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Calvinism & John 6
Response to Dr. James White's Rebuttal - Part I
Copyright © Tim Warner - 03/2004

Dr. James White, well known Reformed apologist, debater, author, and host of the radio program, Dividing Line, recently posted a rebuttal of our paper on John 6 and Calvinism. His paper can be found on the Alpha & Omega Ministries website at the following link:

White's primary charge against us is that we are going beyond the context by our citing other passages of Scripture, and are coming to this text with certain presuppositions stemming from "an odd form of dispensationalism." That telling statement implies to us that White does not really understand our point of view. One would think that before firing off a rebuttal, he would at least genuinely try to understand where we are coming from. White writes, "While these other passages are important, I simply note that the response offered here does not begin with exegesis: a sure sign of tradition (here, some odd form of dispensationalism) determining the actual outcome." ... "For most, this is a clear indication that the text itself cannot be refuted outside of the adoption of some external matrix, here, dispensationalism."

White apparently wants to deal with this passage in a vacuum. No doubt, when preaching, James White never begins to expound Scripture by first laying down the historical and/or cultural context. It appears that unless we agree to evaluate this chapter in a vacuum, or more accurately in White's Reformed paradigm, we are accused of "eisegesis!" In reality, White has his own theological "external matrix," which he pretends does not exist. White's approach displays a gross disregard for historical context. Our interpretation of John 6 takes into account the historical setting, which we attempted to thoroughly explain in our article (and is much more fully explained in the Progressive Dispensationalism section of the PFRS website). At PFRS, we seek to understand the overall plan of God and how that plan has been progressively unfolded throughout history. Our interpretation is in keeping with our basic approach to Scripture outlined in the PFRS Philosophy and Methodology section of the website. 

God's specific dealings with the nation of Israel during Jesus' public ministry is probably the most critical component for understanding the entire New Testament. Interpreting every statement of Scripture in its historical setting, as the original audience was meant to understand it, is absolutely essential to correct theology. Assuming that things spoken to specific people in specific situations must necessarily apply to all people is an unwarranted leap of logic. Mr. White is the one who is committing the error of eisegesis because he is assuming a universal application when the text does not warrant or demand such. The immediate context clearly includes only the Jewish people at the time of Christ (cf. vss. 30-36). To go beyond the stated scope of the context is to read into the text - eisegesis.

During Jesus' public ministry, He forbid His disciples from proclaiming the good news to the gentiles (Matt. 10:5-6). He also made it perfectly clear that during His entire ministry He was sent strictly to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel." (Matt. 15:24). In John 6, Jesus spoke of that current situation regarding God's drawing activity among the Jewish nation. He spoke of what God was currently doing using present tense verbs. For example, Jesus said, "this is the will of Him who sent me, that every one who is beholding the Son, and is believing in him, may have life age-during, and I will raise him up in the last day." (John 6:40 - Young's Literal Translation). Notice the shift from present tense (those seeing and believing at the time Jesus spoke) to future tense regarding the reward. Jesus did NOT mention any future believers. That is, He did not specifically refer to any who WOULD believe in the future, only what would happen in the future to the current Jewish believers. Therefore, to make such a universal application to future Gentile people is pure assumption on White's part. THAT is "eisegesis" because the literary context does not demand it, nor does the historical context suggest it. There is no reason to believe that the original audience Jesus spoke to would draw White's conclusion. White's insistence on it demonstrates that he is thinking in a theological "rut" ingrained into his Reformed tradition.

Mr. White prefers a generic approach to Scripture. He wants to view the Bible as merely a collection of universal truths. Unfortunately, that approach, all too common today, gives a very distorted picture. It essentially asks the question, "What does this passage mean to me living in the 21st century?" Those who have read and understood the PFRS philosophy and methodology understand that we begin with a much different question; "What did these words mean to the audience to whom they were spoken?"

