One of my favorite things about being a Christian scholar is the opportunities for spiritual growth that comes from scholarly exchange, even debate. As the Proverb says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17). I cannot count the number of times in my little career that God has used everyone from Ivy League law professors to average laymen, homeschool moms, and even little children to sharpen and hone this often dull edge.
It was with some level of hope, therefore, that I read a recent blog from one of John MacArthur’s employees regarding my recent debate. And in an odd way—an ironic way—my hopes were not disappointed. For while the post was written in a somewhat derisive tone, its criticism does very little to detract from the very point of mine it wished to dismiss.
First, let me thank Mr. Butler for taking the time to listen to the debate and to respond to it publicly. It takes either a brave man or a foolhardy one to charge into tense public discussion like this one, so such a step is either very carefully thought out or not. Butler surely has good intentions in clearing the name of his employer and setting the record straight.
While it would not be completely without profit to respond line-by-line to Mr. Butler’s post, time and chance leave only the opportunity to address a couple.
First, let me briefly note a couple points about the rhetoric. I am, of course, a great lover of wit and barbed satire. I have dished out some in my day, and have taken a bit. I probably deserve way more than I have received so far, probably because the sort of people who are very talented at that sort of thing are too busy to worry about Joel McDurmon, or are not present among our opponents.
There is also another consideration: that is parity. When the Mr. Butlers of the world decide to turn their ire and fire upon someone with inflated rhetoric, they need to make sure the substance of their arguments really matches up with the level of rhetoric used. Else, the disparity could open the door to a variety of embarrassments.
The blog in question is called “Hip and Thigh”—named after the great battle prowess of the biblical Samson. In fact, the tag line boasts: “Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter.” The particular post in question, however, itself is more sardonically titled, “Beyond Fabrication: Putting the Vision into Revision.” This is a play on the name of my associated ministry, a joke with which Mr. Butler leads: “American Revision.” Judging by such rhetoric, then, this thing could really have some serious whetting potential.
Or, possibly not. Let’s put this in perspective: here you have a guy positioning himself as an intellectual Samson, ridiculing another ministry for alleged revisionism, “beyond fabrication,” “scare quotes,” “surgically revised” comments, and “conveniently” leaving out details. But wait! The proof of this must follow, or else. . . .
Or else one may start to look a bit overly-exercised at a rather disproportionate set of facts. Readers may then think that this is just case of a particular loyal member of John MacArthur’s payroll, smitten, overreacting in an attempt to exact vengeance, vindicate his man, and/or turn the tables. Isn’t it odd, after all, that Mr. Butler is suddenly accusing me of all the infractions I’ve been documenting on his side of the debate over, and over, and over again, and with promises of much more to come? Without answers to any of these embarrassing episodes, my opponents try a tu quoque attack—and as we shall see shortly, a toothless one.
But what unfortunate strategizing leads with the over-the-top rhetoric before it makes sure to have the substance in place? Does Mr. Butler not realize that by making the name of my ministry the subject of ridicule he invites readers to judge his own the same way? Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t do that, but there are plenty of people out there who may.
I mean, when people perceive this is merely about uncritical props for his favorite theologian and employer, some bright young satirist may change the name of Mr. Butler’s blog from “Hip and Thigh” to something like “Lip and Thigh.” I wouldn’t do that, but someone might.
Moreover, what if people perceive Mr. Butler’s whole objection to be an exercise in unfounded rhetoric—yet vaunted as the slaughterings of a self-proclaimed intellectual Samson: “smiting theological Philistines”? Someone much wittier than I may retort to Mr. Butler: “Yeah, and with the same jawbone.”
I would not deliver a kill-shot like that myself, but there is no doubt some reader who will.
So before we pour on the rhetoric, let’s make sure the substance measures up, or else we may end up with the intellectual equivalent of leaving the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to your shoe.
Enough of rhetoric, where is the proof? The allegedly “surgically revised” comments in question were read in my final rebuttal, starting at 2:22:04 in the video. Here is where I read quotations from Phil Johnson, and primarily John MacArthur regarding the execution of “homosexuals” (as MacArthur put it).
Since Mr. Butler did not see fit to include my actual version of the facts, here is the transcript from me during the debate:
Let’s not just stick with the old guys, let’s talk about the new guys. Well, here’s a discussion between two Reformed Baptists in modern times discussing the role of civil penalties for homosexuality. Now, I would nuance it more like that, but they use the word “homosexuality,” I’ll go with that. Discussing the roles of different categories of law: “And this is one that sort of ties together the civil and the moral, isn’t it?”—talking about homosexuality—“Because you cited a verse that prescribes the death penalty for the practice of homosexuality.”
And the other discusses that there were death penalties: yes, there were civil penalties in Old Testament Israel, and yes, there were death penalties; and if we were under that government today, we would have the same penalty. And he says,
So in this theocratic kingdom, God established penalties for violations of His moral law. And this was a model of a perfect environment, a theocratic kingdom. Thirty-five . . . different moral violations were punishable by death. One of them was homosexuality. Just to spread that a little bit, another one was disobeying your parents.
