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A Theological Pilgrimage
The Gift of the Holy Spirit Today
The Pentecostal Reality
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Prophecy by the Book
Scripture: God's Written Word
The Holy Spirit in the Early Church
Chapter 13 - Biblical Truth and Experience
- a Reply to John F. MacArthur, Jr.
In his book Charismatic Chaos, John F. MacArthur, Jr. frequently
stresses the priority of biblical truth over experience. For example,
"Experience, however, is not the test of biblical truth;
rather, biblical truth stands in final judgment on experience."1 MacArthur writes these words in connection with his charge that
charismatics give priority to experience over Scripture.
As one against whom MacArthur levels this charge,2 I should like
to make reply.3 I have no disagreement with MacArthur about the
priority of biblical truth or theology over experience,4 but I
am concerned primarily about the way MacArthur handles biblical
truth in regard to the charismatic renewal. So I will speak to
that matter first. Thereafter, I will briefly comment on MacArthur's
relationship to experience.
MacArthur claims to stand forthrightly on biblical truth. It is
"our responsibility to examine everything carefully in light
of Scripture" (22), MacArthur declares. Let us examine how
MacArthur operates with relevant scriptural truth. We will begin
by turning first to chapter 7, "How Do Spiritual Gifts Operate?"
and note several statements. I begin here because a primary concern
of the charismatic renewal relates to spiritual gifts.
MacArthur writes in regard to 1 Corinthians 14:19 that "condemning
the Corinthians' misuse of the gift of tongues, the apostle [Paul]
argued that all ministry of spiritual gifts in the church should
be aimed at people's minds [italics his]" (157). MacArthur
thereupon quotes Paul's words, "In the church I desire to
speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others also,
rather than ten thousand words in a tongue (NASB)." I must
reply to MacArthur that Paul's statement about people's minds
relates only to his preference for prophecy over tongues in the
church assembly. He by no means is declaring that all spiritual
gifts should be "aimed at people's minds." Indeed, in
the elaboration of 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul deals with quite
a number of spiritual gifts, including faith, healings, miracles,
and tongues (12:8-10) that are not basically mental operations.
However, in regard to tongues, MacArthur seeks to bring them under
the mental umbrella by adding later that "the true gift of
tongues was the ability to speak in a foreign language" (166).
MacArthur's statement is far wide of the mark, for, with the possible
exception of Pentecost, there is no suggestion in the New Testament
that tongues were foreign languages. For example, speaking in
tongues by the Roman centurion and household (Acts 10:46) is set
within the context of worship- -"speaking in tongues and extolling
God" (RSV); moreover, what point would there have been in
their speaking foreign languages? Further, Paul quite explicitly
dissociates speaking in tongues from a mental activity (i.e.,
speaking in a foreign language) by saying, "If I pray in
a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful" (1
Cor. 14:14 RSV). Then Paul adds, "What am I to do? I will
pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also"
(v. 15a RSV). Praying in a tongue, according to Paul, is not praying in a foreign language, a mental activity, but praying
with the spirit wherein the mind is idle or unfruitful.
Further, in this chapter MacArthur contrasts "the true gift
of tongues" with "ecstatic speech," adding that
"nothing in the New Testament suggests that the gift of languages
was ecstatic speech" (166). Ecstatic speech, according to
MacArthur, borders on the demonic, for in the next sentence he
states, "God would not give a gift that is the same as the
one used by Satan to hold people in the grip of false religions."
Thus, tongues are either foreign languages or demonically inspired5 utterances. MacArthur fails to recognize a third possibility,
namely, that true tongues are neither foreign languages nor demonically
inspired speech but spiritual utterances. Or in Paul's
words, they are praying "with the spirit."
We observe next that, in regard to the situation of the Corinthian
church, MacArthur speaks of "spiritual confusion." His
words: "The depth of the spiritual confusion in Corinth certainly
revealed that many of the ecstatic and miraculous phenomena in
their midst were not true spiritual gifts" (169). Hence,
according to MacArthur, the ecstatic and miraculous mixed together
in deep spiritual confusion was the problem Paul had to deal with.
To reply: this was surely not the problem; it was rather
the Corinthians' disorder in the expression of the gifts.
Paul's final words in 1 Corinthians 12-14 are: "All things
should be done decently and in order" (14:40 RSV).
MacArthur, however, goes back to Paul's words in 1 Corinthians
12:3-5- -"I want you to understand that no one speaking by
the Spirit of God ever says 'Jesus be cursed!' and no one can
say 'Jesus is Lord' but by the Holy Spirit" (RSV). Thereupon
MacArthur adds: "In fact, it seems obvious that if people
in the Corinthian assembly were calling Jesus accursed, the gifts
they claimed to have received from the Holy Spirit were counterfeit"
(169-70). Paul, however, makes no connection between such a cursing
of Jesus (by whom Paul does not say) and any Corinthian activity
in spiritual gifts. The Corinthians may have exaggerated the importance
of certain gifts, they may have shown too little love in their
expression, and there may have been disorderliness, but in no
way does Paul suggest that some of the expressions were not from
God. The gifts were all from the Holy Spirit who, says Paul, "apportions
to each one individually as he wills" (1 Cor. 12:11 RSV).
