Wednesday, November 20, 2013

macarthur fail

Another voice of reason speaks out on the John MacArthur error. The following is from the every clever Brendt Waters.

The following article will be published in pieces. Upon its completion, this disclaimer will be removed.

Sometimes, a good indicator that you’re on the right track can be found in the weak arguments of your detractors. That is not to say that one should ascribe to a point of view simply because the opposite view is presented poorly – if that were true, then every lousy sermon ever preached would be an indication that we should all abandon Christianity. To follow such an idea would be logically fallacious.

And speaking of “logically fallacious” …

In the aftermath of the Strange Fire conference, blogger Tim Challies presented to his readers the opportunity to ask questions directly to John MacArthur about the conference and the ideas around which it revolved. This was a welcome occurrence to me, as many of the objections made to MacArthur’s ideas received responses from his supporters who assured us (or sometimes derisively stated) that “that’s not what he meant.”

Even when it came time for the conference, important clarifications of MacArthur’s promotional statements – the alleged misunderstanding of which had been festering for months – were not given by MacArthur, but were relegated to the second day of the conference and addressed by one of his subordinates. The faux omniscience of the supporters was tiresome and the conference relegation of the issue was troubling, so I was glad that we were finally going to get our information “straight from the horse’s mouth,” if you will.

Let’s Get Contentious Right Out of the Gate

Challies passed along a subset of the reader questions to MacArthur, and a few days later posted responses to the first batch of questions. One thing jumped out at me immediately: the title (“John MacArthur Answers His Critics”) frames the exchange as being contentious; as though any question posed about the topic – even a position-neutral question like a request for elaboration on the Scriptural grounds of cessationism – is asked with a jaundiced eye and ulterior motive. Such a martyr’s complex – viewing any question as an attack – often indicates a lack of surety of one’s position. Now, the reader might be able to chalk this up as just a poor word choice on Challies’ part; except that MacArthur engages in the same unfortunate view in his very first response to what was a common question:
Challies: Why did you choose not to invite one of the best of the reformed continuationists to speak at your event and to defend his position? Wouldn’t that have strengthened the cessationist arguments while also showing an earnest desire for unity? 
MacArthur: Our decision not to host a debate at the Strange Fire Conference was intentional.
Did you catch that? Challies said nothing about a “debate”, and yet that’s the idea to which MacArthur went directly. Ostensibly, in MacArthur’s view, any alternative viewpoint (on what he later agrees – sort of – is a “secondary issue”) could only be presented in the form of debate.

Gifts, Schmifts – This Is Just Plain Wrong

And therein lies the second thing that jumped out at me: a response displaying the weaknesses of MacArthur’s statements need not rely on any particular pneumatological beliefs, but can simply be based on the logical fallacies with which MacArthur’s responses are rife. And this is the angle from which I wish to approach the remainder of this article.

It is of little value at this point to give an argument for my position. But the arguments for the opposite position are so “full of fail,” that they can be noted from a neutral position. Again, MacArthur’s logical fallacies are not – in and of themselves – reason to abandon cessationism and embrace continuationism. But when a person is regarded (by his own supporters) as a poster child for a cause, or takes it upon himself to “sound a trumpet blast” about an issue, he would do well to be sure that his arguments are sound. Otherwise, it becomes tempting for those on the other side to ask, “This is the best you’ve got?”

Most of my observations will contain some level of spiritual content – this isn’t a cold logical analysis – and some issues may not be logical fallacies in the traditional sense of the word, but (as I said before) none need rely on any particular view about the Holy Spirit and his work.

God’s A Big Boy

In further defining the purpose behind the conference, MacArthur states:
Because the honor of the Holy Spirit is at stake, we were convinced that we could not remain silent.
Take a minute to bask in the narcissism of such a statement. God needs us to defend his honor? Really? Acts 17:25 tells us (emphasis mine):
Nor is [God] worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.
I keep getting the image of John MacArthur as Dudley Do-Right, saving the helpless Holy Spirit’s Nell Fenwick from the clutches of Snidely Whiplash (to be honest, I’m not sure who plays Whiplash’s role as MacArthur cast so many for it). I’m not sure which is more offensive: MacArthur exalting himself to be God’s defender or his demeaning of the Holy Spirit to someone who “needs anything” – a more interesting viewpoint for someone of a Reformed faith (which prizes God’s sovereignty).