That’s not quite true, but we all know what law he’s talking about, so we’ll hang with him.
Now immediate swift death to juvenile delinquents would have a tremendous impact. Immediate swift death…
The other chimes in and says, “It would certainly cut down on the number of delinquents, wouldn’t it?” And the other one explains,
It certainly would. It would…and the same with homosexuality…swift judgment. And I will tell you this, if there were today a theocratic kingdom and we were in that theocratic kingdom, those sins would be punished the same way because that is a just punishment…that is a just punishment.
But oh, he’s talking about the theocratic kingdom, right? That’s only when it comes in the future. Well, he skips on down and he applies it to America:
And so the question might be asked, “If we did what was right in America, what would happen to homosexuals?” And the answer is, they would be executed. But before you rush to make that law, that would also happen to adulterers and juvenile delinquents, those who disobeyed their parents. And if that had been the case for the last 50 years, this room would be a lot emptier than it is now. But that doesn’t change God’s standard.
“If we did what was right in America,” we would execute them. That’s all I’ve been arguing tonight—or, that would be an application of what I’m arguing tonight. And that is none other than John MacArthur in dialogue with Phil Johnson.
Now, if the theonomic question would [be] pushed in that mix, they would distance themselves from us so quickly. But if they are forced to say “what are God’s standards of this?”—to be applied in society even by civil governments today—it would be a “just punishment” and if we did “right” we would do it.
The comments were all taken from a post and audio from Grace To You called “Answering Key Questions About Homosexuality.” Despite disagreement with the eschatology presented there, as well as some disagreements with interpretation of the law, I recommend it to the reader.
Now I was sure that quoting the part about God’s standard of judicial law and punishment would send some of MacArthur’s loyal followers into damage control. Some response would have to come forth. So here it was. And what was the great objection to my use of MacArthur calling Old Testament civil punishments “just” and even “right” for America today? As best I can tell, Butler is upset that I did not note that MacArthur is a dispensationalist. He writes:
John wasn’t saying the punishment of death was unjust. Not even JD was saying that in the debate. The punishment meted out by civil magistrates, however, is applicable in a theocratic kingdom ruled by God. And seeing that a physical, national, theocratic kingdom currently does not exist yet because Christ has yet to come to establish it for a 1,000 years, we don’t execute people for the sin of homosexuality. At this time and place, during this *GASP* dispensation, there is a reprieve that God grants.
It is true that I did not, for good reasons, include everything John MacArthur said in that dialogue. It was after all, not necessary or relevant. But this was noted in my talk, at least once, with the phrase “skips on down.” I also actually did note that MacArthur was speaking of the future theocratic kingdom (in his view). Butler also has no problem with me saying, per MacArthur, that such punishments are “just.” He admits this, and I appreciate that. So he can only be objecting to my focus on the fact that MacArthur said if we did right in America, we would enforce that just punishment, and that even though the various penalties would result in a more sparse congregation, nevertheless, that doesn’t change God’s standard.
But this is an argument about God’s standard, which MacArthur did uphold and said was unchanging. To turn around, then, and argue based on eschatology that the time is not right for civil governments to do so is to have your cake and eat it too. This is what theonomists have for years now called “intellectual schizophrenia.” Far from being “surgically revised” comments “conveniently left off” on my part, this is rather a case of John MacArthur’s left hand taking away what John MacArthur’s right hand upholds.
Mr. Butler’s objections in regard to eschatology are absolutely irrelevant to my argument of theological standard for law. Aside from that, I cannot help it if 1) Dr. MacArthur is intellectually schizophrenic, and 2) I was not debating eschatology that day, but judicial standards, which MacArthur says very clearly have not changed. (As a side note, I believe we have tried in the past to get a debate between Dr. MacArthur and Gary DeMar, but to no avail.)
If, however, it will satisfy Mr. Butler, I will again openly concede that John MacArthur is a dispensationalist. As I said in the debate, however, when the issue is God’s standard, he sounded an awful lot like a theonomist. As I said in the debate, if you bring the question of theonomy into the room when these guys speak this way, they flee from it. What I might have added was, “because of their eschatology.” But nevertheless, they flee with theonomy on their lips.
I had no illusion that some response would come from the MacArthur camp in some way. I didn’t think he would send his Butler to do the job, but then again, I didn’t expect him to do it himself either. I am not sure exactly what Mr. Butler’s actual responsibilities for John MacArthur are, but I don’t think it is either slaying Philistines or sharpening the iron.
Sometimes, when iron sharpens iron, sparks fly. Sometimes, too, there can be smoke. Let me encourage the reader not to get caught up in the smoke, and to avoid the sparks, by focusing on the sharp edge of the issue at hand. In the end, all that really matters is the sharpening. Let the fire fly where it may, and the jawbone, too, because in the end, the iron won’t care.
Finally, again, I would like to thank my brothers for taking the time to engage in this exchange.