January 24, 2021

Trashing a Treasure


On the nature, worth, provenance, and cessation of New Testament tongues, much is obscure and must remain so. Various interpretations on key points are viable, and perhaps the worst error in handling the relevant passages is to claim or insinuate that perfect clarity or certainty marks one’s own view. The texts (Acts 2:4-11; 10:46; 11:17; 19:6; 1 Corinthians 12-14) are too problematical for that.

– J.I. Packer
Keep in Step with the Spirit

* * *

Update: Michael Newnham has also responded. Read “Dousing a Strange Fire.”

* * *

Cheerleaders for the anti-charismatic “Strange Fire” conference keep challenging people to theological pissing matches. The latest bullying comes from Dan Phillips at Pyromaniacs as he throws a well-respected brother, Dr. J. I. Packer, under the bus in the name of defending truth.

Phillips calls some of Dr. Packer’s statements about tongues-speaking, which he has cherry-picked from his book, Keep in Step with the Spirit, pastorally irresponsible, and then says he finds the book as a whole a not “very reassuringly-conducted study.”

What makes Dan Phillip’s silly post distressing and maddening is that Packer is remarkably conservative in his approach to matters of charisma, and those at Team Pyro and the “Strange Fire” conference are in agreement with perhaps 95% of his interpretation of the Bible on this issue. However, because the irenic Dr. Packer actually believes what Scripture says about showing loving patience and generosity toward our charismatic brothers and sisters, even when views differ and may be in error, Phillips is willing to trash his whole study.

Phillips forgets that the one book in the New Testament which deals with this issue, 1 Corinthians, approaches the subject in much the same way Packer does, and not as the dogmatists in the really-Reformed-right-and-righteous camp do. Paul is exceedingly gracious, patient, and forbearing toward the Corinthians, affirming and praising their faith and even their possession of many charismatic gifts, while at the same time rebuking them where necessary, refining their understanding where they weren’t thinking clearly, and trying to help them take a more mature approach to gifts and the Christian life as a whole. He does not forbid speaking in tongues. He does not deny the signs and manifestations they were claiming and with which they were childishly enthralled. As a wise and patient pastor, he sought to bring some order and wisdom into the discussion. He loved them. And he encouraged them to focus on love above everything else, as the greatest gift and the one they most needed.

JI-PackerThis is also the big message of J.I. Packer’s fine book. In the chapter, “Mapping the Spirit: Interpreting the Charismatic Life,” he analyzes the main theological claims of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement and finds them wanting. Could any statement be clearer than this? —

For the fact we must now face is that the theology most commonly professed within the movement to account for its own claimed distinctives is deeply unbiblical.

Unfortunately, that is where the “Strange Fire” folks stop. They make that the last word — well at least until they cast the charismatics out of the Body of Christ. J.I. Packer, on the other hand, taking the Apostle Paul’s approach, must let grace and love speak.

…we are left with only two options: either to reject the experiences as delusive and possibly demonic in origin, after all, or to retheologize them in a way which shows that the truth which they actually evidence and confirm is something different from what the charismatics themselves suppose. This is the choice we now have to make with regard to at least the main stream of charismatic testimony.

In other words, as Paul did with the Corinthians, Packer won’t simply cut off the charismatics because they are wrong in their understanding of the Bible, nor will he deny that they’ve had actual experiences that have some genuine connection with the Christian life. He suggests, however, that perhaps they have not interpreted those experiences with sound biblical and theological judgment. So, Packer makes an effort to “retheologize” charismatic experience — to understand it more clearly and maturely in the light of a more accurate interpretation of Scripture.

He is not afraid to pinpoint the shortcomings of the movement by saying,

What emerges, therefore, is intensity with instability, insight not always linked with intelligence, an oversimplified one-sidedness in spirituality, and an enthusiasm that is often escapist.

However, Packer also recognizes that it has a contribution to make to the Church:

The central charismatic quest is not for any particular experience as such, but for what we may call thoroughgoing and uninhibited totality in realizing God’s presence and responding to his grace. …The charismatic quest for totality is surely right, and even if this way of pursuing it is not one which all believers can happily buy into, it comes as a salutary challenge to the muddleheaded ideals of restraint and respectability that have bogged down so many within our older churches in a sort of conscientious halfheartedness. This challenge must be received as from God.

keep-in-step-with-the-spirit-coverPacker’s book is rich, thoughtful, nuanced, generous, and characterized by excellent analysis. The author also humbly recognizes his limitations when it comes to being able to make absolute, dogmatic statements about many aspects of this controversy (see the lead quote above). We all could learn, not only from Dr. Packer’s fine study, but from his Jesus-shaped approach to matters like these. He is a treasure to the Church.

