October 16, 2013

Strange Fire – Calvin’s Critique of Charismatic Calvinists – Steve Lawson

by Mike Riccardi

For those who are unable to view the free live stream of the Strange Fire Conference here at Grace Community Church, I thought I would do my best to provide a written summary of the various sessions as they unfold (Session One; Session Two). I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, or if I’ll be able to other sessions (check out Tim Challies‘ blog for his coverage) But I thought a little would be better than nothing. It provides us with a helpful opportunity to interact with what is actually being said at the conference. Having said that, the following was transcribed in haste, and so please forgive any typos. I pray it’s a benefit to you.

Strange Fire

What would John Calvin have to say about today’s Calvinists who are open but cautious, or who embrace fully the charismatic movement in one degree or another, but are Calvinistic?

We are very grateful for the resurgence of Reformed theology that has swept the world a few years ago. Even Time Magazine acknowledged this resurgence a few years ago with an article in their magazine. Dr. MacArthur has said, “If you’re not Reformed right now, you’re basically irrelevant.” I would add to that: You’re wrong. 🙂

But there has been a groundswell, and it has been spread far and wide, through mainline denominations and so many other streams of churches, led by a host of gifted preachers: Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J. I. Packer, James Montgomery Boice, R. C. Sproul, John Piper, and John MacArthur. These men have been standard-bearers in this line of godly men. We all have been under the influence of these men, if not every one of them. Highly visible ministries have carried this torch of Reformed truth: Grace To You, Ligonier Ministries, Desiring God, 9Marks. And the same with publishing houses like Banner of Truth, Crossway, Presbyterian and Reformed, Reformation Heritage Books, and Reformation Trust. And the result has been a phenomenon in our day, that has been called the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement.

There is a generation in their 20s and 30s, wide-eyed to a Calvinistic worldview, a Reformed theology proper, Christology, pneumatology, soteriology, etc. However, with this resurgence, there has come a strange merging of two streams into one river. One stream is historical biblical Calvinism, and the other is an unexpected tributary: Charismatic theology, spiritual experience, and worship style. And so there is a strange hybrid called “the Charismatic Calvinist.” This one surging river has a swift current that has pulled in an entire generation of those who are Reformed, but who are also “speaking in tongues,” having “prophetic utterances,” claiming new revelations, having supposedly words of knowledge, and miraculous healings.

Lawson PreachingThe leader of one popular Reformed ministry—and I’m not talking about someone on the fringe, I’m talking about brilliant, bright, articulate, visible—has said, “I’m one of those people that believes that signs and wonders and all the gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 are valid for today, and that we should earnestly desire them for the edification of the church. … What I mean by the Pentecostal understanding of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is simply the view that there is a definite experience of the Holy Spirit to be sought and enjoyed after conversion that is different from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that starts when we first believe. And that this second experience is signified by speaking in tongues. … Signs and wonders are God’s secondary testimony to the word of his grace. These include miracles, faith, healings, with which we associate signs and wonders. There is clear NT warrant for expecting that signs and wonders will continue until Jesus comes. … I do not see any reason that any gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 should be eliminated from present experience. … The gift of healing has not been withdrawn for today.”

Another popular church planter and conference speaker, Reformed/Calvinistic, says: “Make no mistake, I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit does give spectacular gifts, including prophecy tongues and miracles. I thank God for the spectacular…”

Another: “I start getting prophetic dreams. God is showing me the future. A gift of discernment kind of comes to the fore for me. Not all the time, but I can see someone, and I just know their story. Upon occasion when I get up to preach I can see just like a screen in front of me, and I see someone get raped or abused, and then Ill track them down and say, I’ve had this vision, let me tell you about it.”

These theological positions of merging Reformed theology with Charismatic theology have gone virtually ignored and unaddressed within the Reformed community. We have welcomed these men without fully addressing their position regarding the Holy Spirit.

I believe there is none better to address these Charismatic Calvinists than John Calvin himself. So I want to begin with the crisis that Calvin faced, because Calvin faced a Charismatic crisis in his own day. And then I want to see how Calvin addressed it in his own day, from his commentaries and Institutes, and also from the Treatise Against the Libertines.

The Crisis Calvin Faced

Calvin - Nice ThingsCalvin faced the Charismatic issue with two separate groups: the Anabaptists and the Libertines.


The Anabaptists were a complex, wide convergence of many different subgroups. Some of the Anabaptists were very good. Some of them held to things we agree with: for example that the church is to be made up of regenerate people only; the  separation of church and state; that baptism is for believers only. So they got many things right. But they got much wrong as well.

