Mary and the Saints
Someone sent me a copy of the New York radio program produced by Chris Arnzen in which he interviewed James White about the debates I had with White in September 2010 on Predestination/Free Will and the Assumption of Mary. Based on what Dr. White stated in that interview, I will comment below.
Let me say first that I’ve grown to like and admire Dr. White over the years. Although we vehemently disagree over various theological topics, I find that Dr. White does his best with what he knows and has a deep and abiding love for the Gospel and Jesus Christ. I just believe he is simply on the wrong theological track, much as Saul of Taursus was on the wrong track until Jesus confronted him and turned him around.
But now let me talk about the debates. Arnzen and White spent about 95% of their interview on the Assumption of Mary debate. My inkling is that Dr. White was quite anxious to debate the Assumption of Mary since he had been asking Catholic apologists to do so but no one except me would take the challenge. It’s easy to see why there was such reticence among Catholics. Here is a Catholic doctrine that has no direct Scriptural support (only metaphorical allusions) and no early or mid-patristic support, much less consensus. So, if the Catholic defending this doctrine is going to be honest, he must concentrate his debate on a very late patristic (if not early medieval testimony) to the Assumption of Mary; admit that the belief in the doctrine more or less grew over time; and that the single greatest reason we hold to it today is because the pope declared it to be a dogma of the faith in 1950, which is rather late as far as dogma is concerned.
The first mistake Dr. White makes when critiquing the above Catholic defense of the Assumption of Mary is to claim that it is believed by Catholics merely because the pope said so, and thus to him this issue is a perfect example of “Sola Ecclesia,” a phrase that he coined himself, I believe. Although I agree that the Church has the last word on the interpretation of both Scripture and Tradition in the sense that she alone, and not the people in the Church, is the final authority on the interpretation of a given issue; and although I can see why Dr. White would be tempted to categorize that singular authority as “Sola Ecclesia,” this is not the case, even with the Assumption of Mary.
First, if one reads the 1950 document Munificentissmus Deus one will find that Pius XII goes back deep into history for testimony of the Assumption of Mary, beginning at least at the 7th century. He then works his way up through the middle ages and shows that by the time we get to the 20th century there is a huge groundswell of support for the doctrine. Hence, Pius XII, in essence, merely put the icing on the cake in 1950 that had already been built by the Tradition. This is more or less the singular job of the pope – to take all the evidence amassed and make the final decision on the truth or falsity of a particular theological issue.
So what is Dr. White’s issue? Well, there are several. The first is that he believes the patristic period ends with St. Augustine around the beginning of the 5th century. But that is a purely arbitrary end point. Catholics often extend the patristic period to include the 7th century. And if so, there is definitive support for belief in the Assumption of Mary in John Damascene, Germanus of Constantinople and Modestus of Jerusalem, not to mention the sacramentary of Adrian I and the Gallican sacramentary. So, the whole thing rests on how we define the patristic period. Since Dr. White has no way of proving that it is confined to the first 5 centuries, he has no argument here. The only possible argument he has is that the Assumption of Mary was not definitively addressed in the early and mid- patristic periods. The only one we know of who even talked about the body of Mary after death was St. Epiphanius in the fourth century, and some discussion from St. Augustine on the same topic. But, in the end, there is no rule from heaven that explicit patristic evidence must exist during this period. Apparently, the belief in the Assumption of Mary was more implicit and then became more pronounced in the late patristic period.
Dr. White’s second objection is that the making of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in 1950 bespeaks of “new revelation” the Church receives after the closing of the canon in the first century. But here Dr. White confuses two issues. The Catholic Church holds that general revelation ceased with the last book of the Bible sometime in the first century AD, the same as Dr. White believes. Unlike Dr. White, however, the Catholic Church holds to both private revelation and the divine intrusion of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in her doctrine and practice. Private revelation can come in the form of dreams, visions, tongues or any other such miraculous manifestation described in the New Testament. It took place while Scripture was being inspired by God and after Scripture was completed, at least on some occasions. The guidance of the Holy Spirit, however, takes place continually through the Church age, and its greatest manifestation is in the dogmatic councils of the Church, which were all confirmed by the then reigning pope. Without this guidance, the Church would easily falter. For example, the very reason we know what books constitute the Bible is because the Holy Spirit guided the Councils of Rome, Hippo, Carthage, Florence and Trent to make the decision. If there was any chance of error in that decision, we would not have an infallible canon, and consequently, we would not dare make doctrine from any portion of the Bible simply because we would not know whether that particular book was actually inspired by God. Dr. White can wave his Bible and say “Thus saith the Lord” all he wants, but without an irrefutable, divinely confirmed canon of Scripture, he has no right to make such statements about God’s will. He can talk all he wants about the “canon of Athanasius” or whatever, but none of it amounts to a hill of beans, since none of those sources are or declare that they are from infallible divine origin.
