How I read the Bible differently than John MacArthur

John-MacArthurA friend pointed me to Tim Challies’ recent interview with John MacArthur in which MacArthur doubled down on the claims made in his Strange Fire conference condemning the charismatic movement in Christianity. While I don’t have time to consider MacArthur’s scriptural arguments exhaustively, one of the passages he used to support his cessationist view that the Holy Spirit has stopped revealing things to people in the way that happened in Biblical times is Ephesians 2:20. I find his use of this passage providentially ironic and a good opportunity to illustrate how differently we read the Bible.

Here is how MacArthur cites Ephesians 2:20 in his interview:

When did the gifts cease? One important passage that helps answer that question is Ephesians 2:20, which explains that apostles and New Testament prophets were the “foundation” upon which the church was being built. Before the canon of Scripture was complete, that foundation was still being laid through the apostles and prophets, and through the miraculous and revelatory gifts that accompanied and authenticated their ministries. But once the foundation was laid, those offices and gifts passed away. To follow Paul’s metaphor, the foundation is not something that is rebuilt at every phase of construction. It is laid only once.

It is true that Paul talks about a “foundation” of the prophets and apostles in Ephesians 2:20 (though he doesn’t mention spiritual gifts or give any commentary about their purpose). The question is what purpose does Paul’s metaphor serve. Is Paul making the argument that MacArthur is using him for? In the image Paul is creating, is the important thing about the “foundation” the fact that no impurities should be mixed with it? Is Paul concerned with setting boundaries for the canon? Or has this concern been anachronistically projected onto a metaphor with a very different purpose?

If we look at Ephesians 2:19-22, it gives us enough context to consider the image as a whole:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

This section of Paul’s letter is addressed to the Gentiles who had been excluded from the Jewish community prior to Christ’s coming. He is saying that they are now members of the same household and even part of the structure of the temple of God. The purpose of describing the foundation of the apostles and prophets is to say that the Gentiles are part of the same building as they are. So Paul is attributing to them an incredible honor: to become the Holy Spirit’s dwelling-place along with the apostles and prophets. It is amazingly ironic that John MacArthur chose this passage as a proof-text for cessationism because Paul is saying the exact opposite of what MacArthur is claiming!

If God’s temple were built according to John MacArthur’s specifications, it would be a concrete slab of foundation without anything on top of it. Can a foundation with no walls or roof become a dwelling-place for God’s Spirit? Paul seems to be saying pretty plainly here that the temple needs to include the Gentiles who had been foreigners and strangers in order to be a complete building. The most straightforward interpretation of Paul’s metaphor is that the church is a temple which continues to be built.

Sure, the foundation is set. I don’t dispute that. But the foundation is the starting point, not the entirety of everything the Holy Spirit has to say to God’s people. What I tell my congregation is that God teaches us His language in the Bible so that we can hear Him speak in the world around us today. He hasn’t stopped talking. While the vast library of beautiful Christian writing should not be confused with our foundation in the scriptures, we should not despise the riches that have been derived from but ultimately say more than scripture itself. Even writers and thinkers who ferociously disagree like Augustine and Jerome or Whitefield and Wesley each have a lot to teach us without one necessarily being right and the other being wrong.

One of the responses to MacArthur’s conference that I most strongly disagreed with was that of Trevin Wax. He says:

Unfortunately, much of the controversy surrounding this conference seemed to me less like continualists and cessationists making the case for their respective positions and more like postmodern aversion to saying someone could be right or wrong. In fact, some of the criticism launched at MacArthur seemed to imply that MacArthur is wrong simply for being so sure he is right. As if certainty or confidence is at odds with humility.

Wax is applying a very broad brush-stroke with the bogeyman label of “postmodernity” and appealing to a very simplistic conception of truth. Jesus didn’t have a lot of respect for the either/or questions that the Pharisees tried to use to entrap him (“Teacher, is it true or false that the Holy Spirit stopped giving charismatic gifts when the canon was closed?”). He always refused to answer those types of questions directly and usually answered them with questions of his own. That should tell us something about the nature of God’s truth.

Could it be that God isn’t scandalized if different Christians believe different things within a range of orthodoxy according to their giftings, the particularities of their spiritual journeys, and the mission fields to which they have been called? Don’t you give your five year old son a different oversimplification of the same answer that you give him when he’s 12 and when he’s 30? Do you describe concepts in the exact same way to your friend who’s a concert pianist and to your friend who’s an astrophysicist?

