John MacArthur’s Defense of Dispensationalism

In 1988, John MacArthur wrote The Gospel According to Jesus, a controversial book in certain circles because he relied heavily on the views of Calvinistic writers to deal with the lordship salvation controversy. My respect for MacArthur grew because he was not afraid to take on those in his own dispensational camp who were teaching "defective theology" about discipleship. The book got rave reviews in Reformed circles even though MacArthur remains "a traditional premillennial dispensationalist."[1] In addition, MacArthur, along with D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and R. C. Sproul of Ligonier Ministries, joined forces to respond to the "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" movement, even though evangelical stalwarts like J. I. Packer and Charles Colson were involved.

In his most recent entry into modern theological debate, MacArthur has put his considerable reputation on the line by attempting to tackle the issue of eschatology as it relates to preterism. Preterists believe that the majority of New Testament prophetic texts refer to the events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Not that he’s the first to attempt a critique of preterism. Dave Hunt and Thomas Ice were early contestants. Their undertakings, however, to remain charitable, were less than satisfying.

For a number of years I have been trying to engage big-name dispensationalists in a public debate on the topic of Bible prophecy. And for those who don’t want to debate, I proposed a discussion forum. I wrote a detailed book on the subject, Last Days Madness, in an attempt to lay all of my eschatological cards on the table and show that dispensationalism cannot be defended biblically. I was hoping that someone would at least deal with the arguments presented in Last Days Madness in an honest way. So when I saw The Second Coming: Signs of Christ’s Return and the End of the Age by John MacArthur, I was encouraged. Finally, I thought, MacArthur will apply the same hermeneutical model to eschatology that he applied to justification by faith and the debate over Roman Catholicism and abandon dispensational premillennialism. No, I didn’t really believe that he would, but I hoped he might honestly deal with the issues. He doesn’t.

                                                               A Debater’s Trick

Using a debater’s trick, MacArthur begins his analysis of non-dispensational eschatology by assessing full-preterism. Full-preterists believe that all the New Testament prophetic passages were fulfilled in A.D. 70. Thus, there is no future bodily return of Christ. The resurrection is also given a non-traditional interpretation. Of course, I have no problem with someone debating the merits of full-preterism or partial preterism. R. C. Sproul engages in a debate with full preterism in his The Last Days According to Jesus, and Ken Gentry has written extensively on the subject. I’ve had numerous discussions with full-preterist writers and have voiced my dissatisfaction with a number of their interpretations. While MacArthur admits that partial preterism is not heresy, he goes on to write that "it is clear that the hermeneutical approach taken by [partial] preterists is what laid the foundation for the hyper-preterist error."[2] The old slippery-slope argument.

The same argument could be used against a dispensationalist like MacArthur. It would go like this: "It is clear that the hermeneutical approach taken by dispensationalists is what laid the foundation for the hyper-dispensational error." Hyper or ultra-dispensationalism is so classified based on when the church age begins, either Acts 2, Acts 9, Acts 13, or Acts 28. Traditional dispensationalists don’t like being included with hyper-dispensationalists. Dispensational writer Charles F. Baker explains these dispensational divisions:

Since there is little practical difference between the Acts 9 and the Acts 13 views, these positions are usually considered in general as one. Those who hold the Acts 2 position like to refer to those who hold the Acts 13 or Acts 28 views as extreme or ultra-dispensationalists. Ryrie, who holds the Acts 2 position, refers to those of the Acts 13 persuasion as Moderate Ultradispensationalists, and those who hold the Acts 28 position as Extreme Ultra-dispensationalists, although he admits that his own view is considered to be ultradispensational by antidispensationalists.[3]

Preterists could make all dispensationalists look bad by pointing out that there are hyper-dispensationalists out there, and since they are heretical, their closest relatives—Acts 2 dispensationalists—are equally suspicious. One leads inevitably to the other. Furthermore, following MacArthur’s logic, dispensationalists could be turned into heretics by observing that Jehovah’s Witnesses and dispensationalists are premillennial. Premillennialism, therefore, leads to cultism. Dispensationalism and premillennialism should be judged on their own merits. This does not mean that a case cannot be made for a logical relationship between dispensationalism and hyper-dispensationalism, but each position should first stand on its own. Nowhere in Last Days Madness do I drag hyper-dispensationalism into the debate. I deal with dispensationalism on its own terms.

