Strange Fire?

Charis ChaosFrank Viola’s post yesterday, Strange Fire: A Refutation – Part I, inspired me to take my dusty copy of John MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos off the shelf.

On the inside of the back flap, at the bottom of a page filled with pencil scribbled references and comments, I found a note I made on the day I finished the book: “Excellent! I do believe, however, that God still speaks to the individual concerning personal matters, as well as spiritual matters – of course within the framework of scriptural revelation. 8 January 1993.”

These words took me down memory lane, and reminded me of the liberation I experienced whilst reading the book. I was a young Pentecostal pastor at the time, disturbed and confused by my denomination’s insistence that only those who speak in tongues can claim the “baptism in the Spirit.” For over a decade I had felt like the ugly duckling. I didn’t understand the emotional reactions, the laughing in the Spirit (the Toronto blessing started here in South Africa, believe it or not!), the falling over, the thunderous preaching, the seeming openness to everything prosperity and Word Faith, and so on.

I tried to, believe me, but I could not. I resonated with Watchman Nee, Brother Lawrence and Andrew Murray, but not with my own church’s doctrine.

Chapter 8 of the book changed it all for me. It showed me that the “doctrine of subsequence” had no basis in Biblical theology, and prepared me for my flight from everything Charismatic some years later. I realized the book was somewhat one-sided and perhaps a bit reactionary, but I felt that I could identify with so many of the excesses mentioned by MacArthur that it did not bother me.

I did, however, disagree with the view that God does not speak to individuals in any way other than through the Bible. But this did not bother me much. It represented a certain understanding of revelation, well represented across the Reformed landscape, and did not detract from the book’s weight.

MacArthur had opened a non-Charismatic world for me, and I appreciated him for that.

Some of my richest years in ministry followed my departure from my old denomination. I became a Baptist, a Cessationist, an aspiring 5 point Calvinist (I failed dismally in the end. See my previous post.), a collector of Banner of Truth books, and a lot of other interesting things.

I also drew a cartoon that I cherish to this day:

Signs & Wonders Meeting

Then, seven years ago, I stepped out of my new denomination and entered the weird and wonderful world of simple, non-institutional Christianity. The people that I met here were such an inspiration to my spirituality that I (temporarily) decided to overlook those things that I had been fervently crusading against for many years. You guessed it: I ended up loving them more than my commitment to everything anti-Charismatic.

And, in spite of their non-cessationist tendencies, they did not seem nearly as weird as the ones I had run away from in the late nineties.

And so my worn out pendulum (did I mention that I grew up Dutch Reformed?) swung back and silently came to rest in a green meadow besides still waters. The last thing it ever said, before breathing its last, was a gentle “Blessed are the balanced.”

What strikes me about this adventure was that my last big theological shift (I am no longer a Cessationist, as you may have gathered) was heavily influenced by something that had been a non-factor up to that point: Relationships. I discovered, in the context of the true ekklesia, that it was okay to love someone passionately whilst disagreeing with some of his or her views. But I also discovered that it was okay to adjust some of your own views in order for this to happen.

This may sound heretical to some, and extremely dangerous. But trust me: It’s not. The good Lord has built his church in such way that it allows for great relationships between people with different opinions (my wife believes in the rapture), but with an inbuilt proviso that such differences do not compromise our common life in Christ.

This shapes our theology more than mere “understanding”, and means that the blessings of real fellowship between believers with different opinions can only occur where Jesus Christ is the true life of the church. This is no cliché, but the reality of a common birth, a common Father, a common inheritance, a common passion. I have still to meet someone who shares all of these things with me but who is theologically so haywire that I feel I cannot have fellowship with them.

Interestingly, I have found that when people do cross God’s doctrinal boundaries (for the lack of a better term), the magic of the relationship dissipates. True heretics make bad prayer partners. You do not need to review Grudem’s Systematic Theology to arrive at this conclusion. You FEEL it, and you do so because God is faithful and he loves his church.

If I had read Charismatic Chaos later on in life, I may not have given it the glowing Amazon review that I did way back then. I think it helped a lot of people in my situation, and I will always appreciate it for that. But nowadays I tend to view truth somewhat differently. I believe it is not merely shaped cognitively, but also (and especially) relationally. The way in which John deals with “The Charismatics” (as the book was originally called) does not do relational justice to many dear sincere brothers and sisters in the Lord who merely hold to a different pneumatology than the rest of us.

As I once explained it:

Christianity is a relationship, and it should be approached as one. As with any romance, you learn as you go along. The main ingredients are desire, passion, intimacy, time spent together, willingness to learn, willingness to submit to the interests of the other, and so on. As a most intimate encounter of the life of another, it is something that can never be transferred merely cognitively. “Knowing the Lord” cannot be taught, as Jeremiah stated explicitly in his description of the terms and conditions of the New Covenant. It must be caught.

A young couple experiencing their first kiss gains a different type of knowledge than a monk reading about the biological processes accompanying a first kiss. We get a glimpse of this knowledge in the Old Testament statement “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.” This type of covenant knowing can only take place when the knower’s life is dissolved in the encountered life — when the two become one. It is a knowledge that transcends all mental processes, although the memory thereof is preserved mentally, and can be discussed mentally.

This means that such a discussion is only fruitful between those who can relate to the experience. It’s like saying “So that is what your first kiss was like. Let me tell you about mine!” Cognition is not ruled out, but it is subject to an encounter that brings with it a revelation.

And so Christianity is not blind mysticism, nor is it extra-Biblical. Rather, it is an experience that becomes increasingly informed through practice and discussion. Of course such information can find its way into poetry, and lend itself to analysis. But it always remains subject to a living encounter between the lover and the beloved.

True church life is the collective experience of the above, and the inevitable celebration associated with it. It is one new humanity encountering Christ. It is the bride meeting her Groom. It is covenant knowledge experienced communally. It is to feast on the tree of life and share the experience of resurrection and growth. It also happens to be an experience of oneness with one another that transcends mutuality by far.

What do you think?