John MacArthur and Struggling with Biblical Sufficiency, Part 1

think_biblicallyA truly Christian worldview begins with the conviction that God Himself has spoken in Scripture. As Christians, we are committed to the Bible as the inerrant and authoritative Word of God. We believe it is reliable and true from cover to cover, in every jot and tittle (cf. Matt 5:18). Scripture, therefore, is the standard by which we must test all other truth-claims. Unless that axiom dominates our perspective on all of life, we cannot legitimately claim to have embraced a Christian worldview.

John MacArthur
“Chapter 1: Embracing the Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture” (pg 21)
from Think Biblically: Recovering a Christian Worldview (ed. John MacArthur)

NOTE: I had a conversation with Pastor Randy last night (Monday) which amended a few things I understand about him and about MacArthur. This blog post and Part 2 which will be published tomorrow morning, were written before that encounter. I’ll post an update after the publication of Part 2.

I remember when I “discovered” the Bible contained internal inconsistencies that could not be “smoothed out” in any reasonable fashion. I remember when I realized that the different Gospel accounts of the timing of the death of Jesus didn’t match up. I remember hitting a wall, going into a tail spin, and experiencing a classic “crisis of faith.” It wasn’t pretty.

I eventually came out of it and retained my faith, but my view of the Bible has never been quite the same since. Yes, I believe it is the Word of God, His chronicle of the interactions between man and God, but I no longer believe that God literally spoke each word of the Bible in the ear of each of the Bible’s contributors as if He had dictated a series of letters to a series of secretaries (I guess I should say “administrative assistants” in this day and age). I believe that in some supernatural sense, God and the contributors became “partners” in the endeavor of composing what we have in our Bibles. It’s inspired by a Holy God but it contains the lived personalities and experiences of each person who did the actual writing.

Pastor Randy gave me the photocopied pages of this chapter written by MacArthur during last week’s Wednesday night meeting. I made the time last Friday to read the pages and found myself scribbling notes furiously in the margins and highlighting numerous sentences and paragraphs. Needless to say, I have some responses to MacArthur’s viewpoint about the Bible.

It might help before you continue, if you click the link of MacArthur’s name that I inserted above. It leads to his Wikipedia page and you can get a brief sketch of who he is, what he’s done, and what he believes about the Bible, Christianity and so on. That will provide the background for understanding his chapter and what I’m going to say about it.

Since we’re going to talk about the Bible being inerrant and sufficient, I suppose a few definitions are in order, via a bit of linkage: Biblical inerrancy and sufficiency of scripture (PDF).

First, something I agree with.

Christian bookstores are full of books offering advice drawn from sources other than the Bible on almost every conceivable subject — parenting, Christian manhood and womanhood, success and self-esteem, relationships, church growth, church leadership, ministry, philosophy, and so on. Various self-appointed experts who claim to have discovered some deep truth not revealed in Scripture have now become familiar fixtures on the evangelical landscape.

-MacArthur, pp 22-23

I almost never go into Christian bookstores anymore for exactly this reason. The products and marketing of said-products in Christian bookstores is little different from their secular counterparts. Oh, they are “dressed up” with “Christianese” terms and phrases to make them sound more “Biblical,” but the methods and techniques used to transmit information and often the information itself is strictly “Madison Avenue meets the Church.”

Also, many years ago, I attended a church that was all about selling itself. Dissatisfied with its image and how the church was growing, the board fired its Pastor and hired one who actually had a graduate degree in “Church Growth.” Interesting educational emphasis. The new Pastor came in with graphs and charts and statistics showing us how we needed to move locations, build a much larger facility with multi-purpose capacities, target an area of our valley that contained a specific demography of the population, and use other modern marketing techniques to attract a large influx of people “for the Lord.”

I couldn’t get out fast enough and I’ve never been back.

Oh, on top of all that, what MacArthur says about “various self-appointed experts who claim to have discovered some deep truth not revealed in Scripture” is spot on. For the better part of a decade, in one way or another, I was involved in the Hebrew Roots (One Law) movement. While most of the people I had regular fellowship with were good, well-grounded, honest, devoted disciples of Christ, the Hebrew Roots movement is totally unregulated and unrestricted, so just about anyone can pop up, put on a kippah and tallit, and call themselves a “Messianic Rabbi.” Then they get to sell their wares to whatever audience they can attract, based on the particular theological ax they’re grinding, and claim to have received some sort of “special anointment from the Lord” or “revelation of the end times.”

I’ve learned to beware of congregations that are run by “one-man shows” rather than being governed by a board based on a distributed leadership model.

If you can’t back up what you’re teaching with Scripture, then there’s a problem. But even then, lots and lots of stuff is taught that is supposedly based on Scripture, proving you can make the Bible say almost anything if you spin it fast enough.

Which brings me to MacArthur’s quoting from the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647 CE):

“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” (emph. mine)

-ibid, pg 22

It’s that “may be deduced from Scripture” part that makes things a little hazy. What MacArthur calls “deduced” could, in theory, be just about anything depending, again, on how hard and fast you spin the Bible. I know MacArthur probably had Judaism in mind when he mentioned “traditions of men”, leveraging the classic Christian view of all Pharisees making stuff up out of whole cloth and that the Rabbis being the direct inheritors of traditions and hypocrisy.