MacArthur, viewing the Corinthian situation as one of "deep
spiritual confusion," thereupon applies this to the charismatic
movement by adding: "Who can deny that the charismatic movement
as a whole is suffering from exactly the same spiritual problems
that Paul found in the Corinthian church?" (170). Yes, there
are many of the same spiritual problems6 but not from saying "Jesus
be cursed" with resulting counterfeit gifts. "Jesus
is Lord" is the continuing affirmation, and the gifts basically
are from the Holy Spirit.
Is there then a valid operation of the spiritual gifts? MacArthur
affirms such in the last sentence of chapter 7: "The church
can be built up only when the spiritual gifts are used properly,
when Scripture is understood and taught accurately, and when believers
are walking in the Spirit with self-control, committed to obeying
the Word of God" (170). I can agree heartily with this statement;
however, in regard to the spiritual gifts operating "properly,"
it turns out that MacArthur is actually referring only to certain
In this regard let us move on to a statement of MacArthur's in
chapter 9, "Does God Heal?" MacArthur speaks of several
of the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 as "temporary
sign gifts" (199; italics his). He adds: "These
were specific enablements given to certain believers for the purpose
of authenticating or confirming God's Word when it was proclaimed
in the early church before the Scriptures were written. The temporary
sign gifts included prophecy (revelatory prophecy7), miracles,
healings, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. The sign gifts
had a unique purpose: to give the apostles credentials, that is,
to let the people know that these men all spoke the truth of God.
Once the Word of God was inscripturated, the sign gifts were no
longer needed and they ceased" (199). So it turns out that
the words "when the spiritual gifts are used properly"
can only refer now to what MacArthur calls "permanent
edifying gifts" (199; italics his). These include "knowledge,
wisdom, prophecy (authoritative preaching), teaching, exhortation,
faith (or prayer), discernment, showing mercy, giving, administration,
and helps" (199). Thus regarding the nine spiritual gifts
that Paul delineates in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, only four in some
sense continue to be available: word of wisdom, word of knowledge,
faith, and discerning of spirits.8 It follows, for example, in
regard to healing, that "those who claim the gift of healing
do not really have it" (203). According to MacArthur, God
has withdrawn the gift long ago.
Before looking further into the reasons MacArthur gives for the
cessation of many spiritual gifts, I can only first react in amazement.
For Paul in no way suggests a division of the gifts between temporary
and permanent, or that any of these would have no place in the
future life of the church. The gifts are all mixed together, MacArthur's
(not Paul's) "temporary" and "permanent"9 in
no particular order, and all are headed by Paul's statement, "To
each is given..." (1 Cor. 12:7 RSV). Moreover, according
to Paul, they are all apportionments of the Holy Spirit
and all are needed for the proper functioning of the body
of believers. In regard specifically to the gift of healing, how
can MacArthur dare to say it cannot exist today when Paul states:
"to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit" (1 Cor.
12:9 RSV)? This is just as much a continuing gift of the Holy
Spirit as any "permanent" gift that Paul names. MacArthur
surely does not have Paul on his side in declaring that the gift
of healing has ceased.
The reasons MacArthur gives for the cessation of the "sign
gifts" are equally questionable. On the one hand, as noted,
MacArthur says that these gifts occurred to authenticate the proclamation
of the gospel only as long as the Word of God was not inscripturated;
on the other hand, that the gifts occurred only to certify genuine
apostleship. Once there was no longer need for apostolic credentialing
and the canon of Scripture was completed, the gifts would be withdrawn.
However, the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 are not apostolic credentials: they are manifestations of the Holy Spirit
in the assembly among ordinary church members. Further, there
is not the slightest hint that the "sign gifts" will
cease with the completion of Scripture because they are no longer
needed. On the latter point, what possibly can the finalizing
of the canon have to do with the cessation of spiritual gifts?
There is surely no mention in the New Testament itself- -the completed
canon- -that some of the spiritual gifts have finally been withdrawn.
MacArthur's position is indeed a peculiar one. The Corinthians
presumably could practice all the spiritual gifts because the
apostles were still around and Scripture was not yet complete.
However, once the apostles were gone from the scene and their
teachings had been inscripturated, the Corinthians could no longer
exercise such gifts as healings, miracles, and tongues. Did Paul
himself even hint at this? Had he so notified the Corinthians?
Does he suggest this in any of his letters? Such questions hardly
need a serious answer.
What is most disturbing- -to repeat- -about MacArthur's position on
the "sign gifts" is that by declaring their cessation
he does not hesitate to rule out all subsequent expression of
these gifts. We have already commented on MacArthur's statement
that "those who claim the gift of healing do not really have
it." MacArthur spends much effort to demonstrate empirically
that all claims to the gift of healing today are fake claims,
but such demonstration does not really matter because, according
to MacArthur, in actuality the gift has long ago been removed
by God Himself. So when MacArthur takes a jaundiced look at any
and all contemporary expressions of healing, it really cannot
Now let us observe how similarly MacArthur speaks about miracles.
In an earlier chapter (5), entitled, "Does God Do Miracles
Today?" MacArthur declares, "I am convinced that the
miracles, signs, and wonders being claimed today in the charismatic
movement have nothing in common with apostolic miracles"
(109). The reason MacArthur gives later: "Nothing in Scripture
indicates that the miracles of the apostolic age were meant to
be continuous in subsequent ages" (117). MacArthur has many
disparaging remarks about the character of contemporary claims
to "signs and wonders" (especially in chap. 6, "What
is Behind the 'Third Wave'?"), and seeks to show their spuriousness.
