In the modern era it would seem that the pinnacle of a theologian’s career is defined by the release of a systematic theology book. Many years of study yield many pages to study. This week offers the much-awaited systematic theology, Biblical Doctrine, edited by Drs. John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue. Although the work is a lifetime in the making, for the last several years believers have known that this volume was coming forth and so they eagerly looked for it. Today it is here.
At 1024 pages and weighing in at 4.3 pounds, it finds itself in the heavyweight class of systematic theologies (with the likes of books by John Frame and Norman Geisler). Of course, sheer size conveys nothing about the content. The content in many ways is not surprising. The volume is laid out like many other systematic theologies with 10 chapters covering the following:
- Theology Proper
- Anthropology & Harmartiology
While laid out in similar formats, each systematic theology comes with own emphasis and style in a manner that convey points that may not be covered by others. At the beginning of the book, the editors lay out several distinctives that they follow over the course of their presentation. First is that they presuppose the existence of God. Biblical Doctrine is not a book appealing to unbelievers by trying to prove that God exists, but instead presupposes this point in order to present God’s truth. Second is that the hermeneutics employed utilize five principles: literal, historical, grammatical, synthetical, and clarity. With that in mind, readers can embark on a journey through systematic theology that will be challenging to one’s worldview, delve deep into the Scriptures, and cause significant pondering on the things of God.
The profundity found within Biblical Doctrine is substantial and even reading through the introductory material of chapter one will force a person to contemplate how the truth impacts all aspects of a person’s life. There are four primary characteristics that readers will benefit from:
- Comprehensive: While no systematic theology book can cover every aspect of theology, some can certainly be more comprehensive than others. Certainly this is one of the comprehensive ones, not only teaching theology but at times goes in great depth where others stick to the basics (just look at the section on God’s names, which explains far more detail than most of us have ever been taught), reviews alternate views on select topics (whether Christian or secular), and even shares a wide breadth of quotations and thoughts from previous theologians.
- Concise: While long and comprehensive, the authors and editors have sought to convey the information by only covering what is absolutely necessary and avoids rabbit trails. Thus readers are well-informed without being inundated.
- Clear: Readers will also appreciate the authors clarity in writing. The topics are complex, however they don’t have to be difficult to understand. There is great care in using language that is not overbearing and when biblical terms are used (that some find confusing) they are well-defined both in the text and in the basic glossary.
- Constructive: Unfortunately there is often a great disconnect between theology and application. One of the aspects of this book that I found myself really appreciating was the ability to weave in points and descriptions of how theology is lived out. It is not as though the authors are tacking on this information at the very end, as we often hear in sermons, but instead are subtly reminding readers throughout about the importance of biblical doctrine for the Christian life.
My one lament with this book is the writing itself. While concise and clear, at times it is very weak writing, using phrases that have little impact upon the depth of what is being conveyed. This can be noted by the repeated use of the phrase ‘it is’ which is often the first sign of weak writing. I know this is a minor point when we consider what this volume is and what it conveys, but nonetheless it is an area that the authors and editors could have improved upon slightly.
Under normal circumstances a book critique includes thoughts about the theology in an evaluative form, however, this is a unique situation because the whole book is about theology. As a result, I have chosen to deal with the theology of the book in a different way. I recognize that not everyone shares the same theological leanings of Drs. John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue and that may impact one’s desire to utilize this book. Admittedly I studied at The Master’s University (so know that as I review this book) but even I do not agree with every detail of the theology.
However, know this: the book is extremely solid and well-reasoned. While there are some areas that there may be disagreement, on the major issues of the Christian life the information provided here are generally solid and standard for those who have a high authority of the Bible in their life.
Even on points that you may disagree the editors have done well and ensuring their position is backed up with Scripture and thus compelling you to define and defend your own position with the same level of detail as well. In other words, even when you disagree there are great points in reading the book because it compels you to think about why you believe what you believe.
Going into the book, here are the distinctives of the book that most people will want to know and find themselves most considered about:
- Scripture’s Center: The center of Scripture has long been debated and the editors here have declared that they see the King and Kingdom as the primary center.
- Purpose of Salvation: While many consider the purpose of salvation to be to rescue fallen men (man-centric) the doctrine of salvation presented here is from the viewpoint that the purpose is to glorify God (God-centric).
- Calvinism: Most people recognize that John MacArthur is identified with Calvinism and the doctrines of grace do impact the book. In particular there are sections on election and particular redemption.
- Pretribulational, Premillennial: While presenting varying views of eschatology, the primary emphasis of doctrine presented in the book is from a pretribulational, premillennial view.
- Israel & the Church: The book treats Israel and the Church as separate entities.
Many people find it important to understand the perspective that are being presented and these points in particular are helpful to that understanding. However, I would urge one caution to readers. If you disagree with even a portion of the points presented here, do not let that stop you from purchasing and reading through the book. While the defenses presented may presented particular doctrines in ways that you have not understood before and thus causing you to change your position, my major urging goes beyond just that. By simply avoiding the book you will miss a tremendous opportunity of being blessed by the knowledge and wisdom of scholars well-versed in ministry and life.
Finally, Biblical Doctrine differentiates itself in some unexpected ways that add great value to the book. First, spread throughout the book are hymns. Hymns are slowly falling to the side, yet here they have allowed them to play a role in speaking to the readers. The use of hymns allows readers to see once again connection between faith, doctrine, and application. It also develops an appreciation for the hymns that is lacking.
Related to the hymns are the closing prayers of each section. The editors have chosen the written prayers of various godly men throughout church history and included them within this edition. These prayers force readers to see not only some great examples of prayer but also to fixate upon the Lord.
These attributes are small in terms of inclusion into the book, but the effect is well-noted. Attention to such details should cause readers to grow in their appreciation of this volume.
Biblical Doctrine is a profound systematic theology that is sure to stand apart from the many others that are out there. My urging is that readers would be certain to pick up a copy of the book and work through. Once again I reiterate, you may not agree with everything and that’s OK, but don’t miss out on some extraordinary teaching simply because of those differences (like anything you should read with Scripture and discernment anyway, and therefore those parts you find to be wrong will not be as important).
Disclaimer: As mentioned earlier, I was a student at The Master’s University of which Dr. MacArthur is the President. Please also know that I received this book from the publisher at no cost for the purposes of review. Neither of these notions has affected my recommendation of this book, but are the result of my own reading of the book.