I was just thinking, is all the hoopla surrounding John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference much to do about the formal, material, or both? I think it is probably both, since MacArthur & co. have engaged what can really only be noted as a sweeping generalization in regard to the charismatic movement; indeed also engaging in what can only be labeled as the argument of the beard, failing to make distinctions upon a continuum of belief—the continuum known as charismatic. They have made some legitimate critiques of what is called Word of Faith theology, but then unfortunately have sloppily conflated WoF with the broader movement known as charismatic. But beyond some of these more material shortcomings—and to be clear, I would not be considered a charismatic Christian by most, and I am not really a continuationist either, but I am not cessationist; so you can try to figure me out on this at a later date—I would like to focus on what I see more of a formal problem which, indeed, implicates some of MacArthur’s & co.’s material conclusions. So to this we turn.
As I just mentioned above, I think that the theology, and more pointedly, the prolegomena or theological methodology that underwrites MacArthur’s & co.’s hermeneutic and subsequent exegetical conclusions springs from a view of God that allows him, indeed, requires him to bash other Christians over the head in general. My concern with MacArthur, over the years, has been more to do with issues surrounding who he thinks God is, and thus, subsequently, what he thinks salvation is (i.e. his book The Gospel According To Jesus). The problem with providing a critique of John MacArthur is actually pretty parallel with trying to provide critique of Calvary Chapel theology (which I attend a Calvary Chapel—and not all Calvary Chapel’s are equal, but in general, Calvary Chapel’s eschew anything to do with formal theological thinking and categories, which leads to and from an uncritical engagement with formal theological categories unbeknownst to most of its leadership—I digress, in good bloggy style!); John MacArthur and buddies represent, in fact, not in principle, an extreme form of what has been called solo scriptura (scripture all by itself, in contrast to the more common Protestant sola scriptura). Which means, that trying to get behind the Bible, and trying to access what is informing MacArthur’s hermeneutic and theological commitments becomes a very tenuous, indeed, “anathemaous” endeavor. But being someone who rarely shies away from being considered anathema by the Fundamentalist Evangelicals (MacArthur & co.), I will try to make a couple inferences about MacArthur’s & co.’s informing theology by reflecting upon the fruit (MacArthur is big on fruit inspecting, just check his The Gospel According To Jesus); and so I will employ MacArthur’s own mode back at him and his kind of pathos (not really his exegetical conclusions).
1.) MacArthur & co. claim that all they were really doing with the Strange Fire conference was applying some ‘tough love’ on wayward brethren (and non-brethren); and so to speak the truth, is synonymous with speaking love for them.
a. If they were really interested in speaking the truth in love and as love, they would not have constructed a conference based upon non-starting premises as I have noted previously. They would have thought up a conference that would have engaged in collegial dialogue; they would have had invited the best and the brightest that charismatic scholarship and pastorship has to offer to a collegial and open forum discussion; and they would have, before even taking this step, been attempting, in good faith, to have ongoing dialogue with these same kinds of charismatic behind closed doors.
b. If they were really interested in administering tough Christian love, they would presume that the people they were exhorting were Christians; but they, by and large, did not do this. MacArthur & co. presumed that charismatic theology, of necessity, produces unbelievers. But if MacArthur & co. believe this, then why would they exhort non-Christians to act Christianly? This makes no sense.
Conclusion: The conference itself was ill-conceived, because it was based on ill-faith and fallacious premises; and it sought to address who they, by and large, labeled as non-Christians to begin with. If they were really interested in being loving they would have simply proclaimed the gospel to charismatics, and called them into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. And further, they would not have conflated Word of Faith theology, in particular, with Charismatic theology in general; this is just sloppy and thus not to be taken seriously.
2.) The more important inference that I have drawn, is that MacArthur’s and co.’s view of God is not that God is someone who loves everyone, but that he only loves people, in a special saving way, who agree with MacArthur’s & co.’s interpretation of the God disclosed in Scripture. And for MacArthur & co. the God that he and they claim to find in scripture relates to people in rather cold, harsh, ungracious, and law-like fashion; the God, that MacArthur & co. think from is not a God for us, but MacArthur’s God is against us until his God gets appeased through properly dotting all of our iotas and crossing our taus. And so grace cannot be shown to those who are non-elect, and we know the charismatics, by and large, are non-elect because they bark like dogs and meow like cats.
General Conclusion: MacArthur’s & co.’s God is not Love & Grace; MacArthur’s & co.’s God is Law & Grinch. And if we are created in the image of God—as MacArthur & co. would affirm—then it is only natural to take an Law & Grinch approach towards those we consider infidel.
So the moral of the story is: Whichever view of God you take (whether that be the Love & Grace one, or the Law & Grinch one) will end up getting reflected in your spirituality and daily practice; and in the way you treat others within the body of Christ.
caveat: Yes, I can agree that Word of Faith theology is outside the bounds of historic orthodox Christian teaching; but it is wrong to sloppily conflate this with charismatic theology in general. And Strange Fire did just that; they conflated, equivocated, and thus non-started themselves before they ever got started. And in the end, they felt justified in taking the tact they did because their view of God allows them to be this sloppy toward the non-elect world out there (including the charismatics).