Title: The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective
Author: John F. MacArthur, Jr.
Genre: Nonfiction, Religion
Year Published: 1978
Length: 224 pages
Binding: Hardcover, Paperback
Price: $12.99 (Hardcover), $9.95 (Trade Paperback)
While it may be hard to believe now, this nearly forty-year-old book was the first crack in the dike for the flood that was to follow 14-years later in “Charismatic Chaos” (308 pages, circa 1992), and then the tsunami that hit 21-years later in “Strange Fire” (352 pages, circa 2013). Never the less, the only things that have really changed in the ensuing years and various editions (of essentially the same book) are: a) the people and movements that Mr. MacArthur snipes at; b) the increasingly shrill tone that came with each new offering, and; c) the length and breadth of the polemic – it keeps getting longer and wider. Given all that, a better title for this book would have been, “The Charismatics: A Polemic Perspective”. In fact, Timothy George (the dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University) could have been talking about this book when he wrote:
Within the worldwide charismatic movement, there are no doubt instances of weird, inappropriate, and outrageous phenomena, perhaps including some of the things MacArthur saw on TBN [the Trinity Broadcasting Network]. Many Pentecostal leaders themselves acknowledge as much. But to discredit the entire charismatic movement as demon-inspired because of the frenzied excess into which some of its members have fallen is both myopic and irresponsible. It would be like condemning the entire Catholic Church because some of its priests are proven pedophiles, or like smearing all Baptist Christians because of the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church.
When told that his all-charismatics-are-outside-the-pale approach was damaging the Body of Christ because he was attacking his brothers and sisters in the Lord, MacArthur responded that he “wished he could affirm that.” This is a new version of extra ecclesiam nulla salus—except that the ecclesia here is not the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church but rather an exclusively non-charismatic one.
(Timothy George, “Strange Friendly Fire”, First Things, November 4, 2013)
I’ve been Charismatic since 1976 so this book brings back memories good and bad. What’s addressed here is as much a part of my personal history as they are threads in the tapestry of Christian church history as a whole. However, like MacArthur, I was more an observer than a direct participant. The reason for that is simple: The movements, places, and personalities that MacArthur criticizes (often rightly) in this work were all considered on the lunatic fringe back in the day. We moderate, theologically conservative, Charismatics avoided the likes of Oral Roberts, Kathryn Kuhlman, and the first generation TBN crowd then just as surely as we avoid Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar and new generation TBN crowd today.
I would echo the words of Joseph Mattera (Presiding Bishop of Christ Covenant Coalition and Overseeing Bishop of Resurrection Church in New York) when he said, “As a believer with a Pentecostal experience since 1978 I have seen many genuine moves of God as well as many counterfeit works of the flesh. Unfortunately, many believers lack the discernment to tell the difference between what is of God and what originates with man.” (Joseph Mattera, “Ten Marks of Charismaniacs”, Spirit Life Magazine, September 26, 2013)
So, given that, why is it that John MacArthur presents these errant, fanatical “out there” Charismaniacs as the norm in this book while simultaneously misrepresenting or outright ignoring the theologically sound and conservative Charismatics that comprised the core of the movement at that time? For example, after giving some examples of Charismatic excesses (a lady who claimed that God “healed” her flat tire and a woman who claimed that she had taught her dog to praise the Lord in an unknown bark) MacArthur makes this claim:
Granted, both of these examples are bizarre. Perhaps it unfair to characterize the Charismatic movement with illustrations like these. I wish that were true. I wish these two examples are rare, but they are not. And the reason they are not is that in the Charismatic ranks no experience has to stand the test of Scripture. The Charismatics, by the nature of their theological persuasion, have no way to judge or stop bizarre testimonies of experience because the experience validates itself. Instead of checking someone’s experience against the Bible for validity, the Charismatic tries to get the Bible to fit the experience, or, failing that, he just ignores the Bible.
(John F. MacArthur, Jr., “The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective”, pp.58-59, italics retained from original)
Indeed, Mr. MacArthur, it is unfair. This is nothing like the kind of normative Charismatic behavior and theology that the aforementioned Joseph Mattera articulates so well in his article:
Isaiah 8:20 says if we speak not according to the scripture then we have no light. Second Timothy 3:16 teaches that all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, correction and for training in righteousness. The scriptures are our rule for life and the highest standard for judging truth…
The more sure word of prophecy comes from the inspired writings of the canonical books of both the Old and New Testaments, which should be our guiding light for life (2 Peter 1:19-21) and by which all prophetic utterances should be judged. If the prophetic word or supernatural vision doesn’t go against the scriptures, then we still need to pray and get a witness from the Lord in our spirit as well as get counsel from mature leaders as to whether this specific prophetic word or vision is really specific guidance from Him.
