Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Refutation of James White: Moses' Seat, the Bible, and Tradition, Part IV

[White's words will be in blue; my former words in green]

Previous links:


The eight parts of my reply are in response to the eight parts of White's critique: the part numbers correspond. Hence, I am now replying to White's Part IV.


I would like to expand, momentarily, on a thought with which I closed the last installment in this series. Mr. Armstrong is right to say that the text does not provide us with a direct listing of what the Pharisees did or did not teach when speaking in the synagogue. That can only be determined on the basis of other texts, if at all . . .

Good. But it's not like we are historically ignorant; as if no source outside of the Bible can help us learn what they taught (or the subsequent history of Judaism).

(and I believe such texts as Matthew 15 do tell us a good bit about that).

We learn some things, but not nearly enough for White's sweepingly negative, unqualified rejection of both the Pharisees and also of tradition outside the bounds of what sola Scriptura permits.

But is it truly a "gratuitous" assumption on my part, based upon sola scriptura to believe that there is no warrant here for believing that the text is relevant to an establishment of some second source of divine authority in the views of the Lord Jesus?

Yes. It's presuppositional-type apologetics, which is not particularly compelling for anyone who does not already accept it on faith. See my critique of that form of apologetics.

I firmly believe so, and once again the grounds for this is not a gratuitous assumption, but that wonderful thing called context. As I pointed out originally, these words are the introduction to a lengthy pronouncement of woe and judgment upon the scribes and Pharisees.

I dealt with the context of Matthew 23 and the Pharisees in general and their theological relationship to early Christianity in the last installment. White's fallacy is that He sees Jesus rebuking them for hypocrisy and corruption, and incorrectly, illogically concludes that He therefore must deny that they have any authority at all. This has been the usual historic Protestant response (especially among those, who -- like Baptists and even Lutherans -- want to drive a big, unbiblical wedge between Law and Grace, as if they are literally antithetical). The Moses' seat issue (as well as continued Christian observance of sacrifices and matters of the Law in one form or another) precisely shows that they still do have authority. This can be fully harmonized with Matthew 23 and the scathing denunciations, rightly-understood. No problem there . . .

But White has a huge problem squaring this other data with the notion that Jesus was absolutely rejecting both the Pharisees and Tradition outside the Bible (however one defines "Bible" at that early stage of canonization). I give more biblical evidences for my position in my book, which I will cite as necessary, in due course. White may or may not respond to those, with either a real rational reply, or just more boilerplate and standard, ultimately ineffective sola Scriptura rhetoric, which doesn't truly take into account the nature or strength of objections. I'm answering as I read his eight-part critique, so I don't know what he does later on in the series. I strongly suspect that he will try to avoid and evade many relevant issues, because that has always been my experience with him in the past. So I will state my predictions on that now, and the reader can see -- with me -- whether it comes true or not.

As we will see, Armstrong is forced, in his attempt to force Matthew 23 into his theological mold, to speak of how indebted the early Christians were to the Pharisees, and to in essence speak positively about them.

I don't have to force it into any "mold"; I simply have to highlight, document, and follow the facts: from the Bible and history. I don't need to force those facts into anything that they aren't. White is the one who must do that, because the facts in this instance go against his "pet theory." Therefore, he is the one forced (by necessity of his unproven presuppositions) to minimize any positive historical fact concerning the Pharisees, or any of their contributions to early Christian theology. He can certainly try to do this, but he won't succeed, because the historical evidences are too compelling.

And while one may well say positive things about Pharisees in various contexts (I would argue the issue of their traditions would not be one of those contexts),

Again, he can try to argue and believe this way, but it won't succeed, because there were plenty of these traditions that the early Christians adopted wholesale. It's impossible to make a blanket condemnation of all their traditions. Jesus didn't do that, so neither should Mr. White.

. . . this passage in Matthew 23 is singularly contradictory to such a discussion.

Not in the slightest, as already shown in my last reply. This is very simple logic, but White commits a rather elementary (but momentous in its results) fallacy, which is common when one is trying to defend a position in the teeth of contrary facts; the facts and logic are the first thing to go.

The fact of the matter is that Armstrong's comments do not flow from the text at all. His position does not start with a recognition of the context of the text being examined. Instead, he clearly proceeds from the position demanded of him by Rome.

Sheer nonsense. Anyone can see that I have incorporated the context into my analysis, and it has not been a happy result for White's position. White is far more forced by his sola Scriptura position to interpret the passage in a particular (eisegetical) way, than I am forced by "Rome." It so happens that nothing here contradicts Catholic teaching about tradition. Plenty, however, contradicts Protestant false, unbiblical tradition of sola Scriptura.

The fact that these words must be heard in a condemnatory, not congratulatory, context, must be kept in mind. And when we do this, we see that the fact that these men sat in positions of leadership within the people of God only increases their guilt. This theme will build to a crescendo in the following verses.

This doesn't undermine the fact that Jesus told His followers to "practice and observe whatever they tell you" (thus, they have authority), "but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice" (authority does not preclude hypocrisy and bad example; and the latter do not forbid
continuing authority) -- Matthew 23:1-3.

Armstrong continues:

Secondly, White's assumption that Jesus is referring literally to Pharisees sitting on a seat in the synagogue and reading (the Old Testament only) -- and that alone -- is more forced and woodenly literalistic than the far more plausible interpretation that this was simply a term denoting received authority.

(p. 47)

Of course, my whole point (and this is clear when the sections DA did not include are read with the citation) is that Jesus is addressing synagogue worship and the position the Pharisees have taken in that worship. The disciples (and the crowds, v. 2) would know to what He referred by the mere reference to Moses' seat, and to the primary functions in synagogue worship of that seat. It was a position of honor to read from the Word of God, and Jesus' admonition is to do what they tell you in that context, but not to do what they practice.

If by this, White means more than a literal sitting in the seat, then good. His phrase, "sitting on Moses' seat" suggested to me a literal chair, and folks sitting in it. I stand corrected if I misread him. Hypocrisy is still being referred to, and that is a different issue from authority.

If Armstrong wishes to expand Moses' seat beyond the role it had in the synagogue and include within it some kind of "received authority" including the ability to bind men to extra-scriptural traditional teachings (which is, after all, what Armstrong is driving at), . . .

The Pharisees did indeed believe in "extra-scriptural traditional teachings." This is the whole point. There was plenty of "tradition in that tradition," both written and oral. Thus, if these Pharisees still possessed authority, according to our Lord Jesus, then that would obviously include oral tradition as well, because that's what they believed in their system. They weren't bound to arbitrary, man-made rules of faith such as sola Scriptura. But we mustn't have that! We must pretend that this authority extended only to a sola Scriptura-like, Bible-Only mentality, completely overlooking the role of tradition (particularly oral) in mainstream Pharisaical thought.

They had authority, and we know the nature of this authority. It's a simple historical question, easily-answered. But if one doesn't like the implications of the answer, then one starts minimizing, ignoring, dismissing things that go against one's pet hypothesis (as White is -- quite openly -- doing presently). And this type of dynamic and "canned response" was exactly what my book dealt with: the processes of rationalization and evasion that occur when faced with "anomalous" biblical and historical facts. White is a classic, almost quintessential case of this process-in-progress. That's why I cited him regarding Moses' Seat. His current responses merely confirm what we already knew about the incoherent and forced nature of his position. For that, I heartily thank him: for being such a picture-perfect textbook example of the very thing my book was devoted to examining.

. . . some explanation must be offered for why Jesus specifically limits their authority as He does.

I see no specific limits. Where are they? White thinks he sees some. Let's see what he can come up with:

He tells His disciples and the crowds not to do what they do. Well, what do they do? The rest of Matthew 23 tells us. In essence, they were hypocrites (v. 28).

Exactly, just like many Christians today are. For example, there are some Christians who are such hypocrites and rigid legalists that they can't even recognize certain entire classes of other Christians, or acknowledge any good thing that other Christians (whom they define as non-Christians and in "darkness" on no legitimate grounds whatsoever) do -- even when they would totally agree with that particular thing! So the worst aspects of the corruptions of the Pharisees definitely live on today, in the equally-unworthy traditions of certain backward, muddleheaded, irrationally and uncharitably judgmental, theologically-obtuse sectors of Christianity.

And what was one of the main ways they demonstrated their hypocrisy? Matthew 15:1-8 tells us: the binding of extra-biblical traditions upon men's backs in contradiction to the Word of God.

This was one particular corruption of a tradition, that was unbiblical, or contrary to the Bible. That doesn't prove that no legitimate tradition whatever exists: one that is not technically included in the letter of the Bible, yet in harmony with it. White would love the text to prove all that, but it clearly does not, so all he can do is engage in wishful thinking, and greatly exaggerate the implications of the text: basically read into it what he wants to see (which is both eisegesis and fallacious circular reasoning). The text itself cannot at all hold all the weight which White is attaching to it. And other clear biblical texts (many of which I've already noted) contradict White's interpretation of this one.

So, if Jesus told His disciples and the crowds that they should not "do according to their deeds," is He not telling them that they must examine those deeds by some standard and judge them to be wanting?

Yes. If one particular tradition of theirs contradicts the Bible, then it is a false tradition, and people ought not to be bound to it. That is, if they commit the hypocrisy of not making sure their actions are in harmony with the Law, rightly-understood in the light of the Bible, then they should not be imitated in that respect. We have no disagreement insofar as that goes.

And what is that standard? The answer is clear.

It sure is: the Bible and received, correct tradition, which is consistent with that Bible.

That is why I said Jesus was not telling the crowds to quit the synagogue or begin a revolution by throwing the Pharisees out, but He was freeing them from the ungodly control the Pharisees had over the "am ha'aretz," the "people of the land," who were told by the Pharisees that unless they acted and lived like them, they would never have the grace of God.

We mustn't imitate sinners. I couldn't agree more.

No, Jesus says, for they are hypocrites, and He is about to pronounce an entire series of woes upon them.

Indeed; yet he doesn't take away their authority. As that is the subject at hand (is there an authority not technically, strictly confined to the words of the Bible?) , most of the above argumentation of Mr. White is a non sequitur, and much ado about nothing, accomplishing nothing. As we (hopefully) get into more specifics and substantiation for each of our views, that will become all the more clear. But you must give White credit for trying so hard to support a position which is so impossible to uphold, based on the biblical record. You know: give him an E for effort . . . it's very tough to "prove" something that is untrue. It takes a lot more work, and is incomparably more frustrating. I'm having a wonderful time, though, because truth is a joy to discover and present (as well as much easier), and I can simply follow the biblical and historical evidence where it leads. Praise God!

END OF PART IV

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