Indeed, from MacArthur's perspective, miracle claims, as with
healing, must be spurious, not because of any sensational expression,
but because miracles no longer can possibly take place! It is
surely not without significance that MacArthur, herald of biblical
truth over against experience, does not hesitate to use contemporary
experience to fortify his negative viewpoint!
Looking further into MacArthur's chapter on miracles, we note
that he recognizes miracles in the New Testament as also occurring
through others closely associated with the apostles. He writes:
"Miracles were unique to the apostles and those who worked
most closely with them" (120-21). Still, MacArthur adds in
the next sentence, "The average Christian had no ability
to perform signs and wonders" (121). We must question, first,
if others than the apostles could also work miracles, what happens
to the view that miracles are uniquely apostolic credentials;
second, if others who worked closely with them could work miracles,
how can one rule out "the average Christian"? MacArthur
identifies those who "worked most closely with him"
as those "commissioned by him," and writes that
"no miracles ever occurred in the entire New Testament record
except in the presence of an apostle or one directly commissioned
by an apostle" (121). Examples that MacArthur mentions are
Stephen and Philip; however, MacArthur quickly adds, "the
power never went any further" (121). I must rejoin: if such
power never went any further, what does Paul mean in writing the
Corinthians "to another [is given] the working of miracles"
(1 Cor. 12:10 RSV)? Was such a person "commissioned"
by Paul? Hardly. He would seem to fit far better into the category
of "average Christian." But, according to MacArthur,
as noted, such a person could not perform miracles!
Another attempt by MacArthur (in chap. 4) to assign such gifts
as miracles, healings, and tongues to the apostolic circle is
evidenced in the way he treats Mark 16:17-18: "These signs
will accompany those who believe: in my name thy will cast out
demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they
will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover."
MacArthur, assuming that the verses are a reflection of an original
inspired manuscript, states: "It is incorrect to assert that
these signs should be the norm for all believers today" (102).
However, this clearly is MacArthur's judgment; but by no means
does the text suggest inapplicability for believers at any time.
MacArthur seeks to shore up his view by appealing, first, to history,
namely, that believers in general have not demonstrated these
signs, and second, that biblically, "these signs were true
of one certain group- -the apostolic community" (102). To reply:
if Mark 16:17-18 reflects a genuine word of Jesus, it would seem
much better to take this as a possibility for all believers rather
than boldly to contradict the text. Also, discounting Mark 16:17-18
because of a view derived from other texts that presumably only
the apostolic community could do such signs hardly seems credible.
The words of Mark 16:17-18- -"these signs will accompany those
who believe" (RSV)- -unmistakably go far beyond "the apostolic
In his clear affirmation that certain gifts were limited to the
apostolic circle, MacArthur frequently quotes 2 Corinthians 12:12
and Hebrews 2:3-4. Paul writes in the Corinthian passage, "The
signs of a true apostle were performed among you in all patience,
with signs and wonders and mighty works" (RSV). Such a statement,
according to MacArthur, emphasizes that miracles were singular
"proofs" of apostleship; accordingly, "If doing
miracles had been the common experience of ordinary Christians,
it would be foolish for Paul to try to prove his apostleship by
citing the miracles he had done" (121). However, Paul's statement,
I must reply, was not intended to position himself over against
"ordinary Christians" but to emphasize that he was "not
in the least inferior to the 'super-apostles'"10 (2 Cor. 12:11
NIV). Hence, Paul is not saying that miracles were limited to
apostles, but that "as a true apostle" he performed
genuine miracles. Incidentally, if Paul were saying in 2 Corinthians
12, as MacArthur claims, that miracles were a kind of apostolic
preserve, Paul is contradicting what he says in 1 Corinthians
12 about miracles being one of the gifts in the body that the
Holy Spirit sovereignly apportions. Not only does Paul say to
"ordinary [non-apostolic] Christians" "to another
the working of miracles" (v. 10), but also later adds the
category of miracles as separate from apostles: "God
has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third
teachers, then workers of miracles" (v. 28 RSV). In
sum, 2 Corinthians 12:12 cannot consistently be used to rule out
miracles from common Christian experience.
What about Hebrews 2:3-4? The author of Hebrews, speaking about
"a great salvation," adds that "it was declared
at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard
him, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various
miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed each according
to his will" (RSV). Unquestionably, miracles are here attributed
to "those who heard" the Lord, their witness being "attested"
or "confirmed" by "signs...wonders...miracles...gifts
of the Holy Spirit." The apostles may be identified as those
about whom Hebrews speaks, for surely they "heard" the
Lord and worked many miracles; however, that by no means limits
miracles to the apostles. A statement of occurrence is not necessarily
a statement of circumscription. In this connection I would call
attention to a question of Paul to the Galatians: "Does he
who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do
so by works of law, or by hearing with faith?" (3:5 RSV).
Here is a somewhat similar statement to Hebrews regarding miracles
and the Holy Spirit, but without any suggestion in Galatians that
the apostles (or an apostle) were those who worked the miracles.
The miracles, in Paul's words- -and with no reference to himself- -simply
occurred "among" the Galatians. The Galatian situation
seems not too different from the Corinthian where "ordinary
Christians"- -as we have seen- -surely worked miracles. MacArthur,
incidentally, while frequently citing Hebrews 2:3-4 never mentions
Galatians 3:5. This, as is frequently the case, is an unbalanced
use of God's written Word.
I would also call attention to the prayer of the company of believers
in Acts 4:23-31. Peter and John had wrought a miracle of healing
on a lame man and were later threatened and imprisoned. Then verse
23 begins: "On their release, Peter and John went back to
their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders
had said to them. When they [the 'people'] heard this, they raised
their voices together in prayer to God" (NIV). The prayer
of the people, the gathered believers, concludes: "Now, Lord,
consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your
word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform
miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant
Jesus" (NIV). The apostles Peter and John were there- -and
presumably the other ten apostles- -but the prayer was obviously
that of the larger company of believers who prayed for boldness
to witness and for miracles to be performed through them
by Jesus. There is no suggestion in their prayer that miracles
will be done thereafter only by the apostles in their midst. Earlier
in Acts there is the statement that "many wonders and signs
were done through the apostles" (2:43). However, some time
later, as we have just noted, the larger company prayed that the
Lord would accompany their witness by "miraculous signs and
wonders." Would they have prayed thus, especially with the
apostles present, if miracles were a sole apostolic prerogative?
Further, who knows but that later miracles performed by non-apostles
Stephen and Philip were an answer to the prayer of the company
of believers rather than the result of apostolic commissioning?
MacArthur again has drawn the net too tight in his elimination
of "ordinary Christians" from miraculous activity.
Finally, in the matter of biblical truth I would like to return
to MacArthur's view of speaking in tongues, especially chapter
10, "Is the Gift of Tongues for Today?" I will also
make some reference to chapter 8, "What was Happening in
the Early Church?".
MacArthur states: "Tongues are mentioned in three books of
the Bible: Mark (16:17); Acts (2, 10, 19); and 1 Corinthians (12-14)"
(224). However, says MacArthur, we may first eliminate Mark 16:17- -"Those
who believe...will speak in new tongues," because "Mark
16:17 simply mentions tongues as an apostolic sign" (224).
Really? Such biblical interpretation is far from the mark. The
text has no reference whatever to apostles or apostolic signs:
it refers totally to "those who believe." Thus all the
more egregious is the statement, earlier quoted, in regard to
Mark 16:17 by MacArthur: "It is incorrect to assert that
these signs [including tongues] should be the norm for all believers."
This obviously is MacArthur's opinion, but it is not what
Mark 16:17 says. It would be far more profitable and edifying
if MacArthur, rather than distorting the text, might question
what are "new tongues," and, for example, how do they
relate to tongues spoken in the Acts accounts and in 1 Corinthians?
On the Day of Pentecost people spoke in "other tongues"
(Acts 2:4). Were these "new tongues"- -or what? How do
"new tongues" relate to "strange tongues"
in 1 Corinthians 14:21? MacArthur's determination to remove "tongues"
from the Christian community at large seems so strong that he
fails to pursue many challenging possibilities.
In regard to Acts 2, 10, and 19 MacArthur seeks to dismiss these
references by saying that since Acts is "primarily historical
narrative...the extraordinary, miraculous events [including tongues]
it recounts do not represent a normative pattern for the entire
church age" (224). Despite the questionableness of a view
that historical narrative provides no pattern for the ensuing
church age, I will simply comment that MacArthur views all tongues
in Acts as human languages, and allows that view to control his
interpretation of tongues in 1 Corinthian 12-14. For example,
MacArthur comments: "Nowhere does the Bible teach that the
gift of tongues is anything other than human languages" (226).
Actually, as we have seen, 1 Corinthians 12-14 by no means corroborates
Let us move on again to the Corinthian chapters. I have already
made several comments, especially in reference to chapter 12,
so will now note two other of MacArthur's interpretations.
First, there is MacArthur's view of 1 Corinthians 13:8: "Love
never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be
done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is
knowledge, it will be done away" (NASB). MacArthur claims
that prophecy and knowledge will be done away "when the perfect
comes" (v. 10), the perfect being viewed as the eternal state- -"face
to face" (v. 12). However, tongues, without regard to the
final perfection, will simply cease: "the gift of tongues
will 'stop itself'" (231 n.20). MacArthur adds: "When is not stipulated, but they won't be around when the perfect thing
arrives. History suggests that tongues ceased shortly after Paul
wrote this epistle" (ibid.) To put it bluntly, MacArthur
is skewing this passage badly. For one thing, Paul never intended
to separate a period of future prophecy and knowledge from that
of tongues. They will all end when the perfect comes. "Done
away" and "cease" are simply stylistic variants,11 not references to different time schedules. For another, since
MacArthur views prophecy and knowledge as continuing to the consummation,
he is constrained to posit them both as "permanent gifts."
Prophecy, accordingly, says MacArthur, in this context is not
a miraculous gift but "the ability to proclaim truth powerfully"
(ibid.). Such a view of prophecy is altogether foreign to the
biblical meaning, and totally rationalizes what Paul is saying.
Still again, MacArthur finally does not rely on the biblical data
but on presumed historical evidence that tongues ceased shortly
after Paul's letter. Such a statement is quite controversial12;
moreover, it shows an attitude that is too dogmatic regarding
history. MacArthur so much as says: If the Bible is not convincing
that tongues will shortly stop, history is! This is not a very
scholarly way of dealing with an issue of much importance.
