Man standing in flames

The Strange Thing about Strange Fire: A Review of Strange Fire by Dr. John MacArthur

Strange Fire book cover

Strange Fire, by Dr. John MacArthur (Thomas Nelson, 2013).

The controversy concerning the Strange Fire Conference and the release of the book bearing the same name has been ubiquitous in the blogosphere in recent months. It has seemed as if everyone has had an opinion, concern, critique, or praise for Strange Fire. With that being said, I must confess that I never intended to enter the fray. There are more capable people who have written concerning the book and the conference. However, I was given a copy of the book so I read it. The thing I found strange considering the hullabaloo the Strange Fire conference generated; the book Strange Fire is not nearly the lightning rod I thought it would be.

Strange Fire is John MacArthur’s critique of the excesses of what he terms “the Charismatic Movement.” I will write more on the “Charismatic Movement” terminology, but for the purpose of summary of the book, MacArthur uses the term in its broadest sense. The book is divided into three parts: Confronting a Counterfeit Revival, Exposing the Counterfeit Gifts, and Rediscovering the Spirit’s True Work. In part one, MacArthur gives a brief historical background of the Charismatic Movement. Further, he goes on to point out the excesses within that movement that has fueled his writing of the book and to provide critical biblical analysis of the excesses. In this section, to evaluate the Charismatic Movement, he employs the same five-fold test used by Jonathan Edwards from 1 Jn. 2:4-8 to evaluate spiritual revival during the Great Awakening. In the second part, MacArthur analyzes some of the particular distinctives of the Charismatic Movement such as continuing apostleship, tongues, miraculous healings, and prophecy. In part three, MacArthur gives a brief, yet thorough treatise on the Holy Spirit and the relation of his work to the Scriptures, salvation, and sanctification. Part three concludes with an open letter from Dr. MacArthur to his friends that are Continuationists.

The High Points

Strange Fire has a number of commendable qualities. First and foremost is MacArthur’s reason for writing the book. His concern for the Lord’s honor and for those who are led astray are the motivating factors. You may fuss with the tenor of the message, but there is no denying his outright concern for those preyed upon. MacArthur prays that by means of this book, those who have been or are tempted to be “duped by the many spiritual counterfeits, false doctrines, and phony miracles that vie for our attention today” (p. xviii) would be given clear understanding by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Second, MacArthur takes precise aim at false teaches such as Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, and the multitude of others that are more often than not associated with TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network). This is one reason that I found Strange Fire not so strange. I agree with MacArthur whole-heartedly and would have a hard time believing that most orthodox evangelicals would not also agree. His critique of these false teachers and their doctrine is helpfully biblical. Having been a pastor and seeing the damage that these charlatans can do, the alarm bell in the public forum should be sounded. People who are shackled by these false teachers do need to know what MacArthur is critiquing is not Christianity.

Third, the final section of the book on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is very helpful, accessible, and concise. MacArthur keeps the main thing, the main thing. The Holy Spirit’s primary mission is to glorify Christ (John 16:14) and anything that claims the name of the Holy Spirit must align with that biblical statement from the lips of our Lord. MacArthur concisely shows how the Holy Spirit, in the doctrines of Scripture, sanctification, and salvation, glorifies Christ.

Missed Opportunities

Though there are several commendable qualities to the book, I have a number of concerns as well. The first concern is the greatest weakness of the book. Ironically, it is related to one of its strengths. Though MacArthur rightly calls attention to the false teachers already mentioned, he paints with too wide a brush. He never specifically defines who he is focusing on. He simply calls it the “Charismatic movement” and it becomes clear that he means the whole “Charismatic Movement.” Without specifying those in his critical crosshairs, he gives the impression that the excesses he describes are characteristic of the whole and thus the whole is equally condemnable. To be fair, MacArthur does not brush off all who are affiliated with the Charismatic Movement as “insincere” or “false.” He writes:

I do believe there are sincere people within the Charismatic Movement, who, in spite of the systematic corruption and confusion, have come to understand the necessary truths of the gospel. They embrace substitutionary atonement, the true nature of Christ, the trinitarian nature of God, biblical repentance, and the unique authority of the Bible. They recognize salvation is not about health and wealth, and they genuinely desire to be rescued from sin, spiritual death, and everlasting hell. (p. 81)

MacArthur needed more careful nuancing in defining whom he was addressing. Such a broad brush stroke ultimately does a disservice to his otherwise careful critique and has the potential for alienating those in the Charismatic Movement who do not share the extremes given as examples in Strange Fire.

