MacArthur and the Principle of Charity

How do we read even our opponents? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

There’s a rule in debates of any kind that if there are at least two possible readings of a text and you have no good reason to prefer one to the other, you go with the one that puts your opponent in the best light. You would want him to do the same to you if he thought your statements were ambiguous. If you don’t understand a concept also, you should not put it in a way that is absolutely ludicrous.

So let’s look at something John MacArthur is claimed to have said. My friend who shared it is a Catholic and I have not known him to post false information so if this was never said, I will gladly rescind any comments about MacArthur, but the concept will still be the same because this is a common mistake. Anyway, it all begins with this picture.

I understand a lot of my fellow Protestants get antsy when they hear the phrase “Mother of God” and I will be discussing that concern later on, but no matter how much you might think Catholicism is false whether you just disagree with it or whether you think it’s the biggest cult on Earth, and I am indeed the former, let’s state something about what is meant by Mother of God. The fact is that no Catholic takes it to mean something along the lines of, “God did not exist and then Mary came along and Mary gave birth to God and God came into existence at that point.” Every Catholic knows that God in His divine essence was not born. God is eternal. They do know that a man named Jesus who is both God and man was born. That is what is meant.

Now that doesn’t mean you have to accept every bit of Mariology that comes from Catholics and Orthodox, but it does mean that you can accept this term when it is understood. If by Mother of God, one means that Mary gave birth to a person who is fully God and fully man and brought the incarnation into the world through her body, there is not a problem. Protestants agree that Mary was the one to do this and to this degree, she should indeed be honored even in Protestant circles. While I think Catholics and Orthodox have gone too far with Mary, I think the Protestant reaction has gone too far in the other direction.

Now let’s address something a Protestant friend said in the discussion. Catholics should say what they mean. When people hear Mother of God, they do tend to think something along the lines of God came into being through Mary. Why not let them just say what they mean then?

The problem here is that everyone does theological shorthand. Were you to go up to Protestant Evangelicals and ask “Is Jesus God?”, they would say yes. Now you go to someone like Greg Stafford, who is a Jehovah’s Witness who wrote a book defending them. He will take that and go this way.

Jesus is God.
God is a Trinity.
Jesus is a Trinity.

Obviously, no one accepts this, but Stafford will use it to show the Trinity is nonsense if you think Jesus is God. Some will look at this and say, “I know it’s wrong, but I don’t see where.” The problem is the first premise is theological shorthand. Evangelicals don’t go around stating the doctrine as “Jesus is the man in whom the fullness of the divine nature, the second person of the Trinity, dwells in bodily form.” No. We just speak of the deity of Christ and say Jesus is God hoping people will understand rather than use a long and clunky phrase every time.

Getting back to the picture itself, the reality is MacArthur should know enough about Catholicism to know this. I could grant some grace to Joe Protestant who doesn’t walk in highly theological circles and hears this phrase and reacts that way. On the other hand, how much better would our discussions be if we would go to our opponents over ideas like this and say “Do you really believe this? Explain this to me please.”

And again, if the citation is wrong and MacArthur never said this, fair enough. This can be changed. What is still the same is the point. We ought to read our opponents in the best possible light and if we don’t know something, try to understand before critiquing. How much better could our dialogues be if we did that?

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

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