Burned By “Strange Fire”
I’m certainly a bit late to the party, but in the wake of some of recent studies on global Christianity, I picked up John MacArthur’s controversial book Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship. MacArthur—targeting everyone from African bishops to Southern prosperity preachers—takes aim at a broad swathe of religious doctrines and behaviors he identifies with the “Charismatic Movement”
Naturally, plenty of ink has already been spilled on MacArthur’s theology and exegesis. I’m more interested in analyzing Strange Fire from the perspective of a Christian sociologist, because the analytical approach MacArthur adopts has some pretty serious potential ramifications for dialogue between Western and international Christianity. As a bit of a disclaimer, I’m a fairly staunch cessationist (I believe that certain supernatural works ceased to occur after the apostolic period), so I’m predisposed to agree with much of MacArthur’s biblical analysis. That being said, Strange Fire evinces certain argumentative tendencies that do not reflect well on cessationists—or Western Protestants—as a whole.
Chief among these is a tendency towards unjustified conceptual conflation. Strange Fire rolls Western prosperity theology, Word of Faith televangelism, Pentecostalism, and continuationism into one amorphous blob, which MacArthur terms “charismaticism.” Yet left unexplored is the brute fact that each of these phenomena has emerged under exceedingly different cultural conditions. The attendees of California’s Vineyard churches have very little in common with TBN’s viewing audience, the suburbanites that crowd into Joel Osteen’s church, or charismatic Anglicans in West Africa. MacArthur identifies Osteen’s message of self-actualization and Benny Hinn’s fraudulent healing crusades with the celebratory experiences of different cultures praising God, without really proving that all these phenomena rest on a specific shared set of doctrinal views about the Holy Spirit’s work.
More disquietingly, the strictly regimented norms of “orderliness” MacArthur stresses are not biblical criteria: they are the products of Western culture. In its discussions of charismaticism as a feature of global Christianity, Strange Fire skews in the direction of hectoring other denominations about their nonconformity with Reformed modalities of worship. Since the modern Reformed tradition largely lacks a strong liturgical emphasis or sacramental theology, MacArthur doesn’t have recourse to the arguments a Catholic or an Anglican might make in favor of a prescribed worship form. Accordingly, Strange Fire’s critique of “disorderly” worship feels like an attempt to impose personal stylistic preferences on another people group, without a compelling reason other than “I don’t like it.”
Strange Fire is not a profound book, nor does it meaningfully advance the theological debate regarding the operations of the Holy Spirit in the modern age. In painting with its gigantic brush, MacArthur’s defense of cessationism comes off as the frustrations of an online “discernment blogger” rather than a critical theological analysis. Its existence serves to represent the risks of thinking in terms of overbroad “worldviews” and stretching phenomena to fit one’s model, rather than vice versa. In short, Strange Fire is notable only because of its author, not because it makes a good case for cessationism.
I certainly hope that the positions taken in Strange Fire do not foreshadow a fundamentally unnecessary tension between Western ecclesiastical forms and the evolution of Christian worship styles in developing countries. In light of MacArthur’s stance, I might tentatively suggest that high-church traditions with established liturgical forms and a shared appreciation for early Christian writings—despite their perceived inflexibility—will in the future constitute a better bridge between global Christian cultures than nondenominational approaches. Charismaticism may thus constitute a second-order doctrinal feature of certain high-church traditions—in other words, “charismatic” operates as an adjective appended to a broader denominational tradition, rather than as a set of explicit doctrinal propositions about the outworking of the Holy Spirit in the contemporary era.
Whether such a philosophical approach to liturgy, charismaticism, and ecumenism is ultimately sustainable will, naturally, remain an open question.