“Strange Fire” and What’s Wrong—and What’s Right—with Pentecostalism

In October 2013, 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. Birthed at the so-called Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, the Pentecostal movement began teaching that the Lord was initiating a “second Pentecost” which, like the Pentecost described in Acts 2, involves the Holy Spirit falling on believers in Christ with power and spiritual gifts. The new Pentecostal movement began teaching that Christians could now be “filled with the Spirit,” (also called “baptized with the Holy Ghost”), enabling them to speak in tongues, perform miraculous healings, or receive prophetic words directly from God. Christians who did not give evidence of having received any of these gifts were urged to ask God to give them this “second blessing,” and some Pentecostal denominations even began teaching that those who do not speak in tongues are not really saved.

Although some Pentecostals remain faithful to Biblical teaching, the Pentecostal movement overall amounts to a new form of Christianity, based on the belief that the true believer in Christ will have a personal experience of the presence of God and will be able to exercise power through the gifts brought by the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism teaches that baptism in the Holy Spirit gives the individual Christian special power to live the Christian life and be a witness for Jesus. But the actual result of Pentecostal teaching is usually, at best, to distract the believer from the real Christian life of the forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith in Christ by encouraging him to run after spiritual gimmicks and fads.  And at worst, Pentecostalism snares naive Christians in heresy, that is, false teaching that separates the believer from his Savior.

Then, in 1964, came the Charismatic movement. Previously, Christians in non-Pentecostal churches who came to have Pentecostal beliefs would leave their former churches to join an openly-Pentecostal denomination such as the Assemblies of God. But when Dennis Bennett, senior pastor of an Episcopal church in Van Nuys, California, began speaking openly of his Pentecostal beliefs, he triggered a movement of Pentecostalism within other Protestant, and later even Catholic, churches. This new movement of Pentecostalism was dubbed the “charismatic revival,” after the Greek word charismata, meaning “gifts.” Although “charismatic” is the word used most often nowadays to describe this type of Christianity, this essay will stick to the original term, and refer to Pentecostalism.

Pentecostalism has been troubled by extrabiblical tomfoolery ever since its inception. Since it emphasizes the believer having an experience of the presence of God or of Holy Ghost power, Pentecostalism has a strong tendency to attract heretics and charlatans. After all, if someone has been filled with the Holy Spirit and has received the gift of prophecy, then he can receive words directly from God. And if these words contradict the Bible, and if they teach new ideas, they cannot be error and heresy, because they came from God himself, didn’t they? In this way, the Pentecostal heretic or huckster feels himself justified in his false belief. It’s a sad fact that Pentecostalism, despite containing many sincere followers of Jesus, is notorious for its toleration of heretics and charlatans. Thus the Strange Fire Conference, dedicated to opposing the errors of Pentecostalism.

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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. Since proving a universal negative is notoriously difficult, it is relatively easy for the partisan of Pentecostalism to pick holes in an argument for cessationism. Believing that he has defeated his opponent’s argument, the Pentecostal then falsely believes himself to have been vindicated, and continues in his erroneous ways. We need a better way to point out the errors of Pentecostalism.

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The fundamental problem with Pentecostalism, in fact, is not a matter of precise theological definition. It’s 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 receiving the sacraments. To be sure, many Pentecostals are faithful to the Word of God. But many are not. Pentecostalism, at best, encourages the Christian to take his eyes off his Savior by distracting him with questionable promises of Spiritual power and exciting personal religious experiences. And that’s at best. At worst, Pentecostalism descends into out-and-out falsehoods.

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We say as Pentecostals because many Pentecostal leaders do teach the gospel of Jesus Christ: forgiveness of our sins through repentance and faith in Christ. Pentecostalism generally does affirm the gospel. But what’s distinctive about the movement is the twin promise to the believer that he can have spiritual power and that he can have a personal experience of the presence of God.

The typical Pentecostal leader teaches that repentance and faith in Christ is not enough for the full Christian life. He teaches that the believer needs a “second blessing,” generally referred to as being “filled with the Spirit” or the Holy Spirit “falling on” the believer. According to Pentecostalism, this event imparts spiritual gifts to the believer, the most popular of which are prophecy (the alleged ability to receive new messages from God), healing (the alleged ability to cause the sick to become well) and speaking in tongues (the ability to speak an allegedly “spiritual language” that sounds like gibberish to everyone else.)

