Pre-Calvinism Debate: Defining the Terms

See the YouTube Video Message for Dr. James White: HERE  OR: Listen to the Podcast of the same message: HERE.

Here is the follow up reply to Dr. White’s latest DL response to the video above: HERE

As many of you already know, I will be debating Dr. James White, of Alpha & Omega Ministries, in two weeks (jeez…I just broke into a cold sweat after merely typing that sentence).

This is my first theological debate and some might say I have chosen to jump into the deep end; while others might better describe me as being at the bottom of the deep end and in need of someone to dive in and save me.

After weeks of listening to Dr. White, I cannot disagree with either of them. He is an accomplished debater and, well, let’s face it, we are discussing arguably the most difficult of all the biblical passages to explain from our soteriological perspective. This will not be easy, to say the least.

I’ll be honest. It’s much more comfortable to sit behind this screen and think through my answers, craft them, and then only after much deliberation (and several rounds of editing) posting my perspective. A live debate forces you to craft your words on the spot, something Dr. White has clearly mastered. I, on the other hand, anxiously anticipate finding out my skill level along with the rest of the world on the evening of May 7th

DandGThe picture on this article was sent to me by one of the more…let’s just say “enthusiastic” supporters of Dr. White (with the caption “Prepared to be Squashed”), and while it does not serve to calm my fears it did provide me a nervous chuckle. I figured I could at least use it to appeal to those who like Cinderella stories or rooting for the underdog. 😉

As I reminded the twitter audience, I did not agree to this debate because I am under the delusion that I, a woefully under-experienced debater, might “defeat” Dr. White at his trade. What does it mean to “win” a debate anyway?

  • Sound more intelligent than your opponent?
  • Come across as better prepared than your opponent?
  • Think faster on your feet so as not to appear stumped by any random question that is posed?

If so, I’ve already lost. For all those seeking that “victory” you can have it. Go ahead and give Dr. White his trophy and take your laps now so by the time of the debate we can actually engage a meaningful discussion. My goal is not to “win” but to be understood. I seek truth not victory. I’m not seeking to embarrass or trap or corner my opponent in a contradiction, and based on what I’ve heard from Dr. White I do not believe that is his motive in engaging debates either. I hope we are seeking to explain and defend our perspective clearly. I pray our goal is to openly seek Paul’s true inspired intentions as he penned these words to the first century church of Rome.

In my preparations thus far I’ve especially found it difficult to narrow down the material so as to cover the most pertinent of issues given the time restraints. Much of this has to do with the massive amounts of misrepresentations and misunderstandings about our views of election.  I have re-written my opener about 6 times now and I’m still unsettled on where to go with it (more cold sweating).

The difficultly lies largely in feeling as if there is not a single Calvinist in the world who understands our point of view rightly. I know that is an overstatement, but it honestly feels that way at times given that I’ve listened to dozens and dozens of debates, podcasts, webcasts and sermons on this topic and have yet to find one Calvinistic scholar engage our soteriological perspective. Prove me wrong, PLEASE! I would love nothing more than to be proven wrong on this point. Find me a recording of a Calvinistic scholar who engages our perspective of Romans 9. I’m tempted to offer a reward, because I am about tapped out.

Braxton Hunter (a more qualified debater from my perspective who I highly recommend listening to if you have not already) wrote a blog on this point not long ago titled, “Talking past each other.” Picking up on that theme I recently wrote another article over the all too common “Accusation of Misrepresentation.” I won’t repeat the points of these two articles, as you can view them for yourself if your are interested, but I mention them by way of making an appeal to my debate opponent, Dr. White.

Can we please define our terms? Much of the debate is simply understanding what your opponent means when he uses a term. For instance, we both would gladly affirm that creatures have freedom and are responsible, but you and I are far from agreement on what constitutes moral freedom and responsibility. Likewise, we both affirm divine sovereignty, yet our definitions could not be more distinct. You will no doubt be arguing in support of God’s divine election, but so will I. We simply define the concept of divine election from two totally different perspectives, which based on what I have heard in your other debates you have yet to really engage (listen to the video or podcast message to hear what I mean).