There were elements of the Anabaptists that got them interested in an “inner word,” and they began to seek dreams and experiences, emotional excesses, mystical encounters, prophetic manifestations, physical contortions, and miraculous accounts. Calvin needed to address this.


They were under the broad umbrella of the Anabaptists, but they were antinomians. They abused any Christian liberty, though they were likely unconverted.  Calvin called them a sect 100 times more dangerous than the Roman Catholic Church itself. They were led by fleshly impulses and new revelations. They believed the HS was adding new revelation to Scripture. And they grew discontent with the Bible—with the simplicity of the Gospel.

They lived in immorality, open licentiousness, withdrawing distinctions between good and bad, known for vulgarities, crassness, crudeness, profanity. They gloried in being “raw” in their Christianity. Some of their leaders dressed in torn robes, and wanted a “grunge” look. It was a hyper-spiritual Medieval reach-back look. They wanted an easy moral path, without having to fight against sin or resist temptation or pursue holiness.

And Calvin was just the man to speak to this particular issue. Other Reformers wrote to Calvin to answer this.

It was B. B. Warfield who identified Calvin as “the theologian of the Holy Spirit.” For all that we think about Calvin—his contribution to the biblical understanding of the doctrine of election and the sovereignty in salvation, he is known as the theologian of the Holy Spirit. Warfield said that the Institutes of the Christian Religion is just a treatise on the work of God the Holy Spirit, in making God savingly known to sinful man.

And so the chaos today is nothing new. It was prevalent in abuses and excesses in the 16th century and also in the 17th century and the Puritans. So Calvin wasn’t silent on this abuse.

Many of today’s Reformed leaders who are open to Charismatic practices, would do well to sit at the feet of Calvin and to be taught by him.

The Correction that Calvin Issued

[In this section, Lawson went systematically through various Charismatic doctrinal issues, like the office of an Apostle, the gift of miracles, and so on, and he responded with extensive quotes from Calvin from his commentaries, from his Institute of the Christian Religion, and from his Treatise Against the Anabaptists and his Treatise Against the Libertines. Lawson recommends that we read those.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep up with Dr. Lawson’s pace and with the extensive quotes. That means the overwhelming substance of Lawson’s talk is omitted here. You can see what Challies managed to capture here, or wait to for the notes and/or the audio and video. I really am sorry about that. I’ll have to work on my WPM! Suffice it to say, though, that Lawson clearly demonstrated from primary sources that Calvin explicitly rejected the Pentecostal/Charismatic understanding of the miraculous spiritual gifts, each in their turn.]


[By way of summary, Dr. Lawson asks what Calvin would say to this generation of so-called Charismatic Calvinists. He responds that he would say the very same thing that he said to those in his own generation. He recaps it in three points (he should have aimed for 5, though :).]

Calvin would say the same to this generation of Charismatic Calvinists as he did in his own generation.

1. The Exclusivity of Biblical Authority. It all boils down to this. Either there is only one stream of revelation: the Bible; or there are two streams: the Bible and miraculous gifts. Either sola Scriptura, one stream of revelation, or two streams. And Calvin faced it on both sides. The Catholics wanted the written Word of God plus tradition, councils, and papal authority. The Charismatics had two streams of revelation on the other side: the written Word and the gift of prophecy, tongues, and words of knowledge, etc. And Calvin said no, there is only one stream of revelation after the first century: sola Scriptura, the written Word of God. There are not two streams of revelation, just one.

2. The Priority of Biblical Preaching. Calvin understood that to whatever extent one looks to two streams of revelation, there is a diminishing of the pulpit. If there is only one stream, the Bible, then that mandates biblical preaching. But two streams erodes and submerges biblical preaching. Expository preaching can only be prioritized when we understand the Word of God is the only source of revelation.

3. The Unity of Spirit and Word. The Bible joins together the Spirit and the Word in the tightest bond. Having two streams of revelation severs and separates Word from Spirit and Spirit from Word. It divides and distances these two, drives a wedge between them. But the Spirit is at work only where the written Word of God is being taught, preached, counseled, shared, and disseminated. The Spirit works through the written Word.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Hi Mike, thanks for the updates (cliff-notes) on the conference. 😉

    I have a few honest questions, you said, “Calvin said no, there is only one stream of revelation after the first century: sola Scriptura, the written Word of God. ….”


    Why was “after the first century”, special (in a spiritually significant sense)? I’m assuming it was because the Church now possessed something of a collection of inspired writings (from apostles, etc)…the NT.

    Is there any God derived revelation to affirm that something significant happened, “after the first century”? In other words, “who” said this? (apparently Calvin & others). On what “revealed” basis or ground of “authority” can one declare, “there is only one stream of revelation *after* the first century: sola Scriptura, the written Word of God. There are not two streams of revelation, just one.”?