Temporarily leaving aside the question of whether there really is a second blessing which imparts supernatural power to the believer, consider how appealing this doctrine can be. Who wouldn’t want the abilities to hear from God himself or to cause sick people to get well?  And many people thrill at the thought of directly experiencing the person and presence of God Himself.

So when Pentecostal leaders promise this sort of spiritual excitement they have to deliver, don’t they? If they can’t deliver the goods, they’ll lose their market share to the preacher down the street who can. In this way, Pentecostal doctrine leads naturally (although, to be fair, not always), to spiritual fraud and charlatanism. If Pentecostalism promises believers that they can speak in tongues, that they can be healed miraculously, and that they can receive words from God, Pentecostal leaders cannot just stand by and hope that the Holy Spirit will decide to show up in power. They have little choice but to take concrete steps to give their audience the spectacle that they’re expecting. Thus the widespread charlatanism for which Pentecostalism is notorious.

Sometimes the charlatanism is relatively mild, consisting of nothing more than creating a worship atmosphere of spiritual excitement in which the parishioners raise their hands, sway to the music, and speak aloud spontaneous praises. In such an atmosphere, it’s easy for a worshipper to believe that the Holy Spirit Himself has arrived. But although it’s mild, this is a type of charlatanism. Scripture describes the primary work of the Holy Spirit to be bringing people to faith in Christ through the accurate teaching of the Word of God, but the typical Pentecostal service does not teach Biblical doctrine accurately. And why would the Holy Spirit sanctify such an assembly?

And there is often charlatanism of a more deliberate type, as when the preacher begins declaring that God has given him a message to deliver to the people, or when he uses stage-magic tactics to give the impression that he is healing the sick. Stage-magic tactics are obviously dishonest, but claiming to receive words from God is usually dishonest too. These “messages” often contradict biblical teaching, and why would God contradict himself? And even if the message concerns more worldly and mundane matters, there is no reason to think that God is giving messages to a teacher who distorts His word.

Pentecostalism also promotes deception in the believer’s personal Christian walk. Consider, for example, how Pentecostals have perfected techniques of psychological manipulation to get people to “speak in tongues.” First, the believer is constantly told that he should desire to be filled with the Spirit, and that he may not be a real Christian until he receives this “second blessing.” Next, he is surrounded—at a worship service, for example—by others speaking in tongues. With his inhibitions lowered, he is then encouraged to “prime the pump” by deliberately mouthing nonsense syllables and calling on the Spirit to do His thing. It’s no surprise, then, that these tactics often produce an ecstatic emotional release that feels like “surrendering to God” and speaking in tongues. But this phenomenon does not require the Holy Spirit. It has no Scriptural warrant, and is easily explained in psychological terms.

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At the very least, then, much of Pentecostalism takes its eyes off the Savior. Instead of honoring the words of the Apostles in the New Testament, which teach that the Christian life is one of daily repentance from sin and building faith in Christ by learning Scripture and receiving the sacraments, much of Pentecostalism is constantly running after the promise of Spirit-given power and thrilling religious experiences.

But it gets worse. In order to justify its promises of power, Pentecostalism often descends below charlatanism into out-and-out false teaching, that is, heresy. Consider, for example, the Word-of-Faith movement, which teaches (among other things) that Christians are “little gods” who can speak things into existence (just like the real God) simply by uttering faith-filled words. Although this movement has not taken over all of Pentecostalism, most Pentecostals participate in at least some its false teachings.

The Word-of-Faith (hereafter WOF) heresy is most commonly known for its promise that God wants all Christians to be healthy and wealthy, and it’s easy to dismiss this teaching as nothing more than a contemptible marketing technique. It is a marketing technique, but it’s only the tip of a very large iceberg of bizarre and highly heretical teachings. The basic thrust of WOF teachings is to demote God and promote man. WOF teaches that God lost dominion over the earth when Adam and Eve sinned. (Dominion was regained, at least theoretically, when Jesus died on the Cross.). It teaches that God cannot act in the world until the Christian gives him permission by coming to God in prayer. It teaches that Jesus was just a man, but one who excelled at using his “words of faith.” It teaches that “faith” is a cosmic force, pre-existing God, which both God and man can manipulate in order to achieve their purposes. It teaches that Jesus died “spiritually” on the Cross, and subsequently went to Hell, where he was “born again.” And, perhaps most notoriously, it teaches that men are “little gods.”

