Tag Archives: biblical sufficiency

John MacArthur and Struggling with Biblical Sufficiency, Part 2

doveThis is a continuation of yesterday’s “meditation” on John MacArthur and “Chapter 1: Embracing the Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture” from his book Think Biblically: Recovering a Christian Worldview. If you haven’t done so already, read Part 1 before continuing here.

In addressing Luke 16:27-31, MacArthur says:

The rich man’s perspective is the same view of many today who always seem to demand some kind of supernatural affirmation of spiritual truth. They imagine that the straightforward statements of Scripture and the power of the Gospel alone are not sufficient. But the Lord, through the words of the parable, argued otherwise and said that even though He Himself would rise from the dead, miracles are not necessary for the Gospel to do its work in changing lives. Why? Because the Word of God through the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit is powerful enough — it is all-sufficient in what it teaches about redemption and sanctification.

-MacArthur, pg 27

To the degree that the Bible records numerous miracles of God (Moses, the Reed Sea, millions of Israelites walk on dry land but the pursuing Egyptians drown under thousands of tons of water…that sort of thing), apparently they have their uses, but I do agree that miracles alone will not insure faith. If they did, then millions of Israelites wouldn’t have struggled in their trust of God and been condemned to die in the desert after a forty year walk.

Setting that aside, I still have a hard time figuring out what MacArthur believes about the Holy Spirit. Most Christians I talk to pray to God that the Spirit will give them wisdom and understanding in their studies of Scripture, but it almost sounds like MacArthur believes that once the Spirit was done inspiring the Bible’s writers, it split the scene, leaving the book behind and saying, “This is all you need…see you in the next life.”

I know that’s a little harsh and MacArthur, as a self-proclaimed Evangelical, probably does believe in a supernatural God and that there are certain supernatural mysteries we don’t understand right now. But in focusing on the sufficiency of the Bible, I kept getting the feeling that MacArthur was leaving the actual influence of God in our lives out of the equation. I got the feeling from MacArthur that the power of God’s Spirit was only found in the pages of the Bible. If that’s so, why pray? Just read.

I personally don’t think that anyone comes to God without His direct intervention in our experiences. I believe this is true of me. I don’t believe that some human being thumping a Bible and quoting its eloquent words convinced me to become a Christian. I know from my own story that a series of extremely unlikely events occurred over six to twelve months that finally convinced me God was involved in my life.

I had resisted the Word and Will of God for forty years and He finally convinced me…but I didn’t start actually reading the Bible until I was already going to church, and I promise you that I had no idea what I was reading for the first several years. In many ways, I’m still wrestling with God and struggling with the Bible. MacArthur makes it seem as if the Bible were as easy to comprehend and absorb as the latest best-selling fiction novel on the market. For me, the Bible is like living within a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous statement about Russia). It contains many wondrous things of God, but they are only revealed during the journey of a lifetime.

MacArthur spends the second half of his chapter supporting the sufficiency of the Bible from the point of view of the Torah and the Prophets. He presents a pretty good illustration of Jewish devotion to Torah. I was amazed because everything I know about him (which admittedly, isn’t that much) tells me that as a dispensationalist, he believes the Torah “goes away” after Jesus and is no longer “sufficient” for the Jewish believer.

In quoting the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9), MacArthur says:

That was a simple way to summarize the myriad commands God had given Moses. But the law of God — His revealed Word — was and is the one resource for life and godliness. Everywhere they went, the children of God were always to meditate on and apply the words of the living God. Those words were to occupy their attention as a source and centerpiece of everything. For His people, that is still God’s design for life.

ibid, pg 28

simhat-torahMacArthur uses the past and present tense about the sufficiency of Torah twice in the previous paragraph, but I’m not sure he realizes the implications. He’s trying to transfer how he sees the Israelites of the past being devoted to Torah across history to the modern-day Christians and the Bible without explaining that normative Protestant Christianity generally dismisses the vast majority of the Torah.

On page 29, MacArthur says “the law” is the Hebrew word “Torah” (yeah, I know), “which basically means divine teaching (emph. mine). In quoting Psalm 19:7 (“The law of the Lord is perfect”), he says that “perfect” can also mean “whole,” “complete,” or “sufficient.” He actually quotes from Psalm 19:7-9 which is part of the Shabbat liturgy in most synagogues, and those words are amazingly beautiful to me.

