Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

A Beginner's Guide to Public Theology with John MacArthur

A Beginner's Guide to Public Theology with John MacArthur

Terry Eagleton famously remarked, “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” I mention Eagleton’s quip because listening to John MacArthur speak authoritatively about mental illnesses is as painful as engaging Dawkins on theology. However, and with only a little hesitation, I’d suggest that MacArthur’s teaching on mental illness is more dangerous for many Christians than Dawkins’ sophomoric philosophy.

Now that I have your attention and you’ve got your pitchforks, let’s continue. Few people online will be unfamiliar with MacArthur’s recent and infamous tirade about mental illnesses. But last week he put ink to paper and penned a long form essay, developing his reasons behind denying the existence of mental illness, not to mention explaining why he considers psychiatry a farce. It’s titled, Dispelling Myths About “Mental Illness”. Because there are many others who’re far more capable of responding to his strident stance and argumentation, in this article I’m going to do something slightly different, focusing on MacArthur’s presumptuous mood and reductionism.

Check for Presumption and Pride

However you slice them, both MacArthur’s essay and earlier hot-take demonstrate a distinct lack of humility. Now, I’m not accusing MacArthur of pride. There’s no way I could really know that for sure, without knowing him personally. But considering his areas of expertise (theology and pastoral ministry), one would expect an admission that he’s stepping outside of his lane, when speaking about mental illnesses. But he doesn’t. Not once. His article is almost 6000 words long, yet he never once acknowledges his professional limitations in this area. Nor does he own that his study and reading on this topic is embarrassingly narrow, maybe because it’s self-evidently so. Operating at what we might be call a passionate hobbyist’s level, MacArthur writes as though he’s a world expert in psychiatry and psychology.

Let’s contrast MacArthur with, say, one of the greatest theologians who ever lived: Augustine. In the first book of his De Trinitate (On the Trinity) Augustine outlines his aims for writing: to correct error and prayerfully consider God’s self-revelation (1.2). Only, he’s quick to add that being creature rather than Creator, his efforts are provisional and limited (1.3); he also notes that human logic and expression are always flawed and frustrated (5.1-2). It’s worth remembering that many consider Augustine’s influence to be second only to the apostle Paul, yet his writing is shot through with the humility appropriate for fallen and finite creatures. So when Augustine issues a warning against presumption, he directs it to himself (1.1). Thus he goes on to invite correction (1.6), which we can conclude is indicative of him not thinking of himself more highly than he ought.

Augustine is a model for theological discourse and public engagement. So too is John Ames. In the novel Home, Jack Boughton presses him on whether people’s natures can truly change and Ames replies, “I’m not going to apologise for the fact that there are things I don’t understand. I’d be a fool if I thought there weren’t.” Like Augustine, John Ames is alert to the pitfalls of presumption; he’s aware of his limitations and personal biases. In a word, both men are humble. Neither treat their thoughts as definitive or incontrovertible, but provisional and therefore open to correction. On the other hand, there’s John MacArthur, and his mood is very different. But as Augustine writes elsewhere, “The modesty of a mind testifying to its own limitations is a more admirable thing than the scientific matters I was pressing [Faustus] to know” (Confessions 5.4.12).

Beware Reductionism and Oversimplifications

This brings me to my second point, which I believe is at least in part behind MacArthur’s shrill pontification: reductionism. Now, as I’ve said, I’m not going to engage in the details of his essay. But I do think that one of the means to his strident mood is holding onto a grossly simplified view of the human person. Of course, anyone who’s studied neuroscience or psychiatry, even psychology, will be able to tell you that the mind—or self—is astonishingly complex.

Consider this passage from Marilynne Robinson’s Freedom of Thought, “Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes ‘soul’ would do nicely.” Indeed, the individual person is tangle of mind or brain, or both, of matter, experience and history. Bundled up in those is the soul. There’s nothing simple about it.

However, MacArthur’s denial of mental illness turns largely on a drastically reductive view of the human person. Following Thomas Szasz, he says that ailments of the mind are either “subjective” disorders or “objective” diseases of the brain, with “clear biological markers.” Apparently there’s nothing in-between. Well, to use MacArthur’s terms, everything else is either a matter of faith or mere myth. To return to my first point, MacArthur’s overbearing pronouncements around this are staggering, but with such a reductive view of people and their problems perhaps they’re unsurprising.

I’m going to go with Augustine again, if you’ll forgive me. “The complexities of doubt, of ignorance, deep-rooted tensions within the citadel of the will are ignored in Manichaeism,” and—I’d add—by John MacArthur. “With all their talk of ‘setting free,’ the Manichees had no room, in their religious language, for more subtle processes of growth—for ‘healing,’ for ‘renewal’” (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo). MacArthur’s oversimplifications, too, leave little room for a wholistic approach to the human person, to the subtleties and strange peculiarities that make us what we are. My fear is that by doing so he only heaps the burning coals of stigma and shame on backs already breaking under the burden of struggles with mental health.

Choose Better Models for Public Theology

As a public theologian with so many years of experience, John MacArthur’s recklessly reductive and problematically presumptuous teaching in this area should cause us to look for others, for better models of engagement in the public square. Above I’ve offered just two: Augustine and Marilynne Robinson. At this point, however, I can no longer recommend John MacArthur. For someone who firmly believes that he’s “in the business of soul care,” his essay on the serious and incredibly complex matter of mental illnesses is a stridently uncaring oversimplification.

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