Charismaticism seems a world away from Reformed— especially Protestant Reformed—Christianity, yet there are an estimated 500 million Charismatics or Pentecostals in the world today. The Charismatic or Pentecostal movement (although we can distinguish between Charismaticism and Pentecostalism, I use the words interchangeably) is the fastest growing movement among Christians, especially in the Third World. I can guarantee that there is a Charismatic church near you, and our missionaries in the Philippines have undoubtedly encountered Charismaticism. Philip Jenkins writes, “almost one Christian in five worldwide is neither Protestant, nor Catholic, nor Anglican, nor Orthodox,” but Charismatic.1 Moreover, the so-called “Young, Restless, and Reformed movement,” with celebrity pastors such as John Piper and Mark Driscoll, is open to, and supportive of, Charismaticism in various forms.
In October 2013, the Twitterfeed and blogosphere were abuzz with reports of Strange Fire, the anti-Charismatic Conference, organized by John MacArthur in his Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, from October 16-18. Strange Fire presented the case for Cessationism vs. Continuationism.
Continuationism is the belief that the apostolic gifts of prophecy, tongues, and healing continue in the church today, while Cessationism is the belief that the apostolic gifts have ceased. Continuationism includes men like John Piper, who are open to some of the gifts. Piper, for example, believes in the continuation of prophecy, but he himself does not claim the gift of tongues. Mark Driscoll also argues for Continuationism and even claims the gift of prophecy. This makes Piper and Driscoll all the more dangerous, because their advocacy of Continuationism gives Charismatic and Pentecostal theology a certain aura of respectability among young Calvinists.
At the other extreme of the Continuationist camp are the men and women of the so-called Word Faith Movement, the men and women who appear on Christian TV such as TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network). Big names in that movement are Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, T.D. Jakes, Kenneth Copeland, and Joyce Meyer, who claim that the Lord speaks to them—usually when the “Lord” allegedly does so, “he” speaks nonsense or heresy—and who claim a special anointing from God to do miracles and make their followers rich.2 Somewhere in the middle, between Piper/Driscoll (the “Reformed Continuationist” camp) and TBN (the charlatans and prosperity peddlers), are the mainline Charismatic churches, such as the Assemblies of God and a host of independent churches in almost every city, where speaking in tongues and other phenomena are the norm among those who claim to be “baptized by or in the Spirit” or to have received the “Second Blessing.”
Strange Fire was an answer to every form of Continuationism. Some critics of the conference—which had 4,000 enrolled attendees and was live streamed to some 127 countries—claimed that MacArthur’s conference was guilty of generalizations, and especially that Strange Fire only attacked the more lunatic fringe of the Charis matic movement, lumping everyone together or painting everyone with the same broad brush. While it is true that the speakers at Strange Fire did aim much of their criticism at the extremes of the movement, it is not true that they dealt only with the Benny Hinns and Joel Osteens of this world. Much of the conference was devoted to a positive setting forth of the work of the Holy Spirit and a defense of Cessationism in general. That especially made it worthwhile and beneficial for Reformed Christians.
MacArthur gathered together some high-profile and world-renowned speakers for his conference: Phil R. Johnson, Steve Lawson, R.C. Sproul, Tom Pennington, Conrad Mbewe, Nathan Busenitz, Justin Peters, and Joni Eareckson Tada. All of the speeches and seminars were recorded and can be watched for free online.3 For me, one of the most moving speeches was “A Deeper Healing,” by Joni Eareckson Tada. Tada has been a quadriplegic since July 1967, following a diving accident. She describes her visit to the healing crusade of Kathryn Kuhlman (1907-1967), the Benny Hinn of her day, which left her disillusioned and bitter, because, not only did Kuhlman not heal her, but she and similarly disabled people were ignored by Kuhlman’s staff! Tada recounts her feelings that night: “When I got home that night, I thought, ‘Okay then, if I can’t be healed, I’m just not going to do this. I’m not going to live this way.’ And soon a bitter spirit, a mean, a real complaining spirit began to take hold.” Tada uses a very insightful analogy: “[Trials] became the lemon that He kept squeezing in my life, revealing all sorts of things from which I needed to repent…bitterness, spitefulness, selfishness. I don’t like it when God squeezes the lemon, but I need it.”
Is that how we see our trials in our lives, as God squeezing our lemon to reveal the bitterness within, and to heal us of that bitterness?
Later, Tada makes a journey to Jerusalem and visits the Pool of Bethesda (John 5). She prayed, “Thank you for a ‘No’ answer to a request for physical healing. You really knew what you were doing so many years ago, because a ‘No’ answer to a request for physical healing has purged so much sin out of my life, so much selfishness and bitterness….”
No wonder Tada calls it a “deeper healing.”
The other speeches dealt with a variety of topics: the views of Calvin and the Puritans on Sola Scriptura (Lawson), various kinds of spiritual gifts (with a critique of tongues, prophecy, and other gifts [Nathan Busenitz and Tom Pennington]), a refutation of the Word Faith Movement (Justin Peters), and the devastation that extreme Charismaticism is causing to the churches in Africa (Mbewe). Mbewe is the “Spurgeon of Africa” and ministers in Zambia. Some intriguing titles include “Is There a Baby in the Charismatic Bathwater?” (Johnson); “A Word from the Lord? Evaluating the Modern Gift of Prophecy” (Busenitz); “Are We Preachers or Witch Doctors?” (Mbewe); and “The Devilish Puppet Masters of the Word Faith Movement” (Peters).
Such a conference was bound to be controversial, and MacArthur drew much criticism from various quarters: “Touch not the Lord’s Anointed!” “Do not blaspheme the Holy Spirit!” “The letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life!” “You are unloving, divisive, extreme, and offensive!” If you have met Charismatics, you will recognise these slogans. One does not touch the theology of some 500 million Christians without drawing some criticism.
One of the most outspoken critics of Strange Fire, who even wrote a book called Authentic Fire in response, is Michael Brown. Brown’s main criticism is that Strange Fire uses a broad brush to condemn all Charismaticism based on the antics of the lunatic fringe—this was the inspiration for Phil Johnson’s excellent speech, “Is There a Baby in the Charismatic Bathwater?” However, Brown’s credibility was seriously tarnished when he announced that he would be appearing with Benny Hinn on TBN, and, upon receiving criticism about giving a man like Hinn credibility, he claimed that he did not know what Hinn teaches!
Charismaticism is incompatible with the Reformed faith. It is an attack on the sufficiency of Scripture. With Luther we say to the modern Charismatics, “I slap your spirit on the snout!” However, that does not mean that we should ignore it. We need to know how to answer its claims, because it has a wide appeal. Certainly in Ireland, and on other mission fields, Charismaticism is in vogue. In some quarters, if you reject Charismaticism, your church is “dead” and unspiritual.
MacArthur is to be commended for this timely conference.
1 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: the Coming of Global Christianity (New York, Oxford University Press, 2002), 60.
2 For some good documentation about and critique of the Word Faith Movement, watch/read the seminars by Justin Peters on the Strange Fire Conference website. Peters includes many clips documenting the outrageous heresies of such false teachers.
3 “Strange Fire,” accessed March 14, 2014, http://www.tmstrangefire.org/. The website includes the audio and video recordings as well as the transcripts of all the speeches.