John MacArthur is a seasoned critic of the Charismatic movement, having previously authored two other monographs on the subject. Strange Fire, however, stands out as a different response to the movement. His position hasn’t changed, but the manner in which he approaches the subject is much more vitriolic. That disdain so colors his interaction with the movement that it actually leads him to some poor scholarship. Strange Fire fails as a critique because it allows strong prejudice to color meaningful apologetics.
Dr. John MacArthur is a respected and much-loved pastor. His ministry has blessed hundreds of thousands, for sure. I myself have been immensely blessed by his teaching over the years. Thus, what he says has a great deal of influence. So, when he publishes a book on the Charismatic movement, there are many who will take it and read it as an authoritative guide. It is worthwhile, then, to investigate his claims and his approach.
The book is broken down into three parts. The first two parts build his case against the Charismatic movement: (1) Confronting a Counterfeit Revival; (2) Exposing the Counterfeit Gifts. The book is more expose than theological study. MacArthur appeals, of course to Scripture, as you would expect, but most of the content in the first eight chapters looks at the lives, teachings, and silliness of key Pentecostal figures (Benny Hinn, Oral Roberts, Kathy Datsko, Kenneth Copeland, etc.). Using 1 John as his guide, MacArthur looks at the lives and teachings of these figures and concludes that, in so far as they represent the movement, Charismatics theology does not pass the test: i.e., the Charismatic movement is not a work of God. These leaders do not exalt the true Christ, do not oppose worldliness, do not point people to Scripture, do not elevate truth, and do not promote a love for God and others.
In the second half of the book, MacArthur turns attention to the work of the Spirit as properly understood within the Scriptures. He outlines in three chapters the key works of the Spirit of God and offers, as he sees it, a corrective to Charismatic teaching. He ends the book with perhaps his softest words: a plea for his “continuations friends” to join him and to see the validity of his position. Though he names no one specifically, here he has in minds the likes of John Piper and Wayne Grudem, and other Reformed Continuastionists.
The book’s tone is overall dramatic and harsh. MacArthur sees the Charismatic movement as the most significant threat to the Evangelical church today. He says this because he sees its doctrines as undermining the gospel and mocking the Spirit of God, and because it has been embraced within the large tent of Evangelicalism. Charismatic Christianity is the largest growing segment of Evangelical faith, with over 300 million people in the world claiming this label. It’s a serious threat, says MacArthur:
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. Charismatic theology has turned the evangelical church into a cesspool of error and a breeding ground for false teachers. (xv)
Those are strong words and they represent well the tone of the whole book. If MacArthur is trying to start a conversation, I fear this book is not going to be the means of fresh dialogue and discussion. The work fails to cultivate a dialogue for three primary reasons: (1) he paints with a broad brush, (2) he misrepresents his data, and (3) he doesn’t interact with Charismatic scholarship.
Broad Brush Strokes
On the one hand, it’s difficult to see how any Evangelical can disagree with much of what MacArthur writes in these pages. He goes hard after the Prosperity gospel preachers, and pluralistic fringe teachers. We ought all to hear these warnings. But he sees this segment of the movement as representative of the whole. So, he addresses all Charismatics as though they are represented best by the likes of Benny Hinn. This, of course, is not even remotely accurate. The abuses that MacArthur addresses are serious and it is always important to draw attention to them. The high-profile nature of many of these individuals requires us to speak out against them and against their practices. Many Charismatics do this, and MacArthur even quotes several of them in his book. Yet, the author seems content to lump all Charismatics together as though there is no difference.
Furthermore, he lumps all Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Third Wave Charismatics together (Introduction, end note 2). He sees no need to make distinctions between them, yet these three groups do not all agree. There are serious, important, and defining differences between them, such that many of MacArthur’s criticisms do not apply to all three groups. Third Wave Charismatics, for example, have very different views about the Baptism of the Spirit from Pentecostals. MacArthur is either ignorant of this, which I find hard to believe, or he intentionally misrepresents the groups in order to create a straw man to attack.
