Expository Preaching: How John MacArthur Leads to Bart Ehrman

Rediscovering Expository Preaching by John F. MacArthur: Book Cover

This post is to all my friends, seminarians, and comrades in ministry who think I’ve “gone liberal” in my critiques of expository preaching. Recently a seminarian asked me “what I had against expository preaching?” He had read chapter 5 of The Great Giveaway and was struggling with it. The assumption was that anyone with a high view of Scripture would not discount the method of expository preaching. So in giving him an answer, I cut to the chase and said “because I believe John MacArthur leads to Bart Ehrman.” (Caveat – I am not trying to get too personal here. I do not know MacArthur or Ehrman personally. Yet their intellectual positions are so public and their vocations so on display, that I find them compellingly illustrative of what I am trying to get at here when it comes to expository preaching. Besides, I am sure each one of their respective ego’s can handle it 🙂 ).

Admittedly, what follows is a caricature of a particular kind of expository preaching. And I DO NOT want to discount all exposition of the proclaimed Truth of God revealed in Scriptures through Jesus Christ. So for the purposes of this post, my comments are directed at the kind of expository preaching as articulated in John MacArthur’s classic book on the subject Expository Preaching (EP).

My contention here is that there is a similar approach to Scripture in both MacArthur and Ehrman. Both put an exorbitant authority upon the historical-literary-critical and linguistic sciences. So, when McArthur says “the true text must be used. We are indebted to those select scholars who labor tediously in the field of textual criticism. Their studies recover the original text of Scripture … Without the text as God gave it, the preacher would be helpless to deliver it as God intended” (EP p. 28) he gives the textual critic way too much power. For these texts have been handed down, in apostolic succession, though the centuries by the Holy Spirit, church to church, preacher to preacher. I am glad for the textual critics in showing us the reliability of our texts, and the way to a more “original” text. But the gospel has been preserved by the church, who has by the Spirit preserved the Bible. I don’t need textual criticism to preserve the Truth of the gospel. The Holy Spirit through the church did it.

Then MacArthur says “in tandem, hemeneutics and exegesis focus on the biblical text to determine what it said and what it meant originally. Thus exegesis in its broadest sense will include the various disciplines of literary criticism, historical studies, grammatical exegesis, historical theology, biblical theology, and systematic theology.”(EP p.29) Because MacArthur’s hermeutic is driven by a Cartesian modernist approach to language, he puts an exorbitant authority on the preacher’s (and/or scholar’s) getting it right. In the end this is the outlier effect of an excessive individualist Protestantism.

All of the above, in my humble opinion, leads to John MacArthurites becoming Bart Ehrman’s.

Ehrman, a good evangelical growing up, took historical critical scholarship and eventually himself too seriously. He did the same two-fold move of placing his faith and trust in the powers of historical literary criticism and then in his own skills as a Biblical scholar. He believed the scholars (and eventually himself) more than the Story of God in Christ as revealed and given through the Scriptures. He spent countless hours and years finding and revealing the thousands of differences and changes in the texts (to quote Ehrman) “some people take to be inerrant.” And so Ehrman would famously say in one of his hubris strewn diatribes “Given the circumstance that (God) didn’t preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn’t gone to the trouble of inspiring them.”  Can I say this? The seeds for these statements were sown in the kinds of assumptions necessary to do expository preaching as outlined in MacArthur’s book. Expository preaching, with its twofold hubris towards historical critical methods and the genius of the Biblical scholar, paves the way for an unfounded placing of authority in these two sources.

Bart Ehrman began studying the modern historical literary scholarship of the Bible at Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. What he didn’t realize is that for most evangelicals, we will (or at least should) believe the historical critical sciences only to the point they are helpful in illuminating the Word, Jesus Christ as Revealed. We will go along with historical critical disciplines only up to the point where they undermine Jesus as Lord. Once the undermining happens we must especially pay attention to putting these disciplines in their rightful humble place, in service to the Word, not over the Word.

