A week or so ago Dr. Joel McDurmon (American Vision) and Pastor Jordan Hall (Pulpit and Pen Sermon Audio broadcast) debated the topic, “Is the civil law of God obligatory for all nations?” As you might guess, McDurmon argued in the affirmative and Hall the negative. In an amazing feat of speed-production, Marcus Pittman of Crown Rights Media put his rump in the chair and with an undisclosed number of sugar-free Red Bulls in hand finished the production in a matter of days. Besides being an incredible display of Millennial (as in the generation, not the eschatology) work ethic, Crown Rights and American Vision have given the Church a valuable resource. The video, which releases on Vimeo today, serves to put on stark display for a new generation the ethics of theonomy\Christian Reconstructionism and the alternative.
Shortly after the debate Hall went on social media and virtually proclaimed himself the winner, citing unsubstantiated post-debate conversations with “several” members of Apologia Church (where the debate was held) and others who had been investigating theonomy who are said to have stated that they were either convinced by Hall’s argumentation and have become untheonomized or that they were no longer interested into looking at it because of his ironclad presentation. While I might believe that fence sitters could possibly be dissuaded by his arguments if their familiarity with theonomy is as fundamentally flawed as Hall’s is, I frankly cannot believe that any convinced theonomist could possibly be moved a millimeter by such a presentation. Any convinced theonomist could see through his smoke and mirrors show with his or her eyes shut.
Therefore, in an amazing display of speed-damage control Hall has already taken his case for victory to the internet radio circuit, telling anyone who will listen of his tales of derring-do. In so doing, Hall ensured that the battle lines were firmly established before the video could be released. The lines are set and the artillery assault has begun. The theonomists were left wondering just exactly how this debate went and the atheononimists have been thumping their chests over a debate that they have not yet seen. It has been a strange week on social media, and that is framing it in the best possible light.
In spite of this video being released for free I do not want to give away too many spoilers. However, I do want to comment on what is typical argumentation from the atheonomist position. I will say that Hall unfortunately took pages from his ideological predecessors. Let me be clear: it is my belief that Hall is guilty of “quote mining” in preparation for a debate, ignoring the context of the theonomist authors in order to score cheap debate points. [Author’s Note: The earlier edition of this review further stated that I did not believe that Jordan read 27,000 pages in preparation for this debate. Jordan has made the claim that he has in fact read that many pages and since I don’t have any direct evidence that he did not in fact read that many pages, I retract that statement with my sincere apologies for calling his integrity into question. I sinned against him and I hope he will be more gracious than I was in my original posting.]
McDurmon did a fantastic job pointing this out in the debate. However–and this is strange–Hall did not seem to track with what McDurmon was saying. If I am not mistaken, Hall was not grasping what McDurmon was pointing out about Hall’s quote mining, at least in real time. This is a major point because Hall’s strategy in this debate was to focus on what seemed like hundreds of citations from theonomic literature using faulty citations. I am not sure that Hall was the best candidate to represent his position. His presence was a function of necessity being that his Sermon Audio radio show is what initiated the debate. A show which, by the way, has been built on critiquing the “gimmee” issues in modern evangelicalism and the SBC. Quote mining can work in that context because the subjects are really that ridiculous and their context does not help them. When you try it with Greg Bahnsen don’t be surprised if you end up with egg on your face.
In essence this debate was symbolic of the academic climate. When a guy with an internet radio show can debate a PhD it is not a sign of the weakness of the guy with the PhD. It is a sign of the strength of a dumbed down America that doesn’t care about quote mining and poor arguments as long as the internet personality represents one’s own position with at least a touch of vitriol. We can ALL be guilty of that one, but to Joel’s credit, he did not descend to that level.
In the opening statements McDurmon’s focus was exegesis of key texts such as 1 Timothy 1, Hall’s focus was debunking theonomy from the Westminster Confession (a document that Hall does not regard as without error either) and John Calvin who (at least on the surface, not counting his relatively recently transcribed sermons on Deuteronomy) seems to agree with Hall. McDurmon easily swatted these pesky little flies away.
In short, the atheonomist strategy was to distract and deflect while the theonomist strategy was exegesis. This may come as a surprise to the dispensational\two kingdom\fighting fundies among us who claim the exegetical high ground, but that is really the larger history of this debate. Exegesis cannot lead you to an atheonomist ethic in spite of claims to the contrary. The best you can hope for in that case is an argument from silence which is never a strong argument.
