The Aftermath of “Strange Fire”: Appraisal of Pastor John MacArthur as a Scholar
Categories: Pastoral Articles
One Assemblies of God pastor by the name of Hugo wasn’t too thrilled about John MacArthur when I visited him in Mexico in May. A man who had just been fleeced by a charismatic church preaching the prosperity gospel began attending Hugo’s church, but angrily left after reading the Spanish version of MacArthur’s Strange Fire, which categorically rejects the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement as from the Holy Spirit. Evidently once the man became convinced that all charismatics are alike, Hugo, who is open to the Spirit but opposes the prosperity gospel, was no different to him than those who had cheated him.
Shortly after returning home, I was introduced to another person who was so captivated by MacArthur’s anti-Charismatic stance that he wrote, “My positions align with MacArthur’s. . . . I invite anyone . . . to point out MacArthur’s error, if any.” And not liking what he heard from an AMI pastor while visiting his church, this person declared, “I will continue to encourage all my friends at [this church] to investigate whether [their pastor] is in error or not . . . in light of the biblical scholarship presented at the Strange Fire conference.” Very well, the gloves are off—it’s about time we see MacArthur, a very competent expositor (for the most part) and fearless defender of the Gospel (as Larry King discovered), for what he really is as a scholar.
Several years ago, Dr. Warren Larson, then-director of Muslim Studies at Columbia International University, after reviewing MacArthur’s Terrorism, Jihad, and the Bible (2001), commented: “This book fails for generalities, inaccuracies, and weak research” (Christianity Today, June 2006, p. 39). MacArthur does the same in his trilogy against charismatics: The Charismatics (1978); Charismatic Chaos (1993), Strange Fire (2013). Let me offer concrete examples.
Re: Generalities: One pivotal error in Strange Fire is lumping together all continuationists (those upholding the validity of all spiritual gifts for today) as if a strong correlation exists between openness to the Spirit and advocating the prosperity gospel. Now, a study does confirm that, as MacArthur duly notes, “the vast majority of Pentecostals and charismatics . . . embrace some form of the prosperity gospel” (2013, p. 15). However, he fails to mention that many of them do not speak in tongues, a key charismatic practice indicating openness to the Spirit. According to an international survey of ten countries, “at least 40 percent of Pentecostals said they never pray or speak in tongues” (Christianity Today, December 5, 2006). Evidently there isn’t a high correlation between these two variables. One can then surmise that while these folks aren’t entirely open to the Spirit, they are certainly eager to receive “health and wealth” from God. Then there are believers like Hugo and many in the AMI churches who are open to the Spirit but do not advocate the prosperity gospel.
MacArthur should recognize that the Christian world in which we are a part is more complex and nuanced than his one-size-fits-all approach in which everyone whom he disagrees on spiritual gifts is pejoratively dubbed as “charismatic.” (He even calls Wayne Grudem a charismatic theologian!) This is unscholarly and worse, causes division, which is not a light matter to Christ who said, “They may be one as we are one” (Jn. 17:22). So, when the aforementioned critic asked whether the prosperity preachers like Bennie Hinn and Creflo Dollar, who still preach Christ however feebly, have gone too far, I responded, “Do not use a broad brush to paint everyone the same. I would distance myself from them for the same reason MacArthur would but do it biblically: “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him. . . . Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:15).
Re: Weak Research: MacArthur insists that the gift of tongues practiced by the Corinthians was “counterfeit pagan gibberish” on account that 1 Corinthians 14:2 should be translated as, “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to a pagan deity.” He reasons that “the absence of the definite article” (DA) in Greek, tō, before theō (“to God”) justifies his view (1978, p. 161). Since MacArthur doesn’t cite any source here, I’m resigned to assume that this is his invention. Here, a good researcher would have checked, first, whether theō without the DA tō is used elsewhere in the N.T., and if so, then see how Greek experts translate it.
Had MacArthur done that, he would have found that while theō is normally used with tō, there are several exceptions in which the DA isn’t used with theō (e.g., Rom. 2:17; 1 Cor. 10:20; 2 Cor. 5:11; Gal. 2:19; 1 Thess. 1:9, 2:15; Heb. 12:23; 1 Pet. 2:5). And if these passages are read according to MacArthur’s way (theō without tō=a pagan deity), then the result would be comical. For instance, 1 Peter 2:5 (NASB) would read, “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to a pagan deity through Jesus Christ.”
Thus, the failure to verify his finding—not sound research—greatly weakens his point that the Corinthians spoke counterfeit gibberish to a pagan god. (For other examples of MacArthur’s weak research see my earlier blog on “Strange Fire”.)
Re: Inaccuracies: I learned an important lesson about research while taking a graduate history course at UCLA. One day, the professor, having called me into her office to talk about my term paper, wanted to know whether one of the authors listed in the bibliographical section was a historian. When I said no, she told me to remove his quote and reference from the paper. The problem: While my quote may have been accurate, it did not come from an authoritative source.
MacArthur’s problem, however, is the opposite when he asserts that the tongues spoken by the Corinthians are the same as the tongues spoken by the followers of “two false gods called Cybele and Dionysius.” He writes, “And used in the worship of both of these gods was speaking in tongues (ecstatic babble) accompanied by clanging symbols, smashing gongs, and blaring trumpets” (italic his). MacArthur then cites William Barclay, a well-known British commentator, as his source (1978, p. 163). While that is not problematic, MacArthur’s borrowing of Barclay’s comment is misused because it isn’t accurate. Regarding 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, Barclay comments (1975, p. 117), “A characteristic of heathen worship, especially the worship of Dionysus and Cybele, was the clanging of cymbals and the braying of trumpets. Even the coveted gift of tongues was no better than the uproar of heathen worship if love was absent.” Note that “the uproar” refers not to tongues or ecstatic babble but noisy instruments. While MacArthur can try to find other sources to back his view, Barclay should be off-limit since he doesn’t say what MacArthur says he did.
Are you a continuationist or cessationist? I just want to be a follower of Christ in both my thinking and practice. For that I’m grateful to my first charismatic pastor who instilled in me a habit of praying daily and moving in the Holy Spirit; and then to my cessationist Talbot professors who equipped me to diligently study God’s Word. But one experience that really shaped my direction was seeing the great danger of liberal theology, which I countered while briefly attending a progressive seminary. I would rather spend the brunt of my energy to counter liberalism that destroys the Gospel and secularizes the Spirit than my fellow brothers in Christ.