29 October 2013

Strange Fire Conference #3: Joni Eareckson Tada and R. C. Sproul

by Dan Phillips

First post
Second post
My overall summary report to CBC

The next session featured Joni Eareckson Tada. I expect you know her story: at age seventeen, Joni's dive into unexpectedly shallow water resulted in her becoming a quadriplegic for life. Her first book Joni, written in 1976, is a gut-wrenching read. Here faithful yet vulnerably candid style has remained her trademark. Joni's talks are chats rather than addresses; they are personal testimonies mixed with spontaneous singing of snatches of hymns. I find it impossible to listen to her without being moved, and without coming away thinking, "Yeah, I don't really have problems."

This was a very touching, personal session. Joni and MacArthur have known each other for a long time, and a lot of kidding has gone back and forth (she said that, when she decided to wear her wedding dress outside her chair, while other said she floated like an angel, Mac said she looked like a float). So she leaned on that friendship to call him up to the stage with her to sing an unrehearsed duet. It was very nice, and left few dry eyes.

Nor did Joni's occasionally tearful testimony concerning the path she's traveled. In early days, Charismatic friends kept wanting to command Joni's healing. Once, Joni was taken to a Kathryn Kuhlman meeting. They went hours early, to get front and center seating. However, Joni and the other folks in wheelchairs were hustled off to the side out of the way, where the spotlight never found them. Afterwards the ushers moved them out, a very quiet line of 35 souls, all untouched, unhealed, left to wonder why the Savior had in fact passed them by.

Joni shared the struggle she's had as her affliction has forced her to confront the corruption in her own heart. She has had cancer, she has severe chronic pain — just think about that for a moment — she has constant daily struggles. But in it, Joni has found a hope to hang on to that is very different than the focus of most prominent Charismatic leaders: Jesus, the Gospel, heaven. Joni shared that she and her husband Ken talk about pain being splashovers of Hell. Then what are splashovers of Heaven? Not happy days, they concluded, but finding Jesus in the splashovers of Hell.

In fact, one of the most poignant reflections Joni shared (in my words) was that a new, healthy body is not what she is most looking forward to about resurrection life. What she most looks forward to is the full healing of her heart, the final removal of its remaining corruptions and temptations. In other talks she has said that she plans to thank Jesus for her wheelchair, and for what He has taught her through it. It calls to mind Solzhenitsyn's "Bless you, prison, for being my life."

She noted that Jesus was never "about" healing; alluding to Mark 1, she noted that when healings threatened to take focus away from His preaching, He would move on.

As if Joni weren't dealing with enough pains and suffering, after the talk we were told that she'd had to leave right away because (as I understood it) she had some bleeding that they could not stop.

I spoke with friends on-site who were monitoring Twitter. They told me that, previous to Joni taking the stage, the carpers and critics were very active and strident. But when Joni spoke, they shut up. Ditto during talks by Justin Peters, who suffers from cerebral palsy.

The critics didn't (and don't) have much to say to folks like Joni and Justin. Lower back-pain, headaches, poor sense of smell? They're all over that. Sometimes they are, that is. Quadriplegia and cerebral palsy? Not so much. Off to the side of the stage, please.

This is "continuationism" in a nutshell, isn't it? One hundred years of desperately trying to prop up their position by argument, redefinition, and distraction — but in all the whole world not one faith healer commanding one Joni Eareckson Tada to "rise and walk," to any good effect. Kathryn Kuhlman's ushers bear mute testimony to the fact that they expect no such thing to happen. Why not? Because that gift, the ability to heal on command, has not in fact continued. Tens of thousands of smart phones have failed to capture one such occurrence, though they could have captured many in the days of Jesus and the apostles (cf. Mark 6:56). The very fact that they are forced to make verbal arguments for continuationism — rather than pointing to 1900 years of Joni's and Justin's hopping up out of their wheelchairs — is potent proof that their position is bankrupt, and that in their hearts they know it.

Then John MacArthur made a remark in passing that stuck with me. He pointed that in the whole sweep of Biblical history, there were not that many healings. This is particularly true in the Old Testament, where the miracles usually "ended up with a lot of people dead. Once, the whole world." I'd never seen it that way, but of course he's right. Another point of discontinuity between the genuine and the imitation — Charismatic leader Benny Hinn and his "Holy Ghost machine gun" to the contrary notwithstanding.

The next session was a video from R. C. Sproul, who was prevented from coming by ill health. Sproul briefly traced the history of the Pentecostal movement. It was an early-20th-century invention that had no traction into the mainstream until the middle of that century, after which it spread to the Roman Catholic church and elsewhere indiscriminately.

Sproul then made the point that the Spirit's coming in Pentecost has to be set in the context of the history of redemption. It isn't a "and then that happened" event. Sproul set up by contrast with Moses wishing that all the Lord's people could have the Spirit (Num. 11:29). What had been a wish on Moses' lips becomes a prophecy in Joel 2, and then a reality in Acts 2.

What we see in Acts is the Spirit coming to four people-groups: first the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 2), then the half-Jew Samaritans (Acts 8), then the Gentile proselytes in Acts 11, and then the full-on Gentile converts in Acs 19. Each group receives its own reenactment of Pentecost, presided over by apostles, signifying their full reception of the Spirit. Unlike the false teaching of Pentecostals, in each case, every believer present received the Spirit.

I have often noted (and argued at some length in my unpublished book on the Holy Spirit) that trying to re-do this period in order to receive the Spirit is like trying to build a manger and gather some shepherds and angels to receive Christ. The manger is how Christ came into the world, and the events in Acts are how the Spirit formed the church. It isn't intended that we reproduce the historical events.

And so Sproul's argument was that the problem with Pentecostals is that they make too little of Pentecost, not too much; and that their understanding of it differs from the apostles'.

Dan Phillips's signature


Kay said...

I found Joni tremendously helpful, as I always do. She helped me lay down some stuff about my own healing and blessed me greatly with her Christ-centred-ness.

LanternBright said...

Fantastic stuff, Dan. MacArthur seems to have a much livelier sense of humor than I'd imagined.

And "splashovers from Heaven happen when we find Jesus in the midst of splashovers from Hell" is something I'll be thinking on for a long, long time.

Thanks for this!

Oh please said...

Did you seriously just say 20th century invention? Your precious Calvinist religion is a recent invention, talking about calling the kettle black.
Charismania is a natural progression of your guys original groups, whine and complain all you want about it. Its your fault they are here, put on your big boy pants and live with it.

Keep reforming blogger nerds....

DJP said...

OSH and buds hate this post.

Paul Reed said...

"a new, healthy body is not what she is most looking forward to about resurrection life."
"She noted that Jesus was never "about" healing; alluding to Mark 1, she noted that when healings threatened to take focus away from His preaching, He would move on."

This is brilliant and so true. My pastor has frequently criticized the Charismatic movement of taking the focus of God and replacing it with the focus on their spiritual powers. If you heal someone's eye and they still go to hell, what profit have they earned? As Jesus said, better enter heaven without a body part than have the entire body go to hell. If one of my pastor's sermons, he had us watch some videos of people speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts on Youtube the Saturday before. And his point was that these Youtube videos were probably very close to what a Corinthian church ceremony might have looked like, minus the modern clothing, building and technology. They had gifts, but they had not love nor the Gospel. In short, they had nothing.

corinthian said...

My dad was in a bad accident in 1980 that left him in an almost vegetative state. Folks from my church came and prayed for him and the healing on his mind was almost instantaneous. A year later, he was back at work, three years later, back at the Pentagon working as a systems analyst. He was healed. Period. So much so that his agnostic neurosurgeon gave his life to Christ because of the healing which was "impossible". My mom had MS, suffered through many "faith healers" who derided her lack of faith as the reason for her illness. God healed her at her death. So God healed one, and not the other, all to His glory. Joni was one of my mom's heroes that helped her rejoice from her wheelchair,in spite of her affliction. But, lack of healing for one does not negate the possibility of healing in another. I am not charismatic or pentacostal, but I have witnessed real healings, like tumors that disappear overnight and even a miscarried child that suddenly comes back to life. You don't have to be so either or. As Mac said, healings were rare, but they happened. I believe the same is true now.I have witnessed it.

Webster Hunt (Parts Man) said...

I agree with John's comment regarding Joni - "I don't know how Charismatics deal with her." Her testimony was very near to my heart, as I considered how my wife suffers with her own illnesses, and I loved her honesty as she described the conversations she's had with her husband - especially the "splashovers of Hell" part.

milhistorian said...

@Oh please: Because, as we all know, a theological system based on thought going all the way back to the 5th century AD and beyond is completely the same thing as something come up with in the 20th century.

@Corinthian: The post was about healing on command--that is to say, "the spiritual gift of healing." While people are healed by the power of God,jumping from that to saying that continuationism is true doesn't add up.

trogdor said...

It's funny how you criticize those who promote extrabiblical revelation over scripture, claim unverifiable miracles, and demean the work of members of the Trinity, and a Catholic troll shows up to yelp.

DiscoStu said...

The question I have is what SPECIFIC doctrines and people makes the Charismatic movement harmful. I understand that this is part of an ongoing series and that later posts might answer this question. From what I see that there is a lot of broad brushing from what I have seen and read in other blogs.

I agree that the majority of Charismatic movement is unorthodox but if we broad-brush the minority will be used to disprove our statements.

For instance, the term Baptist. There are all different kinds, reformed, Southern, missionary, KJV-only, primitive, free will, etc. I can make a general statement about Baptists and then use one group to disprove it.

