Dialogue: “Perspicuous Apostolic Teaching” (vs. “Dr.”[?] James White)

Dialogue: “Perspicuous Apostolic Teaching” (vs. “Dr.”[?] James White) January 12, 2017

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[May-June 1996. James White is the most well-known and influential anti-Catholic apologist. He is a Reformed Baptist elder. I find this exchange utterly remarkable — even by White’s rock-bottom standards of discourse –, in that he takes the greatest pains to never ever defend the very thing that he asserted. In this way, the “dialogue” might be read as high comedy. But there are very important issues discussed here. Back in those days: now over 20 years ago, White at least made some attempt to interact with me. Shortly afterwards, he adopted the immediately dismissive / mocking tone that he has taken with me ever since. White’s words will be in blue. I have compiled a 395-page book of debates with White]

*****

This took place on Mr. White’s e-mail “sola Scriptura list” (by this time I was online, but didn’t yet have a website), that he actually invited me to. It included Protestants, Catholics, and even a few Orthodox. Here we clearly observe White’s trademark evasiveness when I ask him “hard questions.”

It’s a pattern and tactic that he has perpetually followed all through the years with me. His other overwhelming tendency is rank insults. But there were still relatively few of those at this early stage of the game: only relentless evasion and obfuscation.

* * * * *

There would be no criticism if the Roman Catholic side was not using the argument “sola scriptura doesn’t work because sola scriptura hasn’t brought about monolithic theological agreement on all issues.” Dave Armstrong has made that argument in posts here,

Maybe you have me confused with one of the other two Daves in the group, since, to my recollection, I have never made such an argument. What I said was that perspicuity fails as a thought-system because it presupposes possible (and actual) agreement among Protestants, at least on the so-called “central” issues, based on recourse to the Bible alone. This is clearly false, and a pipe-dream. My point is: “what criteria of falsifiability will suffice to challenge the Protestant notion of perspicuity, given the fact of 24,000 sects?” In the opinion of Catholics, this sad state of affairs is more than enough to put the lie to perspicuity, as formulated by Luther, Calvin, and current-day evangelical scholars such as R. C. Sproul.

Now don’t try to tell us that “this is not how perspicuity is defined,” etc. I’ve heard it 1000 times if I’ve heard it once that Protestants agree on the central issues, and that this “fact” supposedly salvages perspicuity and sola Scriptura. But I can’t find any Protestant willing to face this ridiculous division squarely.

I believe it is vitally important to believe in what the Apostles taught. Which, of course, is exactly why I cannot embrace the teachings of Rome. In fact, it is fidelity to the apostolic message that is the strongest argument against the innovations of Rome over time, Dave.

Why not boldly tell us, then, James, precisely what the Apostles taught”? In particular, I am curious as to their teaching in those areas where Protestants can’t bring themselves to agree with each other; for example:

    • 1.TULIP

    • 2. Baptism

    • 3. The Eucharist

    • 4. Church Government

    • 5. Regeneration

    • 6. Sanctification

    • 7. The Place of Tradition

    • 8. Women Clergy

    • 9. Divorce

    • 10. Feminism

    • 11. Abortion

    • 12. The Utility of Reason

    • 13. Natural Theology

    • 14. The Charismatic Gifts

    • 15. Alcohol

    • 16. Sabbatarianism

    • 17. Whether Catholics are Christians

    • 18. Civil Disobedience

I’ve heard recently that even John Stott and F. F. Bruce have questioned the existence of eternal hellfire. And they’re supposed to be “evangelicals”?! How can you have “fidelity” to an “apostolic message” if you can’t even define what it is? And if you either don’t know, or are reluctant to spell it out here, then you illustrate my point better than I could myself: either your case collapses due to internal inconsistency, or because of the chaos of Protestant sectarianism, which makes any such delineation of “orthodoxy” impossible according to your own first principles; or if theoretically possible, certainly unenforceable.

