Tag Archives: Pentecostalism

Book Review: Strange Fire


Strange Fire:  The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship, John MacArthur.  Nashville:  Nelson Books, 2013.  Hardcover, 352 pages, $22.99 USD.

Although this is a great read, I hummed and hawed about writing a review.  After all, I reasoned, I don’t know too many people who would be susceptible to the types of errors exposed in this book.  I thought that most of the people I know, inside my church and elsewhere, are discerning enough to realize that the teachings exposed in this book are gospel-denying and soul-threatening.  But some friends demurred.  Some friends insisted that I write this review because they know people who are being lured by these sorts of teachings.  Moreover, it could very well be that I’m over-estimating the level of discernment around me.

What sorts of false teachings are being addressed in this book?  The basic thrust of Strange Fire is to address the error known as continuationism.  Reformed believers are cessationists – this means that we believe that the apostolic gifts (including speaking in tongues) ceased at the end or shortly after the end of the apostolic era.  Continuationism, on the other hand, maintains that these gifts continue.  We should expect to see miracles, including healings and speaking in tongues in our present day.  This is the view held by Pentecostals and charismatics – as well as by a few others.  A false teaching that often goes hand in hand with this is the so-called Prosperity Gospel.  This is the teaching that the good news is that Jesus wants to bless you with health and wealth.  Popular proponents of these false teachings include Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, and Joyce Meyer. This book deftly exposes these teachings as false and does so with the Word of God.

John MacArthur is a well-known preacher and writer.  He has been the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California since 1969.  This is not his first book on the topic.  Back in the early 1990s, he wrote Charismatic Chaos.  Unfortunately, since then, the popularity of these teachings has grown significantly.  In the early 1990s, these views were widely considered to be on the fringe of American Christianity.  This was not only because of the positions taken on spiritual gifts, but also because of other doctrinal issues, especially unorthodox views of the Trinity.  In the early 1990s, you could not typically find books by men like Creflo Dollar or T. D. Jakes in your average vanilla Christian bookstore.  Today, they’re everywhere and nobody seems to care.  That does make Strange Fire an even more important book for our day.

The basic argument of the book is simple:  continuationism is an assault on the sufficiency of the Word of God.  MacArthur doesn’t just say it, he shows it.  He gives numerous examples of how continuationists are turning people away from the Scriptures as the only authoritative source of divine revelation.  He explains how the Bible itself speaks of its own sufficiency.  Not only should we not expect charismatic gifts, we do not need them, because the Holy Spirit has given us something far better:  the written Word of God.

As he prosecutes his case, MacArthur helpfully deals with a number of side issues.  What about using spiritual gifts just for your own spiritual edification?  He tackles that in chapter 4.  What about the popular book by Sarah Young, Jesus Calling?  She says that she received these devotional messages straight from Jesus.  She wanted more than the Bible and “Jesus” gave it to her.  MacArthur deals with Young in chapter 6.  And then what about some of the “New Calvinists” who hold to continuationist views?  There are men like Mark Driscoll, D. A. Carson, and John Piper who fall into that category.  MacArthur respectfully addresses them in chapter 12, “An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends.”

I appreciated this book especially because of the author’s commitment to a high view of Scripture.  I applaud his boldness in applying Scripture to this contentious issue and also, most importantly, showing us how the gospel is at stake with this.  He has been attacked and maligned for his stand, but from a Reformed point of view, we can do nothing but encourage him to continue standing fast on this issue.  Yes, MacArthur has his own theological blind-spots.  I wish he were Reformed in his views of baptism and eschatology, for instance.  However, I didn’t detect any of those blind-spots in this book.  So, until some more consistent and confessionally Reformed author comes with something better, this is the book that I will be recommending to everyone on this issue.

Why is Pentecostalism Popular in Latin America and Elsewhere?

Introduction to Pentecostalism Allan Anderson

I was looking for a book about Pentecostalism and its history and theology.  I wanted to get something from a sympathetic perspective.  I found it with this volume.  Allan Anderson is a former Pentecostal pastor and apparently a global authority on the subject.  He seems to know what he’s talking about.

One of the questions I had coming to this book was why Pentecostalism appeals so widely in developing countries.  Anderson partly answers this question in chapter 10, “A Theology of the Spirit.”    Here’s what he says:

The popularity of Pentecostal and Charismatic forms of Christianity in the developing world can also in part be attributed to a particularly contextual spirituality.  Pentecostalism purports to provide for much more than the ‘spiritual’ problems of life.  The important role given to divine healing and exorcism, the particular emphasis on the power of the Spirit, but also the comprehensive community projects and significant involvement in political and civic organizations and trade unions, represent a new and vigorous spirituality offering help to human problems.  This spirituality is a holistic approach to Christianity that appeals more adequately to popular worldviews than older Christian traditions had done, and in some respects was also more satisfying than ‘traditional’ religions had been.  Furthermore, throughout Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and Latin America, Pentecostalism has been more meaningful precisely because it has continued some pre-Christian religious expressions and symbols and invested them with new meanings. (202)

A little further on the same page, Anderson refers to Amos Yong and his attempt to develop a Pentecostal theology of religions.  Writes Anderson:

[Yong] points out that Pentecostals in the Third World, especially those who are part of Christian minorities, are in constant interaction with other religions.  He says that the experiences of the Spirit common to Pentecostals and Charismatics demonstrate ‘indubitable similarities across the religious traditions of the world.’  This opens up the way for a constructive Pentecostal theology of religions that explores ‘how the Spirit is present and active in other religious traditions.’ (202-203)

This does explain a lot.  To put it in my own words, Pentecostalism is popular in part because it accommodates other religious traditions.  Pentecostalism is popular partly because it assimilates pre-Christian religious expressions and symbols.  At least some Pentecostals believe the Holy Spirit is living and active in non-Christian religions.  If we take Anderson’s word, Pentecostalism does something like what the Roman Catholic Church did in Latin America and elsewhere.  The Roman Catholics took a pagan goddess and transformed her into Our Lady of Guadulupe.  Today this is widely applauded as a form of contextualization.  Unfortunately, that word is often a euphemism for syncretism.  Interestingly, in the previous chapter, Anderson bemoans a previous generation of Pentecostal missionaries who regarded non-Christian religions as wicked paganism.  Therefore, in an earlier period, it appears there was inconsistency in Pentecostalism on this point.  Whether Anderson and Yong’s views are widely held in Pentecostalism today, I don’t know.