In truth, the Scriptures and the church are inseparable. On the one hand, the task of preserving the truth of Scriptures is the task of the church and its leadership as passed down (through ordination) through the centuries. On the other hand, the Scriptures within the church guard the church through the Spirit from heresy and are sources for further discernment for the leadership. The fact that there have been many disagreements, tug of wars, and politics in the forming of the canon should not bother us for the sovereign Lord works through politics (even polluted politics). When we impose some scientific historical critical ideas of accuracy upon these texts from the outside, we not only set that standard as an authority over the church, we put that standard over the Scriptures. The task of interpretation must likewise be a communal historical traditioned work carried on by the church. There is authority in the preacher, but it is a chastened one born in recognition by and in submission to the church. No one pastor, sitting isolated in her or his desk on Saturday evening, can interpret a word of Scripture without being ordered within the ongoing orthodoxy of the alive tradition of the interpretation beginning in the apostles and passed on and on and on until Jesus returns. If I come up with a brilliant exegesis on Saturday night in preparation for my sermon for Sunday, it still must fall within the orthodoxy of the church. If I study very hard the text where Jesus declares he saw Satan fall like lightning, and then, after discovering that “lightning” meant the planet Saturn in its original Jewish context, I declare that Jesus is calling for us to worship Saturn, I would be rightfully accused of heresy, I DON’T CARE HOW GOOD MY EXEGESIS OR HISTORICAL SOURCES WERE. It is not therefore historical grammatical work that governs interpretation (although it helps), it is the historical tradition grounded in Christ and the apostles.

Unfortunately, ex-evangelicals like Ehrman, schooled in evangelical higher education which fell under the spell of modern confidence in the sciences, think that in order to have “intellectual integrity” we have to take these historical disciplines as far as they would go. Huh? To these people who bow to the idols and succumb to the hubris of modern historical critical scholarship, I suggest a good dose of some old fashioned French postmodernist literary scholars who help us put modern science in a more humble epistemological pecking order. I suggest a quick review of the history of modern historical scholarship which reveals itself to be a “tradition-born-discipline” of the Enlightenment rationality which itself is in the process of crashing and burning as a viable narrative and way of life in our time. Go ahead and follow it as a religion unto itself, but at least realize what you’re doing. My contention is, that because evangelicals cannot see the relativity of the narrative of modern historical critical studies (for it might in turn mean our own tradition is relative), they often give undue authority to it. This inevitably leads to many of the John MacArthur’s of the world at Moody and Wheaton becoming Bart Ehrman’s. These evangelicals take the fallible human disciplines to the point of actually putting their faith and trust in them over the Lordship of Jesus Christ as manifested in and through the Scriptures. I believe this deluded impulse (I KNOW IT IS IRONIC!) is encoded in the culture of excessive expository preaching.

So let us return to the Drama of God, His Story, the Scriptures alive inviting us into the continuing Mission of God. Let us proclaim the gospel, declare the truth out of Our Story in Christ as revealed in the Scriptures over the poor, destitute, self enclosed and the ones caught up in materialism. I believe in expository preaching in the sense we are called as messengers of God in Christ to proclaim the gospel, describe it, elaborate it, unfold it in its glory and invite people into it. I believe in critical exegesis to the point it is chastened and in submission to the intratextual integrity of Scripture itself (We have a wonderful one hour community Bible Study at the Vine in preparation for our service every Sunday). As I said in The Great Giveaway, the goal of preaching is “the unfurling a reality we could not see apart from being engulfed in the Story of God from creation to redemption.”

I say all this to clarify why preaching at Life on the Vine does not diminish the preaching of the Word. Instead by submitting the preacher and the community to Scripture, and calling ourselves to live into it (The Mission of God), the preacher in effect lifts up Scripture over us, not putting it at our disposal to be used as we each see fit. Sometimes, it takes a not so subtle statement to make a point, so I’m sticking with it, because John MacArthur I am sure can handle it. In terms of expository preaching, the real danger is that “John MacArthur leads to Bart Ehrman.”

For further reading by me on the subject of expository preaching, you can look here, here and here, here , here, and here and of course the 5th chapter of The Great Giveaway. If people want to see what preaching looks like at Life on the Vine, I have a powerpoint that might help. Perhaps I’ll post it next week.

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