19 December 2014

Inbox: What about John MacArthur and his theology?

How does he fit into the spectrum of Reformed Theology and the ideas you are presenting?

I've actually written about MacArthur before but I can revisit him again.

In all honesty I don't have a lot of positive things to say about most Christian leaders in the United States, especially those who have attained celebrity status. There are a few, and there are more than a few that I would describe my views and response as 'mixed'.

MacArthur belongs in the 'mixed' category.

I appreciate his variety of Calvinism. He submits to the Biblical teaching regarding Election and Predestination. He believes in God's Sovereignty and this comes out regularly in his teaching.

And yet he doesn't seem to fall into the Hyper-Calvinistic/Rationalistic traps that many in Reformed circles have succumbed to. He's not afraid to let Scripture speak and when the Bible speaks in terms of universality he doesn't seem to shy away from it or seek to qualify it in light of Election. The Scriptures rather than a system commitment seem to govern his thought and exposition at least in this aspect. He's not obsessed with the Five Points and working out all their implications. This is a generalization of course, but something I've noticed. I believe in Election but I also believe the so-called Five Points of Calvinism to be a reductionism.

That said, he does fall into a common trap.... that of Eternal Security.

Years ago when I still cared about being labeled 'Reformed' I used to labour to explain to people the difference between the old Perseverance of the Saints doctrine versus the modern notion of Eternal Security. Today I don't emphasize the Five Points, in fact I'm critical of them and so it's less of an issue for me. I believe in Election but I largely reject the modern notion of Eternal Security.

Calvinists can hold to Eternal Security in different ways and of course there are many Arminians who also embrace this doctrine.

They're rooted differently though. Calvinists who hold to Eternal Security are pointing to election as the reason and foundation for the belief.

The modern variety of Arminian or Semi-Pelagian theology, usually Baptist in its manifestation, roots its understanding of Eternal Security in a 'personal decision' and exercise of Free Will. They believe that once 'you' made the decision, God is obligated to keep His promise and save you to the uttermost. Most Arminians in the Wesleyan tradition reject the very notion of Eternal Security and are thus (at the very least) consistent with their larger theological scheme.

I would disagree somewhat with both takes and say that the Elect are indeed eternally secure, but none of us can be absolutely assured of our Election until the end. Thus we continue to make our calling and election sure. We must persevere and if we don't, then in terms of outward or visible covenant membership... we can apostatize and fall away from the faith. The promise to us stands only 'if' we continue in the faith grounded and settled and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel.

All that said, MacArthur avoids the 'easy-believism' traps that many Eternal Security adherents fall into. In fact I greatly benefitted from his work in the 1990s when the Lordship Controversy was still raging. MacArthur was right in opposing some of the theology flowing out of Dallas, and caught a lot of flak for his Biblical stand. He wrongly holds to a version of Eternal Security but at the same time rightly preaches the necessity of spiritual fruit and vitality. What this really boils down to is a definition of saving faith. What is it, and of what does it consist?

On a theoretical level I would disagree with MacArthur, but in terms of practice, we would agree that 'easy believism' or a doctrine of saving faith that is reduced to mere assent is not saving faith at all. Interestingly there's also a Calvinistic version of this floating about that practically speaking also reduces saving faith to little more than intellectual assent.

This also (in part) plays out in or is related to some of the other controversies regarding Sanctification. There are some in Reformed circles and certainly in Lutheran circles who (from my perspective) have all but eliminated the doctrine or redefined it to the point of being virtually meaningless. This can be rooted in either an Election or a Sola Fide framework/commitment. Whatever the root, it results in an inability to faithfully deal with what the Scripture says about fruit, growth and works. For these camps, the New Testament taken prima facie seems contradictory and they have erected theological systems to deal with the supposed contradictions.

MacArthur (in my opinion) comes out pretty good from the midst of these controversies. Despite the differences over the technicalities, on a practical level, he preaches and teaches the necessity of a changed life and good works.

MacArthur is also interesting because he's Calvinistic/Predestinarian but doesn't seem to have fallen into the Dominionist trap. His Eschatology also plays a part in this. He doesn't seem to place a lot of stock in cultural and political endeavours and more than once I've been encouraged by his 'pilgrim' mentality.

That said, I also grow rather irritated when listening to him or reading his books. He's not looking for a new Christendom but can't seem to help thinking in terms of Conservative American politics. It's the default setting for most American Christians who still take the Bible seriously. Little comments here and there reveal this and at other times it's very present, even at the forefront. I wish he would think through the theological implications of pilgrimhood a bit more profoundly and that it would permeate his thinking, but it does not. Too many people are stuck in the Left/Right framework and believe that to abandon one is to embrace the other. As Christians we need to reject the entire framework and operate on a different level. MacArthur would agree with that statement I think, but it doesn't always come out in his teaching.

