Strange fire, indeed.
Last week's seminal Bible conference about the Holy Spirit has created quite a tempest in our evangelical ghetto's teapot. Held at celebrity pastor John MacArthur's California megachurch, "Strange Fire" sought to address what MacArthur and his invited guests believe to be egregiously false teachings about Who the Holy Spirit is and how He works in our world today.
But if MacArthur and his fans were hoping to resolve anything, they must be seriously disappointed in the aftermath of their conference. They took an issue that has been simmering on a back burner for years, and whose contentiousness many American churchgoers were probably unaware of, zapped it in a cauldron of broad aspersions, and let Christianity's digital denizens bicker and feast with its acrimonious broth in cyberspace's ether.
If you didn't know what a cessationist or a continuationist was before this past week, you still may not. And if you did, you probably still don't know anything different about either of them today.
MacArthur, an established personality within our evangelical industrial complex, serves as the senior pastor at Grace Community Church in suburban Los Angeles. His "Strange Fire" conference, with four thousand registered attendees, was the largest conference his church has ever hosted. Tim Challies, another prominent figure within Christianity's "new Reformers" wing, has been quietly writing about this debate for years, and has taken great pains to present MacArthur's recent conference in as neutral a manner as he can. Quite frankly, if this whole topic is entirely new to you, Challies' blog is an excellent resource for you to consider.
Basically, the whole controversy boils down to whether or not you believe that the Holy Spirit still manifests Himself today through the "demonstrable gifts" like tongues, healing, and prophecy, or whether the Holy Spirit ceased using those tools sometime after the New Testament's books were written, in the church's early days. If you believe that the Holy Spirit does not use these special gifts today, then you are what's called a "cessationist," or somebody who believes those gifts have ceased. If you believe that the Holy Spirit still gives His people special gifts, like speaking in tongues, for instance, you are what's called a "continuationist," since His gifts are continuing.
What's the difference? And why does it matter? Well, according to theologians, the difference involves the way we view how God works among His people, and that matters because we could be blaspheming the Holy Spirit if we say that He can't do something, or we ascribe to Him things that the Devil instead is doing. Some people claim that Christians shouldn't say that they felt God telling them to do something, because then, it would be akin to prophecy, and most evangelical scholars from both sides of the debate agree that God does not give individual revelations of His will to anybody. The extent of God's will that He wanted to be revealed to His people is complete in the Bible.
For the past 14 years, I've attended a congregation that is part of the Presbyterian Church in America. A number of years ago, a small group in which I was involved did a study of the Westminster Confession, which serves as an explanation for why Reformed theologians believe what they believe about God and the Bible. And wouldn't you know it? The very first paragraph of the Confession says this:
Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.1)
Back then, I had no idea what cessationism or continuationism were, and, also unbeknownst to me, theologians have debated whether or not this particular paragraph - or indeed, any part of the Confession - expressly lays out a definite viewpoint for either side. However, I didn't need to know any of that at the time. It struck me as odd - and even a bit patronizingly European - to phrase "God's revealing His will unto His people" as having "ceased."
How do we know what God has stopped doing, and what He's continuing to do? And what right do we have to expect to know? He's God, and we're not, right?
It could be argued that, strictly in terms of the holy canon of Scripture, God indeed does not continue to add to it. Sincere, Christ-following evangelicals on both sides of this debate agree to that. But the language used by the Confession's writers is ambiguous on that aspect of its interpretation. Since the PCA wants its members to officially acknowledge the role the Confession plays in understanding the Bible, its lack of clarity has remained for me one of the main reasons for not joining the church I've been attending. (For what it's worth, the other major reason is that I don't believe that infant baptism, which the PCA practices, is the best expression of the sacrament.)
Admirable people within our evangelical community disagree strongly on a lot of issues. When it comes to cessationism and continuationism, some of the Christian personalities advocating the former, in addition to MacArthur, are Joni Eareckson Tada, Norman Geisler, and R. C. Sproul. For continuationism, we have some equally-heavy hitters in Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and the pugnacious Mark Driscoll, who attempted to crash "Sacred Fire" with a clumsy PR stunt promoting his own book on the subject.
Which brings up a complaint some observers to last week's goings-on in California have already pointed out: Both MacArthur and Driscoll, two popular preachers, each with large churches, both have new books supporting their opposing views of this debate coming out soon. How much of this conference was merely a promotional event for MacArthur? Having Driscoll show up and claiming that MacArthur's security detail confiscated his book certainly does not paint Driscoll's continuationism in a very positive light, either.
One of the reasons Driscoll gets all hot and bothered over this issue is stems from his adamant support for the gift of speaking in tongues. Other evangelical continuationists have been less vocal on this, one of the most provocative aspects of their perspective, because it is considered more an extremist part of the charismatic, Pentecostal movement, where some believe you're not saved until you can speak in tongues.
