Polemical writing has been part of church life since the very beginning, as the early church fathers addressed heresy and misunderstanding that had crept into Christian thinking. This kind of direct, passionate debate and critique served to clarify unclear doctrine, mark false teaching, and warn the Church of error and its potentially disastrous consequences. Part of the reason polemicists were effective was that they were trustworthy witnesses. If you try to critique or correct a trend of teaching or thinking, it serves your purpose to have a track record of faithfulness and to demonstrate that you “have some skin in the game.”
In recent years, however, the skins of Christian pastors and laity have thinned, and polemical writing is no longer seen as a bracing but necessary corrective. These days, the genteel constitutions of church folk have moved them to call such writing “unhelpful,” “over-critical,” “divisive,” “hateful,” even sinful! “Discernment” has transformed in the minds of the American church from a necessary and praiseworthy Christian trait to an epithet, slapped on writers and teachers who dared to criticize the Top Men of the church denomination or theological “tribe.”
I bring this history up, because when it comes to books like Strange Fire by Dr. John MacArthur, there are mainly 2 reactions from Christian readers: those sympathetic to his message will uncritically approve it, and those opposed will write Dr. MacArthur off as an angry, old-fashioned critic without giving him a fair hearing. If you find yourself in this second group, I ask you to hold your fire and give the author a fair hearing, out of respect for the fact that he has proven himself faithful for four decades.
In Strange Fire, Dr. MacArthur takes a hard look at the Pentacostal/Charismatic movement and how its influence has spread into parts of the Evangelical church. He looks at the key elements of charismatic teaching (specifically, modern apostleship, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and healing) and painstakingly compares modern examples of these “signs” to the Bible’s account of such signs in the early church. He cites hundreds of sources and a host of direct quotations from notable figures in this movement. Throughout the book, Dr. MacArthur makes the case (rather convincingly) that the Charismatic movement is rotten down to its roots, riddled with false teaching and plagued by a legion of liars, frauds, and fools.
After unmasking the strange fire of Charismatic phenomena, Dr. MacArthur then takes the last section of the book to explain from Scripture the office and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers. Rather than simply tearing down what is broken, Dr. MacArthur builds a solid foundation in its place to edify the reader and teach true doctrine. This section is particularly strong and very encouraging.
The “cessationist vs. continuationist” debate rages on in Evangelicalism, and Dr. MacArthur weighs in firmly in the Cessationist camp. Even so, he doesn’t see continuationists as his enemies, but he entreats them as brothers to reconsider the implications of their beliefs. The last chapter of Strange Fire is actually entitled “An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends,” and he does treat continuationist readers with a friendly and fatherly affection.
The book has a few weak points or deficiencies. (Am I allowed to say that about a MacArthur book?) First, I struggled a little bit with the tone of the book, early on, as Dr. MacArthur savaged false teachers. However, I realized that this tone was Paul’s tone, and Peter’s, and Jude’s, so it is appropriate to bluntly call out wolves. However, it would be easy for the tenor of some of Dr. MacArthur’s writing to distract or discomfit weaker or more sensitive readers. Second, I wish more time could have been taken in addressing the “Jesus-dream” phenomena that continuationists point to in places with little Gospel influence, such as parts of the Middle East. I think readers would have benefited from Dr. MacArthur’s take on this issue, since it comes up regularly in debates about modern sign gifts. Finally, during some of the stories of past Charismatic figures, Dr. MacArthur at times engaged in a bit of lurid speculation and seemed to dwell on the details of their sins a bit too much. His intention was to demonstrate that their words were not consistent with their lifestyles, but a few points may have crossed the line of good taste. Again, it’s important to understand who and what we’re dealing with when it comes to some of these false teachers, but such writing also gives easy excuses for critics and doubters to put the book down.
Final Analysis: Strange Fire is a powerful critique of Charismatic theology and certain continuationalist assumptions. It is grounded in faithful Scriptural exposition and detailed scholarship. Critics of this book will, at best, be able to argue with Dr. MacArthur’s tone and perhaps some of his conclusions, but the bulk of his argument is sound.
If you have wrestled with the Continuationist vs. Cessationist argument, or have wondered about Charismatic beliefs, Strange Fire presents a clear and well-considered position on these issues.
Note: The sponsor (Thomas Nelson) provided an electronic copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. The preceding thoughts are my own.