MacArthur defends “Strange Fire” conference

Tim Challies has the first of a two-part interview with John MacArthur posted on his website. Challies asks many of the questions that folks have been wanting to ask MacArthur in the wake of his “Strange Fire” conference. This is a helpful interview, and I recommend that you read all of it.

Challies asked MacArthur to outline the case for cessationism, and among other things MacArthur laid down this compelling challenge:

What were the miraculous and revelatory gifts (like apostleship, prophecy, tongues, and healing) according to the Word of God? Scripture gives us a clear description. But when we compare that biblical description with the modern charismatic movement, we find that the latter falls far short. Though charismatics use biblical terminology to describe their contemporary experiences, nothing about the modern charismatic gifts matches the biblical reality.

For example, God’s Word explicitly says that true prophets must adhere to a standard of 100% accuracy (Deut. 18:20–22) and nothing in the New Testament exempts them from that standard. The book of Acts depicts the gift of tongues as producing real human languages (Acts 2:9–11), and nothing in 1 Corinthians redefines tongues as irrational babble. And the New Testament further describes the miraculous healings of Jesus and the Apostles (including the healing of organic diseases like paralysis, blindness, and leprosy) as being immediate, complete, and undeniable (cf. Mark 1:42; 10:52; etc.). These, and many other Scripture passages, demonstrate the truly extraordinary quality of the biblical gifts.

But here is the point. The modern gifts of the charismatic movement simply do not match up to their biblical counterparts. Modern prophecy is fallible and full of errors. Modern tongues consists of unintelligible speech that does not conform to any human language. Modern healings do not compare to the miracles performed by Jesus and the Apostles.

Amazingly, leading continuationists readily acknowledge this fact. Wayne Grudem, for example, agrees that apostleship has ceased. He further argues for a modern version of prophecy that is fallible and frequently characterized by mistakes. Sam Storms has a whole article attempting to justify the idea that modern tongues do not have to be real human languages. And in a recent interview, John Piper acknowledges that there was something unique and unrepeatable about the healing miracles of Christ.

Based on those admissions, I would challenge them to consider in what sense they should even be called ‘continuationists,’ because they essentially acknowledge that the biblical gifts have not continued. And if these aren’t the biblical gifts we’re talking about, what are they, and what Scriptural evidence is there for their operation in the church?

I agree with MacArthur that the lack of analogy between biblical depictions of the gifts and modern phenomena is a huge problem for continuationists. The response from continuationists has been to suggest new interpretations of the biblical depictions to bring them into line with modern phenomena. Nevertheless, even if one were to grant Grudem’s view of fallible prophecy, how do we explain the fact that the gift of tongues in the Bible consisted of natural human languages but modern phenomena do not? How do we explain the fact that biblical healings were public and undisputable while modern healing always seems to be private and unverifiable?

Obviously, this conversation is just starting. I look forward to a constructive dialog going forward. Read the rest of the interview here.

25 Responses to MacArthur defends “Strange Fire” conference

  1. Andre du Toit November 4, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    With very limited experience, it has been my experience during the few encounters that I have had, that the gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, were not “valid” as (1) in the case of tongues, it was just a repetition of a few noises and (2) in the case of prophecy, it did not materialize, contrary to the biblical test Deu 18:22.
    It is not doubted that many are honest and sincere in their approach but being misled by false teaching.

  2. Alistair Robertson November 4, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

    Denny, when the same arguments are put forward by cessationists without even acknowledging that they have been responded to by continuationists, it is difficult to see how the conversation can move forward. Sam Storms is slowly blogging through cessationist objections to tongues and now prophecy, including yours questions above. Even if you don’t agree with his (and myriad others’) arguments, why don’t you agree? And if you have done that already, why go right back to the beginning repeating arguments that have already been responded to as thought they have not?

    I’m all for conversation, but it gets a little tiring when there no acknowledgement of the conversation and the same things are said over and over again.

  3. Alistair Robertson November 4, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

    I may have to be a little clearer. I read your words, not McArthur’s above, and even then you mentioned Grudem, so my comment about acknowledgement seems misplaced. When I complain about no acknowledgement, I am referring to acknowledging and engaging the arguments, not just the conclusions. A conversation needs to involve dealing with the arguments that get to the conclusions, not just the conclusions of the arguments, and that is what I often do not see.

    Sorry, I was not as clear as I should have been.

  4. Henry Bish November 4, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

    Denny,

    If you want to be up to speed with this discussion please accept my suggestion to read what has been discussed on Triablogue over the last several months by Steve Hayes.

    Cessationists repeatedly ask for evidence, yet when presented with, for example, Craig Keener’s master 2 volume work ‘Miracles’ which provides extensive documentation of modern day miracles, there is silence, and the charge is repeated.

    Keener also cites modern examples of tongues in human languages in the first volume of his Acts commentary.

