July 8, 2013

Why Seminary? Exhibit C – John MacArthur

by Clint Archer

‎Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; the cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.”   – Mark Twain

In Exhibit A: Joel Osteen, we embarked on a discussion about the value of seminary for those aspiring to the preaching ministry. We witnessed Larry King pull an Emperor’s New Clothes routine on Osteen by pointing out to the world that the pastor of USA’s largest church had no theological training. King then proceeded to expose what that looks like in practice: A series of questions any pastor should be equipped to answer was met with Osteen’s sheepish and increasingly predictable refrain of, “I don’t know.” We then turned our attention to Exhibit B to another “untrained” megachurch pastor of yesteryear, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

Spurgeon’s studies, though informal, were nonetheless rigorous, comprehensive, and effective. Of course, having a photographic memory must have proven useful.

There is one more witness I’d like to call to the stand in making my case, namely Dr. John F. MacArthur, Jr.


John MacArthur is the preaching pastor of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles.

I encountered Iain Murray’s biography of MacArthur I was struck with how seminary altered the course of this man’s life. MacArthur described himself as a sports-crazed college student and confessed “I never let books get in the way of my education.”

After a dramatic car accident he acquiesced to a perceived call to pursue the ministry. He studied at Talbot Theological Seminary in California under the renowned Rabbi-turned-Christian-scholar, Dr. Charles Feinberg. It was at seminary that the reluctant student fell in love with theology, the original languages, writing, and preaching. And a good thing he did.

When he pursued a doctoral degree at another institution he was told that his previous seminary had given him “too much Bible.” He was instructed to read his way though a formidable list of “dead German liberals” which put him off the idea of further formal studies. (Imagine advising a young Bill Gates that his course load had too much programing and not enough mainframe hardware installation practice).

This is where MacArthur’s path and Spurgeon’s meet up again. As with the 19th Century preacher, MacArthur continued his own education driven by a voracious curiosity and insatiable desire to understand the Bible more deeply.

Without the meandering guidance of (spiritually and otherwise) deceased liberal scholars, MacArthur’s theological understanding continued to deepen and sharpen on the lodestone of self-preparation. He credits expository preaching as being the fuel for this fire of learning– to produce two fresh messages weekly forces you to drink deeply yourself.

A publishing deal with Moody ensured that he would need to be thorough and fresh, in order to fill their vision of a commentary set based on verse by verse preaching of the entire New Testament (a Herculean feat completed recently, and discussed in: If I were John MacArthur.).

So, though seminary set the course of his life, it was his own commitment to self-study that ensured the theological astuteness and piercing discernment (or dizernment, as he pronounces it) for which he would become legendary.

MacArthur’s confidence in the veracity of God’s word begets confidence in proclaiming it, as was evident in his interview with Larry King.

Here are some excerpts from MacArthur’s counterpart to Osteen’s Larry King Live interview:

KING: John MacArthur, what happens when you die?

MACARTHUR: Well, when you die, you go to one of two places. According to Scripture. You go out of the presence of God forever, or you go into the presence of God forever.

KING: Depending?

MACARTHUR: Depending upon your personal relationship with Jesus Christ, which is, according to the Bible, the only way to enter heaven.

KING: So therefore a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist will not go to heaven?

MACARTHUR: Christian theology and the Scripture says that only through faith in Jesus Christ.

KING: And you — when we say what happened, what happens? Do you go somewhere as a body?

MACARTHUR: No, your body stays. We go to the funeral. We see the body. It goes into the grave. It decays. Your spirit immediately goes either in the presence of God or out, waiting the final resurrection. There will be a resurrection of all bodies in the end, a resurrection unto life or a resurrection unto damnation.

KING: It is, John MacArthur, is it not, a guess on your — an educated guess based on your Scriptures, your reading, your faith, but you don’t know, you don’t know know, do you? How can you know?

MACARTHUR: Because the Bible says so.

KING: But you believe the Bible?

MACARTHUR: Well, I believe the Bible, but I believe the Bible can be defended. I believe through the centuries the Bible has stood the test of intense scrutiny, and it is the real and true revelation of God, and it speaks truly about life and death. And someone has been there and come back, and that’s Jesus Christ.

KING: How come only one?

MACARTHUR: How come only one what?

KING: Person ever come back?

MACARTHUR: Well, that’s because the design of leaving this world is to go into the eternal world. The only person who came from the eternal world into this world is Jesus Christ.

There have been a few others, by the way. In fact in the Old Testament, the prophets raised a few from the dead. In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles raised a few from the dead. And at the death of Christ on the cross, the graves were open and some were raised. And that’s indicative of the fact that there will be an actual physical resurrection to join with the spirits that are with God at death

[End of transcript. Find the rest at transcripts.cnn.com]


Quite a marked difference to what we saw of Osteen’s “I don’t know” stock answers under Exhibit A.

If you watch the video of this interview you are struck with how unhesitant MacArthur is. He gets a question. He answer it. Bam. No apology, no stammering, no ifs and buts. I love it. That confidence comes from years of deep study in the Scriptures. It’s not about your opinion; you know what God says.

Aspiring seminoids should be encouraged. If you are unable to get to seminary, do the next best thing. Get a reading list of what is covered in that seminary. Plow through it with relentless commitment. Take a course in Greek at a local university. And fill your time with the pursuit of biblical knowledge and understanding. Forget the dead Germans and be content to have God’s approval instead of man’s. You don’t need a degree, just faithfulness with what you have been entrusted.

I rest my case.


Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Anon

    So, if you’re not able to get to seminary, the next best thing is to get a stack of books to read and take a DIY approach? So, if that’s the case, I’d love to be a heart surgeon, but I can’t afford medical school: can I just get a stack of cardiovascular books and read these myself, and then ask for some volunteers…?

    Say there’s a church that follows this model, and they take some guys from the church, give them a stack of books to read, and then tell them, voila, you’re a pastor, and install them at a church plant. Maybe they know enough to teach and preach and lead a worship service, but isn’t there the possibility that the waters are going to be just a little bit… I dunno…. shallow?

    • Really? That’s what I’m saying? But even if I were, bear in mind that Frank Abernathy managed to perform surgery without going to medschool, as did the gardener of Chris Barnard’s (first doctor to do a heart transplant, South African by the way). But it’s more like lawyers who can practice law without going to lawschool in some US states, if they learned the craft through an apprenticeship and if they pass the bar exam. I’m not suggesting people should print their own degrees with photoshop. But if seminary is a requirement, that rules out the two guys Paul wrote the pastoral epistles to.

      • Anon Again

        Well, you did say “If you are unable to get to seminary, do the next best thing. Get a reading list of what is covered in that seminary. Plow through it with relentless commitment…” which sounds a lot like, “read a bunch of books and you’ll be ok”, but maybe I read it wrong. And yes, Frank Abernathy managed to pull off a surgery, but he also got thrown into Perpignan prison in France for his deceptions, so he’s not someone I really look up to as a role model. Not saying seminary is a requirement, but to me, speaking as a member of an OP church with a Westminster grad teaching each week it’s like a gourmet chef feeding the Word vs. Frank the burger-chef working at the cafe. It feeds you, sure, but maybe not as deeply as one would like.

        • elainebitt

          I think you are clearly missing the point that Clint was trying to make to you, that the fact a person cannot attend a seminary should serve as justification for not learning, and learning well (considering the vast amount of resources available). I don’t think he was going as far as saying that anyone with enough knowledge should be fit to the pastorate (or eldership). Knowledge is only one of the requirements for a man to be a leader.

          • Thanks ma’am. That is what I’m saying/ trying to say/ said.

          • Anon One Last Time

            I understand, yes. My only caution would be when “aspiring seminoid” turns into “I don’t need seminary and I can do this just by reading a stack of books”-mentality. and my concern would be that an approach like that could be dangerous and potentially leading to shallow teaching and leadership.

          • Kofi Adu-Boahen

            Oh what did we do before we started seminaries with degrees and academic credentials(!)

            As someone who desires to go to seminary, I love the idea of rigorous study in a controlled environment. I question, however, that such an environment can’t happen in, say, a local church under a pastor who has set a rigorous study program, has applied himself and shows the character of a godly servant-leader in God’s Church (which, let’s face it, you can fake in an environment outside your local church).

          • Good point.

          • Totally. We are on the same page. I also recommend for your reading the posts I did the last two weeks, Exhibit A and B, where I explore these issues.

          • Exactly

        • deja

          And what if that seminary has corrupted teachings or says the bible is nor important? go to it anyway? Worse choice I think.

  • elainebitt

    I thought I’d add this wonderful resource:


  • marat88

    It is important to note that Talbot has seemingly been going downhill, largely because of their involvement with Spiritual Formation.

    • marat88

      If the current crop of marketing-focused, apostate preachers is any indication of what is being taught at the seminaries, then I would advise nobody to go there at all, because obviously no good tree can produce so much bad fruit.

  • gerald

    The story of Simon Magnus shows that the Church must confirm the one who aspires to the clergy as well as the person themselves.

  • Good ideas, Clint. Your articles were intentionally pragmatic and explanatory.

    As the result, the undeniable power of the Holy Spirit to enable a man to preach or to teach wasn’t highlighted. I think that you’d agree (and implied in your articles) the necessity of God’s power in a man’s life.

    Whether that leads a man to seminary or not, it can be used to prepare a man for every good work.

    As far as people comparing Paul and Jesus, etc – one of the points Clint makes is that a 21st century “education” is helpful/necessary for the very fact that we do not already know the original languages. So to say “hey, Paul didn’t go to seminary” is about as irrelevant as it gets for this argument.

    Instead of seminary – substitute “deep and thorough bible education.” Whether that is gained through self-study (very few men will be disciplined enough), through discipleship in the local church (very few men will have time to help another man thoroughly enough) or through a formalized group education (like a seminary), the point is that men of God should espouse all the resources available to them to advance themselves in their understanding of the scriptures.

    It isn’t so much the man who cannot afford seminary, or due to time constraints/family, etc seminary doesn’t make sense to him that the post is for – it is for the person who decides they will simply go to the college of the ‘holy ghost’ because – well, seminary isn’t needed that the warning is being issued.

  • Pastor Don

    I most heartedly agree! Seminary gives us more tools in our toolbox (and specialty tools at that). But the critical things are Calling, Character, and Content. *Calling – Are you led by God and compelled to preach/teach/serve? *Character – Is your life marked by integrity and godliness? (cf. qualifications of elders in 1 Tim. and Titus). *Content – Do you know your Bible? Whether through formal academics, rabbinic style interchange, discipleship and mentoring by another godly man/pastor, or disciplined and prayerful self-study, you must know your Bible and the God who inspired every word of it.

    — Rev. Don C. Hagner, M.Div., D.D.(Hon.)

  • Thank you for this. I appreciate Dr. MacArthur’s ministry very much and I like how you show how seminary (and Godly self-study) is one important aspect of a Pastor’s life

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