Recently in church, we were studying the passages about Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane. Regarding when Peter cut off Malchus’ ear (Luke 22:50-51), our pastor took the idea on a metaphorical turn and noted:
Sometimes when we try to defend the truth, we cut off people’s ears. Fortunately, though, Jesus can still heal them.
There were a lot of ears lying around Sun Valley last month. I pray Jesus heals them.

Tweet Much?

Back on his false conflation of opposing views being expressed as solely in the form of debate, MacArthur says:
Debates are rarely effective in truly helping people think carefully through the issues, since they can easily be reduced to sound bites and talking points.
Given the fact that the social media director for Grace To You posted 50 “sound bites and talking points” from the conference onto the conference’s Twitter page, such a statement seems mildly disingenuous.

Truth – As Defined by Me

MacArthur goes on to state:
By contrast, a clear understanding of biblical truth comes from a faithful study of the Scriptures.
I can only assume that this means that a presentation of another viewpoint would muddy people’s “understanding of biblical truth.”

In the words of Forrest Gump, “that’s all I have to say about that.”

Not in My Backyard

Can you believe we are still on MacArthur’s first response? He goes on:
I also expect continuationists to respond in writing to the things I have written in the book. I welcome that kind of interchange. It allows people to think carefully, over a prolonged period of time, about the arguments on both sides of the issue. It has always been through the written word that theological disputes like this have been grappled with in church history. That requires the kind of devotion and effort that brings serious discussion to the fore. I have taken those pains in [the book], and would hope that others would interact on that same level.
First, I would respond, “hence this article.”

But this is still very disturbing. He “welcome[s] that kind of interchange,” but only on certain terms. And apparently, those terms do not include at his conference. Men who he “appreciates”, for whom he is “truly grateful”, who have made “extensive contributions … to the truth and life of the church” were not welcome to give their viewpoint at the conference.

Now, it is perfectly understandable, if one is hosting a conference that is solely in the defense of cessationism, that no continuationists would be invited to speak. But this conference was not heralded as a defense of cessationism – the subtitle of the conference was (emphasis mine) “Truth Matters.” Further, variations on the word “truth” and related concepts were repeatedly stated at the conference. The conclusion is obvious – a secondary issue has been elevated to the status of absolute truth.

Use ‘em When It’s Convenient

Challies asks (finally, we’re on to the second question):
There are some matters the Bible makes absolutely clear (e.g. You must trust in Christ alone for your salvation) and some things that continue to perplex us so that even genuine, Bible-loving Christians can disagree on them (e.g. baptism and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit). Why does God allow questions like these to remain unclear to us? Why are you taking such a strong stand on what is really just a secondary issue?
MacArthur begins by quoting an article that Thabiti Anyabwile wrote during the conference. MacArthur quotes pieces from the article and then affirms them all:
First, we have to admit that there’s a correct and an incorrect position on this issue. Somebody is right and somebody is wrong. … Second, we have to admit that how we view this issue substantially impacts the nature of the Christian life. It matters. It’s not an inconsequential idea. Someone worships God appropriately, someone doesn’t. … Third, we have to admit that this issue practically impacts Christian worship and fellowship. It’s not only a private matter, but a corporate one as well.
Now, whether one agrees with those ideas or not (and I largely don’t – more on that in a bit), I find it very interesting that MacArthur conveniently leaves out Anyabwile’s fourth point:
Fourth, we have to admit the Bible does not answer the issue compellingly. Or, better, in our fallen reading of the Bible someone – perhaps everyone – is not understanding and applying what we ought.
Kinda vital to the point, don’tcha think? But it doesn’t fit MacArthur’s rubric (which we’ll see later) and so it is discarded.

