Truth War Skirmish!

Well, welcome to the blog this week. Had a few throw-away posts this weekend, but I got redirected a few times to a post by a guy named Bob Robinson at Vangard Church regarding his review/evaluation of the Truth War by John MacArthur. I read it, read a review of the review, and after making a brief post on one of the referring blogs I chose to spend my morning today sorting out the original post for the sake of posting something substantive for the first time since my blog allegedly came back from "hiatus".

Here's the headline of the original blog post:

MacArthur Fits His Own Criteria for an Apostate

Now, before you fly off the handle, let's read the thesis statement of the post:
I’d like to juxtapose three statements by John MacArthur in order to show that, while MacArthur is quick to label other Christians “false teachers” and “apostate,” these labels can just as easily be leveled unfairly at MacArthur.
And to Robinson's credit, he does go through 3 quotes from Dr. MacArthur in an attempt to do what he says he's going to do. But let's make sure we understand what he's trying to do here to determine whether or not it deserves any redress: he's trying to prove that Dr. MacArthur's use of "apostate" is so ill-defined that it can be applied to Dr. MacArthur himself because it is such a broad category.

Here's the first quote Robinson gives, with exposition:
Statement #1:
“What we are called to defend is no less than ‘the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.’ Jude is speaking of apostolic doctrine (Acts 2:42) – objective Christian truth – the faith, as delivered from Jesus through the agency of the Holy Spirit by the apostles to the church … Jude speaks of ‘the faith’ as a complete body of truth already delivered – so there is no need to seek additional revelation or to embellish the substance of ‘the faith’ in any way. Our task is simply to interpret, understand, publish, and defend the truth God has once and for all delivered to the church. That is what the Truth War is ultimately all about.” (p. 75)
Let's make sure we have a handle on what Dr. MacArthur has said here before we read what Robinson interprets. Dr. MacArthur makes it clear that, on the one hand, new revelation and embellishments on the substance of faith are out of bounds, but interpretation, understanding, publishing, and defense of truth are all in-bounds. I have added emphasis in that text, above, to make that clear.

So what Dr. MacArthur has put in his scope are things which add to revelation (by which he means "Scripture" and the fullness of revelation in Christ), and things which embellish or exaggerate "the faith". What he has –not- decried are writings or teachings which interpret (that is: writings which make what is in the text more clear), understand (that is: teachings which draw in the larger picture of Scripture), publish (that is: the simple act of disseminating such teachings through print media), and defend (that is: teachings which draw out the contrasts between the faith and other ideas or philosophies in order to show why the faith is itself better).

Let's see where Robinson takes this:
So, MacArthur is saying that Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Stan Grenz, John Franke, John Armstrong, Donald Miller, and Chris Seay are all guilty of embellishing the substance of the faith in some way. They are not being loyal to the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.”
Yes, I think this is exactly what he's saying, and the word Robinson uses here is exactly right: "embellishing". That is: they have gone beyond the bounds of the texts involved, and therefore have engaged in exaggeration thereby creating a caricature of the faith which is false. And like all caricatures, it might be funny of they weren't serious about making that creation into the faith itself.

Now watch what Robinson does here:
Let’s take this criterion and apply it to John MacArthur. MacArthur is a Dispensationalist, a form of theology that originated in the late 1800s with John Nelson Darby in England and in moved to the United States in the early 1900s when C. I. Scofield began teaching it. Don't miss this: Dispensationalism’s interpretation of the Bible is very novel, less than 150 years old. Dispensationalism insists that God deals with Israel and the Church differently through a dispensational grid and that this grid determines how we must interpret every passage of the Bible so that we can determine whether the passage is referring to Israel or the Church. It insists that the Church must be raptured away from the earth into its heavenly existence so that God can finish His plan for Israel in its earthly existence.

I repeat: This theology is new. It is not the same theological understanding that “was once for all delivered to the saints.” It grew out of a admittedly individualistic interpretation of the Bible (the Dispensationalists insisted that they were reading the Bible literally and letting the Bible alone determine their theology, with little regard for the history of interpretation).
I have two disclosures that I have to make before I go on. The first is that I'm not a fan of dispensationalism – it's a somewhat broad category of eschatology and hermeneutics that includes all kinds of people from John Macarthur to Tim LaHaye to Clarence Larkin, and you simply can't know what kind of thinker you're dealing with by the label "dispensationalist". I don't find it helpful, personally, to know if someone is a "dispensationalist" because it's a category which doesn't mean anything.

And let's be honest: people like Clarence Larkin are kooks. They might actually be "apostate" as Dr. MacArthur defines the term, but that's not the point of this post. I also think that bad forms of dispensationalism and premillenial enthusiasm have caused the American church in particular to exaggerate the priority of the individual in matters of faith -- but that's for another day. The point of this post is to take a look at what Robinson says about Dr. MacArthur's argument and see if it holds water. So no: I'm not a dispensationalist.