For Dan Phillips to take a couple of quotes that he disagrees with and then trash the whole study is ludicrous and unconscionable. And this is the way the Truly Reformed treat a non-charismatic!

When people start throwing careful and Christ-honoring scholars like J.I. Packer under the bus in the name of “truth,” you have to wonder who is truly involved with strange fire.


  1. The kind of post that Chaplain Mike addresses here represents one of my first wake up calls concerning (some of) the fruit of the current Reformed movement – while I was heartily on the bandwagon. Turns out that being the college-aged/young-adult doctrinal truth and purity protector who passed along posts like these didn’t win the respect and godly influence among peers that I hoped for (also turns out that rejection wasn’t a badge of honor that came as a result of knowing the *truth*. No, I was just a jerk, along with my other friends who followed jerky writers).

    Just so happened that I discovered Internet Monk while I was engrossed in Pyromaniacs and other blogs of a similar disposition which made me suspicious of the rest of the church. Years later, much repentance and change of heart has ensued.

    I’m so, so, so glad for Michael Spencer and those of you who are carrying on the legacy.

  2. How does one make cessationism the subject of a whole conference? I could understand a 2-hour talk, but not a 3-day conference. (“That’s bad. That’s bad too. Those guys… totally wrong…”)

    • Yeah, my thoughts exactly. A correct way to go about correction would be to have a conference (or book, or whatever) on the Spirit Himself, and address ill-fated theologies along the way. This group can’t really do that, because to talk about the Spirit from a New Testament point of view AT ALL immediately opens the door to the exact type of activity/theology they’re arguing against. So they’re reduced to effectively re-writing Trinitarian theology so the Spirit disappears altogether and is replaced by Bible studies. When they DO allow themselves to say something about the Spirit, 98% of it is taken not from the Bible from personal experience and Socratic argumentation AGAINST what the charismatics are doing. Nice job, guys.

  3. Reading Chaplain Mike’s piece above then going to the Pyromaniacs blog, I am going to summarize what I feel about one flavor of Christianity bashing another. God should have made an 11th Commandment….”Thou shall not troll.”
    Chaplain Mike’s rebuttal to Brown’s statement are fair.

    I think blogging and Facebook, etc are self-serving instruments for people who think their version of Christianity is better than everyone else’s. The Charismatic movement, which I have some experience in, is deeply flawed but other aspects of Christian denominations, variants, etc are quite flawed as well. I have found each group I have participated in to have unique interpretations of things which I simply don’t get even after being “shown” the source.

    I know well the flaws of the Charismatics but I think most flavors of Christianity are blind to their own flaws and being comprised of people, are full of half-baked opinions and snotty condescension. I have grown tired of attending churches where all I hear is how bad the other guys are or having to put up with blatant nonsense such as overemphasis on giving or church growth initiatives which are more about pastoral ambition than God.
    I’m also tired of the constant drone about how awful gays, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, etc, etc are. The modern church is really good at marketing and judging others. But not so skilled in getting its collective message out to those folks.
    No, we’re too interested in building stockades around our flawed theologies and bigotries. Easy to judge others, not easy to take stock. Easier to troll or strut around in self-delusion that we know better (yes I am including you Dr. Brown) just to get attention for ourselves.
    No thanks.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I think blogging and Facebook, etc are self-serving instruments for people who think their version of Christianity is better than everyone else’s.

      Before Social Media(TM), kooks/cranks/crazies were limited in their reach — muttering in their basements or screaming through a bullhorn on a street corner and that’s about it. With Social Media(TM), it’s possible to link up with like-minded kooks/crazies/cranks, reach Critical Mass in an echo chamber of Those Just Like Me, and become a MOVEMENT. (Not necessarily a bowel movement unless you’re Perry Noble in the pulpit. You ever seen that guy? Always looks lethally constipated.)

      • Randy Thompson says

        Well said.

        I love the idea of Social Media being the means of “muttering in their basements.”

        Here’s another one: Social Media as the Borg Collective of Craziness. (At least on Star Trek, most of the members of the Borg Collective never spoke. )

  4. Actually, all the misplaced criticism at Dr. Packer has meant for me is an interest of getting a copy of his book for myself. I’ve always appreciated the handful of those I already have. This (inevitably) misplaced quest for doctrinal purity has been the death rattle for many (not just) American religious/faith traditions: they’ll evangelize their children until their grandchildren ultimately walk away.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Doctinal Purity?

      More like the Marxspeak term: Purity of Ideology.

      And as they adopt the tropes of Marx and Lenin in Ideology, so they will go down the same crumbling road as the Soviet Union. And a Christianese coat of paint makes no difference.

  5. Thank you for a sound, pastoral, and biblical approach. I have been a pastor in churches that are experientially cesationists, but populated by a small percentage of charismatics.

