Skip to content

Review of Biblical Doctrine, John MacArthur’s new systematic theology

(Image: https://www.tms.edu/news/doctrine/)

The following is my review of Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth, edited by John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017). 1,023 pages. Hardcover, $60.00. The review will be published in the Spring 2018 issue of Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry.

John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue’s new systematic theology titled Biblical Doctrine has many positive aspects. For example, the book is well-organized. Following a single-page table of contents, the authors provide a ten-page analytical outline. First and second-tier headings are provided, which signal to readers how each doctrine will be presented. The topics addressed in the ten chapters are Prolegomena, Bibliology, Theology Proper, Christology, Pneumatology, Anthropology & Hamartiology, Soteriology, Angelology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology. Each chapter begins with a hymn and chapter outline. Each chapter concludes with a prayer, another hymn, and a bibliography of the location of the relevant section in fifteen systematic theologies as well as chapters or monographs which address the chapter’s topic. Each prayer is a lengthy excerpt from a book of prayer by MacArthur,[1] and many of the lines are restatements of Scripture. These devotional aspects are welcome contributions to the volume.

Who is the author? The cover lists two general editors, MacArthur and Mayhue. However, neither the table of contents nor the individual chapters provide the names of any authors. Instead, this sentence appears in the preface, “Our Master’s Seminary colleagues Dr. Bill Barrick, Dr. Nathan Busenitz, Dr. Jim Mook, Dr. Bryan Murphy, Dr. Michael Vlach, and Professor Michael Riccardi supported us by producing drafts of several sections” (27). It seems this volume is similar in composition to the 2003 publication by the Dallas Theological Seminary Faculty edited by Swindoll and Zuck titled Understanding Christian Theology. That volume, however, was comprised of chapters with named authors. It is somewhat confusing to see the names of two general editors listed on a volume with no other attestation of authorship. If MacArthur and Mayhue are the general editors, then why not list the authors? If the reason is that the work is attributed primarily to MacArthur and Mayhue, then why not refer to them as the authors, while including the line of thanks in the preface for the contributions of others?

The volume displays a surprising lack of interaction with other viewpoints. For example, the doctrine of Bibliology, chapter 2, is treated in 70 pages. The chapter deals with issues such as inspiration, inerrancy, and authority. Besides the references to material penned by the general editors, the footnotes identify fewer than ten sources—all of which support the view presented in the text. Readers would benefit, however, from reading some of the current arguments against inerrancy—especially the cases made by Christian scholars such as N. T. Wright or Michael Bird. Also in chapter 2, the Roman Catholic view of Scripture is stated as follows: “In their view, the Bible is the Word of God because the Roman Church has decreed it to be” (102). That assertion does not accurately reflect Roman Catholic theology. Instead, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Holy Spirit inspired the Scripture but the Church transmits and interprets that revelation.[2] These examples from chapter 2 illustrate that the work would be strengthened by interacting with other Christian viewpoints.

In chapter 3, “God the Father: Theology Proper,” the authors address an array of subjects including God’s existence, names, perfections, the Trinity, decrees, creation, miracles, providence, and evil. The authors prefer preaching to declare God’s existence and for evangelistic purposes rather than presenting the classic proofs. They dismiss, for example, the cosmological argument because a Muslim philosopher and Gottfried Leibniz used the method (149). The analysis would have been strengthened by interacting with Christian philosophers and theologians who have argued for some version of the proofs, such as Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, and C. S. Lewis. Also, statements such as this one will convince only those who embrace a simplistic version of the presuppositional apologetic: “The reason one must believe that he exists is because he said that he exists” (154).

The section on God’s names and titles correctly grounds the investigation of God’s nature in his revelation in Scripture. When discussing God’s perfections (a term favored over attributes), the authors lean toward soft determinism, insisting on God’s “perfect determination and sovereign ordination of all things” (185). Also, “God predetermined all events” (225). Even so, they argue for compatibilism in which “human free will and divine determinism are complementary ideas” (225). The authors’ commitment to soft determinism, however, is a flaw which diminishes the work. Despite the authors pointing to secondary causation and their assertions that free will and divine determinism are compatible, their claims that God predetermines all events, including sin (225), seem to render God accountable for the human sins which he rightly condemns and judges. Critics will argue, instead, that God as an exercise of his sovereignty determined to create humans as morally free and responsible beings.

