What is John MacArthur's fundamental problem with the Catholic Church (or Catholicism)?

John MacArthur is a popular Evangelical radio personality who regularly goes into extended criticism of the Catholic Church. I got the following email from a reader:

David, ...I actually just listened to the John Macarthur sermons on the Catholic faith and found it interesting. I was really glad to find your site for the other side of things - great perspective, thanks for the creating and maintaining it. I myself am a non-denominational Christian and am seeking to understand the issues in Catholicism and Christianity ... I did want to ask if I sent you a few questions from the Macarthur sermons, would you answer them to the best of your knowledge? ... I'm sure you are a busy guy but I would appreciate your time. In any case, God bless and I hope your journey with Christ is a good one. All my best.

My response was as follows:

I love John MacArthur's heart for the unborn, his defense of the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, and I love his contempt for the wishy-washy moral liberalism that is creeping into many denominations. He is a gifted communicator and a very well-read Christian.

However, I think Mr. MacArthur has one fundamental problem. He wants to be his own authority, his own denomination and dare I say, his own empire? This is his fundamental flaw, and rather than coming under the authority of the Magisterium, he seeks to tear down the very authority he should be trying to build up, if he really wanted to follow through on his commitment to the unborn.

What Mr. MacArthur fails to understand is that he has accepted the authority of the Catholic Church every time he picks up his Bible. The Bible didn't just drop out of the sky, spiral bound, with an NKJV sticker on it. The Catholic Church chose which books to include in the Bible in the Synod of Hippo (393 AD) and confirmed it at Carthage (397 AD). A timeline of how the Bible came to us is here. An article on the Catholic Church and the Bible is here.

Mr. MacArthur has tried to position himself as the international gatekeeper of orthodoxy and "proper hermeneutics" which is the analysis of Scripture. He says

"only through hard study of the Bible can we come up with the proper interpretations."

Then in the same sermon, he turns on himself and says it's clear and simple (rather than requiring hard study):

"When we're interpreting the Bible, we are not hunting for some extrapolated mystical experience. Scripture was not written to puzzle people or to confuse them, it was written to make things clear to them... when you don't take the time to discern the literal meaning... you are making scripture your slave by molding it into what you want it to say" (www.gty.org/Blog/B100202)

When confronted with simple texts defending Catholic Doctrine found in the Bible such as, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man you shall have no life within you" (Jn 6:53), he suddenly gets mystical and extrapolates that it's all symbolic (more on the Eucharist here).

He says, "I do have a mandate from God to compare what others teach to the gospel of the Bible." In this "mission" he has arrived at a radically different interpretation of Scripture (i.e., Jn 6:56, Lk 2:38, Mat 16:18) from the overwhelming collective deposit of faith which includes 2000 years of the greatest and most faithful Christian intellects of antiquity. He considers himself such an intellectual giant, that he can somehow come to better conclusions than everybody else with their Bibles, including Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Apostles, Martyrs, ancient Church Fathers, saints and scholars. He ridicules other Evangelicals who say their understanding of Scripture came from their "prayerful" reading, saying they should use their heads, not their hearts. Yet while he is stuck in his head like this, he says Catholics are all about works and not faith, which of course is also false.

What Mr. MacArthur ignores is the witness of the early great Christians like Ignatius, who are very clear about the Catholic Church, the Eucharist, the structure of Authority and many other aspects of the Church that he has rejected. Ignatius of Antioch was a student of the Apostle John. With all due respect to Mr. MacArthur, I think Ignatius is a little more on the ball than him.

"See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father, and the presbytery [priest] as ye would the apostles. Do ye also reverence the deacons, as those that carry out the appointment of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrneans, 8:2 (c. A.D. 110)

I won't get into a blow by blow refutation of every accusation of Mary idolatry, saint worship and other stuff he throws around to defend his simple refusal to humble himself. Most of Mr. MacArthur's accusations and vitriol against Catholicism have been responded to, in one way or another, on my site, because underneath all his rhetoric, his attacks are very common, misunderstandings of Catholicism. I suggest doing a search, or going to the site map. Hopefully, that will help.
 
