Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Truth War - John MacArthur and the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle

It's late. I can't really sleep now, even though I've spent the day at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, and my son was getting a kidney transplant. So after having sent out messages, and thanks for prayer, and updates, I thought I might respond to the book I read yesterday, since that is a goal over the next week anyway.

I read The Truth War in a day. It is easy reading. I do not recommend it to any undiscerning reader, and wouldn't have bought it except that I felt compelled to respond to it.

I did not come to this book unbiased. I am from a Pentecostal background, and have seen the writings of MacArthur, and heard his diatribes on my own variation of Christianity slammed by faulty logic before. Since I identify with the Emergent Movement to some degree currently - jokingly calling myself a PentEmergent, but really thinking of myself as some combination of Pentecostal, Anabaptist, and Emergent, I thought it would be best to respond in some way to his critiques of a movement I am beginning to find some identification with.

I will respond in a short series of posts, and try to keep each post a simple refutation of one of the many fallacies I have observed in his (what I view as) pontifications.

In MacArthur's attacks on Charismatic Christianity 20 years ago, I observed a solid Biblical teacher (excellent on some issues, and dreadful on other issues), commit a series of ad hominem attacks on Pentecostal Christianity. This is a fairly easy thing to do, since Pentecostals include a spectrum of wild to mild, and charlatan to honest characters. With some frequency in print, and on air he used examples of the most extreme, and sensational characters, and their behavior to make broad sweeping statements about the entirety of the movement. These attacks on individual behavior were even used as proof of the doctrinal error in teachings concerning the current usage of the gifts of the Spirit, and the doctrine of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. In Logic this is a fallacious argument called Argumentum Ad Hominem. The bad behavior of an individual, or even a group of individuals does not prove that a doctrinal position they hold is automatically false.

Having seen this otherwise decent Bible teacher utilize poor logic in the past against those with whom he disagreed, I assumed the same might be true in his attack on the Emergent Conversation. I was unfortunately more correct on this point than I had imagined, and will therefore take a short series of posts to cover these thoughts.

So, here's my first observation:

John MacArthur's lack of understanding, and shallowness of knowledge on the Emergent Conversation causes him to create a potentially false dichotomy. This is called the fallacy of the excluded middle.

"Excluded Middle (False Dichotomy, Faulty Dilemma, Bifurcation):
assuming there are only two alternatives when in fact there are more. For example, assuming Atheism is the only alternative to Fundamentalism, or being a traitor is the only alternative to being a loud patriot."

For more examples of faulty logic see this list of Fallacious Arguments.

Even a reading of some basic material such as Scott McKnight's article in Christianity Today, (I posted on this sometime back here) would have shown MacArthur that the Eemrgent Conversation was far more divergent in thought than he assumes in his book. He might have understood that it included liberals and conservatives from most denominations of Christianity. That people were joining it for reasons doctrinal, and for reasons primarily evangelistic or missional. I fall into the latter category, and so the statements of apostasy and heresy are gross generalizations concerning someone like myself.

Here are a few examples of MacArthur's inability to see that the Emergent Church is more complex than he understands, and is not simply a truth evading, fad chasing, corrupt movement - as he tends to demonize it:

"As always, a war is being waged against the truth. We are on one side or the other. There is no middle ground." Introduction page xxiii By itself this is a fine statement. Placed in context of assaulting an entire movement without clarification of the complexity of the group this is a fallacy of the excluded middle.

"We will examine why defending the faith inevitably requires warfare, rather than the gullibly sanguine stance many Christians seem to favor today." Introduction page xxv Here we are given the opportunity to be a part of one of two responses, without consideration that there might be a third option. Otherwise we join John, or we are gullible. suggesting that contemporary Christianity needs to reimagine, update, or simply jettison some supposedly obsolete doctrine...They are actually working toward the wholesale demolition of the entire structure." page 80 The context of this paragraph hints that something as innocuous as updating a service is on par with challenging fundamental doctrines, and is an assualt on the basics of the faith. This theme is repeated a number of times in the book.

MacArthur's faulty logic makes itself fully known early in the book with his own observation on the "excluded middle." On page 14 he says, "The reason behind postmodernism's contempt for propositional truth is not difficult to understand. A proposition is an idea framed as a logical statement that affirms or denies something, and it is expressed in such a way that it must be either true or false. There is no third option between true and false. (This is the "excluded middle" in logic.)" At this point MacArthur idenitifies the pattern of attack he will continue throughout the book. His insistance that the Emergent Conversation, and the Seeker Sensitive Churches (which he erroneously lumps together throughout the book - perhaps not purposely, but certainly by inference, and repetitious connection) are regularly on the wrong side of "The Truth War" establishes his use of the excluded middle as a logical argument. With his ignorance at best, or at worst his outright pretention that a more complex community of commited believers does not exist in the Emergent Church, he repeatedly makes the mistake of using the fallacy of the excluded middle, and even trumpets his pleasure in using it as a solid logical argument. With his use of the argument of the excluded middle MacArthur proudly displays his faulty logic as though it were sound intellectual supremacy, and allows this fallacy to rule the basic premises of his book.

I am amazed that an otherwise solid theologian can make such a basic error in logic, but this certainly is not the first time for John Boy.


ded said...

Being a solid member of the "excluded middle", though certain MacArthur would see me on the side of falsehood, I for one am not on the attack against his traditions. I would move no piece whatsoever of the doctrines of the cultural Christian church in its current state, a function of its time on earth.

MacArthur need not worry that, They are actually working toward the wholesale destruction of the entire structure. Those of us who have left the structure did so for many reasons,none of them the intended destruction of that system. However it is not difficult to postulate its collapse from its own falsehoods. Unless, of course, it justifies its existence to and begins to draw support from the political system. A marriage not unlikely in these odd days of calling good bad and the reverse.

David said...

Hi Phil,
Thanks for doing this. I'm glad all is well in kidney land!!!

My favorite class in college was Argumentation. In fact it's the only text book I've ever kept and I still go through it from time to time refreshing myself on falicious arguments...for this very reason.

My professor (who had a Masters in Communication and Mathematics) would have loved it!

Looks like his book is rife with all sort of fallicous arguments....

Pastor Phil said...

"a solid member of the excluded middle" I like that. Me too.

I didn't quite leave the system. I got shot out of it like the cannonball man in the circus.

Identifying the Emergent Conversation as bent on the "wholesale destruction of the system" is one of those unbelievable us versus them comments which has caused many to us to search for something based in the Prince of Peace. Most of us have honored the good things in our former traditions, and many of us have not left them at all, and still honor them.

Of course continued bifurcation would see this as demonic infitration.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey David,

Thanks for your prayers bro.

Yeah, I'll be focusing on more of these fun fallacies. It was one of my keeper books from school too.

Adam Gonnerman said...

Before I discovered what is being called "missional" my impressions of emerging church were filtered through a lense not unlike what you describe of this book. While there are many viewpoints within the emerging movement with which I would disagree strongly (and I don't really refer to myself or my convictions as "emerging anyway), this is a much needed conversation. Just trying to brand people as heretics and apostates and shut them out so the traditional evangelical church can continue on its merry way won't work.

This "warfare" approach the author suggests does not surprise me. It sounds like something taken directly from President Bush's policy manual.

The problem with drawing lines is that the one doing the drawing might soon find himself on the wrong side.

Anonymous said...

S'funny really. It is that whole falacious argument thing that is so often seen from Many Christians about Pagans too. You've seen that happen too Phil. Yes, I also know that Pagans have been known to engage in similar practise towards Christianity. So what we do is gently draw attention to the errors and continue working to improve peoples understanding of the realities of these faith groups. :)



hylander (William) said...


