Thursday, April 11, 2013

"Strange Fire" and Responsible Criticism (2)

I published a post a couple of weeks ago about John MacArthur and his upcoming Strange Fire conference.  I expressed concern over the rhetorical and theatrical recklessness of the promotional video as well as Pastor MacArthur's book Charismatic Chaos.  The way that MacArthur argues leads one to believe that he sees absolutely nothing beneficial to the "charismatic movement."  In a follow-up post I quoted J. I. Packer from a 1984 book in which he critically interacts with the charismatic movement.  Dr. Packer wrote another essay in which he continued to interact with the charismatic movement in an even-handed manner.

In 1989 J. I. Packer wrote an article for Christianity Today (May 12, 1989) entitled "Piety on Fire" in which he analyzes the charismatic movement.  Packer is a cessationist and he has his fair share of critical concerns about the charismatic movement but he also shows himself able to recognize positive elements in the movement.  A few of Packer's thoughts are below:
Doctrinally, the renewal is in the mainstream of historic evangelical orthodoxy on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the objectivity of Christ's atonement and the historicity of his resurrection, the need of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, personal fellowship with the Father and the Son as central to the life of faith, and the divine truth of the Bible.  There is nothing eccentric about its basic teaching.  (p. 20)
Compare the following from Packer with John MacArthur's wholesale dismissal of the charismatic movement:
But even if the charismatic movement has no more to give to the church than it has given already, it is surely strange that it should ever be dismissed as not "from God"--that is, as manifesting throughout something other than God's grace, so that every element of it should be explained as merely human or actually demonic.  Yet that verdict has on occasion been voiced.  How should we respond?
Our first comment must be that such thinking is largely emotional and irrational.  The human mind has an unhappy tendency to jump from specifics we dislike to blanket condemnation of the larger reality of which the specifics are part.  Someone misbehaves once, so we tag him as a no-good forever.  We think a store cheated us over one purchase, so we resolve never to shop there again.  Our car gives trouble, so we henceforth refuse all cars of that make.  So, too, if charismatic phenomena offend our sense of social, liturgical, or theological propriety, and charismatic individual embarrass us and make us feel threatened, we are very apt to respond by abusing the whole movement and denying that there is anything of God in it all.  But how silly!  And how nasty!  This is a reaction of wounded pride and willful prejudice, and as such is bad thinking in every way. 
Our second comment must be that by biblical standards the negative verdict is impossible. This can be seen from an argument classically set out by Jonathan Edwards in the aftermath of the much-criticized Great Awakening, of which he became the prime defender.  In The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Edwards reasons as follows: Any movement that (1) exalts Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, leading people to honor him as such; (2) opposes Satan's kingdom by weaning people from sin and worldliness; (3) teaches people to revere and trust the Bible as the Word of God; (4) makes people feel the urgency of eternal issues and the depth of their own lostness without Christ; and (5) stirs up in people new love of Christ and of others, must be a divine work at its heart, whatever disfigurements may appear on its surface, since these are effects that Satan and fallen humankind have no wish to induce, and in fact try to avoid.  But the Great Awakening had these distinguishing marks; therefore, it was a work of God.
That the charismatic renewal has had the same fivefold effect is beyond dispute; therefore, it too must be adjudged a work of God.  No doubt human folly breaks surface in it, as happens in all movements involving human excitement; no doubt Satan, whose nature and purpose is always to spoil any good God produces, keeps pace with God in it, engineering lunatic fanaticism within it ranks as he did in the Great Awakening.  But to diagnose human and satanic disfigurements of this contemporary work of God is altogether different from seeing it as intrinsically the fruit of psychological freakiness or satanic malice.  (p. 21--emphasis added)
Packer ends his article with these words:
The charismatic renewal has brought millions of Christians, including many clergy, to a deeper, more exuberant faith in Christ than they had before.  It has quickened thousands of congregations, invigorating their worship, making love and fellowship blossom among them, increasing their expectancy and enterprise, and giving stimulus to their evangelism. Charismatic insistence on openness to God has transformed countless lives that previously were not open to him.  Is this from God?  The question answers itself.  (p. 23)
Again, Packer shows himself to be a responsible critic of the charismatic movement in a manner that eludes John MacArthur.