Strange Fire: The Embers image

Strange Fire: The Embers

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It's now been a few weeks since the Strange Fire conference set certain pockets of the Christianternet alight, and I think we're now in a position to reflect on some of the outcomes. Obviously I don't think John MacArthur and his fellow hard cessationists are right - I've explained in some detail why I think he is both wrong and discourteous in his dismissals of charismatic theology, even as he is probably right about a fair bit of charismatic practice - but he has, in my view, achieved a fair bit of what he set out to do, and will probably quite pleased with some of the results. Here's how I see the embers of Strange Fire.

1. Cessationists have been emboldened to speak out. Like all of what I’m saying in this post, this is based only on my limited reading - but it seems to me that an awful lot of cessationist-leaning Reformed types have been given fresh confidence to challenge charismatic or continuationist theology by the antics at Strange Fire. I’m not talking about the die-hards; I mean irenic, moderate influencers in Reformed circles, particularly amongst bloggers and writers (Kevin DeYoung, Tom Schreiner, Tim Challies, Denny Burk, Justin Taylor, and so on), many of whom I didn’t even realise were cessationist until a few weeks ago. When I heard some of the things John MacArthur was saying, I assumed that guys like this would immediately distance themselves from the inflammatory rhetoric and leap to the defence of their charismatic brothers - but instead, while admitting that things might have been stated too strongly, they began linking to and posting things which reinforced the essence of MacArthur’s challenge. As such, Strange Fire has brought a number of cessationists out of the closet, and emboldened those who were out already, and that must be regarded as an achievement.

2. Following a delay of a few weeks, several strong charismatic/continuationist responses have been forthcoming. John Piper has done a series of four podcasts on charismatic gifts, prophecy and charismatic abuses, which take some of MacArthur’s criticisms on board but frame the biblical issues very differently (and with great grace). Craig Keener has responded at length, and pretty definitively, to the book. A variety of radio debates and discussions have produced similar results. And of course there have been a huge number of lower-key responses from relatively unknown charismatics like me. It took a while, but I am encouraged to see some of the heavyweights joining the conversation.

3. The extreme statements have probably moved the centre of gravity in the conversation towards cessationism. I’m speaking here about the Reformed conversation, since that is what MacArthur was aiming at - I doubt the conference will have made any difference in many charismatic and Pentecostal circles - but as so often happens, extreme statements have moved the centre. (The way this works in all sorts of debates is fascinating, but for another time). All sorts of people who were formerly quite quiet (see #1) have started saying things like, “Well, I don’t agree with MacArthur’s tone, but on this thing he’s saying, he does have a point.” I think, if one was to take a quantifiable snapshot of American, neo-Reformed evangelicalism today and compare it with an equivalent from three months ago, we’d find the landscape was more cessationist now. (Some of this may be aided and abetted by the huge success of Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling, which has really got up the noses of conservatives). That, for MacArthur, is probably mission accomplished.

4. One reason why cessationists and charismatics talk past each other so much on this issue is that they disagree on what the key question actually is. For the charismatic, the key question is, “is there biblical evidence to suggest that the last days, in which God’s people prophesy and work signs and wonders, will end before the parousia?” For the cessationist - who, as Adrian Warnock has pointed out, is often happy to admit that the answer to the charismatic’s question is no - the key question is often different: “are the alleged prophecies, languages and healings of the contemporary charismatic movement of the same quality, frequency or immediacy as those in the apostolic age?” For the charismatic - who, I would suggest, might also admit that the answer to this question is often no - this is a subsidiary question; after all, it might be that the reason for this is that we should be pursuing the gifts more, not less. But in the aftermath of Strange Fire, I would have to say (based, of course, on my own reading and experience) that it has increased in prominence. Many cessationists do not believe they have to meet a burden of biblical proof to establish the cessation of the miraculous gifts, and of those that do, a gesture in the direction of Ephesians 2:20 is often deemed enough. (Speaking as a researcher in Pauline theology for a moment, I am amazed at the lack of interaction with scholarship on 1 Corinthians displayed by MacArthur and some of his colleagues, but that will have to be a topic for another day). They do, however, think that charismatics have a huge uphill struggle to show that modern “miracles” are of the same frequency and quality as the New Testament ones. And that, as I reflect on the online debates I have seen in the last few weeks, has become a bigger issue. As long as the discussion is about that, charismatics are up against it.

5. Most controversially - but, I believe, defensibly - cautious continuationism (as opposed to charismaticism) has been exposed as something of a fudge. Now, I have to tread carefully here. I’m using the term “cautious continuationism” to refer to the belief that the miraculous gifts continue, but that they should not especially be sought or pursued by sensible neo-Reformed types, whether individually or corporately; and I’m using the word “charismatic” to refer to the belief that they continue and should be actively pursued by all Christians, including (perhaps especially?) sensible neo-Reformed types. I can’t help noticing that the people who talk about themselves as cautious continuationists are frequently trying to distance themselves from the “charismatic” label, and frequently do not have their practice aligned with their theory (it might not be entirely unfair to characterise the popular use of “continuationist” to mean “I believe the gifts continue, but I don’t use them or anything”). And this, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 14:1, is a fudge. If the miraculous gifts are available, they should be zealously pursued (z─ôloute ta pneumatika): corporately, individually, both. Prophecy should be especially desired. Whoever speaks in a language builds himself up. Whoever interprets a language enables the congregation to be edified. Healing, miracles, and so on build up the body. So anyone who believes the miraculous gifts continue should, to be biblically consistent (let alone loving towards others in their church), pursue them. As Terry Virgo has remarked, a good husband pursues time with his wife; he doesn’t say he’s “open” to it. Anyway: the polemics of Strange Fire have made it clear that a lot of those who argue for the miraculous gifts don’t really use them, or even particularly desire them - though there are some wonderful exceptions, like Piper - and that in practice, an awful lot of continuationists have practice which looks much more cessationist than charismatic. If this results, in Tim Keller’s nice phrase, in the “death of the mushy middle”, it will probably be seen as a win for cessationists.

So despite my strong disagreements with John MacArthur, and my astonishment at a number of things he apparently believes - that the languages at Corinth were all known earthly languages, that the prophecies of Philip’s daughters or the Corinthian prophets were put in Scripture somewhere, that the last days Joel talked about are over, that nobody used miraculous gifts after the end of the first century, and so on - it looks to me as if Strange Fire has accomplished a fair bit of what it set out to achieve. But I may be reading this all wrong. Any thoughts?

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