Saturday, December 5, 2015

Strange Fire Revisited: True and False Doctrine, True and False Spiritual Experience

Partly as an antidote to the discouragement and depressing effect of the End Times scenario that is looming over us, I've been immersing myself in good teaching, lately a lot of John MacArthur on You Tube videos, which got me back into the issues addressed by his Strange Fire Conference of a couple years ago.  I caught up with some of his answers to his critics among other things. 

MacArthur remains concerned that the moderates in the charismatic movement, as well as those outside who also believe that the gifts of the Spirit continue today, don't denounce the false teachers among them, because their silence gives tacit approval to what he considers to be the most serious threat to the Church in our time, and misleads individuals who get a false idea of salvation from the movement.

The Strange Fire Conference should have demolished the Charismatic Movement

As I've been reviewing some of the talks and follow-ups from the conference I conclude that the conference achieved its goal of showing that the Charismatic Movement is not Christian, even though there are Christians who are involved in it. The conference made their case, biblically, theologically and historically, that the "gifts of the Spirit" are not the gifts of the Spirit as described in the New Testament, they are something else, something false, misleading Christians into serious error.

I personally benefitted greatly from the Strange Fire Conference because although I'd come out of the charismatic movement years ago -- thanks to God's merciful answers to my prayers for truth about phenomena I'd encountered there -- I still had lingering doubts about the overall authenticity of the movement.  As MacArthur mentions in at least one of the videos I recently watched, one Reformed teacher said his eyes were opened by one particular revelation from MacArthur’s book based on the conference that completely exposed the errors of the movement and ended any doubts he had about it: the simple fact that all the practitioners of the movement recognize that the supernatural phenomena they are practicing are not the same as the gifts of the Spirit that were possessed by the New Testament Church.  The charismatics call the phenomena they experience "the gifts of the Spirit" nevertheless, while acknowledging this difference.  It seems to me that once this is acknowledged the whole charismatic movement is exposed as a deception and the hard thing to explain then is why some people aren't yet convinced.  The "prophecies" they promote, the "healings," the tongues-speaking, none of that is the same thing as the New Testament Church had experienced.

That revelation was one of seven Biblical arguments for the cessation of the spiritual gifts given in the talk by Pastor Tom Pennington, and was also crucial for setting me free from my lingering doubts, but that entire talk is what finished it off for me for good.  Those seven arguments he gave should be the end of the claim that scripture doesn't say that the gifts ended. What Pennington showed is that while it doesn't say that in so many words, there should be no doubt that the Bible makes clear that the gifts have ceased. He shows definitively, it seems to me, that the purpose of miraculous gifts throughout the Bible was always to authenticate the possessor of the gifts as God's chosen messenger. He then focuses on the gift of Apostleship to show that of all the gifts given to the New Testament church, that one has unquestionably ceased. He then shows that the New Testament Church was founded on the New Testament apostles and prophets, and once a foundation is laid it's laid and what follows in subsequent church history is building the temple on it. Then he makes the point mentioned above and elaborates it, that none of the phenomena practiced today in the charismatic movement that are claimed to be the continuation of the New Testament spiritual gifts bears any resemblance to the originals. Then he shows from scripture that the gifts had already declined during the time of the New Testament church, and then gives the testimony of church history that they had ceased. He argues then for the sufficiency of scripture, and goes on to point out that the rules given for the expression of the speaking gifts in the New Testament church are completely ignored by today's practitioners.

It seems to me that Pennington's talk alone should leave no charismatic claim still standing. All the talks contributed to that assessment, but another I found particularly illuminating was R.C. Sproul's talk on Undervaluing Pentecost, in which he demonstrated from the Book of Acts that the four major impartations of the gift of the Holy Spirit by the apostles were for the purpose of including separate groups of believers in the foundation of the Church, that is, the Jerusalem believers, the Samaritans, the "God-fearers" and the Gentiles. I'd never heard that before and it answers the major claim by the charismatics that those events argue for the continuation of the gifts today as if they represent the norm. If they were instead unique to the founding of the Church, as Sproul demonstrated, they argue against their continuation.

