Thursday, January 12, 2006

Disagreeing with MacArthur

But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Heb 5:14, ESV)

We've been studying Hebrews in church, and the passage last week, Hebrews 5:11-14, was particularly troublesome. There was some disagreement in the Sunday School class, and it has lingered with me, so I decided to do some digging on my own.

First, the passage (quoted from the ESV)
11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Here's MacArthur's commentary on v. 14:
5:14 of full age [ESV "mature"]. The same Gr. root is translated “perfection” in 6:1 and is elsewhere translated “perfect” (7:11,19,28; 9:9; 10:1,14; 11:40; 12:23). It is used in Hebrews, including this text, as a synonym for salvation. In that sense, it refers to the completion which comes when one becomes a believer in Christ, rather than referring to a Christian who has become mature, as is typical Pauline usage (see marginal note, cf. Col. 4:12). Jesus invited unbelieving Jews to the salvation perfection which came only through following Him in faith (Matt. 19:21). Paul wrote that those who had come to Christ by faith were thereby mature and able to receive the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 2:6). He described believers as “mature” when he referred to those whose righteousness was in Christ (Phil. 3:2–20), as opposed to those who had confidence in the flesh.
[MacArthur, J. J. (1997, c1997). The MacArthur Study Bible (electronic ed.) (Heb 5:14). Nashville: Word Pub.]

Let's read verse 14 again, and I'll substitute the word "saved" to emphasize his point:
"But solid food is for the [saved], for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil."

Now once more, this time back in context:
11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Is the writer really trying to say that solid food belongs to the saved? Or is it more consistent to read this passage as a comparison between immature and mature believers? I'm open to correction if I'm wrong, but it seems pretty clear to me that, despite what John MacArthur (and most other commentaries on this passage say), this reference is not to unsaved people, but to believers who are infantile and need to grow up. This is the plain-sense meaning of the text, and to assert anything else requires some real linquistic gymnastics.

[Note: My original post used the New King James Version, since that is what MacArthur quotes from in his Study Bible and his one volume Bible Commentary. However, when I went to the Thomas Nelson website, and found out that their quotation policy requires that "two complete copies of a work using quotations from the NKJV (except for sermons, church bulletins, orders of service, Sunday School lessons, church newsletters, and similar works) must be sent to the following address: Thomas Nelson Publishers, Attn: Bible Rights and Permissions, 501 Nelson Place, Nashville, Tennessee 37214-1000," I opted for my preferred translation, the ESV. Thomas Nelson, if you read this, please offer an alternative to written copies being sent in--gimme an e-mail address and I'll drop you a note with the permalink to my blog entry; otherwise, I probably won't ever quote from you on my blog. ]

21 comments:

Kim said...

This is an interesting question. I studied Hebrews in some depth a number of years ago. It took us about twenty weeks. I don't remember hearing that slant on the verse you menion.

My 16 year old daughter and I are reading Hebrews together, and we haven't got there yet. You have me eager to start looking it up, but I have to teach sunday school this week, and the lesson is supposed to be on Elisha. Maybe they'd like a little Hebrews.

If Paul meant "saved" why didn't he use a word that specifically meant saved?

Finrod said...
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Gummby said...

Kim: If Elisha can wait a week, then this would be a worthwhile study. I'll send you my notes when I get home; in the meantime, here is the lesson (in PDF), and the sermon (in Real Audio).

Dr. Mike: I don't actually have any of those commentaries. I'm just starting my commentary collection. Do you have a recommendation for Hebrews?

Finrod said...
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Chris Pixley said...

Matt-

Allow me to take a stab at it.

All who try to interpret the book of Hebrews understand that there are a number of macro-issues that need to be considered prior to and in conjunction with the micro-issues of the text at hand. Chief among those prior considerations is the audience to whom the book is written. Given the line of reasoning, the language used, and the frequent appeals to Old Testament truths and images, it is safe to assume that the book was written to a primarily (if not exclusively) Jewish audience. In fact, I'm not aware of any, either direct or indirect, references to Gentiles in the entire book. Furthermore, it seems clear to me that the book was written, in part, to encourage Jewish Christians (genuine converts to Christ) who were enduring persecution, and were, as a result, tempted to abandon the faith they had professed. However, it appears equally clear (and reasonable) to me that there existed in that group and admixture of Jews who were convinced of the truth regarding the person of Christ, but who were not in fact genuinely converted, which was evidenced by their eventual apostasy from the gospel of Christ. (This is not altogether different from some in evangelical churches today.) It is for this the writer includes several diversions of argument in the book, where he departs briefly from the subject matter at hand to address, in part, those individuals who were stopping short of exercising saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In these departures He seems to be saying, in effect, "You cannot continue flirting around with intellectual conviction about the truth without believing it wholeheartedly. In doing so you run the risk of finally falling away from it, never being able to repent of your unbelief and know the salvation that is now being offerd to you (6:6)." It is in the midst of one such diversion that the text you're wrestling with is found.

Since you mentioned context, it's important to consider the entire context. Therefore, it is to be observed that these individuals to whom the writer is speaking had become "dull of hearing"--that is, unable to understand fully and enbrace what was being said. It is clear from the context that the writer had been talking about the Melchizedekian highpriesthood of Jesus Christ. That's what he introduced in 4:14, continues through 5:10, and then resumes in 6:20. They simply could not handle the full implications of what the writer had to say about this unique ministry of Jesus Christ. Instead, they needed to go back to the ABC's of Old Testament revelation in order to fill out the backdrop of their understaning of Jesus' high-priestly function. Sadly, however, they should have already understood these things, having been for so long exposed to the truths of Christ and His gospel. In other words, they may have intellectually embraced what they had heard, but they were not savingly committed to Christ as the perfect highpriest after the order of Melchizedek, the one and only Mediator between themselves and God (1 Timothy 2:5). The writer goes on to speak of the danger of lingering in this state, only to eventually fall away in apostasy (6:1-6). If we take, then, 5:11-14 as referring to immature believers, don't we then open the door to the interpretation of 6:1-6 as indicating that a true child of God, immature as he may be, can finally apostatize? I think the context indicates that the writer has a different group in mind altogether.

There are also some difficult lexical matters to address in this text. For example, what are the "oracles of God"? What about "the word of righteousness"? Of course, there's the difficulty in understanding "mature" (same word-group in 5:14 and 6:1). It seems to me that John MacArthur has endeavored to interpret this challenging terminology ("mature") according to its usage throughout Hebrews.

Finally, there is the heretofore unsolved riddle of who authored this book. If we hold that Paul was its author, it stands to reason that Paul's discussion of maturity and immaturity as well as "milk" and "solid food" in other canonical contexts should be given heavy weight in this passage. But if Paul is not the author (which is fairly standard among NT scholars today) then those extra-Hebrews passages lose some of their influence in our interpretation of this passage.

The issues are not easy to sort through. It takes a great deal of painstaking exegetical work to arrive at an interpretation of a passage like Hebrews 5:11-14. Decrying interpretations like MacArthur's as linguistic gymnastics may be a bit premature.

Finally, I should note that Dr_Mike's assessment of John MacArthur's exegetical skills strikes me as, well...silly. While it's true that John MacArthur has not spent his entire professional life in the academy, as have some of the other commentators Dr_Mike mentioned, it does not then follow that his exegetical ability is somehow inferior and, as was implied, not to be trusted. Actually, John's interpretation of this passage is, technically speaking, exegetically valid. In other words, it seems to me to meet the lexical, grammatical, contextual, and historical demands of the text. Perhaps his commentaries do not provide the reader with all of this exegetical data in detail, but that does not mean that the work has not been done. A quick perusal of the introduction of any of John MacArthur's commentaries will reveal that they have a specific aim in mind, which prohibits the inclusion in the final edit of all of that detailed information. For that matter, Guthrie's TNTC on Hebrews is paltry compared to MacArthur's, not even entertaining the possibility of divergent views of the key exegetical words and phrases. But this most certainly does not constitute grounds for castering doubt upon Guthrie's exegetical credentials. Dr-Mike, if you're goal is to take umbrage with someone's exegesis, it seems that you ought to offer some of your own exegesis on the passage, showing where the commentator in question is found wanting. Instead, you gave us only straw-man argumentation, which is never persuasive, particularly in the light of rigorous exegetical scrutiny.