I think this is at least as compelling as the “infinite regress” scenario, with regard to infallibility, which would wipe out all authority and/or certainty, whether from a Protestant or Catholic (or Orthodox) perspective. After all, one must exercise some faith, somewhere along the line, as I think all here would agree. When Catholics accept infallibility of popes and councils, this is an implicit faith in our Lord, Whom we believe protects same from error.

Absent some response to this, Protestants are simply engaging in fantasy, pipe-dreams, and games, in violation of biblical, divine injunctions such as, “. . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20) — not just the mythical “central,” “primary,” “essential” doctrines, and “who cares whether we agree on the peripherals.” Get real (and biblical)! Eagerly awaiting your response (nothing fancy required, just a laundry list) to my — as of yet – unanswered challenge.

That’s pretty easy, Dave. I have 27 books filled with their teaching. Where shall we start? I guess we could start with the apostolic teaching that we are justified by faith and so have peace with God (Romans 5:1). That’s a wonderful thing to know, isn’t it?

It certainly is. And we agree in large part. But when you guys corrupt the traditional understanding into sola fide, we must part ways. Why, though, if sola fide is true, did “scarcely anyone” teach it from Paul to Luther, according to Norman Geisler, in his latest book Roman Catholics and Evangelicals (p. 502)? Very strange, and too bizarre and implausible for me.

The Apostles also taught that Jesus Christ was and is fully deity (Colossians 2:9), and that’s really important, too!

Absolutely. But you guys got this doctrine from us, so big wow!

Are you saying that the Bible is insufficient to answer these questions? That God’s Word is so unclear, so confused, so ambiguous, that these issues cannot be determined by a careful and honest examination of the Bible?

It’s irrelevant what I think, because I’m asking you. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that it is clear, sufficient, and perspicuous. Okay, now, please tell me what it teaches on these issues! Does anyone not understand my argumentation here? Is it that complicated? This is the essence of my whole argument in this vein. If we grant your perspicuity, then tell us these doctrines that are so clear. Yet you guys want to either run or cry foul when we hold you to your own principles!

Why not throw in the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the person of the Holy Spirit, as most do when they decide to start going after the Bible?

We agree on these three doctrines, so they are irrelevant to the discussion. I’m asking for clarification on the issues which divide Protestants, for we regard this division as a disproof of perspicuity. No one’s “going after the Bible.” I for one have a whole wall full of 25+ Bible versions, and all sorts of Bible reference works. I don’t need to defend my love for the Bible (nor does the Catholic Church, for that matter). I’m saying: be true to your own principles, and don’t be ashamed of them. Either demonstrate this abstract, ethereal notion of perspicuity concretely and practically, or cease using it if it has no content, and if it is only useful as a content-less slogan to bash Catholics with.

People who call themselves Protestants disagree on every point above; people who call themselves Roman Catholics disagree on every point above, too. So what?

This is your typical evasion, which I severely critiqued in a related post. I don’t care about “people who call themselves [X, Y, Z].” One can only go by the official teachings of any given group. You don’t go seek out a backslidden Mormon in a bar in Salt Lake City to determine the beliefs of Mormons! You go to Pearl of Great Price, Doctrines and Covenants, and The Book of Mormon. This is utterly obvious. Yet when it comes to us, you want to preserve your “argument from Catholic liberals,” since it is apparently the only “reply” you have to a critique of your views. Is it a proper answer if an atheist, asked why he doesn’t believe in God, says, “Well you theists can’t agree whether God is a singular Being or a Trinity, so there!”? We are critiquing your position. Besides, we have already answered your tired objections on this point many times (myself at least five times, and David Palm, a few more). But you guys keep wanting to avoid my question as to the precise nature of this “apostolic message” to which you refer [anti-Catholic apologist Eric Svendsen also attempted some non-“replies”]. Again, I’m just holding you to your own words. If you would rather admit that your own phrases have neither definition nor doctrinal or rational content, that would be one way (albeit not a very impressive one) out of your felt dilemma.

First, the apostolic message is far more narrow than you’d like to make it. The apostles did not address every single issue there is to address. They did not address the issue of genetic engineering, for example. Nor did they discuss nuclear energy. Does that make the Bible “insufficient”?

Another fruitless exercise in evasion: “if you don’t have an answer, then hopelessly confuse the issue by introducing non sequiturs.” This is no answer at all. Are you going to seriously maintain (with a straight face) that the Apostles (in the Bible) did not address issues on my list such as: baptism, the Eucharist, church government, regeneration, sanctification, tradition, or the spiritual gifts? How ridiculous! Why don’t you select just five of this present list of items out of my entire list of 18 in which Protestants differ, and tell me what the Apostles taught, so I can know what you know?

Only if you make “sufficient” a standard that is absurd and beyond reason.

What’s absurd? I’m simply asking you to define what you mean by “apostolic message.” How is that at all “beyond reason”? Pure obfuscation . . .

Imparting exhaustive knowledge of all things is not one of the tasks of the Bible.

More obscurantism, designed to avoid (unsuccessfully) the horns of my dilemma.

I hope all on the list realize what is being said here. A person with the entire NT in his hand cannot know what the apostolic message was unless he likewise has Roman “tradition” alongside! Imagine it! Those poor Roman Christians. From about A.D. 55 until around A.D. 140 they could not have demonstrated fidelity to the apostolic message! Why not? Because they didn’t have access to Roman Catholic tradition (there was no monarchial episcopate in Rome until the latter period, and hence no “Pope”). Does that make any sense? Of course not.

All the more reason for you to tell us what this mysterious “apostolic message” is. According to this curious illogic, one can “know” what the message is, without the Catholic Church, but they can’t tell me what it is, what it consists of!

I am (hauntingly) reminded of my JW [Jehovah’s Witnesses] friends who consistently point to the monolithic theology of the Watchtower Society as evidence of their “truthfulness.”

Nice try. Here is a prime example of sophistry. Note how, again, this has nothing to do with the discussion at hand. Rather than answer a simple question of mine, directly related to his own statement, he prefers to compare the Catholic Church to an Arian heresy (which happens to be my own area of expertise, by the way). Even so, if James will answer my question, I’ll be happy to demonstrate how Catholicism is infinitely more credible than JW’s.

When Catholics accept infallibility of popes and councils, this is an implicit faith in our Lord, Whom we believe protects same from error.

I wish it were faith in Christ the Lord;

It is, James. Did you not read my last sentence? Perhaps, like John MacArthur, you would like to contend that us poor, ignorant Catholics worship a different Christ, too?

Christ is the way, truth, and life, and hence fidelity to Him would cause one to put truth and consistency in the forefront of the examination.

What does this have to do with anything? Consistency is primarily what I’m calling for, and I’m asking you what the truth is, but you don’t want to tell me! There are delicious ironies here to savor!

Yet, any honest examination of councils and Popes demonstrates that they have often contradicted each other. But, the committed Roman Catholic finds a way around these contradictions, not because they are not really contradictions, but because of the pre-existing commitment to the Papacy and the related institutions.

Straying. What is this, a replay of the Diet of Worms or something? I was chided for entering in articles which were on the general subject, so how can I answer here broad swipes at my Church such as these?

I get the real feeling, Dave, that you well know that your questions have been and will be answered,

If they have, I’ve missed it. Please, somebody send me that post. If they “will” be answered, when, and by whom, I wonder? But I don’t “know” one way or the other, despite your “real feeling.”

but that isn’t going to stop you from using such language in the future in another forum, to be sure.

No, you’re right, not till I get an answer. Sure, the language was exaggerated, but such excesses result from the frustration of repeatedly not receiving a simple answer to a simple-enough question.

You may wish to say that you “know” “everything” Jesus taught His disciples. Do you really, Dave?

No. Do you wish to say this?

Are you prepared to defend the thesis that Jesus taught the disciples the Immaculate Conception, predicted the Bodily Assumption, and that Peter really did believe in Papal Infallibility? I challenge any Roman Catholic apologist on this list: you can’t defend those doctrines from the Fathers. Those doctrines are not a part of the patristic literature. I’ll be glad to demonstrate that.

Answer my question, and we Catholics will be glad to deal with yours, but I would say that it would be more profitable to do that in a whole ‘nother discussion group, so as not to cloud the issues which will take a considerable amount of time to work through as it is.

[this list was supposed to be devoted to sola Scriptura and related issues of Tradition, after all, so the reader will note that I sought to stay on topic, while James wished to go all over the ballpark, in his evasions]

Eagerly awaiting your response (nothing fancy required, just a laundry list) to my — as of yet — unanswered challenge,

What challenge is that, Dave?

Please read the first sentence above, after the introductory line. That explains it! You didn’t know what I was asking for! Now that you know it, surely there is an answer, no? Just a list of the true apostolic teachings on baptism, etc. . . .

Why don’t you select just five of this present list of items out of my entire list of 18 in which Protestants differ, and tell me what the Apostles taught, so I can know what you know?

Your argument won’t get you anywhere, Dave (and your style is certainly not going to win you any points with the more serious of our readers, either).

Is that why no one is answering? My style? Maybe I’ll try a boring, staid approach, then.

You well know what the Bible teaches on these topics.

James, James! This is the whole point! We know, but you guys can’t figure it out. Hence your reluctance to answer (I can think of no better reason). You claim busy-ness, which plagues us all, but you still have time to write this and evade my question again. A short answer to my question surely wouldn’t put you out.

Problem is, you don’t accept that.

How silly is this? I “don’t accept” what the Bible teaches on these points, but you don’t have the courtesy to explain to me just what it is that it teaches on them. Such a view is below contempt, and should cause you to blush with shame.

Instead, you accept another authority that tells you something different.

Sheer goofiness. Different than what? Again, if I don’t have your answer, what do you expect me to believe? If this isn’t The Emperor’s Clothes, I don’t know what is.

Tell us all again, Dave: are you saying the Bible is insufficient to answer these questions? Are you saying we can’t know what the Bible teaches about tradition, for example? That a serious exegesis of relevant texts can’t provide us with any level of certainty or knowledge? Is that what you really want to say to this group, Dave?

Quadruple “no” (that’s no no no no). Now, how ’bout your equally forthright answer to me?

We all have our traditions. In point of fact, all of our traditions are fallible outside of Scripture. Those of us who recognize the fallibility of our traditions will test those traditions by Scripture. I know that’s what I do, anyway. And, thankfully, the Scriptures are more than capable of providing the means of testing those traditions.

Yes, but since you guys can’t agree with the interpretation of Scripture, of what practical use is an infallible Bible? If the interpretation is fallible and contradictory, then — practically speaking — the Bible in effect is no more infallible than its differing interpretations. But, if you’re a Protestant, this is apparently of no consequence. Relativism is smuggled in under the aegis of private judgment and so-called “tolerance.” This is all old news, but maybe if we repeat it enough times it will start sinking in.

But the simple fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church of 400 AD is not the Roman Catholic Church of 1996.

Correct. There is a 1596-year difference, and living bodies grow quite a bit in that great time-span. But this does not make them different organisms. The city of Jerusalem is a lot different now than in 400, but it is still Jerusalem, is it not? I’m a lot different than I was in 1966, but I’m still me! This aspect involves development of doctrine. One thing we know for sure: this “Catholic Church” of 400 (which was also very much centered at Rome) is certainly not organically connected to the current-day chaos of Protestant sectarianism.

Is it really true that there are some on this list who believe that without outside “tradition” or revelation, that we cannot, in fact, demonstrate the deity of Jesus Christ?

Not likely, James. If you can find even one, I’ll eat my (free) copy of The Fatal Flaw [one of James’ anti-Catholic books]. That said, I would point out, nevertheless, that, e.g., proponents of the heresies of Monophysitism (i.e., that Christ had one Nature, not two) and Monothelitism (i.e., that Christ had one will, not two) in particular, argued from Scripture alone and thought that Rome and the other orthodox churches were adding traditions of men to Scripture. So, when you get down to fine points, there is indeed a need for some authoritative pronouncements, as Church history itself clearly and unarguably affirms. Or is it your position that the pronouncements of Nicaea, Constantinople I, Ephesus and Chalcedon on matters of the Trinity were altogether irrelevant and unnecessary? Something may indeed be quite clear (which I maintain is the case for many, many doctrines — it is the premise of my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, for Pete’s sake), but there will arise people who manage to distort it, and so a conciliar definition and clarification becomes necessary in a practical, very “human” sense.

Surely we’ve all tangled with a [Jehovah’s] Witness or two over the years. Am I to understand it that in the final analysis those who deny sola scriptura ended such conversations with the anathema of the infallible interpreter? Was the final argument “It means this because the bishop of Rome says so?”

Of course not. The response would be (at least in my case), if any appeal to tradition be made, rather: “All of the predominant Christian traditions for 2000 years have agreed that Jesus is the God-Man, whereas your belief originates from a late heresy called Arianism.” Personally, for 15 years now I’ve followed in my own evangelism and apologetics a guideline from Paul: “be all things to all people.” In this instance, your polemical caricature of how a Catholic would approach such a situation is absurd, and no one I know would ever use it. But historically speaking, yes, orthodoxy was — in the final analysis — determined by the Roman position, again and again, and again. I detail this in my brief history of early heresies in my chapter on the papacy, lest anyone doubt this, and many non-Catholic scholars such as Jaroslav Pelikan freely concur with this judgment.

We see the same dynamic, e.g., with regard to eastern schisms. There were five major ones prior to 1054 (over Arianism, St. John Chrysostom, the Acacian schism, Monothelitism, and Iconoclasm), and in every case, Rome was on the right side, according to today’s Eastern Orthodoxy. Note that these are simple, unadorned facts of history — they leave little room for differing interpretation, but they sure cast doubt on the tendency of certain members of a Church with such a history declaring it the historical repository of “orthodoxy” over against the Catholic Church.

When it comes to doctrines such as baptism, all of a sudden the Protestant must appeal to tradition, but not universal Christian tradition (prior to 1517). Rather, he resorts to a mere denominational tradition. Thus James White must appeal to a late tradition of non-regenerative adult baptism, which originated 15 centuries after Christ. He freely admits (for once) that practically all the fathers erred on this doctrine, whereas the Anabaptists and himself got it right. And so, accordingly, he goes to the Scripture and finds his “proof texts.”

But even his master Calvin disagrees with him (about when baptism should occur), and also people in this group. So Calvin and Wesley and Luther have their proof texts which they believe contradict James White’s. And so on and on it goes. Protestants have five camps on baptism. So instead of “Rome saying so,” now it is because Calvin, or Zwingli, or James White “said so.” Or, well, I almost forgot: “The Bible says so!” Given the sterling record of orthodoxy of Rome, I would say that such an appeal (if made at all) carries far more weight than the appeal to a single, self-proclaimed, self-anointed “reformer” such as John Calvin.

No offense intended, but in reality, it seems to me that when a convinced Roman Catholic encounters another system that, like Rome, claims special authority (like the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society), do we not here have an impasse?

Have you not read my extensive analysis of how these heresies and Rome are fundamentally different? Now granted you disagree with it, but that’s different from foolish proclamations such as the above, which attempt to bamboozle people into thinking that I espouse a position which I in fact argued strenuously against in this very group. How quickly also you forget my quadruple “no” to your query recently, and my reply that I had produced 40 proofs for the Personhood of the Holy Spirit (everyone here is my witness), and that it was a “clear” doctrine in the Bible. But no matter: just blithely go on misrepresenting another’s position.

The Roman Catholic, in the final analysis, says that John 20:28 says X because Rome says so (indeed, has Rome ever really said what John 20:28 means infallibly? I mean, Rome teaches the deity of Christ clearly enough, but what about the specific passages themselves?).

This is ludicrous. You assume falsely once again that because we believe Scripture does not function as a perspicuous authority apart from some human ecclesiastical authority, therefore every individual passage is an utter “mystery, riddle, and enigma” (to borrow from Churchill’s description of Russia). Of course, this doesn’t follow, and is another straw man – not very useful for the purposes of constructive dialogue. Besides, wouldn’t your time be more profitably spent in rejoicing that we teach a doctrine of such paramount importance as the deity of Christ, instead of such minutiae?