The second disclosure is that I'm not interested in reductionistic historical arguments. It's one thing to say that the systematic formulas of Ryrie and Scofield are "new", and it's another to overstate their newness for the sake of trying to make them fit inside an ideological box in order to call some book or some author's reasoning into question. You know: there's something "new" about translating the Bible using "dynamic" translation philosophy, and I doubt that Robinson would try to wedge that into the box of "apostate" – and I doubt that Dr. MacArthur would go there, either. The question is not how "new" something is, but whether or not its "newness" causes the truth to be somehow voided.

Let's be honest: one of the greatest systematic conundrums of the NT is whether or not God will ultimately deal with racial, hereditary Israel in a different way than He will with the rest of the world. To say the sorting out of this matter was somehow "done" by the end of the apostolic age is a little ambitious, and ignores a lot of things – like the anti-Semitism of the 4th and 5th centuries. And in that light, to call Ryrie's attempt to reconcile this issue in the 19th century "new" is, um, demonstrating a lot of gusto.

Here's the rub, however: we have to ask ourselves what's "new" about dispensationalism. Is it trying to renovate the cross to make it palatable for a culture, a worldview, a people, or a philosophy? Or is it "new" in the sense that the cross remains in tact and one view of the end times as a consequence of the way God reveals himself in history is being explored?

I think it's a big jump to say that interpreting the prophecy that God will save all Jews at some point in history as "all the Jews" is in the same league as interpreting the cross as a form of "cosmic child-abuse". That's the problem we face here – the scope of the claims, and the objective of the "newness".

Thus when we read what's next, we should have a pretty big problem:

So, using MacArthur’s criterion of whether someone is "seeking additional revelation or embellishing the substance of the faith in any way," Dispensationalists could be included. Now, I’m not saying that Dispensationalists should be included, just that MacArthur fits his own criterion for an apostate. Before he labels others as “false teachers” he had better know that, in doing so, he opens himself up to that same label.
If we apply definitions the way Robinson does here, the Trinity has to be called an innovative doctrine because the category "trinity" doesn’t occur by name in Scripture – yet I am sure that Robinson doesn’t have that kind of chutzpah. Just because one formulation of one doctrine is not given some name or specific systematic outline in the first generation of Christian writing, this doesn’t force the doctrine into the category Dr. MacArthur outlines – and Dr. MacArthur's paragraph here specifically defines why. A document teaching or explaining what Scripture says is not inherently apostate – even if the presentation is innovative.

What is at stake with the men specifically listed in this post by Robinson as identified by Dr. MacArthur as "apostate" is that they veer off the page of Scripture and into imaginative, speculative, and theological ditches which give us central themes of Scripture for some other ideological objective.

At this point, Robinson goes on to a second statement by Dr. MacArthur:
Statement #2:
“Every form of gnosticism starts with the notion that truth is a secret known only by a select few elevated, enlightened minds. (Hence the name, from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge.) … Another dominant variety of gnosticism (know as Docetism) taught that all manifestations of Jesus’ human nature – including His physical body (and hence His crucifixion and resurrection) – were only illusions. God could not really have come to earth in the true material form of authentic human flesh, the Docetists said, because matter itself is evil.” (pp. 89, 92)
Who can argue with this, really? It's a historical set of definitions. I agree that this is what docetism and Gnosticism are.
Again, if we take this criterion and apply it to MacArthur’s theology, we see that he opens himself up to the same criticism. He talks about Gnostics in general and Docetists in particular, as if those in the Emerging Church are guilty of these heresies. However, it has been largely acknowledged that it is Dispensational theology that is the main culprit of gnosticism in the United States.
Wow. I mean – that's not a logical leap: that's a logical fall off the cliff – and the list of so-called evidences simply makes the case worse and not better.
* Dispensationalism stresses the hope of heaven over the hope of the redeemed earth.
That's not just "dispensationalism" which does this, btw – even post-millenial guys are in for the New Heavens and New Earth which are -far- -better- than what we have today. The question is not whether they will be better, but –how- they will be better. And in that paradigm, even the Dispensationalist says that the Earth is "redeemed" by Christ.
* Dispensationalism stresses the hope of a “rapture” over the hope of a resurrected physical life.
It's sort of breath-taking that someone is willing to say this out loud – because even the sort of weak-tea dispensationalism of a Tim LaHaye doesn't say that the rapture is the be-all and end-all of Christian life. The Resurrection is –still- the ultimate end of redemption, and it is a –physical- resurrection, not merely souls without bodies.
* Dispensationalism stresses the importance of saving people from the earthly existence and inviting them into a spiritual, heavenly existence.
That's almost laughable – especially in the context that Robinson is talking about MacArthur who wrote The Gospel According to Jesus and has opposed the ridiculous easy-believism of "Free Grace" guys like Zane Hodges. MacArthur is about an exclusively-eternal salvation? Document that in some way – especially in the context of his Dispensational leanings.
* MacArthur’s own books on Heaven are filled with hints toward gnostic ideas that matter itself is evil; that true “glory” is when we move out of the fleshly existence and into the spiritual existence.
This last one is interesting because it names "hints" rather than open statements and affirmations. Let me suggest something: frame MacArthur's work as a body of writings that hang together in some way and are related to each other, and these so-called hints will –all- evaporate. That can't be said about the guys Dr. MacArthur is criticizing in The Truth War.
So, before MacArthur accuses others of being “false teachers” and “apostates,” he had better know that he opens himself up to the same accusations.
See above. This is at best a strident accusation and at worst a completely-unsupported fiction which Robinson hasn’t substantiated at all.