Also, I would encourage you to simply ask our Lord about the Catholic Church in prayer. I suggest you try praying something like this every day for a couple of weeks:

"Lord Jesus, I love you and I surrender my life to your Holy will. Would you mind sharing with me your heart about Catholicism? Steer me to sources that can answer my questions the way that you would have it. But most of all touch my heart and share with me your feelings about the Catholic Church."

I'm confident that the walls of prejudice will crumble, and He will steer you to the Church that has been with us since the apostles. Ministries that come and go with fervent, magnetic and dynamic personalities like Mr. MacArthur will lose the sparkle, and will appear lack-luster in the simple ageless experience of Jesus in the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is what brought my wife into the Catholic Church. Her story is here.

Perhaps Mr. MacArthur could do the prayer above also. Francis Schaeffer softened to Catholicism in his later years, and his son Frank says he was moving toward Catholicism (in an audio recording). Francis Schaeffer was even more anti-Catholic and more influential than Mr. MacArthur.

Quotes of the early Fathers about the Catholic Church

from www.ScriptureCatholic.com

"See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles. Do ye also reverence the deacons, as those that carry out the appointment of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrneans, 8:2 (c. A.D. 110).

"[A]ll the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. For every word that went out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished." Martyrdom of Polycarp, 16:2 (A.D. 155).

“…to be in honour however with the Catholic Church for the ordering of ecclesiastical discipline...one to the Laodicenes, another to the Alexandrians, both forged in Paul's name to suit the heresy of Marcion, and several others, which cannot be received into the Catholic Church; for it is not fitting that gall be mixed with honey. The Epistle of Jude no doubt, and the couple bearing the name of John, are accepted by the Catholic Church...But of Arsinous, called also Valentinus, or of Militiades we receive nothing at all.” The fragment of Muratori (A.D. 177).

"[N]or does it consist in this, that he should again falsely imagine, as being above this [fancied being], a Pleroma at one time supposed to contain thirty, and at another time an innumerable tribe of Aeons, as these teachers who are destitute of truly divine wisdom maintain; while the Catholic Church possesses one and the same faith throughout the whole world, as we have already said." Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:10,3 (A.D. 180).

“For it is evident that those men lived not so long ago,--in the reign of Antoninus for the most part,--and that they at first were believers in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, in the church of Rome under the episcopate of the blessed Eleutherus, until on account of their ever restless curiosity, with which they even infected the brethren, they were more than once expelled.” Tertullian, On the Prescription Against Heretics, 22,30 (A.D. 200).

”Whence you ought to know that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop; and if any one be not with the bishop, that he is not in the Church, and that those flatter themselves in vain who creep in, not having peace with God's priests, and think that they communicate secretly with some; while the Church, which is Catholic and one, is not cut nor divided, but is indeed connected and bound together by the cement of priests who cohere with one another.” Cyprian, To Florentius, Epistle 66/67 (A.D. 254).

“But for those who say, There was when He was not, and, Before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance...these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.” Creed of Nicea (A.D. 325).

"Concerning those who call themselves Cathari, if they come over to the Catholic and Apostolic Church, the great and holy Synod decrees that they who are ordained shall continue as they are in the clergy. But it is before all things necessary that they should profess in writing that they will observe and follow the dogmas of the Catholic and Apostolic Church; in particular that they will communicate with persons who have been twice married, and with those who having lapsed in persecution have had a period [of penance] laid upon them, and a time [of restoration] fixed so that in all things they will follow the dogmas of the Catholic Church..." Council of Nicaea I (A.D. 325).

“Concerning this Holy Catholic Church Paul writes to Timothy, 'That thou mayest know haw thou oughtest to behave thyself in the House of God, which is the Church of the Living God, the pillar and ground of the truth'” Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures,18:25(A.D. 350).