BiblicallyBut to be fair to the Rabbinic sages, they believe that they are actually “deducing” stuff from the Torah (Bible) in order to make the contents applicable to different generations and different circumstances (apparently) not anticipated by the literal text (using microwave ovens and driving cars on Shabbat comes to mind). According to MacArthur, this would be against the rules and that the Bible does anticipate all contingencies, circumstances, and technological advances. The Bible is sufficient. End of story.

Let’s drill down into a specific example using an issue that MacArthur definitely has strong feelings about.

Scripture reveals the deepest thoughts and intentions of the human heart, so that “all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). Thus, the Bible can do what psychoanalysis can never do. It is sufficient to penetrate and lay bare the deepest part of a person’s soul. (emph. mine)

-ibid pg 27

Never mind that psychoanalysis, a therapeutic model based on the theories of Sigmund Freud that, to the best of my knowledge, is no longer practiced due to the amount of time it takes (years), the sheer expense of the treatment, and the fact that insurance companies don’t cover the costs involved. I think MacArthur probably means psychotherapy, but let’s continue.

He is also an advocate of Nouthetic Counseling, which stresses the Bible as a sufficient tool for counseling people with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. MacArthur rejects psychological theories and techniques, considering psychology and psychiatry as contrary to the Bible…MacArthur criticises “so-called Christian psychologists and psychiatrists who testified that the Bible alone does not contain sufficient help to meet people’s deepest personal and emotional needs,” and he claims “Such a thing as a ‘psychological problem’ unrelated to spiritual or physical causes is nonexistent.” Concerning people who consult secular mental health professionals, MacArthur believes “Scripture hasn’t failed them—they’ve failed Scripture.”

MacArthur has argued that “True psychology (i.e. “the study of the soul”) can be done only by Christians, since only Christians have the resources for understanding and transforming the soul. The secular discipline of psychology is based on godless assumptions and evolutionary foundations and is capable of dealing with people only superficially and only on the temporal level… Psychology is no more a science than the atheistic evolutionary theory upon which it is based. Like theistic evolution, Christian psychology is an attempt to harmonize two inherently contradictory systems of thought. Modern psychology and the Bible cannot be blended without serious compromise to or utter abandonment of the principle of Scripture’s sufficiency…. ”

His stance has caused several controversies, the most notable of which was the first time an employee of an evangelical church had ever been sued for malpractice. The case failed to come to trial because a judge ruled the case as having insufficient evidence.

Wikipedia: MacArthur on Psychology

Wikipedia doesn’t give a clear picture of MacArthur’s education, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t include psychology, psychiatry, social work, or similar disciplines. I have an undergraduate degree in Psychology and a Master’s in Counseling with fifteen years of post-graduate clinical experience (before switching careers) and I have a little bit of an understanding of mental illness and its treatment. I can tell you that it is quite possible to provide successful treatment of a variety of disorders without consulting the Bible. This isn’t to say that I find the Bible useless in addressing our emotional and spiritual woes (and the Bible is uniquely able to address our spiritual hurts), but I know that I and many, many other mental health practitioners have successfully alleviated the painful struggles of countless men, women, and children who were suffering from depression and anxiety related symptoms.

Phobias are a perfect example and they can be treated with rationally based desensitization techniques that gradually enable the person who can’t even think about driving, getting in an elevator, or whatever without breaking out in a cold sweat, to do the very thing that formerly caused them to experience fear and dread.

john-macarthurGranted, it’s not a perfect tool, but even medicine “isn’t an exact science” (I remember the first time I heard a doctor tell me that, and it came as quite a shock). Nothing works perfectly all the time, but to do nothing at all would not only be immoral and unethical, but terribly cruel. Although MacArthur doesn’t speak about psychopharmacology, I suspect he’s against it, and that is even worse. Depression, for example, is very treatable using various medications and many depressions have a clear physiological basis. And let’s not get started on psychotic disorders which cannot be addressed without medication therapy. You can’t “talk” a person out of hallucinations.

I could spend all day on this one disagreement, but there are other issues to discuss, which I’ll get to in Part 2 of this article in tomorrow’s “morning meditation.”

140 days.

10 thoughts on “John MacArthur and Struggling with Biblical Sufficiency, Part 1”

  1. I was much interested in what you have to say. You know a bit about my own story. With regards to MacArthur’s teaching on psychology and therapy, this is exactly the teaching that was used in order to prevent Max from getting the help that he needed. I cannot tell you how much that cost and is still costing everyone involved. I used to listen to him daily but I stopped listening to MacArthur years ago for this and because there is just no love, no tolerance unless you fit within certain predefined parameters.