Now, for critics who want to peck at this dismissal of Robinson's claims, let me offer you this: when it can be said that Dr. MacArthur advances a secret truth which is not available to all men that makes matter evil and the immaterial the only possible good, and that he preaches a Christ who was not a real man whose death was only a symbol or a metaphysical representation, then you can start barking up the tree of Gnosticism and/or Docetism.

Statement #3:
“Truth (the simple truth of the gospel, to be specific) is necessary for salvation … (Romans 10:13-14). Scripture is clear about this: there is no hope of salvation apart from hearing and believing the truth about Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:21). That is why nothing is more destructive than false religion. Mere ignorance is devastating enough: ‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge’ (Hosea 4:6). But gospel-corrupting apostasy is the most sinister of all evils.” (pp. 119-120)

In light of MacArthur’s earlier warning against gnosticism, he had better be careful here. Remember that on page 89 of his book, MacArthur wrote, “Every form of gnosticism starts with the notion that truth is a secret known only by a select few elevated, enlightened minds. (Hence the name, from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge.)”
What Robinson had better be wary of is a misrepresentation of Dr. MacArthur and the Gospel which he proclaims – because that's what's at issue here: whether the Gospel is proclaimed or if it is hidden. The Gospel is a public event, something (as it is said in the book of Acts) not done in a corner. And it is because of this aspect of the Gospel – the lifting up of Christ that all men may be drawn to Him – that there is –nothing- Gnostic about the Gospel MacArthur preaches.

But now watch what Robinson does in this next section:
One signature motif throughout MacArthur’s book is that he continually insists that what saves you is the knowledge of the truth. This, again, is a form of gnosticism: it teaches that Christians have a secret knowledge (gnosis) and that people are saved from this earthly existence by believing the knowledge that we can explain to them.
* For MacArthur, evangelism is explaining what he knows is the truth to others.
* For MacArthur, salvation is when someone accepts and knows this truth.
* Therefore, according to MacArthur, the key to Christian ministry is the proclamation of specific truths, so that people will hear these truths, accept these truths, in order that they too will be “in the know.”
This is a classic error on the part of novice critics of Christianity in general and critics of Baptists in particular. On the one hand, they confuse the categories of "proclamation" or "evangelism" with "apologetics" or "defense". On the other, they are seeking to press the philosophy of "gnosis" into service just because of the Biblical statement that we should "know" Christ.

"gnosis" is a secret knowledge which one gains by private means, sometimes referred to as an interior light or spark from God. What Dr. MacArthur advances, in the most obvious terms possible, is a knowledge of God obtained by public and special revelation on the part of God through Scripture and ultimately through Christ.

Only someone with no real understanding of either the Bible or Gnosticism could come to the conclusion that evangelical faith is appealing to a private center – but it would serve one well to compare that to some of the statements coming from guys like McLaren and Bell.
MacArthur is quick to point out that Jesus is truth incarnate, and that we need a personal relationship with Christ in order to be saved. THIS is the gospel. I wish he said this more often in the book.
How often does he have to say it in a lifetime of writing and preaching? Another pretty amateurish mistake on Robinson's part is trying to isolate MacArthur's criticism in this book for the fairly-encyclopedic body of writing he has turned out in 40 years of ministry.

If this were Dr. MacArthur's first book, or if he didn’t have a print and audio archive of what amounts to gigabytes of text and sermon audio, all of which in one way or another points to the fact of the incarnation of Christ as the fulfillment of Moses and the Prophets, Robinson's criticism would have some legs to stand on. Instead, it has to sit down and catch its breath.
However, the way he elevates “knowledge” as the key to salvation over and over again in this book opens him up to the accusation that he is the one that is hedging toward the apostasy of gnosticism, for it is not a secret knowledge of the truth that saves, it is a relationship with Christ that saves.

If MacArthur wants to point fingers at other teachers and accuse them of apostasy, MacArthur had better be ready for some of the same treatment in turn.

This is the basic problem with this book. MacArthur is seeking to label people "apostates" when they do not, in fact, fit the description. The proof is in that MacArthur himself fits his own description!
See above. I can frankly honor Robinson's good form as he structured his criticism here well – it's got good expositional form. It just doesn’t have any substantive expositional content, and falls down for lack of real substance.

UPDATED: For the record, I fixed some typos and clarified one statement, so your RSS feeders may have gotten a double copy of this post. Thanks to all alert readers who helped comb this out.