After sitting through several hours of Dr. James White responding to Dr. Ken Wilson’s thesis and exposing some of White’s obvious errors in Part 1 and Part 2, it became apparent (to me) that White is either unwilling or unable to mount anything like a clear, coherent critique of Wilson – much less a refutation. It also seemed (again, to me) that White himself was generally aware of this and, after several hours of podcast blustering, he’d have the good sense to move on to any of a hundred different topics about which he has something helpful and constructive to say.
Instead, White has gone full Social Justice Warrior and decided to double down. In this podcast from April 13, White claims to have discovered a clear and obvious example of Christian monergism in the 2nd century! Leighton Flowers has already pointed out that numerous scholars – even of the Reformed persuasion – have come to the opposite conclusion, so it appears that one of two things must be true: Either (1) James White has made an incredible, groundbreaking discovery all on his own (yet White himself can’t understand how those dummies at Oxford were just, like, too dumb or lazy to notice it when they were reading Ken Wilson’s thesis a few years ago); or (2) James White has actually sunk to the level of making wild, baseless claims and duplicitous arguments rather than gracefully back down and admit what a host of Reformed scholars have already conceded.
Before I go on to substantiate (2), I encourage everyone to read The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus for yourself; it’s not very long and it’s not hard to understand. No honest reader will find monergism there unless he’s willing to torture the text to fit certain preconceived notions. (I get that White thinks of his preconceived notions as “very biblical categories” though I have yet to find the passage in my Bible that lays these out with the kind of Aristotelian clarity that White seems to take for granted.)
In this blog post, White proposes examining “key phrases that would rightly lead Dr. Wilson to consider this section as teaching the sovereignty of God, the inability of man, etc. (i.e., concepts consistent with Reformed theology, which he boldly proclaims in his teachings, based upon his research, did not exist in Christianity until Augustine).”:
First we have the assertion that God “ordained the season” or, better, the time, specifically, of the sending of the Son as a ransom for sin (the emphasis upon substitutionary atonement in this epistle is simply wonderful). God ordains times? God ordained the specific time of Jesus’ coming? In light of the fact that every interaction Jesus had with anyone during His ministry involved literally millions of “free will” choices, it is truly hard to understand how anyone can think that God ordains only specific actions in time, but does not decree the fabric of time itself. How could Acts 4:27-28 be true, for example, if the existence of Herod or Pontius Pilate was a fortuitous happenstance? No, if major events in history are to be “ordained” by God, the contexts that lead up to those events must likewise be a part of His perfect plan, including the actions of His creatures.
Notice that White has not done any exegesis of the epistle here; all we have is the cherry-picked phrase “ordained the season”, followed by White’s philosophizing about how major events couldn’t possibly be ordained by God unless we accept the Calvinists’ deterministic version of God’s sovereignty. Read all of chapter 9 (it’s only a single paragraph) in the epistle yourself to see just how much White has tortured the text to try and make it appear as though the author were preaching Calvinistic sovereignty. The “assertion” is no such thing; the phrase is used in passing to make a point that is completely unrelated to any question of God’s sovereignty. Instead, the focus of that passage is “how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred.”
White, who often complains that his opponents have done poor or no exegesis, knows quite well that anyone can take a three word phrase like “ordained the season” out of context and then construct an argument about what he thinks it means. And he also knows that this is the very opposite of honestly approaching a text for the purpose of genuinely understanding the author.
Next, White tries to establish total inability:
[N]otice the phrase, “having demonstrated in past times the inability of our nature to obtain life.” Here is depravity, inability, in the very words of the epistle. This is not libertarianism. This is not “we simply choose not to grasp hold of the life so graciously offered.” No, this is ἀδύνατον, inability, in the very words of the text, and attached to our “nature” (φύσεως).
White is claiming that “inability” attaches to “our nature” without qualification, which if true would indeed strongly imply Calvinistic total inability. But the text does not speak of the inability of our nature simpliciter, but rather of the inability of our nature to obtain life (i.e., to obtain salvation). No Christian – Roman Catholic, Arminian, Orthodox, you name it – denies this claim; it is simply that salvation is by grace, not works.
Here’s why I am forced to conclude, sadly, that White is not merely mistaken but has engaged in downright duplicity: Dr. White is quite rightly regarded as an expert in Biblical Greek, and as such he clearly has sufficient skill as a grammarian to recognize an infinitive phrase when he reads one. So yes, White is correct that ‘inability’ is attached to ‘our nature’, but he completely ignores the infinitive phrase ‘to obtain life’ that modifies ‘inability of our nature’. He is trying to convince his readers that the epistle is describing total inability of our nature full stop rather than the inability (of man as he naturally is) to obtain life. White is obviously a smart guy; he knows better.
It gets even worse for White’s argument, because for some bizarre reason he thinks this rules out libertarianism. In other words, White is asserting that “inability of our nature to obtain life” is the opposite or negation of “able to take more than one possible course of action under a given set of circumstances” (which is a decent, basic definition of libertarian free will).
But obviously that does not follow. Put another way, my being able to take more than one possible course of action under a given set of circumstances does not imply that I am able by my own nature to obtain salvation, any more than it implies I am able to flap my arms and fly around the room. Libertarian free will is not in itself at odds with the total and absolute necessity of grace to achieve our salvation.
Finally, let’s all take a step back and try to remember how the whole dispute got started: Wilson’s Oxford thesis claims that Augustine’s proto-Calvinist teachings were supported by an interpretation of key Scriptures that was previously unknown in Christian writings, but nonetheless did exist in Gnostic and Manichean authors which Augustine himself likely read when he himself was a Manichean; therefore, those aspects of Calvinism which appeal to Augustinian interpretations of Scripture are, perhaps unwittingly but as a matter of fact, built upon an interpretation that originated outside the Apostolic traditions.
That White has resorted to abusing an anonymous epistle in order to “refute” Wilson is telling, very telling indeed.