Would it be helpful for us both to provide definitions for these often misunderstood terms:

  1. Election
  2. Choice
  3. Creaturely Freedom
  4. Moral Responsibility
  5. Predestination
  6. Foreknowledge
  7. Omniscience
  8. Sovereignty
  9. Omnipotence
  10. Permit (‘bare permission’ or just plain ol’ permission)
  11. Determine, Ordain, Decree, Author, Create, Originate, Make, Cause, Compel, Draw, or any of the verbs one may want to employee to describe God’s choices/actions in relation to man’s choice/actions.

I have defined these terms from my perspective and clarified my views on Romans 9 in the video/podcast linked above.

I hope you will respond before the debate with your own definitions. Thank you for your time.

For more on the accusation of misrepresentation: READ THIS ARTICLE

25 thoughts on “Pre-Calvinism Debate: Defining the Terms

  1. Don’t worry 🙂

    Exodus 4:11-12 “The Lord said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say.'”

    Continue to walk in the Spirit with humility and you’ll be victorious in achieving your goal, which is to speak God’s truth with clarity and let everyone judge for themselves. God will help you make that happen. He’ll make the truth crystal clear.

    I was watching your “Pre-Calvinism Debate Message” on YouTube and here are my thoughts:

    1. It’s troubling how Dr. White seems to be “hardening his heart” from understanding corporate election. If he was debating a Muslim, a “Gay Christianity” advocate, a Catholic, an Atheist, a Jehovah Witness, or a Mormon, he would make it his business to fully understand and properly represent his opponent’s position. He always does that, but the corporate election view seems to be the only exception. That’s why I think that, on some level, he realizes this view is a very real threat to his Calvinist. beliefs.

    2. Also, notice White’s debate tactic with Gregg. On the one hand, he complained that Gregg wasn’t presenting enough of a positive case for his view. On the other hand, he kept introducing new Calvy “proof” texts with every rebuttal, making it almost impossible for Gregg to focus on his positive case because he was too busy responding to the “proof” texts.

    Anyway, thank you so much for all that you do.

    God bless you, brother!

  2. P.S. Oh, and one more thing. I know people try to pressure you to go full-out for Calvinists’ jugulars; they want you to denounce Calvies as heretics and lead some kind of cyber-war against them. But, I pray you’ll never lose your gentleness, grace and humility. We hot-heads really need your example and calming influence (no matter how frustrating it can be at times), lol 😛 😉

    God bless!

  3. Great pic! Very funny! 🙂 I am assuming that you are not the fat guy! I hope White doesn’t take it personally, though I think you are just saying that you see him as a debating heavyweight! 🙂

    You probably know this, but just a reminder… In focusing on edifying those teachable ones who are listening to the debate and not focusing on winning against the style and substance of your opponent, you will be better able to discern how to keep emphasizing from the Scriptures what really matters and needs to be heard. Quick acknowledgments of their style and substance (like avoidance or labeling and uncommon meanings or un-provable uncommon inferences), which you probably can anticipate and prepare for, is helpful, but hammering home the clear Scriptures that contextually can not be overturned is where to camp as much as possible. The Word does the work!

    Defining terms is very helpful, but authority for definitions must not be allowed to be derived from Christian History or philosophy. The only authority for definitions must be the perspicuity of Scriptures (their normal reading), and if the Scripture has not clearly defined a term being debated then neither side can claim its definition as authoritative, based on Christian History or philosophy. Definitions from those sources only prove what some have believed or what was popularly believed as definitions. And for more than a 1000 years (AD 325 – AD 1425) the definitions of opponents were summarily sought out for destruction. Since the Dark Ages ended, with the printing press, important biblical definitions for words like baptism, church, millennium have been somewhat reclaimed to their original biblical meanings, or at least have received a more legitimate hearing.

    I am praying for you as you prepare, my brother!

    1. As noted, the pic was sent to me by a Dr. White fan with the subtitle: “prepare to be squashed.” I think we all can laugh at that.

      Good word, Brian, as always!

  4. Leighton,

    For what its worth, just try to be ready for any obvious mistakes on White’s part. He will make them and you need to be ready (easier said than done).

    For instance, I heard White debate Michael Brown several years back. Twice I heard White say something that was an obvious error, but he didn’t allow Michael the opportunity to expose it.