    Those individuals have brought blessing, balance, and great energy and initiative to the churches I have pastored, and confirmed my refusal to be “anti-charismatic”. Often these individuals have excelled at LOVE, both for the Lord and others, sparked or participated in prayer meetings that have been aglow with with the Lord’s presence, and been extremely supportive and encouraging to me and other church leaders, earning our trust and gratitude.

    I would have been much impoverished if I had adopted the anti-charismatic viewpoint.

  6. I’ve been reading through Galatians lately, and it struck me that both sides in this debate would do well to reflect on Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit in 5:22-23.

    • Jimbo, I agree. I also believe that when bullies strut their stuff, it is best to deal with them directly and forcefully.

      • Trying to picture myself in a church nursery, scolding the infants on how their babbling is inappropriate praise in church because it is maintaining the emotional mood while disconnected from their rational minds.
        (Matthew 21:6 is stenciled over the doorway.)

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Like a Party Commissar lecturing on Purity of Ideology, and with much the same effect — authoritah(TM) extending only as far as you can force it.

      • Have you read Dan Phillips comments on his blog piece. It is surprising he can call himself a Christian while he talks down and demeans people. Stay away from the know everything Calvinists. It is dangerous for your soul.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Ah, the arrogance of KNOWING you’re one of The Elect, with a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free card signed by God before the foundation of the world…

  7. “He is a treasure to the Church.”


  8. I am part of a loose (read: non-structured) group which meets at my home periodically. There is fellowship, food, and teaching which most often is centered on applying the Biblical truths which lead to faith-filled discipleship. Our goal is to become life-givers and people of blessing, knowing that we carry the Spirit of God within us. I provide the venue, the coffee and donuts. There is no building program or request for funds although a basket is available for love gifts for the teacher of the day. On occasion I ask them to bring something for the local food bank. Some remember, some do not. No matter where each is in his personal walk, and no matter how the roster changes, each is devoted to Jesus and wants to bring him honor. There is absolutely no place for judgment, rancor, name-calling, label-hanging or division. We love The Lord, period, and we have a good time in the process. Why is this so hard?

    • Carol,

      This is beautiful and every Christian community should have an ethos similar to the group that you host. How did it begin and what are some of the fruits of these gatherings?

      • There are many threads to the beginning, but the larger thread is that I invited some people to come to a one day gathering to hear a friend who is a minister without a church, a teacher to the Body of Christ, with a heart to see people grasp the Truth and live it. We have had these meetings about every 6 weeks on average for several years now. He focusses on the importance of relationship and our identity in The Lord and what that means. I have seen people actually begin to apply some of the principles which make a difference in their lives. His mantra if you can call it that is that we are to be life-givers, not life-takers. The gatherings are so enjoyable that now, when he is not so often available I have been encouraged to engage someone else to “lead” as he or she sees fit. It has indeed become more about the relationship and less about the star of the show. This of course brings the original teacher great satisfaction.

  9. Reformed (aka “Calvinist”) folks are not a monolith on the issue of charisma. Here you have Dr. Packer, himself evangelical and reformed, along with numerous others (e.g., Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Sam Storms) in major disagreement with John MacArthur, Dan Phillips, et al., on the subject of cessationism vs. continuationism. And even within those two broad camps there are divergent views and nuances.

    My point is that some of the text in this post along with some of the comments appear to imply that reformed folk are mostly or even exclusively hard core cessationists. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    • Sorry if you read that in what I said. This is about Strange Fire proponents and cheerleaders.

      • I was referring to your statement that “…this is the way the ‘Truly Reformed’ treat a non-charismatic!” But I see now that you were using sarcasm (nothing wrong with that; I do it often myself) in a hyperbole (again, a favorite tool of mine) to make your point. I do very much appreciate you for addressing this issue.

  10. Randy Thompson says

    For the first time in ages I picked up Thomas a Kempis “The Imitation of Christ” yesterday. It has some very relevant things to say. The following comes from the beginning of Chapter 2:

    There is naturally in every man a desire to know, but what profiteth knowledge without the fear of God?
    Better of a surety is a lowly peasant who serveth God, than a proud philosopher who watcheth the stars and
    neglecteth the knowledge of himself. He who knoweth himself well is vile in his own sight; neither regardeth
    he the praises of men. If I knew all the things that are in the world, and were not in charity, what should it
    help me before God, who is to judge me according to my deeds?

    2. Rest from inordinate desire of knowledge, for therein is found much distraction and deceit. Those who
    have knowledge desire to appear learned, and to be called wise. Many things there are to know which
    profiteth little or nothing to the soul. And foolish out of measure is he who attendeth upon other things rather
    than those which serve to his soul’s health. Many words satisfy not the soul, but a good life refresheth the
    mind, and a pure conscience giveth great confidence towards God.

