Thoughts on the Wilson-McDurmon Debate
Douglas Wilson, the Moscow, Idaho, theological provocateur and rogue Presbyterianish former Federal Visionist recently debated Joel McDurmon of American Vision on the suitability of the death penalty for sodomy. Wilson is a whimsical soul who has been able to maintain friendships and various degrees of alliances with a broad swath of evangelicals, mainly because of his jovial wittiness and good-natured whimsy and in spite of the fact he might be the most politically conservative theological leader in America. McDurmon has largely been relegated – like most theonomists before him, bar Greg Bahnsen – to a small circle of influence among theonomy’s revolving door (and open back door) of fresh converts. Both are popular (in varying degrees) among New Calvinists, who share the duo’s equal commitment to post-millennialism.
There are similarities between the two. Both hold to a kind of Presbyterianism, and both claim to hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). Both have questionable credentials when it comes to the Westminster Confession, with Doug Wilson’s self-ordination and his now-forsaken, ill-advised bad trip into Federal Vision and with McDurmon’s ignoring the WCF which is clearly at odds with the principle’s of Rushdoony and North’s theonomy, which he inherited. Both, as mentioned above, are post-millennialists. Both are, by nature of their post-millennialism, political. Both have an affinity for beer.
But, there are differences. McDurmon claims in his re-baptized (sprinkled?) theonomy that the Bible no longer mandates certain Second-Table offenses be punished, and especially not by death. Wilson claims that death may be a suitable punishment for sodomy, a Seventh Commandment violation, given Old Testament law (Wilson at least argues that punishing a male with death for anally sodomizing another male would not be inherently unjust). It’s this assertion from Wilson that earned him Facebook rebukes from McDurmon, who received the theonomic mantle from Gary DeMar and his father-in-law, Gary North. Oddly enough, the irony is that Rushdoony (the theonomic founder who happens to be McDurmon’s granddaddy-in-law), North, and Bahnsen, all argued that following Mosaic penology to the “exhaustive detail” (including punishments for capital crimes like sodomy) must be continued in current jurisprudence. Oddly enough, Wilson – who unhelpfully calls himself a “general equity theonomist,” blurring distinctions and definitions regarding how theonomy has classically been defined up until McDurmon’s epiphanies after his debate with me in 2015 – holds to the very positions McDurmon once so vehemently fought for. In McDurmon’s kinder, gentler, and more libertarian theonomy (which is no theonomy at all), there is no room to talk about executing homosexuals. And while I appreciate McDurmon changing his views immediately after our debate, I don’t appreciate that he’s kept the term theonomy alive and redefined it. In short, I don’t appreciate manufacturing history or re-imagining definitional terms.
The controversy ensued between the two when Wilson wrote an article, The Death Penalty as our Only Hope, in which he explained that capital punishment for sodomy may be an appropriate punishment for the sin. McDurmon decried the idea on Facebook. The two gathered via the Internet to discuss their differences on a podcast which fancies itself as the place for debate, but which is often a sounding board and echo chamber. In the episode of Iron Sharpens Iron, Chris Arnzen hosted the two as they stammered along in their post-millennial way, trying to work out the best and most proper use of the Old Testament Judical Law and its application to modern government. As the two men, both who claim to hold to the Westminster Confession, opined on the suitability of the death penalty for sodomy, I found myself frustrated that neither seemed to care for their Confession’s words on the subject (Chapter 19, Article IV), or to be fair, didn’t care about how their Confession has been historically understood and taught.
There was one particular moment I found frustrating. In the cross-examination period, the two men were discussing whether or not there should be a penalty for sodomy in general (as defined by unnatural affections which include either gender and any “unnatural” sex act) or if it only pertained to the act of anal penetration and not to homosexual male oral sex or lesbianism. Discussing various New Testament applications of the Old Testament Law, both were in agreement that lesbianism was not criminalized under the Old Testament Judicial Law, and neither knew exactly where to draw the line on exactly what perverted acts should or should not be punished by the Civil Magistrate. The issue of frustration is that neither man seemed to grasp the idea that Paul lumped in lesbianism with male homosexuality – when the Judicial Law did not explicitly do so – because the point of Paul wasn’t magisterial at all. Paul was not trying to create a standard of civil law, but he was using the Civil Code in extrapolation to demonstrate a simple notion; the sinfulness of sin. This seems like a shocking newsflash for both Wilson and McDurmon; the Apostolic writers were not concerned at all with forming a criminal code. Not one jot or tittle of New Testament writ is devoted to the subject of crafting judicial laws. For Paul, the general equity of the Judicial Code’s capital punishment of male sodomites was enough to condemn the sin today as detestable (for the record, I disagree with both men that lesbianism was not condemned by the phrasing of “men, laying as with another man” in Leviticus 20:13, and I believe it is implicit). The endless back-and-forth between Wilson and McDurmon was a demonstration of missing the point. This is why Calvin called such lengthy discourses on the best kinds of laws to be a waste of time, being “false and foolish.”
While this doesn’t absolve our responsibility to determine the best course of government, this should put to death the notion that the Bible provides detailed instructions on running a civil government from direct application of Biblical law. Wilson, at least, seems to affirm the pre-1788 WCF, which said that the magistrate should essentially enforce both Tables of Law (the “American revision” came about the same year as the Constitutional Convention, which wrote into the right of religious freedom, and was at odds with the Westminster Confession). Today, McDurmon holds that only some of the Commandments should be enforced, using a bizarre, self-invented notion stemming from the “cherim principle” and interpretations of “seed law.” Wilson is right to be bewildered and exactly how McDurmon comes to his selective (and unsurprisingly more culturally acceptable) use of Old Testament law.
At the end of the day, none of this really matters. The police-free, libertarian Republic built upon “God’s Law” that McDurmon is crafting in his head like an over-worked city planner will not come to fruition. Like most theonomists before him, McDurmon has abandoned the central tenets of theonomy when they have proved impossible to apply to our government, fitting like a square peg in a round hole. In all of this, we are reminded that our government will never be conformed to God’s righteousness until Jesus returns and literally sets up his earthly reign.