Does John MacArthur’s criticisms of charismatic and Pentecostal behavior equate to Charles Chauncy’s criticisms of the first Great Awakening?
Back in July of this year, I was interacting with a couple of articles Michael Brown wrote expressing his problems with the Strange Fire conference and John MacArthur’s views of charismatics. Brown argued that John’s criticism of the bizarre antics found often in the charismatic movement is almost identical to Charles Chauncy’s criticism of similar bizarre behavior happening during the First Great Awakening under Jonathan Edwards. Brown writes,
One church historian pointed out that during the Great Awakening in 18th-century America, the biggest difference between Jonathan Edwards, the preeminent leader of the awakening, and Charles Chauncey, the foremost critic of the awakening, was that Edwards focused on the wheat while Chauncey focused on the chaff. Has Pastor MacArthur been guilty of doing the same thing when it comes to the charismatic movement? [John MacArthur, Strange Fire and Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit]
If one were to read two of the better biography’s of Jonathan Edwards, Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography, by Iain Murray and Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George Marsden, both authors record the division that happened between the various clergy leaders at the time who were either supportive of the revival or critical of it. In light of Michael Brown’s comparison between John’s criticisms of charismatic theology in general and those of the first Great Awakening, a couple of observations need to considered.
First, it should be pointed out that the response by the people to the preaching of Edwards and Whitefield was not the freakish displays of behavior one sees in charismatic churches. Brown wants to suggest that the violent tremors, spastic dry-heaving, rolling on the floor, ecstatic babbling, and the barking like animals that is common place at such modern-day services, like at the Brownsville revival, was the same behavior that took place among the people during the Great Awakening. It was not. People had an emotional response to the preaching, but it was the weight of personal sin individuals felt under the conviction of the Word preached that resulted in people bowed over in grief and sorrow for their sin. It was the sense of God’s holiness that people reacted to.
The clerical reaction toward the revival like that of Boston minister, Charles Chauncy, was not so much the emotional responses people displayed during the Awakening, though he did express his criticism of such things, as it was the ministers themselves and the message they preached.
Iain Murray notes three broad areas of criticism opponents had of the revival. First, those critics were offended by the ‘new’ type of preaching which became common in the Awakening [Murray, 209]. The preaching of Edwards and Whitefield was not the typical pulpit customs that the majority of ministers engaged. Revival preachers actually preached the Word and called people to repentance and salvation.
Secondly, Murray writes that there was a hostility toward experimental Christianity itself. In other words, the promoters of the revival presented Christianity as more than just formal orthodoxy, but what Edwards called a “vital religion.” A person’s Christianity should be more than just good morals, but an entire life given to Christ and the work of the Spirit.
Then thirdly, Murray tells of the opposition to the Awakening by those who were already opposed to historic Calvinism, which had suddenly gained strength among the preachers of the revival, as well as the people. Murray, citing from then revival preacher, David McGregore, declared, “I believe that the principle and most inveterate Opposers are Men of Arminian and Pelagian principles” [Murray, 215]
And while it was true that there was resistance to such “new” things, which was really biblical preaching and the great truths of the doctrines of Grace being proclaimed from the pulpits and lived out among the people, Chauncy, who became the Awakening’s chief critic, was right with his alarm about some of the excesses. His concerns went beyond the people crying out in terror of God’s judgment and begging for Christ to save them, the so-called “emotional excesses” that characterized the revival.
One of Chauncy’s key concerns was the so-called “ministries” of various and sundry preachers and what they advocated among the people. For instance, both Murray and Marsden recount the story of James Davenport, an evangelist who was perhaps the worst of schismatics making his rounds during the revival. He claimed to hear from God and would “prophesy” against ministers like Chauncy even condemning them as being unconverted and opposed to God Himself. The evidences of his incendiary and seditious statements got him arrested at one point and he was declared “under delusion” [Marsden, 272-273].
Moreover, a second important observation Brown overlooks is the fact that Edwards himself agreed in part with Chauncy’s criticisms of the excesses. When the revival began to wane, Edward’s pinned the main reason upon the unchecked behavior of the ministers and the people who pursued emotional fantacism. Murray quoting Edwards,
There was one principal cause of the reversal, namely, the unwatchfulness of the friends of the Awakening who allowed genuine and pure religion to become so mixed with ‘wildfire’, and carnal ‘enthusiasm’, that the Spirit of God was grieved and advantage given to Satan. [Murray 216]
The “enthusiasm” as it was called, became the great undoer of the work of God according to Edwards and was one of the themes he addressed in his book, A Treatise on Religious Affections, that was published a few years after the revival. Hence, it is just historically inaccurate on many levels to claim MacArthur’s criticisms of the theology and subsequent demonically-induced behavior that is exhibited at charismatic churches is akin to what happened during the Great Awakening and those critics at that time.