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John 6 - A Final Response

 


by James White, Mike Porter, Eric Nielsen, and Colin Smith

Over the course of the past few months a very lengthy exchange took place between James White and Robert Sungenis on the topic of John 6. We believe the facts have been established with more than sufficient certainty for anyone who is willing to fairly observe them. Mr. Sungenis has responded with a very lengthy article, but to be perfectly honest, we do not feel the issue can be made any clearer, and in fact, continuing the exponential growth of point-by-point commentary and refutation would only serve to obfuscate the key issues that began the discussion anyhow. This is particularly the case due to the fact that the main issue, that being certain claims by Mr. Sungenis, have pretty well gotten lost in the shuffle.

Three colleagues of mine have provided brief commentary on different aspects of Mr. Sungenis' final offering. With these comments we will leave the issue for the certain day when James White and Robert Sungenis will square off to debate issues such as predestination and election, etc. So with these comments we will close our contribution to the debate at this point.

The Use of MH
Mike Porter

When Robert Sungenis wrote his first rebuttal to Dr. White, he made the following comment regarding the use of MH and a defense of his own comments about it:

Robert Sungenis: For clarification, it is certainly possible that the use of MH in John 7:31 expects a negative answer. Nevertheless, a few things need to be said. Since Dr. White appeals to the statement "many of the multitude believed in Him" in John 7:31, he is inferring that the belief of these people was so strong that they would be able to determine whether Jesus was the Messiah, and thus answer the question of John 7:31 negatively. I don't think that assessment is provable, since we do not know what kind of belief the people had. For all we know their belief could be like the people of John 8:31, who are finally told by Jesus in verse 44 that their father is the devil. This chapter is in close proximity to John 7:31, the verse in question, and thus would have great impact on determining the type of belief present among them.
Dr. White brought out the point that Mr. Sungenis entirely missed the point. While he agrees, seemingly reluctantly, that it is possible that MH in John 7:31 expected a negative answer, he still managed to say that it does not matter since it is not proven that the people believed, or we have no knowledge of what kind of belief they had. Thus, Mr. Sungenis used his interpretation to override the grammar.

Dr. White responded to this by noting that Mr. Sungenis specifically asserted,

1) MH before the main verb does not always expect a negative answer. For example, in John 7:31, MH before POIEESEI expects an affirmative answer, not a negative one. In other words, the implied answer to the question of whether the Christ will do more signs than Jesus is affirmative.

He continued,

I pointed out that, in fact, the only meaningful way of understanding the passage is to understand that the crowd is saying just the opposite: that the expected answer is a negative. I even cited A.T. Robertsonís comments that specifically note the use of mh, indicating a negative answer. While it is hardly central to the issue at hand, it does speak to Mr. Sungenis knowledge of basic Greek grammar and to his general approach to exegesis and interpretation.
In other words, Dr. White was able to point out that a grammatical error on the part of Mr. Sungenis that he seems simply unwilling to admit that he erred. Mr. Sungenis asserted his interpretation in order to validate his grammatical approach.

Mr. Sungenis compounds his error by defending his eisegetical approach:

(9) R. Sungenis 2: Suffice it to say, I am not saying X and then saying non-X. When I said, "For clarification, it is certainly possible that the use of MH in John 7:31 expects a negative answer..." I was implying that the Greek is ambiguous here. Second, Dr. White now asserts that my going to the context to answer the question is "obfuscation." Earlier he complained that "Mr. Sungenis makes a number of rudimentary errors in his handling of the Greek language in context..." but now he insists that my appeal to the context is inappropriate. I exposed Dr. White's premise as false. Dr. White was trying to claim that the people of John 7 would answer negatively because they were "believers." By this he meant "true believers," a distinction he made in a later part of his rebuttal. But the context shows that we can't know if they were "true believers," and, in fact, it shows that they were probably just casual believers. Thus, a negative answer to the question in John 7:31 cannot be as definite as Dr. White would like it to be.
What he has done here is rather obvious. Rather than admitting that his John 7:31 argument from a grammatical standpoint is untenable (Dr. White cited scholarship, Sungenis cited himself), he argued that the context supported his claim. His argument is contingent upon the assumption that 1) the Greek is ambiguous, and 2) we donít know what kind of faith they held. Therefore, he feels justified to argue that the implication is that they believed the Christ would in fact do more than this man they just heard. The resultant interpretation is an odd tautology.