When I started out college in the engineering school, I discovered the world of reformed theology that I had never encountered before, because apparently engineering majors who are evangelical really love reformed theology. I spent the first two years of college completely immersed in their world. In engineering, there is one right way to wire a circuit, build a bridge, or design a building, and if you deviate from the one right way by an inch or two, then all of your work has been a complete failure and you have to start over.

When I transferred to the English department, the Trevin Waxes and John MacArthurs were nowhere to be found. I suspect this is because English majors hate anything that smells like reductionism in the interpretation of a work of art. It’s not because English majors are all “postmodern” nihilists making the claim that any literary interpretation is just as good as any other. It just seems disrespectful to truth to claim that I can explain everything about a book in a single page or even in several hundred pages and thus exhaust all of its interpretive possibility. What’s arrogant is not to be passionate about the truth, but to act like I’m the one who has given the final word.

The more truth is in a work of literature, the more impossible it should be to capture its interpretation conclusively (which would indicate there was no reason to read it ever again). If the Bible really is the truth that we believe that it is, it should produce endless conversation that doesn’t seek to cut itself off with conclusions or resolutions so much as to dive into greater depths of epiphany.

It seems that Christians like John MacArthur and Trevin Wax want to figure out the exact right size, shape, and color for the identical bricks that should be stacked up to build the temple of God on top of the foundation of scripture. The Bible never says that we’re all supposed to be the exact same bricks. Paul does say to be careful what we lay on top of the foundation in 1 Corinthians 3:12, and we certainly should. 1 Peter 2:5 uses the wonderfully strange image of “living stones” for what we are. But living stones are not necessarily all the exact same shape and size. 1 Corinthians 12 certainly suggests that every part of the body is supposed to be shaped differently.

PalermoPalatinaRightSideLifeChristiI happen to suspect that God doesn’t want a dull, Soviet-looking red brick box of a temple. One of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever entered was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Washington, DC. The walls are covered in icons of saints. It was immensely more beautiful than the generic auditoriums of suburban megachurchianity.

Each of us is an icon of God, made to radiate His image through a unique filter that has been sullied but not destroyed by our sin. As we allow ourselves to be built into Christ, God polishes our icons so that we start to shine again the way we were always supposed to do. I suspect that if you ever have the opportunity to step inside an Orthodox church, you’ll agree with me that God is building His temple with icons, not bricks. And it’s okay with me if John MacArthur is an icon on that wall. I just don’t think he’s the template for the bricks that everyone else is supposed to be chiseled into.

28 thoughts on “How I read the Bible differently than John MacArthur

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  2. Something to think about:
    Christ asks a simple question:
    How will you believe me?
    For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me.
    But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” John 5:46-47

    All mysteries are not truth.
    They are imaginations corrected by truth.

    • We’re operating under different definitions of mystery. I’m simply saying that there is more to the truth than what I know about it now which is not to say that I deny the existence of the truth that I have partly grasped. God’s truth is not something to be conquered; it is something to be loved and delighted in. We have inherited an attitude about the truth from the Enlightenment that treats it as a conquest to gain power. Once we know the truth, we can flaunt it in the faces of those who don’t. People who use truth for their flaunting have settled for an approximation of it which is the definition of idolatry. The most mature Christians I have known genuinely believe that they are only starting to understand the further they get on their journey. The ones who think they understand everything generally tend to be quite immature.

  3. There are those in all religions who hate and despise human freedom. Power and control over others is what these men are all about whether it’s the Mullahs of Iran or the American fundagelical heavy weights. So what if others want to believe in and pray in other tongues? I’m gonna wax Jeffersonian on this one: …Whether one or twenty spiritual gifts, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg — let all be convinced in his or her own conscience…

  4. I like your metaphor of icons vs. bricks in building a temple, but, just to introduce a wrinkle in that metaphor, in Orthodox tradition icons follow a very rigid set of visual standards – they HAVE to be painted in a certain way to reflect God’s energies. Which implies a certain exclusion of other forms of artwork for the temple of the Holy Spirit. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the “range of orthodoxy” you mention will be wide or narrow for different traditions and perspectives. Certainly in the Orthodox churches, many many things about Protestant traditions/theology would be considered absolutely unacceptable, or even dangerous.

