GD: Hello Phil Johnson and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.
PJ: I was born and lived my whole life (except for three years in central Florida) on historic Route 66. I was born in the middle (Oklahoma City); spent my college years (and more) where the Mother Road starts (Chicago); and I’ve lived the past 27 years in the Los Angeles area, where the road ends.
I grew up as a regular, weekly churchgoer, but in a very liberal denomination. In high school, I suddenly realized that liberal theology is really just unbelief papered over with a religious veneer, and I stopped going to church completely for a year or more. That left me with a sense of guilt and a massive spiritual void in my soul, which I attacked by becoming a political activist. My highest goal in life was to become a political pundit and write columns for some newspaper syndicate. I threw myself into it with a whole heart, convinced that politics could be a means of redemption for me if not for the whole culture. I was convinced that if I pursued wisdom and integrity, God would bless and reward me, even though I wasn’t religious. I convinced myself that politics was actually better than religion because it could accomplish more. I would seek to be good, and wise, and God would be pleased with me because I was going to devote my life cultivating wisdom and disseminating it through my punditry. It never occurred to me how arrogant that whole perspective was.
Then in April 1971, as my senior year in High School was drawing to a close, almost on a whim, I picked up a Bible, opened it at random, and started reading. I opened to the first page of 1 Corinthians and decided to try to read the whole epistle—which was more of the Bible than I had ever read in one sitting before.
But from the first page, I began to sense the Holy Spirit’s conviction. “It is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1:19-20). First Corinthians 3:18-19 especially gave me a jolt: “Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” By the time I reached chapter 4, I knew I was lost. By the time I read 12:3 (“Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.”), I was a repentant believer.
A year later, I enrolled at Moody Bible Institute. After earning my bachelor’s degree there, I stayed on as an editor at Moody Press. I met my wife there, got married (in the plaza at Moody Bible Institute), spent 3 years in St. Petersburg, FL, as a youth pastor, then went back to Moody Press as acquisitions editor. I met John MacArthur because Moody had begun publishing his books while I was in Florida, and when I came back, I took over the editing of most of his books. In 1983, I left Moody Press to come on staff at Grace to you, and I’ve been here ever since.
GD: You are the founding member of the Pyromaniacs team blog. What prompted you to get into blogging on the first place?
PJ: Self defense. Some things I had written and published in the UK had found their way back to America and were being deconstructed in the post-evangelical blogosphere. When I tried to enter the “conversation,” the blog that had critiqued me most harshly suddenly closed their comments and the lead blogger started making insulting posts about me on the blog. (It seems those who talk most about “conversation” and “transparency” are the least willing to have an open, honest conversation. And sometimes those who are most adept at giving criticism are least likely to take it graciously.) But that’s the blogosphere. I had participated in several e-mail forums and even a couple of Usenet newsgroups over the years, and I knew that Internet forums can sometimes be hives of cruelty and small-mindedness. (I hadn’t even been much of a blog-reader for that very reason.) Still, blogging seemed a more fruitful way than e-mail forums to express and defend one’s opinion. I was editing a book at the time and needed to meet a deadline, so I registered a blog address at Google’s Blogger but left the blog blank except for an announcement that I would begin blogging there in a month. When I finally began posting at the blog I was shocked at how many readers and how many comments I got just within the first half hour.
GD: Originally you were a solitary Pyromaniac and then you invited Turk, Peccadillo and Dan to join the team. Why the change from solo to team player?
PJ: Too much feedback and too many comments to deal with. It was beginning to dominate my life. I didn’t answer every comment, of course, but I needed to read every comment, because there was this little cadre of miscreants who tried to comment when I wasn’t looking, and they would use the combox at my blog to insult John MacArthur or post other things trying to embarrass to me. Shortly before I closed the solo blog, I had recently begun a series on evangelicalism’s increasing flirtation with trivial, false, and imaginary “words from the Lord.” It was going to be a critique of Blackaby-Gothard-style mysticism and the notion that God regularly speaks to people through strong impressions and voices in their heads. It wasn’t about the charismatic movement per se, but it seemed to draw angry charismatics out of the woodwork, demanding that I debate them on the issue of cessationism. I never did manage to get the thread back on track.
That kind of thing took far more time to manage than I was willing to invest. When I realized I couldn’t keep blogging at that pace, my first thought was to wrap it up and close the blog completely. I decided instead to ask a handful of guys whose blogs I enjoyed to help me share the load. I had never even met Dan Phillips before that (we’d only exchanged a couple of e-mails), but I loved everything he wrote. I had met Frank Turk face to face only once, but he had the cleverest blog I had ever read, and he was fiercely unrelenting when he knew he was right. (I love that about him.) Pecadillo is my son, and he had a very popular humor blog, so I added him for comic relief. He responded by entering the police academy and reducing his writing to about one blog-post a year. Even though he almost never posts, he’s still a favorite of many of the home-school moms who read our blog.