                                                         Look Who’s Hyper Now!

The same "hyper" argument can be applied to Calvinism. Seeing that MacArthur is a Calvinist, I can just hear some of his Arminian friends saying, "It is clear that the hermeneutical approach taken by Calvinists like John MacArthur is what laid the foundation for the hyper-Calvinism error." Amillennialist David Engelsma, also a preterist critic, follows a similar slippery slope argument. Engelsma writes that partial "preterism will become consistent preterism."[4] This is curious coming from Engelsma since he defends Calvinism against those who maintain that Calvinism inevitably leads to hyper-Calvinism or that Calvinism is in fact hyper-Calvinism. He writes in Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel,

In most cases the charge "hyper-Calvinist" is nothing but a deceptive attack upon Calvinism itself. Someone who hates Calvinism, or the uncompromising, consistent defense of Calvinism; yet he hesitates to attack Calvinism openly and forthrightly, and therefore he disguises his attack as an attack on "hyper-Calvinism" and "hyper-Calvinists."[5]

This is exactly what Engelsma does in his attack on preterism. Instead of dealing with the detailed arguments of preterists, he immediately attacks hyper-preterism as if partial and hyper-preterism are synonymous. Engelsma even attacks a non-preterist, Andrew Sandlin of Chalcedon, accusing him of being a full preterist because he shares other theological distinctives with partial preterists. Very poor scholarship indeed. And Engelsma is a professor at a seminary! Let’s modify the hyper-Calvinist paragraph above by substituting hyper-preterist for hyper-Calvinist.

In most cases the charge "hyper-preterist" is nothing but a deceptive attack upon preterism itself. Someone who hates preterism, or the uncompromising, consistent defense of preterism; yet he hesitates to attack preterism openly and forthrightly, and therefore he disguises his attack as an attack on "hyper-preterism" and "hyper-preterists."

Engelsma and MacArthur know that they cannot deal with partial preterism on its own terms because it would show how each of their prophetic systems cannot stand biblical analysis. So they attack an extreme form of the position, hoping no one will notice. This tactic is often successful because most people are ignorant of the facts.

Every theological group has its "ultras." Paul addresses this when he asks, "Should we remain in sin, in order that grace might increase?" (Rom. 6:1) and "Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?" (6:15). There were some who claimed that salvation by grace through faith was a license for lawlessness. "May it never be!" Is salvation by grace through faith heretical because some people misapply its tenets? May it never be. Calvinism, dispensationalism, premillennialism, and preterism should be studied and evaluated on their own merits, not in terms of how far some have taken a position.

                                                         Lightweight Scholarship

The Second Coming does not compare favorably with The Gospel According to Jesus. Detailed analysis and comparative study are exchanged for superficial and misleading rhetoric. MacArthur scrupulously avoids the heart of the debate over the time texts. He morphs "near" and "shortly" into "imminent" without ever making a case for how this can be done exegetically. Including an appendix by Arthur W. Pink on "The Imminent Return of the Redeemer" (1918) adds nothing to the debate, especially since Pink later changed his views on eschatology. If God wanted to convey that Jesus could return at "any moment," He would have directed the biblical writers to choose Greek words that mean "any moment" instead of "near" and "shortly." He didn’t.

Consider James 5:8-9, a passage that MacArthur uses to support his contention that Jesus could come "at any moment," even though 2000 years have passed.[6] "You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand" (v. 8). "At hand," or "near," cannot be made to mean "any moment." "At hand" is defined for us by the Bible in the next verse: "Behold, the Judge is standing right at the door" (v. 9). "At hand" = "right at the door." How far from the door is Jesus in Revelation 3:20? Being "right at the door" means being close enough to knock. Who is James telling to be patient? His first-century audience! The command to be patient has little relevance after the passing of nearly 2000 years.

MacArthur is either oblivious to the debate surrounding this issue or he tactically decided to steer his readers around the topic so as not to raise a very big red flag about the deficiencies in his own dispensational system.

