Saturday, February 5, 2011

John MacArthur fails to "deliver" on Sola-Scriptura

One of today's most outspoken and harshest critics of Catholicism is Reformed pastor and televangelist John MacArthur. Unfortunately, I think he spends too much time and effort condemning Catholics without actually backing up his words. But even when he does back up his accusations, this brief article will show just how absurd (and sometimes embarrassing) his attempts at refuting Catholicism can get. This article will focus on MacArthur's claim to uphold Sola Scriptura in the midst of his attempts to discredit Catholicism. Two relatively recent articles on his official webpage (each from 2009) are "Does God Still Give Revelation?" and "Scripture, Tradition, and Rome, Part 3" (which is the most important of the 3-part series). I will quote from each of those apologetics articles, highlight key phrases, and comment upon any points I believe are worth addressing.

In the first half of my article, I'll address his comments in "Does God Still Give Revelation?"  This article focuses on how and why the Canon of Scripture is closed, and how important this concept is for Sola Scriptura (since without a closed canon Sola Scriptura cannot work).
Jude 3 is a crucial passage on the completeness of our Bibles. This statement, penned by Jude before the NT was complete, nevertheless looked forward to the completion of the entire canon: “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that we should earnestly contend for the faith which was once [literally, ‘once for all’] delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). In the Greek text the definite article preceding “faith” points to the one and only faith. There is no other. ...
Also important in Jude 3 is the word “delivered.” In the Greek it is an aorist passive participle, which in this context indicates an act completed in the past with no continuing element. In this instance the passive voice means the faith was not discovered by men, but given to men by God. And so through the Scriptures God has given us a body of teaching that is final and complete.
Notice the importance of Jude 3 for MacArthur's position, he calls it "crucial" in proving the New Testament canon was complete. In other words, this is the "strongest" Biblical proof he can find for evidence that the canon is closed. The first thing any astute reader should recognize is that Jude 3 says nothing about canon or books of the Bible; all it says is "the faith." Thus, MacArthur is making a massive leap of logic from "the faith" to "the canon." This is a clear sign of desperation to find a doctrine that Scripture doesn't actually teach. The next thing to note is MacArthur's claim that Jude wrote this "before the NT was complete, nevertheless looked forward to the completion of the entire canon." That's quite a bold claim, turning Jude's statement from a historical fact to a prophecy. The funny thing is, this claim is wholly without warrant, and nothing short of the fallacy of 'begging the question'. If that wasn't bad enough, MacArthur goes onto highlight that the term "delivered" in Greek "indicates an act completed in the past with no continuing element" - directly contradicting his opening claim! So "the faith" Jude speaks of is actually the canon of Scripture, which was delivered "in the past with no continuing element," but actually means it looks into the future for completion. If that's not twisted thinking and desperation, I don't know what is. It's unfortunate that otherwise intelligent men will have to slouch to such lows just to maintain their "protest" against Rome.
Lastly, if MacArthur studied up on the history behind the Epistle of Jude, he'd see it had a history of being doubted as Scripture (even by Luther himself!), which only further hurts his overall claims.