However, the main flaw in his presentation is that the Greek is not ambiguous, and his interpretive assumption is not clearly seen. If Mr. Sungenis is going to challenge a point of grammar, he needs to demonstrate the impossibility of the view put forth using the grammar. However, in this context, it is quite clear that the people were saying that Christ himself would not do more than this man has. Yet, without citing a single grammar (to do so would destroy his point) and without referencing a single commentary, Sungenis offered his unique interpretation as overriding the grammar of the sentence.

In short, Mr. Sungenis erred, simply put, and he was unable to bring himself to admit that he erred, and was forced to create a hermeneutic principle where grammar is subordinate to interpretation.

I admit that this observation is not central to the bulk of the dialogue, but it is a point that is worth mentioning. A rather basic point of grammar cannot be arbitrarily overturned for the sake of a theological preconception.

Robert Sungenis and Sola Ecclesia
Eric Nielsen

Robert Sungenis begins his recent rebuttal[1] to James White with an objection to Dr. White's use of the term sola ecclesia. He states:

By "Sola Ecclesia" I believe Dr. White is trying to say that he thinks I get my information only from the Catholic Church.
Mr. Sungenis goes on to explain that sola ecclesia is therefore an inaccurate, misleading term to describe his position. Indeed, if Dr. White used the phrase sola ecclesia in this manner, Mr. Sungenis would have a valid objection. A quick search of the Alpha and Omega Ministries web site, however, reveals that Dr. White gives the term sola ecclesia an entirely different definition than the one provided here by Mr. Sungenis, a definition that Dr. White uses in a consistent manner throughout his web site:
What is sola ecclesia? It is the concept that the Roman Church (exemplified in the Papacy especially) is the sole and final authority in all matters.[2]
Since Dr. White uses this phrase in the same manner throughout his web site, it is safe to assume that he meant to apply the same definition to describe Mr. Sungenis's position. That is, for Robert Sungenis, the Roman Church is the sole and final authority in all matters. Is Dr. White justified in claiming that Robert Sungenis exercises this sort of sola ecclesia? More to the point, is Dr. White applying the term fairly to describe this discussion?

Let's examine the claim, that for Robert Sungenis, the Roman Church is the sole and final authority in all matters. In the book Surprised by Truth, Mr. Sungenis discusses his discovery that "the whole debate between Catholicism and Protestantism could be boiled down to authority." [3] He explains:

As I studied Scripture in the light of the Catholic materials I had been sent, I began to see that the Bible in fact points to the Church as being the final arbiter of truth in all spiritual matters (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15; Matthew 16:18-19; 18:18; Luke 10:16).

This made sense, especially on a practical level. Since only an entity with the ability to observe and correctly interpret information can act as an authority, I saw that the Bible, though it contains God-breathed revelation, cannot act as a final "authority" since it is dependent on thinking personalities to observe what is (sic) says and, more importantly, interpret what it means. [emphases ours][4]

It is evident from Mr. Sungenis's own statement about the authority of the Roman Catholic Church that, although he does not apply the term to himself, he believes sola ecclesia exactly as Dr. White defines it.

Mr. Sungenis continues in his rebuttal:

In response, let me say a few things. First, the Catholic Church believes Scripture, Tradition and the Church are equally coexisting authorities (whereas Protestants believe Scripture alone is inerrant, thus "sola scriptura"). From that premise alone, "sola ecclesia" is inappropriate.
Here Mr. Sungenis attempts to demonstrate that the Roman Church is not his sole authority, claiming that "Scripture, Tradition, and the Church are equally coexisting authorities." Certainly the Roman Church does claim these three sources of authority, and doubtless Mr. Sungenis recognizes these three as well. It is difficult to see, however, what Mr. Sungenis could possibly mean by the phrase "equally coexisting authorities." In his own testimony he has already made the claim that the Scripture cannot be a final authority, while the Church must be the final authority. The Church, then, as the interpreter of Scripture and the final authority, exercises authority over the Scripture, and is therefore not equal to, but greater than the Scripture.

Mr. Sungenis later admits to his practice of sola ecclesia as Dr. White defines it even as he denies the charge:

Third, in my rebuttals to Dr. White, now amassing close to 100 pages, I think I mentioned the Catholic Church only once, which came in a quote from the Catholic Catechism, para. 600: "To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of 'predestination,' he includes in it each person's free response to his grace." So, again, with only one citation to the Church, the use of "sola ecclesia" is not at all applicable to this present discussion. Ninety-nine percent of my rebuttal is based on an exegesis of the biblical text.
Since Mr. Sungenis has already established that the Roman Catholic Church is the final arbiter of truth in all spiritual matters, he has admitted that he can not make any "exegesis" of the Scripture passages under discussion other than interpretations that coincide with what the Church has already decreed about predestination and free will. This is indeed sola ecclesia.