    Modern day supernatural phenomenon is rarer than many wacko-charismatics claim (and there are very many bogus claims) but there is a baby in the bathwater.

    To me it seems cessationists argue from their own (lack of) experience, and seem to quickly forget any credible evidence that is presented to them.

    But read Steve Hayes over at Triablogue, you will be disabused of much of your faith in cessationism.

    • Denny Burk November 4, 2013 at 11:35 pm #

      Henry,

      This is not a debate about whether supernatural things happen in the world. We all agree that God still does miracles. In fact, I believe I saw one this weekend.

      The debate is not about the continuation of miracles, but the continuation of the gifts.

      Denny

      • Henry Bish November 5, 2013 at 6:03 am #

        Denny,

        This response is a case in point.

        You said:
        How do we explain the fact that biblical healings were public and undisputable while modern healing always seems to be private and unverifiable?

        I said:
        Cessationists repeatedly ask for evidence, yet when presented with, for example, Craig Keener’s master 2 volume work ‘Miracles’ which provides extensive documentation of modern day miracles, there is silence, and the charge is repeated.

        You then said:
        This is not a debate about whether supernatural things happen in the world.

        !!!!!!!

        I said:
        Keener also cites modern examples of tongues in human languages in the first volume of his Acts commentary.

        You said:
        The debate is not about the continuation of miracles, but the continuation of the gifts.

        #baffled

        • buddyglass November 5, 2013 at 11:20 am #

          What I understand Denny (and MacArthur, and Challies, etc.) as saying is that miracles still happen and include some that are similar to the miraculous manifestation of the gifts but that the gifts have nevertheless ceased. What I’d like to get is a better delineation (from their perspective) between the current (alleged) state of affairs, where miracles happen that are more-or-less the same as the miraculous manifestation of the gifts but the gifts no longer operate, and the state of affairs where the gifts have not, in fact, ceased.

          Is the argument basically one of degree? i.e. “If the gifts were still operating then we’d see these miracles more frequently than we do, ergo the gifts are not still in operation”?

      • steve hays November 5, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

        “[JMac] The book of Acts depicts the gift of tongues as producing real human languages (Acts 2:9–11), and nothing in 1 Corinthians redefines tongues as irrational babble. ”

        “[Burk] The response from continuationists has been to suggest new interpretations of the biblical depictions to bring them into line with modern phenomena.”

        A few quick observations:

        i) Since 1 Cor was written prior to Acts, how are continuationists “redefining” tongues if they take 1 Cor as their frame of reference? If 1 Cor is the earlier source, how is it redefining the phenomenon to begin with an earlier source as your frame of reference? When scholars begin with Mark rather than Matthew or Luke (assuming Markan priority), are they guilty of “redefining” what Mark describes?

        ii) Why does Dr. Burk accuse “continuationists” of suggesting “new interpretations” of the biblical depictions? From what I’ve read, NT scholars like Fitzmyer, Garland, Thiselton, and L. T. Johnson, deny that glossolalia in 1 Cor is xenoglossy, while Ciampa and Rosner refer to the “ambiguous evidence regarding the exact nature of tongues” in 1 Cor. Is Dr. Burk claiming that Fitzmyer, Garland, Thiselton, Johnson, Ciampa, and Rosner are continuationists? Is he suggesting that only continuationists deny or question whether tongues in 1 Cor refers to foreign languages?

        iii) As Dr. Burk must know, some scholars think the phenomenon in Acts 2 is a miracle of hearing rather than speaking. He may disagree, but is he saying only continuationists take that position?

        iv) Let’s assume that Acts 2 refers to foreign languages. That identification is based on Luke’s use of certain descriptors (dialektos, hai hemeterai glossai). Since Luke doesn’t repeat those descriptors in other occurrences (10:45-46; 19:6), why assume it must be the same? Aren’t there some unique, unrepeatable aspects to Pentecost (e.g. the theophanic elements, viz. cosmic wind, “tongues of fire”)?

        v) Let’s assume that glossolalia is xenoglossy. Keener documents modern examples of xenoglossy. Cf. Craig Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Introduction and 1:1–2:47 (Baker 2012), 829.

        • Jon Loewen November 16, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

          In response to observation i), “redefining” as used by JMac is clearly explained by him as referring not to chronology as you try to imply, but to which text has the clear description of the gift. Use scripture to interpret scripture. But I think you already knew it wasn’t chronology.

          • steve hays November 16, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

            I didn’t imply that he was using “redefine” chronologically. Rather, I pointed out that he was using “redefine” idiosyncratically. Appealing to earlier usage (1 Cor 12-14) rather than later usage (Acts 2) isn’t redefining terms, except according to MacArthur’s eccentric and tendentious semantics. The problem is not that MacArthur was speaking chronologically; just the opposite: the problem is his failure to take relative chronology into account.

