Dr. James White is a dear brother in the Lord and, while we may not agree on everything, I continue to believe he is one of the most skilled Christian debaters and defenders of the faith currently living and operating within the Reformed community.
Lately, the classical v. presuppositional debate has once again kicked off, all for good reasons. There are various groups involved in the broader discussion. Skylining, however, might be the For the New Christian Intellectual (FTNCI) with Jacob Brunton & Cody Libolt versus men like White & Sye Ten Bruggencate.
I have dear friends on both sides of this debate, but make no mistake, I am an outspoken proponent of the scholastic, classical method which, in substance, puts me on the same side of the line as Brunton and Libolt, at least in terms of natural theology and the way in which Christians should argue for God’s existence. However, I am not part of FTNCI and would appreciate distinction moving forward.
That said, I think White is wrong here. If he thinks FTNCI is off the mark as it concerns apologetics he needs to deliver the death-blow demonstration. If they are dead wrong, demonstrating it to be the case ought to be a cake-walk. So, my design for this post is to elicit White’s carefully thought-out response to classicalism. I and others would appreciate such a response. Not a response to FTNCI per se, but a response to the classicalism they espouse.
Recently, White posted on Facebook:
“To be educated means to cease to be a presuppositionalist” says JD Hall’s personal manager while walking around a park recording on his camera. This, my friends, is the new Christian intellectual!
Meanwhile I hear Target still has toilet paper! Civilization endures!
Pro-tip: choosing to ignore the epistemological ramifications of a consistent, serious exegesis of Romans 1 (which the NCI guys have yet to produce) does not result in the rest of the world becoming uneducated.
There are a few problems with this, the least of which is not the fact it’s Facebook conjecture. One can’t help but notice the “pro-tip” smugness, a brand of self-exaltation I’m sure both Calvin and Knox dreamt of one day possessing (sorry, but that’s just what it is). In all seriousness, though, the devil is in the details. Let’s look further and avoid building mountains from molehills.
White implies there are epistemological ramifications of “serious” Romans 1 exegesis. I agree. But has he given us what he thinks these ramifications are? I’m not doubtful he has, but I am doubtful he’s applied his exegesis of Romans 1 within this particular context in any meaningful sense. Yet, he criticizes FTNCI for not producing serious exegesis on Romans 1 concerning this very issue.
Some questions: First, what is serious exegesis? Second, can White demonstrate FTNCI hasn’t produced such material? It’s unquestionable that they have produced material concerning Romans 1, so Dr. White merely needs to show where such material is wanting. This should be an easy task since—according to White—Brunton and Libolt are apparently beyond the reaches of rationality.
There’s More to this Debate
I’m concerned that as Christians on social media become more conscious of this near-fathomless discussion, their first impression might be that this is a narrow conversation between FTNCI and people like James White, as if FTNCI had some novel standing whilst White holds up the “Reformed” banner. This is a much larger discussion with personalities in the periphery such as Richard Muller, Craig Carter, and James Dolezal, the three of which might be contrasted with John Frame and Vern Poythress. Needless to say, there are some heavy-hitters producing scholarship either directly or indirectly associated with this discussion, not to mention the late Dr. R. C. Sproul who had a heavy hand in producing a monumental work in favor of classical apologetics (cf. Classical Apologetics, by Sproul, Gerstner, & Lindsley). It also included a death-blow critique of Van Til’s presuppositionalism.
Shifting the discussion back a few years, I would be interested to see if White could find any pre-Enlightenment doctors of the faith who would agree with him on presuppositionalism. We have every reason to believe Francis Turretin would’ve classified Cornelius Van Til’s work as Socinian with its notion of revelational epistemology (cf. Institutes, vol. 1). John Owen prefaced his work on biblical theology with a somewhat lengthy discussion on natural theology (Biblical Theology, ch. 1). Stephen Charnock, time and time again, relied on Thomas Aquinas in his argumentation for God’s existence (cf. The Existence and Attributes of God). Peter van Mastricht also presented the classical proofs and classical doctrine of God in volume 2 of his Theoretical-Practical Theology.
True, the Reformed and post-Reformed did not place the stress on natural theology that, say, the medieval scholastics did. The Puritans were especially eclectic in this regard. Nevertheless, the chorus composed of our theological forefathers would’ve wholesale rejected Van Til’s epistemology, the very bedrock of presuppositional thought. Concerning this, there ought be no doubt.
