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.
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.