Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Strange Fire: Sorting Out the Issues Part 4: Lists and Assessments, Visions, Tongues, Healings

Thought I'd try to list the main problems with Charismatica as I've come to see them, as brought out by the Strange Fire Conference :
  • Dishonoring / insulting the Holy Spirit by imputing either fleshly or demonic phenomena to Him;
  • Profaning worship, which is what "strange fire" means (see Leviticus 10:1) by various antics designed to conjure up counterfeit phenomena that have nothing to do with worship as defined by the Bible;
  • Misleading people by a false gospel into a false salvation, all over the world;
  • Defrauding people by promises of prosperity or miraculous healing in the name of Christ, all over the world;
  • By mistaking counterfeits for the gifts of the Spirit, either encouraging the development of psychic powers ("soul power" which has demonic implications), or outright demonic possession or at least oppression of people who either wrongly think they are Christians or ARE Christians (I'm not sure MacArthur is right that a Christian can't be demonized).  
These are obviously not minor or secondary issues, but so far, with the rare exception of the Pentecostal pastor I quote a couple posts back, Charismatics continue to accuse the Strange Fire Conference of unfairly criticizing fellow Christians about trivial matters, dividing the true body of Christ, and even being the heretics themselves.  But if these things I've listed are true,  Christians need to recognize that fact and leave the movement.

In Part 2 of the interview at Challies' blog, MacArthur defines his main objective this way:
Rather than initiating another conference, I am more interested in sparking a movement committed to reclaiming the honor of the Holy Spirit. And I would be glad to stand with these men in that effort, for the glory of Christ and the good of His church.
Here are some more topics touched on in the MacArthur interview as he answers questions and objections posed to him:

Do I believe that people in the Muslim world are actually seeing Jesus Christ? No, I do not. Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 15:8 that he was “the last of all” to see the risen Christ. So, I believe that precludes anyone outside of those listed in 1 Corinthians 15 of being able to claim legitimate visions of the resurrected Savior.

(The apostle John, of course, was one of those included in 1 Corinthians 15.  Accordingly, I don’t believe the book of Revelation sets a precedent for believers to expect genuine visions of Jesus to occur throughout church history.)

Furthermore, it is important to note that these individuals are still unbelievers when they reportedly have these experiences. Consequently, these experiences (whatever they are reported to be) cannot constitute examples of the charismatic gifts having continued, since spiritual gifts are only given to believers (1 Cor. 12:7)—and these people do not come to saving faith until later.

Finally, the New Testament clearly states that the way in which the gospel is spread in this age is through preaching. As Paul explains in Romans 10:14–15, unbelievers will not hear the gospel unless missionaries go to them proclaiming the good news of salvation.
He refers us to this blog  concerning the claims of Muslims being brought to salvation through visions, and to this one.

These blogs discuss the gullibility of Christians in believing uncritically whatever is reported of such miraculous events and show how the claims of visions fail by the Biblical standard, which says people come to faith through the preaching of the gospel, which leaves out visions.  They also discuss the validity of other charismatic claims, and the second blog has a link to another article at the first blog that discusses the claims to Muslim salvations through visions even more thoroughly.

I'm reminded of the book that may have been the first of this trend of Muslims coming to salvation through visions of Christ, I Dared to Call Him Father, written in 1978 by Bilquis Sheikh, which recounts her visions and dreams, including at least one of Jesus Himself, by which she came to the gospel completely on her own.  She even baptized herself in her own bathtub with nobody else present.

Then recently Ravi Zacharias on the radio mentioned a friend of his who when he was dying had a vision of Jesus coming into his bedroom and holding his hand, and Ravi raised no question about it, even said how Jesus knew that's just what his friend needed at that moment.

If these visions are not from God, what is their source?  Visions of Jesus can't be "Soul Power," something our own human powers could accomplish, nor even the "miraculous" powers Nee says were originally given to Adam.  What does that leave?  Well, it leaves Satan and his demons, right?  What else? 

SO:  If it's from Satan and his demons, that ought to be recognized as no mere secondary matter, right?  Not something to celebrate as Christians so often do.  How alarmed should we be about this?  Pretty alarmed, wouldn't you say? 


I've already brought up tongues in another context but MacArthur also discusses it:
In terms of potential dangers, I do believe that modern tongues is an unsafe spiritual practice. True worship takes place in spirit and truth (John 4:24), meaning it involves both the emotions and the mind. By contrast, a worship practice that empties the mind or consists of vain repetitions (Matt. 6:7) has more in common with pagan religion than true worship. The fact that modern glossolalia parallels pagan religious rites should serve as a major warning of the dangers inherent in this unbiblical practice...