[1] http://www.catholicintl.com/2nd_Rebuttal_to_Dr_White_on_Predestination.htm
[2] http://aomin.org/NBSA37.htm
[3] Surprised By Truth, p. 117
[4] Surprised By Truth, p. 118

Sola Scriptura/Sola Ecclesia
Colin Smith

In his second "rebuttal" to Dr. James White, Mr. Robert Sungenis says:

By "Sola Ecclesia" I believe Dr. White is trying to say that he thinks I get my information only from the Catholic Church. In response, let me say a few things. First, the Catholic Church believes Scripture, Tradition and the Church are equally coexisting authorities (whereas Protestants believe Scripture alone is inerrant, thus "sola scriptura"). >From that premise alone, "sola ecclesia" is inappropriate.
It is astounding that, after the many debates and discussions that have taken place between Dr. White and Mr. Sungenis, not to mention the reams of paper and kilobytes of web pages that have been devoted to discussion of the issues, Mr. Sungenis still does not seem to understand what is meant when these terms are used. The issue here is not as much about inerrancy or infallibility (although Protestants deny Papal Infallibility), or even authority, but one of final authority. For the Protestant, the Scriptures are the final arbiter. They are the rule of faith and practice. It is to the Scriptures that every Christian must submit; all other opinion is mere opinion, open to debate and to critique. This is what is meant by the phrase Sola Scriptura. Scripture alone is that which determines doctrine and practice. Dr. White is not suggesting that the Roman Catholic does not regard Scripture as authoritative. When he uses the phrase Sola Ecclesia, he is asserting that, while the Roman Catholic Church holds Scripture, Tradition, and the Church to be equally authoritative, it is the word of the Church that carries the most weight at the end of the day. Regardless of what Scripture may teach, the meaning of Scripture is determined by the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Hence, because of Roman Catholic soteriology, it is very difficult for the Roman Catholic apologist to read even the clearest passages any other way. John 6 is a very clear passage, demonstrating without any ambiguity that salvation is of God and by God without reference to the free will of man. The only reason that Mr. Sungenis and his colleagues in the Roman Catholic Church do not see this is because to agree with Dr. White would be to elevate the Word of God above the Word of Rome. Whiteís contention is that no Roman Catholic would do this, demonstrating that, at the bottom line, the Roman Catholic holds to the Church, and the Church alone, as the final authority for doctrine and practice. Hence, Sola Ecclesia is quite appropriate.

Sungenis Marginalizes the Enemy
Mr. Sungenis continues:

Second, it is a simple fact of history that those who hold to the doctrine I espouse are not only from the Catholic Church. Dr. White has plenty of opponents in his own Protestant denominations who believe something very similar to what the Catholic Church believes regarding Predestination and Free Will. In fact, while Dr. White calls himself a "Reformed Baptist," there is a denomination which calls itself "Free Will Baptist." In fact, the majority of Protestant denominations repudiate Dr. White's view of absolute predestination as being thoroughly unbiblical (Note: "Absolute predestination" is the view that God predestined some men to heaven and the rest to Hell, the former without regard to their Free Will, and in most versions, the latter without regard to their sin).
Sungenisí words should be noted here, especially by every Arminian who crusades against Roman Catholicism. Sadly, Mr. Sungenis is correct in his assertion that the Arminian and the Roman Catholic views of soteriology are very similar. However, it is important not to lose sight of what Sungenis is trying to do in this paragraph. He is attempting to marginalize Whiteís views. If Dr. White can be labeled an "extremist" who holds to a theological position that is not representative of modern Protestantism, then Sungenisí battle can be presented not as Roman Catholicism versus Protestantism, but Roman Catholicism versus a small, fringe group of extremist Calvinists. This is smoke-and-mirrors. It does not matter in the least whose position Dr. White represents, whether 90%, 50%, 20%, or 1% of Protestantism. Biblical theology is not a matter of counting noses to see who has the majority view; rather it is a matter of searching the Scriptures to see whose theology is most consistent with Godís revelation of Himself. The reader must answer the question: Of the two views presented, which most accurately and consistently exposits the meaning of John 6, both in its own context, and also in the context of the rest of Scripture.

