I’ll give John MacArthur two things:
1. Throughout the course of this book, he qualifies himself several times by pointing out that, despite what he’s arguing, Christians should not go looking for fights – that gentleness and kindness ought to characterize our interactions with others.
2. Despite some serious problems with the foundations of his approach to interpretation (see below), he handles the texts he explores pretty well. Not as well as a lot of guys, but I’ve seen way worse, and given his subject matter, this book could’ve been a lot worse than it actually is.
If you’re a Christian and you’re looking for a club with which to beat up another Christian, you’re going to want to stick with the tried-and-true “Jesus-was-always-mean-to-the-Pharisees” model (patent pending).
The argument goes something like this: Jesus reserved his harshest words for the religious leaders of his day. So if I can cast my enemies (er… rather… GOD’s enemies. That’s what I meant to say) as modern-day Pharisees, then I can use all the same rhetoric against them. I get a license to slay them with the Sword of Truth coming from my mouth. Every Christian – including me, I’m not proud to admit – uses this argument when it’s time to draw lines in the sand.
MacArthur is no different. If you’re even moderately familiar with him, you know he thinks the Emergent Church (whatever that is) is the biggest threat to the survival of Christianity since the Russians (back in the good ole days, when they were Communists). This whole book is dedicated to providing theological proof-texts for MacArthur’s rants against Emergent leaders like Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborn and Brian McLaren (all of whom he cites).
In order to make his case, MacArthur begins by presenting one of the worst caricatures of Pharisees and Sadducees I’ve seen in a published text. His “research”* doesn’t seem to have included any books on first-century Palestinian Judaism written since the turn of the twentieth century. For instance, he calls the Sadducees “classic theological liberals” – a gross anachronism, give that the Sadducees’ interpretive methods were so conservative they were borderline reactionary. He then performs a similar parody of Emergents such that the two pictures are clear images of each other. The problem is that neither picture especially mirrors any sort of real persons either in the first century or the here-and-now.
I don’t think MacArthur’s being intentionally malicious, however.
As I moved through the book the book, MacArthur’s method of interpretation became increasingly clear. He wrote this book not as a careful study of biblical texts to explore what a Scripturally-faithful response to people who made him uncomfortable might be. MacArthur’s mind was already made up, and this colored his reading of Biblical texts, the nature of Pharisee- and Sadducee-ism and what it means to be Emergent. The three groups became whatever villains he needed them to be and the Scriptures said whatever he needed them to say such that God agreed with him about the evil of the villains.
Nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly than MacArthur’s approach to the Temple Cleansing(s). In John’s Gospel, Jesus cleanses the Temple in chapter 2, nearly one of the first things he does; in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke), Jesus doesn’t cleanse the Temple until the Tuesday of the Passion Week, nearly the end of his earthly ministry. Most biblical scholars agree that John’s gospel is not chronological, that John arranges events and teachings according to a theological agenda – the revelation of the Person of Jesus – rather than an historical one (chronology). MacArthur disagrees (but doesn’t bother to do so until a footnote in the final chapter), claiming,
“If [John] was describing the same event as Mark, John didn’t merely get it out of order; he moved a major event from the very end of Jesus’ public ministry to the very beginning.” (p. 218)
Apparently, arranging your Gospel theologically instead of chronologically is wrong and stupid, such an absurd idea that it’s more likely that Jesus performed such a wild and controversial act twice.
Except that, when discussing the Sermon on the Mount, MacArthur claims Jesus delivered this sermon “after the halfway point in a timeline of His public ministry.” (p. 130). But the Sermon on the Mount occurs in Matthew 5-7 (out of 28 chapters). Clearly not even close to the halfway point, much less after! How does MacArthur explain himself?
“Matthew’s gospel is not a strictly chronological account. he sometimes arranges incidents in a topical fashion…Although the Sermon on the Mount comes after the earliest Sabbath controversy in any chronological survey of Jesus’ ministry, the sermon was of such importance… that Matthew put it as close as possible to the beginning of his gospel.” (p. 217)
This sort of blatant self-contradiction is clear throughout MacArthur’s methodology. He reads texts however they’ll most adequately prop up beliefs he already holds. Walter Brueggemann called this sort of theological engagement “dangerous certitude”, and reading The Jesus You Can’t Ignore is a great illustration of the truth of that phrase.
Bottom Line: This book’s not worth the few gems you can get out of it. Spend your time reading someone else.
*An added bonus of this book is that the footnotes are basically one long advertisement to buy MacArthur’s other books, where he expands on texts he doesn’t have space to treat adequately. Which begs the question of why he thought it appropriate to bring them up at all.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”