MacArthur’s Simple Summary Critique of the Charismatic Movement

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Now obviously you can’t cover a vast amount of material in a single soundbite but this one quote from John MacArthur, here interviewed by Tim Challies about the recent Strange Fire conference, is an excellent summary of the cessasionist critique of the modern charismatics.

But here is the point. The modern gifts of the charismatic movement simply do not match up to their biblical counterparts. Modern prophecy is fallible and full of errors. Modern tongues consists of unintelligible speech that does not conform to any human language. Modern healings do not compare to the miracles performed by Jesus and theΒ Apostles.

Now that’s not the whole story, not by a long shot. But I put it to you that it’s the starting point for a conversation.

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  1. Peter Den Haan

    Every single one of those points have long been addressed by thoughtful Reformed charismatics – say, in Jack Deere’s _Surprised by the Power of the Spirit_ 20 years ago. MacArthur shows little sign of interacting with these responses. Does he actually want a conversation?

    1. David Ould

      Peter, could you summarise the answers to those points?

      1. Peter Den Haan

        I’ll try David. Deere fully agrees that modern gifts in the church do not match up to their biblical counterparts. The gift of teaching, for example, is still exercised but not authoritative like (say) Paul’s or John’s (p67). That does not mean teaching has ceased. But it does mean that we hold teachers like MacArthur accountable to the scriptures.

        Similarly, Deere argues that genuine modern-day prophecy is still happening (offering plenty of anecdotes) and is of God, but cannot lay claim to the sort of authority that Isaiah possessed. We prophesy much like ordinary believers did in Rome (Rom 12:6), Corinth (1 Cor 12:10) or Ephesus (Eph 4:11) (p135). Like teaching, it must be held accountable (p95). For that reason, Deere (rightly) deplores the use of “Thus says the Lord…”.

        Modern tongues do usually not consist of intelligible speech, but in that it is arguably no different from the early church (1 Cor 13:1, 14:19, Rom 8:26). It is controversial, as it was in the early church (1 Cor 14:39) (p137). (There are a handful of modern accounts of intelligible tongues; I thought there was one in Deere’s book but I can’t find it right now).

        Modern healings do not compare to those by Jesus and the apostles, but Deere argues that we shouldn’t expect so any more than expect our teaching to be like Paul’s; the question is, rather, is the gift comparable to that of ordinary believers in the early church (p64)? We know they had the gift (1 Cor 12:7) but lack actual descriptions (p67); seeing that even the disciples (Matt 17:16) or Paul (Phil 2:25, 2 Tim 4:20) couldn’t always heal, we shouldn’t expect so today.

        All page references are from Deere’s book in Kingsway’s British edition (1994). I can’t do any real justice to his work in this space. It is scripture-driven and comes from a Reformed angle. Perhaps his most powerful argument is that cessationism is fundamentally experiential rather than scriptural: if you’d lock someone who knows nothing about Christianity in a room to read the New Testament, there’s not the slightest chance that they’d emerge with the expectation that miraculous gifts will have disappeared from the church.

        You may also enjoy Poythress’ paper arguing for space for extraordinary works of the Spirit within cessationist theology. He comes pretty close to creating a bridge between generous cessationism and the sane end of the charismatic movement:

      2. Peter Den Haan

        I should’ve phrased that differently. Deere would not agree that “modern gifts in the church do not match up to their _biblical_ counterparts.” He would, however, agree that they do not match up to their _apostolic_ counterparts.

  2. Joshua Bovis

    Hi David, Peter,

    Peter, in your reference to 1 Cor.13:1, are you saying that this verse supports the notion that the gift of languages are not earthly languages?

    1. Peter Den Haan

      Not quite; it supports the notion that the gift encompasses both “tongues of mortals” – human languages like the ones poured out in Acts 2 – and the “tongues of angels” – which would then be the glossolalia that doesn’t seem to correspond to a human language and therefore (if it is of God, which Paul clearly thinks) has to be a heavenly one.