Finrod said...
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Chris Pixley said...

Hey Dr_Mike, just curious, what constitutes a "true exegete"?

Warmly,

"Another [mindless?] MacArthur Groupie"

Chris Pixley said...

Matt-

I do happen to agree with Dr_Mike that you should consult a broad variety of commentaries in your own study of the passage. And, in spite of my groupie status, I do not happen to believe John MacArthur to be the infallible, final word on this or any text--gulp...I do find areas of disagreement with him from time to time. In the interest of encouraging diligent study, below is a link to the syllabus of a graduate level course on the book of Hebrews to be taught by D.A. Carson this semester at RTS Orlando.

http://www2.rts.edu/Site/Academics/Docs/Syllabi/Orlando/2006-02-2NT712_Epistle_to_the_Hebrews.pdf

Hope this helps.

Chris Pixley said...

Sorry, Matt. The syllabus includes Carson's required and recommended reading for the course. This should serve as a brief albeit helpful bibliography on the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Jeremy Weaver said...
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Finrod said...
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Chris Pixley said...

Obviously, you want to help Matt and so do I.

Good. Glad to hear that Dr_Mike, and it's exactly what I presumed to be the case when I initially engaged your comments. In fact, that's why I chose to address your comments. Matt asked for help with an interpretive difficulty that was exascerbated by his disagreement with what I assume to be for him an otherwise trustworthy and respected Bible teacher (Matt can certainly correct me if I am wrong in this assumption). You then proceded to dismiss MacArthur's interpretation of the passage as untrustworthy based on your (unfounded?) opinion that he's not a "true exegete". By my count you offered exactly zero exegetical support for your dismissal of MacArthur's reading of the passage. You just made the bald claim the his interpretation is bad without doing him or us the courtesy of demonstrating why its bad. Dr_Mike, that's called ad hominem argumentation, and it's neither helpful toward furthering the exegetical discussion of a debated passage nor is it intellectually honest. I would like to think you can do better than that.

John MacArthur doesn't need me to defend him. That's not what I'm interested in at all. But I do desire to defend the truth of Scripture and that requires that I engage in honest exegetical inquiry and discussion. I'm confident that that is what Matt was calling for when he chose to put this passage in play by posting his thoughts. The Scripture can certainly withstand our scrutiny. To that end, I think Matt should read Guthrie, Bruce, Lane, etc., but I also think he should read MacArthur. None of these men are entitled to be put upon a pedestal so as to be beyond honest evaluation, regardless of their academic credentials. That point seems to be lost in your comments.

By the way, you define a "true exegete" as "someone who has the credentials and has committed their lives to doing exegetical work." In exactly what way does MacArthur fall short of that standard?

Finrod said...
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Finrod said...
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Gummby said...

To all: thanks for your comments. I probably should have said "seems a bit of a linguistic stretch," since John has both experience (doing this for 30+ years) and Greek knowledge, whereas my experience is limited and my knowledge of Greek is worse than my espaƱol. I wasn't trying to impugn his exegesis per se, just trying to understand how he made the leap that he did--it seemed out of place.

My main goal was to get the ball rolling, which I think has been done. Hebrews is very confusing to me. There are days when I think I get it, and other days when I think it could spend lifetimes pouring over the text without coming to a right understanding.

Dr. Mike: thanks for the recommendations. I probably need to find a way to get my hands on some of these texts.

Dox: you trouble-maker, uh, thanks for stopping by.

Chris: thanks for your insights on the text. I agree with much of what you've said, but I still have questions.

I agree with Chris wholeheartedly on the authorship issue of Hebrews, and I had to alter my original post because I had misunderstood John's thrust in presenting Paul's views. I originally misread him as bringing in Paul's view, but on second look, realized he was arguing just the opposite.

As I mentioned, we just finished the text above, and I had some lingering questions. Heb 6 does indeed loom large, like a shadow over the entire text, but in the end, I decided to post what I had, knowing that a) it would probably take some time to sort it out anyway; b) my intentionally provocative title might attract some folks that could help me understand the text and MacArthur's position better; and c) if I am wrong I can always change my mind. I'm more interested in being Scriptural than being right (though in the end I'd prefer to be Scripturally right).