(Op cit, Joseph Mattera, “Ten Marks of Charismaniacs”)
But if that misleading misrepresentation isn’t enough, later in the book MacArthur presents the following as something that Charismatics would object to rather than affirm:
“From the time of the apostles until the present, the true church has believed the Bible is complete. God has given His revelation is finished. What He gave is complete, efficient, sufficient, inerrant, infallible, and authoritative.”
(Op cit, MacArthur, “The Charismatics”, p.25)
He then proceeds to construct this straw man argument:
“Although Charismatics will deny that they are trying to add to Scripture, their views on prophetic utterance, gifts of prophecy, and revelation really do just that. As they add – however unwittingly – to God’s final revelation, they undermine the uniqueness and authority of the Bible. New revelation, dreams, and visions come to be binding on the believer’s conscience as the Book of Romans or the Gospel of John.”
Well, Mr. MacArthur, I’m sure that I’m not the first to say, “That is utter nonsense!” and I’m sure that I won’t be the last. This is a complete caricature of how I and most Charismatics that I know treat prophecy, dreams, and visions. Rather, Mr. MacArthur, it’s quite simple: If any new revelation, dream, or vision contradicts the Bible it is promptly and completely thrown out as illegitimate. Period. Always has been, always will be.
Equally upsetting is how Mr. MacArthur incorrectly and flippantly dismisses the normative Charismatic stance in this area as if it’s irrelevant:
“Some Charismatics would say that people misunderstand what they mean by prophetic utterance and new revelation. No effort is made to change Scripture or even equal it. What is happening is the ‘clarifying of Scripture’ as it is applied or directed to a contemporary setting, such as the prophecy of Agabus in Acts 11:28.”
Yes, Mr. MacArthur, exactly! We are indeed just doing what Agabus was doing in Acts 11:28 (NKJV) …
“Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar.”
… and then again in Acts 21:10-11 (NKJV):
“as we stayed many days, a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. When he had come to us, he took Paul’s belt, bound his own hands and feet, and said, /Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.'”
Why is this a problem? Do you believe the Bible is authoritative or don’t you sir? If so, then why do you disobey the apostolic injunction that clearly states: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21, NKJV) Was Luke errant in recording Agabus’ words and behavior as a model for New Testament ecclesiology? Was Paul negligent in not reproving Luke and Agabus for their folly? And was Paul a fool for admonishing the Thessalonians to continue in the error of Agabus?
And so it goes in this book. Straw man after straw man. Logical fallacy after logical fallacy. Misrepresentation after misrepresentation. Exaggeration, misstatement, imbalance, data mined propaganda, confirmation bias driven presuppositionalism, and bigoted, prejudiced condescension from a mind so closed that no logic, reason, or appeal can possibly touch it.1 Page after page MacArthur acts with all the grace, equity, and gentleness of a schoolyard bully. Just consider this “gem” from the chapter on authority:
“Today, with their emphasis on experience, many in the Charismatic movement are perilously close to a type of neo-Baalism!
It is not too hard to see that experience can be a dangerous weapon in the hands of Satan. Satan delights in getting Christians to emphasize experience and to de-emphasize God’s Word.”
(Ibid, p. 68)
So there you have it: Charismatics are the new, apostate idol worshipers drawing God’s people from true and pure worship and into syncretistic paganism. And compared to some of the other claims that MacArthur makes in this book, that’s actually tame. Elsewhere we’re told that Charismatics might be demon possessed (see pp.175-179) and their miracles actually the work of Satan masquerading as acts of God (see pp.114-117). Given all that, perhaps Michael Brown’s observation regarding the fruit of MacArthur’s last Anti-Charismatic polemic tome (Strange Fire, 2013) is just as true as his first (The Charismatics, 1978):
“The problem I have is that, at least in my admittedly limited observation, some members or follow[er]s of the MacArthur circle suffer from Richard Dawkins syndrome. Dawkins has such contempt for Christianity that he can’t bring himself to take Christianity seriously even for the sake of argument.
And some members/followers of the MacArthur circle reflect the same mindset. They exhibit such unbridled contempt for charismatic theology that they can’t take it seriously even for the sake of argument. They demand evidence, yet they don’t make a good faith effort to be informed. So the objection is circular, given their studied ignorance.
There’s a word for that: prejudice.”
(Michael L. Brown, “Authentic Fire: A Response to John MacArthur’s Strange Fire”, p.8; Charisma House. Kindle Edition)
Friends, this isn’t how one talks or reasons with someone that one hopes to lovingly correct. Vineyard Pastor Rich Nathan summed John MacArthur’s Anti-Charismatic behavior well when he said:
“Ultimately it is MacArthur’s rancorous, bombastic style that undermines his objectivity and any value this book may have had as a necessary corrective to excesses or errors in the charismatic, Pentecostal and Third Wave movements. Rabid anti-charismatics will love this book. It provides wonderful sermon illustrations for the already convinced. For those not so zealously anti-charismatic, this book serves only as a painful reminder of the lovelessness that characterizes too much of contemporary Christianity.”
(Rich Nathan, “Vineyard Position Paper #5: A Response to ‘Charismatic Chaos'”, April 1993, p.27)
Stated plainly, given his polemic extremes does Mr. MacArthur really expect anyone not already in his camp to listen to him? Theologian C. Michael Patton (a cessationist and President of Reclaiming the Mind Ministries) spoke for many of us when on the advent of the 2013 Strange Fire Conference he suggested that MacArthur’s never-ending stream of polemic rhetoric may be causing him to lose his voice as a Christian leader:
It is irresponsible to criticize the easy targets within a movement. We call this a “straw man” argument. It is when you choose the worst representative you can and argue against him. Of course, with charismatics in popular culture, the easy targets are the “crazies” who get all the air time. Why do they get the air time? Well, it is entertaining for many to watch. And the sensationalism that can come from these abuses is also easy for the non-charismatic to look at and discredit. But think of all the movements which are part of the Christian fold today that could be picked apart because of some abuses and excesses within. The first two that come to mind would be Calvinism and Pretribulationalism. Certainly conferences could be done about both, characterizing each by the worst-of. But how responsible and godly is that? Yes, you may make a qualification at the beginning and the end saying, “Look, I realize that not all Calvinists are arrogant SOBs, but the movement is dangerous. It is filled with monsters who believe God hates unbelievers.” Or, concerning Pretribulationalism, “I know that not all Pretribulationalists are date setters, but the theology is dangerous and produces an unbiblical mentality. It is filled with date-setting and causes people to be unconcerned with this present world.” Of course, these criticisms can be true, but they are not the necessary outcome of their beliefs and, more importantly, they don’t deal honestly with the arguments…
Because of all this, John MacArthur is losing his voice, and I don’t want him to. His reputation dismantles his platform to speak at just about any conference. He has worked himself into a corner where every time he writes a book or opens his mouth, many of us say, “Oh no!” before anything else. His radio program is called “Grace to You” and we are often left thinking “grace to who?”
John MacArthur says the charismatic movement “blasphemes the Holy Spirit” and “attributes to the Holy Spirit even the work of Satan.” Maybe he should think about who is actually attributing the work of the Spirit to Satan. I am not a charismatic, but such a statement really scares me. And because of this it would seem (even though the [Strange Fire] conference is sold out) that John MacArthur may be losing his voice.”
(C. Michael Patton, “Why John MacArthur May Be Losing His Voice”, ReclaimingTheMind.org website, October 15, 2013)
I think that Mr. Patton is right – and it breaks my heart. I love John MacArthur’s body of work. Some of the greatest sermons and best Bible exposition I’ve ever heard have come from his pulpit. And even though I disagree with him in part, I absolutely adore my MacArthur Study Bible for the deep insight and into the biblical text that it contains – it is my “go to” commentary. John MacArthur is not only not my enemy but I consider him a valued ally in preaching the gospel, proclaiming truth, and bringing glory to God alone.
Yet here we are 39-years and two more books later and Mr. MacArthur’s loveless Anti-Charismatic blindness has gotten worse, not better. So despite my respect and admiration for Mr. MacArthur, I suspect, based on the tone of the three highly polemic works that I have read alone, that he couldn’t bring himself to say anything good about me – or think that I have anything of value to add to any conversation – simply because I’m a Charismatic. While he isn’t my enemy I suspect that in his mind I am his. Folks, that’s just sad, isn’t it?
And the fact remains that this subject seems to be an obsession for Mr. MacArthur. So in another decade or so we can fully expect to see another work from him on the Charismatic movement. I will be praying that between now and then things will change for him (not unlike the Grinch growing a heart) and his stance will at least soften to at least a point of respectful tolerance. Yes, it will take a miracle but we serve a great God – and one who still speaks moves and performs miracles today.
1 Lest the reader think my rhetoric too harsh here please consider this:
First, here’s how John MacArthur cites Charismatic Theologian Gordon Fee in “Charismatic Chaos” the Anti-Charismatic work that followed the one being reviewed here:
“Gordon Fee, a writer who himself is a Charismatic, commented in the hermeneutical difficulties posed by the way Charismatics typically render the book of Acts:
‘If the primitive church is normative, which expression of it is normative? Jerusalem? Antioch? Philippi? Corinth? That is why do not all the churches sell their possessions and have all things in common. Or further, is it at all legitimate to take any descriptive statements as normative? If so, how does one distinguish those which are from those which are not? For example, must we follow the pattern of Acts 1:26 and select leaders by lot? Just exactly what role does historical precedent play in Christian doctrine or in the understanding of Christian experience?’