      I know this is not uncontroversial, but the argument that tongues in the early church were always human requires an uncomfortable amount of special pleading in this verse, and also in places like 1 Cor 14:2 (a tongue comprehensible only to God), 14 (involving the spirit but not the mind). Grudem is pretty good here (Systematic Theology p1069ff).

  3. David Ould

    Gents, thanks so much for these comments. In particular, Peter, I appreciate the clarification on those issues.

    I guess then I have a couple of things to say in return – somewhere between open thoughts and a little bit of a pushback:

    1. In some senses Deere is going part way towards MacArthur’s call against charismatic excess. Personally I don’t share MacArthur’s “total” cessationist position.

    2. Nevertheless I don’t think I see the apostles/disciples distinction as clearly. I’m not convinced yet that’s a necessary distinction in the Scriptures. Could one not say that the disciples in the first generation used “apostolic” gifts (ie 1st generation gifts)?

    3. One the question of tongues, could one not say that 1Cor 13:1 is hyperbole to make a point? In the same way that Paul is not actually calling us to “give our body to the flames”?

    4. I don’t see the necessity for 1Cor 14:2 to refer to “spiritual” tongues. Could it not simply be a foreign language that only God can understand since the speaker is not a native speaker? I think helps provide continuity with what follows on – ie the call for interpretation of tongues. If not then we end up with a private “spiritual” language and a public “foreign” language. Of course it’s possible that’s what’s intended but I don’t see it demanded in the text. If that’s the case then the apparent “special pleading” about human tongues isn’t quite so special. Am I missing something there?

    Thanks again for this engagement. I’m finding it really helpful to tease out my thinking on these things.

    1. Peter Den Haan

      1. As a Reformed charismatic (and former cessationist), Deere insists on the supreme authority of scripture, as would I. Unfortunately, that clearly isn’t the case everywhere, and the charismatic scene consequently has some pretty unedifying stuff going on. If MacArthur had been concentrating his fire on that, responses would have been quite different.

      2. I do not want to drive a wedge between us and the early church, or even too much of a wedge relative to the particular gifting of the apostles. At all times, the gifts are given in various measures (cf. Rom 12:6) to equip the saints and build up the church (1 Cor 12:7, 1 Cor 14:12, Eph 4:12). However, the apostles and scriptural authors had a particular and unique job to do for the kingdom which will reasonably require gifts to a unique degree.

      So the question is not whether we can (say) prophesy like Paul. The question is whether we can prophesy like the people in Paul’s churches, who are told to eagerly desire every gift and particularly prophecy (1 Cor 14:1), but at the same time test everything carefully because such prophecy is far from infallible (1 Thess 5:20-21, 1 Cor 14:29). That doesn’t sound at all alien to modern charismatic experience.

      3. Yes, it could be. I think we’d both agree that you can’t answer a question like that in isolation. The question is, when you take all references to tongues into account, what is the most natural reading? And of course the reason why two intelligent people can have this discussion at all is that “natural” is a judgement call. For both of us, such a call will inevitably be clouded by temperament, background, experience, etc.

      4. Leading on from this, that’s all absolutely possible. You can take 1 Cor 13:1 as hyperbole, the tongues as human languages without exception, the interpreters as foreigners who happen to be in church and understand the language spoken (arguably supported by 1 Cor 14:21-22 but contradicted by 1 Cor 14:16). You’ll have to satisfy yourself why we then need to pray for the power to interpret (1 Cor 14:13; all of 13-19 seems to assume the tongues can’t be understood normally, cf. Acts 2:6), why the Corinthians were so dead keen on it, why Paul was so adamant in discouraging it while still polyglotting in private with abandon (1 Cor 14:18), why nobody understands them in 1 Cor 14:2, why this widespread gift has been almost completely withheld from the church after the first century, and why modern glossolalia is experienced as a blessing by otherwise sane and godly people.