For pages and pages and pages, MacArthur cites a stream of examples from Judaism about the perfection of Torah, that it is “reviving,” “restoring,” “transforming,” “converting,” and “refreshing.” He speaks of Torah “making the simple one, wise.” He speaks of David praising the “precepts,” meaning divine principles, statutes, and guidelines.” At one point (Pg 31), he states:

The result of applying Scripture’s principles, obeying its precepts, and walking in its pathways is true joy — “rejoicing the heart.”

I wonder if he realized that from a Jewish point of view, it is the performance of the mitzvot, the commandments such as charity, hospitality, and compassion, that “rejoices the heart?” What MacArthur is praising isn’t just the sufficiency of the Bible, but the Jewish worldview (not Christian worldview) of the sufficiency of the Torah, the mitzvot and, for a Jew, the traditions.

He also said:

If those who claim to follow Christ today were as excited about scriptural precepts as they are about the materialism of this world, the character of the church would be wholly different, and our testimony to the world would be consistent and potent.

Actually, I agree with him, but I’d have changed that sentence to say:

If those who claim to follow Christ today were as excited about scriptural precepts as religious Jews are excited about the Torah and the mitzvot, the character of the church would be wholly different, and our testimony to the world would be consistent and potent.

There were a bunch of other “nitpicky” things I noted about MacArthur’s chapter, but what impressed me the most (as you can probably tell) was how “Jewish” he seems to feel, at least sometimes, about the Bible. I think he’s right that anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian needs to be constantly reading and studying the Bible.

I’ve just started reading John W. Mauck’s book Paul On Trial: The Book Of Acts As A Defense Of Christianity, and Donald A. Hagner in the Foreword says in part:

Just as ministry is the work of the people and not the clergy (who are to equip the saints for ministry according to Eph. 4:11-12), so to the Bible is the book of all the people of God, not the domain of biblical scholars only. Indeed the writings that make up the Bible are meant to be studied by every Christian. The Word of God was written, after all, not to scholars but to the people of God in communities of faith.

I agree and find Professor Hagner’s statement to be wonderfully affirming and empowering. In a number of ways, I agree with MacArthur, but I think he overstates the matter of Biblical sufficiency to the point of being dogmatic and inflexible. It’s as if he leaves no room for discussion and basically says, “It’s my way or the highway.”

I seriously doubt that Moses and Paul had an identical worldview of the Word of God because the world around each of these men was very different. How Torah was understood and applied was based on who each of these men were and what they were trying to accomplish in accordance with their mission from God.

MacArthur, in championing the sufficiency of the Bible, failed to mention needing to understand the original languages of the Bible and especially needing to understand the original contexts, cultures, experiences, and lifetimes of each of the Bible’s authors in order to get a more accurate picture of what they, and God, were trying to say. He failed to mention that how we understand the Bible begins at the level of translation and that the same words and phrases of Scripture can be translated differently, even very differently by different people depending on their biases and worldviews. This is particularly true when comparing Evangelical Christianity and any of the streams of modern, normative Judaism and most pointedly, Messianic Judaism.

bible_read_meI think MacArthur is right though in that many churches have, for the most part, set the Bible aside as irrelevant or archaic and thus unable to reach the people who are trying to reach God in the twenty-first century. Although I seriously doubt MacArthur intended to give this impression, I think that the mass exodus from “the church” isn’t because it thumps too hard on the Bible but because “the church” all but ignores the Bible. I think this is why at least some Gentile Christians have been transitioning into the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements, since both of these movements emphasize the study of and devotion to the Bible and specifically Torah.

If the church could learn one thing from the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements, it is the continual reading and studying of the Bible, including reading the Bible as part of worship.

I’m not ready to take every book I’ve ever read except for the Bible, and toss them all into a giant campfire. I don’t think other sources of information are useless. If I want to learn something about a web-based technical support product or how online merchants can fight fraud, I’m not going to find the answers just by reading the Bible (OK, those are pretty far out examples and probably MacArthur wouldn’t expect to find them in the Bible, either, but I’m trying to make a point).

The Bible is the single most important and influential document ever written and the world would not know God without it, but we can learn a great deal by reading and studying other material as well. Learning more in the fields of history and archeology relative to Biblical times greatly enhances what we understand about the Bible itself. I disagree that we must throw all this other “stuff” under a bus in order to rightly state that we are seeking an encounter with God and pursuing a life of righteousness.

I also disagree that the Bible is a simple book. I will spend the rest of my life studying the Word of God, and I don’t expect, at the end of my days, to be hardly anymore enlightened about its mysteries than I am right now. May God grant me the wisdom and understanding to see Him and His will for me somewhere in the pages of His Word.

139 days.

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.