We Interrupt This Program

I want to take a moment to look at Anyabwile’s article. He expounds on each of the points that MacArthur quoted, and I wish to address them. Obviously, I can’t say with absolute certainty that MacArthur agrees with the full text, but I don’t really see why he wouldn’t. For the sake of clarity, I will underline the portions that MacArthur quoted.
First, we have to admit that there’s a correct and an incorrect position on this issue. Somebody is right and somebody is wrong. The outcomes are non-correspondent. The thing can’t be “A” and “not A” at the same time in the same way. Those who are wrong are teaching error. … 
Second, we have to admit that how we view this issue substantially impacts the nature of the Christian life. It matters. It’s not an inconsequential idea. Someone worships God appropriately, someone doesn’t. Someone walks with God in a way that pleases Him, someone doesn’t.
Both of these points fly in the face of Romans 14:1-13, in which Paul states that the non-essentials don’t matter in the long run. When he asks (in verse 10):
But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother?
One can almost hear a subtext of “What are you – stupid or something?” Paul also states that if we try to push our beliefs about such issues on others, then we are wrong. If this is truly a secondary issue, it is not binary (as Anyabwile suggests).

It’s also over-elevating of the human capacity for understanding to imply that all secondary issues can be sufficiently grasped. Regarding disagreements that I have with my friend, Chris, over the non-essentials, I once wrote:

If I had to bet, I’d say that when we get to heaven … one of four things is going to happen:
  1. We’ll find out that I was wrong.
  2. We’ll find out that Chris was wrong.
  3. We’ll find out that we both were wrong.
  4. We’ll find out that we both were right, but our finite brains couldn’t grasp the paradox.
Anyabwile goes on:
Third, we have to admit that this issue practically impacts Christian worship and fellowship. It’s not only a private matter, but a corporate one as well. If we want to apply what we think the Bible teaches regarding gifts, it’s going to have a material impact on who we can actually worship with. It’s like baptism. We will either limit it to professing believers or we will include covenant children. But we can’t do both. Our decision about practicing or not practicing some secondary-but-important issues affects who can belong to our churches and what we’ll do when we gather. We may continue personal friendships (and we should), but we’ll find it difficult to continue corporate fellowship.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 15 years more than anything else, it’s that “worship” and “fellowship” aren’t restricted to 90 minutes on Sunday mornings. Now Anyabwile does use the word “corporate,” but he uses it sloppily. If by “corporate,” he means that which occurs on Sunday mornings, then he presents a false dichotomy by implying that my personal beliefs (“private”) and the beliefs of my local ecclesia (“corporate”) are the sum total of my existence. But if, on the other hand, he uses “corporate” to mean “anything not private,” then he is implying that neither worship nor fellowship occurred at the Strange Fire conference as both a paedobaptist (R. C. Sproul) and a credobaptist (John MacArthur) spoke at the same conference.

We Now Return You …

Having ripped into Anyabwile’s article, I must say that I agree with his final point, which I’ll now quote in fuller length:
Fourth, we have to admit the Bible does not answer the issue compellingly. Or, better, in our fallen reading of the Bible someone – perhaps everyone – is not understanding and applying what we ought. From what I can tell, everyone in this discussion believes the Bible is sufficient for matters of doctrine and devotion. I see people of varying perspectives affirming that. But if the Bible were as clear to everyone as we’d like, we wouldn’t be having the conversation. So, it seems we’ve got to interrogate ourselves about (a) whether we’re reading the Bible with a squint, such that things that ought to be seen lose focus, and/or (b) whether the Bible really intends to tell us all the things we desire on this topic.
This epistemic humility seems to contradict Anyabwile’s first point, but I quote it more so to show how very much it stands in opposition to what MacArthur states:
I don’t think, however, that this issue is unclear in Scripture.
The disagreement with Anyabwile is clear on that statement.

MacArthur goes on:
The fact that Christians disagree on what the Bible teaches does not mean that there is a lack of clarity in Scripture, but rather in Christians.
This is another false dichotomy. It assumes that Christian disagreement over a Bible passage is automatically a problem and seeks to assign blame. This stands in strong contrast to Anyabwile’s statement that maybe the Bible doesn’t “[intend] to tell us all the things we desire on this topic” (emphasis mine).

MacArthur goes on:
The Word of God is our authoritative rule for faith and practice—meaning that it is perfectly sufficient for teaching sound doctrine and governing right living.
Now, in and of itself, I have no problem with this statement. However, the oft-misinterpreted passage (2 Timothy 3:16-17) implies that Scripture is sufficient. But it doesn’t imply that it is sufficiently clear (to our human standards). While I’m not sure that the implication is in MacArthur’s statement, it has become abundantly clear that many of his followers believe that if one does not believe in cessationism, then one does not believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. This is, at best, a tiresome canard.

– to be continued (pun very much intended) –

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