Those who continue to criticize MacArthur and the conference either can't have listened to it or understood it.  Judging by some of the criticisms I ran across, many just didn't hear it, because they are criticizing points that were clearly answered in the conference.


There is some confusion between the charismatic phenomena and other forms of “mysticism” that could keep the Strange Fire Conference from completely demolishing the movement as it should

As MacArthur says in an interview by Phil Johnson [27:05], as well as in a talk he gave to his seminary students, What has happened since Strange Fire, he doesn't understand what “compulsions” make an otherwise strong Reformed preacher and thinker step outside that frame of reference in order to endorse the charismatic movement. 

Two continuationists that were mentioned were John Piper and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and both of them have said that the scripture doesn't show the cessation of the gifts, which I say above Tom Pennington seems to me to have answered definitively forever. Lloyd-Jones also made it clear in some of his writing that he thought the cessationists are saying all miracles have ceased rather than just the specific gifting of individuals as described in the New Testament. Pennington answers that objection too, and I’m sure MacArthur does in his book as well.

Both Lloyd-Jones and Piper certainly have a strong influence on continuationists today. I'm not as familiar with Wayne Grudem, but apparently he is another Reformed teacher who has defended the gifts. There remains a question why he and Piper haven't changed their view of the movement based on the conference, and especially on Pennington's talk, if they in fact heard it.

Lloyd-Jones died in 1981 but those influenced by him should be able to correct his views from the information given at the conference. Other influential evangelical teachers who accepted the charismatic movement were A.W. Tozer and Leonard Ravenhill, both very inspiring preachers it would be hard for serious Christians to criticize. This is a great value of the Strange Fire Conference, that it gives us solid grounds for rejecting their views of the charismatics apart from their valid theology.

According to MacArthur in the talk to seminary students, Lloyd-Jones often spoke of seeking a special "anointing" or power of God on his preaching, saying he'd experienced it three times in his career. MacArthur answered very effectively based on 1 John 2 that the anointing is there when the truth is preached, which is of course true and needs to be affirmed as he did.

But he fails to recognize that sometimes there is such a thing as preaching with a felt power that affects the hearers in an unusual way. MacArthur's argument would be stronger if he allowed that there very well may be valid supernatural spiritual experiences, although they have nothing whatever to do with the Charismatic Movement and are wrongly appropriated to it. He quite rightly says in that talk to the seminary students that he thinks Lloyd-Jones’ mysticism about the anointing “lends itself to being open to the charismatic gifts.”

But since he has never experienced this sort of thing himself he denigrates that mysticism and risks being unable to persuade those who take it seriously. My point is that one of the reasons for Reformed teachers to hold on to the idea of a special anointing, which then wrongly becomes the basis for supporting the whole charismatic movement, is that they themselves have had such “mystical” experiences and assume they are the same kind of spiritual experiences the Charismatic movement is based on. Lloyd-Jones didn't experience the big revival in Wales in 1905 (though his wife did), but he was very interested in revivals and studied them. Genuine revivals are characterized by supernatural experiences that leave an indelible impression on those affected by them, including the experience of a special power to affect people by the preaching of the leaders.

Tozer received what he understood to be the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” as a new believer, and often mentions the “Christian mystics” in his books as examples of a deep level of worship and a high view of God. The fact that such examples of "mysticism" are so often criticized along with the Charismatic Movement can be misleading, and confuse the false teachings the Strange Fire conference did such a good job of exposing with legitimate experiences given by the Holy Spirit. Today we also have a fast-growing new form of mysticism in the churches, this one the “Contemplative Prayer” movement within the apostate Emerging Church movement that teaches a form of Transcendental Meditation (I wrote about this recently on my Things of the Spirit blog).

The differences between the bogus mysticisms and the mysticism Tozer extols really need a whole separate conference because the only thing they have in common is experience of the supernatural. Or at least that is my opinion; perhaps a good Biblical study could show me that I’m wrong about this. Some of the mystics Tozer admires can be shown to have had some false ideas too, but the one thing they have that the Charismatics and the Emerging Church don't have is a genuine sense of worship that truly exalts God, whereas the phony mysticisms are all caught up on the level of the experiences themselves, which do not glorify God at all even though they claim they do.

