Somewhere between the extremes of form and frenzy regarding the Holy Spirit and His manifestation in our times is truth essential to the church and execution of its mission.
Sadly, John MacArthur's Strange Fire conference and perhaps his forthcoming book (I say "perhaps" because I've not read it) seem to take such an extremist position that they potentially distract from the discovery and use of that essential truth in a season when the church needs it urgently.
MacArthur's passion for rightly dividing the word of truth is commendable. A huge number of readers – including Pentecostals and charismatics – have been aided by MacArthur's careful studies of biblical passages, and inspired by his passion for sound doctrine.
This makes his sweeping condemnations of charismatics even sadder.
The charismatic movement is offering to God "unacceptable worship" that "blasphemes the Holy Spirit," says MacArthur, in a dizzying generalization. Unfortunately, as this assertion shows, MacArthur is fixated on the extreme of "frenzy".
Full disclosure: In the 1990s I rode what Peter Wagner and others termed the "Third Wave." This was a movement among people within non-charismatic evangelical churches who felt their denominations minimized, sometimes to the point of negligence, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and His power for living and ministering.
In 1990, in a quest for greater understanding, I penned a small book, Form Or Frenzy? Balance in Spiritual Dynamics. There I wrote: "The lack of equilibrium in the church can be seen in its two extremes. One has a religion of much form but limited power resulting in deadness… The other extreme has a religion of frenzy, the absence of form and control, resulting in chaos, another type of deadness."
Twenty-three years after writing those words, I believe them more than ever. Later in the 1990s, I would reject some of what MacArthur rightly characterized as extremes, but I have never abandoned the desire to stand in that solid place between form and frenzy.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a biblical scholar of MacArthur's rank, captured it well. There is a danger, he said, of going beyond the Bible. But, there is also peril from the other extreme of "being satisfied with something very much less than what is offered in Scripture."
On the one hand, "people come to the New Testament and… interpret it in the light of their own experience." That produces what I refer to as "frenzy". But, says Lloyd-Jones (who like John MacArthur aligned with the Reformed wing of evangelicalism), there are others "so afraid of enthusiasm" and "fanaticism, that in order to avoid those they go right over to the other side without facing what is offered in the New Testament. They take what they have and what they are as the norm." That "norm" hardens into unyielding "form".
John MacArthur is right that the church in this critical hour cannot risk taking the wrong course regarding the ministry and manifestation of the Holy Spirit. But his position seems to reject the possibility of there being anything good about the charismatic movement. He is not "discrediting everyone in the (charismatic) movement," he says, but they are caught up in a movement that has made "no contribution to biblical clarity, interpretation, or sound doctrine."
That despite Gordon Fee, J.P. Moreland, Wayne Grudem, and even John Piper, all of whom are "continuationists" who believe all the gifts of the Spirit are still active (a theology they share with charismatics, though not all would identify themselves as such) as opposed to "cessationists," who believe some spiritual gifts ceased with the end of the "Apostolic Age".
Daniel Wallace and James Sawyer, of cessationist Dallas Theological Seminary, came to the point they could not live with the idea's implications. "Rather than focus upon scriptural images of the Holy Spirit as a presence deep within the soul of the believer, cessationism has reactively denied experience in opposition to the Pentecostal overemphasis upon experience, which at times supplanted the revealed truth of scripture," they wrote in Who's Afraid of the Holy Spirit? While not embracing the charismatic or Third Wave movements, they said they had embraced "pneumatic Christianity."
In Signs and Wonders Here and Now John Piper says, "On the one hand, we ought to honor the uniqueness of Jesus and the apostles. On the other hand we ought to be open to the real possibility that this too might be a unique moment in history, and in this moment it may well be God's purpose to pour out his Spirit in unprecedented revival – revival of love to Christ and zeal for worship and compassion for lost people and a missionary thrust with signs and wonders."
Massive waves are coming at the church in this "unique moment of history" from every theological, moral, philosophical, social, cultural direction imaginable. The church does not need to lie anchored in a quiet harbor. Her call is to venture out into the turbulent seas of today's societies, bearing the Gospel of the Kingdom – and doing its works, just as Jesus said. (John 14:12)
Sound doctrine must not be an immobilizing anchor for the church, but her sturdy, balancing keel midst the upheavals. John MacArthur's extreme "form" approach is a regrettable distraction from attaining and maintaining the critical equilibrium between form and frenzy.