We agree with James White that "context" is important. But "context" is not merely looking at a few verses before and after those in question, and expecting that everything one needs to know to fully understand any text is supplied by that particular paragraph or chapter. Such an approach assumes that Jesus' words were spoken to people who brought no presuppositions or understanding of their own, theological or cultural, to their encounter with Jesus. It assumes that the words of Scripture were directed at no one in particular. It does not take into account the frame of mind of the audience to whom it was addressed, or relate to the original audience's particular circumstance or expectations. It makes the Bible a collection of theological treatise rather than a detailed record of God's dealings with humans over a period of thousands of years.

"Context" is much more complex than Mr. White portrays. Sure, we must pay close attention to the literary context — that is the rest of the dialogue recorded in John 6. But, these words were not spoken by Jesus in a vacuum. Nor were they spoken to 21st century Christians. They were not meant as a theological treatise by Jesus on "election," "predestination," or "perseverance." If that were the case, they would have been spoken to the disciples (believers) in private teaching, not to the unbelieving crowds. Jesus' words were spoken to a specific people (the unbelieving Jewish nation) at a particular climax in their history, when God was doing something unique with that nation. He was calling out a remnant of believers to be the foundation of His Church, and alienating the rest of the nation so the crucifixion could occur.

We cannot help but infer from White's comments that He thinks the Bible was written as an apologetic textbook or systematic theology. He dismisses our connecting Jesus' words to a peculiar situation that existed for Israel during Christ's public ministry with the claim that Jesus' statements in this chapter merely proclaimed universal truths applicable to all. In replying to my statement that this text must be understood in a particular historical setting, White writes, "Why?  Why must it be understood in such a context?  Does the text tell us this?  Surely it does not.  Here we see the direct insertion of eisegetical external considerations, resulting in the complete overthrow of the meaning of the text.  Such reasoning could be used to overthrow any specifically soteriological teaching prior to Calvary, as if Jesus’ teaching on the subject is somehow only relevant to a particular time and place.  And yet, the truths of John 6 clearly transcend the synagogue in Capernaum, do they not?  Is it not true that Jesus is the bread of life throughout all ages?  Of course.  So this is an artificial means of explaining away the plain meaning of the text, and should be rejected by anyone who takes the exegesis of the text seriously."

White has committed a serious logical fallacy by assuming what he is trying to prove. He assumes that His Calvinistic interpretation of this passage is correct, and anything else must be an attempt at "overthrowing the meaning of the text" because it disagrees with his Calvinism. It is obvious to the careful reader that White is the one coming at the text with his own set of presuppositions, which he does not even attempt to prove from Scripture. Granted, we also have a set of presuppositions. But the difference is that we recognize ours. We have explained what those presuppositions are, and how we have arrived at them based on other Scripture. Mr. White apparently does not recognize his presuppositions or pretends they do not exist.

White seeks to buttress his objection by appealing to the alleged universal "truth" that Jesus is the "bread of life throughout all ages." But what exactly does Jesus' analogy to "bread" mean, Mr. White? Was it not spoken in response to the Jews who believed Moses was sent from God because he apparently gave them manna from heaven? Is not Jesus' statement properly understood only as it relates to this Jewish concern? Or are we, modern 21st century Christians, free to interpret such a statement in any way we choose? Where in the text did Jesus indicate that He is the "bread of life throughout all ages?" What Mr. White has demonstrated here is his own reading into the text something Jesus had no intention of teaching! Jesus' point was strictly that He was to be received by the Jews just as Moses was received by the Jews. These Jews gave their reason for believing Moses. He gave them bread from heaven. The question before the Jewish audience was whether Jesus was "that prophet" whom Moses prophesied about, who would bring a new covenant (cf. John 6:14 & Deut. 18:15-22). Jesus indicated that He, like Moses, was sent by God. His confirmation of this fact to the Jews was that His own flesh was to be given for their spiritual food (as the manna was given for their physical food). Partaking of Jesus' flesh was a cryptic way of saying that one must partake of Christ's sacrifice of His flesh in a spiritual sense, as the Israelites partook of the manna in a physical sense (see vss. 60-63). Jesus was teaching an important truth here in parable. It had nothing to do with being the "bread of life throughout all ages." That is purely Mr. White's assumption that he has read into the text with zero support from the context. I hope you can see the logical fallacy committed here by Mr. White. His circular argument goes like this: He assumes a universal truth (Jesus is the bread of life throughout all ages). He reads that back into the text solely on the basis that Jesus called Himself the "bread of life" (without any reference to "throughout all ages" — the critical point of his argument). He then claimed that Jesus was teaching this alleged universal truth, which Jesus nowhere hinted at! He said nothing about being the "bread of life throughout all ages." He merely used "bread" as an allegory, in comparison to Moses' manna, to teach a spiritual truth. Jesus is not "bread." He has never been "bread," nor will ever be "bread." If White thinks that Jesus is "bread" he should abandon Reformed theology and go back to Catholic mysticism. White then used this fabricated evidence to support his claim that Jesus was teaching universal truths in this chapter that must be applied beyond His immediate audience. This is clearly circular reasoning and proves nothing at all. Well, maybe it proves that Mr. White's position is based on logical fallacies.

