Monday, June 11, 2012

The Debater's Potter - Part 1 - Introduction

Update: At the bottom of this article there is a list of links to each of the following parts of this series. 

I've been reading the Kindle version of Dr. James R. White's The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free.

The title itself is a mouthful, and makes some serious claims about the content of the book. My very dear friend, and Brother in the Lord, Fred of the Building on the Solid Rock blog is currently reading Dr. Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free; at my request. I'm reading The Potter's Freedom at his urging.

If there is one thing that Dr. White has taught me within the first few pages of his ambitious work is that even I can be offended by how someone I esteem is treated. Therefore, while I am going to state right now, right up front, that I expect I will disagree with almost everything the man writes in the book. I find his starting tone, and chosen plan for his argument to be so far off the mark as to be offensive. I am offended. I want you the reader to know this, because I probably won't be overly generous to the man. However, I do not intend to be mean spirited towards him, or hostile. I've been deeply disturbed by the things that I've read in this book about Dr. Geisler; both those things written by White and by his endorsers.

This series of articles is not intended to be a rebuttal. 

These articles will be my thoughts as I go. Most of the people who read OMW would agree that I do my level best to keep an open mind and let arguments be made. As I have written here many times before, should Dr. White convince me I will openly say so. With the exception of the revised edition of Chosen But Free, I have not ever read any response to White's work.  I can't even remember what Geisler said about The Potter's Freedom in his work. So these articles will be my thoughts alone.

White criticizes Geisler for not using extended quotations in his book. So I will be using long, and many quotations from White's book.

So here we go! 

The Title: The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free

Whoah... really? "A Defense of the Reformation" that's a big claim. Nay! That is a monstrous claim! What's more, Dr. White seems to agree with me and backs off from the title of the book in his Foreword stating:
"This is not meant to be a presentation of the Reformed view so ably accomplished by others: my positive presentation will be limited to establishing facts that are not in evidence from a reading of CBF."
I truly am struggling with what to address first. As I've been reading I've found I want to comment on almost every paragraph in the book.  White will argue almost immediately that the key issue of the Reformation was the deterministic sovereignty of God. In chapter 1 White quotes Martin Luther's words to Erasmus, and then interprets them in this way.

"What, then, is the "grand turning point of the cause," the "essential issue," the "grand hing upon which the whole turned," and "the vital part"? The truth of predestination (God's freedom) and man's depravity (his will in bondage)! Here at the very inception of the Reformation the definitional issue is laid out: God is the absolutely free Creator, the Potter, who has complete sovereignty over the pots, humans, who, as fallen creatures, find their wills enslaved to sin, in bondage and unable to "cooperate" with any offered grace." 
When I read this I was most intrigued. I had never heard before that the key issue of the Reformation was the sovereignty of God. Have you?

OK now that you've read how White interpreted Luther's words, I'll give you the modern English version (as supplied by White) of what Luther said:
Moreover, I give you hearty praise and commendation on this further account--that you alone, in contrast to all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like--trifles, rather than issues--in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you, and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.
So it seems that Luther is talking about something more fundamental than Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such... but what is he talking about? White does not quote Luther telling us. Instead of quoting Luther, White tells us what Luther must have meant.  Perhaps White is correct and determinism is what Luther was referring too. However, how can we know by reading White's work? We have to take his word for it.

The quote is from Luther's "Bondage of the Will" written in response to Erasmus' Diatribe in which he argues that mankind's will is in bondage to sin, but our volition - our freedom to choose - is intact. While the subject is similar, I do not believe that Luther was arguing what White says he was. I think Luther had a similar view, but not the same. Further, while Luther was definitely used of God; Luther's words are not Scripture. We are no bound to them, or by them. They are not authoritative and much less so are interpretations of his words.  Over and over again, White and his endorsers accuse Geisler of not using exegesis of the Scriptures to their satisfaction. Yet, White's main issue is what White said Luther wrote about the Reformation.