            To say scripture interprets scripture is a two-way street. That doesn’t select for Acts 2 as the frame of reference rather than 1 Cor 12-14. Moreover, it’s semantically and exegetically dubious to use one writer’s usage to define another writer’s usage.

            • Jon Loewen November 16, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

              Hard to argue that chronology is important on this issue, but lets say it is. In that case it’s even more surprising you want to argue it’s relevance because Pentecost happened before the letter to the Corithians was written. Or are you saying that because Acts was written after 1Corithians it is less relevant? In any case, it’s pretty obvious you are raising a red herring to try to detract from the real issue.

              • steve hays November 17, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

                You’re confusing when the event happened with the subsequent interpretation of the event.

                And, in fact, Acts 2 has no direct bearing on what Paul means, or vice versa.

      • steve hays November 5, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

        “[JMac] But here is the point. The modern gifts of the charismatic movement simply do not match up to their biblical counterparts. Modern prophecy is fallible and full of errors.”

        Suppose we reject Grudem’s paradigm of modern prophecy. Suppose NT/modern prophecy must be accurate. Isn’t MacArthur’s claim that “modern prophecy is fallible and full of errors” a hasty generalization?

        What about modern “prophecies” that aren’t erroneous? What about a premonitory dream that turns out to be true? Acts 2:17-18 famously predicts the occurrence of Christian dreams and vision. Do MacArthur and Dr. Burk deny out of hand the occurrence of premonitory dreams in the course of church history?

        Likewise, is receiving a revelatory dream the same has having a prophetic gift? On the face of it, a dream can be prophetic without the dreamer having a prophetic gift.

      • steve hays November 5, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

        Looks like one of my comments didn’t get posted. Is it in the spam filter?

  5. Alistair Robertson November 5, 2013 at 2:39 am #

    Not to flog a dead horse, Denny, but you’ve provided an example of what we’re talking about:

    From Henry: “Keener also cites modern examples of tongues in human languages in the first volume of his Acts commentary.”

    From Denny: “The debate is not about the continuation of miracles, but the continuation of the gifts.”

    Last time I checked, tongues is one of the gifts. The discussion includes miracles (which is another of the gifts – 1 Cor 12:10) but also gifts. Why is there no response to the actual content of arguments? I’m sorry, but I’m struggling, Denny. You “look forward to a constructive dialog going forward” but what will be dialoged? And who will be dialoging? Am I allowed to? Will you dialog with me? Or does it have to be certain people? And will there actually be an engagement of ideas?

    I’ve said my piece. I don’t expect any of those things will arise from this comment, and so I’ll make it my last.

  6. Andre du Toit November 5, 2013 at 4:02 am #

    Excuse my ignorance, but could anybody kindly refer my to recorded “speaking in tongues”? If anything similar to what happened at Pentecost, it should be fairly well recorded/documented, possibly even in the secular press – where it would be ridiculed as was the case where they were accused of (Act 2:13) “These men are full of new wine”.
    In my humble opinion, nobody would question “speaking in tongues” if it has proven itself “the real McCoy”. But alas, I have not seen it (or “heard it” if you want to be technical), and do not know of anybody that has. But maybe you can help me.

  7. Suzanne McCarthy November 5, 2013 at 8:54 am #

    William Samarin at U of T recorded speaking in tongues for five years and produced a book on the topic. Here is a summary of his findings.

    http://genealogyreligion.net/tower-of-linguistic-babel-speaking-in-tongues

  8. Andre du Toit November 5, 2013 at 8:54 am #

    I have been able to find a typical example of “speaking in tongues”, which is gibberish (honestly admitted by Pastor Gerry Stoltzfoos). See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZbQBajYnEc . It is recognised as an emotional response with little or no brain activity in appropriate areas – with a “test lady” even having to “get in the mood” through music to be able to “speak in tongues”. It is then ascribed to The Holy Spirit – it may just as well be Satan.

    Consider the nature of the website of Pastor Stoltzfoos and you will notice the same type of issues that I have come to associate with the charismatic movement – e.g. sermon on “five easy steps to receive joy” – and none of them referring to repentance, making it right with God.

    One example only ? I can only judge on my personal experience and what what I have now seen on this video- and nothing that is contrary to my initial assessment.

    What is however very sad that Christianity is judged by this movement. Very sad indeed.

  9. Suzanne McCarthy November 5, 2013 at 8:55 am #

    I understand that Samarin recorded thousands of hours of glossalia.

  10. Henry Bish November 5, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    In addition to the modern examples referenced by Craig Keener, Sam Storms gives testimony that contradicts the study of Samarin:

    When One Speaks in Tongues, Must it Always be in a Human Language?