GD: It has been suggested that Turk, Peccadillo and Dan are in fact deviant expressions of a multiple personality disorder on your part. When I interviewed "Dan" he failed to deny this. Care to comment in which ever guise you please?
PJ: I wish I had Frank’s wit and Dan’s ability to write pithy prose. Pecadillo is a clone of his dad, but he’s real and distinct from me. Dan, Frank, and I really are three totally different personalities who happen to agree on just about everything that is really important. Considering our vastly divergent backgrounds and the hasty way I assembled the team, it is truly remarkable how well we mesh. We try to meet up at T4G (or some other conference in the T4G off-years), and I look forward to it the way I used to wish for Christmas when I was a kid. They’ve become great friends.
GD: Some will fail to be convinced by that denial. Has anyone ever seen Phil, Dan, Frank and Pecadillo in the same room at T4G or otherwise? We want cast iron proof of your separate identities. Photographic evidence won't do given your photoshop wizardry. Moving on, Jim Packer recently said, "I'm amazed at the amount of time people spend on the internet. I'm not against technology, but all tools should be used to their best advantage. We should be spending our time on things that have staying power, instead of on the latest thought of the latest blogger—and then moving on quickly to the next blogger. That makes us more superficial, not more thoughtful." Does he have a point? What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for theological reflection?
PJ: He’s absolutely right, and it convicted me to read that. Virtually everything I do in my job and my ministry utilizes the Internet in one way or another. The blog, which is basically my hobby, also keeps me in front of the computer screen. I don’t read half as much published material as I did in the early 90s, and I’m sure that is to the detriment of my intellectual and spiritual life.
Recently I got a Kindle, though, so things are bound to get better. :-)
GD: That's alright then, but sticking with blogging for the moment, Pyromaniacs has the coolest graphics. Most of us have to make do with "borrowing" a picture from Google Images. How do you create all that snazzy artwork?
PJ: That’s what I do instead of watching O’Reilly. When my brain is fatigued or I just need a break from a writing project, I’ll make graphics for the blog. There are at least 100 in the pipeline that have never been used. Dan and Frank have favorites that they use again and again, and frankly, some of the images in the never-used pool are less than stunning, but we try to keep it fresh, and there’s a variety of images with wildly differing themes, and I never know how they might be used. I just make random graphics and try to have a mix of funny, serious, grotesque, and stunningly beautiful. The only thing almost all of them have in common is the TeamPyro logo. (I’ve never seen an image I couldn’t photoshop our logo into.) The clever ways the guys tie the pictures into their posts never ceases to amaze me.
The heavy-graphics look is deliberate, BTW, and the overuse of our logo is a deliberate caricature, too. I wanted the blog to stand out from day one, and I didn’t want it to look like an academic discussion or a conclave of somber old men. I designed the original template and had the basic look of the graphics weeks before I had any idea what my first blogpost would be. The blog name was actually suggested by the original blog-header graphic, which was a match. I chose it for the color combination and the simplicity and shape of the horizontal image, and then I gave the blog a name that fit.
(Incidentally, as it turned out, at the last minute I scrapped the idea I had in mind for my inaugural post’s topic. I don’t even remember what it was. Instead, I dashed off “Quick-and-Dirty Calvinism” after 10:30 PM the night before I launched the blog.)
GD: Pyromaniacs must be up there with Adrian Warnock and Tim Challies as one of the biggest Calvoblogs on the planet. What's the secret recipe for worldwide blog domination? I won't tell anyone, honest.
PJ: I honestly have no idea. Before I launched, I was hoping to get 300 readers a week by the end of the first year. I think my original solo blog was averaging 1000 a day by the end of the first week. I don’t look at stats anymore, but I’m pretty sure the average is more than double that now.
I can’t explain it. I think the announcement that I would start blogging in a month inadvertently started a buzz of expectation that was out of proportion to the actual importance of the event. In retrospect it looks like deliberate hype, but that was the furthest thing from my mind. I couldn’t start the blog till a month after I first conceived the project because I had a deadline to meet.