Again, further posts might shed more light on this but what I have read on other sites and blogs, I am not finding specifics that I can nail down.

DJP said...

Stu, please take this as not meant sarcastically, cuttingly, put-downingly, because it isn't: that is something we've addressed many, many times here (check the tag "Da Gifts"), I've hit it from a hundred angles in my Tweets just over the past couple of months, and John MacArthur just wrote yet another book about it.

Also, maybe if you like listening to sermons as you drive, walk, or jog, I just incorporated it in last Sunday's sermon.

Anything good Charismatics have ever done, they've done because they are Christians — the ones who are Christians.

However, everything distinctive about Charismaticism is at best distracting and worthless, and at worst harmful and destructive.

corinthian said...

@milhistorian- that was my point. Often cessationists err on the side of claiming that there are no immediate healings, that God heals through medicine etc. Perhaps the label "cessationist" is misleading, but then a clearer distinction needs to be made. Just as pentacostals can't explain Joni, cessationists claim they have never seen a real healing. Maybe so, and I am sorry they have missed that in their lives, but their not seeing it does not mean it does not happen. I would be glad to introduce my dad to anyone if they need "proof" except now in his later years, alzheimer's has taken over.

Cathy M. said...

I'm looking forward to watching the whole enchilada when it's available. Your summery is like an appetizer.

I have such conflicted feelings about what to do when someone makes a miraculous claim. Last Sunday, a missionary came to my Southern Baptist church asking for support to build a well somewhere in India. In his introduction, the claim was made that his mother was resurrected from the dead. No one even questioned it. Does such a claim invalidate his entire ministry or should it prompt a careful examination? I just don't know. MacArthur said one of the problems with the charismatic movement is the gullibility it fosters. If the "oohs and ahs" I heard last Sunday are any indication, I think he hit the nail on the head.

trogdor said...

What exactly in your story do you suppose contradicts cessationism?

DiscoStu said...


I have been a long time reader of Pyromaniacs and I have read extensively about Da Gifts. I sometimes have a disconnect between my brain and the keyboard. I know your position. And I am a cessationist myself.

Did the conference address that issue? It seems that R.C Sproul did. I listened to your conference recap that you posted a few days ago. The Christian blogosphere is blowing up over this and I do not know how many people will come here and read your materials. Everything I see online leans to generalities. And I understand the nature of post-conference reviews are more general.

As an aside, thank you for moderating the comments. I understand the time you have to put into it. It makes your comment threads worth reading.

APM said...


I am not a pyro nor the son of a pyro, (and I am only about halfway through the conference audio) but in my opinion the major problems of the charismatic movement being addressed by Strange Fire are:

1. An undermining of Sola Scriptura through claims of extra-biblical revelation

2. A misrepresentation of God the Holy Spirit through claims of false miracles/activities/healings/etc.

3. The slough of prosperity theology

4. The danger of the sheer scope of their influence (half a billion charismatics on the planet)

5. The lack of any major & cohesive response to charismatic theology by the contemporary church

6. The worrisome endorsements that some credible "Reformed charismatics" have given to "false-teaching charismatics"

7. The widespread replacement of Gospel preaching for prosperity doctrine in places like Africa

I hope this helps clarify the "specificity" issue for you.

DJP said...

Really excellent summary. Thank you.

Paul Reed said...


"what SPECIFIC doctrines and people makes the Charismatic movement harmful."

Visit the average Charismatic church, and I almost guarantee you'll have no problem answering this question. Instead of using their gifts to point people toward the Gospel, the focus is on themselves and the gifts themselves. Ironically, yes, Cessationism is an extra-Biblical claim, but the amount of false teaching at your average Charismatic church is colossal. Their numbers are also worrisome. The entire movement needs to be given more much more scrutiny and discussion by sound pastors.

donsands said...

Joni will be a true jewel when we all get to the kingdom. Of course, Jesus our Lord is the One and only Man who receives glory, but she will be a jewel in His crown.

I shall be blessed and fortunate just to be there, but, I will be there by His grace alone, through faith alone, becuase he first love me, and I now do love Christ, and trust in Him.

Thanks for this great post dan. I attend Joni's church here in Baltimore, where her uncle was a pastro many moons agian. It's a REF Church, and we still have some contact with her.

I sent her a letter a while back, and she sent me a short note on a 3X5 card, and signed it; and we know what that means when she signs her name. i am humbled and even feel awkward sharing this, but it shows her heart, and glorifies Jesus.

have a great rest of the week. Shalom.

Frank Turk said...


How specific would you like? It seems to me that Phil Johnson in particular has been more specific before, during and after the conference than the apologists for the Conctinualist/Charismatic camp really can deal with already. Conrad Mbewe's talk was specific, but you have to listen to it to see what he is specific about.

Do you mean a sort of Enemies List? What if such a list could be provided and it included guys and dolls who, at the end of the day, pastor enough people to account for only 40% of Charismania?