    Its been awhile, but I will try to summarize.

    Brown quoted John 5:34…

    “Yet I do not receive testimony from man, but I say these things that you may be saved.”

    Brown asked…. “Did he mean that or not?”

    Now I forget White’s exact words (I use to have them written down somewhere), but he translated that to mean “he meant that to those who the Father would give Him”. In other words, Jesus meant that only to the unconditional elect.

    But Jesus was speaking specifically to the Jews. In fact, unbelieving Jews. The very ones who “followed Him no more” (John 6:66).

    Another example was when Michael pointed out that Judas was indeed given to the Son (John 17:12). This was in response to White’s reference to John 6:39. White responded to Brown that “obviously he (Judas) wasn’t given to Him for salvation” and then quickly moved on. However, Brown’s point was valid. Judas was one of those given by the Father to the Son, regardless of his eternal destiny.

    The point is White isn’t infallible. He will make a glaring mistake (or 2, or 3….). Just be ready to be opportunistic and not let White control the debate. If you “see” an obvious error, be sure to bring him back to it. Don’t let him off the hook.

    God bless you in your efforts.

  5. Hi Leighton,

    You might want to include the word ‘ALL’ in your list of defined terms 😉

    Thanks for all the patient study you’ve put in to making things plain and understandable!

    Blessings on this enterprise and may the truth be obvious to all.

    Andrew Barker

  6. Dr. Flowers, it’s Casey. Coming out of Calvinism for 17 years is a process but it’s easier than I thought it would be. I’ve found more freedom, love for people of ALL PEOPLE!!! Gays, atheists, lost, Xians of EVERY Denomination regardless of confession, creed, liturgy or tradition. Love surpasses the strict bounds that I was restrained within the chains of Calvinism. Sure, I was passionate about the lost and loved people and I prayed. But I prayed half heartedly because I “knew God decreed everything from the beginning to the end” And sure, I was a staunch evangelizer but I knew “if only they were elected God” and sure I “loved Gay people” but “they are going to hell God” and sure “I loved atheists” but “you hate those who are fools God”. So I was nothing but a poser. I tried to love but the bondage of presumptuous exegetical (which as a Calvinist we really proof text the “Providential Favorites” hence eisegesis really happens, then turn around and accuse those who are not, of doing the same and I’ve seen some on Twitter calling them “Free Willies”???!!!) so called Sola Scriptura but really is Partial Scriptura instead of TotaScriptura…left my heart only half loving.

    Mr. Casey S. Smith


  7. Will be praying for you, Dr. Flowers. I thank God for your ministry. Our church has been overtaken by Calvinists and they have even brainwashed our children. It is heartbreaking. I just found you a few days ago, your explanations are so clear and sensible, it”s very refreshing. Keep up the great work. Thanks so much. Judy Brown

  8. Pastor Flowers writes, “This is my first theological debate and some might say I have chosen to jump into the deep end;”

    As your first debate, I think that you will find that your thoughts will not be as organized as you would like – after the debate, you will be thinking of things you shoulda said.

    I have watched a couple of Dr. White’s debates and he expresses clear positions that those who debate him often don’t seem to want to address. Hopefully, you will meet him head-on and respond to what he says, and he will do you the same courtesy. At some point, one of you should be able to say, “On this point, this is where we disagree, and I don’t think the Scriptures provide closure on the issue.”

    I think you will do well and it will be a learning experience, so enjoy it. I look froward to seeing the debate.

  9. I pray the debate will be beneficial and encouraging for the body of Christ, synergists and monergists. As someone who has tuned in to Dr. White’s podcast for the last few years I can honestly say I’ve heard him give definitions for many if not all of those terms you listed on many occasions. If you were hoping to debate someone who has defined his terms clearly and biblically then you’ve hit the jackpot! 🙂 I would encourage you to listen to as many of his podcasts as possible b/t now and the debate to help clear up any misunderstanding or lack of knowing you may have about his definitions of these things. I pray the Lord will give you clarity of thought and calm any nerves you may have going into and during the debate.

  10. One thing to remember in every debate: there’s a good chance both debaters are wrong. We’re talking about two human beings trying to prove they know the thought process of a creator of galaxies. Good luck to both of you.

  11. Hello Leighton,

    I am going to share some advice, you can choose to take what you want and leave out what you don’t want. Not in any order of importance, here are some points to consider:

    1. Those already convinced of a position come to a debate to hear their side “win” and to hear the weaknesses of the other side so that they can use these weaknesses themselves. 🙂 You will not convince such a person that their views are error (ever notice after a Presidential debate that no matter what was said, the Democrats believe their candidate won and likewise the Republicans?). Regarding whom to aim to convince, aim to further convince those who hold your view and for the so-called “undecided” (those who have not strongly committed to either view).

    2. Corollary to point 1 you have to decide before the debate what your specific goals are. Some will say their goal is to “win” the debate”, this is naïve and seldom happens. More reasonable goals include: I want to represent my viewpoint clearly and accurately, I want to deal with some common caricatures or misrepresentations of my position, I want to strengthen those who hold my view and encourage them, etc. My point is that have these goals firmly in mind before you get to the debate.

    3. Corollary to point 2 aim to make less not more points. It is similar to a mistake some preachers make (e.g. when the associate preacher or youth leader gets their chance to preach to the congregation they often will try to make too many points, and so they will end up going all over the place, getting flustered, going too long, etc.). 🙂 Aim instead to only make a few points, and make those points very well.

    4. An effective strategy is to figure out what is or is perceived to be a weakness of your position and address it before your opponent does. Say that a weak spot is point X. Don’t wait for your opponent to bring up X, bring it up yourself first and deal with it. Not only does this make your own position stronger it also is very effective for those who are watching. They expect that weaknesses will be skirted or the subject changed (e.g. again watch politicians how they skirt uncomfortable questions, yet often these are the very questions the public has! :-)). If instead you go after perceived weaknesses this shows honesty and also shows the strength of your position.

    5. After the debate, one of the best things for you personally is to figure out what the opponent’s strong points were and what are any weaknesses he brought out regarding your position. Some people act as if their ideas are fixed in stone, but this is not always the case. An idea may be modified or strengthened but this only happens when you are willing to learn from mistakes and weaknesses. Say a sports team competes in a playoff game and loses. A losing mentality would be: “we lost, we’re done let’s give up!” A winning mentality would be: “Ok we lost this game, but why did we lose? What can we improve for the next time we meet this opponent? What do we need to fix or strengthen for next time?

    6. Keep in mind the distinction between proof and persuasion. The proof is the evidence and specific argument presented: persuasiveness is how effective it is for a particular person. Proof is objective, persuasiveness is subjective and person relative. Again the Republicans/Democrats are a perfect example. A politician could present a logically sound proof for X. And yet its persuasiveness will vary from person to person. If the proof is against what a person wants to believe they will tend to see it as unpersuasive while the opposite is the case for the person who wants to believe it.

    7. Keep in mind the nature of truth. If something is true, it will be supported by the available evidence and will be supported by other areas of truth. If something is true you can attack it all you want and it will stand. One of the ways you know the opponent’s position is weaker and not the truth is when they must caricature or present misrepresentations of your position. Error on the other hand will be found out, and does not stand up well to close examination and scrutiny. That is why the more lies a liar tells the harder it is to keep the story “straight “ and the easier it is to be found out and exposed.

    8. Preparation for any kind of public speaking is crucial. It may not seem like it when you see some of these presidential debates, 🙂 but before they stood with their opponent they trained. They had mock debates. If they were smart they had the smartest people they knew involved in this preparation. Like a boxer who trains against good sparring partners in preparation. You should do likewise, get the sharpest people you know to “mock debate” with you. Pretend they are the opponent, what would they do, what would be their strongest points, how would you answer them? Often the better the preparation the better the performance come the actual presentation.