So, Dr. White’s objection about the Catholic Church making doctrine by some “new revelation” is not going to work. Scripture is complete and general revelation has ceased, but the guidance of the Holy Spirit for interpreting Scripture and Tradition has not ceased. In John 16:14 Jesus said he would be with the Church “forever.” Granted, His guidance is somewhat mysterious since we do not know how the process happens, but the same is true for the inspiration of Scripture – we don’t know how it works; we only know by faith that it does.
Moreover, during the debate I pointed out that if Dr. White is going to take the “heaven can’t help you with revelation” interpretation, then not only is he dependant on his own fallible self to figure out these complicated issues, he contradicts his mentor, John Calvin, for Calvin believed that we know the books of the Bible because the Holy Spirit reveals it to us. Well, if that is the case, then Mr. Calvin has just opened up a pandoras box he will not be able to close, for the Catholic Church has been preaching about the Holy Spirit’s guidance since the beginning of the Church era. Once Calvin admits that he needs the Holy Spirit to determine truth and that such truth cannot come any other way, he has inadvertently vindicated the Catholic Church, and now it only becomes a matter of who of the two of us has the right to say what the Holy Spirit has guided the Church into believing. I don’t know of any place that the right to do so is given to the group that comes many centuries after the first group, except when the New Covenant replaced the Old Covenant of Israel, but that was by direct divine mandate. Hence, Dr. White’s argument about “new revelation” comes back to bite him in the worst way. It dissolves Calvinism into just another sect claiming to have what the Catholic Church has had all along.
Dr. White also remarked on my defense of the Assumption of Mary by my using of the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15. First, Dr. White argued that Acts 15 was not “infallibly” interpreted by the Catholic Church, which implies, I assume, that my use of it was either illegitimate or not sanctioned by the Catholic Church. But if Dr. White feels that way about the Catholic opponents he has debated, then he shouldn’t really be debating any of them, since hardly any of the passages his Catholic opponents bring forth have been infallibly defined. When challenged for a debate with a Catholic, Dr. White should just say, “Sorry, unless your Church has infallibly defined that passage I cannot debate you.” But that is not the case. Dr. White believes enough in the perspicuity of Scripture that he has rarely, if ever, declined to debate a Catholic who uses the same perspicuous Scripture.
Second, Dr. White tried to make the argument that I was misconstruing Acts 15 since I stated that Peter made the decision for the Church about dispensing with circumcision and the Mosaic Law. Dr. White insisted (as he has done many times in the past) that James, being the bishop of Jerusalem, was the leader of the Council and therefore only he had the right to make the decision. Unfortunately, this was all the Dr. White said about Acts 15 on Mr. Arnzen’s radio show, thus giving the impression that he could dispense with my use of Acts 15 simply because I confused James’ leadership with Peter’s. What Dr. White left out is that during my rebuttal I stated that, for the sake of argument, it didn’t make any difference whether it was Peter or James who made the final decision. The fact is, one of them made the decision that the Church was no longer going to practice circumcision, and he did so without any Scriptural passage directly saying so and without any direct teaching from Tradition. My point in saying this, of course, is that the pope of the Catholic Church does not necessarily need direct Scriptural evidence or early-mid patristic testimony in order to make a doctrine on the Assumption of Mary. He can do so by papal fiat if he desires to do so, as long as he does not contradict Scripture or Tradition. Jesus gave this power to Peter and his papal successors in Matthew 16:18-19 saying “whatsoever you bind shall be bound in heaven.”
So, if Dr. White wants to insist that James made the final decision at the Council of Jerusalem because he was its bishop, that is not going to get him anywhere in this debate. The point remains that a leader of the Church made an abiding and obligatory dogma that circumcision was no longer going to be practiced in the New Testament Church, and he did so without any direct Scriptural mandate or Tradition.
At this point, however, I will still insist that the context of Acts 15 makes Peter the arbiter of the discussion that was taking place in verses 1-11 among the apostles and bishops concerning whether circumcision and the Mosaic Law should be practiced, not James. It is obvious that Peter alone is making the decision, not Paul, Barnabas, the other bishops or apostles. Dr. White’s contention seems to be that Peter was merely in an advisory role and that James, being the bishop of Jerusalem, had the last say on whether he was going to accept Peter’s recommendation. He has no proof for that contention, however. The only evidence he brought forth was James’ use of the phrase “I judge” (Greek: ego krino) in verse 19. Dr. White argues that the only one making a “judgment” here is James, and thus James is in charge. That is not really provable. The Greek phrase “I judge” could be used as merely the opinion of James, or even an authoritative opinion, but it doesn’t mean that just because James makes a decision to agree with Peter that James has authority over Peter or that James is making a solitary judgment over Peter. In fact, James’ “judgment” does not concern circumcision or the cessation of the Mosaic Law, but only what provisions of the Mosaic Law should still be practiced so as not to offend the Jews. In other words, James’ “judgment” is limited in scope whereas Peter’s decision in verses 6-12 is wide in scope, that is, Peter and no one else decides that the Mosaic Law in general, and circumcision in particular, are not going to be practiced any longer.
