Charismatic Chaos(Zondervan, 308 pp.; $17.99, hardcover);The Gospel According to Jesus(Zondervan, 253 pp.; $10.95, paper);Our Sufficiency in Christ(Word, 282 pp.; $15.99, hardcover); by John F. MacArthur, Jr. Reviewed by Robert W. Patterson, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in America, and former associate to the executive director, National Association of Evangelicals.
At the Evangelical Affirmations conference in Chicago three years ago, historian Nathan O. Hatch observed that evangelicalism is by nature decentralized, competitive, and driven by men who can build large and successful organizations. A prime example of what Hatch was talking about is John F. MacArthur, Jr., a well-known evangelical personality in Southern California. Since being graduated with honors from Talbot Theological Seminary in 1970, this Conservative Baptist-minister’s son has built not just an impressive 4,500-member congregation (the independent Grace Community Church in Sun Valley), but an entire ministry empire that includes the Master’s College (successor to the former Regular Baptist-related Los Angeles Baptist College), the Master’s Seminary, and his daily I radio program, “Grace to You.”
Unlike many evangelical personalities, MacArthur has not channeled his energy onto the television screen. Instead, he has devoted himself to theological inquiry and the printed page. Charismatic Chaos, The Gospel According to Jesus, and Our Sufficiency in Christ, books published in the last four years, demonstrate that devotion. They also reflect a man unhappy with many currents within the church—whether the Pentecostals and charismatics, the theology of Dallas Theological Seminary, or the popular “designer” church mentality. The books reflect the passion of a reformer seeking to set evangelicalism on the straight and narrow.
Fighting The Chaos
Charismatic Chaos, by far the most ambitious of the three titles, revises and expands MacArthur’s earlier critique, The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective (Zondervan, 1978). Like the original, Chaos sounds the alarm over what he considers a great danger: the anti-intellectualism, heightened supernaturalism, and experience-centered faith of charismatics. But the revision articulates MacArthur’s concerns with even greater conviction and vigor, calling attention to the bizarre manifestations of charismatic life that surfaced in the 1980s: the Kansas City prophets, the signs and wonders movement, and the gospel of health, wealth, and prosperity. Make no mistake, the California cleric has not softened his attitude toward the charismatics, as is witnessed by the omission in the revision of the original concluding chapter, “What Can We Learn from the Charismatic Movement?”
MacArthur attempts to do what he claims charismatic leaders have failed to do: subject the various experiences and claims of their movement to the authority of Scripture. “Scripture is the rule against which we must measure all teaching,” he writes, “and my only desire is to turn the light of God’s Word on a movement that has taken the contemporary church by storm.”
He contrasts charismatics’ paranormal experiences with the supernatural activity in Scripture and finds the former deficient. Modern glossolalia is not the tongues (foreign languages) in the Book of Acts; contemporary accounts of healing are not the complete, organic healings performed by Jesus and the apostles; “words of prophecy” are not the true and tested words of God recorded in Scripture. MacArthur’s most helpful observation is the essentially private nature of charismatic faith and practice. Whereas supernatural activities in Scripture generally occurred in public, authenticating a very public revelation for the benefit of a people, the various charismatic phenomena highlight individual experience, whether tongues, visions, or healings.
While MacArthur should be commended for appealing to sola scriptura, the book vastly overstates the charismatic “threat.” MacArthur is all too willing to choose selectively the more extreme cases of charismatic activity to justify his argument, and at times he relies on second-hand sources to indict the defendants. Granted, the ambiguity of an unstructured, popular movement gives MacArthur a free hand, but the reader may wonder why the author fails to interact with evidence that might temper his judgment.
For instance, Edith Blumhofer of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, a leading authority on Pentecostalism, has documented the declining number of charismatics and Pentecostals who speak in tongues. She contends that these communities have become more “evangelical” and less “Pentecostal” over the years. How this moderating trend fits into MacArthur’s claim of a movement out of control is unclear.