Dr. White seemingly has a slightly differing view of the writings of men however. In a foreword he wrotes:
"There are many tremendous works in print defining and defending the great biblical faith of the Reformation. God has been most gracious in raising up men like Calvin, Edwards, Turrentin, Warfield, Palmer, Sproul, and Piper who have been gifted to communicate His truth to their generations in a unique fashion. These works really need no defense, for any person reading them can see their internal consistency and depth of exegetical insight. These are profoundly biblical works written by men who are deeply committed to the authority of the Scriptures as the Word of God." 
I've bolded what White emphasized in cursive in his work. I don't think I could bring myself to write anything close to that with regard to any writing by man except that which God has revealed to us is Scripture. His praise of these men and their writing sounds much to much like 2Pet 1:19-21 for my comfort.

*UPDATE* I received a call from a Brother tonight with concern that this part of the article seems to indicate that I think White would hold the writings of these men as having the same authority as Scripture. I appreciate the concern being brought to my attention, however, that is not at all my intent. Dr. White holds a slightly different view than I do, he holds the writing of these particular men, with much more esteem than I could muster for any (non Spirit breathed) writing by any man.  As I have read through more of The Potter's Freedom I have found that White seems to hold the historical Reformed doctrines very dearly. Much of his arguments against Geisler are with respect to such. In his preface, Phillip Johnson calls this practice of White's using "his solid grasp of historical theology to make the truth unmistakably clear." I would personally hold that "historical theology" is most polluted with the doctrines of man. As Paul wrote near the end of his life that all in Asia had departed from his theology 2Tim 1:13-15 Not only that but seemingly all maner of doctrinal error can be found in the writings of the "Church Fathers" from the basis for Roman Catholicism to Infant Baptism and so on.... there are of course good and bad writings by men which have been written throughout Church history. That they are historical, or even that they were strongly held by many people - as Roman Catholicism was (and even still is) does not indicate it is Biblical. All I am saying in the above is that White values the writings of these particular men much more highly than I would value any writings by men.  My reading of his words reminds me of Peter's words about Scripture. To me, his praise is much too close. That doesn't mean I think White considers the writings the same as Scripture.

The title of the book says that White will be giving a defense of the Reformation, and seems to imply that Geisler's work offends the Reformation in some way. How so? Well if you define the reformation as being about Determinism then well I guess that would be true. However, websites such as GotQuestions?.org think the Reformation was about these 4 things:
Underlying the Protestant Reformation lay four basic doctrines in which the reformers believed the Roman Catholic Church to be in error. These four questions or doctrines are How is a person saved? Where does religious authority lie? What is the church? And what is the essence of Christian living?
Now I'm sure that Luther saw these as issues built on what he thought was the main issue. In fact the 5 Sola's are the Reformer's proposed solution to the problems, and they do agree in some ways White's position - though they do not require Determinism.  At the end of this article I'm going to ask you the reader to consider a question. This question ought to lead you to the difference between what Luther was arguing and what White is arguing.

That was the first argument of any substance that I noted in the work. However, let's back up to the beginning. I am not going to quote everything that stood out to me in the endorsements and introductions, but here are some things which reveal the tone. This is the tone that sets the stage for the book.  I've noted often that Calvinism's #1 claim has nothing to do with God. Their biggest concern, and most often made claim is that (one's particular brand of) Calvinism is misrepresented or misunderstood. The very first page after the cover has this:

Praise for The Potter's Freedom... 

"For someone of Dr. Geisler's stature to go into print with his misunderstandings was simply inexplicable. The easy thing would have been to simply let the whole thing go in an embarrassed silence,...." ~ Douglas Wilson, Pastor, Editor of Credenda Agenda Magazine

"The Potter's Freedom is a more than adequate response to the misleading and erroneous book, Chosen But Free... This book should be widely disseminated and read as it will clarify much that is often misunderstood about Calvinism." ~ Jay Adams, Ph.D., Westminister Seminary, Escondido, California

"Dr. James R. White dissects Geisler's arguments and reveals them to be based on convoluted thinking, inconsistencies, and misinterpretations of Scripture." ~ Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer, Senior Pastor, Moody Church, Chicago

