outgrowth of the Strange Fire conference that MacArthur hosted in 2013. As has been the case with the cessationist/continuationist debate, no doubt the book will be met with divided opinions, sometimes bitterly divided.

MacArthur’s thesis is that the modern-day Charismatic and Pentecostal modes of worship, which focus on the employment of the charismatic gifts common to the apostolic church of the first century, constitutes worship foreign to what Scripture provides for the post-apostolic church—hence the title, “Strange Fire.”

While he treats the leading theological lights of the movement (genuine, credible scholars such as Grudem and Piper) with respect, nonetheless MacArthur makes a strong case that the movement in the main is theologically aberrant, having been swallowed up by the false gospel of prosperity and health. Using a deluge of well-documented statistics, he shows that the vast majority of the charismatic and Pentecostal movement have adopted the prosperity gospel—and that the number of responsible scholars in the movement who remain faithful to the true gospel is vanishingly small. These two charges (improper worship, and the majority pursuing the prosperity gospel) form the core of the author’s contention.

Part One documents the beginnings and history of Pentecostalism and its spin-off, the charismatic movement. Of particular note was the original Pentecostal view of modern manifestation of tongues (they were considered known languages by the founders of the movement), contrasted with the doctrinal change made necessary when it became clear the modern manifestation was not known languages. Uncomfortable to some readers will be the exposure of the doctrinal and behavioral deviations of the founders of the movement.

Part Two takes the charismatic gifts one by one (the gifts of apostleship, prophecy, tongues, and healing) and explores the movement’s doctrinal claims for their continuation. Using solid exegesis, MacArthur makes his case for why he believes these gifts have ceased and that the modern demonstrations of them are wholly illegitimate. Some readers will again be very uncomfortable with the heavily documented exposure of many of the movement’s leaders and adherents.

In Part Three, MacArthur lays out what he believes to be an accurate exposition of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. He concludes with “An Open Letter to my Continuationist Friends,” in which he pleads with them to consider the harm their positions are doing to the Church.

While John MacArthur can at times really turn me off with his harsh polemics, I find it very difficult to dispute with his contentions in this book. He has made a strong case for his position. One of the things I gain from the book is the understanding that the moment you allow subjective experience to govern your hermeneutics, you have just thrown away the guardrails of doctrine. Grudem and Piper, though I love them and read their books, are hard pressed to contend with the abuses of the movement they have aligned with. When subjective experience has been allowed to inform their theology, they cannot very well question someone else’s experience—they would have to saw off the limb on which they themselves are perching.
Four stars. Highly recommended.