    And this, from the beginning of Chapter 3:

    Happy is the man whom Truth by itself doth teach, not by figures and transient words, but as it is in itself.(1)
    Our own judgment and feelings often deceive us, and we discern but little of the truth. What doth it profit to
    argue about hidden and dark things, concerning which we shall not be even reproved in the judgment,
    because we knew them not? Oh, grievous folly, to neglect the things which are profitable and necessary, and
    to give our minds to things which are curious and hurtful! Having eyes, we see not.


  11. David Cornwell says

    Perhaps Dan Phillips, rather than attacking Dr. Packer on a blog, should be attempting a biblical way of reconciliation, perhaps that outlined in Matthew 18:15-20. He needs to have an honest discussion with the man.

  12. First, thanks to Chaplain Mike for what I found to be a quite helpful post in thinking about how to approach our charismatic friends. Also, the quotations from Packer have whetted my appetite–maybe I’ll pick up that book!

    Chaplain Mike’s concluding remark seems to me to get to the heart of the issue: “When people start throwing careful and Christ-honoring scholars like J.I. Packer under the bus in the name of ‘truth,’ you have to wonder who is truly involved with strange fire.” That is, the really distressing thing about Phillips’s piece is the lack of charity (both for Packer and for the people quoting him–that line questioning how many have actually read the book is uncalled for, for example).

    Good scholarly criticism is usually governed by a principle of charity. These get formulated in different ways, but here’s a rough formulation (courtesy of me–if you don’t like it, make your own): ‘When criticizing another’s work, give it the most plausible reading you can, emphasizing the strengths of your opponent’s work where you can.’ This is basic scholarly courtesy–none of us produces flawless scholarship. Planks, motes, eyes, and all that.

    And in debating others as a follower of Jesus (not least when debating fellow followers of Jesus), how much more important is it to treat your opponents’ work charitably when you criticize it?

    Thanks again to Chaplain Mike for bringing this point out and for sharing some of the good things Packer has to say. I hope that my take on the post is helpful.

  13. My own experience has been that both the Truly Reformed and the Charismatics both tend to be elitists and have brought a lot of damage to the rest of the church through the influence of their worst and often most common elements (although much of the church has adopted these mindset without direct influence).

    The TR seem to have no ability to look at scripture with fresh eyes and there is plenty of group-think to knock any such desire to do so out of you. They also insist on everything being a closed issue. There’s no room for the idea that we have no idea what a particular passage is saying.

    You could grow an new arm in some of these churches and they would deny it happened because it is against their theology. Reformed and done reforming.

    The Charismatics have made enthusiasm the metric for everything. Every criticism is shot down simply because so and so “has a good heart” or some other such nonsense.

    They’d be the ones to tell Jesus Himself that he must have been living a pretty lukewarm life to have gone 30 or so years without anyone really noticing that He was God. Maybe if He would have just submitted to the Spirit and listened to It’s still small voice He could have had a longer and more effective ministry?

    Both of these tendencies try to give people a level of confidence that is simply not justified* and in doing so makes Christians less human rather than fully human. They also make it rather difficult to bear the church when she is so riddled with such tendencies.

    *Not to say there isn’t ANYTHING that could give the degree of confidence they aspire to, but I would argue it takes a heck of a lot more than a hermeneutic or a still small voice

    • I was introduced to Christ back in 1974 in a movement with Plymouth Brethren roots. PBs are not reformed in their theology (“Truly” or otherwise) and definitely not charismatics. What we believed back then closely follows what is currently referred to as “Free Grace Theology” (I somewhat jokingly refer to it as “Cafeteria Christianity”), heavy on dispensationalism and ultra cessationist (I was taught early on that miraculous manifestations of the Spirit ceased with the end of the Apostolic Era and that any such “occurrences” today are either mass hysteria, at best, or outright demonic, at worst). Needless to say I discarded that sort of thinking long ago.

      It has not been my experience that reformed folk are any more anti-charismatic or critical of charismatics than non-reformed folks. The association of churches to which I belong and in which I am a pastor long since changed it’s views and teachings on these things and years now has allowed freedom of belief and practice when it comes to disputable matters or non-essential doctrines (e.g., doctrines of grace, charismatic beliefs and practices); you might say we are a rather eclectic group when it comes to these things.

      Just wanted to set the record straight from my side of the railroad tracks.

    • I had a reply in here which disappeared. Just curious if I said something inappropriate.

  14. Pyromaniac Throws Packer under the Trolley? This is a sad commentary on our times. How long before they will throw Charles Spurgeon under that bus? (Not only for his view on the above subject but for other less than right-wing views) http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

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