Second, I must comment on MacArthur's interpretation of 1 Corinthians
14:2 and 4. 1 Corinthians 14:2 reads: "One who speaks in
a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands
him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit" (RSV). MacArthur
quotes these words of Paul and then adds, "he was using irony,
pointing out the futility of speaking in tongues without an interpreter,
because only God would know if anything was said" (228).
Using irony? How possibly can one see irony in Paul's words which
are a simple and profound statement that tongues are addressed
to God, not to men, and that mysteries, hidden things, are being
spoken? To be sure, interpretation is needed, as Paul later says,
for other believers to be edified (v. 5), but that does not in
any way discount the fact that tongues are essentially addressed
to God.13 MacArthur is way off target. But worse is yet to come:
MacArthur adds in a footnote,14 "Because of the absence of
any definite article in the Greek text, it is also possible to
translate this verse as, 'One who speaks in a tongue does not
speak to men but to a god' [italics his]- -referring to a
pagan deity" (228 n.17). To a pagan deity? I can reply only
that MacArthur's words are not only exegetically quite questionable15 but very close to being blasphemous. "Mysteries in the Spirit"
to a pagan deity? It is not hard to see why MacArthur continues
in the footnote with the reminder: "Either way ["to
God" or "to a god"], 1 Corinthians 14:2 is condemnation,
not commendation." Again this is exegetically indefensible:
there is no genuine option, nor is Paul by any means condemning
such speaking in tongues.
Next we note Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 14:4- -"He who speaks
in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the
church" (RSV). MacArthur writes, "Paul was not commending
the use of tongues for self-edification, but condemning people
who were using the gift in violation of its purpose and in disregard
of the principle of love" (228). To reply: while it is true
that the Corinthians lacked much in terms of love (note 1 Corinthians
13) and may have been valuing tongues more highly than prophecy,
this does not mean that Paul was negating or condemning the value
of tongues for self-edification. MacArthur's further statement
about one who speaks in tongues that "the chief value he
gets out of it is the building of his own ego" (229) is,
to say the least, deplorable. MacArthur's biases16 are so strong
that he cannot envision the possibility of language as prayer
to God in which there is at the same time genuine spiritual edification.17 Why must one think of self-edification as selfish ego-building?
To leave Paul for a moment- -Jude writes: "You, beloved, build
yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit"18 (v. 20 RSV). This indeed is an injunction to self-edification,
and has nothing to do with "building" one's "own
ego." Not dissimilarly Paul was commending the use of tongues
for self-edification, for being built up in faith.
However, tongues as such do not immediately edify the church whereas
prophecy does- -"but he who prophesies edifies the church."
So Paul adds: "Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but
even more to prophesy" (v. 5a RSV). Furthermore, when tongues
are interpreted they are equal in value to prophecy: "He
who prophesies is greater than he who speaks in tongues, unless
some one interprets, so that the church may be edified" (v.
5b RSV). It is obvious that Paul is not disparaging tongues but
is desirous that they be used through interpretation to edify
the body of believers.
But let us go back to the value of tongues. MacArthur sees them
at best in terms of egocentric activity, at worst as possibly
diabolical (addressed to "a god"). He would therefore
surely warn against any practice of tongues. Thus he is light
years away from Paul who declared, "I want you all to speak
in tongues." MacArthur can only urge people to stay away
from all such practice, and thus falls victim to Paul's later
words, "So, my brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy, and
do not forbid speaking in tongues" (v. 39). MacArthur may
not directly forbid, but his attitude is so negative that this
conclusion follows practically.
MacArthur finally seeks to fortify his negativity by saying quite
bluntly: "The tongues being spoken today are not biblical.
Those who speak in tongues are not practicing the gift described
in Scripture" (244). This is a confusing statement. Since,
as we earlier observed, MacArthur views tongues in the Bible as
foreign languages- -"the true gift of tongues was the ability
to speak in a foreign language,"19 and since his view, as noted,
is highly questionable, MacArthur has really no adequate way of
coping with the contemporary phenomenon. MacArthur's additional
view, as noted, is that false tongues in the Bible were "ecstatic
speech." Since today foreign languages cannot be proved as
occurring, all that can remain is ecstatic and irrational utterance.20 It is quite unfortunate, but by a basic misunderstanding of the
nature of biblical tongues as spiritual utterance (praying
with the spirit, uttering mysteries in the spirit, the extolling
of God in transcendent speech, and so on), MacArthur is incapable
of rendering adequate judgment on the contemporary scene.
To sum up this section: it is apparent that MacArthur's professed
allegiance to biblical truth is quite problematic. His claim to
stand fully on the Bible in regard to charismatic matters cannot
be substantiated. MacArthur correctly states that biblical truth
stands in final judgment on all experience; however, his views
of that truth are so confused that his judgments far miss the
mark. There is evidently an anti-charismatic bias operating that
colors and slants all of his writing about charismatic matters.
Now we turn to the matter of experience. MacArthur, in chapter
1, "Is Experience a Valid Test of Faith?," speaks affirmatively
of experience by declaring personally, "Many of my own spiritual
experiences have been profound, overwhelming, life-changing events"
(24). Then he adds, "Spiritual experience by definition is
an internal awareness that involves strong emotion in response
to the truth of God's Word, amplified by the Holy Spirit and applied
by him to us personally." How does this differ from what
MacArthur proceeds: "Charismatics err because they tend to
build their teachings on experience, rather than understanding
that authentic experience happens in response [italics
his] to truth." Thus, according to MacArthur, both non-charismatics
and charismatics affirm experience, but the latter fail to do
so in response to biblical truth.
Before commenting on charismatics and experience, I must immediately
comment that if "authentic experience happens in response
to the truth of God's Word," and there is some misapprehension
of that truth, then the ensuing experience may very well be partial
or lacking. Since, as we have seen, MacArthur is seriously off
base in much of the scriptural data relating to things charismatic,
his experience can hardly be adequate. By failure to interpret
certain Scriptures accurately, his resulting experience unfortunately
can only be short-circuited. So while he pillories charismatics
for claims to certain experiences, MacArthur boxes himself off
from sharing in them.
The most obvious example of this is speaking in tongues. MacArthur,
by holding that genuine speaking in tongues was originally speaking
in foreign languages (a misapprehension) and that the gift of
tongues has necessarily ceased (a serious error), virtually closes
the door to any recognition of tongues as valid today or for the
church or for his own personal spiritual life!
Charismatics generally have no problem here: they read about tongues
in the Bible, hear the words, "They will speak in new tongues,"
note in Acts that many people spoke in tongues, and hear Paul's
words "to another tongues" and "I want you all
to speak in tongues." Thus when people speak in tongues,
is this a matter of putting experience first or acting on biblical
truth? Charismatics do not spend their time evacuating the
plain teaching of Scripture by intellectualizing tongues, or claiming
such as only an apostolic prerogative, or seeking to discover
a scriptural cut-off time. Charismatics are humbly grateful that
this biblical truth has come alive in their experience. Whose
experience then is authentic?
MacArthur seems determined to disavow all such spiritual gifts
as tongues, healings, and miracles. There are, to be sure, charismatics
that exaggerate in all these areas, but at least they are open because of the biblical record. Thus they are able to experience
those things that MacArthur strongly resists. Charismatics do
not therefore begin with experience; rather, their experience
is the outworking of scriptural truth. Experience is not (here
I agree with MacArthur) a valid test of truth; but it surely
does serve to confirm the teachings of the Bible.
Furthermore, in regard to MacArthur, it follows that by his denial
of the continuing validity of many of the spiritual gifts, he
effectively shuts himself off from any real apprehension of them.
Experience of the biblical gifts, while not primary (the Scriptures
must remain first), opens up deeper understanding. MacArthur unfortunately
does not have this, so that his discussion about the spiritual
gifts not only lacks biblical validity, but also lacks genuine
vitality. Vital understanding of such biblical realities,
for example, as justification and regeneration, calls for participation
and experience. So it is with spiritual gifts.
In his Introduction MacArthur quotes my words: "Against the
background of sharing in the Holy Spirit and the consequent gifts
of the Holy Spirit, information, instruction, and teaching concerning
them becomes relevant. A fundamental thesis may here be set forth: Any vital information concerning the gifts of the Spirit, the
pneumatic charismata, presupposes a participation in them.
Without such a participation, whatever is said about the gifts
may only result in confusion and error"21 (19). This is the
quotation to which I earlier referred22 that was followed by MacArthur's
words, "Experience, however, is not the test of biblical
truth, rather, biblical truth stands in final judgment on experience."
MacArthur misunderstands my words. I was not saying that experience
is the test of biblical truth; rather, that participation makes
for vital understanding. Without such participation- -as
is true for all the realities of the Christian faith- -there may
be some intellectual apprehension but little more. Especially
if there is negativity about the possibility of the biblical realities
happening, in this case the spiritual gifts, there can be even
more serious misunderstanding. I do not hesitate to say it again:
there may be only "confusion and error."
Let me illustrate this further by once more referring to speaking
in tongues. The reality of tongues is unquestionably in the New
Testament. Unless, however, one has spoken in tongues, it is not
possible to grasp the full meaning. Until one can share with Paul
his experience of praying "with the spirit" (as well
as with the mind), there may be not only confusion but also opposition.
In MacArthur's case there is obviously a lack of sensitivity in
regard to those who speak in tongues. He can shed little light
because he stands in the dark. Paul could write the Corinthians
about the purpose of tongues as one who himself shared the
experience; MacArthur, struggling to distance himself, consequently
has little to say that is vital or helpful.
This brings me to the point of emphasizing the damaging effect
of lack of experience. MacArthur faults charismatics for their
presumed primary stress on experience- -and doubtless some charismatics
may lay too much emphasis here. However, even more critical can
be lack of experience wherein there is little or no confirmation
of the biblical witness. Thus there is no empathy for the original
scriptural texts. It is as if MacArthur is on a different wave
length, so that nothing comes through clearly. There is a kind
of bewilderment- -for MacArthur professes to see many good things
about the charismatic movement23- -but because of lack of experience
cannot really understand what it is all about.
Far worse than charismatic chaos is non-charismatic negativity.
In the charismatic movement prophecy may be over done,
healings over claimed, miracles over stressed, tongues over employed,
but far worse is the negativity that makes no room for these spiritual
realities to occur. Moreover, if these are indeed gifts of the
Holy Spirit, and they are happening today, is there not the very
serious danger of opposition to them being opposition to the Holy
Finally, in a brotherly fashion, I would encourage John MacArthur
to reinvestigate his theological and biblical moorings; and to
be open to fresh activities of the Holy Spirit in his life and
ministry. May it so be.
I would like to speak to three charges MacArthur levels against
me in reference to quotations from my early book, The Era of
1. Theology should be adapted to experience
"J. Rodman Williams argues that we should adapt our theology
to experience, rather than insisting that experience be evaluated
by theology" (45). Then MacArthur quotes my words, "What
I have been attempting to stress is that the theological implications
of this dynamic movement of the Spirit are of no little significance.
At the critical center there is the knowledge that something has
happened!" MacArthur interrupts my words at that point; in
the original they continue (without an exclamation point) "for
which one has difficulty finding adequate theological language
or ways of relating it to various doctrines of the Christian faith."
By breaking my statement with "something has happened,"
MacArthur can add, "That is the key- -something has happened.
Never mind if it fits 'airy-fairy' doctrine or theology"
(45-46).25 Thus MacArthur tries to include me in a statement made
a few sentences earlier, "The experiential wave rolls on,
and doctrine and theology are being washed out the door"
(45). To identify my position as not caring about doctrine and
theology is grossly unjust.26 But what I am saying is that the "dynamic
movement of the Spirit" (an objective, biblical, and primarily
nonexperiential reality) is difficult to express in adequate theological
language. A parallel would be the difficulty the early church
had in finding adequate theological language to express, for example,
the Incarnation or the Triune reality of God. Today the same thing,
I believe, is happening in the area of the Holy Spirit (an area
for which the church has never found adequate theological expression),
so that we are called upon particularly in our time to serious
Thus MacArthur completely misunderstands and misrepresents me:
my concern is anything but the washing away of theology or doctrine.
Indeed three pages earlier in Era of the Spirit (p. 52)
I say, "Let us push on theologically"- -and the basic
thrust of the whole book is theological against the background
of the movement of God's Holy Spirit. Thus I am not suggesting
that we should "adapt our theology to experience" but
to the biblically grounded activity of God in the Holy Spirit.
2. Christians can add to the Bible
"Williams is declaring that Christians can add to the
Bible- -and that they can accept others' additions to Scripture
as normal and conventional" (51). MacArthur's charge against
me is against the background of a fairly lengthy quotation of
mine which begins: "The Bible truly has become a fellow witness
to God's present activity." Then I comment about Christians
who may speak a "'Thus says the Lord'...even going beyond
the words of the Bible," and I add the words: "The Spirit
as the living God moves through and beyond the records of past
witness, however valuable such records are as a model for what
happens today" (50). In no way do I declare that "Christians
can add to the Bible," or that they can make "additions
to Scripture." All I am saying is that God as the living
God who spoke in the Bible still speaks- -He is not silent. What
He said there is the "model" (= pattern, norm) for speaking
today. Hence any "Thus says the Lord"- -whatever the wording- -must
be wholly consonant with Scripture to be truly a word from God.
3. Charismatic prophecy is divine revelation equal to Scripture
After another lengthy quotation of mine about prophecy, MacArthur
concludes: "That is tantamount to saying that current instances
of charismatic prophecy are divine revelation equal to Scripture"
(55). In the quotation I speak of how prophecy is recurring today:
"In prophecy God speaks....Most of us of course were familiar
with prophetic utterance as recorded in the Bible....Many of us
also had convinced ourselves that prophecy ended with the New
Testament (despite all the New Testament evidence to the contrary),
until suddenly through the dynamic thrust of the Holy Spirit prophecy
comes alive again. Now we wonder how we could have misread the
New Testament for so long!" In no way do I say in
these words that charismatic prophecy is "divine revelation
equal to Scripture." All legitimate prophecy must stand under the norm of Scripture. I am grateful that MacArthur added
my words from another source: "I vigorously affirm the decisive
authority of Scripture; hence, God does not speak just as authoritatively
today as He spoke to the biblical authors. But He does continue to speak (He did not stop with the close of the New Testament
canon)."27 Nevertheless MacArthur adds, "The distinction
between biblical authority and additional revelation seems to
be artificial. How could some of God's words be less authoritative
than others?" (56). Note again: I said nothing about "additional
revelation." Prophecy beyond Scripture is not additional
revelation; nor does it carry the authority of Scripture. Surely
God speaks today, for example, often through preaching and teaching,
but His words therein spoken are less authoritative than those
in the Bible. Prophecy does have a directness about it; it is
a gift of the Holy Spirit. But it must always stand under God's
1Charismatic Chaos, 19.
2MacArthur's words immediately follow a quotation by him from my
book Renewal Theology, vol. 2, Salvation, the Holy Spirit,
and Christian Living, 326.
3Shortly after MacArthur's previous book The Charismatics: A
Doctrinal Perspective appeared, I wrote a paper privately
circulated entitled A Reply to The Charismatics: A Doctrinal
Perspective (1979). Since MacArthur's recent book is largely
a revision of the first, I will seek in this article to provide
an updated and more public reply.
4Despite MacArthur's statement: "J. Rodman Williams argues
that we should adapt our theology to experience, rather than insisting
that experience be evaluated by theology" (Charismatic
Chaos, 45). I will return to this later (see Appendix).
5We shall note hereafter that MacArthur does not view all tongues
today as demonically inspired: they may also be learned behavior
or psychologically induced utterance.
6I would not deny that the counterfeit may occur (there is always
the possibility of alien voices in a church assembly), but that
was not Paul's real concern. MacArthur seems intent on making
the counterfeit, even the demonic, the basic issue.
7These are MacArthur's words. He makes a distinction between prophecy
as "revelatory prophecy" and prophecy as "authoritative
preaching" (199). The latter, MacArthur claims, is a continuing
gift. Such a view is patently unbiblical. Prophecy cannot at
any time be subsumed under the category of "authoritative
preaching." There is no biblical basis for such.
8I say "in some sense" because MacArthur has modified
even these four: knowledge for word of knowledge, wisdom for
word of wisdom, prayer (possibly) for faith, discernment for discerning
9A student in one of my classes after reading Charismatic Chaos and MacArthur's division of the spiritual gifts into temporary
and permanent, asked in a written critique: "Is MacArthur
perhaps receiving extrabiblical revelation?" Maybe MacArthur
would like to reply!
10According to BAGD, "the super-apostles...[were] either the
original apostles...or, perhaps with more probability, the opponents
of Paul in Ephesus" (see 'uperlion). If the latter is the
case, Paul's concern is all the more clearly not to establish
his credentials over against "ordinary Christians" but
in relation to "self-inflated super-apostles" (Philip
E. Hughes' characterization in his commentary, The Second Epistle
to the Corinthians, NICNT, 455).
11Gordon Fee writes: "Some have argued that the change of
verbs (including the change of voice) with tongues...has independent
significance, as though this meant that tongues might cease before
prophecy and knowledge. But that misses Paul's concern rather
widely. The change of verbs is purely rhetorical" (First
Epistle to the Corinthians, NITNC, 643-44 n.17). D. A. Carson
similarly speaks of "stylistic variation" (Showing
the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14,
12For a more balanced viewpoint see Grant Osborne's article, "Tongues,
Speaking in," Evangelical Dictionary of Theology,
13Recall, again, Acts 10:46-"speaking in tongues and extolling
God." Also, on the Day of Pentecost speaking "in other
tongues" was declaring "the mighty works of God"
(Acts 2:11). Only thereafter did Peter address the crowd, "Men
of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem..." (v. 14).
14The footnote, with minor verbal differences, is a part of the
main text in MacArthur's earlier book, The Charismatics: A
Doctrinal Perspective (see p. 161). One should be grateful,
I suppose, that the statement above has been lowered to a footnote.
However, either way it is a most unfortunate misinterpretation.
15E.g., Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians, "Paul, called
to be an apostle by the will of God." Since "God"
is likewise without a definite article there, theoretically one
could also translate by "the will of a god." But who
(not even MacArthur) would entertain such an idea?
16Gordon Fee writes in this connection that MacArthur's "biases
intrude on his interpretation" (First Epistle to the Corinthians,
NICNT, 657 n.24).
17What Paul actually was condemning was not the value of tongues
for self-edification but their community expression without interpretation
following. See verses 13-16.
18Praying in the Holy Spirit probably was in tongues. Richard J.
Bauckham, commenting on Jude 20, states that the language "indicates
charismatic prayer in which the words are given by the Spirit"
(2 Peter and Jude, WBC, 113). James D. G. Dunn writes
similarly: "A reference to charismatic prayer, including
glossolalic prayer, may...be presumed for Jude 20" (Jesus
and the Spirit, 246). However, even if one were to argue
against Jude 20 as referring to glossolalia, the point still remains:
there is need for self-edification; it is not as such ego satisfaction.
19Can one possibly imagine Paul to mean: "I want you all to
speak in a foreign language"?
20Either satanic or psychological in origin. Tongues may be "satanic
or demonic" (239), "learned behavior"
(240), or "psychologically induced" (242, emphases
MacArthur's). I would not disagree that "false tongues"
may be any, or all, of these. The problem is that MacArthur places all contemporary glossolalia under these categories. True
tongues are none of these.
21From Renewal Theology, vol. 2, Salvation, the Holy Spirit,
and Christian Living, 326 (emphasis in the original).
22In footnote 2.
23Perhaps more so in his earlier volume The Charismatics where
he has a fine concluding chapter entitled, "What Can We Learn
from the Charismatic Movement?" That chapter is omitted
in Charismatic Chaos.
24Since 1971 I have written two further books on the Holy Spirit, The Pentecostal Reality and The Gift of the Holy Spirit
Today. Also the major portion of Renewal Theology,
vol. 2, Salvation, the Holy Spirit, and Christian Living,
is directed to the Holy Spirit. I earlier commented in this article
on MacArthur's quotation from Renewal Theology, vol. 2.
25MacArthur does proceed at this point with the rest of my statement
above; however, by virtue of his words just quoted he severely
distorts my viewpoint.
26In addition to Renewal Theology, vol. 2 (previously mentioned),
I have also written Renewal Theology, vol. 1, God, the
World, and Redemption and Renewal Theology, vol. 3, The Church, Kingdom, and Last Things . This hardly suggests
on my part a lack of concern for theology.
27Quoted from Logos Journal, "Opinion" (May-June,
Content Copyright ©1996, 2001 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D.
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