Leonard Ravenhill's passion was praying for revival. Revival of the supernatural sort he had in mind did not come in his lifetime as a result of his prayers and books exhorting Christians to pray for revival. In fact the only "revivals" we've had over the last few decades are the bogus charismatic and Word-Faith spectacles in which people exhibit bizarre behavior under the influence of the flesh or some alien spirit. The Strange Fire Conference did provide the categories of discernment necessary to differentiate a true revival from the charismatic movement and from the false revivals associated with the movement over the last few decades, but without a clear idea of what true revival would look like the point can get lost.

MacArthur says, however, on the two videos linked above, that we are right now in the midst of the greatest revival that has ever been, far greater than the Reformation, and that is the recovery of Reformed theology, of which his church and seminary are a part. He gave some very interesting history of the movement which he experienced from its beginnings. That’s a very important perspective, brand new to me, and it lifted my spirits quite a bit to hear him say that because I’ve become so resigned to how God is judging the west and isn’t going to give us a revival. I do think it’s fair to call this resurgence of Reformed doctrine a revival, but nevertheless it’s not a revival in the sense that Edwin Orr wrote about revivals, which are characterized by supernatural phenomena. That is clearly what Lloyd-Jones had in mind, and Leonard Ravenhill, although they made the error of accepting the phenomena of the Charismatic Movement as the same thing, which it is not, and not differentiating these things is an error perpetuated by the Strange Fire Conference, which needs to be corrected if the conference is to be the success it should be.

When I’ve hoped for a revival, something I wrote about fairly frequently early on in my blogging, the wish would be almost immediately squelched by the knowledge of the false revivals we’d been having, such as the “Toronto Blessing,” and the fact that there is so much doctrinal error in the churches we would need a Reformation before a genuine revival could be possible. So MacArthur’s saying the Reformed movement is in fact a great revival cheers me immensely, because I read that to mean we are actually having the doctrinal Reformation we need to have before any experiential revival could be safe. A genuine revival of that kind has the supernatural effects of deeply convicting Christians of sin en masse, and of spreading wide in the community even without human intervention to draw people to the revival where they can hear the gospel. If the church isn’t founded on true doctrine the result could only be a chaos of misguided experiences, misleading any new converts as they are even now being misled in the megachurches. It’s no doubt a great blessing from God that all the praying for revival that has been done over the last few decades has not gone further than it did in the bogus charismatic events, and may even have been answered by the Reformed movement. But we aren’t yet where we should be in order to rest easy in the idea of a big move of God either.

Tozer warned (a few decades ago already) that a revival in the current condition of the church would be a disaster, not a blessing, and his words proved prophetic. It would only confirm the churches in their horrific man-centeredness and false ideas of worship, which is what happened with the Toronto and Lakeland and Brownsville “revivals” and now Redding if that is considered to be a revival. Despite the hopeful growth of Reformed doctrine, the doctrinal dangers continue now even worse than ever in the “seeker-sensitive” megachurches which are packed with people hearing messages of comfort to their fleshly and worldly self-interests instead of the gospel message of dying to self.

The Strange Fire Conference did a remarkable job of answering all that, but someone like John Piper might resist even the best biblical evidence against the charismatic phenomena based on having experienced spiritual phenomena that raised his Christian life above the ordinary. I don’t know the causes in Piper’s case but he clearly highly values a certain kind of “mystical” experience that leads him to endorse the Charismatics. Strange Fire did not answer this sort of objection because it's not at all in the same category as the Charismatic Movement though often confused with it, and would need a whole different set of arguments to answer it.

Different Kinds of Supernatural Experiences

When MacArthur said he doesn't understand why some Reformed teachers would persist in seeking a special anointing or other special feeling, he reveals a gap in his own thinking that may undermine the arguments of the Strange Fire Conference in some people's minds. Even if it's clear that the conference is not arguing for the cessation of all supernatural work by the Holy Spirit, there is still the fact that some people HAVE experienced something supernatural that isn’t the spiritual gifts but which he doesn’t consider valid, which he lumps with the charismatic phenomena as the same sort of “mysticism” and dismisses as false in the same way. But you can't just dismiss all that as an illusion. Somehow you have to answer it if it can and should be answered, and it has to be answered on completely different grounds than the charismatic phenomena, because they are not the same thing.