Know, therefore, that this discussion is not one merely had between some fringe entity called For the New Christian Intellectual and a few contemporary Reformed scholars. This discussion is between historical, classical Reformed orthodoxy (a la. the Puritans & every Reformed Confession) and those who have, mostly inadvertently, adopted post-Enlightenment thought into their philosophical and theological frameworks (a la. Van Tillian & Bahnsenite types).
Much of what I say here will be circling wagons. But White’s claim is that serious exegesis to the opposite effect of presuppositionalism from Romans 1 has not been conducted (at least by FTNCI). But it has been conducted in a most rigorous fashion throughout the years by classical theologians and FTNCI, as far as I can tell, is merely parroting the near-unanimous reading of Romans 1 prior to the Enlightenment.
The divide between classicalism and presuppositionalism is epistemic in nature, and it largely revolves around two major questions: “What does everyone know about God?” and, “How do they know it?” I believe Romans 1:20 answers part of the first question and nearly all of the second:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse… (NKJV)
What is known about God? His invisible attributes. His invisible attributes (lit. the invisible things of Him) are thoroughly perceived, and they are perceived in the present tense. Further, the Lord’s eternal power and divine nature (Godhead) are also presently revealed. This is revelational information made available to all people. This is what constitutes natural (general) revelation.
The next question to answer from this text is how (?) these things about God are perceived. This is the question of natural theology, or our knowledge of natural revelation. How does natural revelation “get into” our intellects (thus becoming a natural theology)? How are the things about God understood (νοούμενα)? They are understood presently and passively. This means that at present all rational human beings understand or perceive God through what has been made. The “by the things that are made” is in the dative case signifying instrumental causality. It is by or through what is made that people perceive the divine nature. The NASB renders it as follows:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
None of this ought to be controversial. The classicalist merely affirms everything that is said here. We deny that the sensus divinitatus is a content-loaded repository of pre-downloaded (a priori) facts about God possessed by all people from the womb. That is simply not what Romans 1 teaches. Romans 1:20 tells us that we perceive through what has been made (mediately). But v. 20 would be false if indeed we do not know God through what is made. As it is, however, we know through a process of ratiocination—looking at our surroundings, examining what has been made, etc. We have a mediate knowledge of God which begins with basic sense perception.
It’s on the basis of Romans 1 that classicalists have rejected Van Til’s revelational epistemology with its demand for an illogical presupposition of God. For Van Til, Bahnsen, and Oliphint alike, God must be presupposed before any fact, even the laws of logic. But, as Sproul’s Classical Apologetics points out, such an idea engages the principle of explosion. How is God made intelligible to us without the laws of logic first being presupposed?
The Purpose of God in Creation
White has also claimed that God’s existence is the sole subject of general revelation (revelation of God through nature). He contends that “all general revelation communicates is the existence of God—but not His purpose.” If White means here that God’s saving purpose is not revealed through general revelation, we’d be happy to grant the claim. But that’s not what he wrote. He seems to be saying God’s purpose is per se not revealed through general revelation.
Yet, if we simply move beyond Romans 1 to Romans 2, we’d see this is prima facie false. Not only does existence itself bear purpose (through final causality, teleology), and not only do the Reformed confessions say that we know God’s wisdom through that which has been made, Romans 2 tells us that the law of God is written on the hearts of Gentiles. Romans 2:14-15 says:
… for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them…
I’m 99% positive White and I would agree on the meaning of this passage. Even the pagans have the law of God revealed in themselves. This is one of the senses in which knowledge of God may be considered innate. But for the Reformers (cf. Turretin), the innate knowledge was still inferred knowledge. We reason to the existence of a law-Maker through the revelation of a natural law.
I once had a seminary professor contend that the Gentiles in this context were believing Gentiles. Such an interpretation would be a stretch since (1) Paul never calls Christians Gentiles in the present tense (Gal. 3:28); (2) the context, starting in Romans 1, are those who are outside of Christ. In the very next passage, starting in v. 17, Paul moves to discuss a second guilty party, the Jews. The point of Romans 2 is to say there is no exception. God does not show partiality (Rom. 2:11). All are guilty in His sight. Romans 1-3 set the reader up for the glories of Romans 4-9. It’s doom and gloom, and then Christ!
While I appreciate Dr. James White’s years of service to the church, I do not think he has been correct in his characterization of the current apologetic landscape. Though I disagree with much of their approach, the lion-share of FTNCI’s argumentation, in terms of apologetic substance, are simply those of Reformed Scholastic antiquity. All people know God, but they know God through inference—by what is made. All knowledge begins at the senses through which it ends up in the intellect. Helpful on this point are the words of Dr. Ed Feser:
The standard Scholastic position, following Aristotle, was that (a) there is a sharp difference between the intellect on the one hand and the senses and imagination on the other, but that nevertheless (b) nothing gets into the intellect except through the senses. To have a concept like triangularity is not the same thing as having any sort of mental image (visual, auditory, or whatever), since concepts have a universality that images lack, possess a determinate or unambiguous content that images cannot have, and so forth. Still, the intellect forms concepts only by abstracting from images, and these have their origin in the senses.
