Thoughts on Craig Keener’s Review of MacArthur’s ‘Strange Fire’

While perusing Dr. David Alan Black’s blog a couple weeks ago (specifically, the entry on December 30), I saw that Black had pointed to Dr. Craig Keener’s review of Dr. John MacArthur’s book Strange Fire, a work exposing some of the faulty theology and practices within Pentecostalism/charismaticism.  Keener, who puts out multi-volume scholarly works every week (OK, it’s not quite that frequently, though it seems so), reviewed MacArthur’s work at length, providing a fair, even analysis, criticizing the author for unnecessarily condemning one whole segment of Christendom.  (I state this without having read the book, though I’ve read other critiques, and have no reason to disbelieve Keener and the others in this regard.)  The reader is encouraged to view Keener’s review it in its entirety (at hyperlink above). 

I’ve selected portions of the review from which to add comments of my own.  The reader here should feel free to cut and paste other parts of Keener’s critique to add to the comments section and provide further commentary.

Assuming Keener’s (and others’) charge that the author has painted with a very broad brush is correct, I’d fully agree with the following statement:

 …Reactionary teaching like MacArthur’s, however, is more likely to polarize than to invite.

While I’m certain that hyper-charismaticism is dangerous, I’m just as certain that hyper-dogmatism is the same.  A few years ago, the teacher of a study I was attending, using an analogy from bowling, offered the general advice of steering clear of either gutter (though he didn’t use either of my “hyper-” terms) as I was seeking his input on my concerns over doctrines and practices of another student who was attempting to influence me.  Without stating so explicitly, it was obvious he agreed with me that the other individual’s ball fell into the hyper-charismatic gutter.  I never forgot that analogy.  I eventually left the group over the teacher’s own promotion of others with unorthodox and heretical doctrines of the hyper-charismatic variety (after enjoying a few lunches – my treat – in which I expressed concerns).

Since then, I’ve tried to steer clear of the other extreme, the one of hyper-dogmatism.  I don’t know that I’ve been entirely successful in that endeavor; I’d say my bowling ball may have a slight tendency toward the hyper-dogmatic side rather than the other gutter – much as I’d like to remain in the middle.  I suppose I’m continuationist in theology (I cannot read 1 Corinthians 12-14 and conclude cessationism), but not so much in praxis – at least not as many charismatics practice it.  My view is that spiritual gifts are not “practiced” so much as individuals are given gifts “just as He (the Holy Spirit) determines” (1 Cor 12:11) as we submit to the Spirit, on an individual and circumstantial basis.  MacArthur, however, has a definite tendency towards hyper-dogmaticism.

I suppose in many ways he’s much like some other denominational teachers who tow the party line, i.e., teaching doctrines in view of particular denominational slants to the exclusion of other possible, valid interpretations in non-essential matters, even perhaps stretching a bit to do so.  The following should go toward illustrating my point.  In MacArthur’s book Truth Endures (Panorama City: Grace To You, 2009), a collection of sermons he’s preached over the years, is one on Revelation titled “A Jet Tour through Revelation”.  In it he states:

…People often ask, ‘Where does the Rapture come in?’  It’s in the white spaces between chapters 3 and 4.  You have the church on earth in chapters 2 and 3; all of a sudden we appear in heaven in chapter 4. [p 132]

The “white spaces”?  I understand that he’s not the only one who, in part, supports the pre-tribulation Rapture doctrine by this, but I can only imagine MacArthur’s critique of similar exegesis to promote continuationism!

Yet, it’s his hard cessationism that overshadows his views of anything remotely continuationist, as Keener observes:

MacArthur’s indiscriminate condemnation of anything charismatic is little different from some bigoted secular condemnations of all evangelicals because of the behavior of some. Someone prone to generalize could even use the offenses in the book to blacklist all evangelicals, or all Christians, using the same logic that MacArthur uses against the entire charismatic movement…

Good point. 

More from Keener:

…[S]ome extreme Word of Faith teachers do promulgate teachings that, at least at face value, cannot but be viewed as heretical, especially believers being gods (rightly noted on pp. 11-12). But have such beliefs in fact “become the rule” among charismatics (p. 12)?…

One heresy that I did on occasion run into, which probably took matters more literally than did those MacArthur mentioned, was the Manifested Sons doctrine (or at least its extreme version that I encountered). Its proponents taught that overcomers by faith would achieve physical immortality before Jesus’s return, becoming “the many-membered Christ” on earth

One thing I do know is that the charismatic Spirit I have experienced was not compatible with this teaching. On one occasion I recoiled inside when I heard a guest speaker at a noncharismatic congregation teach on a completely different subject. I felt that he carried the same spirit as the Manifested Sons teachers. Afterward I asked him if he had known a certain Manifested Sons teacher. “Yes,” he replied, astonished. “We were good friends.” He was himself a Manifested Sons teacher. The Spirit I experienced regularly in sounder charismatic circles clearly testified against this false teaching