                                                               A Hurried Writer

The book reads as if it was written in a hurry. For example, in one place MacArthur writes that preterists "ultimately depart from and nullify the strict literal sense of Matthew 24:34," while on the previous page he chides preterists for insisting that Matthew 24:34 should be interpreted with "wooden literalness."[7] So which is it? Not being literal enough or being too literal? MacArthur should have studied how "this generation" is used elsewhere in the New Testament. He didn’t. Others have. "This generation" always refers-without exception-to the generation to whom Jesus is speaking.[8] Since the meaning of "this generation" is crucial for establishing the proper time setting for the Olivet Discourse, MacArthur should have spent considerable time justifying his interpretation. He calls the preterist interpretation of "this generation" a "misunderstanding"[9] without ever dealing with the extensive arguments preterists use to defend their position. Preterists are not the only ones who have this "misunderstanding." Here are three non-preterist examples:

  • "[T]he obvious meaning of the words ‘this generation’ is the people contemporary with Jesus. Nothing can be gained by trying to take the word in any sense other than its normal one: in Mark (elsewhere in 8:12, 9:19) the word always has this meaning."[10]
  • "[This generation] can only with the greatest difficulty be made to mean anything other than the generation living when Jesus spoke."[11]
  • "The significance of the temporal reference has been debated, but in Mark ‘this generation’ clearly designates the contemporaries of Jesus (see on Chs. 8:12, 38; 9:19) and there is no consideration from the context which lends support to any other proposal. Jesus solemnly affirms that the generation contemporary with his disciples will witness the fulfillment of his prophetic word, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the dismantling of the Temple."[12]

Why doesn’t MacArthur attempt to refute these non-preterist scholars? Do they misunderstand the clear teaching of Scripture?

                                             Will the Real Literalist Please Stand Up

MacArthur states that interpreting "this generation" in a "wooden literalness" fashion would mean that "the rest of the Olivet Discourse must be spiritualized or otherwise interpreted figuratively in order to explain how Christ’s prophecies could all have been fulfilled by A.D. 70 without His returning bodily to earth."[13] Do preterists spiritualize the events described by Jesus in Matthew 24? Not at all! They compare Scripture with Scripture. We let the Bible interpret the Bible. There were literal earthquakes (Matt. 27:54; 28:2; Acts 16:26) and literal famines (Acts 11:28; cf. Rom. 8:35), just like Jesus predicted (Matt. 24:7). Paul tells us that the "gospel" literally had been preached "to all the nations" throughout the "world" of his day (Rom. 1.8; 16:25-26; Col. 1:6, 23; 1 Tim. 3:10), just like Jesus predicted (Matt. 24:14). This says nothing of the promise by Jesus that the literal temple would be destroyed before the last apostle died (Matt. 16:27-28) and that first-century generation passed away (24:34).

                                                                     Conclusion

Last Days Madness answers every argument raised by MacArthur, arguments which he studiously avoids addressing in this poorly conceived book. Some might claim that MacArthur is unaware of my work, and so he was unable to respond to my arguments. This debate has been around for centuries. Anyone writing on this topic should be aware of the current literature. And since he quotes from an internet article by me, he knows what’s going on. MacArthur doesn’t even interact with R. C. Sproul’s The Last Days According to Jesus. John MacArthur might be able to fool the dispensational faithful, but he won’t even be able to do that much longer. The Second Coming is just one more example that dispensationalism cannot be defended when principles of sound scholarship are followed and applied.

Endnotes:

[1] John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus: What Does Jesus Mean When He says "Follow Me"? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 25.
[2]
John F. MacArthur, The Second Coming: Signs of Christ’s Return and the End of the Age (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 223.
[3] Charles F. Baker, A Dispensational Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Grace Bible College Publications, 1972), 6.
[4]
David J. Engelsma, "The Preterism of Christian Reconstruction (2)," The Standard Bearer (July 1999), 389.
[5]
David Engelsma,  Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1980), 5.
[6]
MacArthur, The Second Coming, 51.
[7] John MacArthur, The Second Coming: Signs of Christ’s Return and the End of the Age (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 81, 80.
[8] Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church, 4th ed. (Atlanta, GA: American Vision, 1999), 55-60, 183-88.
[9] MacArthur, The Second Coming, 219.
[10]
Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator’s Handbook of the Gospel of Mark (New York: United Bible Societies, 1961), 419.
[11] D.A. Carson, "Matthew" in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, gen. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985), 8:507.
[12]
William L. Lane, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 480.
[13] MacArthur, The Second Coming, 80.

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