In their chapter on Theology Proper, MacArthur and Mayhue teach that God created all things in “six literal twenty-four hour days” and they regard the earth to be “relatively young—perhaps less than ten thousand years old” (216). They leave no option for any old earth version of creation such as theistic evolution, also called evolutionary creationism. The authors mention this issue repeatedly. For example, in the chapter on Christology, they claim, “Denial of instantaneous creation in Genesis 1 must, to be consistent, likewise deny the miracle by which Jesus created the wine at Cana. Rejecting his miracle at Cana results in rejecting Jesus as the God-man and as the Redeemer” (286). This claim that denying creation as instantaneous results in denials of Jesus as the God-man or his work of redemption is an example of a fallacious, slippery slope argument. The burden is on the authors to explain precisely how affirming either old earth creationism or evolutionary creationism necessarily results in one affirming unorthodox theological views of Christ and his work.

In chapter 4, the authors treat Christology under the headings of preincarnate, incarnate, glorified Christ. They provide the biblical basis for the historical affirmations of the person of Christ expressed at Nicaea and Chalcedon. Their study emphasizes the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in his life and ministry (chart begins on page 247 and ends on page 250) as well as the trials and crucifixion (286–305). In an interesting moment of speculation, the authors suggest Jesus’s cry of dereliction from the cross was “a painful sense of estrangement from the Father” and “temporary separation from the Father” as a result of his work of substitutionary atonement (303). The authors provide a compelling argument for substitutionary atonement then mention his resurrection and ascension, topics which are treated more fully in the atonement section of the salvation chapter (ch. 7). The Christology chapter provides an instance in which the authors confuse explicit claims in Scripture for theological deductions. They write, “The Scripture, however, argues for the impeccability of Christ” (273). Although a compelling argument can be made for the view that Christ could not sin (impeccability), the Scripture states explicitly only that Christ did not sin.

Systematic theologians tend to repeat themselves when writing on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit because they cover many of the same biblical texts, historical controversies, and formulations when discussing the doctrine of the Trinity. Although this was the case in chapter 5, “The Holy Spirit,” most of the material was unique to the chapter and aided in developing a biblical and systematic formulation of Pneumatology. Since the preface disclosed the cessationist perspective, readers might be pleasantly surprised at the depth of treatment in the chapter dedicated to the names, biblical word pictures, ministries, baptism, dwelling, and filling of the Holy Spirit. The cessationist label is deserved because the authors regard many of the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Cor 12–13 to be “temporary gifts,” so named because they “served both revelatory and confirmatory purposes in authenticating God’s special messengers and the inauguration of the new covenant era” (381). One might ask if these gifts—though not needed to confirm revelation due to the completion and closing of the canon—could be operative today in regions of the world which have no Scripture in the heart language of the people. These nine “temporary gifts” are included in Scripture with eleven “permanent gifts.” The authors provide a peaceable rationale for their view, but alternate Christian interpretations are not presented.

In chapter 6, the authors address the doctrines of man and sin. Man is defined as a conditional and complex unity who is made in God’s image. Although the authors affirm sudden creationism to explain the origin of the universe as well as the direct creation of man by God, they teach a traducian view of the soul and state that humans are “a result of the God-ordained procreation process” (426). Also, they state that God created humans with either a male or female gender (others would use the phrase biological sex where these authors use the term gender). They assert a classical view of marriage and reject the idea that a homosexual union can rightly be called a marriage (431). After addressing the topics of death, ethnicity, government, and culture, they address the doctrine of sin. They define the core of sin as the desire for autonomy from the Creator. They locate the origin of sin in Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God when tempted by Satan in the garden. Man’s relationships with God, other humans, and creation were all damaged by man’s fall, which resulted in physical, spiritual, and eternal death. After presenting four views for understanding the transmission of sin, the authors endorse representative headship, a covenantal view which rejects the covenant of works, “since Scripture makes no mention of a covenant of works” (465). After bundling total depravity with the inability “to accept or reject God and his gospel” (468), the authors treat topics such as the unpardonable sin, the sin leading to death, and mortal and venial sins. The chapter ends with a three-page section titled “Biblical Theology of Sin,” which narrates in a concise, engaging way the sweep of salvation history from the fall of Adam to the cross of Christ.

