Reply to James White: Penance & Redemptive Suffering

Reply to James White: Penance & Redemptive Suffering March 9, 2017

Original Title: James White’s Critique of My Book, The Catholic Verses: Part VI: Penance

Catholic Verses (550x834)

[full book and purchase information]




My Introduction to the Series [12-29-04]

Part I: Binding Tradition [12-30-04]

Part II: Rabbit Trail Diversion [12-30-04]

Part III: Ad Hominem [12-31-04]

Part IV: I’m an Ignorant Convert? [12-31-04]

Part V: Deceiver Dave [1-1-05]

Part VI: Penance and Redemptive Suffering [1-2-05]


[White’s URL’s: Part I / Part II / Part III] His words will be in blue:


Chapter Nine of The Catholic Verses deals with the subject of Penance. Four passages are presented in this brief chapter, specifically:

Philippians 3:10 that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; (cf. Gal. 2:20)

Romans 8:17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.

2 Corinthians 4:10 always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.

Colossians 1:24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

The first two are grouped under the heading “Sharing in Christ’s Sufferings” and the second under “Carrying Christ’s Afflictions in Our Bodies.” It is important for the reader to understand the relevance of the concept of suffering in Roman Catholic soteriology. But it is also difficult to explain or illustrate in a blog entry that is aiming for brevity as well. So here’s a reading assignment for the serious reader. Go here [linked] and read the first four chapters of this official Roman Magisterial document, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, the Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences. Pay close attention to the language it uses regarding sin, punishment, suffering, penance, and grace. Now, if you are not in a position to read that much, allow me a few selected quotes:

[omitted, since off-topic]

Again, White illustrates his astounding inability (or deliberate unwillingness — which would border on outright sophistry) to stay on the topic. I am not treating the subject of indulgences here (let alone magisterial documents on same). The specific topics are those that White noted above in my two sub-headings. I dealt with indulgences in my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, chapter 8, pp. 162-165 (current Sophia edition; pp. 117-119 in the first edition), and also on pp. 152-155, including footnote #166, from Bertrand Conway (pp. 110-111 in first edition). My first book has been out for over three years (and he has a copy). If White was so eager to “refute” what I wrote about indulgences (including explicit biblical proofs right from St. Paul and Jesus), he has had ample opportunity. So why bring it up now, when it is extraneous to the subject matter of my current book? I also (it should be noted), dealt in a fair amount of depth with verses like those above, in my first book, in the long chapter on penance (pp. 147-165), whereas in the current work, I only briefly touched upon it with five pages. In fact, White’s response on penance is more than twice as long as my entire short chapter (3359 words to 1615).

Sadly, this is a typical tactic of White’s where I am concerned. He’ll ignore massive writings that I have done on some subject (all the while mocking how many “substanceless” words I write). Then he’ll select a brief treatment and act as if it were the sum total of my argument, and ridicule and dismiss it as absurdly inadequate (along with the obligatory potshots at my ability, intelligence, etc.). He did this with my 35 minute-or-so presentation on Catholic Answers Live, concerning Bible and Tradition, devoting many of his webcasts to a mere introductory, ten-point talk, when I have written more on that topic (enough for several books — and I do have one unpublished book on this very topic, available in Microsoft Word format) than any other. He wanted no part of those writings, but went right to the brief presentation. This “apologetic strategy” may fool some folks, but not the ones I am trying to reach (those with an open and fair mind, and willing to carefully consider both sides of a debate).

You get the “flavor,” I hope. The concept of suffering is tied in with a synergistic, grace-prompted, but still free-will driven, concept of penance/merit/forgiveness.

Soteriology proper is a huge topic, beyond our purview. I refer readers to my first book: chapters on penance and purgatory (the latter is 27 pages), or my web page on Penance and Purgatory.

Once again, in citing Phil. 3:10 and Rom. 8:17, Armstrong does not consider it necessary to actually handle the verses, establish context, meaning, anything exegetical.

This gets back to the nature and purpose of the book; already-discussed.

They are simply cited, and then the assumption is made that Protestants have no place in their theology for “suffering.”