Later, MacArthur goes onto address how the Books of the Bible were determined to be inspired:
The OT canon was generally agreed upon by the people of God from the time the last OT book was written. How did the Jewish people know which books were inspired? They chose the books written by those known as spokesmen for God. They studied those books carefully and found no errors in history, geography, or theology.
Christians in the early church applied similar tests to prove which NT books were authentic and which were not. A key test was apostolic authorship. Every NT book had to be written by an apostle or a close associate of the apostles. For example, Mark, who was not an apostle, was a companion of Peter. Luke, who was not an apostle, worked closely with the apostle Paul.
A second test used by the early church was content. Acts 2:42 tells us that the first time the church met, they gave themselves to prayer, fellowship, breaking of bread, and the apostles’ doctrine. Later, in considering which writings were to be revered as Scripture, they asked, “Does it agree with apostolic doctrine?” This test was very important because of all the heretics that tried to worm their way into the church. But their doctrinal errors were easily spotted because they contradicted the apostles’ teaching.
A third test was the response of the churches. If God’s people accepted it, used it for worship, and made it part of their lives, and if Christians were universally being taught and blessed by the book, that was another important stamp of approval.
If I didn't know any better, I'd have mistaken MacArthur for a well informed Catholic. How on earth does anything MacArthur says here help him prove Sola Scriptura? All these "tests" are extra-biblical and come from Oral Apostolic Teaching (popularly termed "Tradition"). So, without realizing it, MacArthur is embracing Tradition to determine the canon of Scripture, directly undermining and refuting his pet doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Isn't it ironic that MacArthur says the early Christians looked to see whether a given writing was scripture by checking to see if the writing conformed to what they'd been taught orally years beforehand? And how does he know if a writing was written by an apostle or associate? Again, he must leave the pages of Scripture to determine that. Finally, his test of "response of the churches" is an implicit affirmation of Apostolic Succession and Magisterium, since he puts authoritative weight on the early churches.

Now I'll go onto address his second article, "Scripture, Tradition, and Rome," which is intended to address some key passages Catholics point to when proving Oral Apostolic Teaching (a.k.a Tradition). Since these quotes are a bit longer, I'll cut out a lot of unnecessary comments.

Second Timothy 2:2:"The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also." Here the apostle Paul instructs Timothy, a young pastor, to train other faithful men for the task of leadership in the church. There is no hint of apostolic succession in this verse, nor is there any suggestion that in training these men Timothy would be passing on to them an infallible tradition with authority equal to the Word of God. 
... ... What Timothy was to hand on to other men was the same doctrine Paul had preached before "many witnesses." Paul was speaking of the gospel itself. It was the same message Paul commanded Timothy to preach: and it is the same message that is preserved in Scripture and sufficient to equip every man of God (2 Tim. 3:16--4:2).
... Like Timothy, we are to guard the truth that has been entrusted to us. But the only reliable canon, the only infallible doctrine, the only binding principles, and the only saving message, is the God-breathed truth of Scripture.
This "commentary" is nothing but special pleading. MacArthur simply asserts what he wants and denies what he wants, without any regard to making a case. The plain reading of the text is for Timothy to entrust ecclesiastic authority to worthy candidates; this is the essence of Apostolic Succession. MacArthur implicitly admits this, but doesn't like where it points. Instead, Protestants (MacArthur included) would have us believe church leadership is self-appointed, like Luther did and every Protestant since, despite the fact it contradicts clear texts like the above (i.e. only authorized men can appoint; thus, Apostolic Succession). As for the words Timothy heard Paul preach, MacArthur is forced to assume this content must be identical to what's taught in Scripture, irregardless of the fact he's jumping to conclusions without biblical proof. Throughout his response in this article, he makes the unacceptable assumption that whenever "teaching" or "tradition" is mentioned and can't be explained, the content is identical with Scripture. But that doesn't fly since it's no true exegesis of Scripture at all, but rather a tradition of men. Just as humorous is that MacArthur quotes 2nd Timothy 3:16f no less than 5 times throughout this article, using it as almost a trump card to run to when examining all these texts.
Acts 2:42:"They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." This verse simply states that the early church followed the apostles' teaching as their rule of faith. Once again this passage says nothing about apostolic succession and contains no hint of a guarantee that "the apostles' teaching" would be infallibly preserved through any means other than Scripture.  
Note also that this verse describes the attitude of the earliest converts to Christianity. The "they" at the beginning of the verse refers back to verse 41 and the three thousand souls who were converted at Pentecost.These were for the most part rank-and-file lay people. And their one source of Christian doctrine (this was before any of the New Testament had been penned) was the oral teaching of the apostles.
This verse is even more irrelevant to the question of infallible tradition than 2 Timothy 2:2. The only point it asserts that is remotely germane to the issue is that the source of authority for the early church was apostolic teaching.
No one who holds to the doctrine of sola Scriptura would dispute that point. Let it be stated as clearly as possible: Protestants do not deny that the oral teaching of the apostles was authoritative, inerrant truth, binding as a rule of faith on those who heard it. 
... Scripture, however, which is God-breathed, never speaks of any other God-breathed authority; it never authorizes us to view tradition on an equal or superior plane of authority; and while it makes the claim of inerrancy for itself, it never acknowledges any other infallible source of authority. Word-of-mouth tradition is never said to be theopneustos, God-breathed, or infallible.
Notice how MacArthur here (and throughout) begins by jumping to all sorts of conclusions. Where does "no hint of a guarantee that "the apostles' teaching" would be infallibly preserved through any means other than Scripture" come in here? He's simply rushing to deny anything other than what he already assumes is true. What's just as important is that throughout all this he admits "the apostles teaching" was given orally and not written: "their one source of Christian doctrine (this was before any of the New Testament had been penned) was the oral teaching of the apostles." This is important for the Catholic to not lose sight of, because the burden falls on the Protestant to show that this oral teaching was eventually written down and thus "expired" at some later date. That, however, cannot be done because the Bible nowhere says that's what happened - and that is why you'll see Protestants like MacArthur rush to change the focus and make all kinds of unfair and unwarranted assumptions. And in their rush to attack Catholicism and uphold false teachings like Sola Scriptura, folks like MacArthur end up making the most absurd and embarrassing claims such as that Scripture never speaks of another infallible authority other than itself, despite previously admitting the oral teaching of the Apostles was the rule of faith for Christians.
First Corinthians 11:2: "Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you." Those words of Paul to the Corinthians speak of tradition, do they not?

First of all, the apostle is speaking not of traditions passed down to the Corinthians by someone else though word of mouth. This "tradition" is nothing other than doctrine the Corinthians had heard directly from Paul's own lips during his ministry in their church. The Greek word translated "traditions" is paradosis, translated "ordinances" in the King James Version. The Greek root contains the idea of transmission, and the idea is no doubt doctrine that was transmitted by oral means. In this case, however, it refers only to Paul's own preaching--not to someone else's report of what Paul taught.

... [First Corinthians 11:2] is nothing but Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians that they remember and obey his apostolic teaching. It reflects Paul's own personal struggle to protect and preserve the doctrinal tradition he had carefully established in Corinth [earlier MacArthur quote Acts 18:11]. But again, there is no implication whatsoever that Paul expected this tradition to be infallibly preserved through any inspired means other than Scripture. On the contrary, Paul was concerned lest his ministry among the Corinthians prove to have been in vain (cf. 2 Cor. 6:1).
Notice the false dilemma MacArthur makes in his attempt to "soften" the fact Paul tells them to maintain the doctrines he taught orally to them. MacArthur is "concerned" with something wholly irrelevant, a red-herring, when he "objects" by saying this isn't about doctrine that came second hand. Who said it was? And, more importantly, who said that was relevant? The point the Catholic is making is simple: oral teaching existed right along side with written teaching; thus, the early Christians didn't practice Sola Scriptura; thus, Sola Scriptura is not a Apostolic nor Biblical doctrine. It's ironic that he even points out the root of the Greek term "tradition" is 'passing on', yet somehow this excludes any notion of passing down through more than one generation. This is nothing but desperation. And as he's done throughout, he rushes to point out his pet assumption that this oral teaching must somehow have been supplanted by Scripture later on, without every proving it.
Second Thessalonians 2:15:"So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us." This is perhaps the favorite verse of Catholic apologists when they want to support the Catholic appeal to tradition, because the verse plainly delineates between the written word and oral "traditions."
... Now, no one--even the most impassioned champion of sola Scriptura--would deny that Paul had taught the Thessalonians many things by word of mouth. No one would deny that the teaching of an apostle carried absolute authority. The point of debate between Catholics and Protestants is whether that teaching was infallibly preserved by word of mouth. So the mere reference to truth received firsthand from Paul himself is again, irrelevant as support for the Catholic position. Certainly nothing here suggests that the tradition Paul delivered to the Thessalonians is infallibly preserved for us anywhere except in Scripture itself.