A lot of the interpretative issues in Acts and 1 Corinthians 12–14 become clear by simply applying the basic rules of hermeneutics. For example, one of the most fundamental principles of Bible interpretation is that Scripture interprets Scripture, and that the clearer passage ought to be used to interpret the less clear passage. Regarding tongues, Acts 2 is explicit that the gift of tongues produced real human languages. When we allow the clearer passage of Acts 2 to govern our interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12–14, we can make a strong case that the tongues of 1 Corinthians were also real human languages. That simple observation undermines the modern charismatic practice of vocalizing irrational speech...
Phil Johnson also wrote a post today on the GTY blog specifically on tongues.

OK, then:  Either the practice of charismatic "tongues" is "Soul Power" which I've discussed here before, a misuse of a natural human ability that was given to Adam but distorted by the Fall and therefore not to be exercised but suppressed; 

OR those who speak these "tongues" are at least partially demon-possessed.  That is, the devil somehow has access to the tongue.  This is no minor matter.     

Seems to me this implication will eventually need to be discussed by those in the thick of these issues.

Claims to healings were mentioned at the above-linked blogs, and were discussed at the Strange Fire Conference, but didn't come up in John MacArthur's interview.

The problem with the claims to miraculous healings you hear all the time in Christian circles is that there's NEVER any evidence given for them.  You're supposed to just believe the reports, but the reports may be many times removed from the event and the event may look nothing like the report you heard if you can ever get any kind of real information about it.  And besides, once you've become aware of the great number of claims that are either self deceptions or frauds, nobody's reports should be taken at face value.  Somebody is very very convinced that a family member was suddenly and miraculously healed of bursitis when the elders prayed for her, and that COULD be true of course, since they were praying according to the Biblical instruction, but still it makes you want to know details that you'll never find out from people who simply take such things without questioning them.  It's as if faith can only exist for such Christians if there ISN'T evidence.

Some charismatics seem to equate the idea of faith more with things like having faith in miraculous healings than faith in the word of God as such or faith in Christ as our Savior.  If you can't hold onto a prayer for a miraculous healing then you might as well regard yourself as lacking in faith, period.  Some see miraculous healings as practically essential for winning people to Christ, at least as the best possible kind of witness.  I'd say that's a pretty puny idea of faith but that doesn't win me any points with those of that opinion.  Nor does answering that it's the same as walking by sight rather than by faith.  No, holding on to a prayer for a miraculous healing forever and ever if necessary is some Christians' idea of true faith. 

You may hear of people who finally give in to medical solutions to serious physical problems after many years of praying for a miraculous healing, but who then feel almost like they committed a sin by doing that.  I know of one person who scheduled surgery only to get the strong sense that she was finally to be healed miraculously which led her to cancel the surgery.  Months went by and she was not healed, so she rescheduled the surgery.  But that hasn't changed her mind about expecting a miraculous healing.  Those of this persuasion may also believe the gospel promises to take care of us financially, which is a version of the Prosperity gospel, or health-and-wealth gospel.  They can get very impatient with Christians who are suffering financially, because of their supposed lack of faith.  (Didn't Jesus say "the poor you'll always have with you?"  Well, that's explained as people who lack faith I guess, they will always be with us).   This version of the gospel usually means the person watches TBN.   I don't know if TBN promotes this or not but I remember being startled to hear from a regular TBN viewer the very carnal interpretation of "the abundant life" Jesus promises us, as if it means having all the comforts of this life, rather than the spiritual life and power in Christ.   

How many of the claimed miraculous healings are INDISPUTABLY of God?  I personally don't know of a single one.  The evidence always comes out against the claims or isn't forthcoming at all.

How many of the claimed visions of Jesus Christ are of God?  Well, none of them are, if MacArthur's biblical evidence is correct.

And I don't know of a single proven instance of a charismatic tongue being an actual language.  And again, if MacArthur's biblical reasoning is correct, they are all not from God.

While I've heard of some supposed predictions by "prophets" coming true, I haven't actually seen any of these claims proved either.

And again, none of these miraculous claims are anything like those reported in the New Testament anyway.  The "prophecies" are more like psychic readings, and nobody claims infallibility for them as the Bible requires;  the "healings" are never provable and are usually limited to minor things like bursitis anyway;  the "tongues" are not a known language.  And so on. 