    At Christ For the Nations they taught us that scripture as originally written was perfect, but that what we have today is not perfect because God doesn’t want us to worship scripture, but rather to worship Him (that’s the short explanation). I would say from my own personal experience with those who take MacArthur’s view that what I’ve seen is exactly the sort of “fruit” one would expect when people worship something other than God. Although MacArthur would be horrified that I could even imply such a thing and he would vigorously deny it. I’m not sorry, the bible was never intended to be lived outside of a relationship with God and without the Holy Spirit to interpret what the scripture means to each individual person (and boy am I going to get in trouble for that statement!) there is no way to accurately interpret the scripture. You cannot read that book without having a relationship with God. History is rife with people who thought they had the answers and were totally wrong. Now here’s where I’m really going to get into trouble. The bible will say different things to different people at different times and all the ways of looking at it, will be correct, if each of the people are in a relationship with the Living God. And yes, in this statement I’m including some folks who don’t yet know that Jesus is the one way to God. My contention is that they will know, but that they don’t yet know but that God’s grace is so far greater than we can imagine that He is in a relationship with them even though they haven’t prayed what we call “the sinners prayer”.

    Unfortunately I don’t have time to get into all of this in detail, and probably won’t have time to reply. So Jim, I apologize for dropping such a hot potato onto your blog and then disappearing while you “clean up”. But having had personal experience that hurt so deeply with this teaching, I had to put my two cents worth in. At the very least I’ve given everyone who reads something to think about.

  2. You’re fine, Dree. No worries. Obviously MacArthur has dropped more than a few “hot potatoes” in his life and there have been significant consequences. I think he likely has many fine qualities, but his black and white view of the Bible, people, and the world isn’t one of them.

    I agree that the Bible cannot be comprehended outside of a relationship with God (1 Corinthians 2:14) but even then, we could spend our lives in prayer and study of the Bible and still not comprehend all of the mysteries of God. If I’m going to make a mistake though, I’ll err on the side of compassion and God can judge me as He will.

  3. I listened to him for many years and although I disagree with him on a number of issues, I appreciate some of his perspectives.

    I believe a case can be made for the black and white aspect of scripture, for otherwise it’s completly pointless and undermines itself. Also, just because each person has the right to interpret scripture whatever way they wish doesn’t mean each interpretion is equally valid and there are, IMO, moral absolutes.

    However, I believe the danger is in forcing our understanding of scripture onto God, which is what people from all streams of religion do. This isn’t a conservative-Christian-only problem. I agree that His mercy is greater than we sometimes imagine.

  4. I don’t think we have to go to either extreme, Ruth. The problem with a black and white, dogmatic view of the Bible, is that the person holding that view (and a great deal of influence over many Christians) can say, “It’s my way or the highway.” You either accept their black and white version of the Bible or you need to leave. There’s no room for any questions.

    The other extreme is as you say: each individual interpreting the Bible based on their feelings, which is horribly loose, inaccurate, and even dangerous.

    Learning involves questions. It involves not having to take one and only one person’s viewpoint as “gospel” and not being allowed to consult other sources. I want to study the Bible, not live under a dictator. I also don’t want to depend on my emotional states or limited personal capacity to comprehend the Bible. Bible study is a community function. Yes, there are objective meanings and some of them are fairly easy to access in the Bible. There are also profound mysteries that people have been investigating for hundreds and even thousands of years.

    There are treasures to be discovered, but the journey of exploration yields its own rewards as well.

  5. James,
    My point about making a case for the “black and white” nature of the Bible is that it does have a real and particular meaning to the one who wrote it, to the people it was written to, and the One who inspired it. If it weren’t the case then it would be totally pointless to read or try to understand it.

    But I agree with your point: ““It’s my way or the highway.” You either accept their black and white version of the Bible or you need to leave. There’s no room for any questions”

    However, I put that in the category of forcing our understanding onto God (in my original comment) and assuming that what *I* think, is what God means. And if one is comfortable with forcing God into a box, how much more so other people?!

    Anyway, I feel no such pressure to conform to that way of thinking. I hold many things far looser, waiting for God to connect the mysteries.

  6. My point about making a case for the “black and white” nature of the Bible is that it does have a real and particular meaning to the one who wrote it, to the people it was written to, and the One who inspired it. If it weren’t the case then it would be totally pointless to read or try to understand it.

    I agree but I’d add one thing: does the application change over time? God’s intent for a commandment or a lesson may, from His perspective, change over the long haul of history. Of course, we have to be incredibly careful with this point of view, but then again, we don’t keep slaves or forbid women from talking in church anymore either, so something had to give.

  7. Agreed. And if it’s interpreted to be emphatic on the definition of sin (I don’t believe in redefining sin based on the calendar) and we avoid that sin and if we show compassion for His creation I think we’re on the right path…

  8. “Re-definition of sin.” That’s an interesting concept. I wonder if anyone could come up with something that was previously defined as a sin in the Bible that we are convinced is no longer a sin…or vice versa?

  9. Redefinition of sin: homosexual practices are no longer seen as sin by increasing numbers in the church. But God has not made that redefinition.

  10. It was pretty much a hypothetical question, Tim. On the other hand, the Bible, even in the New Testament, did not condemn slavery and yet now we don’t practice slavery anymore and even in the church, consider it wrong to enslave another human being. If slavery wasn’t originally a sin, do you think it is considered a sin now? Interesting question.

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