Most American Christians have heard the name John MacArthur, and many have perused his resources, including his multiple Bible study guides. He certainly knows the Bible, and can quote chapter and verse on most any subject. I was interested to see what Mr. MacArthur might have to say about the Holy Spirit. What I found in the book Strange Fire wasn't what I expected or hoped to find; much of what he has written here disturbs me. And not in the way he intended his readers to be disturbed.
The introduction covers a long, complicated history of the charismatic movement. As always, MacArthur is straight-forward and even, at times, downright blunt in sharing his opinions (which are not stated as opinions...he seems to feel his opinions are cold, hard facts). I prefer to be a little more delicate when approaching subject matter with which I do not agree...and out of respect for the ministry the author has built over many years, I will try to keep this review less "blunt" than this book!
While I agree with much of MacArthur's stance about the charismatic movement on the whole (and Benny Hinn's ministry specifically) I must say that I don't fall into the camp of his beliefs about the Holy Spirit. For example, on p. xvii of the Introduction, he says, "All who are faithful to the Scriptures must rise up and condemn everything that assaults the glory of God." I'm not faithful solely to Scripture; I'm faithful to Jesus, my Savior and my King. A person can be faithful to Scripture and not to Jesus (just look at the modern-day cults permeating our society) but I doubt very much a person can be faithful the Lord Jesus and not also to His Word.
I mentioned that I did agree with certain aspects of Strange Fire. One example is from p. 16 of Chapter One. The exact quote reads, "Pentecostals and charismatics elevate religious experience over Biblical truth." I have found this to be true of most charismatics I know. The danger I see in adhering solely to this form of Christianity is the constant need for something "new". Add to this the "showiness" of the messages and the worship, and you have an unhealthy balance that often leaves believers disillusioned, empty and confused. Speaking in tongues is the most commonly objected to trait of the charismatic movement - and I find the most simple way to address this is to remind those on either side of the issue that speaking in tongues is AN evidence of the Holy Spirit, not THE evidence. (Look up verses about the Holy Spirit and you'll find plenty of Biblical evidence that there are many gifts of the Spirit.)
Some extremes of this movement make for an unhealthy Christianity ~ as do many aspects of John MacArthur's personal beliefs as taught in this book. John MacArthur mentions in Chapters 3 & 4 the need to test the spirits (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). That's what I am aiming to do with this book review.
I truly hoped this book would teach more about living life, daily life, by being more yielded to the Lord, or Spirit-led to put it another way. But I'm afraid MacArthur's strong distaste for anything even vaguely charismatic has clamped off the Spirit's flow in his teaching and ministry. What does he think our Lord meant when He said in John 16:7, "But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you." ? Living life without direct, constant and immediate access to the Holy Spirit is like living the Christian life without Christ's power and strength. Frustrated is the word I'll use to describe a life lived in such manner.
As a student of Francis Schaeffer and David Mullholland, I feel John MacArthur's intentions are good, but he has a certain measure of humanism that plays into this book. And he seems to have failed to grasp the hard truth that we do not in any way control our relationship with God; it is His relationship to control. I suspect Americanized, humanistic Christianity lends itself readily to the false notion that we are in control of our relationship with the Lord, so it isn't a surprise to see it in Strange Fire. I would reckon the author would strongly disagree with me, and would likely use humanistic arguments to exert his control! But the Word of God can stand on it's own without MacArthur's control and commentary; it also stands alone to disprove aspects of the charismatic movement.
MacArthur does not seem to adhere to the belief that the Holy Spirit speaks to people as individuals. There is grave danger in his reasoning, and aligns more with the Mormon view of the Holy Spirit than the Biblical New Testament view. Who speaks to John MacArthur when he's writing a book or preparing a sermon? Other studious theologians? And what to do with men like A.W. Tozer, C.H. Spurgeon, and E.M. Bounds? What to make of J. Hudson Taylor, an entire life and ministry spent seeking, listening for, and actually hearing the Holy Spirit's daily will for him and the hundreds of orphans in his care? What does he do with Paul's writings? If the time in which the Spirit had free and open range in the individual has passed, then what on earth do we do with New Testament teaching? I fear he not only marginalizes the Holy Spirit, and does not know how to have a personal, intimate dependence upon the Lord...upon the Holy Spirit, who is fully God. (I strongly dislike MacArthur's reference to the Spirit as being the third member of the Trinity for a reason...) I would liken him to something of an intellectual bully - he will make you pay if you disagree with him.
One last example of the extreme attitude displayed in Strange Fire comes from p. 115 of Chapter 16. Comparing any type of modern prophecy with a Magic 8 Ball, Tarot cards, or a Ouija board is an example of his intellectual bullying. Why, then, do 1 Corinthians 14:1, Romans 12:6-8, and Ephesians 4:11-16 list prophecy as a spiritual gift? The Holy Spirit's work in my life is nothing like the devil's work through the supernatural, dark forces listed above. In fact, I feel very sorry for Mr. MacArthur. Living the Christian life without the Spirit must be exhausting and nearly impossible to maintain. No wonder his book has such a negative, caustic feel. He has attempted to write a book on the Holy Spirit without the Holy Spirit's input!
On my "Page Turner Scale" of 1 to 5, I gave this book a 1.
Disclaimer ~ I received this book free of charge for review purposes from BookSneeze. All opinions shared here are solely my own.
Jan L. Burt
author of The Homeschooling Mothers Bible Study