    To answer that question, a study was conducted of people who claimed to speak in tongues (William Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism [New York: MacMillan, 1972]). The conclusion was that rarely, if ever, did any of the subjects speak in what we know to be human dialects. Cessationists have made much of this study because they feel it supports their premise that the gift of tongues has ceased. Their reasoning is quite simple: (a) all tongues in the New Testament were identified as human language; (b) no tongues today are human language; therefore (c) tongues are no longer a gift bestowed upon the church by the Holy Spirit.

    I don’t intend to discuss whether the study is right or wrong, although I have anecdotal evidence that challenges it. For example, I have spoken to many who tell of undeniable instances, often on the mission field, in which a believer spoke in a genuine human language without any previous exposure to it or study of it. I am inclined to believe them. But the more important issue is whether the initial premise of the cessationist is correct. That is to say, is it true that “all tongues in the New Testament were human language”? No, and I will appeal to ten points in response.

    – See more at: http://www.samstorms.com/enjoying-god-blog/post/when-one-speaks-in-tongues–must-it-always-be-in-a-human-language#sthash.AwAsfFHz.dpuf

    I think it is high time for a reevaluation of Samarin’s work, and for a new study to be conducted, one that primarily tries to track down these various people who have testified to speaking tongues in a known human language. Any PhD takers out there?

    (And I say this at the same time as being inclined to agree with both John Piper and Martin Lloyd-Jones that much of what sounds like tongues is not legit – I’m sure it would be easy to do another study and get a load of (unwitting) counterfeits to participate).

    • Suzanne McCarthy November 5, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

      Yes. Agree. Samarin used taped utterances and we need taped utterances to support Keener’s interesting examples. But the issue is not only whether they are existing languages, but if they contain internal structure capable of communicating meaning. Also Samarin observed that the speaker used only phonemes and syllables present in his or her native language. But Keener’s examples are persuasive.

  11. Don Johnson November 5, 2013 at 10:33 am #

    I am charismatic with sign gifts.

    Yes, gifts can be misused, abused and be counterfeit, the solution is to use them correctly, to build up the church and do so in the orderly way given in Scripture. That is, just because some may be doing things very wrong, does not mean others cannot be doing things correctly. Yes, there are some that go too far into what is rightly called charismania or other similar negative terms.

    1Co 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

    This shows that there are 2 types of tongues, those of humans and those of angels. Paul is contrasting someone who can speak with both types (that is, someone very gifted either naturally and/or spiritually) but does not speak in agape/love is just making worthless noise.

    Jesus once healed someone’s eyes in a 2 step process. I do not think we should denigrate a partial healing. Jesus also did things that resulted in emotional healing, my point is that healing does not need to be only physical. And he also said he was unable to do things because of the lack of faith of other people.

  12. Steven Lynch November 6, 2013 at 1:19 am #

    The signs and miracles were supposed to be an authentication of the message of the Gospel that was preached.

    If there are no signs or authentication of the Gospel message that is preached… What does that say about the message?

    I’d personally like to ask Ray Comfort if his Moral Gospel Evangelism has any authentication signatures of God.

    • Jon Loewen November 16, 2013 at 10:16 pm #

      It doesn’t say anything today because the canon is closed. The signs validated the message BEFORE the canon was closed. Today the message is validated by the bible. I’m sure Ray would say the same.

  13. J. Gary Ellison November 9, 2013 at 2:51 am #

    “how do we explain the fact that the gift of tongues in the Bible consisted of natural human languages but modern phenomena do not?”

    This is an incorrect assumption of the use of tongues in the New Testament: “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:2 ESV).

    There is a functional difference between tongues and prophecy, as Paul explicates in 1 Corinthians 14. Tongues function as prayer to God, intercession, worship, praise, and thanksgiving, but always directed to God. The gift contributes nothing to the church unless it is interpreted. The gift of interpretation should mirror the gift of tongues as prayer, intercession, worship, praise or thanksgiving to God. So there is no biblical foundation that I can see for a “message in tongues.” The gift is Spirit “inspired” prayer to God, not to men.

    Prophecy is Spirit “inspired” speech to men in a language that they understand. It therefore edifies the church without the need of interpretation. That is why it is preferable to tongues, though Paul would speak in tongues more than the Corinthians in his own private worship and intercession.

    1 Corinthians 13 indicates that spiritual gifts will continue until we see Christ “face to face.” Spiritual gifts are partial and will pass away when that which is perfect is come, when we see Him “face to face,” when they will no longer be needed (13:8-12). For now, we must neither despise prophecies (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21), nor forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39). Rather we are to “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1 ESV).

    The cessationist interpretation dismisses whole chapters of the New Testament as irrelevant to the life of the church, as though the Word of God itself were creating a problem that would not exist if these passages were not in Scripture. But all Scripture is profitable for teaching… that the man of God may be complete (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

    Paul’s prescription for the abuse of spiritual gifts was not disuse, but proper use (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22). I am thankful for the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:18).

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