Obviously, we’re provocative, and that probably draws a lot of readers. But let’s be candid: readers who are drawn to controversy aren’t always the highest class of readers. Besides, Challies isn’t provocative, and he draws more readers than we do. So I don’t know. We don’t have any agenda to be provocative or start controversies; we just write about things we care about, and our passion is reflected in the way we write. I don’t know any other way to write. These days, any strong conviction is going to be controversial, and I think it’s a serious mistake to cater to the postmodern spirit by softening truths or toning down convictions just because people don’t like hard truths and settled certainty. So we don’t apologize for being provocative.
GD: Who has had the greatest influence on your theological development?
PJ: That’s a hard one. I think it’s both Francis Turretin and R. L. Dabney—both of them for the clarity of their logic. The two of them have settled more hard doctrinal questions for me than any other theological writers. Obviously, as a Baptist and abolitionist I disagree with them both on several major issues, but they have nevertheless influenced my theology profoundly.
GD: Who has taught you most of what it means to preach the Word of God?
PJ: That’s easy. John MacArthur. I also have to give a lot of credit to Warren Wiersbe, who was my pastor and mentor for almost a decade before I came to California. He taught me the basics of homiletics and how to structure a sermon. John MacArthur showed me how to handle the Word of God, how to deliver the message with conviction, and what it means to be bold, steadfast, and courageous, without sacrificing humility in the process.
GD: If time travel were possible, which figure from post-biblical church history would you most like to meet and what you say to him/her?
PJ: Cotton Mather. I’d want to show him the 21st century, because I know that would be fun and fascinating for him. He had that kind of investigative mind. He was also flawed enough that I’m pretty sure I could ride around in a car with him, or watch him learn to surf the Internet, and not be constantly reminded what a worm I am.
You probably thought I would say Spurgeon. I’d of course like to meet him, too, but I would definitely be intimidated by him, and I think I would feel like a total paramecium in his presence.
GD: What are your impressions of the "Young, Restless and Reformed" thing?
PJ: I think there’s entirely too much young and restless and not enough “Reformed.” (Do I sound like an old guy with a crew cut who yells at kids about staying off his lawn? Gack.)
Frankly, my spirit sunk when I saw that original article in CT. Don’t misunderstand; it was a good article. (I like just about everything Collin Hansen writes.) But I knew lots of young people would take it as a signal that Calvinism is where the cool kids are hanging out, and Calvinism would become little more than a fad—another evangelical bandwagon. And that’s pretty much my impression of what has happened. Sadly, because it’s just a fad, it will pass before long. I hope when that happens there will be enough people with true Calvinist convictions left to keep the movement alive.
PJ: Neither, really. I’ve never actually met Mark, and we’ve only had a couple of brief phone conversations. My criticism of Mark has been limited to one issue. I hope he takes it to heart. We’ll see. In the meantime, I have no animosity or ill will toward him, nor has he ever expressed any malice toward me. I’ve heard from a few of the young and the restless who think personal rancor is the only possible explanation for anyone to have concerns about Mark. That’s an immature perspective, which means they will eventually grow out of it. I’ll wait for that, rather than perpetuating the conflict or continually dissecting it.
GD: Has the Emerging Conversation run out of steam?
PJ: Well, yes and no. It never really was a conversation, was it? You weren’t allowed to participate in the first place unless you agreed to the postmodern ground rules: here
However, the movement has clearly ground to a halt. I wrote about that last week: here
And yet I think what killed the movement was moral scandal on the one hand and doctrinal stigma on the other. The writings, life-styles, and off-the-wall statements of key Emergent leaders became an embarrassment to the movement as a whole, and finally the very word Emergent, so cool and mysterious in 2005, became a serious liability by the end of the decade. Everyone with any sense wants to shed the label.
As I have said elsewhere, although the movement may be dead, the ideas and values spawned by the movement are not. Emergent thinking is being dispersed into the broad evangelical movement like dandelion seeds. The doctrinal and philosophical issues we argued about with Emergents are now becoming fodder for debate in more mainstream communities. The battle for those truths is by no means over, and I think the evangelical movement is in deep trouble.
PJ: No. I think it’s unclear and self-contradictory. On the one hand it declares that “it is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.” And yet on the other hand, the document itself doesn’t proclaim the gospel. It leaves the content of the gospel in a haze of ambiguity, obliquely referring to “the Gospel of costly grace,” but not mentioning who pays the “cost” of redemption or how sinners can be justified. The ambiguity about the gospel was clearly deliberate, so as not to alienate those who proclaim different gospels. That being the case, the document should not have implied that the signatories are bound together by a common commitment to Christianity. Why not open it up to Mormons, Muslims, and Buddhists, if there’s no agenda to imply that all signatories are in spiritual union with Christ?