I’m glad that Keener has actually witnessed firsthand the Manifested Sons of God (MSoG) doctrine. This “many-membered Christ” (manchild), the culmination of MSoG, is what Bill Johnson of Bethel Church in Redding, CA – an individual with worldwide influence – has been teaching in a veiled form for quite some time now, while others such as Bob Jones, Paul Cain, and Todd Bentley have been much more obvious (see here for one example each of Jones and Bentley).  Yet Johnson’s recent podcast “Thinking from the Throne” is much more explicit (see here for lengthy CrossWise article, especially transcriptions at 13:49-14:12 and 36:30-37:34 of the podcast, near end of article1).  This is not just heresy, but a doctrine paralleling the occult teachings of the New Age / New Spirituality for the past 100 years, a teaching that is specifically antichrist in nature as defined by the Apostle John (1 John 2:22, 4:1-3).

I wonder who it was teaching MSoG and the “many-membered Christ” doctrine that Keener mentions here?

…I suspect that when we cite the highest figures for the numbers of charismatics in the world, we recognize that not all of them are those we would feel comfortable embracing as spiritual or theological kin

Of course, many would agree.  But, this begs the question: why aren’t there more Biblical scholars writing about these specific individuals (in a more irenic manner than some of the laity), warning the church at large?  Why didn’t Keener reveal the name of the Manifested Sons teacher he mentioned earlier?

Partly, if not mostly, in response to MacArthur, in a recent Charisma article Dr. Michael Brown poses the question Are We Charismatics Doing Enough to Correct Abuses in Our Midst?  Certainly, Brown has exposed some of the faulty doctrines and practices within Pentecostalism/charismaticism, even mentioning some names.  For that he deserves credit.  Yet on Brown’s own Voice of Revolution site he allows others to post articles, sometimes promoting teachers with very questionable theology and praxis.  This can cause confusion.

As just one example, Bill Johnson was lauded in a piece titled HEAVEN ON EARTH by Bill Johnson (Everyone Must Hear This!). The author of the piece merely provided one quote – “Jesus is perfect theology” – and two audio clips, yet there were some very troubling things stated in those clips.  (Rather than go into detail here, the reader can go to the link, listen to the audio for themselves, and read some of the comments, which include a few of my own, though I came in a bit late.)

Charisma itself is one of the worst offenders, promoting leaders of the so-called “New Apostolic Reformation” (C. Peter Wagner’s own term) to include Bill Johnson, Mike Bickle (of International House of Prayer), etc.   Jack Hayford, who is mentioned favorably by Brown in his article referenced above, appears to be a part of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), as well.  Hayford had suggested using the Gamaliel approach (cf. Acts 5:38-39) to the so-called “Lakeland Revival” of 2008, refusing to provide a very much needed corrective to the proceedings, illustrating what I’d define as poor leadership at best.

For those unaware, the NAR even has its own “Apostles” (that’s a capital “A”), as evidenced by their own International Coalition of Apostolic Leadership organization (formerly “International Coalition of Apostles” – and there are other similar organizations).   While the membership list is now concealed to those of us outside this elite group (though with a recommendation by a current member and by paying the requisite dues you too can become a member!), here is a list of members from November 10, 2009, to include former “Presiding Apostle” C. Peter Wagner.  Following is some now-deleted verbiage from the old site (no longer available on Internet Archive):

The Second Apostolic Age began roughly in 2001, heralding the most radical change in the way of doing church at least since the Protestant Reformation. This New Apostolic Reformation [NAR] embraces the largest segment of non-Catholic Christianity worldwide, and the fastest growing…

These folks (NAR) who are “heralding the most radical change in the way of doing church at least since the Protestant Reformation” are purportedly “the largest segment of non-Catholic Christianity worldwide, and the fastest growing”, and these are all within the charismatic realm.  I’d be delighted if Dr. Keener would research this group and write a detailed analysis of his findings, given both their charismatic leanings and purported size.  In addition, I think it especially prudent for Keener to name the individual who was teaching MSoG, and to name those who were teaching the “many-membered Christ” doctrine as a warning to the Church at large.


1 Here are the respective transcriptions: [13:49]…So what is He looking for?  He is looking for a people that will cooperate with the FULLNESS of God’s presence, operating and manifesting THROUGH them so that this world actually gets a FULL and ACCURATE taste of who Jesus is.  It’s not us; it’s Him.  But He dwells IN us in FULLNESS in bodily form…[14:12]

[36:30]…until we all come to unity of faith and the KNOWLEDGE of the SON of God.  Too many people think they know that don’t know.  So the knowledge of the Son of God, to A perfect man.  Look at the description.  Millions and millions of body members come to A – singular – perfect mana full-on revelation of the Person of Jesus, what He is like, how He is.  To A perfect man, to the measure and stature – equal measure to the fullness of Christ…[37:34]