Perhaps the major flaw of the book is more attitudinal than methodological. In claiming to see things so clearly—so black and white—MacArthur falls into a restorationist mindset, identified by historian Mark Noll as “intellectual overconfidence, sectarian delusion, and a stunningly naïve confidence in the power of humans to extract themselves from the influences of history.”
MacArthur fails to acknowledge any element of solidarity with the movement he criticizes. While he calls charismatics brothers and sisters in Christ, he fails to explore the historical and theological connectedness of Pentecostalism to evangelicalism and does not see that some of his criticisms of charismatics in particular apply to evangelicals in general: both represent popular, democratic movements; both are organized around strong personalities; both foster an individualistic faith. Charismatic affinities with MacArthur’s particular theological orientation—dispensationalism—are even greater: both are ahistorical; both are preoccupied with prophecy; both advance a Keswick (“victorious living”) spirituality; both have little regard for the institutional church. If he were aware of these commonalities, MacArthur might have written Charismatic Chaos with greater sensitivity and humility—more as a pastor than as a preacher.
Reinventing The Reformation
Lest anyone think, however, that MacArthur is incapable of self-criticism, The Gospel According to Jesus shows that he is willing to turn the spotlight of Scripture onto his own theological grid. Unlike Chaos, this book carefully defines the problem. It claims that the gospel preached by fellow dispensationalists at Dallas Theological Seminary is not the gospel according to Jesus. This is a more serious charge than what is laid down in Charismatic Chaos.
The California preacher takes issue with Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges, former Dallas professors who make a distinction between believing in Jesus as Savior and believing in Jesus as Lord. They claim that to tell prospective converts they must acknowledge Christ as Lord to become Christians is dangerous; anything more than acknowledging Jesus as Savior amounts to adding works to faith for salvation.
Reflecting the old Keswick distinction between “carnal” Christians and “spiritual” Christians, Ryrie and Hodges teach that submission to Christ as Lord comes after one becomes a Christian. But they would never question the eternal salvation of one who expressed faith yet never progressed to the next step or exhibited faithfulness. MacArthur says the distinction is artificial—that Jesus cannot save unless he is the Lord—and believes the church has every right to question the salvation of a “carnal Christian.” To him, the ongoing testimony of a Christian is far more important than any one-time decision.
While the disagreement may appear to be over semantics, the cleavage is essentially theological. MacArthur claims to be dispensational, but he has moved beyond the Dallas school by embracing a more Reformed understanding of salvation. To him, the gospel is not simply information about, or an offer of, salvation that humans can freely accept; instead, it is the power of God that irresistibly calls and regenerates sinners, enabling them to believe and obey. MacArthur thus calls in question “decisional regeneration”—that is, that the saving renewal of the heart by the Holy Spirit follows upon commitment to faith.
But many will not find MacArthur’s solution satisfactory. He seems more theologically confused than clear, particularly as he probes the relationship between faith and works. Rather than seeing the two as related elements in the order of salvation, the pastor seems to equate faith with obedience, raising doubts about his understanding of the Reformation doctrine of “faith alone.” Had MacArthur interacted with the past, particularly with the Reformers and New England Puritans who wrestled with the same issues, The Gospel According to Jesus might have avoided these ambiguities.
MacArthur does acknowledge the historical record in a helpful appendix, but the book as a whole does not reflect the mind of a seasoned theologian.
The Preacher’S Predicament
MacArthur’s third book, Our Sufficiency in Christ, is the weakest of the three. Whereas the other books center on single issues, this book goes after more than it can chew, tackling what MacArthur considers three fatal trends influencing the church today: psychology, pragmatism, and mysticism.
While MacArthur deals fully with the third topic in Charismatic Chaos, his assessment of the first two subjects adds to an understanding of the MacArthur agenda. He vents his concern with “godless” psychology, which he fears is crowding out the use of the Bible in church counseling, as well as with the “designer” church mentality, which he thinks is replacing biblical worship and preaching with worldly entertainment.