These bizarre teachings are, in a sense, the natural consequences of a religion which, while it originates within Christianity, places its emphasis on the power of the believer rather than on the power of God. WOF teachings are simply taking this Pentecostal premise to its logical conclusion.

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Although statistics are sometimes misleading, Pentecostalism appears to be the fastest-growing and the second-largest (after Roman Catholicism) version of Christianity. But what gospel message is it teaching? The general loss of authority brought on by the liberal revolution means that pastors can no longer rely on their parishioners to respect their position or their teaching. Since liberalism has largely undermined the authority of pastors (and all other authorities), they must usually teach what parishioners want to hear, if they are to maintain a large congregation. With its emphasis on the exciting promise of Holy Ghost power for the believer, Pentecostalism seems perfectly suited to the new religious environment, as it 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 even those Pentecostals who are relatively orthodox tend to shy away from criticizing the quacks, for fear of offending God by “quenching the Spirit.”

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And Pentecostalism’s desire for miracles does not just result in human charlatanism. Remember also that Satan’s team is capable of misleading “if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24) 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 torment a person but then withdraw when the victim, or an exorcist, recites certain words or performs certain actions. In this way, the victim may then come to trust in his performance of religious (or pseudo-religious) rituals, rather trusting in Jesus Christ, to save him. And since those who do not trust Christ to save them go to Hell, Satan’s purposes are served.

The practitioners of this type of exorcism / spiritual healing have an elaborate doctrine of demonic possession. In their view, demons can allegedly gain the legal right to torment a person if the victim accidentally or purposely says certain words or performs certain actions. And once Satan’s team has gained this right, even God Almighty is required to honor their legal right 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 (literally, “occult”) knowledge was allegedly obtained by exorcists 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, we can know that God is permitting it for reasons known only to Him.

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This, then, 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. Holy Ghost power does manifest itself from time to time, but the Bible says we are to build our faith through word and sacrament, live productive lives, and love our family, friends and neighbors.

Youtube Teachings

For a more in-depth discussion (but still relatively brief) of the errors of Pentecostalism, the number one go-to guy is probably Justin Peters. See his lecture series A Call for Discernment. See also this page, which contains several useful videos from the 2015 Bible Conference in Globe, AZ, featuring Peters and another excellent teacher, Phil Johnson.

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Having said all that, though, we must acknowledge that there is 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, at least, we should be grateful.

25 thoughts on ““Strange Fire” and What’s Wrong—and What’s Right—with Pentecostalism

  1. Pingback: “Strange Fire” and What’s Wrong—and What’s Right—with Pentecostalism | Reaction Times

  2. Excellent write up on Pentecostalism. I think Steve Hays was largely right in his critiques of the Strange Fire conference. I had been wavering in my knee jerk cessationism since I had taken a theology course that dug into the issue. However, the rank skepticism that many of the Strange Fire supporters showed was off-putting at best for those of us who consciously reject Enlightenment ideals, and that really put the nail in the coffin and I definitely came to an open position.

    There are still a lot of problems with contemporary Evangelical Pentecostalism and even Charismatic Theology, though. Much of it stems in their very, very low views of the Church. This is a problem for Evangelicalism as a whole, though. It’s just more obviously manifest in these movements because it turns into what used to be called Enthusiasm, since they are often the weirdos who go up to people and tell them “God’s Will” for their life or whatever. This is in no way monitored or disciplined by Church authorities, and might be offered to complete strangers. This kind of off-putting weirdness needs to be addressed and is simply uncalled for in the New Testament.

  3. Your paragraphs about the Warfare Worldview were not clear and confusing to me. I clicked the link, and I am still confused after skimming the page. I wish it was a little clearer as to who is promoting the Warfare Worldview (it seems like you are promoting it, and then it seems like you are holding it up as a Pentecostal example of tomfoolery). Are you endorsing Bob Deeway, is he endorsing this extra-biblical demonology?