It is my own opinion that the reason why people like Jordan fail to understand theonomy is not solely related to Scriptural errors. It manifests a fault in our government funded education that has neglected to teach civics for the last few generations. This is clearly spelled out in Gary Demar’s God and Government, in the very first chapter as well as every schoolbook on civics I’ve ever seen prior to World War One. It is also connected to either the entire lack of training in the area of a consistent Biblical ethic or a secularized version of ethics. When the average American today says, “government” he thinks only of civil government. He used to think of family government and church government as well. They could tell the difference.
This flaw permeates Jordan’s argument when he assumes that Scriptural texts related to soteriology in the realm of the church somehow apply to issues of government. Any theonomist will gladly support the separation of church and state. Citing 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 which teaches on sanctification and then demanding to know why it is that Paul doesn’t refer to the penalties of civil law for those sins is like going to 2 Peter 3:9 as an Arminian and asking why that text on eschatology doesn’t inform your soteriology.
Another way of saying it is this. The church dispenses grace through the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the role of the civil government to bear the sword against the evildoer. To ask the government to dispense grace to lawbreakers is a violation of the heart of Romans 13 (which actually does teach on the role of the government). How they decide when to bear the sword or not has been revealed in the sufficient Word of God. Since the church does not do that, regenerated lawbreakers in the church receive grace. That’s all of us. Since the Lord Jesus Christ rules with a rod of iron (Psalm 2) a just civil government will decide what is worthy of the death penalty based upon the only civil law holy writ gives us. And it does so considering the whole counsel of God as revealed in the New Testament.
A note on visual presentation and production quality. Once again Mr. Pittman and company have given us a beautiful piece of film. Who would ever think that a debate on theonomy could be aesthetically pleasing? The lighting was perfect and the camera angles were many and interesting. My only criticism is with some of the audio, which probably has more to do with the acoustics of the meeting space and not the work of Crown Rights. To their credit, they were able to correct it in many places but it is noticeable. The content is such that it’s only a minor distraction.
Considering that he knew that this was being video recorded prior to the debate, Hall might have considered the storied history of video debates. Someone should have coached him in two areas: 1) the importance of personal appearance and 2) delivery. Now I understand that we all are pretty well stuck with what the Lord gave us when it comes to our physical appearance. So that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m referring to the perpetual scowl and knit brow that seemed to settle on Jordan’s face from the time he was introduced. My own experience is limited to one dialogue with a Mormon friend at an LDS Training Institute. The audience was split nearly evenly with a slight advantage to the Mormon side of the discussion. Those Mormons were missionaries, bishops and other officials. I went into that feeling that pressure and knowing that we were in the slight minority. Therefore I was doubly careful to make sure that my demeanor was approachable, light and friendly. I knew I was going to be saying some pretty controversial stuff in a Mormon audience—things like your god does not exist and there is a real hell for idolaters. So I tried to show with my demeanor my concern for my Mormon friends. The end result was numerous conversations that went on some time afterward with the Mormons in attendance. If we should be that mindful of unbelievers during an event that was NOT recorded, what do we owe our brothers in Christ when it is recorded for posterity?
Jordan’s delivery was laced with barbs and off handed insults. Some of it was painful to watch. It was not becoming of an academic debate. It sounded more like something you would see on a heated Facebook thread. Combine that with “he of the perpetual scowl” and Jordan is not going to win friends and influence people with his delivery alone. In short, his delivery did nothing to rescue his content. And Jordan needed all of the help he could get. Contrast that with an occasionally smiling but academically intense Joel. If you don’t think appearance matters in a debate, witness the results of the first televised debate between Richard Nixon and a young upstart named John F. Kennedy.
Believe it or not, delivery matters. I’ve never met Joel face to face but after watching him under this kind of fire, I hope someday I will. I’ve never met Jordan face to face. After watching this performance I might fight an urge to cross the street if I see him approaching. I am sure he is a great guy; this has to do solely with the demeanor he communicated during the debate. Mutual friends tell me he’s a nice guy. And I will say that it is obvious that he is passionate about justification by faith. This, however, is a film review and it would be incomplete without mentioning these issues. Perhaps these comments will be helpful to Jordan even if he does not like reading them (if indeed he ever does).
Speaking of an incomplete review, I want to motivate you to see this flick. It is worth your time and energy to watch this film if for no other reason than Joel’s closing statements and the split screen view with Jordan’s stunned reaction. It’s the money shot of the film. I stood up and cheered. It proved conclusively that all true Christians, theonomist or not, hold theonomist beliefs. Those true Christians include big name pastors who no one would ever suspect as theonomists. I will not be holding my breath to await the Twitter war that breaks out between these pastors and their fan base. It is standard operating procedure amongst some in that tribe to ignore the same beliefs in their heroes that they despise in their theological opponents.