John F. MacArthur. In the Footsteps of Faith: Lessons from the Lives of Great Men and Women of the Bible. Crossway, 1998. See here to buy the book.
In this book, John MacArthur talks about fourteen biblical figures. They include Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Hannah, Jonah, Mary, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, Lydia, Timothy, Epaphroditus, and Jesus Christ.
Here are some thoughts and observations:
A. MacArthur never explicitly says this, but his approach to Scripture in this book can be called a “moral exemplar” approach. The “moral exemplar” approach treats biblical figures as moral and spiritual examples of how people are to behave. Such an approach has been criticized, particularly in Lutheran circles, but also in evangelical circles. The reason for their criticism is that they believe that Scripture’s purpose is not to offer us moral examples, for many of the biblical characters fall short morally; rather, the purpose of Scripture is to show us that we are sinners so that we see our need for forgiveness and go to Christ for salvation. The focus here is on Christ as savior, not morality. MacArthur does acknowledge the need to focus on Christ, for he refers to Hebrews 12:2’s exhortation that Christians look to Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith. But he largely treats the biblical characters he profiles as moral and spiritual examples: Noah, Abraham, and Rahab have faith, Mary humbly and enthusiastically exalts God’s and God’s purposes, John the Baptist is unflinching in preaching God’s word, and Epaphroditus sincerely cares about the Philippian church and wants it to know he is all right. What do I think about the “moral exemplar” approach? I think that a Scriptural case can be made for it, for Hebrews 11 showcases heroes of the faith to encourage the demoralized Hebrew believers to persevere in their faith. Moreover, the “moral exemplar” approach can be interesting because it focuses on the biblical text and its distinct dimensions rather than subordinating all of it to a doctrine of penal substitution. But what if I fall short of the morality of these exemplars? What if I cannot muster up genuine, enthusiastic, God-focused worship, or sincere concern for other people? Can these things even be commanded? The way that I read and enjoy MacArthur without going crazy is that I embrace a Lutheran law/Gospel approach: the law is good and edifying, but it breaks us because we do not keep it, and that is why we need Christ as savior. Reading MacArthur is a way for me to feed on the banquet of God’s beautiful and orderly standards, but I cannot stop there, for I would be discouraged by how much I fall short. What may have made MacArthur’s book better is if he had focused more on God, not just the humility and the morality of the biblical characters. What is it about God that inspires the biblical characters to act this way? More acknowledgment of biblical characters’ flaws may have enhanced the book, too.
B. I did not like this book as much as other MacArthur books that I have read. It did not have as much depth or meat as his other books. MacArthur, to his credit, did address puzzles or questions, but I was unsatisfied by many of his answers. For instance, Jesus said that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11). MacArthur interprets this to mean that, while John the Baptist is the greatest in the earthly realm, he is equal to all believers in the spiritual realm. But the text does not say that John the Baptist is equal to believers, but rather that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he. MacArthur has a problem with Rahab lying to protect the Israelite spies in Jericho, but how else could she have hidden them? MacArthur thinks she should have just told the truth, and God would have protected the spies somehow. MacArthur tries to harmonize I Samuel 1’s apparent statement that Elkanah and his family went to the central sanctuary every year, with the prescription in the Torah that the Israelites appear before God three times each year (Exodus 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16); his explanation was a bit of a stretch, for why would I Samuel 1 focus on years, if Elkanah went multiple times a year? In some cases, MacArthur engages questions rather adeptly, yet his engagement is very terse and could have used more meat. This was evident, to me, in his attempts to explain how Abraham’s apparent wavering in the faith in Genesis is consistent with Romans 4:20’s statement that Abraham never wavered in the faith, and his various explanations for how Moses in Hebrews 11:26 suffered for the sake of Christ. At times, MacArthur explains verses I have wondered about, as when he explains Luke 3:5’s statement that John the Baptist will lift up valleys and bring down mountains. What does that mean? MacArthur argues that it means that John’s ministry will encourage people to live moral, rather than crooked, lives. That makes some sense, but there may be other possibilities: John the Baptist brings down the religious and civil rulers while uplifting the lowly and downcast by bringing them God, or John clears the way for Jesus to come by spiritually preparing people with a message of repentance and eschatological anticipation. Occasionally, MacArthur refers to an interesting historical detail, as when he states that Lydia’s name may not have been “Lydia” but rather referred to her home city being in the Roman province of Lydia. At one point, MacArthur, echoing James Montgomery Boice, reads Reformed soteriology into Scripture, as when he contends that Noah’s finding grace in the eyes of the LORD in Genesis 6:8 was the prerequisite for Noah’s righteousness, blamelessness, and walk of faith in v. 9. That could be, but another way to read the passage is that Noah was favored by God because he was more righteous than others in his corrupt generation. There were times when MacArthur illustrated the story, as when he narrates that the Israelite spies had to cross the Jordan to get to Jericho, but the book could have used more of that. It also could have used more explanations of specific texts: why do Hannah and Mary, for instance, say that God will bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly? In what sense do they believe God does this? How does their situation relate to that?
C. MacArthur presents the Christian life as one of agony, self-discipline, and perseverance. He referred to a race that he ran when he was young, in which he was exhausted at the end! MacArthur offers biblical texts in favor of his view, and perhaps I am wrong to see salvation as a passive process in which I rest and let God transform me. But is the Christian life supposed to be one of unending, uphill toil, until death? What about Jesus’s statement that his burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30), or peace and joy being parts of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22)?