I’m not a fan of declarations in any case. Evangelicals produce them all the time, with all kinds of pomp and gravity, but to what end? We should put the energy into evangelism that we invest in drafting and publicizing statements.
GD: Is co-belligerency possible without compromising faithfulness to the gospel?
PJ: Sure, on a very limited basis. But we must not blithely ignore the dangers. It’s a fine line between ecumenism and co-belligerency, and the people who talk most about co-belligerency are usually the very worst at guarding the line. Evangelicals overrate the importance of political clout, and they underestimate the power of gospel preaching. When the gospel is proclaimed with power, all of society is impacted for the better. But the evangelical thrust for political activism has (historically, not just theoretically) had a very negative ecumenical tendency.
Is co-belligerency possible without compromising the gospel? Probably, but I think that’s may be the wrong question to be asking. Ask, rather, How much of your message or your testimony will you have to stifle in order to "team up" in some kind of formal, public alliance? If your allies are Jewish and you hold back from declaring the exclusivity of Christ in order to hold your coalition together; or if your allies are Roman Catholic and you carefully avoid any discussion of sola fide or sola Scriptura—then you are sacrificing your distinctives for a lesser cause than the proclamation of the gospel. It happens all the time.
GD: Every self-respecting Calvinist is Amillenial, just like Calvin himself, right?
PJ: Actually, I know self-respecting Calvinists of the pre-, post-, and a-millennial varieties. Every view seems to have its crazies who are obsessed with eschatology but seem to care little for the gospel or the life of the church. I don’t aspire to be like that.
GD: Care to name your top three songs or pieces of music?
PJ: That’s a really hard one. I could easily give you a list of 3,000, but narrowing it down to 3 is well-nigh impossible. I like practically all kinds of music, including Hindi film soundtracks and Cuban Mambo. I also like Weird Al and Spike Jones. But my favorite styles are are classical and baroque. (I’ve been a classical music aficionado since I was 14.)
I have a special love for Bach cantatas, and I suppose one of them would have to be first on my list. I’d probably pick BWV 106 “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” a sweet cantata with a Calvinistic message. It opens (uncharacteristically) with a sonatina, which Darlene and I used as wedding music 32 years ago.
Number two on my list would be Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” (the full orchestration, not the piano version) which is a perfect piece of music. I have about least 20 recordings of it, and I listen to at least one of them every week.
Third place on my list would go to John Rutter’s Requiem. I heard the original Cambridge Singers’ recording on the radio 1n 1986, when the work was less than a year old, and I have loved it ever since.
I hate that I have to leave out all of Mahler’s Symphonies, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Morton Laurdsen’s Lux Eterna, and Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion”--not to mention Perez Prado, Ernesto Lecuona, A. R. Rahman, Joaquín Rodrigo, and a lot more. I currently have 42,783 tracks in my iTunes collection, so you see the size of the problem.
GD: Yes, but that's still no excuse for not sticking to your top three by listing lots of pieces that you might have chosen but didn't. Now, what is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because...
PJ: H. M. Gwatkin, The Arian Controversy
. It’s actually historical theology. Does that count? [OK by me - GD].
That’s a book I found that’s downloadable for free from Project Gutenberg
. I read on my Kindle. I had done some study on the Arian Controversy a few years ago. Cardinal Newman wrote a definitive history, and it’s good but hard reading. Gwatkin (bless him) writes readable prose and brings that era alive.
It’s a must read because the culture that gave rise to Arianism had the very same attitude toward truth and controversy our generation has cultivated. We need to take a lesson from that era, which most Christians don’t even know about.
GD: What is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism today and how should we respond?
PJ: The greatest problem I see is the ever-broadening boundary of the evangelical movement and (corresponding to that) the increasingly ambiguous definition of evangelicalism. Evangelicals are too concerned with gaining collective clout and publicity and not concerned enough with being evangelical (being faithful to the gospel). Many of evangelicalism’s most visible and popular leaders and institutions—including evangelicalism’s self-styled “house organ,” Christianity Today
magazine—have been tearing down evangelical boundaries instead of guarding them. Consequently, a host of dangerous influences have infiltrated the evangelical movement and people in the pews don’t see the danger, because it’s considered impolite to be critical of a fellow “evangelical.” In an era where everyone from Benny Hinn to Brian McLaren wears the evangelical label, it is sheer folly to be so blithely accepting of everything and everyone who claims to be evangelical. That attitude has already ruined the evangelical testimony and done much to render the evangelical movement spiritually impotent.
How should we respond? We need to recover our love of the truth, our courage in standing for it, and our will to defend it.
GD: Amen to that and thanks for dropping by for this bracing conversation, Phil. Great talking to you. Bye!