At times, it seems like popular interpretation of Hebrews goes something like this: those who think you can lose your salvation have their prooftexts, and at times, it seems like those who reject that notion make decisions about those particular texts (in Heb 2:1, parts of 4, and of course 6), and then try to make the rest of the text fit with that.

In any case, here's where I'm at: Jim's view (that's my pastor, for those who don't know) is that the audience in Hebrews is believers. He reads the passages that some would see as loss of salvation (for either believers or non-belivers) as a loss of reward, not apostasy and/or loss of salvation. In some places, like 5:11-14, this seems to me to make perfect sense. But just then, I'll come to a verse like 6:8, and I think "are you really trying to say this isn't about eternal judgment?"

So how do you go about deciding if the audience is one group, like Jim thinks, two groups, like Chris has suggested, or even three groups, like MacArthur's contends in his commentary (something I hadn't read last night when I posted this)? It seems like the choice of who the audience is greatly affects your reading and exegesis of certain passages. Also, Chris, you stated that "the context indicates that the writer has a different group in mind altogether." But how do you know this? How do you know when the writer switches groups? And if you split the audience like this into multiple groups, don't you run the risk of reading into the text?

Not sure how much sense any of this is making. Again, like I said, I'm struggling through this. I loved Heb 1 & 2, and I can't wait for 11 & 12, but in the interim, I feel like I'm stuck in the Slough of Despond.

Thanks ahead of time for any help or insights you might have.

Chris Pixley said...

Matt-

Thanks for the feedback. I can appreciate your confusion about interpreting Hebrews. I have had and continue to have similar kinds of experiences.

You commented:

Also, Chris, you stated that "the context indicates that the writer has a different group in mind altogether." But how do you know this? How do you know when the writer switches groups? And if you split the audience like this into multiple groups, don't you run the risk of reading into the text?

I think my statement confused the issue more than clarifying it. Let me try again. I don't think it's best to think of the author as moving cleanly from one group to the next, but instead to see him as speaking in a way that encompasses the entirety of the audience. In the case of 5:11-6:8, it appears that he is calling the unbelieving Jews to fully embrace Christ by faith, but his words also have applicability to the believing Jews. In other words, the so-called apostasy passages do serve as a warning to true believers, compelling them to make honest examination of their lives lest they be self-deceived. To me, it's not all that different from Jesus' words regarding the salvation of only those that persevere to the end. Unfortunately, it's difficult to provide an airtight explanation of how human perseverence and Divine preservation harmonize. This is most assuredly more a funtion of the finiteness of my own mind than some incongruity in the mind of God.

At the end of the day, Matt, I would not get all that wound-up if someone preached Hebrews 5:11-14 as an exhortation for believers to strive for maturity through feeding on the Bible. After all, that is a truth that is clearly annunciated elsewhere in Scripture. I just don't happen to believe that's the contextual meaning of Hebrew 5:11-14. As you observed, my conviction is based largely on the broader context in which this passage is contained, and there are several good lexical and grammatical reasons to see Hebrews 6:1-8 as referring to unbelievers.

I am aware of Jim's views on the book of Hebrews as we have shared more than one collegial discussion on these passages. I understand and appreciate his interpretation, but am persuaded otherwise both exegetically and theologically. FWIW, I started listening to Jim's message from last Sunday today, but did not finish it. I hope to do so soon. Please know that I was very edified by everything he shared as he highlighted the centrality of Scripture to the Christian life.

Thanks for the questions. I appreciate the sharpening effect of this kind of biblical repartee.

Gummby said...

It's certainly helped me. Thanks for taking the time to write. I'll keep wrestling through the text.

I also thought Jim's message on Sunday was a good encouragement to fill our lives up with Scripture.

Jeremy Weaver said...

Sorry to everyone. I will delete my comment as well.

Daniel said...

After reading the quotation policy for the NKJV I am quite amused. I guess I won't be quoting from the NKJV very often...

Daniel said...

Oh, and Matt - you might want to peruse this. It may explain MacArthur's position in more depth.

Luke said...

I am working on getting the quotation policy changed, but in the mean time, blogs are very similar to "sermons, church bulletins, orders of service, Sunday School lessons, church newsletters, and similar works", at least when written by a Christian :). BTW my real blog address is bookblog.blogstream.com