Along with Acts 15, I also pointed out Peter’s solitary decision in Acts 1:20 concerning the replacement of Judas in order to have twelve apostles. I showed that Peter alone made the decision both to replace Judas and the Scriptures that back up his decision. I did this to show that Peter’s decision to cease the practice of circumcision in Acts 15 was not some arbitrary act of authority without precedent. Right from the beginning of the Church we see in Acts 1:20 that Peter is exercising his God-given leadership role that was established in Mt 16:13-19; Luke 22:31-32; and John 21:15-18. But Dr. White tried his best to dismiss Peter’s leadership role (for obvious reasons, since if he were to admit Peter’s leadership he would be halfway to becoming Catholic). But the main point I want to make here is that Dr. White’s ploy to minimize Peter’s role and replace him with James doesn’t really help his argument against the Assumption of Mary, which is that the Catholic Church has no Scripture or early patristic tradition to make such a doctrine and therefore depends on some “new revelation.” The point in fact is, Acts 15 shows that, whoever Dr. White construes as the one making the decision, the decision was made without direct Scriptural evidence or Tradition.
Dr. White tried to counter this argument by appealing to the Scripture that James quotes in Acts 15:16-18 from the book of Amos 9:11. Amos speaks about the rebuilding of the tabernacle of David and James says that the influx of Gentile converts into the Church has fulfilled this prophecy. That being the case, in my cross examination I asked Dr. White where either James or Amos speak about the cessation of circumcision or the Mosaic Law. But he never really answered the question and instead went off on some tangent about how the book of Hebrews speaks about the coming of the New Covenant, and implicit in that covenant is a cessation of the Mosaic law. That fact I and everyone else already know, but where Amos spoke directly about the cessation of circumcision Dr. White never addressed. Dr. White’s appeal to the implications of Hebrews might have been good for a debate dealing with the New Covenant versus the Old Covenant, but not one in which his thesis before coming to the debate is that the pope of the Catholic Church must necessarily have a direct Scriptural reference to the Assumption of Mary in order to make it a doctrine. The only reason James quoted from Amos is to show that the influx of Gentiles into the Church was prophesied, not that circumcision should cease. For all James knew, circumcision should have still been a practice in the New Testament, and if so he would have thus believed that the Gentiles who are fulfilling Amos’ prophecy can do so provided they are circumcised. In fact, this possibility is the very reason that Acts 15:1-6 says that Paul, Barnabas, the bishops and the apostles were arguing amongst themselves about whether circumcision should continue in the New Testament. We would have to assume that James was among the group that was arguing, thus showing that he did not have a definitive view on the matter until Peter took the reins and made the decision for the whole Church.
The Debate on Predestination and Free Will
Lastly, allow me to comment on Dr. White’s brief comment on Arnzen’s program about the Predestination/Free Will debate. I must say that, in all the years I have debated Dr. White on various subjects, the debate on Predestination/Free Will was by far his weakest. I was expecting a lot more from Dr. White than what he presented. On Mr. Arnzen’s radio program Dr. White tried to put the burden on me by saying I didn’t understand his position and that I didn’t learn the correct Reformed position at Westminster Seminary. Why would Dr. White say this? Personally, I think it is just a diversion from the real truth. Dr. White knows that I know what he and Calvin and Westminster teach about Predestination/Free Will. He just doesn’t like when I point out the contradictions in their respective teachings, and thus the pointing out of the contradictions are repackaged to make it look as if I really don’t understand all the intricacies of Reformed doctrine.
Let me give an example. During the debate I pointed out that Dr. White’s view pictures a God that arbitrarily selects people to save and damn, and that I find it rather amusing that the criteria God supposedly uses to do this choosing is nothing more than to show his glory by saving the predestined and show his justice by choosing not to save the rest, both decisions made without any free will of those who are chosen. God simply makes the choice and man has nothing whatsoever to do with it, except do what God has programmed him to do. So I asked Dr. White why it would be necessary for God to display his glory and justice, especially if he does so by choosing to save some and choosing to damn the rest without giving them any free will to accept or reject him. Doesn’t God already know he is glorious and just? Why does he have to create people without free will to demonstrate these qualities? Dr. White had no real answer. The only answer he attempted to give was one that was rather surprising to me. He said that if we consider that people who are not saved are of such a kind that they hate God and deliberately sin against him; mocking him and detesting everything He stands for, then it is not hard to see why God does not save them. He used the raging homosexuals in San Francisco as an example. So in my rebuttal I told Dr. White that such reasoning was fallacious, since he as a Calvinist, must teach that ALL of mankind hated God and mocked him, so what was it about the homosexuals in SF that made them any different than Dr. White’s evil, since Romans 3:10 teaches that there is “none righteous, no not one”? Again, Dr. White gave no real answer. I was left with the distinct impression that Dr. White thought he was somehow better than the homosexuals in SF, and that he was elected to salvation because he didn’t do all the nasty things that they did. If you find this hard to believe, then I suggest you listen carefully to the debate on MP3.