If your critique is primarily aimed at MacAuthur's argument that "The Emergent Church" is bad based on his findings and that one either embraces that bad or not, then I would agree that the "excluded Middle fallacy" has been breached. Further, I would agree that MacArthur's points, although not entirely sound, are still valid based the syllogistic structure of argumentation. On the other hand, If what MacArthur is pointing out is that there is either "truth" or "error" and is simply pointing out that there is in fact "serious" error within the context of the "Emergent Movement", then one must either embrace truth or embrace error, then I do not concur that MacArhur has committed the fallacy of the "excluded middle."

One could make a strong case that the premise of this article violates the fallacy of generalization or possibly even the straw man argument. But, I think that would seriously dismiss the spirit of the article for the letter as I believe is the case with MacArthur.

I too have a great and deep respect for MacArthur. He is generally very sound doctrinally. Unfortunately, due to his prestige and outspokeness, he is more readily responded to due to his various positions regarding the Emergent Church. On a side note, I think he includes the "Willow-Back" Seeker Soft Serve Gospel churches because there are a great many connections among some of the leadership of both Emergent and Seeker Friendly churches. But aside that, There really isnt anyone voicing strong concerns or opinions within evangelicalism on some of these very important issues.

I understand MacArthurs views regarding Pentecostalism. I seriously disagree with him on those issues as well as you do. But, many would consider these secondary or "non-sacred" issues, or "non-cardinal" doctrines where there is room for disagreement. And, that is where I leave it. What I find MacArthur talking about, specifically regarding the issues of "absolute propositional truth"; "innerrancy of the Bible"; "salvation by Grace alone" and several other, what I understand to be, "sacred" doctrines, is what he is trying to convey as being attacked by "some" in the "Emergent" movement. This I contend is what MacArthur is really talking about. I believe his position is simply, that we should throw out the baby with the bath water, especially if there is better water to put the baby in!

I appreciate your thoughts Phil. I too am with you regarding what you referred to as the latter, as I am very missional regarding the Gospel and am trying my best contextualize that message to those I meet! However, I believe we still need "John-Boy" ,with all his questionable logic and even rhetoric. His voice is simply one of many trying to help keep balance in this "Post-Modern" culture. Further, those who consider themselves "emergent" must remember that "ALL" are welcome to the "Conversation", even "fundies". :)

Peace to you.

carl said...

Great post. Looking forward to the others. I respect MacArthur and even though I haven't read his stuff I get kind of a good vibe from him despite his awful generalizations you described.

One of the reasons I don't like to be labeled emergent(and labeled in general for that matter) is because then I won't be able to be criticized in a general manner. A constructive critique would come from someone that I can have a two sided conversation with. I hope MacArthur is one of those people. Isn't the word conversation synonymous with emergent anyway. SHOOT! I'm starting to label. doough.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey William the Hylander,

Great thoughtful (logical) post!

With MacArthur I suppose I am working off the principle of returning what has been dished out. :-) Jesus' response to the Pharisees was harsh, because the Pharisees were harsh in their dealings with people. MacArthur is a harsh man in his writings toward those he disagrees with, and his communication style is by nature warlike.

I do not have the same sense of need for his writings as you feel, because I tend to see them as divisive. He is not bringing any critique which has not already been said more accurately (by Carson for example), and with more balance. If he had shown some evidence of understanding the subtler nuances of the movement I might have greater respect for his opinion. He is shooting across the bow, and expecting Emergents to retreat (i.e. repent). This has long been his style. We will most likely be left to converse over the subject ourselves without him as a part of the dialogue.

As regards to concerns over Seeker Sensitive Churches, they have been voiced for years now, and this has included Christian and more recently secular sources - e.g. Suzanne Sataline and The Wall Street Journal on Rick Warren. Even a quick Google search often leads to more critiques than supporting sites.

