Both Ern Baxter and Stanley Jebb were of the opinion that it is important to not simply limit your diet of theological books but also to read books that are contrary to your views. However I have been deliberately limiting my diet of books to those I know will feed my soul and fire my passion for God. In recent days I have decided to extend that rule for two reasons. Firstly I have plenty more reading time on my hands due to my working night shifts in the community and secondly CLC in Birmingham were selling John MacArthur's Commentaries on the New Testament for extremely cheap prices - £25 down to £9.95!
I brought 3 volumes to begin with. Two volumes on the Book of Romans and one volume on the Book of 1 Corinthians and began reading 1 Corinthians yesterday. I want to present a number of quotes and concepts that MacArthur deals with because I have found it a useful exercise reading his commentary. Firstly let me make it perfectly clear that I don't disagree with MacArthur lightly. It is clearly evident from his books that he is a righteous man who has spent his considerable lifetime studying the Word and desiring to present orthodox truth as he sees it. He is trained theologically and I am not. He has a number of degrees and I don't (in theology). But some things he says don't see to match up logically and further more MacArthur himself actually allows assessment of what he says (p304);
"No preacher or teacher of the gospel should resent having what he says judged against Scripture".
Points of Agreement.
I didn't think I would find myself including this category but I read a number of comments in the commentary on 1 Corinthians that I agreed with - although not maybe in the way that John MacArthur would have hoped his readers would! He said this concerning the spiritual gifts (p278);
"Every member of Christ's church has been given supernatural endowments, gifts of God's Holy Spirit, which through the Spirit are God's divine means of ministering His Word and power among His people and to the world".
MacArthur then went on to present a useful method of "testing all things" (p278) - a comment that may have been useful with Mark's concerns over Rob Rufus.
"God's gifts build up; Satan's counterfeits tear down".
"People do not counterfeit what is not valuable. Satan counterfeits the Spirit's gifts because he knows they are so valuable in God's plan".
John MacArthur on Apostles.
In beginning his commentary on 1 Corinthians, MacArthur obviously comes to Paul's opening comments in chapter 1; "called as an apostle". Unsurprisingly MacArthur deals with the contemporary issue as to whether apostles exist still today. He writes (p4);
"Apostles were chosen by God to work in the founding and forming of the church, after which time apostles ceased. When all the apostles had died, the office of apostle no longer existed. They were selected, sent and empowered by God for that period in the history of the church which was over when their lives were over".
This argument puzzles and intrigues me. MacArthur doesn't take the traditional argument that apostles are not required due to the completed canon of Scripture. He argues that apostles have ceased because those appointed as apostles have died out. Surely this argument suggests that the apostles were somehow special within themselves rather than the Biblical argument in Ephesians 4 that the ministry of apostles are gifts from the ascended Christ to the Church for it's bringing to maturity.
MacArthur defines spiritual gifts thus so;
"Spiritual gifts are divine enablements for ministry, characteristics of Jesus Christ that are to be manifested through the body corporate just as they were manifested through the body incarnate".
Once again I would agree with this but maybe not in the way that he wants or desires! But then moving into his commentary on chapters 12 to 14 MacArthur does something that is odd. I am familiar with the argument but I still have yet to understand where Scriptures indicates that this is so. He writes (p297);
"A thorough examination will yield the truth that spiritual gifts fill two major purposes; the permament gifts edify the church and the temporary gifts are signs to confirm the Word of God".
What then are the gifts designated as permament and what are those designated as temporary? Well he argues that the permament gifts include speaking or verbal gifts - prophecy, knowledge, wisdom, teaching and exhortation and also nonverbal gifts - leadership, helps, giving, mercy, faith and discernment. Temporary gifts were (apparantly) to authenticate the Word of God;
" ... until the time the Scriptures were completed and became self-authenticating".
So much for a general outline. I would ask again - where is the division shown in Scripture? Or more directly (as this is the text he is commenting on and apparantly exegeting) where is the division shown in 1 Corinthians 12?
John MacArthur on Healing.
As we can expect MacArthur makes the traditional evangelical "get-out-clause" that God is indeed sovereign and "can heal if He wishes". The implication that one gets from reading the entire commentary is that God is clearly not expected to wish to heal. By contrast MacArthur speaks approvingly of medical work as a preferred alternative. He writes (p301);
"As did all the others with the gift of healing, Paul used it sparingly and only for it's intended purpose. It was never used solely for the purpose of bringing physical health".
How would this compare with verses in the New Testament that speak of the Lord Jesus Christ like this;
"When evening came they brought to Him many who were demon possessed and He cast out the spirits with a word and healed ALL who were ill" - (Matthew 8:16 - NASB).
"Jesus was going through all the cities and the villages teaching ... and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. Seeing the people He felt compassion for them" - (Matthew 9:35 - NASB).
Healing never solely for the purpose of bringing spiritual health? What of the ten lepers He healed, one of whom only returned and responded to His Lordship that we know of?
John MacArthur on the Gift of Miracles.
MacArthur attributes this gift also to being a temporary sign gift. He defines a miracles as being a supernatural intrusion into the natural world and it's natural laws, explainable only by divine intervention. Thus far - no problem. However MacArthur makes a statement about Jesus Christ that causes me some difficulty. He said;
"Scripture indicates that Jesus lived a quiet, normal life as a child and as a young man exercising absolutely no supernatural powers until the wedding at Cana".