When I think back on my own experience as a fairly new Christian in the charismatic movement, what stands out for me is not any particular failed claim to the miraculous but the undermining of my fledgling discernment, the confusion I experienced with the nagging anxiety that some of the phenomena I'd been witnessing were just not right somehow, that the rationalizations weren't holding up, while I was being told it was all of God and I shouldn't question it.

This is what I consider to be the biggest offense of the Charismatic movement from my own personal point of view.   Of course God ordained my experience and He has His reasons for it all, but it seems to me the Charismatic movement is just about as big an Antichrist cultic snare as the Roman Catholic Church and as dangerous, preventing genuine salvations in many cases, perhaps even being a source of demon possession.

The first clear problem I saw was when my little charismatic group prayed for the Pope and that was an eye-opener, the first step onto solid ground outside the charmed circle.  Then I prayed for light on various "prophecies" and some other rather strange goings-on that had been bothering me, which I then began to see by the light of the Bible, and that pushed me over the edge and out of the movement.  Still, despite being MOSTLY freed from it I've never felt I was COMPLETELY freed from it.

So for me the anxiety and uncertainty I've gone through trying to understand all this over my entire Christian life is a big enough reason to describe the movement as dangerous.  It takes a huge toll on the Christian life.  It makes me think of Daniel 7:25, about the Devil wearing out the saints.   Being unable to resolve some of the questions leaves one in an uncomfortable state of inner conflict. 

I know many have taken up sides on these things and don't experience the sort of conflict I've experienced, but I've got to say it seems to me they should because the conflict concerns what the Bible says;  it's not a personal matter.

Strange Fire: Sorting Out the Issues, Part 1: John MacArthur Answers His Critics

(sorry, don't know how these got out of order.  If I'm up to it I'll switch them around later)

In a two-part interview by a Reformed blogger who invited him to answer various criticisms of the Strange Fire Conference, John MacArthur Answers His Critics, Part 1 and Part 2 , John MacArthur says he considers this a "vital issue" that needed a strong statement as a "trumpet blast," a wake-up call to a complacent and ambivalent Church.
Because the honor of the Holy Spirit is at stake, we were convinced that we could not remain silent...

The charismatic quest for extrabiblical revelation, subjective impressions, ecstatic experiences, and so on, represents a massive danger to the church. Error is still error, even if there are true believers who embrace and espouse it...

The reality is that the gospel being proclaimed and believed by the majority of charismatics around the world is not the biblical gospel...

[It] breaks my heart to think that hundreds of millions of souls are being caught up into a movement where they are being seduced by false forms of the gospel.
   In Part 2 he continues:
Now someone might ask, “But isn’t this a secondary issue?” I would respond by asking, “Is the true understanding of the dignity of the Holy Spirit a secondary issue?” That’s a frightening notion, since the worship of the true God in the true way is our highest priority. And this issue has dramatic implications both for how we view God and for how we worship Him...

[Most objections don't]... take into account both the severity and the ubiquity of the charismatic error on the global level. Errant pneumatology is not ancillary to the charismatic movement. It is the very thing that defines it. And when an entire movement is defined by a heterodox theology that threatens the purity of the church by tolerating and even promoting false forms of the gospel, it must be boldly confronted...
These are strong statements, but for the most part the Continuationists or Charismatics have been reacting against the very idea of criticizing "another branch of the Church" and denigrating the Conference as focusing on secondary issues to no good purpose, rather than addressing the actual arguments presented at the Conference.

Personal communications on it I've received from Continuationists have ranged from a disgusted objection to "such a trivial concern," calling it "just another doctrinal conference that divides Christians when we need so desperately to be unified against the evils we are facing," which unfortunately included a refusal to listen to any of it; to a lengthy denunciation of the Conference full of Bible quotes condemning the presenters as heretics, also without having heard any of it. 

To these Charismatics there is no point in addressing the issues, it doesn't even occur to them.  They believe they already know the issues, and criticism of the Charismatic movement is not something to discuss but something to denounce, period.  So far the trumpet blast hasn't gotten through to them.

Well, IS it a "massive danger to the church" or just a trivial secondary matter it would be better to let lie for the sake of unity, or even a heresy itself to challenge it?  ARE people being "seduced by false forms of the gospel" through the Charismatic movement?

As I've already said in other posts, I think the Conference made its case, that it is a great danger, which justifies holding such a Conference, and justifies further attempts to get it across to Christians who have been taking it for granted. 