    • Bob Dewaay and I oppose the Warfare Worldview because it denies that God is sovereign. In this way of thinking, the outcome is not determined by God, as Scripture declares, but by whomever is in possession of alleged secret knowledge of how demons receive, or have revoked, permission to torment souls.

      According to the Spiritual Warfare worldview, people can grant demons permission to torment them by accident: for example, by moving into a house formerly occupied by witches or spiritists, or by accidentally speaking words that bring a curse on themselves. And if they find themselves in this predicament, their only recourse is allegedly to find out exactly what it would take to revoke the demons’ legal right to torment them. In this way of thinking, it is generally the right words, spoken aloud, involving “binding” of the demons.

      As I said, all of this is unbiblical. God determines the outcome, and demons are not afraid of men and their words. They are only afraid of the God in whom Christians trust.

      • Great post, though I would add something about the manic, even bipolar spiritual life that many such folks experience. However, I doubt this last comment’s main point. Everything in the world has a nature — everything exhibits patterns, obeys laws, has connections, and such. I do not find it ridiculous to think the same about demons; for even sickness has its own way and intelligibility. We must remember, contra the secular mindset, that demons are not supernatural. They are created beings like us and as natural as us (though maybe it would be better to call them anti-natural since their defining characteristic, qua demon, is their rejection of God). I know little about the occult, and I find it wise to avoid that whole hellish domain, but it seems possible that certain objects or incantations could have causal power among demons. Every human civilization has had something like magic, theurgy, or immaterial technology, and I believe that there is generally truth at the foundation of man’s abundant foolishness and stupidity. Citronella oil repels mosquitoes; perhaps a certain psychic intention or verbal expression has similar efficacy against demons or certain members of the adversary’s army. This does not diminish God’s power, just as saying that sun and water are important for growing crops or that tanks were useful in a particular battle does not undermine divine sovereignty.

        You Calvinists — always worried that nature infringes upon God’s power and authority! :)

        Yet, your warning about Satan’s cunning is always appropriate to repeat. Anything that indulges our egoism or distracts us from God is dangerous. Prelest is a terrible condition, and it takes many forms. Spiritual glory seekers open the door to such temptations.

      • I had to look up “prelest;” According to the Wik, it’s spiritual delusion induced by pride and demonic suggestion. Exactly what I was referring to.

        You make a good point that demons have natures, and one could perhaps come to know some of it by observation. But this would be an exceedingly dangerous path. Best to steer clear, as you said.

        And my main point was a very specific one: it is delusion to think that demons act by a code that not even God can contravene.

  4. “To be sure, many Pentecostals are faithful to the Word of God. But many are not.”

    This sentiment is applicable to every denomination, without exception. The notion that so-called high church or liturgical denominations are more faithful to the Word of God than Pentecostals is ludicrous.

    Our once-beautiful Christian faith and civilization lies in shattered ruins all around us–but let’s not forget to carry on intersectarian squabbles until the whole shithouse goes up in flames.

    • Listen, man. Things are in ruins in large part because people neither teach or receive the truth. Pointing this out is not “sectarian.”

      • No, Alan, our once-beautiful Christian faith and civilization doesn’t lie in shattered ruins all around us because we failed to rebuke the Pentecostals–or whatever other denominations you imagine are defective. If you think the path to a Christian renascence runs through the propagation of your sect’s doctrines, then you are going to die a very disappointed man, trapped in a parochial dead end–and so will your son, grandson, great-grandson, etc. ad infinitum.

        It’s too late for a proclamation of the truth of the “high” church liturgy to save the day. We are living in a multiracial multifreakish shithole–pathetic high church denominations aren’t even going to begin to save us from this nightmarish scenario, and neither are the Pentecostals, et al. Christianity is kaput–and I say that with great sorrow.

      • It’s not about propagating the doctrines of a sect. It’s about opposing a widespread and dangerous error. If you are a Christian, then you will have to acknowledge that Scripture commands us to guard against false doctrine. And if you are not, then you have no dog in this fight.

    • This sentiment is applicable to every denomination, without exception. The notion that so-called high church or liturgical denominations are more faithful to the Word of God than Pentecostals is ludicrous.

