Is Strange Fire a Strange Book?

January 23, 2018

 

Summary: Ben Fischer Ministries reviews the best-selling book, Strange Fire. A close examination shows that the book is filled with logical fallacies. This post seeks to explore the broader, philosophical problems and their implications. Conclusions are drawn. Readers are encouraged to discern. Click here to subscribe to future posts. 

 

In the fall of 2013, world-famous Bible teacher, John MacArthur, published a confrontational book. Entitled Strange Fire, the volume deals with the controversial topic of the Charismatic move. Chronicling the lives of several well known leaders, the eminent pastor comments on its various beliefs, attempting to show that its tenants are unbiblical, and are unrepresentative of the historic Christian faith.  

 

“The ‘Holy Spirit,’” writes MacArthur, “…found in…charismatic teaching…bears no resemblance to the true Spirit of God.… The real Holy Spirit is not an…ecstatic energy, a mind-numbing babbler of irrational speech…” [1] MacArthur then goes on to say: “In Jesus’ day, the religious leaders…attributed the work of the Spirit to Satan….The modern Charismatic Movement does the inverse, attributing the work of the devil to the Holy Spirit.” [2] 

 

MacArthur’s assertions are clearly intended to frighten. His zeal is electric, practically leaping off every page. His charisma is nigh unto impossible to resist, even for the undecided reader, who has yet to cast verdict on the case. Given his notoriety as one of the most published pastor’s in the world, it is really no great surprise that his book has managed to hit its mark, swaying even inveterate Charismatics to reject their experiences as nothing more than religious pandemonium. 

 

But is MacArthur’s case, biblically speaking, a good one? Are his arguments obedient to conventional rules of thought? Or are his objections in need of a review for failing to adhere to proper scholarly and theological decorum? Readers of The Messenger will not be surprised to find this review unsympathetic of MacArthur’s recent spree. Sadly, it is doubtful that the man himself will pay much, if any, attention to the following needed critique.  

 

Problem #1: Affirming the Consequent

 

The first (and most trivial) issue is his improper use of logic. Far too often, MacArthur simply reasons “off map.” A rudimentary grasp of several formal logical fallacies reveals the hidden problems underlying his objections. He writes: “The notion that Christians should...receive extrabiblical revelation...has created the theological train wreck that is the Charismatic Movement.” [3] Frankly, such statements are indicative that no one with a basic command of philosophy read this book before it was published. 

 

To illustrate the problem, consider the following faulty argument. It is summerly comprised of three key premises: (1) When it rains, the street is wet (2) The street is wet (3) Therefore it is raining. The argument is clearly false. The one propounding it has confused sufficiency with necessity, a common fallacy known as affirming the consequent, since rain, though sufficient for wetting the pavement, is not necessarily the only possible cause. 

 

For the very same reason, MacArthur’s argument is fallacious. It is, in a formal sense, technically invalid. For Paul himself received a spectacular revelation which was patently extra-biblical, yet concordant with the faith. He writes: “...I know a man [who]....was caught up to the third heaven….he heard things that cannot be told….If I should boast...I would be speaking the truth. But I will refrain...so that no one may think more of me...” (2 Cor 12:1-4; ESV; emphasis mine)     

 

Paul’s testimony poses a crucial relevant point: Proneness to mystical visions is not necessarily a predicate to heresy. Indeed, theological error may be fueled by extra-biblical revelation, but this would merely constitute a sufficient cause to the problem. Thus, MacArthur’s argument is logically invalid. Attempts to obviate the issue only further prove the point. Arguments such as these are therefore rightly to be questioned since they fail to abide by scriptural norms and laws of logic. 

 

Problem #2: Denying the Antecedent

 

Unfortunately, Strange Fire, contains numerous such fallacies. Arguments are frequently presented whose premises simply do not follow. This is further seen in MacArthur’s telltale claim that if God were still speaking today, then the canon of scripture would be open. He asks: “If the Spirit were still giving divine revelation, why wouldn’t we collect and add those words to our Bibles?” [4] The problem with such a question is that it betrays a dependence upon another well-studied logical fallacy known as denying the antecedent. 

 

Once again, the problem here is not difficult to recognize. A simple three-premise argument aptly demonstrates the point: (1) When it’s raining, the street is wet (2) the street is dry (3) Therefore, it is not raining. Again, the conclusion is false. The first premise is not necessarily bi-conditional, since there are alternative reasons for why the ground could be dry. Consequently, the conclusion is an abstruse fallacy, which is precisely the problem behind MacArthur’s stated question. 

 

Looking to the scriptures, the reasons why are obvious: Not all inspired words were included in the canon. Examples such as the prophesying of Moses’ seventy elders (Nu 11:29) and John’s hearing of the seven thunders in the book of Revelation prove the point (Rev 10:3-4). But perhaps the clearest example of this biblical phenomena would be Jesus’ own preaching in the depths of Hell, since it demonstrates the point in a way beyond all contesting that divine inspiration is not the only ground for canonicity (cf. 1 Pe 3:19). 

 

Remarkably, Strange Fire repeatedly presents such gripes with not a single word offered on the criterion of canonical inclusion. No discussion, for example, is given around the fact that certain inspired letters of Paul were never inducted into scripture (cf. 1 Cor 5:9, Col 4:16). Nor is it ever properly mentioned that Jesus himself did (and likely said) many things which were never actually written (cf. Jn 21:25). As scripture indeed relates: “[Jesus] presented himself alive…appearing to them forty days and speaking about the kingdom.” (Acts 1:3; ESV; emphasis mine) 

 

The truth is unavoidable—such arguments are fallacious. They fail to live up to the author’s larger (and grander) legacy. It therefore seems obvious that if Strange Fire were truly properly nuanced, these sorts of logical fallacies simply would not appear in it’s pages. Yet far from being the only issue, the book goes on to deliver many other arguments which, together on a whole, hurt MacArthur’s case and even harm his credibility to comment on these matters in a pure and objective way. 

 

Problem # 3: Polluted Arguments

 

Hence, returning to the book, in the fourth chapter, MacArthur writes the following, incredible statement: “Photographs...in...the National Enquirer showed...televangelists Benny Hinn and Paula White holding hands….Rumors quickly circulated that the two were having an affair, though both parties denied the accusations.” [5] Respectfully, the fact that a noted evangelical pastor would cite the National Enquirer against a pentecostal is embarrassing. 

 

Think about it. Which, if either, party does the discerning Christian choose? The National Enquirer or Benny Hinn? Regardless of any scandal associated with the Hinn family name, the alternative, in this case, is hardly less suspicious! Worse, how does such a wild inclusion positively contribute to MacArthur’s overall objectivity? Even if factual, what Christian would want to choose between a peacock on the left hand and a turkey on the right? 

 

Most Christians would sooner admit to voting for Donald Trump. And MacArthur’s tone is at times, equally as brazen. It therefore seems obvious that something has gone amiss in the heart of the scholar who is presenting the case. We wonder: Is the famous pastor honorably guarding his own integrity who has frequently behaved himself as a hero in the faith? Woefully, it appears that scholarly objectivity has been sacrificed on the altar of personal whim and fancy. 

 

Problemata 4 + 5:

Professional Deception & Unwarranted Skepticism

 

Grievously, this is hardly the last we see of such problems. Other, more disturbing cases dot the book’s horizon. Arguments appear that depend upon the ignorance of readers less informed of developments within the field of biblical studies. For example: MacArthur quotes an outdated edition of the ESV to make a point that current revisions of the same translation do not support. Lay readers should therefore be cautious of the book, since errors of this kind are serious and are potentially, professionally reproachful. 

 

The passage in question is taken from 2 Peter. The outdated translation reads as follows: “…when [Jesus] received glory and honor from God the Father, and the voice [said]…‘This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this voice born from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention…” (2 Pe 1:17-19; ESV; 2007; brackets mine) 

 

The above passage describes Peter’s experience with Jesus on the mountain. It records the apostle’s witness of that blessed holy moment. Yet commenting on the passage, MacArthur lewdly states: “Peter’s point is precisely the issue that many charismatics fail to understand. Human experience is subjective and fallible; only the Word of God is unfailing and inerrant…” [6] Thus MacArthur clearly reads this passage as proof that Peter believed his testimony was less authoritative than the Old Testament! 

