I first heard about the Strange Fire controversy when my Twitter feed started tweeting up a storm on Monday. The drama centered on a confrontation between two conservative mega church pastors, John MacArthur and Mark Driscoll. Most of my Twitter friends are theological liberals, and we liberals love it when our conservative brethren get in fights.
Woo-hoo! A scandal!
This scandal, like most scandals, was overblown. Driscoll says that MacArthur and his people were “gracious that they let me on campus at all.” What was Driscoll doing “on campus?” He crashed MacArthur’s conference on the Holy Spirit called Strange Fire to meet with people and hand out free copies of his upcoming book, A Call to Resurgence, which has a chapter on the Holy Spirit. Conference officials told Driscoll he had to stop, and so he did. Driscoll’s books ended up in the hands of conference officials. The drama between the two has to do with whether Driscoll gave the books as a gift to the conference or if conference officials confiscated them.
Like all scandals, the drama distracts us from what really matters, which is the conference theme. The work of the Holy Spirit is vitally important for Christians, yet the Holy Spirit is usually treated like the ugly stepchild of Christian doctrine. (No offense to ugly stepchildren.) I think MacArthur radically misunderstands the Holy Spirit. The conference website provides an overview of its mission, which will help me explain his misunderstanding:
The sons of Aaron … offered strange fire before
the LORD … and fire came out from the
presence of the LORD and consumed them
The Lord calls His people to honor Him, to treat Him as holy. Leviticus 10 pictures the consequences of not doing so — of offering Him strange fire.
For the last hundred years, the charismatic movement has been offering a strange fire of sorts to the third Person of the Godhead — the Holy Spirit. And evangelical churches have chosen to be silent or indifferent on the matter. This hasn’t served the church or the Spirit of the church with honor.
So, what should be our response?
Strange Fire is a conference that will set forth what the Bible really says about the Holy Spirit, and how that squares with the charismatic movement. We’re going to address in a biblical, straightforward manner what many today see as a peripheral issue. On the contrary, your view of the Holy Spirit influences your relationship with God, your personal holiness, and your commitment to the church and evangelism.
MacArthur begins his description of the conference, and thus of the work of the Holy Spirit, by quoting Leviticus, apparently in a “biblical, straightforward manner.” The problem is that the Bible is anything but straightforward. MacArthur is under the illusion of biblical inerrancy, which means he thinks every verse of the Bible is internally consistent with every other verse of the Bible. This creates many problems, especially when it comes to sacrifice. If he thinks the “strange fire” that killed Aaron’s sons came from God, he dramatically misunderstands the work of the Holy Spirit. If you’ve ever read Leviticus (good on you, there) you will have noticed that it’s a bit like a slasher horror flick, with animal blood and guts flying everywhere. Three chapters into Leviticus can make anyone feel a bit queasy. Yet, liberals would do well to reclaim Leviticus. It marks a huge step forward in human history, because Leviticus documents the move the ancient Jews were making away from human sacrifice toward animal sacrifice.
The anthropologist René Girard calls ancient human sacrifice the “archaic sacred.” It’s true that ancient sacrificial cultures thought they were appeasing an angry god through the bloody sacrifice of another human being. But the reason our ancestors believed this is because sacrificial violence had a social impact: it united a community in conflict against a scapegoat. Thus, conflicts that threatened the community’s survival were washed away by the blood of their sacrificial victim. There was a sense of peace that was perceived to be a miraculous gift from the gods, but peace through violence is always temporary. Whenever new conflicts arose, archaic sacrificial violence returned. Another victim was sacrificed, bringing temporary peace, and continuing the cycle of peace through violence. What’s essential to know is that archaic sacrificial violence had nothing to do with the gods or God. Archaic sacrificial violence was purely human violence projected onto the gods.
Why the Bible Is the Most Important Book Ever Written
The Bible is, in my opinion, the most important book ever written, but not because of the claim that conservative evangelicals like MacArthur assert. The Bible isn’t “inerrant,” if by that you mean everything in it is a perfect description of God. The Bible is the most important book ever written because it reveals the trajectory of the Holy Spirit; it reveals that the Holy Spirit is moving us from the archaic sacred of human violence into a new form of sacredness: the sacredness of God’s nonviolent, all-embracing love.