      I know that it is possible to do all of that in a reasonably intellectually consistent way. For me, though, that seems to require a lot more explaining than when when I simply think of Corinth as akin to an out-of-control Pentecostal outfit.

  4. robin

    For 2 cents worth, I don’t think Deere can be claimed as Reformed. Hank Hanegraaff in his book counterfeit revival has raised some questionable issues about Jack Deere’s experiences, interpretations and testimonies.

    As for your 4th point, my thinking at the moment is that there are difficulties with the chapters but exegetically it seems more consistent that tongues are human languages. The corinthians sought after it because it was a spectacular gift. Paul’s emphasis is clear, gifts are to edify the congregation. Without understanding no one can edify and be encouraged, or to encourage. Often this is misused in the modern gift churches. To why it is experienced as a blessing, I gather it’s more psychological rather than as how it is intended to be. God can make crooked road straight. I know of friends who spoke in tongues but have ceased, as they see no more need for it for one reason or another. They all testify it was a blessing at one stage. What brings them to maturity is dwelling into God’s words and understanding it, be prayed for with language they can be edified by it, and pray for something they can understand. I do agree as well we can pray with coherent language to a stage we groan in our Spirit to long for something or God. That is a Christian reality, and does not necessarily have to be bound up with parts of parcels of the charismatic gifts. I do grant as well in the mission field if they are sudden language miracles missionaries speak in foreign languages today in speaking of the gospel or telling of God’s works, that can happen.

  5. Chin Wee Ang

    Hi David,

    I’m not sure if you have watched Phillip Jensen’s 28 minute video on the topic of spiritual gifts. It’s a good video where he tries to look at this issue without being constrained by the theological framework of cessationism/continuationism. (I personally think that the framework is quite unhelpful to frame the discussion.) Here’s the link:

  6. Jonah Elbert

    I think the greater point MacArthur wants to raise is the overall fruit that the charismatic movement brought about. Maybe, the worst is anti-intellectualism and a distaste of biblical doctrines.

    1. Jamie

      I’m not sure that it’s fair to say with such a sweeping statement that there is anti-intellectualism and a distaste of biblical doctrines in the charismatic movement. In my world, there seems to be a bit of a distaste for the dispensationist-leaning doctrines that deny these gifts; I wouldn’t say that they dislike doctrine. They hold firmly to doctrine; it’s just different doctrine than the likes of MacArthur hold, and because of a different way of interpreting and harmonizing the texts. And the anti-intellectual label is an unfortunate over-simplifying of the issue. I believe there is a tension between what the scriptures seem to present as truth and what our experience does not always confirm; and I think that it might be fair to say (not trying to insult, but to simplify to illustrate the difference, and perhaps painting with a broad brush in the process) that some will try to live with a tension between what they believe the word says and what they’ve not yet seen manifest in their walks; others will find ways to moderate their expectations as a way to explain why the things they think they would perhaps like to see do not always happen. But once you’ve experienced firsthand some of these things happening in your own world, in response to your own prayers of expectation and the healings that result, you’re kind of forced to have to re-evaluate your doctrine. I believe this is what the charismatics are trying to do. And yes, there are abuses. But that is not the the litmus test for whether or not it’s true.

  7. dave uwasinachi

    why fuss that nobody understands when i speak in tongues? the bible says: “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh NOT UNTO MEN, but unto God: for NO MAN understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.” (1 corinthians 14.2) this scripture clearly says that when i speak in tongues NO MAN (including myself) understands me, the reason being quite simply that i’m not talking TO men, but to God and the person i’m talking to understands me. it’s a very personal communication bw me and God which edifies ME. When i prophesy then i’m edifying men. so what’s wrong with that. To be a cessasionist, you would have to believe that most of 1 corinthians 14 is redundant today, because when i read it Paul is asking me to speak in tongues even though (as cessasionists very erronously believe) tongues ceased 2000 years ago!

  8. Jamie

    following. posted a comment, forgot to select notifications. Now I will. Thanks. I appreciate thoughtful dialogue on these topics. Iron sharpening iron.

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