I would love to see more dialogue on this point, especially with White and some other larger influences. This discussion in particular has a lot of far-reaching corollaries which take us all the way into the social justice controversy with its standpoint epistemology; the great divide between the rationalists and the empiricists; pre-modernity v. modernity and post-modernity; realism v. nominalism, etc.
There are questions being asked in this debate with answers that have shaped the very bedrock upon which the contemporary church does much of its thinking, for better or worse. Many of these questions have been given wrong answers for many years, post-Enlightenment. It is crucial we labor to provide the right ones, to the glory of God and for the sake of future generations.
Should women be preachers? The Scriptures answer that question resoundingly. But, before I get into the text, I want to disclose the reason for which I write. It has become popular, yet once again, to neglect the Scriptures in favor of emotional responses and unsupported claims of divine calling. Beth Moore said in a recent tweet:
I did not surrender to a calling of man when I was 18 years old. I surrendered to a calling of God. It never occurs to me for a second to not fulfill it. I will follow Jesus—and Jesus alone—all the way home. And I will see His beautiful face and proclaim, Worthy is the Lamb!
The burden is on Moore to prove she was called by God. No child of God is obligated to listen to someone who can’t ground their “calling” in the Scriptures. How do pastors know they were “called” by God into the office of elder? Is it because they had an experience? Is it because they heard a “still, small voice”? Is it because they feel like it’s right?
It’s because they desire the office of elder; and it’s because they meet the qualifications for it given in 1 Timothy 3. It’s not a passing feeling, it’s not an emotional impulse, it’s an unquenchable desire which is totally informed by—and made subject to—the holy Scriptures.
So, if someone desires to preach or teach, should they do so merely because they want to? Should they do it because they feel like it’s the right thing to do? Why don’t we put the touchy-feelies aside for a moment and ask the question that’s currently not being asked, What does God say?
Here are five biblical reasons why women (insert Beth Moore) shouldn’t preach:
I. The Law Forbids It
Or, at least, that’s what the apostle Paul says.
In 1 Corinthians 14:34, Paul says, “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says (NASB).” Now, admittedly, it’s not clear exactly what portion of the Law Paul refers to, but that’s quite beside the point. An apostle, writing under the inspiration of God the Spirit, says that the Law of God commands women to keep silent in the assemblies. It’s possible he’s cryptically referring to Genesis 3:16, where God says the husband will rule over the wife. The Westminster Reference edition of the KJV also cites Numbers 30 as a possible cross reference. While Paul’s Old Testament interpretive method may not sit well with many, the New Testament clearly grounds this ecclesial practice of female quietness in the Law of God, not in some cultural phenomena.
A possible objection may be that Paul is speaking about the civil laws in Corinth. This would be historically impossible. In a town where the Aphrodite cult was at large, primitive feminism was nothing new. It was normal, in Corinth, for women to usurp the role of men. First Corinthians 11 serves to clarify the Corinthian Christian’s understanding of gender roles within the context of a debauched society where it was no big deal for a woman to “remove her covering [husband]” and act on her own self-perceived authority.
Oddly, there is a push for women in the church to begin doing the exact same thing. Perhaps they align themselves more closely with the Aphrodite cult of first century Corinth than they do biblical Christianity.
II. The New Testament Forbids It
First Corinthians 14, already cited above, demonstrates that women are not to speak within the assembly. Surely this would preclude preaching! Another place where this is clearly seen is 1 Timothy 2:11-15. There, Paul writes to Timothy:
Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.
The word for let at the very beginning of the passage is in the imperative mood which means Paul is issuing a command. Verse 12 is even more enlightening. Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” The word for teach could also be rendered instruct. Is preaching instructing? If not, what is it? Isn’t preaching the instructing of an assembly in the things of God? If it is, then it’s not lawful for women to preach. The word for silence means quietness, and Paul uses it twice in this passage. A woman who obeys God and learns in silence adorns the Gospel and rightly understands Christian worship (Paul’s words, not mine).