I took some thought about the potential for generalization in my post, but considered that MacArthur has positioned the book in this manner: 1) subtitle - Fighting for certainty in a Age of Deception - this is a "Call to Arms" and is boldly stated as such on the back cover in huge print. 2) He states very clearly on the inside front flap "This is Not Friendly Fire" and goes on to comment that some Christian leaders and pastors may be "the enemy." Some of these are named in the book, and the casual reader is left to assume that these people are enemies, apostates (a common reference in the book), and destroyers of the faith. 3) The book begins with the first three pages of the intro setting the overall tone of the book by a generalization of the Emergent Church. Opening words - "Who would have thought that people claiming to be Christians - even pastors - would attack the very notion of truth? But they are." The common reader will receive this book as a specific assault on the corrupt group called Emergent, and it has been targeted to be read in that manner. A generalized response seems warranted and accurate to a generalized presentation - so methinks.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Carl,

I agree that ;abels tend to stink, but somehow we all get caught in them, if only by the friends we keep. I suppose they will always exist because we need simple ways to define relationships of things to things, and people to other people. If we did not have labels we would end up like the Ents - taking days to make introductions.

Steve Hayes said...

Sounds like a book to avoid. Apart from saying what he things is false, does he happen to say what he thinks is true?

Webb Kline said...

I always thought of John's theology as a return of the Judaizers--a works sans grace Gospel that is really no Gospel at all. Nothing doctrinally sound to it at all. Since his legacy is one of building on intolerance and division--antithetical to the very essence of the teachings of Jesus, I won't have a thing to do with him.

hylander (william) said...


After reading your response, methinks you are more than fair and justified in your critique. I must admit that I have not thoroughly read through this book, but have only skimmed a rough outline. I will certainly take a more closer look at in the next several weeks. I would agree with you that he has a tendency to be "shotgun" like in his approach from not only this book, but from his previous books as well. My thoughts regarding the need for Mac's writings, although not as strong as I intented, were primarily more from my perspective rather than for the group as a whole. I still think there is something to gleen from his writings if someone is willing to take the time. Further, I will confess that Carson, Veith, or even Mark Driscoll, do a much better job than Mac regarding critiquing. The only thing, perhaps, I can think of at the moment, by way of speculation, is that Mac overshoots his statements and/or premesis for the purpose of "bravado" and "shock&awe" in order to awaken those who are asleep among the masses? Justa tough :)

Regarding the "Willow-Back" model, I was involved briefly with this until I did some digging on my own. What I discovered was that there was more than meets eye "pie in the sky" theology here. I took time to read many of your articles from when you posted to a local christian newspaper regarding the small church, and I whole heartedly concur with 100% of what you wrote. Your articles really made sense and were balanced in light of the Scriptures. That, combined with my 6 months of research and findings, made me realize, that that was not the way to walk. The Gospel cannot and should not be compromised for the sake of "numbers". I tend to be very harsh on that particular movement, although I do realize that there were still things that were gained spiritually, (i.e. sense of community, fellowship, love).

Anyways, before I become long winded, thanks for your clarification Phil. I appreciate your thoughful comments. You are a true blessing! Also, I am very pleased to hear that Elijah's surgury went well! That is an awesome Praise Report! Jehovah Rapha!!!


Pastor Phil said...


There is one thing he does identify as a good thing. Well, one I noted. Perhaps I missed a second. He said, "In one narrow respect, the driving idea behind the Emergent Church movement is correct: The current climate of postmodernism does represent a wonderful window of opportunity for the church of Jesus Christ. The arrogant rationalism that dominated the modern era is already in its death throes."

There may be another short paragraph in the book, but that is the only one which comes to my mind at this moment.

I will probably return to that comment in another posting.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Mike,
I figure if we can not stop the fallacious attacks within our own groups, we are really going to have a tough time in cross cultural relations - you are so correct.

Pastor Phil said...

Hi Webb,

and yet his radio show is called Grace to You, and he pastors Grace Community Church. I believe he truly desires to exhibit grace, but obviously he defines differently than we might.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Will,

I agree with you about the Shock & Awe being a potential anwer to why MacArthur writes as he does. Yet I do not think that justifies unsound logic. I can not help but wonder if there is not a selling point to such "bravado" as you call it. I becomes larger than life, and seems more important - even necessary to read. Yet I would not assume that point either.

Pastor Phil said...


I like your comment about drawing lines - how true!