Rich Davis, “James White and John 3:16: Rhetoric and Red Herrings”

, posted by SEA

In “Calvinism’s Gospel Tautology,” I argued that there are two possible Calvinist renderings of Jesus’ words in John 3:16. The first puts these words in Jesus’ mouth: “whoever (of those who cannot believe) does believe: those persons won’t perish but have eternal life.” This dictum is no less pointless than it is absurd. To impute it to our Saviour is perfectly unseemly.

On the second reading, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus amount to a vacuous tautology: that the elect–i.e., those who (by definition) believe in Jesus and consequently have eternal life and won’t perish: these persons have eternal life and won’t perish. Well, of course. But there’s no more reason to come into the world to tell us that than there is for God the Son to become incarnate to break the news that bachelors are unmarried. As I said, if that’s what John 3:16 comes to, it isn’t good news. It can’t be; for it isn’t news at all.

On March 27, 2018, James White, Director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, devoted his entire Dividing Line podcast to reading and commenting on my post. In what follows, I make some brief observations about White’s questionable polemics. In a second post, I turn to more substantial matters. Shorn of the fallacious rhetoric (there’s no shortage of that), I think White has two minor points that merit a brief comment.
“Crazy” Logic?
White’s podcast proceeds by way of his reading my post aloud, pausing here and there (at certain trigger points) to make critical remarks. The crucial thing for the listener to recognize is that White stops reading just before he gets to the main argument. “This is where it starts getting crazy,” he says. The craziness results from the fact that

[Davis] gets into the concept of symbolic logic and you’re trying to create the concept of some type of tautology…So there is no reason to go beyond this because you keep going, going, and going.

So that’s it. There is no serious discussion of the premises in the argument, or their connection with its conclusion. This is a strange sort of argument analysis. In any event, White’s odd manner of speaking here strongly suggests that he doesn’t understand symbolic logic, and that’s the reason he stops reading where he does. Utilizing the tools of predicate logic isn’t a matter of “getting into” a concept “to create a concept.” I don’t even know what that means. Rather, I use symbolic logic to demonstrate a tautology. Throughout the podcast, White chastises and disparages philosophers who don’t know their Greek. I don’t suppose he thinks an acceptable response on their part would be to minimize its value and importance by calling it “crazy” (“Just look at all those strange letters!”), and then labelling its conclusions “silly.”
Corrupt Arminianism?
This disparaging of the techniques of argument analysis occurs in other places as well. At one point in my post, for example, I note that there is a wide scope and a narrow scope reading for the universal quantifier (“everyone” or “whoever”) in John 3:16, and I carefully distinguish these by way of displayed propositions. Here is White’s rather flippant remark: “I just love these…It’s normally the Arminians that out of either malice, misrepresentation [or] something end up doing this.” So the listener’s attention is diverted from the logical point at hand to the bad character of those Arminians who insist on clarity of argumentation. I’m sorry to have to say it: this is irresponsible and it sets a poor example for White’s Calvinist listeners. Here White could learn a thing or two from Guillaume Bignon whose rigorous yet gentlemanly manner of conducting himself in an argument I deeply respect.

The failure to understand the mechanics of basic argument analysis also shows itself in (at least some of) the many ad hominems peppering White’s monologue. Thus we are treated to comments like:

  • “He’s not exegeting the text; he’s abusing the text.”
  • “This kind of twisting of the text is used by others to deny resurrection, the atonement, the very existence of God.”
  • “Any Christian philosophical program: one of the absolutely fundamental classes that should be required is minimally first and second year Greek, and a class on hermeneutics…and not taught by philosophers.”

I’m afraid this too is a diversion–albeit an unintentional one. I suspect it stems from a failure to grasp how a constructive dilemma works. To see this, let’s grant White his two main requests. First, he wants to say that ‘the world’ can be legitimately restricted in its scope.1 He cites my quote from Sproul approvingly: “the world…must refer to the universality of the elect (people from every tribe and nation)” (Chosen by Godp. 179). Second, he would like ‘whoever believes’ in the ESV to be translated ‘everyone believing’. That’s fine. Then the James White interpretation of John 3:16 comes to this:

JW: God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

The question now arises as to how the universal quantifier ‘everyone’ is to be handled. Should we give it a wide or a narrow scope reading? That is, should we read it as

JW(w): God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone (of both elect and non-elect) believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life;

or as

JW(n): God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone (of the elect) believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life?

If JW(w) is correct, what Jesus says is pointless and absurd. If JW(n) is correct, what Jesus says is tautologous. The important thing to see is that I don’t take responsibility for either JW(w) or JW(n). I’m not arguing (by way of exegesis) for the truth of either. The argument is purely dialectical; it’s designed to help White (e.g.) apprehend the implications of his Calvinism. The implicit domain of the quantifier ‘everyone’ is persons. Logically speaking, we can let that quantifier range over all persons (elect and non-elect), or we can restrict it to some (e.g., the elect alone).

This point seems to be entirely lost on White, who instead takes his listener on a rabbit trail about exegesis, the Greek language, and the ineptitude of philosophers at interpreting the bible. White declares that a Christian philosophical program must include courses in Greek and hermeneutics, but “not taught by philosophers.” Perhaps that’s right; but then by the same token those courses shouldn’t be taught by those lacking basic skills in logic and sound reasoning. For the two go hand in hand.
[1] I will have more to say about this in my next post.

[Link to original post, which was taken from the blog of the Tyndale UC Philosophy Department]