    9. As one of my former professors, John Warwick Montgomery, who was quite a debater himself used to tell us: you don’t really know your own position well unless you also understand the other position as well as you know your own. So like a boxer that knows exactly what the strengths of his opponent are, you have to know what your opponent’s position is. And here you want to examine the best representatives of a position not its weakest representatives and make allowances for that. In the Super Bowl when the Patriots played the Rams (who had these super-fast receivers and Kurt Warner a quarterback who had a very fast release) in practice the Patriots had the scout team receivers (that were representing the Rams in practice), start five yards down field from the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped, to simulate the speed of the receivers. If you practice against that you will be ready when the real thing comes speeding at you. Likewise in your preparation you want the fastest versions of the opponent, not the second string representatives.

    I could give some other points, but if you use some of these it should help.

    1. I watched James’ response video and it was so disappointing.

      1. James made fun of the room Leighton’s recording in, I guess because it’s not as lavish as his studio, which God only recently blessed him with… I hope he was joking.

      2. He dismissed the explanation of God convincing Paul with blinding light, by saying: “Well, God knocks people off their horses all the time…” Is he really suggesting God’s general revelation could be compared to the risen Lord appearing IN PERSON to Paul and then blinding him for three days?

      3. Claiming that Steve Gregg is “playing around with open theism” is so 2008, lol. He’s got to be kidding.

      4. He says he understands Leighton’s position, but claims it boils down to his being unable to accept certain scriptural truths, which isn’t at all who Leighton is; he was a Calvinist for what? A decade? He split a church over Calvinism and converted many Christians to Calvinism because he believed it was true and was willing to accept it, no matter how hard a pill it was to swallow. James has misjudged him badly.

      5. When Leighton asks how James defines “choice,” he questions whether or not Leighton had ever been a serious Calvinist, and implies that his “lack” of understanding must be the reason he ultimately left Calvinism. But, Leighton had made it crystal clear in his video that the reasons he was asking for clarification of terms was because: (1) he heard James using terms that Calvies don’t typically use; and (2) he noticed James uses certain terms differently at different times.

      6. He accuses Leighton of holding the attitude that he simply won’t worship a god like the god of Calvinism. Not only is this a false criticism, but a hypocritical one, since James himself once said: “I won’t worship a God who has no purpose for evil,” as he was straw-manning the non-Calvinist definition of sovereignty.

      7. Isaiah 10: How does God bring a nation against Israel? All He needs is to strengthen that nation, remove His hand of protection from Israel, and Satan (who’s always waiting to devour the Israelites) will do the rest. It’s been brought to James’ attention during past debates that, not only are the presumptions of determinism and mind-control totally unnecessary, but some nations actually go BEYOND God’s intentions (Zechariah 1:15). Why is James acting like he’s not aware of this?

      8. James never actually defined “choice.” All he said was he defines it “based on Biblical parameters,” but never provided even a Biblical definition.

      9. He never defined “creaturely freedom” except to say the nature of man’s will is different from (and more limited than) the nature of God’s will. Then he wandered off into criticizing synergism and describing various levels of human accountability.

      10. He described Leighton’s objection about determinism and homosexuality as a “failure.” But, James never did refute the charge that, if compatibilism is true, homosexuals are 100% CORRECT in saying: “God made us this way.” Thus, James is the one who failed; not Leighton.

      11. He never explained what he means when he uses terms like “diamond-shaped” and “four-dimensional” to describe the interaction between man’s “freedom” and God’s meticulous control (i.e. compatibilist determinism). Instead, he just claimed it’s about man not knowing God’s “secret decree.” Then he accused Leighton of claiming the Bible can’t be understood on the issue of God’s sovereignty (yet another straw-man accusation).

      12. He pretends Leighton’s definition of “responsible” is in some way abnormal, but doesn’t bother to respond with his own definition, other than to reiterate that God holds man “responsible” for sin.

      13. The repeated straw-man accusation that, if Leighton doesn’t believe God meticulously controls everything, he must believe God has no clue of the future is, in my opinion, intellectually dishonest and really getting old; James, of all people, should know better.

      14. Joseph: Doesn’t James know by now that God can approve of the ENDS without approving the MEANS? Does he really think God must have determined the brothers’ sinful actions just because He foretold them? I guess this goes back to the unbiblical and nonsequitous Calvy presumption that God can’t foreknow without predetermining. But, what’s blowing my mind is James acting like he’s never been answered on this question. He has many times.