According to reports from MacArthur's conference, this more salacious branch of the continuationist camp is where most of its problems lie. People like Grudem and Piper are not charismatics in any modern definition of the term, since charismatics believe a whole host of unBiblical, extraBiblical, and outright heretical things, like prosperity theology, snake handling, and even sexual favors. Indeed, one of the speakers at MacArthur's conference, Conrad Mbewe, a pastor in Africa, described how Pentecostal continuationism's immoral excesses are destroying the legitimacy of evangelicalism all over his continent.
And then there was the reportedly moving testimony from Eareckson Tada, who was rendered a quadriplegic after a diving accident as a teenager. She used to pray fervently that God would miraculously heal her, but that physical healing has not yet come, and probably won't here on Earth. Nevertheless, God has been able to use her physical infirmity to not only minister in unique ways to people across the globe, but also to fashion within her soul a faith that has had to overcome her excruciating doubts, questions, and frustrations, and still loves Him.
The problem with testimonies like Eareckson Tada's, of course, is that God might have taught her all of the things He's been able to teach her in some other way, even if she had been healed. If you're going to be cynical about it, just because God hasn't provided a miracle to Eareckson Tada doesn't mean He can't provide a miracle to anybody else, either. We don't necessarily have a grasp on what - or how - God is doing and working in other parts of the world. Parts of the world that aren't as, well, cynical as ours. Remember the latent ethnocentrism I detected from the men who wrote the Westminster Confession? Just because Westerners would likely question the legitimacy of a miraculous cure as probably some secret medicinal trick doesn't mean less sophisticated societies in areas where medical access is marginal can't credit God with the power to instantaneously heal.
And speaking of speaking in tongues, and ethnocentrism, did you know that the correct term is "glossolalia"? It can also be called xenoglossy, which refers to an instance when somebody correctly speaks a legitimate language they previously did not know. Which, Biblically, is what happens when a person "speaks in tongues." According to Acts 2, speaking in tongues must involve three things: the speaker must speak in a language that is spoken somewhere on Earth, but it not native to them; what is said must be immediately translated by somebody else for the benefit of everybody in the audience; and it must bring glory to God by affirming His Gospel. In other words, it's not a mumble-jumble of incoherent sounds. It's not a proof of salvation. And, yes, it is just bizarre enough of an event that God may not consider it a widely applicable tool now that His church has been established. But does that mean He doesn't use it somewhere, with somebody, today?
Might MacArthur and his like-minded evangelicals be a bit threatened by the thought of a God Whose ways are so weird and unconventional? Granted, a lot of the Gospel is weird and unconventional, especially to the unsaved. In his Strange Fire conference, MacArthur says he wanted to create a dialog of respectful warning of what he sees as an unBiblical encroachment of Pentecostal dogma within more orthodox areas of evangelicalism. Unfortunately, some of his critics are now complaining that he's stirring the pot too much with divisiveness, or that he's being too public with his criticisms, or that he's not being loving and respectful of differing views.
To a certain extent, some of MacArthur's language is his typical blunt, no-apologies style. He's been quoted as saying Pentecostalism has brought "chaos" to Christianity. Yet, it's also worth pointing out that people like MacArthur can't win in these types of debates, because it's become unfashionable to criticize anybody these days. Everybody's entitled to their opinion, every athlete gets a trophy, and all roads lead to Heaven. It's easy for people who don't agree with MacArthur to blame him for how he says what he believes, instead of simply analyzing what he believes.
In all of this, no matter what side any of us are on, what's the one constant? It's that God is looking at all of our hearts, right? He's looking within MacArthur, and within everybody who spoke at his conference. He's looking inside your heart, and mine. If MacArthur is truly trying to be a bully, or trying to maliciously argue that it's his way or the highway, then even if none of his critics can prove it, God knows it. And if any of his critics simply don't want to admit that what MacArthur believes is true, God knows that, too.
And isn't this what matters most? Obviously, with learned, respectable scholars on both sides of this debate advancing Bible-based arguments for their perspectives, this is not something that will likely be resolved to everybody's satisfaction this side of Heaven. MacArthur makes some valid points, particularly regarding the dangerous extremes of Pentecostalism, yet more conservative views of continuationism cannot be definitively refuted. Isn't what's left the measure with which we seek to honor God with what we believe about how the Holy Spirit uses these debatable gifts?
The value in MacArthur's Strange Fire lies in his willingness to call out the egregious heretics within Pentecostalism for what they are: "deceivers... false teachers... in it for the money." Unfortunately, he sees the root of Pentecostalism's problems as being how believers imagine the Holy Spirit operates, instead of the blatant sins charismatics may commit in God's name. For MacArthur to rest his claims on something that's actually impossible to prove - instead of the many factual instances in which Pentecostal leaders have led people astray - he may find it ends up working against him.
Strange fire, indeed.