A second criticism of the book is the needless use of inflammatory language. MacArthur does not stoop to ad hominem arguments, but when you fail to nuance who you are targeting as MacArthur does and then you infer the attachment of the whole Charismatic Movement to a cult (p.  51), you undermine your objective.

A third criticism is the last chapter: MacArthur’s open letter to his Continuationist friends. His concern is that those who hold a Continuationist position and affirm all the central and key tenants of Christianity are somehow giving legitimacy to the extremes of the Charismatic movement. This seemed remarkably out of place and unnecessary had he more carefully defined at the outset who he was targeting.

Strange Fire is an accessible book. As usual, his biblical teaching is clear and authoritative. My prayer, like MacArthur’s, is that through this many would be come to an understanding, see that many false teachers have gone out into the world, would be able to identify them, and be free of their influence. MacArthur has given a thoroughgoing critique of these false teachers and right exposition of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. In that, the strange thing about Strange Fire is I whole-heartedly agree. The unfortunate aspect of Strange Fire is its failure to be more precise in its definitions and its, at times, inflammatory language.

About David Thommen

David is a graduate of Western Seminary. He serves as the Assistant Director of Western Seminary's Doctor of Ministry program and The Spurgeon Fellowship and teaches in the Bible and Theology department. David also serves on the executive committee of the Northwest Chapter of ETS and has served in Pastoral Ministry for over 10 years. He currently serves as the pastor at New Life Church Robinwood.

1 thought on “The Strange Thing about Strange Fire: A Review of Strange Fire by Dr. John MacArthur

  1. Good review brother.

    Nuance needed for sure / yet I would add that much of the reaction to the conference and the book has been equally, if not more so, “broad brush.” Your review helpfully avoided that over-correction.

    MacArthur got it wrong from the get-go by not clarifying himself in the book’s subtitle. Some helpful nuance and clarification there could’ve silenced and avoided much subsequent controversy.

    Thankfully many continuationists have trumpeted loudly the heresy of the prosperity excesses within the Charismatic Movement (John Piper probably the best example), and where it’s applicable, the denial of the Trinity by Oneness Pentecostals, etc. But I can say, on an anecdotal level at least (but a bit broader) that it alarms me that some thoughtful Charismatics still seem unwilling to call these excesses what they are: false teaching. A big, public example recently is Michael Brown’s presence on a number of tapings of the Benny Hinn show – and not for the purpose of debate or refutation.

    I am way OK with the “open but cautious” perspective, though I differ with it firmly. But I am also very thankful for the overall thrust of what MacArthur has put together in this recent conference and book. As you said, there really is a lot of harm being perpetrated, and I would add – a despicable misrepresentation of Christ continuing in the worldwide, worldly facade of the Health & Wealth travesty, the misguided normalization of the miraculous, and the threats to the sufficiency of the Scriptures with the idea of ongoing revelation. Those major topics need to heralded faithfully, and for MacArthur’s contributions to those ends, praise be to God, heartily.

    I think the biggest and most helpful distinction that’s evolving from all of this hoopla is a separation between what use to be called “charismatic,” which has almost been hijacked in toto by the extremists, and the word being used far more frequently of the milder charismatics, “continuationists.”

    A lesson again. We need to be so careful and accurate in our representations of people. For to the degree that we are not, the weakest points of our critique will be inflated to undermine the importance of the valid points – and the result is often a net loss. This is why James says, not many of us should be teachers.

    Thanks for the thoughtful review David.

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