I often listen to his radio show Grace to You in the morning. Often he will offer some decent exegesis and advance good ideals less-common in some Christian preaching like mortification or the need to avoid sexual sin. He has even argued for Peter as the chief apostle. But when it comes to Catholicism, John MacArthur consistently misses the mark and proves himself unable to accurately portray basic Catholic teaching.
His website features a summary article called Is Roman Catholicism Biblical?, adapted from his book Reckless Faith.
The article begins: "Is Roman Catholicism simply another facet of the body of Christ that should be brought into union with its Protestant counterpart?"
To give you a flavor for how he approaches the Catholic Church, consider the following MacArthur quote which aired on The Way of the Master Radio on November 9, 2006:
In the long war on the truth, the most formidable, relentless, and deceptive enemy has been Roman Catholicism. It is an apostate, corrupt, heretical, false Christianity. It is a front for the kingdom of Satan.
One would be hard-pressed to generate harsher language, no? He considers Catholicism the #1 enemy of Christianity. But John MacArthur does not understand Catholic theology. And I'd like to demonstrate that now. The following is a quotation from one of his sermons (aired 8/31/09) on Grace to You:
We certainly have much to thank Martin Luther for, but infant baptism isn't one of the things. Luther's Catechism says this, quote, baptism worketh forgiveness of sins delivers from death and the devil and gives everlasting salvation to all who believe as the Word of the promise of God declare. Well the baby can't believe. That's where Luther jumped in and said, well, surrogate faith on the part of his parents is rendered in his behalf. So baptized babies will be saved. The Lutheran Augsberg Confession says, quote of baptism, Lutherans teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that by baptism the grace of God is offered and that children are to be baptized who by baptism being offered to God are received into God's favor. This view is held by Anglicans, Episcopalians, some Reformed groups. The Roman Catholic Church essentially teaches the same thing, that the removal of sin depends on the sacrament of infant baptism. Without infant baptism, without baptism, no child can be saved. Council of Trent, 1563, based the salvation of infants on Roman Catholic baptism. In 1951, Pius XII taught that, quote, "No other way besides baptism is seen as imparting the life of Christ to little children." The new Catholic Catechism says, "By Christian baptism, one enters into the Kingdom of God, and into the Spirit of the saving work of Christ." So the answer of the sacramentalists is the baptized babies are saved, and the unbaptized babies aren't. Well, this would make salvation not an act of grace but an act of works! That is no credit to the grace of God!What is perhaps most interesting about this quotation is how exactly it matches page 46 of Ronald Nash's 1999 book "When a Baby Dies." The exact same quotes from Luther's Catechism, the Augsberg Confession, Anglicans & Episcopalians, Council of Trent, Pius XII, and the "Catechism" are on that page, in the same order MacArthur listed them. Unfortunately, not going to a Catholic source resulted in MacArthur erring in saying Catholics teach unbaptized babies are not saved. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC#1261, specifically speaks of the hope and trust in the mercy of God to welcome unbaptized babies into His arms.
I think the following will also show that he often does not give due attention to Catholic sources before he speaks on behalf of Catholic teaching.
In his article Is Roman Catholicism Biblical?, MacArthur asserts:
In Roman Catholicism, "the Word of God" encompasses not only the Bible, but also the Apocrypha, the Magisterium (the Church's authority to teach and interpret divine truth), the Pope's ex cathedra pronouncements, and an indefinite body of church tradition, some formalized in canon law and some not yet committed to writing. Whereas evangelical Protestants believe the Bible is the ultimate test of all truth, Roman Catholics believe the Church determines what is true and what is not. In effect, this makes the Church a higher authority than Scripture.So is it true the Catholic Church considers all these things "the Word of God"? No. MacArthur is incorrect.
The ecumenical council of Vatican II produced a document called "Dei Verbum" (Latin for "Word of God"). Paragraph 10 clearly states: "Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church."
Let's examine the error of some of his other claims. By "Apocrypha," MacArthur is referring to the Deuterocanonical texts of the Old Testaments which do not appear in Protestant Bibles (these books are Sirach, Wisdom, 1 and 2 Maccabbees, Judith, Tobit, Baruch, and parts of Esther and Daniel). In the first several centuries following the actual writing of the New Testament, the Catholic Church discerned by the Spirit what books constituted authentic Scripture. MacArthur, who does not accept that the Catholic Church by apostolic succession bears this guarantee of discerning such things, necessarily assigns that authority to other men that compiled the "Protestant Bible."
He said Catholics include the "Magisterium" as part of "the Word of God." This does not make sense. CCC#100 states: "The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church..." The Magisterium is composed of the Pope and the bishops in union with him. The Magisterium is not "the Word of God" but rather the interpretive body which Catholics believe has the authoritative guidance of the Holy Spirit when interpreting the Word.
Depending on what he means by "church tradition," MacArthur is correct that a teaching on faith or morals (which would include Papal ex cathedra statements) not explicit in Scripture may come to us by the Spirit via Sacred Tradition. In Catholicism, the term "tradition" is used in a couple ways (see the CCC for examples). Some Tradition is considered part of the Word of God as it is derived from the deposit of faith. Some tradition is not considered part of the Word, and outside the class of faith or morals. These would be disciplinary or customary practices like what colors the priest wears during what seasons, the Western discipline of celibacy for priests, what songs are sung during the Liturgy, etc. These would not be considered part of divine revelation which Dei Verbum calls "the Word of God." Such practices may change or be reversed in different cultures and eras.
MacArthur is also mistaken to think "canon law" is considered by Catholics part of the divinely revealed "Word of God." The Code of Canon Law is a legislative guide for various norms practiced in the Church. In remarks promulgating the 1983 Code of Canon Law (Sacrae Disciplinae Leges), Pope John Paul II said, "it appears sufficiently clear that the Code is in no way intended as a substitute for faith, grace and the charisms in the life of the Church and of the faithful." There may be mentions of matters of faith or morals in Canon Law, but these are not derived from Canon Law, rather Canon Law may mention them.
Aside from his misperceptions on what the Catholic Church considers "the Word of God," MacArthur violates his own criticism. First, he sets forth the rule that "the Bible is the ultimate test of all truth" which nowhere is asserted within the Bible. Second, he criticizes the existence of an interpreting Magisterium while simultaneously appointing himself, de facto, a superior interpreter to the Magisterium. The idea that the Bible is the ultimate test necessarily depends on a human or humans correctly interpreting it by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Church not only infallibly determines the proper interpretation of Scripture, but also supplements Scripture with additional traditions and teaching. That combination of Church tradition plus the Church's interpretation of Scripture is what constitutes the binding rule of faith and practice for Catholics. The fact is, the Church sets itself above Holy Scripture in rank of authority.The last sentence, which he also claimed earlier, is where MacArthur errs. It is also where he diffuses his own ability to interpret Scripture. Think about it. The Catholic Church considers Herself to have the Spirit-given authority to interpret Scripture. When MacArthur denies any of the Church's interpretations and sets forth the "correct" interpretation, he is placing himself above the Catholic Church, who he says places Herself above Scripture! In other words, it is nonsense to say one is "above Holy Scripture in rank of authority" just because one is interpreting it!
It is also apparent MacArthur is unaware of the Church's understanding of Her relation to Scripture, which is stated in Dei Verbum:
[The Magisterium] is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. (Dei Verbum, 10b)Just as MacArthur believes of himself, the Catholic Church believes She is subject to what God says to us via Scripture. The Church cannot "create" a Tradition that contradicts Scripture, regardless of whether John MacArthur might insist the Church has done so.