"The Potter's Freedom, is the much-needed antidote to his (Geisler's) flawed (and failed) attempt, in typical Thomistic fashion, to synthesize what cannot be synthesized." ~ Robert REymond, Ph. D., Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, Author of A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith

"First, Geisler's book is one of demagoguery, propaganda, and an embarrassing lack of accurate scholarship, while White's book is one of careful and scholarly exegesis of the Bible, coupled with a convincing exposition and defense of the Reformation Faith (i.e. the Biblical Faith) from misrepresentation and caricature." ~ Dr. Joseph C. Morecraft, III; Author, Pastor of Chalcedon Presbyterian Church, Cumming, GA; Publisher of The Counsel of Chalcedon

"...themes that Geisler has abused, maltreated and generally misunderstood..." ~ S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., AB, ThM, ThD, Former Prof. of New Testament & Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary; Former Prof. of Bible & Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

With that tone set we get to the title and copyright pages in the book. We are then treated to a dedication and few acknowledgements. After that we have the Table of Contents and then a Preface written by Phillip R. Johnson Executive Director of John MacArthur's Grace to You ministry and Elder of Grace Community Church, Sun Vally, CA

In his second paragraph Johnson hits the "misrepresentation" button right on cue.
"Dr. Geisler manages to misrepresent his friends and foes alike." He goes on to state: "The fact is, if Dr. Geisler were not a teacher of such stature, there would be no reason at all to pay any attention to his book. It is a bad book by any measure."  
In a later paragraph he states:
"Dr. White meticulously unravels the near-hopeless tangle Geisler has made of these doctrines, skillfully employing both Scripture and his solid grasp of historical theology to make the truth unmistakably clear." 
He finishes with:
"Dr. White has produced on of the finest explanations of the doctrines of grace and the sovereignty of God that has seen publication in recent years." 
The Potter's Freedom starts with a lot of praise for Dr. White, and some seriously strong words and accusations against Dr. Geisler.  I had intended on getting farther into the book in this article but there is just so much to react to.

Here's the question I promised I would ask.

If; God's sovereignty is defined as White defines it under the title of "The Decrees of the King" being as:
"The conjunction of God's absolute freedom and His Creatorship results in the doctrine of God's decrees: the soul-comforting truth that God has wisely and perfectly decreed whatsoever comes to pass in this universe.".... "every aspect of human history, to the life of every man, woman, and child"...."God's freedom extends to the actions of men, even to their choices," 
Then; how can man's will be in bondage to Sin? As is said over and over by White.

Is Sin more powerful than God? If God's sovereignty is such that our every choice is chosen by God, then Man's will - whether sinful or righteous - is in complete bondage to God.

Is this what Luther argued? I think not. Here's an interesting quote from Luther.

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.Letter 99, Paragraph 13. Erika Bullmann Flores, Tr. from:Dr. Martin Luther's Saemmtliche SchriftenDr. Johann Georg Walch Ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), Vol. 15, cols. 2585-2590.
Well until next time, I trust that the Lord will lead and teach you.

Series Table of Contents (will be updated periodically)

Part 1 - Introduction (This current page)
Part 2 (Covers the first part of the book's introduction)

Part 3 (Continued coverage of the book's introduction)
Part 4 Chapter 1 - Definition of the Reformation
Part 5 Chapter 2 - Determination
Part 6 Chapter 3 - Inabilities of Man
Part 7 A Brief View of Chosen But Free (The first two chapters)
Part 8 The First 1/2 - 3/4 of Chapter 4 - The Will of Man
Part 9 The rest of Chapter 4 - Can Man Believe?

