Strange Fire, Red Herrings & Discernment

Geoff ChapmanTheology, Thinking Out Loud0 Comments

“I resigned as an elder because people falling over backwards is not in the Bible, therefore it cannot be from God.”

I heard this statement about 14 years ago when I was a student in London.  The man was a former elder of a large, well-known church in London and this was my first encounter with the theology espoused at John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference this week.  Several people have posted able rebuttals to the Scriptural grounds for cessationism presented at the Strange Fire conference this week, Andrew Wilson does a great job as does Luke Geraty at  However, I think the exegetical arguments offered by MacArthur et al are a red-herring; we are at an interpretive impasse.   What is at the heart of the cessationist attack of continuationism is the issue of discernment.

For example, Phil Johnson was pretty ruthless in highlighting some of the perceived errors of  reformed charismatic leaders (Sam Storms, Jack Deere, R.T. Kendall’s) in relation to the ministry of Paul Cain.  Johnson argues that, whatever their other strengths and gifts, these guys did not spot that Cain was obviously a fake  for two decades.  Where did this blind-spot come from?  Johnson argues that their charismatic theology caused them to be undiscerning.  Likewise, according to Phil Johnson, Mark Driscoll’s so called “pornographic divination“, is incontrovertible proof that the gift is not genuine. This is based simply on the basis of the content of the revelation received; the argument goes, “The Holy Spirit would never do that!”

They believe from experiences like these that charismatic doctrine harms the body of Christ.  I think that for the sake of the Church we need to answer their critiques of our practice as well as their exegesis.

The truth is we are far more catholic (little c!) in our approach than our cessationist brothers.  They carry with them a Reformation-born pessimism about sin’s ability to warp the practice and doctrine of the Church of Christ. The only way to guard against sin in the church is a Sola Scriptura approach to practice as well as doctrine, and hence we have the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.

Historically, the charismatic position has been far less concerned with the distorting power of sin on the Church’s doctrine and practice.     This leads to the Gamaliel-like “wait and see” attitude that had been referenced at the Strange Fire conference.  We are confident in believers’ abilities to discern a genuine work of God from a fake one without looking for direct scriptural precedent.  For cessationists, it is this optimism that means that charismatics have departed from the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture by denying its very raison d’etre, to guard against our own fallen tendency to get things very wrong.

What the guys at Strange Fire are saying is that the charismatic confidence, based on the evidence they see, is misplaced.  The charismatic church is going the same way as the Roman Church and, in the word of MacArthur, we need a new Reformation.   The burning question is, are they right?

P.S. So far, the only  article from The Gospel Coalition on Strange Fire has been by Thabiti Anyabwile 

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