Thus once again, my opinion is mixed. He's better than a lot of Reformed thinkers and speakers on these points, but still flawed. Don't misunderstand me though... in general I find myself appreciating him. I often hear him on the radio and from time to time I download podcasts. Sometimes he can seem like a breath of fresh air compared to a lot of Christian (even Reformed) teaching that's presently available. I would rather listen to MacArthur any day rather than "Reformed" figures like Piper, Keller, Mohler, Dever and even at times men like Carson and Sproul.

The greatest issue I have with him is with regard to his Dispensational Theology. This I believe to be a grave error. His version of it if of course quite a bit better than the common Dallas Theological Seminary variety. In fact his critics are right to point out that Dispensationalism is actually incompatible with Calvinism, but at this point I believe all that's left of Dispensationalism in MacArthur's system is the Eschatology.

That said, the Eschatology still rests on the two foundation stones of the system:

1. God has two different plans for His two different peoples...Israel and the Church.

2. The Rapture doctrine as distinct from the Second Coming. Critics like myself point out that Dispensationalism has Christ coming a 2nd and 3rd time. The only way Dispensationalism escapes this is by redefining the 2nd Coming as 'secret' or partial.

MacArthur still holds to this system and with it comes a grave misreading of Scripture and a total misapplication of it to modern geopolitics and the Zionist nation of Israel founded in 1948. This view, much of which is rooted in misreading the book of Daniel, mistakenly views the EU as some kind of revived Roman Empire and is generally hostile to European society and certainly its politics. This all dovetails nicely (though not logically) with American nationalism and its geopolitics. They believe the Apocalypse is a book almost wholly future rather than a generalized prophecy applicable to every age of the Church.

This system (I would argue) refuses to submit to Apostolic and New Testament supremacy. When the New Testament interprets the Old and does so in a Christocentric manner, this school of thought all but refuses to submit to the teaching and insists on retaining the Judaized interpretation and symbolism... even though Christ and the Apostles repudiated this view.

When the New Testament cites an Old Testament prophecy and declares it fulfilled in Christ, Dispensationalism says, yes... but it still has to be fulfilled by Israel and the Jews. They've missed that point that Christ fulfills all of these promises and that Israel and the Jewish people were types and pictures of the coming Salvation. That system has been fulfilled and has passed away.

The book of Hebrews is such a mystery to this school of thought that not a few Dispensationalists have been forced to believe that it is not applicable to the New Testament Church. The older varieties of this theology did the same to the Sermon on the Mount... relegating it to a dispensation of revived Judaism... the so-called Jewish Kingdom.

As I put it to one person some time ago, MacArthur's decent to listen to on Romans 9 but awful by the time we reach Romans 11. But I would still rather listen to him than someone like David Jeremiah or J Vernon McGee who apply Dispensational theology with greater consistency.

In addition, Dispensational Theology is almost always Baptistic in its theological orientation. At this point I would also strongly disagree with MacArthur. Throughout most of Church history the problem has been to overemphasize the unity between the Old and New Covenants. Dispensationalism, which I believe to be rooted in a form of rationalism, errs in the other direction and overemphasizes the disunity. They (along with most Baptists) fail to recognize the use of means and the symbols which accompany them. Their theology cannot reckon with external forms of the covenant or the membership of children within the Church.

Finally, for me there is another stumbling block. In recent years I've spent some time looking into ministries and how they function and was rather shocked to learn about how much some of these pastors and leaders actually make. I think it's shameful and in fact discredits their entire ministry. I personally take grave exception to so-called 'men of God' making not just $100k a year but in many cases $400-700k a year. I think it's obscene and spiritually speaking criminal. There's a lot more to this issue and I've written about it elsewhere.

There are other issues here. I don't believe the Scriptures present the office of 'pastor' to begin with. I believe in a plurality of elders. No doubt some will excel more at teaching and speaking but Protestantism for all its criticisms of Roman Catholic clericalism and hierarchy has fallen into similar traps. Some of it comes with institutionalization to be sure.

While MacArthur isn't as bad as some who are out there in terms of a 'money machine'... it's enough to make me pause.

I'll put it this way. When I hear any of these people on the radio appeal for money I am not moved... and knowing what I know I am often repulsed.

All of this said, MacArthur despite my criticisms is worth looking at and listening to. Like all teachers their words and deeds must be examined in light of Scripture.