A few words need to be offered with regard to Sungenisí use of the term "absolute predestination," and his definition of this term. Scripture does not speak of an "absolute" predestination, only predestination. Since predestination is both a Biblical term and a Biblical concept, no serious student of the Bible would deny that the Bible teaches predestination. The difference between the Reformed and the Arminian/Roman Catholic usage of the word lies in its definition. For the Arminian, God predestines those whom He knew would exercise faith in Christ. For the Reformed, God predestines those whom He chooses, without regard for who they are or what they will or will not do.

Sungenis offers an explanation of the term "absolute predestination": God predestines some to Heaven and others to Hell , the former without regard to their Free Will, and, in most versions, the latter without regard to their sin. This is a shallow, and incredibly misleading presentation of Reformed thinking. In the Westminster Confession of Faith, we read the following:

Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal. (6:6)
So, according to Reformed belief, man, due to both original and actual sin, is condemned to an eternity in Hell. Those that are not elect, therefore, are already sentenced to eternal punishment, and this is because of sin. This is in directly contradiction to Sungenisí definition.

With regard to manís free will, the Westminster Confession states:

Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto. (9:3)
Notice that the Confession does not deny manís free will. It merely states that the will of fallen man is unable to will any spiritual good, and, hence, man is unable to save himself. So, when God elects someone to salvation, He does act with regard to the creatureís free will. God regenerates the unregenerate so that his will is no longer bound to sin, but is truly free to serve his Creator.

The above explanation is provided for two reasons. Firstly, Mr. Sungenis badly misrepresented the Reformed view. It is only fair for the reader to understand properly what Reformed theology teaches with respect to these issues. Secondly, the issue of Mr. Sungenisí credibility as one who knows what Reformed Protestants believe is called into question. On his website, there is a small biography of Robert Sungenis which, toward the end, states the following:

Robert was born into a Catholic family in 1955, but left the Church and joined Reformed Protestantism at the age of 19. During his next 18 years in the Protestant faith, he served as an elder, adult education director, radio-talk show host, and itinerant preacher for various Protestant churches. Robert came back to Catholicism in 1992 and his self-told conversion story can be found along with 10 other converts in the book Surprised By Truth (Basilica Press 1994).
Whatever Sungenisí experience in "Reformed Protestantism" may be, it is clear he did not truly understand Reformed theology. The statement that he served in "various Protestant churches" does not further his position as one who understands Reformed Protestantism, since, as he has already acknowledged, there are plenty of Protestants who would disagree over this subject. It is to Mr. Sungenisí shame that he assumes he knows Reformed doctrine, and yet does not cite Reformed writers to support his understanding. If his presentation of Reformed theology can be shown to be erroneous with citations from as basic a Reformed document as the Westminster Confession of Faith, one cannot hold much hope for future dialog with him.

Adamís Sin and Dr. Whiteís Alleged Self-Refutation
Mr. Sungenis writes with regard to the doctrine of "absolute predestination" and Godís sovereignty:

In answer to Dr. White, I explain later in this paper that such a position is self-refuting, since even Dr. White and the Calvinists must believe that Adam, before he sinned, had a genuine Free Will that coincided with God's foreknowledge and foreordination of all events. The Calvinists cannot explain how this "mixing of the unmixable" is possible, nevertheless, they must believe it exists. Unless Dr. White claims to be a supralapsarian Calvinist (a Calvinist who says that Adam really had no free will, such that Adam committed sin because God foreordained him to commit it, and that God predestined the non-elect to Hell but not based on their sin but on His own choice and pleasure), then he really has no room to say that a theology which seeks to coincide predestination and free will is not "rational." If Dr. White is an infralapsarian, then he believes that God took into account Adam's free will prior to His ordaining of predestination. If so, then Dr. White would have to agree that Predestination and Free Will can be mixed.
Notice that he says that Dr. White and the Calvinists "must believe that Adam, before he sinned, had a genuine Free Will that coincided with Godís foreknowledge and foreordination of all events." Why is this? Why must the Reformed Protestant deny Godís sovereignty at the Fall? Once more, the Westminster Confession, which is held to by supralapsarians and infralapsarians alike, states:
Our first parents, being seduced by the subtlety and temptation of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to his wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to his own glory. (6:1)
One wonders if Mr. Sungenis has ever read a discussion of Godís use of means and secondary agents by a Reformed writer. He may have a clearer understanding how God can sovereignly ordain sin without being the author of it. Those who would try to "protect" God from having control over the sinful actions of men must deal with some very cold, hard Biblical data. It was God who hardened Pharaohís heart when Moses issued the command from God to free the Israelites (Exodus 10:1-3). It would appear that God ordained Pharaohís disobedience toward God. God caused Samson to desire after a Philistine woman (Judges 14:4). God caused Eliís sons to ignore their fatherís advice (1 Samuel 2:25). God caused Assyria to attack Israel as punishment on His people, even though the Assyrians were ungodly and would be punished by God for their arrogance (Isaiah 10:6-7, 12). Finally, it was God who ordained the sinful act of crucifying His only Son, so that He may save His people from their sin (Acts 2:23).