This may be the first indication of the Lord's miracle power but this statement seems to me to do injustice to the baptism of the Spirit that came upon Him in the River Jordan. Futher more if the Lord's preserved His supernatural power until the wedding at Cana then why did the devil tempt Him to turn stones into bread or to throw Himself off the temple? If the devil knew like the Lord that MacArthur's hypothesis was correct and Jesus was only to perform miracles to prove something then why would Jesus perform miracles with the devil as the sole witness?
John MacArthur on the Gift of Prophecy.
This is where I got interested. Rather than arguing with traditional cessationism as I had assumed, MacArthur wrote (p303);
"We will assume here that prophecy is a permament edifying gift".
However all is made clear when MacArthur goes on to define the gift of prophecy as such (p303);
"A prophet of God, therefore, is simply one who speaks forth God's Word and prophecy is the proclaiming of that Word. The gift of prophecy is the Spirit-given and Spirit-empowered ability to proclaim the Word effectively".
Clearly what he is arguing is that prophecy is preaching and a prophet is a preacher. But what then of the clear argument in 1 Corinthians 14:1 that we should earnestly desire spiritual gifts especially prophecy? MacArthur writes (p303);
"The apostle is not suggesting that every Christian should seek personally to have a gift of proclamation but that all Christians collectively should want that gift to be ministered among them".
So suddenly prophecy is no longer a gift of the Spirit that should and can be ministered by any member of the Church for the common good but it has become a gift purely and solely for the preacher/teacher (for clearly no other Ephesians 4 Ministry exists). There is no call clearly for anyone but the teaching elders to have anything to say in the corporate Body of believers.
John MacArthur on the Gift of Discernment.
Rather than being a special spiritual gift that may be bestowed again on any member of the body of Christ, MacArthur makes some interesting comments that clearly but his book "Charismatic Chaos" in contrast. Without stating it clearly - we are left in no doubt that he sees himself as having the gift of discernment. Consider these comments (p305);
"It is the ministry of those with the gift of discernment to help seperate the wheat from the chaff ... God still empowers some of His people to unmask false prophets and carnal hypocrites. He gives them insight to expose imitations and deceptions that most Christians would take as genuine".
The implication is strange. On the one hand MacArthur seems to be fighting for the supremacy of the Word of God and it's total sufficiency however on the other hand he is suggesting here that "most Christians" are liable to deception by false prophets (presumably false preachers?) were it not for those few who have the gift of discernment to unmask these wolves in sheeps clothing.
John MacArthur on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Jesse Phillips makes it clear that 1 Corinthians 12:13 is used by most of those who would claim that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is synonymous with conversion and is mostly non-experimental. MacArthur does not disappoint such an expectation and writes this but it is somewhat confusing;
"It is not the Holy Spirit's baptism but Christ's baptism with the Holy Spirit that gives us life and places us into the Body when we trust in Christ ... the Son is the Baptizer and the Holy Spirit is the agent of baptism".
But that is not what 1 Corinthians 12:13 says! The verse makes it clear that on the other hand it is the Holy Spirit who is the baptizer ("By one Spirit") and the body of Christ who is the agent of baptism ("into one body"). Surely the real root of the problem with the concept of a baptism in the Spirit that is one of power and brings assurance of sonship is this comment;
"Many erring teachers today have used a wrong interpretation of the baptism with the Spirit to divide off from the Body an imagined spiritual elite who have what the rest do not".
This of course is the time-old traditional argument against the baptism of the Spirit and one that you will only hear from those who deny the presence and power of such a grace gift from the risen and ascended Christ.
What of MacArthur?
There is much talk around of being "Together for the Gospel" and I must confess to wondering just how important an issue this is. Should we keep quiet about these things for the sake of unity? It is important and it should be discussed because what is at stake is the supremacy of the Word of God. Both bible-honouring charismatics and John MacArthur cannot be correct. If John MacArthur is correct then all bible-honouring charismatics are at worst practicing spiritual gifts and are demonically inspired and at best are wasting time manifesting gifts in the flesh.
My over-riding feeling from reading the commentary on "1 Corinthians" is that there is a downgrading on the emphasis of every member ministry. One of the wonders of the Charismatic Renewal is that suddenly church wasn't about one pastor doing everything but every member had the capability of bringing something of God to the corporate gatherings. John MacArthur deals with the verse that speaks of everyone "hath a tongue, hath an interpretation" as being solely and purely for the Corinthians. If that is so then why is it included in Scripture and why are we told that "all Scripture is profitable"? In John MacArthur's commentary we are left with the impression that there is nothing for us "laity" to do but come to church and hear the preacher preach the Word of God.
There is much more that could be said and I may post again when I have finished the three volumes but I confess to being disappointed with what I have read so far. John MacArthur is clearly a faithful and devoted servant of Jesus Christ and a lover of His Church. He says he is devoted to truth and defending it and indeed the motto of his preaching is "Unleashing God's truth one verse at a time". I focused on the more controversial topics that he deals with - there is much in the commentary that is excellent and I do agree with.
But I don't understand why a man who so devotedly believes in the Word of God needs to read into Scripture so much of his presupposed views. I hope that the volumes on Romans get better but I am glad that I brought them for the bargain price they were.
One final question. Most of MacArthur's "illustrations" of 1 Corinthians 12-14 come from the Charismatic Movement. How would his commentary have shaped up if he had written it prior to Azusa Street? I wonder if his comments and his concerns would have been the same.