John MacArthur and Watson’s A Body of Divinity

On this episode of Open Book, Stephen Nichols and John MacArthur discuss the rich analogies and spiritual charm of the Puritans.


STEPHEN NICHOLS: Dr. MacArthur, it’s good to see you again.

JOHN MACARTHUR: Thank you, Stephen. Great to be with you.

NICHOLS: We’ve got some great books so far, more good ones to come, and this is among them. This is Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity. Do you remember when you first read that book, or where you first came across that book?

MACARTHUR: I’ll never forget it. Again, I was in seminary at the time. I graduated from seminary in 1964, so that was long ago. I had never really read any Puritans at all. And again, the sort of the entrée for me was when I was required to read Warfield.

What happened was that I was assigned to read Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture. In reading Warfield, I came across the Puritans for the first time. I was drawn to Thomas Watson because I thought if I’m going to go to the Puritans, I want to go a systematic approach to doctrine because I can get lost if I just chase around from place to place.

NICHOLS: In the individual doctrines.

MACARTHUR: Yes. I wanted to get somebody’s cohesive understanding of how it all fit together, and that way I would understand a Puritan mind. I didn’t want to read twenty-two volumes of Thomas Manton at that point.

NICHOLS: You’d get lost to no end.

MACARTHUR: Yes. Or John Owen. So, I got Thomas Watson’s A Body of Divinity. As a second-year seminary student. I just could not put it down. It was beautifully written. It was very prosaic.

NICHOLS: It has a lot of imagery.

MACARTHUR: Oh, imagery. Yes. Great communicators speak naturally in analogies.


MACARTHUR: R.C. had an incredible ability to do that. He didn’t even have to think about them. They just rose up out of his fertile mind. Great communicators speak in analogies, and Thomas Watson is just endlessly full of these rich analogies that helped me greatly at that point to make windows to see into these doctrines that I was seeing sometimes for the first time. I just fell in love with Thomas Watson’s A Body of Divinity. I went through it and drew truth out of it. It showed up in some of my early books, definitely showed up in my preaching here. I remember I was given another of his books on the Beatitudes.

NICHOLS: Yes. I think Banner of Truth still reprints that.

MACARTHUR: I remember I was on an airplane with a bunch of Japanese people flying from Brazil back home all night and I read that entire book with tears. It just overwhelmed me, that book on the Beatitudes because remember now, I was trained as a dispensationalist.

NICHOLS: Yes. Sermon on the Mount is a different dispensation.

MACARTHUR: The Beatitudes was something that belonged in the millennium.

NICHOLS: That’s right.

MACARTHUR: We don’t pay any attention to that.

NICHOLS: That’s a millennial ethic, the Beatitudes.

MACARTHUR: Well, it’s a millennial something, I wasn’t sure what. But, yes, I was told that for sure, and all of the sudden I saw the Beatitudes with beauty. Thomas Watson wasn’t complicated and complex like other writers. With all the analogies, it was so accessible to me. That was very near my hand for years and years and through my preaching.

NICHOLS: The book is about the Westminster Standards.


NICHOLS: It uses the Westminster Standards to just walk through, so it’s not the language we would use today, a “body of divinity.”

MACARTHUR: But, I think that’s why I like it. I think it took me to a place I had never been. I think it may be for some people like reading an old edition of Pilgrim’s Progress.


MACARTHUR: The fact that it’s not immediately as accessible as something in the vernacular made me think more about it. I felt that it had an almost spiritual charm to it because it was so different than the things I was normally reading. And I tend to be a pretty matter-of-fact guy— just show me the facts. I’m not esoteric, I’m not looking for deeper and higher experiences.

NICHOLS: You’re not a complex person.

MACARTHUR: No. I’m not a complex person. But I not only enjoyed what I read, I actually loved what I was reading. It ministered to me, not just in understanding these things, but it ministered to my heart.

NICHOLS: I remember a line in there, I think it’s early on. He talks about this book being written for feathery Christians. He talks about how the winds will blow in life, theological conflict or just personal suffering. If you’re a feathery Christian and you’re not grounded, you can easily be blown away. He just has such a heart there to see people grounded.

MACARTHUR: Just saying that brings a rush back because that’s exactly how he writes all the way through the book, with that kind of imagery.

NICHOLS: It’s beautiful. There’s a beauty to his writing.

MACARTHUR: It’s really beautiful writing. It’s an extremely — from my standpoint— patient way to write because you can scribble something, this is a fact, this is a fact, and if you’re writing a study Bible as I’ve done, you’ve got to squeeze the fact down to two sentences in the footnote. But, this is something very different. It’s rich, and sweet, and has a charm to it, and a beauty to it, at the same time fidelity to the truth.

NICHOLS: But you’re right, there is an artistry to Thomas Watson.

MACARTHUR: Yes. I’d rather read that then see the pictures in an illuminated Bible.

NICHOLS: That was Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity. So far, we’re hitting on books that are coming at you in the seminary in those formative years, so this is great. I appreciate it and thank you for that.

Transcript lightly edited for readability.