      Maybe so in some ways, but being High Church itself is more faithful than its Low Church counterparts. Sure, High Church groups might have their own problems, but being High Church is not one of them. As far as traditionalism goes, it’s no mistake that Whiggery, and then ultimately liberalism, emerged from Low Church Christianity in Britain. Low Church Christianity began in rebellion to Church and State authorities. It’s no surprise that eventually they decided to throw all authority to the wind.

      More traditional churches (high and low, traditionally considered) have contributed to their own demise. Many traditional churches have lost a sense of community, merely gathering for worship on Sunday mornings and whatever community that exists is rife with gossipy nonsense. What’s the point of showing up for some “high and dry” service with a dreadful sermon that more often than not is full of liberal claptrap when you can go down the street and go to the more engaging charismatic church? It would be silly for traditionalists to not see the appeal to the ordinary person in a modern charismatic mega-church, but that isn’t a reason to say they’re a good thing. They’re a symptom of the demise of traditional Christianity, and so are to be fought against.

      Which isn’t to say the people who attend them, or even necessarily the people who run them, are necessarily the enemy. They are our natural allies who in many cases have the right instincts, as it seems Roebuck says with him mentioning their clearly counter-enlightenment supernaturalism. They clearly reject Humean and Deistic nonsense that it seems many in MacArthur’s camp have so unwittingly drank.

      Our once-beautiful Christian faith and civilization lies in shattered ruins all around us–but let’s not forget to carry on intersectarian squabbles until the whole shithouse goes up in flames.

      We are not going to solve the problems in the remnants of Christendom by pretending our sectarian differences are of no importance. If anything, that’s counterproductive. We will not unite by simply saying our differences do not matter.

      If you think the path to a Christian renascence runs through the propagation of your sect’s doctrines, then you are going to die a very disappointed man, trapped in a parochial dead end–and so will your son, grandson, great-grandson, etc. ad infinitum.

      I don’t think Roebuck was presenting an imbalanced view at all, only concerned with the faults of others and utterly unaware of the faults of his own sectarian group. Clearly, all groups have their fair share of difficulties. That does not mean we should throw up the white flag and declare the disagreements pointless and stupid, because they aren’t. There might not be a Christian renascence by pigheadedly propagating one-sided views, but there certainly won’t be one by declaring multiple doctrinal disputes pointless distractions. That’s relativism if I’ve ever heard it.

      • Nathan, your reply to my comment is a thoughtful one and I appreciate it.

        I just can’t help thinking that the state of Christianity today–low church, high church, broad church–is just like that of Nazism in April 1945. No doubt amidst the rubble and ash of Germany, that once proud and noble country, the Nazis were squabbling over whether “nationalism” or “socialism” or left, right or center wings of the party were to blame for the disaster. But it was too late for that, and I’m afraid it’s too late for us now. I say this as a Christian who thinks Christianity is the most beautiful religion in all the world, our most precious treasure–but I can’t be obtuse as I survey the wreckage of Christendom.

        High church Tory Anglicanism doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of saving the situation–though I grant it was a very beautiful thing in its time, infinitely preferable to our shitty little libertarian techno-society of today. It just seems to me that, given the scale of the tragedy unfolding all around us, to pick on the low church (or the high church or any denomination whatever) is entirely beside the point and downright ignoble into the bargain.

      • I’m not exactly optimistic about the future, particular the near future, but I’m utterly unwilling to throw up the white flag yet. That might be because of my own youth, but I think even if I was older I would prefer to believe that a renascence is possible since I’ve always been the never surrender type. The present malaise might actually help Christians resolve their own internal squabbles that developed before the danger was clear, when Christendom was a given. Not to mention, the conservatives of all denominations face similar struggles. We are all threatened by movements in our own groupings to weaken our doctrinal positions that are in general agreement. Even disregarding miraculous workings, this should draw us closer together, and has already.

        While I have come around to a High Church Tory Anglican position myself, starting from garden variety charismatic evangelicalism, I understand that there have been problems. We cannot go back to the way things were in yesteryear. The problems must be addressed.

        Also, while I regard charismatic evangelicalism as a symptom of the decline of traditional Christianity, it is the type of symptom that shows a body still has fight left within it. People went to that sort of Christianity because they were sick and tired of the faux Christianity of the Mainline. That means these people still want something like traditional Christianity. They don’t want the Mainline liberalism devoid of sin or, in many cases, even the supernatural. Of course, in the process, I think they threw the baby out with the bathwater, but, whatever their problem is, their Christianity isn’t fake like liberal Xianity is.

  5. I think your criticism of Pentecostals, Alan, would line up very neatly with our own.

    I suspect the recent successes of Pentecostalism (and by extension the recent growth of the Charismatic movement in the Catholic Church) owes in large part to the modern obsession with tittilation and theatrics. They pursue holiness through what were historically considered its extraordinary symbols, like miracle-working, speaking in tongues, etc., because the ordinary means of growing in virtue and holiness — like prayerfulness, regular use of the sacraments, attending to one’s daily duties, imitating Christ’s examples every day, etc. — seem so tedious and unremarkable by comparison. It’s big-budget, special-effects Christianity.

    • “Modern obsession with titillation and theatrics.” Bingo. We don’t want the old, boring faith. We want action and adventure. And with modern technology and media, we think we can get it all the time.

  6. Thank you for the excellent post, Mr. Roebuck. You’re a fine writer.

    Catholic theology is the only theology I know well. But I’ve attended about three Pentecostal services and befriended some wonderful Pentecostals.

    Years ago, my Uncle Paul gave me an audio cassette tape interview, where Fr. Vincent Micelli interviewed a philosophy professor, Dr. Russell Hittinger, who described a Kathryn Kuhlman miracle service. During that service, Miss Kuhlman invited a woman to join her on stage because she believed that God had healed the woman’s back problem. Kathryn asked the woman to remove her back brace and to run back and forth onstage. She did both, her spine split, then a few days later, she died.

    During a Protestant charismatic service, Gerry Matatics, a professional Catholic apologist wondered anyone there spoke in tongues. After he prayed a psalm in Hebrew, someone misinterpreted what he said.

    I know that Pentecostals and other charismatics mean well. Their piety puts me to shame, too. Sadly, though, I still suspect that at those services, the faithful mistake purely natural events for miraculous ones.

  7. This article and the comments pick the low-hanging fruit by deploring Pentecostal faults highly visible in the US and acknowledging some more positive things likewise visible here. But Pentecostalism is largely a non-US phenomenon.

    I really wish everyone seeing this could spend some time with Prof. Craig Keener’s Miracles, two thick volumes published a couple or so years ago by Baker. It approaches the topic of Biblical miracles and modern ones from the opposite direction. Keener argues that readings of the Biblical miracles that assume they couldn’t really have happened because we don’t see miracles happening now (cf. Hume’s critique) are called into question just because miracles are happening today in abundance. In other words, he doesn’t argue for miracles today on the basis of Scripture, but makes a case for the reality of Biblical miracles because the evidence for miracles happening now is so strong.

    Keener’s method is to deploy many hundreds of pages of modern miracle accounts. Some are better documented than others; some appear to me to be well-documented indeed. I’ve loaned my copies to my pastor, but having read much of the two books, I am prepared to say it becomes virtually impossible to maintain a view that God does not heal people of illnesses, give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, etc. today. I can only imagine the bewilderment, sorrow, and pity that innumerable people, whose stories are summarized in these books, would feel if I were to visit them and attempt to explain away what has happened in their lives.

    Many, though not all, of these recipients of miracles were in “Pentecostal” groups or in contact with “Pentecostal” healers. I suppose many of them have never heard of Azusa Street or Charisma magazine. But to write about Pentecostalism in ignorance of their world is of limited value.

    I write all this as a non-Pentecostal. I’m an adherent of the Lutheran Confessions (think conservative Missouri Synod). I give to Lutheran missions. But I think there will need to be a correction of common Lutheran understanding of the topic of “miracles today.”

    For my fellow Lutherans, I would recommend this: Get hold of Bengt Hoffman’s Theology of the Heart: The Role of Mysticism in the Theology of Martin Luther, and read some of the anecdotes there about extraordinary incidents in the Reformer’s life; that’s to loosen us up a bit; then go on and spend time with Keener. I expect you will arrive about where I am now, moved by the stories of God’s evident mercy towards people who, in many cases, had little access to the modern health care that is in the background of -our-thoughts when we think about how we might get the release from suffering we need; and thinking that just as they could benefit from our teaching and practice relating to Gospel and Sacraments, we may stand to learn from them about miraculous healing. We should be careful about dismissive remarks.

    • I have no doubt that miracles happen. But the fundamental error of Pentecostalism is to teach, or to imply, that an individual filled with the Holy Spirit can in some sense control their occurrence.

  8. Actually — for my fellow adherents of the Lutheran Confessions — I recommend reviewing the early pages of the Hoffman book, then a reading of Bennett’s I Am Not Afraid: Demon Possession and Spiritual Warfare (Concordia Publishing House, 2013), and -then- some time with Keener’s 2-volume Miracles. None of these is an evaluation of American Pentecostal theology, but they will help to correct a conservative Lutheran tendency to dismiss healings, exorcism, etc., which are often associated with Pentecostalism.

  9. Some do believe they miracle occurrences. Maybe that’s because they misinterpret the Bible verse that says something like, “Ask believing that you have received and you shall have it.” In high school, I belonged to a youth group at an evangelical charismatic church, where a wonderful woman asked whether I wanted her to pray over me to urge God to cure my Cerebral Palsy. While she prayed in tongues, she rubbed my right leg, the one with the slightly dislocated hip. A few minutes later, she told a friend of hers and me that someone’s faith must have weakened, since she felt the still-dislocated bone stop moving.

    Someone I’ve known stopped wearing the contact lenses that he needed for driving, because he expect God to cure his vision problem. But the man needed to wear the lenses again because the miracle didn’t happen.

    I would love to be able-bodied. For now, I still need crutches and a wheelchair. If God wants me to keep my handicap for the rest of my life, that’s fine with me because He uses it to help other people and me. As Holy Scripture teaches me that sometimes, when we don’t get what we pray for, that’s because we’re asking for something we’re not meant to get. God answers each prayer. Anytime He says “no,” He’s implying that He has a better idea. My extreme clinical depression taught me how to feel compassion and empathy. Christ tells me to deny myself, to take up my cross, and to follow Him. St. Paul insists that Our Lord must increase and that I must decrease, suggesting that I need to become holy, humble, and submissive. Sometimes that means I’ll need to feel physical or emotional pain, to lose people or things I love, to endure anything He asks me to endure to let Him sanctify me and to help others.

    God didn’t allow my Cerebral Palsy because He wanted to punish me with it. If He talked to me, He would say, “Bill, I’m trusting you with this challenge the way I trusted St Paul with his sufferings, He went through them happily to help the Church. You’ll do the same with yours.” I’m grateful to the Holy Trinity because compared to Our crucified Savior’s agony, my crosses are feather-light. In fact, suffering can be nearly easy to put up with when I cope patiently with it. It’s difficult when I resist it.

    There’s Holy Spirit power, but it’s His, not mine.

  10. Maybe I should clarify what I tried to tell you about the Kuhlman service. Miracles still happen, in my opinion. I wonder, though, whether we sometimes want the gifts more than we want the Giver. I believe in the Church-approved Marian apparitions and in some lab-tested eucharistic miracles. But my salvation doesn’t depend on whether I believe in them. I’ve met some Catholics who seem to know Marian apparitions better than they know their religion. For me, it’s better to pay more attention to doctrine, dogma, prayer holy Mass, the seven sacraments, and trying to live the way Christ wants me to live. Apparitions are wonderful miracles. Sadly, like many other things, they’re still gifts that can distract us from the Giver, from the Holy Trinity.

    Sometimes I worry that we treat God as a vending machine. We visit one, put in the money, press a button, grab the candy bar, walk away, and come back only for more munchies. To often, I pray because I want something from God. It’s okay to ask for things, but I need to ask Him what He wants of me. I’m His Son and His servant, not His mere customer.

    If you don’t mind, I’ll quote a prayer I pray when I’m at the Traditional Latin Mass, the Tridentine Mass, the only kind of Mass I attend, because that prayer reminds me of why I go there.