    I also really empathize with your comparison of engineers vs. English majors for approaching the Bible. I really wish more people would see that appreciating multiple (even conflicting) layers of discourse about a text (ESPECIALLY a text like the Bible) does not mean some bland “anything goes approach.” That attitude – that variety somehow equals chaos – just drives me crazy. People in our culture really need to start looking at the Bible as a piece of living, breathing literature rather than a statue that must be constantly cased and protected from the dangerous elements of the outside world.

    • The irony is that theopneustos (God-breathed) really ought to make it clear that the Bible is a living, *breathing* book and not a statue.

  5. MG, I haven’t had time to read the previous responses to this post, but had a general thought that doesn’t directly pertain to the Ephesians passage in question. You write: “Could it be that God isn’t scandalized if different Christians believe different things within a range of orthodoxy?” Good question, which I would answer affirmatively. But your key qualifier is “within a range of orthodoxy.” Given that criterion (which itself is rather fuzzy), I would argue, for instance, that The Book of Mormon fails to qualify as “another source of similar truth.” This, of course, will evoke protest from our LDS brothers & sisters, but my assertion is defensible on grounds of historical, archaeological, and textual criticism—which shows the B of M to be a blatant plagiarism (of more than one source). I won’t elaborate here. My point is simply that, in addition to the subjective ways God speaks to believers, any alleged ”scripture” (like any ancient document) must also meet certain objective tests for authenticity and reliability. A “burning in the bosom” cannot nullify textual fraud.

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  7. That foundation you speak of.
    What elements are found in that solid un-movable foundation?
    Would you agree the Nicene Creed holds all the basic or foundational elements of the of the Christian Faith?

    We do not see the dead raised, the leper cleaned, or the lame from birth walk today.
    Some things did cease.
    What exactly are your absolutes?
    What are things that cannot change in your mind and what can?
    You write:
    ” The purpose of describing the foundation of the apostles and prophets is to say that the Gentiles are part of the same building as they are”

    Paul is reminding the gentiles they stand on the same foundation as the Jew.
    They have the same assurance God made to the Jew.
    They are secure and can count on the promises God made.
    Should they choose to stand on another foundation or change the elements of the foundation they would have created a new different foundation not the one God designed..
    An example of a changed foundation would be a changed Christ. A new god that did not bodily rise. A god of another name would be an example. In bible talk their solid ground would become shifting sand should they reject or change the foundation as understood and taught by the apostles who learned from the perfect teacher Jesus Christ.

    ,” built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”
    What MacArthur is pointing out with the passage is:
    New revelation is an ever changing foundation, unstable and unreliable.
    The solid foundation was built on the teachings of the “apostles and prophets” found in the Old and New testaments and are NOT prophets or apostles of a later date.
    Some people think themselves prophets like Koresh but they are simply deceived.
    “Thinking themselves wise they became fools”
    Every one that has any knowledge of buildings know the house is only as stable as the
    foundation it is laid on. Homes falling in sink holes in Florida are a reminder.

    The way Jesus responded to the scribes and leaders of his day would be the typical exchange a Rabbi (teacher) would use with a student. Jesus was a superior teacher and the final authority on all things God. So…by answering as he did CHrist made it clear who the authority was. The parable was the Jewish way of training found in the Old as well as the New Testament. It is a method used to force deep thought, exchange ideas and the ultimate goal is to get the student to the true meaning of the lesson to be learned.

    • You’re doing like MacArthur and eisegetically giving the passage in Ephesians 2:19-22 a tone that is absent from the original discourse. The question of whether they’ve got the right or wrong foundation isn’t in this particular text. Paul isn’t exhorting the Gentiles about false prophets and gospels which he does plenty of in other places. In this context, he’s actually just telling them the good news that they belong.

      • “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophet”
        That statement could not be clearer. Paul, using his usual methods not only answers the questions/or confusions, Paul expands to include what he wishes to get across or teach.
        You will notice Paul uses the same method in 1 & 2 Corinthians on other subject matter.

        The guide for the Jew and Christian is as follows:
        The guide for the Christian and Jew is the following:
        ..”test the spirits..” 1 John 4:1. (From the statement is safe to assume there is more than one spirit attempting to pass as God.)