Much of the book’s support comes from pointing out the egregious sins and theological errors of various teachers. There is certainly plenty of silliness and immorality to point to, and yet, MacArthur doesn’t always accurately represent this data. At times it appears to be intentionally misleading.
He points very clearly to the sexual and financial immorality found among many public figures. He points to Lonnie Frisbee, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, and Creflo Dollar. Yet, these types of scandals are not somehow isolated to Charismatics. One could easily point to issues among other denominations, and other respected leaders (I’ll refrain from naming names). Further, scandals exist everywhere, even among those who are not so high-profile. The suggestion that this is somehow unique to the Charismatic movement is simply his bias displaying itself.
In addition, MacArthur traces speaking in tongues back to Mormonism, which no historian I know of has ever done. He states outright that “some historians” (51) have traced this history, but when you consult the corresponding end note you find one author mentioned, and that author is a New Testament professor not a historian. This is a very misleading statement. To further substantiate this claim, MacArthur points to Rob and Kathy Datsko who claim unity among Latter-day Saints and Charismatics. These individuals are attempting to “build bridges” between the communities, that part is true. Yet the Datskos write as Mormons, not as Charismatic Christians. That is a big difference that MacArthur overlooks. They do not represent Charismatics of any stripe, but are active members of the LDS church. Again, this seems like a significant detail that is left out of the evidence. A latter end note confirms that he knows this detail about them because he cites Kathy Datsko as a “Charismatic Mormon” (Chapter 4, note 53). She appears to be the only example MacArthur has to substantiate this claim of Mormon influence, which hardly represents a significant trend or threat. Along with reviewer Thom Schreiner, I also have qualms with his use of Joel Osteen as representative of Charismatics. Osteen is certainly representative of the Prosperity Gospel, but he is not a Charismatic.
Lastly, MacArthur’s survey of church history seems to be selective. He suggests that no one in church history has ever been a continuationist, that this theology is a purely modern phenomenon. A more accurate survey will reveal diversity. Vern Poythress, himself a Cessationist, notes the varied experiences of men and women throughout church history with regard to things like prophetic words (“Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts”). Others as well, like Jack Deere, have pointed to plenty of evidence. Even MacArthur’s quotation of Augustine (252-253) fails to acknowledge the latter Augustine’s change of position.
Limited Scholarly Interaction
If you only read MacArthur on the Charismatic gifts, you might be inclined to draw the conclusion that there is no serious scholarship with regard to Charismatic theology. That, however, is simply not true. With only a few exceptions, MacArthur does not really interact with the theology of Charismatic teaching. He gives some space to work through Wayne Grudem’s arguments on prophecy, and I admit here I was challenged to go and think again about Grudem’s argument. MacArthur could have been far more effective had he interacted with more of the doctrinal teaching, but he suggests instead that there is no valid argument to be heard. D.A. Carson would disagree, and he has represented a cogent and compelling exegetical argument in his book Showing the Spirit. Gordon Fee has equally wrestled with the New Testament scriptures and presented long-form exegetical defenses of the continuance of the Charismatic gifts. Such arguments may not be convincing, indeed I don’t find all of them compelling, but they should be legitimately debated and wrestled with. MacArthur does not do this.
Strange Fire is not the book I thought it was. On the one hand it’s not that controversial. I didn’t disagree with nearly as much as I thought I might. His warnings against the fringe Charismatics and the goofy practices, and the Prosperity theology are all true and important. In fact, for most Evangelicals, indeed many Charismatics, they won’t be controversial at all. On the other hand, the book’s attempt to address all Charismatics without making clear distinctions and wrestling with their actual doctrinal arguments is a major oversight. The book simply does not present its case against all Charismatic theology. Honestly, there are far better works to read from an anti-Charismatic perspective. I do not recommend Strange Fire. It’s written with far more confirmation bias than actual apologetic argument.