I’m at the Shepherd’s Conference right now where the most sold book in the conference’s history occurred this year with the new Biblical Doctrines edited by John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue. There’s talk of this book published by Crossway will be translated in many other languages. I’m looking forward to hear what God can do with this work to equip God’s Church to know God’s truth more accurately in a systematic fashion.
Now I know with every new systematic theology the question some would immediately ask would be “What are its strengths and weaknesses and how will the book present doctrines?” Systematic theology has also gotten more complex with works discussing or at least accounting for aspect of historical theology, biblical theology, philosophical theology, etc. While some have criticize systematic theology as “proof texting” I think the game has actually gotten more rigorous and more inter-disciplinary (at least with the various theologies). For example I think of Crossway’s Foundation Of Evangelical Theology Series and the most recent work I reviewed God the Son Incarnate by Stephen Wellum and how it has dimensions of apologetics, epistemology, biblical theology and historical theology.
So looking at this new work by MacArthur here’s my initial observation. I’ll be sharing first what I see is a big plus about the book and also one constructive criticism. I share the constructive criticism humbly, especially when I imagine the incredible amount of hard work that was put into the volume and I am just a lowly reader of theology.
Positive: The Chapter on Salvation/Soteriology
This has got to be the best chapter for the entire work. It is also the longest chapter in the entire book. I really liked how the chapter was laid out in an organized and logical matter beginning with the plan of redemption, the accomplishment of redemption and the application of redemption. There’s a feel of Murray’s Redemption Accomplished And Applied with the way the section is titled. This chapter on salvation is very thorough and I’m encouraged because salvation is important and there’s great dividends for the Christian life and holiness in studying God’s work in saving us.
Typically I don’t think dispensationalists have done well in the field of Systematic Theology compared to systematic theologians from the presuasion of Covenant Theology. I must say that the salvation chapter was a delight for me as it tackles subjects that are not often discussed at such lengths among Dispensationalist circles. In particular I have in mind the doctrine of reprobation and the atonement. I was very much interested where the book would land concerning the atonement and found that it articulates definite atonement. Overall the book articulates the classic Reformed view of salvation.
In my opinion the book is worth purchasing primarily for the chapter on salvation.
Constructive Criticisms: The Attributes of God
I thought the book’s discussion on the attributes of God could have been presented better. On page 45 of the Prolegomena the book mentioned that one of the major motifs of Scripture, among other things is “the revelation of the Character of God.” This was the first mentioned motif. Given that the book’s own admission that the character of God is a major motif, and MacArthur’s and The Master’s Seminary’s emphasis of being driven by the Scripture I was disappointed at the space given to the discussion of the attributes of God.
The section on the attributes of God is only 28 pages (pages 160-188). It is actually a bit less when on realizes that the section begins at the bottom portion of page 160 and has only one complete sentences. Furthermore from pages 161 to 168 it discusses methodological issues concerning the attributes of God such as method of identification, faulty methods, relations of the attrbutes and issues on classifications. Those are very important issues that needs to be discussed. Which means the book looks at the actual attributes of God only between 168 to 188. That’s twenty pages. Furthermore those twenty pages are primarily bullet points on the various attributes of God rather than a full discussion like that which was modeled in the chapter on soteriology. I’m not against bullet points and I actually enjoyed Richard Mayhue’s outlines and listings in other books that he wrote and his preaching and teachings. But to talk about the attributes of God in mere bullet points for a systematic theology? One of the areas of systematic theology we should avoid is merely referencing Scripture without explaining it according to its immediate context or the context of the flow of Scripture. It’s not enough to give the verse address and leave it at that. There is a need for further explanations of the retrieval of those doctrines from the verses mentioned. As I look back at the soteriology chapter I realized there’s not much bullet points listings as it was done with the attributes of God. For a book on “theology,” in which theology is the study of God this is quite an ironic weakness. This is also a weakness that seems quite awkward to me when I think of how other one-volume works on systematic theology handle the attributes of God. For example Millard Erickson covers “What God is like” on pages of 289-345 in his work and Robert Reymond on pages 129-203 in his book. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology has three chapter on the attributes of God. I must be balanced by pointing out that having more pages is not in of itself a strength after all one can write horrible things about the attributes of God over many pages. But merely giving twenty pages of bulletpoints on the attributes of God in a 900 page book that is filled with many truths of God’s Word strikes me as rather imbalanced.
Still I would say, get the book!!! Don’t throw out everything because of what I think is deficient. Even with the rest of the chapter on God, it is worthwhile especially the section on the Trinity. It gives a lengthy presentation on the Trinity that is beautiful, beginning with the Old Testament marching to the New Testament.