... Roman Catholic apologists protest that only a fraction of Paul's messages to the Thessalonians are preserved in the two brief epistles Paul wrote to that church. True, but may not we assume that what he taught the Thessalonians were the very truths that are found in generous measure throughout all his epistles--justification by faith, the true gospel of grace, the sovereignty of God, the Lordship of Christ, and a host of other truths? The New Testament gives us a full-orbed Christian theology. Who can prove that anything essential is omitted? On the contrary, we are assured that Scripture is sufficient for salvation and spiritual life (2 Tim 3:15-17). Where does Scripture ever suggest that there are unwritten truths that are necessary for our spiritual well-being? One thing is certain: these words in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 imply no such thing.
It's good to see MacArthur not trying to explain away these "traditions" as somehow non doctrinal, but notice the red-herring emerge again when MacArthur shifts the focus from the actual existance of authoritative oral teaching to "nothing here suggests that the tradition Paul delivered to the Thessalonians is infallibly preserved for us anywhere except in Scripture itself." The Catholic has one major point to make here: the apostolic Christians were not living by Scripture Alone, and MacArthur even admits this. Thus, Sola Scriptura isn't being taught at this point, and nothing suggests it would ever be. And notice his last sentence above, where he denies 2 Thessalonians 2:15 instructed Christians to go by written and oral teaching, where as he started off admitting Christians were to go by both.

Such is the case when a Protestant tries to maintain Sola Scriptura - they're bound to get tangled in a web of self-contradictions, grand leaps of logic, and special pleading...none of which should be necessary for an alleged corner-stone doctrine of the Christian faith.


Anonymous said...

Hey Nick,

First off, I just responded to your response over at the Storied Theology blog. I'd love for you to strike back with a rebuttal of my rebuttal ;)

Refuting and discrediting different religious expressions and traditions of the gospel is probably a lost cause to begin with. Though, without completely discrediting the nature of Sola Scriptura, I have a few questions of my own regarding its validity and worth.

If Scripture is closed, and if it is the only source of divine inspiration, then does this mean the writings of Scripture are categorically distinguished from human initiative as it stands today? If so, then why did Peter say that we have the ability to "hasten" the coming of the Lord?

Anonymous said...

-- Also, how does this interact with a creation theology? If we are made in the image of God, and if that image was resilient enough to withstand the affects of sin -- which it was, exegetically speaking, as Gen. 5 and 9 attest to it -- then what does this mean to humankind in a postfallen situation, one which has now been eschatologically reversed by the efforts of Christ, and is now awaiting the full unveiling?

In other words, think of it: why on earth would Christ issue in New Jerusalem but not unveil it altogether?! It is an awesomely mysterious, cryptic thing to do. But I think Peter's comment begins to unlock this encryption, where humankind -- deemed a royal priesthood in 1 Peter -- is now able to fulfill its original creational mandate in Gen. 1: to live a fulfilling life in creation, a creation which is integrally heavenly and earthly.

Brasil said...

I'm slightly amused by those reviewers who find The Message "dangerous" or "dumbed down" (also a reference to the NIV). I'm sure many Roman Catholics were saying the same thing when Martin Luther first translated The Bible into German at the beginning of the Reformation, followed soon after by King James. What people fail to realize is that the Old English of the KJV is NOT some holy Biblical English, but rather it was the contemporary language of the day, much like the current translations of the NIV and The Message.

Anonymous said...

The way I see it, the problem with the Protestant translation "The Message" is that it plays fast and loose with the text, trying to capture an idea rather than translate word for word. The problem with that approach is that the risk of the translator injecting his own spin on the text increases exponentially. So the issue isn't about whatever the modern dialect is, but rather how close to a 'word-for-word' translation it is.

Of course, a word-for-word translation makes readability almost impossible and not enjoyable, so some sort of paraphrasing is needed, within limits.