At 178 pages, chapter 7, “Salvation: Soteriology,” was twice the average length of the other chapters. Stated another way, the chapter covered 10% of the book’s doctrines but comprised 20% of the total page count. Such a proportion is justified, however, because the authors treat what other systematic theologians regard as two doctrines, atonement and salvation. Following a brief introduction, the chapter is divided according to the actions of each person of the Trinity: the plan (Father), the accomplishment (Son), and the application (Holy Spirit) of redemption. The greatest strength of the chapter is the use of Scripture (either citation or quotation and explanation) to support and illustrate doctrinal claims. The sections on perseverance and glorification provide fine examples of how to explain doctrinal concepts such as eternal security, apostasy, and sanctification by drawing insights from key biblical texts as well as anticipating and answering common objections.

The greatest weakness of chapter 7—one shared by other chapters in the book—is that alternate viewpoints are represented either weakly or not at all. MacArthur and Mayhue provide thorough explanations of Scripture from the perspective of five-point Calvinism, but the material would have benefited from other interpretations common among evangelical Protestants, such as three-point and four-point Calvinism as well as Molinism. Although the interpretations presented in the book are legitimate options, readers are presented many times with only one interpretation and consequently might be left with the (unfortunate and incorrect) impression that only one viewpoint exists on those matters among evangelical Protestants. The section on election, for example, would have been strengthened by including a robust summary of an alternative viewpoint on the doctrine, such as that of William Klein, Brian Abasciano, or Chad Thornhill.

Another weakness of the chapter on salvation is that the section on the application of redemption was structured according to an ordo salutis based on an interpretation of a single biblical text, Rom 8:29–30. The “goal of a biblical ordo salutis” is stated as: “to read out of the text the divine logic and order that the Spirit of God himself has plainly revealed” (567). Such a definition gives readers a glimpse into the apparent assumption of the authors—that God has plainly revealed in the biblical text their interpretation of the biblical text. Affirming such a notion would reveal either one’s theological naiveté by equating the word of God with one’s interpretation of the word of God, or one’s obtuseness in failing to acknowledge that some systematic theologians reject the notion of discerning the mind of God (via a logical order of decrees) which God has not chosen to reveal plainly in the Scriptures.[3] Although many New Testament texts are examined in that section, before the discussion began the presupposition was set into place that two verses of Scripture reveal a logical and theo-deterministic order of salvation. For example, the authors presuppose that all biblical texts concerning repentance and faith presuppose that regeneration precedes faith because “Scripture seems to clearly present faith as the consequence of the new birth” (569). In other words, the Bible teaches that regeneration precedes faith because Rom 8:29–30 reveals a logical order of God’s decrees, including the logical order of salvation. Even with these weaknesses, the chapter on salvation provides a compelling and Bible-saturated account of God’s trinitarian work on behalf of sinners at the cross of Christ.

Chapter 8, “Angels: Angelology,” is a comprehensive examination of the biblical material on holy angels, Satan, demons, and the angel of the Lord. The sections are proportional treatments of the biblical material, which focus on biblical terms and their occurrences in Scripture which are organized topically to address their respective reality, character, and actions. The authors should be commended for including this chapter on angelology, a topic which is relegated in some systematic theologies to only a few pages. Interestingly, the chapter ends with a Q&A section comprised of brief answers to thirteen questions on angels, Satan, and demons. This is the only chapter with a Q&A section, and one wonders if this material should have been incorporated into the chapter at relevant points. Also, this chapter (as well as several other chapters) would have been strengthened by including a small section of historical theology to provide some perspective on the interpretation of key thinkers in the history of the church concerning this doctrine.

“The Church: Ecclesiology,” chapter 9, addresses topics one would expect, such as the nature, unity, and membership of the church as well as the use of spiritual gifts. One might wonder if some of the material presented is essential in a work of systematic theology. For example, the authors spend three pages providing Jesus’s “seven hallmark principles for building his church” based on Matt 16:18. The seven points are alliterated (“A Permanent Foundation,” “A Positive Expectation,” “A Powerful Advance,” etc.). Although this material might have served as a helpful sermonic outline (the section was adapted from a book by Mayhue), would any reader today think Jesus had these principles in mind when uttering the words of Matt 16:18? Many such outlines can be found in this volume, and such material does not strengthen the credibility of the book as an academic resource for either understanding the Bible or organizing its content.

