Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Truth and Tone

A couple of decades ago, I read two different books regarding the work of the Holy Spirit and the claims of the charismatic movement:  Keep in Step with the Spirit by J.I. Packer, and The Charismatics by John MacArthur. Both books set forth a cessationist position, and they understood various scriptural texts and theological concepts in similar ways; yet, the books were otherwise quite different.  The MacArthur book was combative, and he had a tendency to lump the views of more moderate charismatics with those who were more radical.  Rev. MacArthur has never been known to bend over backwards to give his opponents the benefit of the doubt.  On the other hand, the Packer book, while unapologetic, was irenic in tone, frequently noting positive contributions that charismatics had made to the evangelical cause before digging into shortcomings of the movement.  Because it was more carefully argued and irenic, I found the Packer volume to be much more persuasive.  I should add that as a general matter I like the preaching of John MacArthur.

This past reading was brought to mind by the recent Strange Fire Conference put together by Rev. MacArthur. Both theologically and as a matter of pastoral concern, I side with Mr. MacArthur on these issues, and I think that the matter is serious enough to merit serious concern.  As a pastor, I witnessed a suffering church member castigating herself for not having enough faith to be healed and, watching her anguish, I despised the doctrinal system that added to her hurt.  I have also seen damage done to a church by someone who claimed direct divine revelation ("God told me to....") as a rationale for taking a hurtful action. This type of language is far too common across evangelicalism and has influence well beyond the confines of the charismatic movement. I also mourn the cruelty entailed by the spread of the prosperity gospel from the United States to some of the poorest regions of the world.  I suspect that this unbiblical theology, while popular in places now, will eventually create a backlash among populations that have suffered while being manipulated to enrich a few.

Yet, while I think the substance of the conference was needed, I wish that it had been done by someone other than John MacArthur.  It was of interest to see Mike Riccardi, who serves on staff at MacArthur's Grace Community Church, defend his pastor's arguments (Hat tip:  The Aquila Report), and I agree with most aspects of that defense.  However, I disagree with his suggestion that the tone of the conference should not be relevant.  I disagree wholeheartedly.

Now, anyone who wishes to make arguments about tone has to take into account the occasionally harsh tones of the biblical writers.  In the Old Testament, we have imprecatory Psalms and hard words from prophets.  In the New Testament, to look to an obvious example, Paul pronounces a curse of eternal damnation on those who preach a false gospel and later in the same letter, Galatians, he says that he wishes that those who made so much of circumcision would go further and emasculate themselves.  Three things need to be said here:  1) That strong language is surrounded by carefully stated arguments about the gospel and the errors of Paul's opponents; 2) such language is reserved for situations where the gospel itself or something of similarly fundamental importance is at stake; and 3) Paul did not use intemperate language as a matter of habit.  Harsh denunciations must be considered both in light of what was at stake and the cultural context.  Paul did not argue with Onesimus in the same way he did the Galatian Judaizers.  This last point should be considered carefully by Mr. MacArthur, who has been known to condemn non-dispensationalists with the same fervor with which he takes on charismatics, liberals, and other apostates.  See Kim Riddlebarger's excellent rejoinder to his dispensationalist diatribe here.

There are two considerations that should be kept in mind: one a matter of the biblical command to love our neighbors, and the other a practical matter of effective argument. Regarding the former, a Christian has the duty not to bear false witness about others, and we are guilty of violating that commandment when we attribute to others straw man arguments that they do not actually make.  As a Calvinist, I frequently feel the brunt of these kinds of attacks when I read or am subjected to supposed arguments against things that neither I nor any other Calvinist I know believes.  Mr. MacArthur engages in these same types of arguments when he takes statements by extreme charismatics and attributes them to the entire movement.

In responding to criticisms of the conference, Mr. MacArthur chose to double down on the harshness, criticizing the modern charismatic movement that took hold at Calvary Chapel as coming from "barefoot, drug-induced young people [who] told the church how the church should act. Hymns and suits went out. For the first time in the history of the church, the conduct of the church was conformed to a sub-culture that was born of LSD and marijuana." I would question both the accuracy and the relevance of that statement to the present debate.

In public debate, one must also ask hard questions about effectiveness.  A red meat tone is certainly appealing to those who already agree with you. But, is that the point of the teaching?  Was the conference only designed to reaffirm the beliefs of committed cessationists?  Or, did the organizers wish to get those on the fence to care more about this?  Was there a hope to get those with charismatic leanings to reconsider?  When the rhetoric becomes uncharitable or the arguments get reckless, is that more or less likely to gather a hearing from the squishy middle?  I think the question answers itself.

As far as other arguments against Mr. MacArthur, I think that there is ample biblical precedent for engaging controversial issues passionately and persuasively for the glory of God, but one still needs to recognize that a charitable tone and careful argument count for a great deal. The substance of the conference was mostly right.  The tone needed to be different.

No comments: