Last October, influential Reformed Baptist pastor John MacArthur organized the “Strange Fire” conference, dedicated to opposing the errors of Pentecostalism. The title is an allusion to Leviticus 10:1 which describes Aaron’s sons offering unauthorized worship (“strange fire” in the King James translation) to the Lord.
Pentecostalism has had a short but colorful history since emerging at the turn of the Twentieth Century as a movement built around the belief that God is initiating a new movement featuring a renewed ministry of the Holy Spirit: speaking in tongues, miraculous healing, new prophecy. Since the belief of a new movement cannot be drawn from Scripture, Pentecostalism has been troubled by extrabiblical tomfoolery since its inception.
Surprisingly, MacArthur drew flak from some who might be expected to support him. Steve Hays from the influential theological blog Triablogue, for example, was critical of the “MacArthurites” and their position of strict cessationism, the view that the miraculous “sign gifts” evident in the New Testament (healing, raising the dead, and so on) were intended solely to authenticate the message of the Apostles, and consequently when the last Apostle died, these miracles ceased. But proving strict cessationism from Scripture is difficult, as proving a universal negative generally is, and it is also easy to drift from theological cessationism (no more sign miracles, miracles intended to authenticate Apostolic teaching) to strict cessationism (no miracles, period.)
But cessationism is mostly a red herring. The fundamental problem with Pentecostalism is not a matter of precise theological definition. It is simply this: Pentecostals, as Pentecostals, generally desire an experience of Holy Ghost power more than they desire to build the faith that saves them by learning the Word of God (the Bible) and participating in the sacraments. To be sure, many Pentecostals are faithful to the Word of God. But many are not.
Yes, Pentecostalism is reaching millions, but what gospel message are they hearing? The general loss of authority brought on by the liberal revolution means that pastors must generally teach what parishioners want to hear if they are to maintain a large flock. With its emphasis on the exciting promise of Holy Ghost power for the believer, Pentecostalism (like evangelism generally) tends to downplay what the church should be emphasizing: the proclamation of the gospel message of the forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith in Christ. Repentance and faith are difficult, and mundane. The promise of spectacular miracles and personal spiritual power draws a bigger crowd.
And this has caused Pentecostalism to be flooded with heresy and charlatanism. Even the relatively sane Pentecostals generally shy away from criticizing the quacks, for fear of offending God by “quenching the Spirit.”
Remember also that team Satan is capable of misleading with supernatural signs and wonders of its own. According to the testimony of pastor and theologian Bob Dewaay, Satan has his own “protection racket,” in which demons torments a person but then withdraw when the victim, or an exorcist, recites the correct words of rebuke. The practitioners of this type of exorcism / spiritual healing have an elaborate doctrine of demonic possession, in which demons can allegedly gain the legal right to torment a person, a right which even God Almighty is allegedly required to honor, until such time as the victim or a professional exorcist determines the correct incantation required to nullify the demon’s right to possess his victim.
The doctrine that demonic possession is governed by a law code even more fundamental than God’s sovereignty is not found in the Bible. This secret knowledge (literally, “occult” knowledge) was allegedly obtained from the demons themselves. But why should we trust the word of a malevolent spirit? In truth, God is sovereign, and if any Christian is being tormented by a demon, God is permitting it, for reasons known only to Him.
Through his diabolical protection racket, Satan teaches people to trust in their own alleged spiritual power rather than trusting in the only One who can truly save them, Jesus Christ. By detaching some from their Savior, Satan draws some down to damnation.
This is the error of Pentecostalism. When the New Testament explicitly describes what being a Christian is all about, it does not say that we are to seek experiences of Holy Ghost power. It says we are to build our faith through word and sacrament, live productive lives, and love our family, friends and neighbors.
There is, however, at least one good feature of Pentecostalism, namely its commitment to a supernatural worldview. In order to deliver on its promise of supernatural, Holy Ghost power for the benefit of the believer, Pentecostalism has to believe in the supernatural worldview of the Bible. The type of Enlightenment-style naturalistic skepticism that has so devastated the mainline Protestant churches (and has also done serious harm to Catholicism) can gain no foothold within Pentecostalism. For that we should be grateful.
[Note to Catholics: I acknowledge that many of you would describe all Protestants as heretics by definition. But this post does not concern that distinction. This is a matter of fidelity to what the Bible teaches versus unbiblical innovation.]