The book should have been titled The Sufficiency of the Scriptures, since MacArthur is specifically concerned that the written Word is losing out in evangelicalism. His concerns are indeed legitimate. Yet, in the section on psychology, MacArthur again overstates the problem. His church’s experience with a highly publicized clergy malpractice suit in the 1980s may have colored his thinking, but his blanket condemnation of the human discipline does not reflect a healthy understanding of nature and grace.
His assessment of the pragmatic nature of contemporary evangelical worship is more balanced, and his call for theocentric worship is indeed in order. But the designer-church phenomenon should not surprise the author. For more than a century, evangelical worship has been pragmatic; evangelicals have viewed the church as, in the words of liturgist James F. White, “merely an instrument in gaining citizens for the future kingdom rather than … as an essential part of life in the kingdom itself.”
Taken as a whole, Charismatic Chaos, The Gospel According to Jesus, and Our Sufficiency in Christ suffer from what could be called the preacher’s predicament. Like many books written by ministers, they are not carefully crafted, but appear to be (especially Sufficiency) collections of sermons. In addition, while MacArthur claims otherwise, his style does not reflect one speaking to a wide audience, but only to his “amen” corner. His less than irenic spirit and preachy tone will preclude a wide hearing. Rather than fostering the theological integrity he longs for, his books may serve to deepen existing divisions within the evangelical family.
Betrayed By Divorce
… And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament,by Craig S. Keener (Hendrickson, 276 pp.; $9.95, paper). Reviewed by Rodney Clapp, a writer living in Wheaton, Illinois.
In an odd way, it may be a testimony to the church’s continued faithfulness that Christians keep arguing over the legitimacy of divorce. After all, North American culture has clearly made up its mind: divorce and remarriage are no problem. But Christians, even if they divorce and remarry at almost the rate of the rest of society, continue to have unsettled consciences. In that sense, our chronic debate may be a real, if flickering, sign of hope.
Rigorism—no divorce at all; or if divorce, no remarriage; or if remarriage, then no church leadership role—has had its say very fully in recent years. What has been much needed is for fresh insights or information to break stale impasses, to brush away worn-out slogans. We now have that in Craig Keener’s … And Marries Another.
Keener, a young evangelical scholar, takes advantage of a recent trend in biblical studies, known as socio-historical exegesis. These interpreters pay exceedingly close attention to the Greek, Roman, and rabbinic literature of New Testament times, which often allows them to determine what sort of cultural concerns biblical writers were really trying to get at.
In this vein, Keener has a brief 120 pages of text but a full 72 pages of notes, drawing from a list of ancient sources that requires 16 pages to index. Keener’s approach pays dividends on his chosen subject, since so many of the New Testament texts about marriage and divorce come cloaked in customs and assumptions not at all transparent to the twentieth-century eye. (Think how many riddles are raised by 1 Corinthians 7 alone, for instance.)
Yet … And Marries Another is a pastoral book, not a work especially for scholars. Keener passionately believes the contemporary church is harming many of the divorced persons in its fold, and depriving itself of needed and worthy leadership, by assuming that both parties to a divorce are necessarily guilty. No-fault divorce, he insists, is the siren song of modernity, not of Scripture. “By judging all divorced people as if they had chosen their situation, we do not reflect the justice of the God who defends the oppressed, the God who stands up for the widows bereaved by their spouses’ death—and those of the divorced who have been betrayed by their spouses’ betrayal.”
Keener’s signal contribution is to recognize there is more than one kind of divorced person—in the modern as in the ancient world. With detailed readings of Matthew 5:32; 1 Corinthians 7:10–16, and 1 Timothy 3:2, he sorts out the differences and suggests what difference they should make for the church today.
His answer to the question drawn from 1 Timothy 3:2 (Can ministers be remarried?) is particularly interesting. The social context of this letter may have included a suspicion that the church, like other “cults,” was breaking up Roman families. So Paul’s concern would have been to have stable family men in leadership. Thus “this principle more readily excludes a pastor who spends all his or her time away from home than a pastor who had been divorced and remarried ten years before but has a current stable home life.”
As I say, it is a good thing that the argument about divorce and remarriage goes on. But it would be even better if it stopped just long enough for everyone in the debate to read this book.
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