Then we got into the issue of 1 Timothy 2:4, which says that God desires all men to be saved. I pointed out that since the Calvinists believe God really doesn’t desire all men to be saved, they need to change the wording of 1 Timothy 2:4 to say “God desires all KINDS of men to be saved.” Dr. White tried to support this blatant addition of words to the Bible by arguing that Paul says in verse 1 that “prayers should be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority…,” which, I suppose, means to say that the specifying of “kings” and those in “authority” requires us to interpret the “all men” of the same verse not as all men literally but only various kinds of men, such as kings. That Dr. White can actually think that he can get away with this self-serving interpretation is even more surprising than the interpretation.
First, there are several words St. Paul could have used if he wanted to get across the point that only “kinds” of men will be saved, but none appear in this context. In fact, it seems that Paul goes out of his way to avoid such a notion, since in verse 6 he says that Christ gave himself a “ransom for all,” not “a ransom for all kinds of men.” In effect, Paul uses the phrase “all men” three times in this context (verses 1, 4, and 6) yet in each case Dr. White is forced to slip in the word “kinds” in order to jibe with his Calvinism.
Second, I don’t know of any place in Scripture where either Paul or any other writer teaches explicitly that God desires to save “all kinds” of men as opposed to just men in general. One of the rules of interpretation for those who believe in Sola Scripture (as Dr. White does) is that if a verse is unclear or implicit, he is required to obtain another verse which is clear and explicit if one is going to claim that the less clear passage is teaching a certain doctrine, especially if that doctrine is one of the most important in the Bible. To claim that God doesn’t desire to save all men and that he only desires to save all kinds of men is a very bold and significant proposition. The whole of the Christian faith stands or falls on that proposition. So Dr. White better have some convincing back up to his interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:4 other than his arbitrary imposition of the word “kinds” into three verses of the context.
Third, Dr. White does not even consider the possibility that St. Paul’s initial expression “all men” in 1Timothy 2:1 is for the purpose of saying that we should pray for all men without exception, and that logically following, his mention of “kings and those in authority” is merely a request for us to especially pray for all kings because they are the ones in direct control of whether we can lead a peaceable life. Dr. White excludes that grammatical possibility because he desperately needs the reference to “kings and all in authority” to serve as an example of “kinds” of human beings so that his Calvinism is not caught in a blatant contradiction with Scripture.
Essentially, what Dr. White is arguing here is that God saves by categories of men. So, 1 Timothy 2:4 could read something like this: “God desires all kinds of men to be saved, such as doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, politicians, presidents, governors, dukes, princes, farmers, stock brokers, school teachers, insurance salesman, used car dealers, and every other category you can think of, but God has no desire to save all doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs.” Why? Going on what Dr. White proposed as God’s criteria for choosing some to salvation and rejecting others – so that God can show how glorious he is by saving people and how just he is by damning people. Dr. White’s logic, I guess, is that if God saved all doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs there would be no way to demonstrate his justice. After all, God is in this to either get glory or to show his justice, and that stipulation must remain the overriding criterion for all his actions. In effect, God isn’t satisfied with being glorious and just; he must create helpless beings with no free will in order to demonstrate his glory and justice. This is a being with acute schizophrenia, not the God of the Bible.
At one point in the debate I asked Dr. White if he believed that God has called the whole world to repent. He said yes. I then asked him if God has given all men the ability to answer his call and come to repentance. He said no. I then asked him whether that doesn’t sound like a contraction, and he said no. Why isn’t it a contradiction to Dr. White? Again, because he believes God wants to have a group of people that he can condemn in order to show everyone that he is a just God who condemns sinful people. It never even crosses Dr. White’s mind that God would be, and should be, considered unjust if he calls someone to repentance but never gives him the ability to repent. When people engage in this kind of blind devotion to a theological system, there is really nothing more to discuss, but only hope that they someday come to their senses.
That is all for now. I hope to have another debate with Dr. White next year on the history of the Catholic Church, with particular reference to such things as the Isidorian decretals, the donation of Constantine, and other such points in Catholic history of which Dr. White claims that the Catholic Church is built on the foundation of bogus documents.
Robert Sungenis, Ph.D.
November 29, 2010