    In the early parts of the 1st century (circa 33-75AD), w/ limited access to the Tenach (OT) and no NT *what* did the believers rely upon for revelation? I know that the RCC insists upon “tradition”…but would it not be accurate for non-RC’s to say the “Holy Spirit” brought light (revelation of Jesus) to/thru the Tenach (apparently via “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors & teachers, for the equipping of the saints” [Eph. 4:11-12])?

    If the above question presupposes accurately, in reference to the Holy Spirits’ engagement w/ the newly-born Church. On what *authority* can one then/now declare, “the Holy Spirit ceased working (or redirected His work of revelation) from His former ways (signs, wonders, miracles, prophecies, alongside teaching, preaching, evangelizing…etc) among the young Christian movement to “the written Word of God” on a certain date (*after* the first century)? Would not that “revelation” be a “word of revelation”, disconnected from The Word (I’m not convinced of the 1 Cor 13:10 argument for cessation).

    I hope the above makes sense…if anyone else is interested please harmonize.

    • Hey Bryan, I’m helping Mike out while his typing furiously in the conference right now. Let me answer your questions one at a time.
      You are right and the term “first century” was used for exactly that reason: the completion of the canon, the establishment of elders and the cessation of the gifts. Nothing was meant significant about the year 99AD or anything.

    • I’m not sure I understand your second question. I think Lawson meant by “stream of revelation” that beleivers throughout the ages have stood in that same stream (or heritage) of a common faith built upon the Scriptures. The scriptures are self-verifying and require no outside word to attest for them (if they did, we’d be in a logical cycle, because then what could attest to that outside source?)

    • your third question is right on. That is exactly the point of the sign gifts, to help establish the church and to identify the apostles in an era where the NT is still being written.

    • Your fourth question is a good one–and I suggest checking out Tom Pennington’s sermon the day before (http://thecripplegate.com/strange-fire-a-case-for-cessationism-tom-pennington/). I think he helps answer that question.

      I like how you reasoned through that, and phrased those questions. Do these answers help?

      • Jesse, thanks for your reply! Also the above link doesn’t work.


  • Stephanie C.

    Thank you so much for doing this! I’ve been able to catch some, but not others.

    • Stephanie C.

      Some sessions, that is. 🙂

  • Steve Rowe

    The appeal to the Anabaptists as an example is, in fact, something o a straw man argument since, as has been stated by the ‘Strange Fire’ ministers, the Charismatics are a relatively modern movement which came out of mainly Bible based mainline churches, although it is debatable whether the Catholics could be said to be familiar with Bible doctrine alone.

    However, the true history of the Anabaptists attests that they held the Bible as the sole rule of faith and practice, being the authority of the Scriptures. Therefore any utterance of the Spirit in their assemblies would have to be demonstrably present in Scripture, not as a ‘second stream of revelation’, as Ps Lawson claims, but as the Spirit of God testifying and bearing witness of Christ the Word, as Jesus taught.

    Ps Lawson’s dreadful description of the Anabaptists as loose and ungodly is a desperately unfortunate attempt at smearing Charismatics.

    But, he successfully portrays Calvin as a cessationist, that is all, and, therefore, against any group which believed that the Spirit of God was and is still the same as He ever was, being the Spirit of God, who never changes.

    So, the conclusion of this exercise is that Calvin is a cessationist and would argue the way Ps Lawson does, who is also a cessationist. God, however, is not cessationist, so make of that what you will.

    He also demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of New Testament revelation, or of what the Bible reveals to us as New Testament prophecy, revelation, tongues and interpretation in the church assembly.

    It has never been considered added revelation, or a ‘second stream of revelation’ separate from the canon of Scripture, but revelation in the sense of a renewed understanding of what the texts are already saying to us.

    This is undoubtedly part of the present day work of the Holy Spirit, who is the Teacher and Guide, opening our eyes, as Christ did on the road to Emmaus, but who never gives us ‘a second stream of revelation’, but, rather, reveals a better grasp of what is already written in the texts.

    Paul explained it thus to he Ephesians, ‘that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power,’

    When Ps Lawson can demonstrate he knows all Scripture, and has always understood it all perfectly, perhaps I’ll believe he no longer needs the Spirit to reveal the Word to him in greater detail and clarity.

    Until then, we are like Paul, seeing into the glass dimly, but gradually being made more like the mirror image of Christ.

    • The Anabaptists were a large group, composed of everything from those that would have common spiritual lineage with us today, as well as those who were borderline insane and little more than insurrectionists. Much of the later camp was marked by crazy rantings and absurd prophecies (as well as revolutions) and it is to this camp that Lawson was referring.

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