The JW says John 20:28 can’t say X, but must say Y, again, because Brooklyn says so. Both have ultimate commitments to ultimate authorities, and in the final analysis, how can any progress be made?

The hidden false assumption here is that the Protestant has no such “ultimate authority.” But of course he does, and must. It is either he himself, or some aspect of a denominational tradition, which contradicts other such traditions (some of which must necessarily be man-made whenever they’re contradictory). Sorry, but I don’t see how such a system is at all superior to ours.

Now, on the other hand, is it not part of the appeal of Rome to point to conversations such as this, and the struggle to refute the “heretics” like the JW’s, and say, “See, you can only have arguments about probabilities with Protestantism. We give you final certainty through the Church.” I think all Protestants need to recognize the draw this has for people.

So please tell me, James: was my conversion due to a sincerely-held, reasoned, faith-based, morally-influenced, historically informed, biblically justified conclusion (regardless of your obvious disagreement), or simply psychological and emotional, irrationalist, subjective criteria? And are not such speculations instances of “judging the heart?”

The scandal of the plowman is not universally attractive.

I’m happy to see you admit it is a scandal.

The draw of the “infallible fuzzies” is very, very strong, and we must be well aware of this reality in thinking about the reasons why individuals convert to Roman Catholicism (or any of the other systems that likewise offer such promises of infallible certitude).

Again, do you deny that my conversion (and that of the many other converts such as David Palm, James Akin, Scott Hahn, Richard John Neuhaus, Howard, Muggeridge et al) is sincere and based on conviction and reflection? If so, how is this different from what Marxists, skeptics, atheists, various philosophers, etc. think of all Christian conversion? I have no problem granting sincerity and conviction to all here (after all, I once was an evangelical, and I fully remember my motivations and grounds for my beliefs). Some of us, James, think that certainty is an admirable goal in matters spiritual, moral, and theological. You despise Rome, we don’t. We see it quite differently. Why must you stoop to crack psycho-babble-type “analysis” in order to explain our inexplicable odysseys?

The answer, of course, is not to come up with ways of offering what does not, in fact, exist. The answer lies in remaining true to the Word, explaining the issues clearly,

Theological certainty does not exist? So Christianity is indeed reduced to philosophy. That is a slap in God’s face, as far as I’m concerned (although I’m sure you don’t mean it in that way). The God I serve is able, through His Holy Spirit, to impart truth to us, as the Bible teaches. “True to the Word”? You seek to be, so do I (believe it or not), so does Orthodox tradition. Now what do we do? “True to the Word,” yet so many disagreements over that very Word of “truth.” How do we resolve this dilemma? Throw up our hands in despair? Or admit that Catholics might be on to something?

and recognizing that in the final analysis, issues such as conversion to or from a position is primarily a spiritual matter. I can’t stop someone from converting with all the arguments and facts in the world.

Yes, as I suspected. Conversion (i.e., if to Catholicism) is an irrational decision. So in my case, all my reading of Newman, Merton, Bouyer, Ratzinger, Gibbons, Howard, Luther, Calvin, Adam, Chesterton, etc. was all just “surface material,” irrelevant to my final decision, which was in reality predetermined by an obsession with “smells and bells,” a fondness for an infallible “crutch,” a prior hatred of contraception, hero-worship of Catholic pro-life rescuers, an infatuation with statuary and idolatry, an absurd affection for genuflection, etc. ad infinitum? Right.

But, I’m still called upon to present those arguments and facts, trusting that the Lord’s will be done.

And so are we. Let the better argument prevail. May God our Father open all our eyes to our own blind spots. May the Lord who gave us eyes and minds cause us to use them in order to see and know all of His truth, in its magnificent fullness and glory. And may there be unity in His Body, whether or not the institutional ruptures remain, as in all likelihood, they will, until He comes again. Amen.

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