Much to my dismay, I read a review by James Patrick Holding recently that I thought was uncouth and unprincipled. It is the purpose of this blog to respond to that review and point out a few things about Mr. Holding’s comments. First, Holding admits, “I didn’t read the entirety of this book; much of it is essentially devotional, and much of the rest isn’t disputable.” First, how can you provide a review of a book that you have admittedly never completed? Second, does this mean that if a book is purely designed to aid in Christian living or if there is nothing in the book to fight about then it isn’t worth reading?
Holding then employs insult and mockery regarding MacArthur’s comments around an alleged cover-up by English translators, albeit, unintentional at first.
First, I nearly hit the floor when I read pages 1-2. MacArthur correctly notes that many translations obscure this issue by using the word “servant” instead of slave. But he says that he only figured this out in 2007 after reading a book by Murray Harris, and he is wondering why this distinction “escaped me and almost everyone else.” “Had no one uncovered this before Harris in 1999?” he asks.One assumes that Holding is referring to the “concept of slave” itself when making these remarks. MacArthur, on pages 1-2 of his book is specifically referring to the treatment of the word doulos in New Testament Scripture. The bigger question here is why Holding zeroes in on this aspect of the book. Remember, at the start of his review, he commented that the book was indisputable for the most part. Leave it up to Holding to find something, anything, to fight about. There is no value in Holdings initial comments about MacArthur’s book. They say nothing about MacArthur’s arguments, his points, or his method. It feels like a criticism just for the sake of criticism. The satirical remark about “Biblical scholars” is in keeping with Holding’s radically unique approach to try to insult, in one way or another, everyone with whom he disagrees. Holding includes another insult,
Um, yes. There are these people called “Biblical scholars” who knew this a long time ago. In fact, MacArthur even quotes Dale Martin’s excellent Slavery as Salvation on a point, and doesn’t remark on the fact that it was written in 1990. So, clearly “someone” had “uncovered this” well before 1999. Not Martin though. Even before that it’s in the scholarship.
Slave continues this trend, as MacArthur uses a handful of scholarly sources like Martin’s, but also continues to rely heavily on devotional and pastoral works and even 19th century commentaries. The problem is evident in MacArthur’s statement, “Who could improve on Calvin, Luther, the English Puritans, Edwards, or Spurgeon?” Well, um….Biblical scholars who have a lot more background data on the world of the Bible, that’s who.
Where this is especially a problem is in that NT-era slaves overwhelmingly entered slavery involuntarily – not freely, as we enter into a covenant with God. NT era slaves were prisoners of war, or born into slavery, or came from otherwise oppressed peoples. Because NT-era slavery was mostly involuntary, I predict that certain Calvinist commentators will use Slave to argue for irresistible grace – I can even see seeds of that happening in MacArthur. But that won’t work, because it neglects the patronage aspect of the NT model. In this regard, we might wish that MacArthur would have nuanced his studies with a few other works like Neyrey’s Render to God.
I’d rather you read Neyrey and Martin than read MacArthur. To that end, I recommend Slave only after you’ve read those others. MacArthur has discovered a treasure new to him, but unfortunately, he has taken a valuable pearl and used it in a nose ring.
J. Spencer Northcote, Murray J. Harris, Deissmann, Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, Janet Martin Soskice, Rengstorf, Walter S. Wurzburger, Yvon Thebert, John J. Pilch, Edwin Yamauchi, Eric Plumer, Dale B. Martin, S. Scott Bartchy, Keith Bradley, Pierre Grimal, etc. etc. These are just a few of the sources MacArthur references in only the first 27 pages of his book. Even Holding has to recognize some of these names.