Faith

John MacArthur’s 'Biblical Doctrine': A Review

John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, eds., ‘Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth’ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017). 1023 pages including General and Scripture indices. Note: I’ll refer to MacArthur as the author, or “M&M” (MacArthur and Mayhue).

Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth is John MacArthur’s new systematic theology. It’s just about all you’d expect – and that’s a very good thing.

A number of sound and useful theologies have come out in recent years, including those by Culver, Horton, Kelly, Frame, Grudem, Reymond, and others. Is there really a call for another?

In this case, the answer’s a clear and easy “Yes.”

This work occupies a unique niche all by itself. There are good baptistic theologies (Culver, Grudem), works affirming God’s sovereignty in salvation (Horton, Frame, Reymond), premillennial theologies (Culver), even dispensational theologies of some sort or another (Chafer, Thiessen). But no work has combined all these distinctives in one full systematic theology volume, as well as robustly affirming the sufficiency of Scripture (thus excluding Charismaticism).

Some kind souls urged me to attempt such a project, but I heard that this book was in the works some years ago, and began looking forward to it. I’m delighted to say that it ably fills that long-standing gap.

The scope of this 1000+ page tome is thorough, spanning ten chapters:

  1. Introduction: Prolegomena
  2. God’s Word: Bibliology
  3. God the Father: Theology Proper
  4. God the Son: Christology
  5. God the Holy Spirit: Pneumatology
  6. Man and Sin: Anthropology and Hamartiology
  7. Salvation: Soteriology
  8. Angels: Angelology
  9. The Church: Ecclesiology
  10. The Future: Eschatology

An Appendix titled “The Progress of Revelation” rounds out the book, listing all the Bible’s books in chronological order by best-estimated date of writing. A 17-page glossary completes the text.

Folks who know MacArthur will appreciate his distinctive marks. For instance, MacArthur loves lists, and indeed lists beyond number fill the book. In the Preface alone, one encounters four lists in four pages – with many, many more to come. There are also 39 listed tables. Indeed this is MacArthur’s distinctive gift: breaking down the complex into forms readily assimilated and easily remembered.

Biblical Doctrine is a pleasure, an education, and an encouragement to read. The intent is both to instruct and to edify, and in these M&M succeed handily. Each chapter opens with a related hymn and an outline of the contents. After the text, the chapter closes with another hymn, a prayer taken from a collection by MacArthur, and usually 2-3 pages of bibliography.

It isn’t in keeping with the book’s design to interact with authors at length, or to break brand new ground. MacArthur’s primary aim here, as in every aspect of his ministry, is to be faithful to the Biblical text.

That said, the decisions M&M make in guiding the reader across well-trod ground are often refreshing. They opt to refer to God’s characteristics as his perfections rather than attributes, citing 1 Peter 2:9’s use of aretas and the fact that perfections less ambiguously point to each trait’s flawless excellence.

I also particularly appreciated their handling of God’s holiness. I have struggled to convey the dovetailed aspect of God’s transcendence – His being set apart to Himself ontologically – and His purity – His distance from all sin. M&M get this across speaking (respectively) of God’s majestic holiness and His moral holiness (pp. 183-184). I’ve already used it!

The Biblical text is always the focus. However, the writers do bring in a wide array of material from old masters from Calvin and Owen and Edwards, to John Murray and Alva McClain and John Piper and Sinclair Ferguson and R. C. Sproul, as well as a spread of journal articles. The pace is concise but unrushed, as major terms are explored, with occasional lengthier excursions (on, for instance, regeneration, the extent and efficaciousness of the atonement, the decree of reprobation, and a host of others).

I’ve often made the argument that the same grammatico-historical exegesis that leads one (broadly) to dispensationalism, applied consistently, would also lead him to Reformed theology (specifically affirmation of the five Sola’s and of God’s sovereignty in salvation) – and vice versa. Yet heretofore, one has had to choose among theologies affirming the one, or the other. Never both.

In this volume the two should-be allies finally join forces. MacArthur establishes the proper approach to Scripture, and the rest follows. Before we’ve even left the Preface, we see that Scripture is to be interpreted literally, with regard to historical context and grammatical structure, in synthesis with the whole of Scripture, employing clearer passages to explicate the rest (pp. 25-26). So when we get to issues of soteriology and ecclesiology and prophecy, those same principles are given full-throated application. M&M set out Scripture’s presentation of distinctive roles for ethnic Israel and the church, the expectation of the full fulfillment of all prophecy, and a hearty and extended affirmation of Christ’s monergistic, saving, effectual atonement on behalf of the elect.

As I said, no other systematic theology to my knowledge combines these elements at all, let alone so well. For this reason, I see MacArthur’s book as sure to be used broadly and extensively for years to come, in seminaries and Bible colleges and institutes, in elder training classes and personal use, and for hungry “laypeople.” It is readable and extensive, yet very solid and very concise. All the Hebrew and Greek words are transliterated (somewhat oddly and inconsistently in the case of Hebrew). I appreciate the use of footnotes rather than endnotes. I also am glad that the margins are wide enough to allow notes and observations.

All of that said, I will close by noting a few odd aspects in the book’s final form.

My single biggest complaint is the lack of clarity as to who writes what. The title page says “John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue General Editors,” which led me to search for a Table of Contributors, along with a listing of their areas of responsibility. But there is no such table. The closest we get is in the Preface, which simply says, “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.” Then, “Special thanks go to Jeremy Smith for his consultation,” and “We express deep gratitude to Michael Riccardi and Nathan Busenitz for their comprehensive final edit of the entire volume.” And that’s it.

But…who did what? How much was involved in the “comprehensive final edit”? I would have expected and appreciated the details, and I’d love to see it in future editions.

Another stand-out is the phrase “adapted from,” occurring nearly 100 times. Many sections come from previously published work, usually by MacArthur or Mayhue. MacArthur’s prayers are “reproduced verbatim” from MacArthur’s book At the Throne of Grace, and four tables are said to be “reproduced from” other sources. Again, six times material is taken from the Cripplegate blog, plus two from other blogs. I of all people cannot object to the use of blog material; it’s just unusual.

In sum: I really can’t commend this book highly enough. MacArthur and Mayhue have done the church of Christ a great service, providing a resource which will shape and deepen the faith of many for years to come. I expect to see it used and referred to far, wide, and often – the more, the better!

 

Note: I received a review copy from Crossway Publishing, with no obligation for a favorable review.