 

But various scriptural passages make precisely the opposite point. The apostles rather viewed their testimony as biblically regulative (cf. 1 Cor 14:37; 2 Pe 3:16). In other words, they saw themselves as having the only viable authority to add to holy scripture and interpret the Old Testament. For this reason, many modern translations support a differing reading of 2 Peter 1:19. A “short list” would include such popular translations as the NLT, the NASB, the HCSB, and the ASV.  

 

But beyond all doubt, the most notable translation to recently join the list would be the ESV itself! Updated editions now render the passage: “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed…” (2 Pe 1:19; emphasis mine) Thus contrary to MacArthur’s view, Peter’s comments suggest that he saw his experiences with Jesus as confirming the Old Testament. By a long-shot, this view is the consensus position amongst the broader guild of conservative scholars doing Bible translation today. 

 

So why then does MacArthur break with the majority consensus? Why does he take such a gross professional risk? One possible answer might be found in the eleventh chapter of the book in review. He writes: “Within a charismatic paradigm, biblical revelation must be supplemented with…subjective religious experiences.” [7] Here then lies the culprit—viewing subjective experience, rather than outright falsehood, as the cause of modern error.  

 

The problem with such a view is that it contains a potential blind spot—namely, that it ignores the subjective experiences of the biblical authors themselves. For how, apart from pure, discarnate awareness, were the sacred writers able to know that God was attempting to communicate with them? Thus, by demonizing subjective experience, MacArthur subtly suggests that the Bible was insufficient for discerning the very perceptions of it’s authors! He further assumes this position knowing full-well that it is false. For he elsewhere writes: “...prophecies were… examined on the basis of previous revelation...” [8] 

 

Scripture itself is therefore the proof that such skepticism is unwarranted. And no further argument is needed to demonstrate the point. For if it were indeed impossible to discern the source of inward impressions, then it would naturally follow that scripture itself could not be trusted. The sheer existence of the Bible presupposes that this is false. Any other conclusion must resort to unbiblical speculation. True biblical revelation was therefore accurately discerned for the express reason that John MacArthur’s argument is wrong.  

 

Opponents of Strange Fire are therefore justified for their alarm. The author has clearly painted with too broad a brush. With such a wealth of logical fallacies and incautious arguments, the rational Christian can hardly be blamed for drawing such a conclusion. Nor do MacArthur’s numerous valid critiques of Charismatic abominations serve to extenuate the problem. In fact numerous books, such as J. Lee Grady’s “The Holy Spirit is Not For Sale,” censure many of the same offenses without committing these errors. 

 

Conclusion: 

 

In closing then, it is critical that the Charismatic church be challenged wherever it embraces aberrant theological views. There simply is no excuse for the plethora of false teachings which are filling the world with vain lies and prank hopes. Yet care must be taken never to reject that which is plainly true in favor of a “wisdom” that is unreasonable. As the Word teaches, such wisdom is unspiritual, earthly, sensual and even demonic (cf. Ja 3:15-17).  

 

Therefore, may the Lord bless you and keep you as you continue to seek the Holy Spirit for his presence and will in your life. And together with all the saints, may you have power to comprehend what is the greatness of the love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

 

Post Script: This article is dedicated in loving memory to the legacy, life and ministry of pastor, author and teacher, Larry Christenson, who taught an entire generation of Lutheran ministers to humbly pray the prayer: "Welcome Holy Spirit." May God give you rest Larry as you enter into your reward, for your good deeds follow you. Well done. 

 

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End Notes:

[1]. John MacArthur; Strange Fire; The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit With Counterfeit Worship; Nelson Books; pg. xii

[2]. ibid; pg. Xiii

[3]. ibid; pg. 242

[4]. ibid; pg. 69

[5]. ibid; pg. 64 

[6]. ibid; pg. 70

[7]. ibid; pg. 218

[8]. ibid; pg. 121

 

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