This is certainly true of the kinds of experiences Lloyd-Jones would have remembered from the Welsh revival, but even with the bogus charismatic experiences you can't just dismiss them as produced by imagination or “impressions” or "the flesh" because they are not voluntary experiences. To characterize the sought-for “anointing” as “some kind of buzz” as MacArthur did, is to completely discredit his own opinion of these things.

There needs to be a differentiation between the false and the God-sent experiences such as Lloyd-Jones would have in mind.

The Charismatic Experiences are not Voluntary

Even the Charismatic experiences need to be understood as something different from ordinary modes of experience and knowing. While emotions can be heightened by repetitive music it would be a mistake to think all that is going on in those charismatic “worship services” is emotion (and you could ask in any case WHAT emotion it is that is being invoked since it’s clearly not worship). Repetitious music or drumbeats or bodily movements can bring about altered states of consciousness, but also are part of shamanistic rituals that invite demon possession in tribal settings. While some of it may be faked, there is a real power that is imparted with the laying on of hands you can see in those videos where people fall over, sometimes apparently unconscious. That sort of thing can’t be chalked up to anything the senses or emotions could bring about.

Clearly there is a supernatural or spiritual power that is exhibited in some charismatic gatherings and "revivals" --  you can find video after video of people suddenly losing control of their bodies and thrashing around wildly, jerking spasmodically, being thrown to the floor, or their heads whipping about alarmingly even while they are speaking, and there should be no doubt whatever that this is a real power outside their control.  The "prophecies" and the "tongues" also come involuntarily, which adds to the overall impression that the whole array of such phenomena including what they wrongly call the “gifts of the Spirit” are of God.  The logic is pretty simple:  Well, all this is outside our control and what other source for such phenomena is there but God, since we're Christians aren't we?

The Charismatic phenomena I just described has been shown to be the same as the “Kundalini” experiences had by Hindu practitioners. Ex-“prophet” Andrew Strom has posted videos to You Tube demonstrating this which I’ve linked in the margin of my blog. You can also find videos of the “Toronto Blessing” and Todd Bentley’s Lakeland “Revival” which demonstrate the same phenomena. There is nothing Christian about any of this and the fact that it is the same sort of thing as practiced in Hinduism ought to open people’s eyes to this fact.

You can’t just impute these things to normal experiences of “the flesh” because the people experiencing them obviously can’t control most of it. It’s either demonic or it belongs to what Watchman Nee identified as “soul power” in his book The Latent Powers of the Soul, in which he ascribes them to original powers possessed by Adam and Eve that were for the most part lost or at least distorted at the Fall. These would include psychic abilities of the sort that become the source of the “prophecies” claimed by Charismatics. Nee says he himself had the experience of knowing things in other people’s minds that he couldn’t have known through normal experience, and at first thought it was a gift from God until he came to understand that God is not pleased with that sort of thing, so he made an effort to do away with it as you would with sin. The involuntary tongues-speaking experienced by charismatics can come from this latent “soul power” as well, certainly not from God. Nee also mentions that fits of laughter affected congregations in China in his time just as they have in the “laughing revivals” in Toronto and other Charismatic and “Word-Faith” gatherings, and they sought these experiences because they believed they were from God, and Nee advised them against it. The thing is all these phenomena are involuntary, produced automatically without the person’s conscious involvement, and that is what convinces them that they must be of God.

All this can be stimulated by demonic forces or twisted to their own ends too, since it is all part of the fallen nature.

There may also be Genuine God-sent "Mystical" Experiences

Next post continues from the last heading. =============================================== (Note: I discovered after posting this that Martyn Lloyd-Jones did not exoerience the Welsh revival personally, don't know how I had that idea. Turns out from a biography I found on him that his wife had been there, so he may have received a lot of his interest in revivals from her accounts. That same biography said he did study revivals. I tried to change my comments but it wasn't easy so those sections are pretty awkward.