This is exactly the opposite of what I contended, as even White’s own citations of my words prove.

And his source for this (if you happen to be widely read in meaningful Protestant writing you are probably wondering, since you have read lots about suffering and its role in conforming us to the image of Christ) is…himself!

No, my “source” is long experience in Protestant circles and what many great Protestant authors have themselves noted (see examples below).

Evidently, Armstrong’s audience does not include serious minded Protestants, for such writing immediately informs one that Mr. Armstrong’s “Protestant” experience was anything but serious.

No need to respond to ad hominem attacks. I get plenty of laudatory letters from “serious minded Protestants.”

Well, even if consulting secondary sources without providing primary exegesis would be sufficient, the point is that Armstrong has no concept of the depth of writing from non-Catholic sources on the meaning and purpose of suffering;

My providing of my list of Protestant authors read and books in my library quickly disposed of this lie (C. S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga and Leibniz offer no depth on this subject??!!!). As a result, White was forced (by his own intransigence) to switch from calling me “ignorant” to now accusing me of “knowing deception.” I fought shallow Protestant views of suffering as a Protestant as far back as 1982, when I refuted the “health-and-wealth / prosperity / hyper-faith” teachings, largely utilizing the wonderful critiques of a wise Protestant man and virtual father of the evangelical counter-cult movement, the late Dr. Walter Martin (not an anti-Catholic himself). I had been prevented from accepting such nonsense by the wonderful teaching of Pastor Richard Bieber, in whose church I first began seriously following Jesus. This godly pastor was the single most influential person in my early committed Christian life, besides my brother Gerry.

further, the Roman Catholic use of the term, especially in reference to penance, would require his proving that in the context of writing to the churches at Rome and Philippi Paul intended to communicate, through the term “suffering,” the kind of thing Armstrong has in mind as a Roman Catholic, and once again, he does not even try to make this connection. It is simply assumed.

White again commits the fallacy (one of numerous ones in his “critique”) of thinking that everything I try to utilize from Scripture is intended as an explicit “proof” of full-blown, fully-developed Catholic doctrine. This simply doesn’t follow, nor is it true in fact.

Armstrong then says that outside of certain forms of Pentecostalism, “they will not deny that a Christian needs to, and can expect to, suffer.” Expect to suffer? Surely. Walk as Christ walked and one will suffer the hatred of the world. But “need to” is a completely different animal, especially in the context of Rome’s beliefs regarding the subject, as noted previously. I believe fully that God intends to conform me to the image of Christ, and a number of the experiences I will go through in that process will take the form of what can be properly identified as “suffering.” But “need to” so as to expiate temporal punishment of sin? Need to so as to perfect my justification before God? Most assuredly not! This is the issue, and Armstrong leaves it untouched.

I wasn’t dealing with all that. Again, I dealt with penance (and biblical evidences for same) at great length in my first book. This particular section was about (as White noted above) “Sharing in Christ’s Sufferings”. Period. I’m not trying to prove fully-elaborated Catholic doctrines (in this case, our theology of penance) with every biblical passage I am treating. Only a fool would do that. But White gets a lot of mileage by making illogical accusations about straw men of his own making. After all, it “sounds good.” And that is the name of the game for the sophist. White obviously couldn’t care less about what I was actually arguing, in context. His game is to make me look foolish and ridiculous, whatever it takes (lying and wholesale, cynical distortion included). Christians “need to” suffer insofar as it is a requirement of the New Testament. That was my argument here. See, e.g.,: Philippians 1:29: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him,” and 1 Peter 2:21: “To this [suffering] you were called.. .” There are many more such passages. Many Protestants (and Protestant theologies) minimize these. It is an undeniable fact, however much White protests.

He writes, “Most Evangelicals do not take it that far, yet still minimize the place of suffering, and hence, of the related notion, penance. This represents a scandalous lack of understanding of the deeper, more difficult aspects of Christianity.” I think this represents a scandalous lack of understanding of the deeper, more meaningful works of Calvin, Edwards, the entire body of the Puritans, Bunyan, Spurgeon, Warfield and any number of modern writers.

First, let’s get the context of what I wrote, lest readers get a warped, out-of-balance idea of it. White deliberately omitted the following passage of mine, which occurs immediately above his last citation above:

It is only certain strains of evangelical Protestantism (particularly one brand of pentecostal, “name it, claim it” Protestantism, which asserts that believers can have whatever they like merely by “claiming” it and having enough “faith”) that try to pretend that suffering is foreign to the Christian life (in extreme cases, not God’s will at all that we even have sickness, etc.), who ignore this crucial aspect of the passage. They pass right over it as if it weren’t even there. (p. 128)

Now, as to White’s additional comments: he keeps trying to make out that I am an ignoramus, unacquainted with serious Protestant treatments of suffering. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was precisely because of my familiarity with those sorts of writings, that I was very careful to qualify my assertions (“only certain strains,” “Most . . . do not take it that far,” etc.).

Secondly, I am obviously generalizing in a broad manner. To do so does not require a denial that there are many exceptions to the tendency under consideration. An example of a generalization about Catholics would be: “Catholics don’t read their Bibles as much as evangelical Protestants do.” This is a true and undeniable statement. I recently had an article published in This Rockabout this very subject. But it also has literally thousands of exceptions. I read the Bible more than many individual Protestants. Etc. White’s utter misunderstanding of this aspect of the chapter on penance overlooks this.

Thirdly, as another generalization, only Catholics who fully understand the Church’s teaching on suffering and penance would (unfortunately) be more biblically informed and at an advantage to Protestants on this topic (i.e., the average evangelical as an individual probably has a superior understanding of suffering compared to the average Catholic). But that doesn’t mean that there is a widespread deficiency in Protestant circles also, regarding this topic.

Fourthly, as I showed above, I was critiquing mostly certain pentecostals, who wildly distort this biblical teaching. When I was a Protestant, I read people like Corrie Ten Boom and Elisabeth Elliot: godly women who had suffered much themselves, and who presented a much more biblical view of suffering in the Christian life.

Fifth, here are reflections from four wise Protestants who have a developed theology of suffering, about the widespread deficiency of same in Protestant circles (i.e., it’s not just “Dave the ignorant Catholic who [supposedly] isn’t acquainted with the best Protestant theology” who is saying this):

I need no longer try to follow Christ, for cheap grace, the bitterest foe of discipleship, which true discipleship must loathe and detest, has freed me from that. Grace as the data for our calculations means grace at the cheapest price, but grace as the answer to the sum means costly grace. It is terrifying to realize what use can be made of a genuine evangelical doctrine. In both cases we have the identical formula — “justification by faith alone.” Yet the misuse of the formula leads to the complete destruction of its very essence.(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, New York: Macmillan, revised edition, 1959, 54-55)

. . . several dozen of their children had died because of an error (I believe) in theology. (Actually, the teaching of the Indiana church is not so different from what I hear in many evangelical churches and on religious television and radio; they simply apply the extravagent promises of faith more consistently.)

(Philip Yancey, Disappointment With God, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1988, 26; referring to a church which held that any medical treatment was a denial of faith; hence fifty-two children of sect members had died)

Suffering is God’s plan for us. In western cultures suffering is seen as very bad, to be avoided at all costs, and sometimes even an indication that something is very wrong. It is considered abnormal. Unfortunately, most western Christian cultures hold an inadequate theology of suffering also. As cross cultural workers in Christian ministry we must move beyond the myths we have received from our culture, and develop a solid biblical view. God’s view is absolutely essential to be able to handle suffering well. God’s word clearly shows that suffering is anormal part of the Christian life, especially suffering for Christ. “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him” (Phil. 1.29).“To this [suffering] you were called.. .” (1 Pet.2.21).


A. Cultural Myths about Suffering

1. As Christians, we should not suffer in this life.
2. When we are living in His will, living godly lives, we should experience few hardships.
3. Suffering means something is wrong. It is an abnormal state.
4. Suffering has no redeeming or positive results.
5. Suffering means we can have no joy. It robs us of the choice to rejoice.
6. Spiritual people don’t hurt emotionally when they suffer.
7. If God really loves us He won’t let us suffer very much. His love means that He will puta hedge around us to keep terrible trials from entering our lives.
8. When we do suffer, God is punishing us out of anger. He is vindictive and wants us to suffer when He is angry with us.

(Toward a Biblical Theology of Suffering, Ken Williams; a wonderful online study of much biblical material on the subject)

Today all is made to depend upon the initial act of believing. At a given moment a “decision” is made for Christ, and after that everything is automatic . . . We of the evangelical churches are almost all guilty of this lopsided view of the Christian life . . . In our eagerness to make converts we allow our hearers to absorb the idea that they can deal with their entire responsibility once and for all by an act of believing. This is in some vague way supposed to honor grace and glorify God, whereas actually it is to make Christ the author of a grotesque, unworkable system that has no counterpart in the Scriptures of truth . . . To make converts . . . we are forced to play down the difficulties and play up the peace of mind and worldly success enjoyed by those who accept Christ . . . Thus assured, hell-deserving sinners are coming in droves to “accept” Christ for what they can get out of Him . . .

(A. W. Tozer, A Treasury of A. W. Tozer, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980, 85-87)

By trying to pack all of salvation into one experience, or two, the advocates of instant Christianity flaunt the law of development which runs through all nature. They ignore the sanctifying effects of suffering, cross carrying and practical obedience. They pass by the need for spiritual training, the necessity of forming right religious habits and the need to wrestle against the world, the devil and the flesh . . . Instant Christianity is twentieth century orthodoxy. I wonder whether the man who wrote Philippians 3:7-16 would recognize it as the faith for which he finally died. I am afraid he would not.

(A. W. Tozer, That Incredible Christian, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Christian Publications, 1964, 24-25)

The fact is that the Reformed understanding of the sovereignty of God is so far beyond the crass “suffering by grace = penance for temporal punishments, say your Our Fathers and Hail Marys and fast on Fridays and consider obtaining some indulgences just in case” kind of Catholicism that afflicts millions on our planet that it is truly beyond words to express.

Nice display of White’s caricatured, jaded view of Catholicism. It plays well to the anti-Catholic crowd . . .

Yes, suffering is very clearly present in the text. No one doubts this. But what Mr. Armstrong does not seem to understand is that the mere presence of the word does not, to any serious minded reader, include within it the massive mountain of theological baggage connected to suffering/penance/merit as seen inIndulgentiarum Doctrina and other Roman Catholic magisterial documents and teachings.

Of course I understand that, and I never claimed otherwise. But White sure seems to think I did. He is wrong.

Presumption is not exegesis, nor does it amount to confounding the Protestant position.

And creation of straw men and non sequiturs are not “rational replies.”

Armstrong assumes that the suffering to which Paul refers is identifiable with the sufferings Rome refers to.

I do? That’s news to me. Where did I supposedly argue what I don’t believe?

Why? He does not say.

For obvious reasons . . . (see previous reply).

He does not even try to tell us how v. 17 is functioning in the entire citadel of Christian truth known as Romans chapter 8. It is just thrown out there, and we are to believe. Sorry, but I’ve spent far too much time seeking to honor the text and communicate its meaning to others to buy such an obvious ipse dixit.

Just me trying to hoodwink my ignorant heathen Catholic readers again, huh James?

And Phil. 3:10 is not even touched. It is merely cited as one of the “95” verses, no exegesis offered. Just presumption.

It’s rather clear, for the purpose I had in this section. If I had exegeted all 95 passages like White wants me to, the book would have been about 900 pages long.

The Bible teaches that Christ’s sufferings (and this will come out most clearly in the next section regarding Christ’s afflictions) alone avail for our salvation.

Yep. Amen.

Christians suffer as part of their sanctification, or to use the language of Paul later in Romans 8, that process whereby God the Father conforms them to the image of His Son. We do so by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that in our sufferings we die to self, and live to Christ. When a Christian suffers according to God’s will, he or she has the promise that nothing can touch them in their suffering that was not ordained by the Father and the Son (Col. 3:3). While our suffering in no way, shape, or form adds to the work of Christ, it is very much a part of God’s will. It is never “meaningless,” for God does not cause His children to suffer needlessly.

