Unfriendly Fire image

Unfriendly Fire

Following my response to the cessationist arguments put forward at Strange Fire, here are three further comments about the content of the conference, after having reflected a bit more on the whole thing. In no particular order:

“Creeds and confessions.” In his final session, John MacArthur made the extraordinary statement that cessationism is delineated in the “creeds and confessions” of the church. Well: no it isn’t. It’s delineated in some of the Reformed confessions, including Westminster (as Kevin DeYoung explains here), and there are good historical reasons, given the nature of medieval and early modern Catholicism, for the caution expressed by the early Reformers towards miraculous claims. But you won’t find it in any of the creeds: the biblical creeds, Irenaeus’ rule, either version of the Nicene creed, the Chalcedonian definition, the Athanasian creed, the Apostles’ creed, or (as far as I know) any ecumenical creed at any point in the first millennium of Christianity. So while MacArthur’s statement gives the impression of an ecclesiastical consensus stretching from the first to twentieth centuries, what he is actually referring to is a collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century affirmations - as valuable as they certainly are! - amongst Reformed Protestants. By all means, say that Calvinists have generally been cessationist, but don’t imply that the entire church has.

90% of Charismatics aren’t Christians. I have no idea where this number comes from - research, intuition, the clear blue sky - but it is nowhere substantiated, extremely judgmental (what on earth entitles anyone to say that of professing Jesus-followers they have never met?), and strangely self-referential (since a huge number of those who reject miraculous gifts today are not Christians either. I feel certain Richard Dawkins does, for example). It is also a terrible way to argue: it is quite possible that 90% of paedobaptists are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, but I’m sure MacArthur wouldn’t accept that as an argument against paedobaptism. This silliness needs to be called out for what it is.

Babies and bathwater. One of the dangers of responding to a conference like Strange Fire, ironically, is that its very extremism makes it easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater - which is precisely what John MacArthur himself does with charismatic gifts. Yet when we peel away the inflammatory remarks, unfair representations and (in my view) arrogant judgments which have been made, there remains an important kernel of truth to what MacArthur and others are saying. There is a lot of nonsense in the global charismatic movement. Leaders within it, myself included, do not speak out against much of it with the clarity and courage needed to identify the true from the false. The exegetical foundations for various charismatic practices are much shakier than many believe (the silly link from “they were accused of drunkenness at Pentecost” to “and therefore that legitimates any bizarro practice I feel like engaging in” being an obvious, and sadly frequent, example). The prosperity gospel is a genuine threat to biblical Christianity, and is also much more closely embedded in the global charismatic movement than many of us in the UK realise. It is common to attribute babbling, blessed thoughts and psychosomatic, temporary physical improvement to the Holy Spirit, without discernment or appropriate reflection. And so on. MacArthur and others have, sadly, thrown very valuable babies out with the dirty bathwater during this conference; let the rest of us not copy his example by ignoring the valid and important points he and others have made, or (which would be equally damaging) tarring all cessationists with the same brush.

In many ways, it’s been a sad week for evangelicalism. But if we respond wisely, as many have, there are plenty of ways in which the fire of God will increase, rather than diminish, in our midst. “And the God who answers by fire - he is God” (1 Kings 18:24).

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