      15. Time and time again James falls back on his systematic, presuming the very suppositions that are up for debate. Where does the Bible mention God’s “secret decree”? Where does it mention God can’t foreknow without predetermining? Where does it define “sovereignty” as meticulous control over everything that happens, including our thoughts and desires?

      16. The bogey-man charge of “Pelagianism” just because people don’t accept the unbiblical extreme to which Calvinism takes “total depravity” (i.e. “total inability”) is unfair, and the straw-man of “God can’t be Holy unless He has no decree” is just flat-out obnoxious. How sad that James has been reduced to this type of fallacious argumentation; it should be beneath his dignity.

      17. Romans 8:30 doesn’t say “…those whom He called, He THEN justified…” it says “…and these whom He called, He ALSO justified…” (no sequential language there). There’s no suggestion in the text of this being “the golden chain” of ordo salutis that Calvies claim it is; this is just a presumption on James’ part.

      18. James is right that there’s nothing wrong with confidence. But ARROGANCE goes before a fall (Proverbs 16:18). James should be careful. Given all the above, it seems he’s going into this debate overly-confident and under-informed. Dangerous combination.

      I pray the Lord answers James’ prayer that the truth be made crystal clear on the day of the debate. I pray God has mercy on James and strengthens Leighton. I pray James studies carefully his opponent’s position prior to the event. And I pray this debate will be amiable, edifying, and an awesome learning experience for all involved, may it please the Lord in Jesus’ name.

  12. Definitions will be key for Dr. White, so I would love hearing clear, unambiguous definitions of the important terms during the debate. That’s probably the most important thing for me. Listeners/watchers can somewhat see through debate style to see the actual substance of the arguments presented. Ensure you have the substance and exegetical chops and you’ll do just fine. That said, you are to be applauded for taking on James White in debate, something even William Lane Craig is unwilling to do.

  13. Dr. Flowers,

    I am a student of Dr. Adam Harwood at NOBTS. I am currently working on a PhD in Theology here. I read your recent blog post, where you ask for any research of Reformed theologians on Romans 9 and you guys’ view of election. If I am understanding you correctly, you guys believe that election should be understood as (1) corporate and (2) as unto mission rather than individual salvation (this latter point may not be exactly yours or more nuanced by you guys). At least that is how I’ve heard Dr. Hankins and you in your blog post Three Choices of God.

    You may already be aware of some of these treatments, but I just wanted to help out and point out a couple that came to my mind.

    Peter O’Brien’s Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul

    John Piper’s The Justification of God, page 46 or so

    Tom Schreiner’s “Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election uto Salvation? Some Exegetical and Theological Reflections,” (JETS 36 (1993)

    Moo’s Roman’s Commentary in NICNT, page 585 or so.

    I’m sure you are aware of some of these, but maybe not all. Hope they help as you prep for the debate. I look forward to listening to it.

    Hope this finds you well.

    PS – What Debates are For by Doug WIlson is helpful:

    Grace and Peace

    1. Leighton,

      Reference is made here to Schreiner’s article against corporate election. Schreiner is a much better exegete than James White who is primarily a debater. If I were you I would go to the SEA website to look at Brian Absciano’s interactions with Schreiner. Brian gets the best of Schreiner. I would also be interacting directly with Brian before the debate as he is one of those very smart persons that can really help you in your preparation.

  14. Hey Leighton,

    I think doing some sort of mock debate with a friend who knows the Calvinist position will be very helpful for the debate. I know you barely know me but I am willing to give a few hours of my time to give you a chance to practice and sharpen your approach. I am friends with you on Facebook so feel free to shoot me a pm and I will be glad to skpe if you think that will be of assistance. I really think despite James experience you can do well enough in this debate to make a difference. David took on Goliath, who had much experience in war. You too can take on the fallacies of Jame’s position as you let the Lord lead you. God bless!

  15. Professor Flowers,
    I would really like speaking with you via whatever method you prefer (email, comments phone). I would like to see about getting you out here to Biola University (where I am a current undergrad) and doing a talk on election and Romans 9. It would be very fruitful to have your voice heard out here, especially in a school that is dominated by Calvin’s understanding of election/salvation. Your ministry here has blessed me at a very critical time in my own life and ministry.

Leave a Reply