However, it's important that the critics get it right, and what MacArthur calls a "quest for extrabiblical revelation, subjective impressions and ecstatic experiences" misrepresents what the Charismatics believe they are doing.  As I say in my previous post, Charismatics do believe they base their belief in the continuation of the "gifts of the Spirit" on the Bible so that it is not a matter of personal seeking of revelations or impressions or experiences but of being open to what the Holy Spirit brings to their spirit.  Getting this right is crucial if the debate is going to make any headway.

Strange Fire: Sorting Out the Issues, Part 3: The Source of the Charismatic "GIfts"

Having said that I think it's important to characterize the Charismatics' beliefs in their own terms, as the Holy Spirit's speaking through the human spirit, if the Strange Fire Conference is right that is not at all what is going on.  However, I'm still not sure it's right to characterize the actuality as promoting extrabiblical revelations, seeking subjective impressions and ecstatic experiences as John MacArthur put it. 

I think this glosses over the fact that these things are usually experienced as just happening to the person without being asked for, and because that is the way they occur and because the recipient believes he or she is a saved Christian the question of their source just doesn't come up.  Or if it does it is immediately squelched by the constant refrain that it is dangerous to doubt the Holy Spirit.  That this attitude amounts to a mental bondage as tyrannical as that of any cult or dictatorship also doesn't occur.

In any case, if you insist on characterizing these phenomena in terms of subjective mental states you are going to miss the whole point, and miss an opportunity to make Charismatics aware of the problem you want to get across to them.


I'm glad to see the Pentecostal pastor I quoted in the previous post agreeing with John MacArthur about the Prosperity Gospel, and that's a big start, but he remains a Continuationist nevertheless, in opposition to MacArthur, while the Strange Fire Conference ultimately aims at the root of the whole thing, at the very idea that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit continue today.

And that gets us into the fundamental Pentecostal and Charismatic claims of miraculous healings from God, of genuine visions from God, of genuine prophecies from God, of a genuine gift of tongues from God. of a Baptism in the Holy Spirit that is separate from being born again, and so on. 

[Just heard on Pilgrim Radio an interview with Phil Johnson of the Conference, and tomorrow at the same time there will be an interview with Michael Brown for the Charismatic side, on the program His People. The program airs in Pacific Standard Time at 2:30 AM, 12:30 PM and 9:30 PM and can be heard online.]


On the radio show I just mentioned, Phil Johnson just described the phenomena claimed by Charismatics to be from the Holy Spirit to be in fact "learned behavior," and I've got to disagree with that quite sharply. 

I don't know if possibly some of it is, but I can guarantee you I never "learned" to "speak in tongues," it just happened to me one day while I was praying out loud during the few years I was in a charismatic church and a charismatic organization as well.  A whole stream of unfamiliar sounds came out of my mouth absolutely unbidden.  I don't remember what I was praying about but I wasn't even thinking about the gift of tongues, let alone asking for it, though I think I had asked for it from time to time before that.  At first I was elated -- Wow, it's true and I got the gift.  It turned out to be easy to just walk around letting my mouth produce those foreign sounds.  There was a definite pattern to them with repeating "words."  Sometimes they seemed to come out with an unidentifiable foreign accent too, even more oddly many different accents.  I even sang them.  It began to hit me as very odd that the tunes I was singing them to were nursery rhymes like Hickory Dickory Dock and Three Blind Mice and the tune Reuben Reuben.  This did bother me, I didn't know what to make of it, but I wasn't producing those sounds myself in any sense, they were being automatically produced as I simply opened my mouth and allowed them to come out.   I couldn't have imitated them consciously if I'd tried, though by now I can imitate many of them.  Years later I read that at least one other person quit the charismatic movement when he found his own "gift of tongues" coming out to the tune of a nursery rhyme.   Smart man.  I dragged on with mine for a few more years, very ambivalent about it but unable to get rid of it; and occasionally I discover it's still there though I try to suppress it.

So to MacArthur and Johnson and Company I have to say No No No, you are not going to get anywhere characterizing these productions of the mind and mouth that Charismatics experience as mere learned behavior or intuitions of any ordinary sort.   I'm not going to say there aren't any frauds but I know for a fact that these things can be produced apart from any normal mental process.   Michael Brown said on one of his shows that he "prays in tongues."  Well, from my experience it's quite possible to carry on for a long time producing these alien sounds and I suppose someone, taking his cue from a misread Bible verse or two, could assume they are "prayer."  My supposition is that they are about as far from prayer or worship as you can get, but the automatic nature of them may be enough to persuade a Charismatic believer otherwise. 

