I am working through Biblical Doctrine by MacArthur and Mayhue. I am going to have a criticism of a single sentence, so I should put this into context. The work over all is quite good. The greatest strength of the work lies with the marshaling of biblical evidence. When it sets forth a doctrine, it typically sets forth the universe of Scriptural support. For example, on page 340, they list 27 instances of how the Holy Spirits ministers to the people of God (He adopts, baptizes, bears witness, call to ministry, convicts, empowers, et cetera). The book is filled with such lists and charts. On this particular point, it is exceptionally good.
A second aspect of the work which I appreciate is that it does not require a great deal of technical background: the text avoids theological terms and prefers to explain the doctrine and use relative simple English terms. This makes the book useful for those coming to theology for the first time as a discipline.
In short, the book is a very good introductory systematic theology.
Now to pick on a sentence. This sentence scraps a particular concern of mine: the common place lack of training in literature and language for Bible teachers and theologians. The Bible is primarily a book of stories and poems. However, most Western contemporary theological training tries to reduce the entire Scripture to a mass of bare propositions akin to blueprints or a shopping list. This is wrong for a million reasons — but that is another topic.
Anyway, here is my concern:
On page 356, a rule of interpretation is stated as follows:
Use teaching (didactic) sections of Scripture, not historical (narrative) portions to determine what is prescriptive rather than what is merely descriptive —what is exceptional compared to what should be considered normative.
First, the bare fact of something having had happened tells us very little beyond that it had happened. We need to ask other questions to make sense of the bare fact: we need context to understand a historical event. They should have written something like, “there are different hermeneutical principles for deriving application from narrative than for didactic passages.”
Our life comes to us as narrative: we see the events in our life as coming from some context and going in a particular direction. Therefore, anyone who merely points at some bare fact and then draws a “random” conclusion proves little more than there are an infinite number of lines which can be drawn through any point.
For example, George Washington was president of the United States. Therefore, I conclude that am the president — or anyone named George can be can be president — or only persons named George can be president, et cetera. Or only persons who were friends with people who knew George Washington — or whatever crazy rule. The proper context is the legal context of the United States Constitution which creates the basis for one becoming president.
I read the United States went to war with England in 1812, therefore, I conclude that England is the enemy of America. I prove that point by pointing to the Revolutionary War. Then someone points to World War I & II.
This sort of naive reading of narrative is seen by members of the Watchtower Society who will not have birthday parties, because Herod — a bad man — had a birthday party. Therefore, birthday parties are bad. Herod also ate, drank, slept, married.
The question being considered on page 356 is whether all believers must speak with tongues to be saved. Some will argue that because there were instances of tongue speaking recorded in Acts, that such is proof that all believers must speak in tongues. That sort of poor reading does not mean the narrative is ambiguous, faulty or otherwise deficient. It merely means that one has to read a narrative in the manner proper for reading narratives.
The trouble with “we all must speak in tongues” is not that one has used narrative to determine a doctrine. Rather, the trouble is that one has read the narrative poorly. The proper context for the narrative is all of Acts — and all of the New Testament, and all of the Scripture. Part of the narrative context are the epistles.
Moreover, the epistles must be understood by referring back to the narrative portions of Scripture: each of the texts helps make sense of the other texts.
Second, the rule as stated makes a point about reading narrative: it distinguishes between exception and normative: That is something gleaned from reading the narrative. Herod celebrating his birthday does not mean that a two year should not eat cake on his birthday. That would be an example of very poor reading.
Third, the authors contradict this rule repeatedly in this very book because they use narrative to prove up doctrine.
For example, on page 366, they consider the question of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Old Testament. After a review of the narrative they write:
The major characteristics of indwelling in the Old Testament can be summarize as follows:
Involving selected leaders in Israel only
An empowerment for service
Page 367. They read the narrative and deduced a doctrinal point. This is an appropriate reading of narrative.
Or, on page 384, they are considering the question of whether miracles are normative and continuing. On previous pages, they cited to historical precedent and church historians. Looking to the Bible they write
There is no single, explicitly clear biblical statement that specifies whether miracles through men and temporary gifts ceased with the apostles or continued, but if one consults the whole counsel of God, one will find the answer.
They then engage in a reading of the explicit and implicit narrative of the New Testament.
What they really mean to say is that one must read the Scripture with some care. For example, when reading narrative, one cannot simply conclude that because a good man has done X that all men must do X to be good (how many men will offer their son as a sacrifice, ascend Mt. Sinai or bury a linen belt?).No can one conclude that because God did X for a good man in the past means that God will do so of all good men in the future (how many men have been fed by ravens?). Such readings demonstrate foolishness: the fault lies in the reader not in the text.
We can only assume that such people do not go about the world concluding that because a police man has a light bar and gun that they should do the same thing.
One’s reading of the narratives must be consistent with all of the Bible. Plucking an isolated text and drawing a conclusion is foolish and lazy.