        And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him. Deuteronomy 18:19-25

        As I urged you when I went into Macedonia—remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, 4 nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith.
        1 Timothy :2-4

        By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. 1 John 4: 2-3
        In the Book of Mark the warning was original and the above support what the Apostles taught. Mark 13:22

        Many people say and believe they have new revelation or a “Word from God“. They think they have some new understanding that even the Prophets and Apostles where not given.
        What would God teach you that he did not teach his most trusted ?
        The only way to know for sure is to wait and see following the guidelines given.
        History records the damage done to and by those that have followed false prophets.
        A person given a “Word from God” will comply with the teaching of Christ and the teaching of the Prophets and Apostles found in The Holy Word of God.

        I have not read MacArthur’s response to the controversy but am familiar with his teachings.
        I do not think he will loose. MacArthur is known for his in-depth study and is just now attempting to do a study of the Old Testament. He spent more than 25 years teaching and getting thru the New Testament.:)

        • You have not responded to my point that you are using Ephesians 2:19-22 for a different purpose than Paul wrote it.

          • Remember where Paul is teaching from Morgan.
            He is in Ephesus.
            Your question was:
            The question is what purpose does Paul’s metaphor serve.
            Pau’ls metaphor serves multiple purposes and touches on a few issues.

        • Another thing to consider Morgan.
          Tertullian asked this question:
          Do we prove the faith by the persons, or the persons by the faith?
          Fidem, “The Creed.”

          Faith here is understood to be delivered :
           “Contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” Jude
          Not the kind of faith as understood today BUT as understood to be the teachings, the written and recorded words and works of Christ, the Apostles and Prophets which are the true rule of faith.

          Luther wrote:
           Let this suffice concerning the Creed to lay a foundation for the simple, that they may not be burdened, so that, if they understand the substance of it, they themselves may afterwards strive to acquire more, and to refer to these parts whatever they learn in the Scriptures, and may ever grow and increase in richer understanding. For as long as we live here, we shall daily have enough to do to preach and to learn this.
          The Large Catechism

  8. One of my favorite authors -G.K. Chesterton, said in his book Orthodoxy that it is not art that makes a person insane, but cold hard logic. When we think we can figured out things concerning God the way a mathematician (or computer programmer like me) creates an algorithm, we are closest to insanity.

    • Maybe it is when we believe everything concerning God is a mystery and spend a lifetime trying to figure out the key to the mystery is what drives one mad. A mystery by definition can not be known so those that search for the mysterious key or hidden meaning to unlock some mystery work in vain.
      It seems to me God put a lot of work into teaching and unlocking what man did not know and did not understand.
      How could God be a just God if we are held responsible for mysteries we cannot know?
      …..there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. Daniel 2:28

      And that God is the Triune God we worship.
      Jesus was the one sent to unlock those unknown things or “mysteries” and that is what he did.
      Those unknown things (mysteries) have been recorded and written so we can understand.
      Now that is no mystery.

      • And I’m sure there are many more mysteries God wished to reveal. Proverbs 25:2 says “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” (NIV). Another thing G.K. Chesterton said was “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” So, basically, I think what your saying is true that if we try to understand everything thats’s hout there. But at the same time, we should still seek🙂

        • Interesting verse, Prov 25:2. Is God playing “cat and mouse” with kings? Remember, however, Chesterton is himself speaking as a poet, not a logician. Go easy on logic, which—like mathematics—only claims to be eliminating contradiction—not resolving paradox or mystery. The recognition of the latter is no excuse for tolerating incoherence. After all, neither God nor faith are IRrational (unless you embrace Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the Abraham-Isaac ultimatum). BTW, I love poetry for just that reason: it transports us beyond logic, which (like math) is governed by rules of inference.

        • Why the binary between knowing and not knowing? Mysterion refers to an infinite reality we can only grasp finitely and imperfectly. It isn’t Biblical to hate mystery; it’s a result of applying secular scientistic values to Christianity thinking that they’re “conservative” because they’re a few hundred years old.

        • Where one seeks is the big question.
          God chose to reveal who he is, his will and his ways by method.
          That revelation has been written and recorded.
          If one has not sought God’s method to learn the above, hHow will they learn?
          A quick read of scripture will give the reader a basic understanding.
          They become a novice with a little understanding.
          A study of the Bible takes a life time or more.

          If one cannot read and learn from what is written, seen with the eye, touched with the hand and readily available, How will they ever discern the mysteries of the spirit they keep waiting for which they can not see, feel or touch and know little about?

      • Why is a mystery by definition that which cannot be known? A mystery is a truth that has not been dealt with conclusively and exhaustively. A world without mystery would be a world without art.

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