III. Preaching Is the Duty of Elders
We have seen that women are not permitted to teach. But, if not women, who? According to 1 Timothy 3:1-7, men who are able to teach—among other things—are rightful candidates for the office of elder. This is one of the clearest linkages of the act of teaching to the office of elder in the Scriptures. Deacons are not required to teach, elders are. Men who desire to be elders must be able to teach. According to the New Testament, elders, or those who would become elders, are the only persons duty-bound to teach. There is no such thing, within the church, of a teaching or preaching ministry apart from eldership. If you write a blog, you’re not doing ministry. You’re writing a blog. If you have a podcast, you’re not doing ministry. You’re hosting a podcast. If you’re pulpit supply, that’s great. But, formally, you’re not doing ministry. Ministry happens within the church according to two offices: elders and deacons. The requirements for elders and, therefore, teachers, are found in 1 Timothy 3.
They must be qualified men.
IV. Caretakers of Souls are Men
In Hebrews 13:17 it is written:
Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.
The word for those is a masculine particle. These rulers are men who, as we know from 1 Timothy, are qualified leaders or elders within the church. These are men who are tasked with shepherding Christ’s flock. These rulers are intimately connected to the care of souls under the ultimate headship of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do preachers preach for the sake of souls? If they do, shouldn’t they be men? Hebrews 13 seems to indicate that they’re men. Elders are men, teachers are men, rulers of Christ’s flock are men. We have no other example. To the contrary, we have commands in Scripture telling us that only men should be preachers and teachers in the church (1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:11-15). This should be clear enough so as to ward off any controversy.
V. Creation Bears Witness
One thing I did not cover in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is Paul’s grounding his words in the created order and the fall: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.” Paul is saying, “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence… [because] Adam was formed first, then Eve.” Adding to that, he uses the fall of man to bolster his point. It wasn’t Adam who was deceived, it was Eve. Satan aimed his attack at the woman because she was the most vulnerable part of the Eden family. Adam’s sin consisted (at least in part) in not loving his wife enough to protect her from such threats and, rather than lovingly correcting his bride, he capitulated to her behavior.
Instead of leading Eve away from disobedience, he followed her into it.
Women should not be teachers precisely because Satan’s crosshairs lie upon them. He will play on their tendency to nurture in order to soften their minds and their hearts, making them evermore vulnerable to corruption. This is no insult to women. But, it is a testimony to the differing roles and responsibilities God has infused into the created order.
Women are not meant to be pastors, and they’re not meant to act like pastors. They have another calling. Beth Moore claims to be called by God; but she couldn’t have been called by the true God of the Scriptures. That God has already spoken, and Moore stands corrected by divine words.
I was reading an excerpt from Craig Carter’s Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition when I noticed him make a rather profound point. If a person was to take two Bible commentaries, one modern and the other ancient, they will notice a vast difference in methodology and even in conclusions drawn from the text. You might think of Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on Romans or John Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians as compared to a more modern commentary like that from the publisher Nelson, the Word Biblical Commentary; your comparison may quickly turn into more of a contrast, as you begin to notice more differences than similarities in both method and content. I once had an enlightened M. Div. friend tell me that he doubted whether or not the Nicene fathers knew what the Greek meant and how it may have been used in the first century. Those ol’ cave men knew nothing! Never mind that their first language was Greek and that the Creed itself was penned by some of the most astute men of the day (proof read by the Emperor himself, no doubt). All jests aside, modern commentaries are usually more critical while pre-modern commentaries are less so.
What I’m trying to get at is that there is a chasm between how we interpret the Bible now and how they interpreted the Bible then. Carter writes:
The irrational bias of the myth of progress can be seen in the tendency to criticize orthodox church fathers for reading Greek metaphysics into the text, while overlooking the influence of Baruch Spinoza’s rationalism and Bruno Bauer’s Hegelianism on their own biblical interpretation. Is this because “Greek” metaphysics is bad, but “German” metaphysics is good? According to the history of hermeneutics as told from an Enlightenment perspective, if it were not for the pagan Enlightenement, Christians would still be reading Greek metaphysics into the Bible like Augustine and making it say whatever they pleased like Origen. Is it not rather bizarre that this narrative asks us to believe that it took the paga Epicureanism of the Enlightenment to rescue us from the “subjectivism” of the Nicene fathers, medieval schoolmen, and Protestant Reformers (96)?
While there is much here to engage, I’d like to draw your attention to what I believe to be the most valuable part of the quotation. The underlying assumption in the divide between today’s interpreters and yesterday’s interpreters, if you will, is that we are more enlightened than them. We have grown past the ridiculous games they used to play before the Enlightenment, or so it’s thought. The other assumption is that the metaphorical or allegorical tendencies so pronounced within the pre-modern interpretive schema were totally false and uncalled for. We’ve traded assumptions the old fathers once held in exchange for a more rigorous, historical-grammatical practice.