And if Cessationists don't recognize this they aren't going to persuade any Charismatics.

For this sort of phenomenon those are really the only two options.  Eventually I want to do a more thorough discussion of "soul power,"  which comes from a Continuationist corner of the Church although today's Charismatics haven't given it any thought that I know of.  The Strange Fire people are not likely to accept much of it either, although in many ways it supports their criticisms of the Charismatic movement.  

The idea is that there are "miraculous" powers that were given to Adam but lost at the fall, or at least "buried in the flesh" as Watchman Nee puts it, that can be revived under certain circumstances (such as repetitive singing of choruses).  He thinks they are probably discovered by people through promptings by the evil spirits.  They include such "parapsychological" or "paranormal" phenomena as psychic powers, clairvoyance, telepathy, telekinesis and that sort of thing.  Psychic powers can imitate prophecy.  Nee says healings of a certain sort are even possible through these powers, a sort of mind-over-matter thing such as Christian Science preaches and some Hindus and others practice.

This kind of thing would explain the kind of phenomena that are being exercised in the Charismatic movement, the "prophecies" and the "healings" and probably also the tongues speaking.  Some at Strange Fire did mention "psychic" phenomena as a possible explanation.  Nee also discussed the so-called "holy laughter" that was a major element in the supposed "revival" called the Toronto Blessing, that he'd witnessed in China before 1933 when he wrote the book describing these things.  How this automatic laughter relates to soul power isn't clear but Nee recognized it as a counterfeit phenomenon that did not come from God.   Nee, and Jessie Penn Lewis whose work he built on, accepted the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit but he also recognized a very large number of counterfeits of those gifts that were being expressed at the same time, something we don't hear recognized by today's charismatics who seem uncritically to accept anything that calls itself prophetic or miraculous. 

In his interview about his critics, John MacArthur goes on to such subjects as visions and tongues, which also need to be discussed as something other than ordinary human phenomena. That will be the next post.

Strange Fire: Sorting Out the Issues Part 2: A Pentecostal Pastor Agrees with much of the Strange Fire Conference

In Part 2 of his interview to answer his critics, John MacArthur gives a link to a blog by a Pentecostal minister   who agrees in general with the Strange Fire Conference (this is a great article).  As MacArthur says, this is the sort of response he was hoping to get:

I’m around average Pentecostals in my congregation and campus ministry. I’m not constantly around denominational leaders or scholars. And among most congregants the likes of Osteen, Meyer, Copeland, and Shuttlesworth are incredibly popular.

I’ve heard demands for MacArthur to evaluate us by looking at French Arrington or Stanley Horton. To be completely honest, my congregants have no clue who those men are (apart from perhaps a vague familiarity established by sermon references). My congregants do know who Kenneth Hagin is, or who T.D. Jakes is. I don’t think MacArthur’s concern is primarily with the Pentecostals who hold Horton in high esteem. It’s with the congregants who hold Jakes and Copeland in high esteem, and given that priority, MacArthur’s approach makes more sense.

MacArthur wasn’t looking to spark a debate in peer-reviewed literature. He was looking to engage at the popular level, and he has been wildly successful at this. It’s the popular level where the false teachers and excesses are often a problem, and it makes sense to aim there.

It should also be noted that TBN is exported to other countries. They broadcast all over the world. They broadcast to Christians who don’t have the benefit of owning their own Bibles. The incredible damage of Prosperity teaching in world missions must be carefully observed.
INCREDIBLE DAMAGE OF PROSPERITY TEACHING IN WORLD MISSIONS.  Nobody else on the Continuationist side has said such a thing that I know of.  And he concludes with this:
We Pentecostals and Charismatics needed to be offended, I’m afraid it may be the only thing that will make us think critically and Biblically about ourselves as a movement. And for this offense I want to thank John MacArthur and the participants in the Strange Fire Conference. The most hurtful thing about that conference is not the broad generalizations, sweeping condemnations, or lack of distinctions. For me as a Pentecostal the most hurtful thing about the Strange Fire Conference is my knowledge that far too many of the criticisms are true.
Right.  We can all read the books by the pastors and theologians but it's our friends in the congregations we hear from most, and although I'm no longer part of the charismatic movement I do still have friends who are.   Some are into the Prosperity Gospel or at least into the related idea that miraculous healings are promised to us if we ask for them.  They can quote the Bible on this. 

I may say more about this later but it seemed important for now to let this Pentecostal pastor be heard.