But the book Acts was never intended to be a primary basis church doctrine to the church. It records only the earliest days of the church age and shows the church in tradition from the Old Covenant into the New. The apostolic healings and miracles and signs and wonders evident in Acts were not common, even in those days. They were exceptional events, each with a specific purpose, always associated with the ministry of the apostles and their frequency can be seen decreasing dramatically even from the beginning of the book of Acts to the end.”
(John MacArthur, “Charismatic Chaos”, p.208, bolding added on the Gordon Fee cited text)
But here’s what Mr. Fee actually said in it’s full context:
“In defense of Pentecostals, it should be observed that although they have tended to arrive at the biblical norm by way of experience, they are not alone in establishing norms on the basis of historical precedent rather than on the explicit teaching of Scripture. The practice of infant baptism and the theology of its necessity are based first of all on the exegesis of some historical passages in Acts and one in 1 Corinthians (7: 14); they are made normative on the basis of the historical precedent. (Roman Catholic theologians would prefer the word “tradition.”) The Baptists’ insistence on baptism by immersion is based on no clear statement of Scripture, but rather on the exegesis of certain passages (including word study: “to baptize” = “to immerse”) and historical precedent. The partaking of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday is required by some Christians on the basis of historical precedent (Acts 20: 7). Likewise, on the basis of Acts 2: 44– 45 some groups in the Jesus-movement required the selling of possessions and having all things in common. Even such fringe groups as the snake-handlers argue for their distinctive practices partly on the basis of historical precedent (Acts 28: 3– 6).
The hermeneutical problem, therefore, is not unique to Pentecostals. It has to do with the interpretation and appropriation of the historical sections of Scripture. The problem may be posed in several ways. How is the book of Acts the word of God? That is, does it have a word which not only describes the primitive church but speaks as a norm to the church at all times? If there is such a word, how does one discover it, or set up principles in order to hear it? If the primitive church is normative, which expression of it is normative? Jerusalem? Antioch? Philippi? Corinth? That is, why do not all the churches sell their possessions and have all things in common? Or further, is it at all legitimate to take descriptive statements as normative? If so, how does one distinguish those which are from those which are not? For example, must we follow the pattern of Acts 1: 26 and select leaders by lot? Just exactly what role does historical precedent play in Christian doctrine or in the understanding of Christian experience?”
(Gordon D. Fee, “Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics”, (pp.87-88). Baker Publishing Group, bolding added on selection cited by John MacArthur)
Did you notice how Mr. MacArthur has taken a passage that explicitly indicts both cessationists and continuationists for hermenuetics that are ultimately rooted and grounded in experience first bias and data mines it? Specifically he cites only the content that suit his agenda in an out of context manner so that it appears to be an indictment of Charismatics alone when that’s simply not the case.
Second, I would refer the reader to the appendix of my review of “Building Bridges Between Spirit-filled Christians and Latter-day Saints (Mormons)” by Rob and Kathy Datsko in which MacArthur also engages in similar data mining and text twisting tactics in an attempt to build a case that there’s a movement of mainstream Charismatic Christians seeking ecumenical unity with tongues speaking Mormons. As I concluded there, directly addressing Mr. MacArthur:
…you knew that these authors were Mormon converts when you dishonestly tried to pass them off as Charismatic Christians didn’t you? So, in a similar manner Mr. MacArthur, no matter how many times you attempt to count the Datskos as Charismatic Christians, zero plus zero still equals zero. Finally, as Kathy Datsko stated plainly in her February 2013 comment, and as I have repeatedly observed myself, Latter-day Saints have absolutely no interest in Pentecostalism and stay as far away from it as possible – they treat it like kryptonite. So in the end Mr. MacArthur your evidence that mainstream Charismatics Christians are seeking closer ecumenical ties with Charismatic Mormons isn’t just exaggerated, it’s non-existent.
(Fred W. Anson, “Book Review: “Building Bridges Between Spirit-filled Christians and Latter-day Saints (Mormons)” by Rob and Kathy Datsko”)
Sadly, it’s quite apparent in his Anti-Charismatic work John MacArthur isn’t really interested in truth, balance, or justice. As one reviewer of MacArthur’s third Anti-Charismatic book, “Strange Fire” noted, “Make no mistake about it, MacArthur is not out to bring correction to a sector of Christianity with which he disagrees; his goal is to destroy a movement he considers false, heretical and dangerous.” (Eddie L. Hyatt, “John MacArthur’s Strange Fire, Reviewed by Eddie L. Hyatt”, The Pneuma Review website, October 23, 2013)
And apparently, if that means using unethical tactics like data mined propaganda generation, then so be it.