The problem here, of course, is that such an over commitment to the montratic plain meaning of the text prevents Scripture from being interpreted on its own terms. Dr. John MacArthur will serve as a prime example. In the first part of his series ‘Why Every Calvinist Should Be a Premillennialist’, he said:
There are over two thousand references to Israel in Scripture; not one of them means anything but Israel. So, if you say the promises of the Old Testament that refer to Israel really meant the church, you have no precedent for such an interpretation. Not one reference anywhere in Scripture – and there are over two thousand, referring to Israel – means anything other than Israel. There are 73 references to Israel in the New Testament; each of them refers to Israel.
Eschatology aside, words like this do a massive disservice to the text of holy Scripture. By “Israel” MacArthur means ethnic Israel and, since that’s the case, his statement is absolutely false. In a paper I wrote on the issue of dispensational hermeneutics, I talk about how the term Israel is used in three different ways in the Old Testament alone. It’s used as a proper name of a person in Genesis 32:38; it’s used to describe God’s Old Testament remnant in Zephaniah 3:13; and it’s used to speak of the nation of Israel in places like Nehemiah 13:26 and numerous others. But, because MacArthur is so committed to the so called plain meaning of the text, he finds it hard to let the Bible speak for itself. The plain meaning must always be one. Israel means Israel. What’s not disclosed, at least in this case, is that the pious sounding verbiage, “plain meaning of the text,” actually means, “imposition of preconceived assumptions upon the text.” Moreover, another nagging assumption of the new way is that allegory is completely opposed to literal meaning. For almost 1800 years of church history this was largely unheard of. Method and meaning are two different things which are often confused by the critical crowd. For example, what happens when Scripture communicates literal meaning by way of allegory or metonomy? Think of Galatians 4 and Paul’s allegorizing of Sarah and Hagar. What about the heavenly and, therefore, spiritual Jerusalem in Hebrews 12:22? Is that not a literal thing simply because it’s spiritual? The post-modern hermeneutic isn’t built from the Scriptures, it’s built by humanistic rationalism and then imposed upon the text. What’s literal can never be spiritual—a perfect fall into the naturalists snare!
I remember having professors throughout Bible college who would actively discourage students from interpreting passages of Scripture using other passages of Scripture. Instead, we were to read the passage and determine its meaning by looking solely at the original languages and the historical context—the intent of the human author and the understanding of said author’s human audience. Then, as a footnote, we were to do this prayerfully and seek the Spirit’s guidance. All of these things, in themselves are good, but they do not themselves stand on their own. They are not and cannot be the end all to the interpretive agenda. In pre-modern times, the Spirit’s guidance was not some mystical interaction between the Spirit and the reader of the text. It was the Spirit as He spoke through the written Word. So, the Spirit’s guidance would come by means of the biblical text itself. Scripture interprets Scripture. Scripture tells us what Scripture means. Unquestionably so, this principle has been lost in post-modern times.
The Enlightenment had within it presuppositions which, if followed consistently, would bar its disciples from presupposing the spiritual character of the Scriptures. Any spiritual conclusion, including inspiration, divine authority, biblical sufficiency, if any of those things exist at all, must be concluded from the text rather than assumed within the interpretational exercise. If this is the case, it therefore makes sense that the Bible could not and should not be interpreted on its own terms. It must be interpreted on naturalistic terms and then, just maybe, we’ll squeeze some divinity out of it. Because of this, things like inspiration and sufficiency have come into question. Neither of the two were hardly up for debate prior to the modern era.
Admittedly, sufficiency came into question with the Protestant Reformation and Rome’s insistence upon the authority of ecclesial tradition. But, even that debate occurred for different reasons, having more to do with the question of how God reveals Himself and His truth to us. Inspiration was questioned throughout the twentieth century because of naturalistic tendencies found within the church more so than without. The current debate over social justice calls into question the doctrine of sufficiency on the basis of a naturalistic understanding of man and even justice, referring to critical race theory and intersectionality as useful tools. If our hermeneutics can be and has been aided by critical theory, why not our anthropology and missiology?
This is a huge discussion and can’t be comprehended in a single blog post. My hope is that this tiny, insignificant piece of literature would be a starting point. Perhaps it will get you thinking about this issue more, and even send you on a journey of your own to recover the goodness of the past in opposition to the wickedness of the present. We live in confusing times. It is my hope that the recovery of our doctrine of Scripture and a sound hermeneutical methodology will, by God’s grace, set us upon a path to victory.
— J. S.