What I do know is that the alleged holistic appeal of Pentecostalism mentioned in the first quote doesn’t seem to reach very far.  In my estimation (based on my reading of this book and conversations with Pentecostals) Reformed theology and worldview is far more holistic than Pentecostalism, but it doesn’t carry the same cachet in Latin America and elsewhere.  Why not?  I think Anderson answers that question when he write this:  “…as I have elsewhere observed, a criticism often justifiably levelled at Pentecostals is that sometimes a theology of success and power is expounded at the expense of a theology of the cross” (198).  A theology of the cross never plays well for the crowds, and that’s at the center of the gospel as proclaimed in Reformed churches.  If you want the crowds, promise them signs and wonders.  If you want to pull in the masses, promise them experiences.  Promise them padded bank accounts.  Sadly, the trajectory of all this is what Michael Horton called Christless Christianity.

The Reformation in Latin America

I recently finished reading Timothy Tennent’s Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century.  There are some good things in this volume, but there are also some serious concerns.  Time permitting, I intend to write a full review and submit it to a journal.

For today, I just want to interact briefly with something Tennent writes in chapter 10, “The Flowering of World Christianity, 1910-Present.”  In this chapter, he discusses the explosion of Pentecostalism around the world, and especially in Latin America.  Tennent views this in a positive light.  Here’s a paragraph to give you a taste:

…Latin America is not merely the story of the rise of Pentecostalism and the decline of Roman Catholicism, or the intrusion of Pentecostals into Roman Catholic territory.  As with the European Reformation, this new reformation has also stimulated vitality in the Roman Catholic Church, resulting in a renewed emphasis on evangelism and mission.  As Roman Catholic missiologist John Gorski has noted, “Evangelization in the specific sense of announcing the Gospel to enable a personal encounter with the living Christ, leading to conversion and discipleship, became a conscious concern of the Catholic Church only within the past half century.”  The point is, the Reformation has finally arrived in Latin America!  Just as the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation in Europe challenged and helped to foster the emergence of a new branch of Christianity and to bring reformation to the established church of its day, so today the Pentecostals in Latin America are bringing along the emergence of new Christian movements and the renewal of Roman Catholicism, as well as theological discussions that mirror many of the broad contours of the Protestant Reformation in Europe.  (288)

There’s so much askew here.  Where to start?

First of all, one of the major problems throughout this book is the author’s view of Roman Catholicism.  He believes that Roman Catholics are Christians and that, as Christians, they bring the gospel to the lost.  With this position, he denies the necessity of the Reformation.  More significantly, he denies the point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians!  Because of their denial of sola gratia and sola fide, the Roman Catholics do not have a gospel to bring to the lost.  Instead, from a Reformed perspective, they too are in need of the gospel.  As the Heidelberg Catechism states it in QA 30, you cannot believe in the only Saviour Jesus if you also seek your salvation or well-being from saints or anywhere else.

Second, to compare the explosion of Pentecostalism in Latin America with the Reformation is unbelievable.  The Pentecostalism one finds in Latin America is so rife with errors and heresies that this comparison just doesn’t fly.  Much of Latin American Pentecostalism is syncretistic.  In Brazil, for instance, many practitioners of African tribal religions are also Pentecostal.  Some of Latin American Pentecostalism is heretical on the doctrine of the Trinity.  With its view of revelation, Pentecostalism functionally denies sola Scriptura.  Their doctrine of salvation is Arminian at best, Pelagian at worst — a denial of the gospel of grace.  The list goes on.  This is not a Reformation — it’s merely trading in one form of defective religion for another form.  To say that Pentecostalism echoes the “broad contours” of the Reformation makes me wonder whether Tennent is failing to understand the teachings of Pentecostalism or the Reformation — or perhaps both?

Finally, let me comment on Tennent’s view of the Reformation.  He writes that it “fostered the emergence of a new branch of Christianity.”  Here he shows his hand and the game is up.  If the Reformation introduced something new, then it really wasn’t a Reformation, but a revolution.  The Reformers were not intent on producing “a new branch of Christianity.”  They wanted to bring Europe (and the world) back to the old ways — back to the Bible and back to the gospel.  Tennent sounds like a sociologist trying to present an “objective” view of things, not a theologian who takes the Bible seriously.  I want to ask him two questions:  1) Was the Reformation necessary or not?  2) Is there still a good reason for us to “protest” against the teachings of Rome today?

Thankfully, there really is a Reformation taking place in Latin America.  Pentecostals and Roman Catholics are discovering the gospel of grace in Brazil and elsewhere.  They are abandoning their Pentecostal and Roman Catholic beliefs and finding comfort in the biblical gospel of Christ.  More and more of them are reading the Reformed confessions and finding that these are faithful summaries of God’s Word.  The Holy Spirit is opening their eyes to biblical truths like sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria.  The living Spirit of Christ is producing a true Reformation and I just pray that missiologists like Tim Tennent could see that.