Also in chapter 9, the authors make an extended case for churches being led by a plurality of male elders (759–69). When contrasting “elder rule” (769) with other forms of polity, no biblical case is presented for a congregational form of government. Rather, the authors state that “democratic political values often prompt” the congregational model (769). Also, no mention is made of the possibility of a blended form of polity in which elders serve in a congregational model. Groups which have many churches adopting this blended model, such as Southern Baptists, will likely notice this gap in the presentation. Another point of interest is the brief case the authors make for the permissibility of women to serve as deacons (772–73); such a view is possible but not commonly found among complementarians. Also, they advocate for a model of believers’ baptism by immersion and reject the legitimacy of infant baptism with no attempt to engage other Christian views on the matter. The authors rightly affirm the practice of church discipline (793–95), but one wonders if the authors’ rejection of congregational polity results in their reading elders into the texts of Matt 18 and 1 Cor 5, which do not mention elders. The section on spiritual gifts in the church unfortunately presents a false dichotomy in which one affirms either cessationism[4] or one affirms “the modern counterfeits of the charismatic movement” (805), with no attempt to present credible biblical-theological scholarship for either the continuationist or the open-but-cautious position by advocates such as Max Turner, Robert Saucy, Wayne Grudem, Sam Storms, and Amos Yong.

The last chapter deals with last things. Entitled “The Future: Eschatology,” chapter 10 organizes the doctrine as follows: Introduction to Eschatology, Personal Eschatology, and Cosmic Eschatology. The authors explain, “The Bible presents the glorious end to come as the source of ultimate hope and encouragement for the Christian” (828). Advocating for a new creation model (rather than a spiritual vision model), they view the future return of Christ as the time when he will establish a physical kingdom in Jerusalem and reign on earth prior to establishing the new heaven and new earth mentioned in Rev 21–22. Following a brief treatment of personal eschatology (which addresses death, the intermediate state, hell, and heaven), the authors devote their attention to cosmic eschatology. In this final section, they highlight the significance of Old Testament promises to Israel, note the distinctions between Israel and the church, and advocate for futuristic millennialism. They explain, “As a refinement of dispensational premillennialism, futuristic millennialism affirms a futuristic view of Daniel’s seventieth week (Dan. 9:27), which includes the events of Matthew 24 and the judgments of seals, trumpets, and bowls described in Revelation 6–18” (856). Those who do not affirm this eschatological interpretation will appreciate the authors’ treatment of biblical covenants as the means of fulfilling God’s plan in history as well as the careful argument from Scripture for a millennial view. The authors’ presentation of four options (preterist, historicist, idealist, and futurist) for interpreting the end times might be strengthened by offering a fifth option (eclectic), which allows one to affirm various views depending on which portion of the biblical text one is considering.[5] The authors conclude the book with a 16-page glossary of basic theological terms “drawn with minor revisions” from Millard Erickson’s The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (923).

MacArthur and Mayhue’s book will be a helpful resource for students of the Bible who are already in general agreement with the book’s doctrinal conclusions. Those who desire biblical citations and textual interpretations which support a conservative and literalistic reading of Scripture—which advocates for views such as young-earth creationism, cessationism, soft determinism, complementarian, and premillennialism, with either weak or no representation of alternative Christian viewpoints—will find this book to be an ideal resource. However, those who desire to wrestle with the Scriptures and the wider Christian tradition in order to make their own judgments to identify the strongest viewpoint will not find this book to be as helpful as other works of systematic theology.

– Adam Harwood, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, Louisiana

[1] John MacArthur, At the Throne of Grace: A Book of Prayers (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2011).

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church §§ 80–82, available at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM.

[3] Consider this critique by James Leo Garrett Jr, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 2:447–48, “Can we as finite, mortal beings correctly order and arrange the eternal decrees of God as they are indeed in the mind and purpose of God? Is such an effort not in itself a presumptuous attempt? Does the doctrine of decrees extend beyond the clear teachings of the Bible as to the will, purpose, and plan of God, thus posing conclusions that are not specifically provided within the biblical canon?”

[4] Cessationism is defined as “the view that the sign gifts (e.g., the performing of miracles, gifts of healing, speaking in tongues) and the revelatory gifts (i.e., the reception and proclamation of new revelation from God) passed away when the foundation stage of the church ended” (804), and is advocated throughout this chapter—and other parts of the book—with citations from MacArthur’s Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013).

[5] Grant Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 21–22, names several commentaries on the book of Revelation which opt for what he calls the eclectic approach.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This