For the Holy Spirit to reveal this trajectory, there must be a tension in the Bible between the violent archaic sacred and nonviolent love of God. We see this tension in the book of Leviticus. While Leviticus is pulling us away from human sacrifice and toward animal sacrifice, it still has a strong element of the archaic sacred that unites a community against those who offered “strange fire.” Leviticus seems to project that violence onto God. But, once we are aware of the trajectory the Bible is making away from sacrificial violence, we begin to understand that Aaron’s sons weren’t killed by a violent god’s strange fire. Aaron’s sons were killed by a violent community that united in sacrificial violence against them.
Satan: The Accuser
Satan isn’t referred to in Leviticus, but the function of the satanic principle is obvious in the story. Satan is commonly translated as Adversary, but a more accurate translation is found in the book of Job. When Job refers to Satan, the word is usually translated as Accuser. Thus, Satan refers to the human principle of accusation that unites “us” against “them.” The principle that killed Aaron’s sons wasn’t from God; it was the satanic principle of accusation that united the community in archaic sacrificial violence against them.
Some will think this interpretation of Leviticus is a stretch. Someone might protest, “But Leviticus actually says …” Leviticus is part of the overall trajectory of the Bible that teases out strands of archaic sacred violence that unites “us” against “them” from strands that finally reveal God’s nonviolent love and forgiveness that includes everyone. For example, the prophet Hosea critiqued all the sacrificial elements found in Leviticus, even animal sacrifice, when God said through him, “I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice” (6:6). Psalm 40:6 continues this critique of sacrifice by stating, “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” Jesus lived by this non-sacrificial strand and even quoted Hosea when he said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13). Hosea, the Psalmist, and Jesus position themselves within a strand of the Bible that critiques archaic sacrificial violence that is found in other strands of the Bible, such as Leviticus 10:1-2.
The Holy Spirit: The Defender of the Accused
The Holy Spirit is the main actor in this move away from archaic sacrificial violence that unites “us” against “them.” Jesus, in fact, refers to the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit, as the Paraclete. This word usually translates as “Advocate,” which gives a good sense for the work of the Holy Spirit, but there’s a better translation. Girard writes in his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning that, “The principal meaning of parakletos is ‘lawyer for the defense,’ ‘defender of the accused.’ … We should take with utmost seriousness the idea that the Spirit enlightens the persecutors concerning their acts of persecution. The Spirit discloses to individuals the literal truth of what Jesus said during his crucifixion: ‘They don’t know what they are doing.’ We should also think of the God whom Job calls ‘my defender’” (189-190).
If Satan is the Accuser then Jesus does an incredibly helpful thing by calling the Holy Spirit the Defender of the Accused. The Holy Spirit, according to Jesus, has nothing to do with uniting in violent sacrifice against a scapegoat. Rather, the Holy Spirit stands with our scapegoats. Jesus is the primary revelation of this. Was the Holy Spirit with the crowd when it united against Jesus, yelling “crucify him?” Or was the Holy Spirit with Jesus, the crowd’s scapegoat?
We can know for sure that when we start accusing people of evil that we are caught up in the satanic principle of accusation that unites “us” against “them.” The Holy Spirit enlightens us to our complicity in making satanic accusations and converts us to stand with the victims of human violence – not against them.
That’s Some Really Strange Fire
This leads us back to MacArthur’s conference Strange Fire. I agree with MacArthur that “your view of the Holy Spirit influences your relationship with God, your personal holiness, and your commitment to the church and evangelism.” But if he is using the Holy Spirit to unite those attending his conference against people in the charismatic movement, then he has confused the work of the Holy Spirit with the work of the Satan. If this is the case, then MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference doesn’t refer to the Holy Spirit; rather, it refers to Satan the Accuser, whose accusations and violence spread like wildfire. If Jesus was right, then the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, puts an end to Satan’s fires of accusation and leads us to stand with those being accused.
If you think I’m caught up in satanic accusations against MacArthur for satanically accusing the charismatic movement, you might be right. As Girard says, there is a literal truth to Jesus’ statement on the cross that “They don’t know what they are doing.” When it comes to satanic accusations, I’m not much different than MacArthur. I do it all the time, without knowing that I’m doing it. I stand in need of forgiveness. Thank God for the Holy Spirit, who not only enlightens us to our acts of persecution, but also enlightens us to the first part of the literal truth to Jesus’ statement on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Image: Illustration of the Holy Spirit flame, AridOcean / Shutterstock.com