Ezek 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9 and Zech 1:3
These passages came up more than once in Mr. Sungenisí response, so it seems necessary to say a few words about them. Of course, Sungenisí first problem is that he fails to understand these passages (as well as other proof-texts) apart from the rest of Scripture. While the Reformed Protestant is forced to look to Scripture for his understanding of potentially difficult texts, the magesterium of Rome has provided Mr. Sungenis with his theological framework.

With regard to Ezekiel 33:11, the reader is urged to look at the context of the passage. God is addressing His people, Israel. He does not enjoy the sin of His own people, which is why He will chastise them, and bring other nations against them, that they may be a people pleasing in His sight. It is not unusual to read of God urging His people not to sin, and to walk in righteousness. Even though God has decreed the ends and ordained the means of our lives, He always holds before us His righteous demands. Without His enabling, we are unable to follow those demands, but that does not excuse us from obeying those demands. Someone who is drunk is still required to drive safely, even if his condition means that he is incapable of so doing.

One can only imagine that Mr. Sungenis does not read much Reformed writing, since 2 Peter 3:9 has been addressed numerous times, especially in recent years. Firstly, the context of the letter demands that we understand the referent in the verse to be the Christians Peter is addressing. The context of the passage is the end times. His readers are concerned that the Lord has not yet returned, and Peter is exhorting them to be patient; Godís promise still stands, but He is not being slow for the sake of it. The delay of Christís return has a purpose: the salvation of "all" of "you." That is, that all those whom God intends to save will be saved at the time that God ordains. If one insists on reading the "all" in this verse as "all people," one must answer some tough questions: if it is Godís will to save all people, why do people die in sin and unbelief? Is Godís purpose in delaying Christís return that every person on earth may be saved, or that they will be saved? What does the text say?

As for Zechariah 1:3, again, God urges His people to walk in His ways and in His righteousness. He can do this and ordain their actions. It seems that the Arminian/Roman Catholic has as much problem seeing that God can exhort His people to righteousness while also ordaining the path they will go as the Reformed Protestant allegedly has seeing Godís sovereignty and manís free will as co-existent. The question is, which is the most Biblical position?

1 Timothy 2:4
Mr. Sungenis makes clear his lack of understanding with regard to the Reformed position on this passage in the following remark:

Do you see how Dr. White is so used to inserting words and concepts into Scripture that he can glibly say, "We have already seen that 1 Timothy 2:4 refers to all kinds of men," without the slightest pangs of conscience. Even though he is fully aware that "kinds of men" and "all men" are two entirely different ideas, he is cock sure that "kinds" should be in the translation or interpretation. Until Dr. White ceases from making these inordinate insertions into the text, he will never see the truth.
Sungenis seems so intent to maintain his position that he is blind to the obvious context of the verse that would clearly restrict the meaning of "all." In verse 1, Paul tells Timothy to pray for "all men." Does this mean that he wants Timothy to pray for every person on the face of the planet? Clearly not, and, indeed, Paul goes on to qualify the phrase. In verse 2, Paul makes it clear that he wants Timothy to be sure to pray for kings and those in authority. The authorities, whether Jewish or Roman, were not friendly toward the infant church, and so it appears that Paul is using the phrase "all men" in the sense of "not just your friends and those who are good to you, but all men." It would be appropriate to understand "types of men" since this is clearly Paulís implication. The reason that Paul wants Timothy to pray for all men is because God desires to save all men. Continuing the context, this would mean that Timothy should pray for those who rule and not just his friends, because God does not intend to save only Timothyís friends, but even those who are currently at enmity with him. It makes sense to continue the understanding "all types of men." Once again, if God wills the salvation of everyone on the planet, then surely that will come about. There is no qualification that God wants to save them if only they would believe. God desires to save men from all strata of society, and whatever God desires to do will be accomplished (Psalm 115:3; Psalm 135:6).


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