"[T]he Article, In one Holy Catholic Church,' on which, though one might say many things, we will speak but briefly. It is called Catholic then because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men's knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly… for this cause the Faith has securely delivered to thee now the Article, And in one Holy Catholic Church;' that thou mayest avoid their wretched meetings, and ever abide with the Holy Church Catholic in which thou wast regenerated. And if ever thou art sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord's House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord), nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God.” Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 18:23,26 (A.D. 350).

"I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the flesh, and eternal life. Amen." Apostles Creed (A.D. 360).

"And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son is together worshiped and together glorified, Who spoke through the prophets; in one holy Catholic, and apostolic Church." Constantinopolitan Creed (A.D. 381).

"Those who from heresy turn to orthodoxy, and to the portion of those who are being saved, we receive according to the following method and custom: Arians, and Macedonians, and Sabbatians, and Novatians, who call themselves Cathari or Aristori, and Quarto-decimans or Tetradites, and Apollinarians, we receive, upon their giving a written renunciation [of their errors] and anathematize every heresy which is not in accordance with the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of God." Council of Constantinople I, Canon 7 (A.D. 381).

“We must hold to the Christian religion and to communication in her Church, which is Catholic and which is called Catholic not only by her own members but even by all her enemies. For when heretics or the adherents of schisms talk about her, not among themselves but with strangers, willy-nilly they call her nothing else but Catholic. For they will not be understood unless they distinguish her by this name which the whole world employs in her regard.” Augustine, The True Religion, 7:12 (A.D. 390).

“Inasmuch, I repeat, as this is the case, I believe also in the Holy Church, [intending thereby] assuredly the Catholic. For both heretics and schismatics style their congregations churches. But heretics, in holding false opinions regarding God, do injury to the faith itself; while schismatics, on the other hand, in wicked separations break off from brotherly charity, although they may believe just what I believe. Wherefore neither do the heretics belong to the Church catholic, which loves God; nor do the schismatics form a part of the same.” Augustine, On Faith and Creed, 10:21 (A.D. 393).

"For in the Catholic Church, not to speak of the purest wisdom, to the knowledge of which a few spiritual, men attain in this life…--not to speak of this wisdom, which you do not believe to be in the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations…so does her authority…the succession of priests…[a]nd so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house. Such then in number and importance are the precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church…Now if the truth is so clearly proved as to leave no possibility of doubt, it must be set before all the things that keep me in the Catholic Church…For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church…for it was through the Catholics that I got my faith in it; and so, whatever you bring from the gospel will no longer have any weight with me. Wherefore, if no clear proof of the apostleship of Manichaeus is found in the gospel, I will believe the Catholics rather than you." Augustine, Against the Epistle of Manichaeus, 4:5,5:6 (A.D 397).

"You think that you make a very acute remark when you affirm the name Catholic to mean universal, not in respect to the communion as embracing the whole world, but in respect to the observance of all Divine precepts and of all the sacraments, as if we (even accepting the position that the Church is called Catholic because it honestly holds the whole truth, of which fragments here and there are found in some heresies) rested upon the testimony of this word's signification, and not upon the promises of God, and so many indisputable testimonies of the truth itself, our demonstration of the existence of the Church of God in all nations." Augustine, To Vincent the Rogatist, 93:7,23 (A.D. 403).

"Philip the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See said: There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the Apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to to-day and forever both lives and judges in his successors." Council of Ephesus, Session III (A.D. 431).

"I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical depravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or anyone else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they arise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church…Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation" Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory for the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith, 2:4,5 (A.D. 434).

"Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome, through us, and through this present most holy synod together with the thrice blessed and all-glorious Peter the Apostle, who is the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, hath stripped him of the episcopate, and hath alienated from him all hieratic worthiness. Therefore let this most holy and great synod sentence the before mentioned Dioscorus to the canonical penalties." Council of Chalcedon, Session III (A.D. 451).

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen