Thursday, May 12, 2005

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

[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 replying to White's Part VI.

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Dave Armstrong "shows his cards" so to speak, and in so doing reveals the true motivation behind his use of Matthew 23, in these words:

Thirdly, because they had the authority and no indication is given that Jesus thought they had it only when simply reading Scripture, it would follow that Christians were, therefore, bound to elements of Pharisaical teaching that were not only nonscriptural, but based on oral tradition, for this is what the Pharisees believed. (p. 49)

What "cards" or "true motivation"? Interest in historical truth and in presenting the beliefs of others accurately? I happily plead guilty to those accusations. Whatever "motivation" I had was already plainly presented in the subtitle in this chapter: Oral and Extrabiblical Tradition in the New Testament. So why would White or anyone else think I am "revealing" anything at this "late stage" of the chapter? I was simply stating a rather obvious fact (based on what we know about the Pharisees' belief system). Because that fact disagrees with White's preconceived notions of what is "supposed" to be New Testament teaching, he has to either deny it or melodramatically pretend that my straightforward acknowledgment of it is itself an inaccurate presentation. It's fascinating to observe.

Here we see the full impact of Armstrong's reading, and, I believe, misreading of the entire opening to Matthew 23. The full power of sola ecclesia is here seen, . . .

As stated before, the Catholic position is not sola ecclesia . . .

. . . for when you can turn the opening phrases of condemnation of the Pharisees for their hypocrisy into a binding of believers to Pharisaical traditions that are explicitly condemned therein, you are obviously operating with a very, very strong external authority.

This is, of course, an absurd characterization of my position, as if I am contending that Jesus condemned some traditions out of one side of His mouth, and bound believers to the same traditions out of the other side. This is a very clever tactic, but it doesn't hold up well when exposed. My true position is that some Pharisaical traditions were corrupt (therefore, Jesus condemned them), but when they taught traditions which were perfectly consistent with the Bible, then folks were bound to those. It could be that White is unaware of the Hebrew idiom, whereby "everything" does not mean "absolutely everything without a single exception, ever." Christians were not bound to teachings or commands which were against God or the Bible. But most of Pharisaical teaching was good, since Jesus and Paul followed it themselves, for the most part (as I showed in Part V). As a fundamentalist might say: "if it's good enough for Paul, it's good enough for me!" "Gimme that old time tradition, gimme that old time tradition . . . "

But before we go further, let's document the two lengthy citations from Protestant sources, that White chose to omit from his reply (remember, how in the beginning, he complained about my less-than-total citation of his argument), because doing so would work against his plan to portray my argumentation as strictly "Catholic" and based on that "external authority," rather than biblically based and historically grounded, as confirmed by Protestant sources (which he can't accuse of being biased in favor of the Catholic position and therefore, readily dismissible, because Catholicism is the "Beast," "Whore of Babylon," etc.). Here they are, from pages 49-50:

. . . the Torah was not merely ‘law’ but also ‘instruction’, i.e., it consisted not merely of fixed commandments but was adaptable to changing conditions . . . This adaptation or inference was the task of those who had made a special study of the Torah, and a majority decision was binding on all . . .

The commandments were further applied by analogy to situations not directly covered by the Torah. All these developments together with thirty-one customs of ‘immemorial usage’ formed the ‘oral law’ . . . the full development of which is later than the New Testament. Being convinced that they had the right interpretation of the Torah, they claimed that these ‘traditions of the elders’ (Mk 7:3) came from Moses on Sinai.

(J.D. Douglas, editor, The New Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1962, 981-982)

Likewise, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes in its article on the Pharisees:

Unlike the Sadducees, who tried to apply Mosaic Law precisely as it was given, the Pharisees allowed some interpretation of it to make it more applicable to different situations, and they regarded these oral interpretations as of the same level of importance as the Law itself.

(Cross, F.L. and E.A. Livingstone, editors, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1983, 1077)

This is the central assertion, in my opinion, and hence will be the primary focus of my response (which, to the shock of some, I will, eventually, get to).

I am shocked that White responded at all. I'll be even more shocked if he actually tries to interact with my present reasoning, and either retract his opinions where necessary or fully defend them against the present scrutiny.

Next, Armstrong makes the interesting observation that the Pharisees did indeed have their "traditions" that were extra-biblical,

Correct. Now this is either historically-verifiable or it is not. I have provided the documentation, especially in my last reply. This discussion needs to proceed on the grounds of verifiable historical fact, not presuppositionalism or wishful thinking. Also, I should reiterate that "extra-biblical" is not the same thing as "non-biblical" or "unbiblical" or "contrary to the Bible" or "a contradiction against the Bible." It simply means "traditions which are not included in the letter of the Bible, but which are in perfect harmony with the Bible." But a certain kind of Protestant (of which White is one) hears "extra-biblical" and they immediately equate that with "fallible [rather than infallible] traditions of men [rather than of God] which are obviously contrary to Scripture and not allowed by Scripture." Ironically, this is contrary to Scripture, not the notion of tradition per se. But White labors under these false premises, and that weighs down the discussion and prevents it from ever becoming constructive, for those who think as he does.

. . . and since he is seeking to present as positive a picture of the Pharisees as possible, . . .

So was St. Paul, obviously, since, after all, he called himself a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). That's pretty "positive," I would submit. That said, I am "seeking" historical truth, not trying to pull off a silly ploy of selectively presenting facts which back me up and oppose what I oppose. We see that White is the one who wants (from all appearances) to avoid certain uncomfortable biblical and historical facts. Thus, he passed over the two extremely relevant citations from Protestant sources, which I happily provided for readers, a little bit above.

Those who have a weak case in the first place almost invariably pick and choose things from their opponents' arguments, leaving out particularly damaging bits of evidence and argumentation. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book. But I'm not interested in "debater's tricks." I'm interested in the truth. Period. I don't deny that Mr. White has the same motivation; I just think that he has "debated" for so long that he uses cute little tricks that many might not notice. They come as easily and naturally to him as breathing or a heartbeat, and need not be conscious at all that he is engaging in these methods. I notice them, because I've been around the block a few times, debate-wise, too, and I don't pick-and-choose when I reply. There is a right way and a wrong way to debate. The wrong way is called sophistry.

. . . he identifies the Sadducees as the "Jewish sola Scripturists and liberals of the time," an odd combination when one thinks about it.

This is no more odd than "Protestants and sola Scripturists." Neither position is a biblically-based one. Nor is it "odd" in light of the fact that it was Protestantism and its Bible Only rule of faith that produced (in terms of cultural milieu) what we know and love as moden liberal theology (and many of the larger modern cults and heresies, such as Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Christian Science). The ancient Arians, for example (who thought Jesus was created, and were similar to Jehovah's Witnesses) believed in Scripture Alone, whereas the orthodox trinitarian Church believed in apostolic succession, tradition, and Church authority. It has always been those who accept a larger tradition, beyond, but in harmony with Holy Scripture, who preserve orthodoxy. Thus, Pharisees, preserved the ancient Jewish theological tradition which was developed into Christianity. Sadducees and their Bible-Only position, were rapidly rejecting several tenets which Christianity accepted, as noted previously.

In support of what he realizes is, in fact, his central assertion (the third point just noted), . . .

I didn't "realize" anything. I consistently and openly developed my arguments from the beginning of the larger chapter on "Bible and Tradition."

Armstrong seeks to establish more positive connections to Pharisaism (in reference to a passage that begins the longest denunciation of them in all of Scripture--don't let that irony pass) by asserting that "it was precisely the extrabiblical (especially apocalyptic) elements of Pharisaical Judaism that New Testament Christianity adopted and developed for its own---doctrines such as resurrection, the soul, the afterlife, eternal reward or damnation, and angelology and demonology (all of which the Sadducees rejected)."

Exactly. Now, the interesting thing would be to see what White thinks of that, since he believes that Jesus' view of the Pharisees was either totally or overwhelmingly condemnatory. But (not surprisingly at all), White doesn't tell us. In the meantime, he opted to pass over the second half of this paragraph. Here it is:

The Old Testament had relatively little to say about these things, and what it did assert was in a primitive, kernel form. But the postbiblical literature of the Jews (led by the mainstream Pharisaical tradition) had plenty to say about them. Therefore, this was another instance of Christianity utilizing nonbiblical literature and traditions in its own doctrinal development.

(p. 50)

Immediately the reader is probably surprised to discover that Christian beliefs in these areas are actually found in the traditions of the Pharisees (it is hard to refrain from refuting this directly from the previous chapter, but I shall do so for the moment) rather than from the Scriptures themselves, . . .

This is a classic, blatant, example of one of White's many false, irrational dichotomies. Let me rephrase what he is arguing here, to make it more clear from a logical standpoint:


General undeniable premise or axiom:
Christian beliefs didn't come from nowhere, and had historical pedigree (going back to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, among others).

1. White's major unproven premise / conclusion (as his "argument" is logically circular, the two are identical) : Christian beliefs came solely from the Scriptures themselves.

2. Dave's query: from what theological / cultural background did the Scriptures come? (answer: the Jews). And which Jewish group preserved that heritage most fully, without giving up indispensable doctrines? (answer: the Pharisees).
3. White's hidden minor premise (#2) : What comes from Scripture cannot also come from a particular people, or school of the same people.
4. Dave's assertion: many Christian beliefs can be derived historically from the Pharisees.
5. White's ultimate premise / conclusion: Christian beliefs could not in any way be derived from the Pharisees because they were derived from Scripture.

The fallacy here is obvious. No argument was made; instead, a false dichotomy is accepted. But it is patently obvious that it is false, by the example of biblical inspiration:

1. God wrote inspired Scripture. It is, in fact, "God-breathed" (theopneustos).
2. Men [inspired and enabled by God] wrote inspired Scripture.
3. Conclusion (by White's "logic"): this can't be! One or the other had to write it, because it is a contradiction!
4. Historical Christian conclusion (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike): both statements (#1 and #2) are true. God wrote through men, and preserved inspiration and infallibility despite human error.

White's conclusion might hold for Islam, where it is believed that the Koran came down from heaven, written and delivered by Allah, with no human participation whatever, but not in Christianity. Therefore, his previous reasoning collapses by analogy:

Christian doctrine came from God through the Bible, but the Bible came through the Jews (culturally, historically) and Jewish writers (in terms of individual documents).

Both notions are true. But James White can't see that, because presuppositional apologetics is proudly, self-consciously circular in its "logic."

. . . let alone from the very traditions Jesus condemned so thoroughly (remember, we have only a few examples of explicit Pharisaical traditions on the lips of Jesus, but the Corban rule is one of them, and remember the Lord's view of such things).

White apparently believes that if you repeat a half-truth or a fallacy enough times, people will start believing it. How many times now has he repeated this non sequitur (in light of all the relevant considerations)? Seven, eight times now?

Armstrong's next point is to continue seeking to prop up the Pharisees as a group, pointing out that Paul respected Ananias in Acts 23:1-5, and that Paul said he was a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" (Acts 23:6). I believe the reader can judge for himself the relevance to the point at hand.

Yes, so do I. So I'm delighted that White breezily dismisses a highly-important consideration and thinks it to be of no relevance or force whatsoever. I happen to think that it is, and I offered an actual argument in the previous installment for why I think so (citing my entire paragraph, rather than merely summarizing it). One continues to hope that White will raise himself to the level of rational argument in many of these crucial issues that he either mocks or cavalierly dismisses. I think people would be more impressed, were he to try that.

Next he misunderstands the reason why I cited the incident in Nehemiah 8, assumes I am trying to draw a parallel to the Pharisees and Moses' seat (I was simply pointing out the centrality of the Word of God in worship, revival, and its reading in the gatherings of God's people)

Fair enough, but then, that doesn't resolve anything in this dispute, as no Christian of any stripe would deny this. I hear far more Scripture at every Catholic Mass than I ever did in Protestant services in my 13 years as an evangelical Protestant.

and can't help but include yet another unfounded "swipe" by writing, "He (White) conveniently neglects to mention, however, that Ezra's Levite assistants, as recorded in the next two verses after the Evangelical-sounding Amens, "helped the people to understand the law" (8:7) and "gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading" (8:8)." (p. 51).

Of course, I could respond that it is Mr. Armstrong who "conveniently neglects to mention" that such an observation is utterly irrelevant to either my use of the text, nor my understanding of Scriptural sufficiency. The fact that instruction was offered is perfectly in line with what I do as an elder in the church every Lord's Day;

That's right, but that is not the sense in which the text is relevant to this discussion, which has to do with historical Judaism, and what they believed, not present-day (historically "Johnny-come-lately") Baptist ecclesiology, and what it holds, with regard to the issue of Bible and Tradition. White is consistent with his own false premises, in his own religious practice, but he can't apply those to the ancient Jews. That is where his inconsistency lies.

further, to be relevant to Armstrong's position, this instruction would have to include the binding of extra-biblical traditions upon the people, which, of course, is not what the text says.

It's relevant precisely because the Jews then, and the Pharisees later, held to oral tradition, which was incorporated into its understanding and interpretation of Scripture. We know that from the historical record. It's true that the text does not specifically mention this, but once we understand what the Jews have historically believed about oral tradition (cultural background being a very important consideration in good exegesis), it is far more plausible to conclude that it was part of this "instruction"; far more than engaging in historical revisionism, superimposing the 16th century Protestant innovation of sola Scriptura onto the text and Jewish worldview, and concluding that only Scripture was discussed, and that no "extra-biblical" tradition whatsoever was involved. History, as so often, tilts the discussion decisively in the "pro-traditional" (or "proto-Catholic") direction. But let's also include my next paragraph (since White did not), which greatly clarified my meaning and intent:

So this supposedly analogous example (that is, if presented in its entirety; not selectively for polemical purposes) does not support the position of White and Gundry that the authority of the Pharisees applied only insofar as they sat and read the Old Testament to the people (functioning as a sort of ancient collective Alexander Scourby, reading the Bible onto a cassette tape for mass consumption), not when they also interpreted (which was part and parcel of the Pharisaical outlook and approach).

(p. 51)

Gratuitous swipes at a person's character and honesty based upon ignorance of that person's beliefs are one element of reading "apologetic" literature that I find very distasteful.

I made no such swipe (and vehemently deny that I did). I think White is honestly, sincerely engaging the text, according to his worldview and theology. But I think he is severely (sincerely) biased, and often operates on false and inadequately-examined premises, which often leads to atrocious and false conclusions. But if White finds this so "distasteful," then why did he make precisely this accusation against me in our earlier runaround over my book? (italics added):

Armstrong simply doesn't understand the process of scholarly examination of a text, and as a result, runs headlong into walls trying to act like he does.

(The Catholic Verses: Luke 1:28 [Part II], 1-1-05)

This kind of utterly amazing mishandling of Scripture is sad to observe, let alone to realize it has appeared in publication.

(The Catholic Verses: Luke 1:28 [Part III], 1-2-05)

This next statement is especially hypocritical and enlightening, given White's false charge that I have accused him of dishonesty:

In essence, this means that instead of blaming ignorance for his very shallow misrepresentations of non-Catholic theology and exegesis, we must now assert knowing deception.

(Armstrong's Reading List, 12-31-04)

So White is quick to accuse me falsely, without sufficient grounds, of what he clearly did to me. In Christian circles, we call that hypocrisy, and I do openly accuse White of that, but not dishonesty. And this is doubly ironic, since we are discussing the Pharisees, and White endlessly repeats his mantra that Jesus accused them of hypocrisy, which we all knew already, so it adds nothing to the discussion. My explanation fully incorporates that fact into the analysis.

Next we have an odd, brief explosion of a complete straw-man argument:

One does not find in the Old Testament individual Hebrews questioning teaching authority. Sola Scriptura simply is not there. No matter how hard White and other Protestants try to read it into the Old Testament, it cannot be done.

(p. 51)

For some, this is a form of argument, but for most, it is little more than another "confession of faith." What teaching authority did individual Hebrews not question?

I'm delighted that Mr. White is inquisitive enough to ask. That indicates a willingness to learn. Good for him! To give just two examples of many:

1) Deuteronomy 17:8-13: the Levitical priests had binding authority in legal matters (derived from the Torah itself). They interpreted the biblical injunctions (17:11). The penalty for disobedience was death (17:12), since the offender didn't obey “the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God.” Cf. Deuteronomy 19:16-17, 2 Chronicles 19:8-10.

2) Ezra 7:6,10: Ezra, a priest and scribe, studied the Jewish law and taught it to Israel, and his authority was binding, under pain of imprisonment, banishment, loss of goods, and even death (7:25-26).

I think that with a possible death penalty lurking in the background, most folks would be inclined to obey. But we know that they were often disobedient, as all of us are at one time or another. In any event, there was clearly a strong authoritarianism in place, even regarding matters of interpretation of Scripture.

The OT Papacy? The Vatican in Jerusalem? We aren't told.

Well, now "we" have been (and I had presented this kind of biblical data long ago on my website, so it is nothing new); and I would love to hear a counter-response, not only to this, but to all my argumentation. I won't hold my breath, given Mr. White's abysmal past track record of fleeing from rational discussions, just when they get interesting, and when his positions look the weakest and most indefensible.

It is ironic indeed, in a passage where Jesus instructs His disciples and the crowds to examine the teachings and actions of the Pharisees, discern right from wrong, and not follow them into false behavior, that Armstrong can find in this passage a basis for such rhetoric.

It's not only "ironic," it is absolutely untrue that I did this. In this statement I wasn't commenting on Matthew 23 at all; I was making a general observation, in opposition to White's tendency to absurdly superimpose sola Scriptura onto the Old Testament and the Jews. The immediate context was an indirect comment on the passage I cited two paragraphs before: Nehemiah 8 (also in the Old Testament; last time I checked). Quite odd. But this isn't the first time that White has completely misconstrued and/or misrepresented some argument of mine, and it sure won't be the last.

Armstrong ends his presentation with two more main points.

White skipped yet another two paragraphs from my book, but for the sake of space, I won't cite those. I am replying at all under the assumption that this was a "point-by-point" rebuttal attempt from White (which I assumed, as it had eight parts). But alas, it is not. Why am I not surprised?

First, he draws from his own anecdotal experience as a Protestant to assert that "individual Christians" have the right and duty to rebuke their pastors for "unbiblical" teaching. I find it odd that Roman Catholics will lionize those who stood up to the corrupt Papacy in the past, and then turn around and demonize a non-Catholic who would seek biblical fidelity from his or her leaders. Be that as it may, yes, every member of Christ's body has the duty to believe the truth, and, if there is trouble in the camp, so to speak, to bring his or her concerns to the elders (note Armstrong doesn't seem to understand the plurality of elders polity position). He relates a bad experience he had in what sounds like a single-pastor situation, not realizing that in the biblical model the local church is not under the control of a despot, but under the direction of a group of men who fit the qualifications laid out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. This changes the dynamic greatly, for instead of a one-on-one "power struggle" you have one of the sheep bringing a concern which may be valid, or may be based upon ignorance or misunderstanding, to a group of men, not just a single person.

This is not the time to get into a broad ecclesiological discussion (nor of the fine points of private judgment and sola Scriptura). White's "plural elder" ecclesiology is not at all the predominant position, even among the hundreds of Protestant denominations.

White then cynically summarizes my next four-paragraph argument and dismisses it with no real argument of his own. As I am sick to death of that tactic by now, I won't even bother quoting his remarks, since he grants me no such courtesy.

So, with all of that said (probably took me more room to review/summarize his position than he spent in the book itself!), I move to my response, and I promise to keep it as brief as possible. I could not resist the temptation to respond a bit as we were going along, but I wish to outline a response to the entire argument that should be useful to anyone encountering the use of Matthew 23 by Roman Catholic apologists. I shall do so in our next, and possibly final, installment.

Six parts to "review/summarize" a position? And now we will be blessed with a two-part "response"? I agree that the six-part soliloquy has been no "response," but it is strange to see white himself implicitly acknowledge the same. It's clear that White is now setting the stage for a general argument that will utterly ignore all or most of the particulars of my argument. As such, it will be worthless as a "response" because it won't be specific enough. I'm predicting this (I haven't read Parts VII and VIII yet). In any event, his reply-before-the-true-"response" has been pathetically weak and insubstantial, and I have no doubt that it's final quarter-portion will continue to be so. Let's see how accurate my prediction will be. I have to amuse myself somehow, as I continue to sit and wait for a decent argument to respond to.

I would remind readers that James White is widely considered by anti-Catholics to be one of the leading champions of their position. He has participated in many oral debates, written many books, and has a lot of material on the Internet. He also does a daily webcast. So please bear in mind that if one of the supposedly "best" anti-Catholic (which is different from merely Protestant, because it denies that Catholicism is Christian) apologists makes arguments this weak and easily-answered, what does that tell us about the strength of the position that he advocates? I think it reveals quite a bit.

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