Part 10 Chapter 5 - Unconditional Election a Necessity
Part 11 Chapter 6 - John 6 verse by verse
Part 12 Chapter 7 - John 6 the Lord's teaching
Part 13 Chapter 8 - Unconditional Election
Part 14 Chapter 9 -  Romans 9
Part 15 Chapter 10 - Limited Atonement 

Part 16 Chapter 11 - Universal Atonement'
Part 17 Chapter 12a - Defining Irresistible Grace and Pre-Faith Regeneration
Part 18 Chapter 12b - Saving Faith the Gift of God
Part 19 Chapter 13 - Pre-Faith Regeneration, Omnibenevolence, Is Faith a Gift?
Part 20 Chapter 14 and Appendices - God's Relationship to Sin, Concerns About Calvinism,
Part 21 Conclusion - Highlights of the Series. Is TFP a good book? Should this series be a book? 


Kevl said...

It was also suggested that I don't have an open mind. My mind was much more open before I read the first bit of the book.

Unfortunately the tone of the beginning of the book is what it is, and I have reacted negatively too that tone. If White gets to the promised exegetical arguments then I suspect I will find the book much less offensive.

These articles are not intended to offend. I actually am surprised at how offended I've been at White's treatment of Geisler. I didn't expect to be offended, and actually didn't really think it was possible.

I don't know how generous I'll be to White, but I don't intend to offend those who esteem him. I won't be hostile to him either.


Jan said...


I'm glad you are tackling this book. I have it on my shelf and have read at least the first two chapters or so (quite some time ago so I don't recall what he said). I'm not sure if I ever finished it. I remember being constantly exasperated so I probably gave up. Having learned quite a bit since then were I to read it again I expect I would have both deeper understanding of what he's saying and how he's delivering his point, and deeper exasperation and irritation.

I also have Geisler's first edition of Chosen But Free. I did finish that one. I remember from that saying a whole lot of, "huh?" so there may be some merit to critiquing him. However, implying he overthrew the Reformation is a bit much. I also have his revised version. I started to read that and it seemed good. I need to get back to it one of these days if ever other things stop popping up. :/


Oh wait. I don't have Geisler's original version anymore. I gave it to a friend who wanted it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kev,

Your article is very interesting and I am looking forward to reading your entire series on the topic.

I have a lot of respect for the reformers such as Luther and Calvin but I think that we tend to forget that they were men of their time and were prone to over reacting to situations just like we are. It has been my observation that the reformers reacted so strongly to Roman Catholic teaching of their day that they went beyond biblical warrant and taught not only that we cannot buy our salvation (which is true) but we cannot even accept the offer of salvation of our own free will (which is not true). They made faith the gift of God and not salvation. Two wrongs do not make a right.

It bothers me that every time someone disagrees with five point Calvinism that we are accused of not understanding what they are talking about. I admit that I may not understand every fine point of their theology but am I really so dense that I cannot understand the larger issues here? I have come to believe that the charge of "ignorance" is a way of not having to engage their opponents in honest debate.

Thank you for the article!


Kevl said...

Hi Glenn!

I had wanted to take a closer look at the doctrine of Unconditional Election. It seems to me that I've opened the jar now and whatever is in there is going to come out.

It is very hard to maintain respect and disagreement isn't it?

I think small misunderstandings, and different ways of wording things can be used exactly as you say. They can be used in a claim of lack of understanding, when they really are very minor. Very often however, the demand is that everything be worded exactly as the Calvinist does, and it be admitted that these things are true. If you don't do both of those things then you obviously don't understand Calvinism. As you bring up, I'm not sure how healthy, honest, iron sharpening iron, debate and discussion is supposed to happen in that case....

I'll be interested to see where this goes from here. I have read far enough already for one or two more articles. I'm hoping his work will soon get into exegetical arguments.


Kevl said...

Hi Jan,

For some reason your post didn't come to my email. It was buried in the comments awaiting moderation with a bunch of spam.

I'm having the same experience with TPF as you expressed.

Chosen But Free is good, but it's not a huge exegetical work. The core argument is very good - IMO - but it is not the kind of work that would convince a Calvinist. Of course I'm not overly sure what kind of work would...


JamesBlog said...

I was wondering if I could save this series to my hard drive?

Kevl said...

Hi James,

Yes of course!

I do intend on making it less confrontational and publishing it as a book at some point but it is here to help everyone so if you are helped by saving it please do.

Thanks for asking,