I agree with all of this.

But the fact that my suffering can be used of God to His glory and to the benefit of others (as in the life of Paul) truly has nothing whatsoever to do with Rome’s doctrine of penance.

That isn’t true, but gets into biblical proofs for penance, from my first book.

These passages may not have been discussed in Dave Armstrong’s campus ministry meetings, but a quick review of the sermons and studies at the Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church would disabuse Armstrong of his misunderstandings of what serious Protestants believe about suffering.

I.e., White’s twisted caricatures about what he falsely thinks I know and don’t know about Protestant views . . .

. . . in the course of that debate, took note of the comments of Bishop Lightfoot, the great Anglican scholar, regarding Colossians 1:24 and the term “afflictions” from his commentary on Colossians . . .

Anglicans aren’t even Christians, according to White’s criteria, consistently applied. But that is another matter, when White needs an “ally” against the Great Beast. I have omitted his citation as irrelevant, since (according to the oft-stated purpose of my book), this section examined what John Calvin and Albert Barnes (not J.B. Lightfoot) wrote about Colossians 1:24.

Hence, to seriously suggest that he is “confounding” Protestants on the basis of Bible passages, Dave Armstrong would have to wrestle with a presentation such as Lightfoot’s, . . .

White can go on all day citing commentators I didn’t deal with. But my purpose was to show the bias and irrationality so often present in John Calvin’s and other influential Protestant commentators (not to engage in full-fledged exegesis, for which I’m not qualified).

. . . and would have to establish that in context, both of these passages are indicating that there is some kind of “satisfactory” element to the sufferings of believers that would fit the Roman Catholic concept.

I think these passages are consistent with a Catholic understanding, yes. I’m not claiming that they contain, individually, the full Catholic (developed) doctrine. But Scripture doesn’t contain the developed Chalcedonian trinitarian theology, either, so such realities do not concern me. We would expect this.

For obviously, a Protestant can read 2 Corinthians 4:10 and say, “Yes, I die to sin daily, not sacramentally or partially so that I remain imperfect (as in Roman theology), but as the result of the perfect standing that is mine in the righteousness of Christ the Holy Spirit works within me to conform me to the image of Christ and by so doing brings the reality of my union with Christ in His death so that His life will be ever more seen in me.” How have I been “confounded” in this passage?

A true critique of what I was doing here would have to deal with Calvin’s and Barnes’ commentary. A presentation of one Protestant perspective on it and an examination of Protestant dealings with Catholic proof texts are two different things. I’m doing the latter; White the former. Never the twain shall meet.

Armstrong, again, does not offer any exegesis of the cited texts. Instead, he devotes a little over two pages to arguing that in Roman Catholic theology the concept of suffering does not detract from the finished work of Christ, and that Protestants, like Albert Barnes, just don’t get it.

Yes; if only anti-Catholics like White could grasp this simple fact.

You can see now why I strongly suggested reading Indulgentiarum Doctrina when I began this section of the review. When we pray for someone, how are they “helped”? It is not by a transfer of merit. The debt of temporal punishment I owe is not lessened by my prayers, either. I am not adding to the thesaurus meritorum by praying or doing good works or suffering (there is no such thing to begin with). And if Armstrong wished to communicate with a serious minded non-Catholic based upon these passages (he is the one claiming the passage confounds Protestants) he would explain why we should understand qli/yij to refer to satisfactory sufferings (as opposed to Lightfoot). Of course, no such attempt is made, for I seriously doubt Mr. Armstrong is even aware of the issue, let alone able to interact meaningfully with Lightfoot. But I do note, he has no basis for complaint, since he himself refers to “Catholic exegesis” of the texts on p. 130 (he just doesn’t bother to provide it).

More extraneous non sequiturs, with the by-now obligatory insult of my intelligence and thinking ability . . .

Finally, a note on Armstrong’s constant attempt to paint Calvin in the worst possible light.

Oh? Does White mean my citing the man? Funny that White is most reluctant to defend the nonsense that Calvin so often writes, which I have merely documented. Yet Calvin is doing “exegesis” and I don’t have a clue about anything I write about?

In this section he cites Calvin from The Institutes, but not from Calvin’s actual commentary on Colossians 1:24.

This is untrue. On p. 131 I also cite Calvin from his Commentaries. Since White brought this up (a rare instance of actually dealing with an argument of mine — well, “kinda sorta”), I will cite both of Calvin’s tirades, to give the reader an idea of the sort of thing I deal with throughout the book. If this casts a bad “light” on Calvin, I ask: whose fault is that?:

Indeed, as their whole doctrine is a patchwork of sacrilege and blasphemy, this is the most blasphemous of the whole . . . What is this but merely to leave the name of Christ, and at the same time make him a vulgar saintling, who can scarcely be distinguished in the crowd?(Institutes, III, 5, 3-4)

I then commented (words utterly ignored by White, as usual):

Calvin here is again guilty of presenting a caricature of the Catholic position, whereby it is construed as somehow opposing saints to God or regarding the saints as somehow contributing to the redemption apart from God (the characteristic Protestant dichotomous or “either/or” mindset).Calvin mistakenly thinks this is what Catholics hold. In his commentary on this verse, Calvin repeats the falsehoods about the Catholic position, and even urges readers to hate those who are supposedly deliberately corrupting Holy Writ:

Then I cited Calvin’s Commentaries:

Nor are they ashamed to wrest this passage, with the view of supporting so execrable a blasphemy, as if Paul here affirmed that his sufferings are of avail for expiating the sins of men . . . I should also be afraid of being suspected of calumny in repeating things so monstrous . . . Let, therefore, pious readers learn to hate and detest those profane sophists, who thus deliberately corrupt and adulterate the Scriptures, . . .

This sounds like a familiar charge, doesn’t it? As soon as White saw that he couldn’t play the “Dave is utterly ignorant about Protestantism” card (after I showed what I had read), he immediately went to the charge of “knowing deception.” We see that he follows his master Calvin in this tendency to personal attack at the expense of rational argument. Now, I want to know: how is the above to be regarded as “biblical exegesis”? And if Calvin can lie about Catholics and urge readers to hate them, why is it that I can’t even critique tendencies in Protestant exegetical circles? If White claims I am not doing exegesis (even when I reiterate endlessly that this was not my primary purpose), why doesn’t he criticize Calvin for failing to do so when he is supposed to be doing so?!

I thought it would be worthwhile to see what Calvin actually wrote there. Here is the online version [linked]. Scroll down to the section on Col. 1:24 and note that Calvin, unlike Armstrong, actually addresses the verse in its context prior to responding to Rome’s misuse of it. I wonder why Armstrong does not refute Calvin’s actual exegesis and commentary? I leave that to the reader to decide.

I assume that Calvin would try to exegete the passage, in his Commentaries! I dealt with that in Calvin which was the subject matter of my book: the extreme bias present in Protestant commentators when dealing with Catholic claims. When will White comprehend this? The good bishop then wraps up his fallacy-ridden and wrongheaded “critique” concerning penance with a preview of the next installment and yet another personal insult:

Is Armstrong right, or has he once again demonstrated a fundamental inability to understand the issues at hand?

* * * * *

Total words: White: (minus section trashing my Protestant knowledge and credentials): 3200

Total words: Armstrong:3109 (or 97% as many as White’s)

Grand Total thus far: White: 7962 / Armstrong: 5110 (or 64% as many as White’s words, or White outwriting Armstrong by a 1.56 to one margin — roughly three words for every two that I write)

My percentage of words over against White’s, compared to his “average” prediction: 0.06% (5110 actual, compared to a predicted 79,620 / 16 times less)

Note Bishop White’s statement on 12-29-04, in commencing this present discussion: “Now, of course, DA will respond with text files (liberally salted with URL’s) that will average 10x the word count of anything I have to say. That’s OK. I shall . . . let him take home the bragging rights to verbosity and bandwidth usage.”

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