    “Eternal Father, I unite myself with the intentions and affections of our Lady of Sorrows on Calvary, and I offer Thee the Sacrifice which Thy beloved Son Jesus made of Himself on the Cross and which He now renews on this holy altar: 1. To adore Thee and give Thee honor which is due to Thee, confessing Thy supreme dominion over all things, and the absolute dependence of everything upon Thee, who are our one and last End. 2. To thank Thee for the innumerable benefits received. 3. To appease Thy justice aroused against us by so many sins, and to make satisfaction for them. 4. To implore grace and mercy for myself, for . . ., for all afflicted and sorrowing, for poor sinners, for all the world, and for the holy souls in Purgatory. ”

    For me, that sums up why Catholics go to Mass or to Divine Liturgies if they’re Eastern Rite Catholics. Catholics, there’s an indulgence attached to that prayer. So maybe it’ll shorten my Purgatory time a little. Knowing me, I’ll bet I’ll still stay there for geological ages. : )

  11. Pingback: Father Knows Best: Summer Solstice Edition | Patriactionary

  12. Wurmbrand, what do you mean by “demonic possession?” Catholics distinguish between demonic possession and demon oppression. If a demon possesses me, he controls my body and me. I know he’s doing that, but there’s nothing I can do about it. To oppress me, a demon could appear to me, to to me, beat me up, or do other things that would control me only partly.

    There’s another kind of demonic possession that Fr. Malachi Martin, an exorcist, describes in an interview I’ve heard. During perfect possession, the possessed person cooperates fully with his demon. Perfectly possessed people usually act as though nothing’s wrong. They can live cheerful, productive lives, be wonderful parents, fine friends to other people, excellent employees . . . But sometimes something will reveal their evil. Maybe they’ll see a crucifix, the Blessed Sacrament, or something like that, and they’ll feel angry or sin. They’ll do something unexpected. Otherwise, things go well for them because they’re content with their relationship with their demons, and they, the possessed ones, want to go to Hell to be with “their master” the Devil. Fr. Martin avoided perfectly possessed people except when he needed to exorcise them.

    He says that a demon knocked him out of bed and broke his arm, too. He always consulted psychiatrists, too, because the Catholic Church wants to search first for purely natural causes of seeming possessions. After an atheistic psychiatrist attended an exorcism Martin did, the doctor quit psychiatry because horrible even traumatized him too much. Fr. Martin preferred to work with agnostic or atheistic psychiatrists because they were free from theological biases. They did science, not theology.

    That brings me back to Pentecostalism because I think Pentecostals need to know the difference between demon possession and demonic oppression. They need to know, too, that some “possession” has merely natural causes.

    Years ago, a friend of our family took her severely autistic son to a Pentecostal service, where some prayed over him to “expel the demon” they only thought he had. Naturally, the attempted exorcism frightened him and his mom. Any exorcist needs to know how to exorcise a demon and to be authorized to do exorcisms. Fr. Martin told the interviewer that non-Catholic exorcists he knew of always needed to call a Catholic one because their exorcisms always failed.

    • I understand the distinction between possession and oppression, and thank you for introducing it into this discussion.

      I should make clear that the exorcisms discussed in Bennett’s book were done within the Malagasy Lutheran church that’s in fellowship with the LCMS, i.e. not a “Pentecostal denomination.”

      It doesn’t appear that the Malagasy Lutheran exorcisms always fail. : ) On the other hand, a problem in Madagascar, as I recall from the book (which I don’t have at hand), was syncretism of Roman Catholicism and indigenous spiritism. I’m not sure what Fr. Martin would have to say about that. I’m not looking to stir up a debate here; just adding a little to the picture.

      My first comment was written in response to the Orthosphere blogger’s comments on Pentecostalism, which seemed to have pretty much just American scenes in mind, as did most or all of the comments at the time I wrote. The Pentecostal fellow I used to know best would probably have contended that the best “Pentecostalism” is not American (nor was he thinking of the highly visible megachurches elsewhere) and that the best American Pentecostalism is enriched, in an ongoing way, by the contributions of non-Americans’ experiences, whether theologians such as Amos Yong or the involvement, in congregations, of people whom he used to see in his home church from African countries, etc.

      There’s a lot to sift in Pentecostalism, and certainly much of its doctrine is way off, but I think sometimes Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals engage in premature polemics.

      But saying things like that probably makes me sound more pro-Pentecostal than I am. How ironic that would seem to my former friend, with whom I carried on years of debates about our differences. Finally he’d had enough of me.

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