Apparently, James White does not fully understand our "odd form of dispensationalism" and has summarily dismissed it by fiat. But that does not make our approach wrong. White has proven nothing here except that he is not willing to allow the historical context to affect his interpretation, but insists that any such historical pressure put on the text is somehow "eisegesis." Wrong. It is Mr. White who is misunderstanding the text because the presuppositions he is bringing to the text are not even remotely relevant to the historical situation that instigated this exchange between Jesus and this crowd of Jews. White's presuppositions violently clash with the historical setting and clearly stated purpose of Christ's ministry to unbelieving Israel at the time. A situation that no longer existed after the crucifixion, as we have shown in our original article.

Mr. White justified his dismissal of our historical approach by claiming that "Such reasoning could be used to overthrow any specifically soteriological teaching prior to Calvary, as if Jesus’ teaching on the subject is somehow only relevant to a particular time and place." If we merely stated (as many dispensationalists do) that the teaching of Christ is not applicable to the "Church," then White's charge would be valid. But that is most definitely not our approach. We cannot fault Mr. White for an apparent misunderstanding of our position, and confusing our philosophy with that of other Dispensationalists who are not "Progressives," except to say that he should make sure he understands his opponents' argument before firing off a rebuttal. But he is clearly wrong in his argumentation here. I would like to address Mr. White's argument by demonstrating that both extremes, dismissing all of Jesus' teaching, or applying all of it to everyone, are wrong.

Mr. White gives no compelling reason for us to suppose that Jesus' teaching in this passage is meant as a universal truth except to point out the error of the other extreme — that is the one taken by Traditional Dispensationalists — that none of Jesus' teaching applies directly to the Church. We agree with Mr. White that the approach of these Dispensationalists is a critical error, and that Jesus' teaching must not be dismissed as having no relevance to this dispensation. However, it can be easily demonstrated that White's Reformed approach is just as bad as the Dispensational one. We can show that much of Jesus' teaching cannot be applicable to the Church because it directly contradicts later Scripture that most definitely applies to this dispensation. Let me give an example to illustrate this point.

In Matthew 10, Jesus sent His disciples out to preach the Gospel, heal the sick, and raise the dead. In His instructions to them, He commanded them specifically not to preach to Gentiles. It was clear from His instructions that the gospel message was meant exclusively for Israel. Yet, after the resurrection, Jesus revealed the "mystery" to them (Luke 24:25-27,44-48), amended His command, telling them to now go to all nations (Matt. 28:19-20). As modern Christians following Jesus' commands, which of these commands should we obey? The one to take the Gospel only to the Jews and avoid Gentiles? Or the one to preach to all nations? Obviously, answering this question demands that we look at the historical setting, and the reasons for both commands in light of what God was doing with Israel at the time. All we are suggesting is that we do the same with all of Jesus' teaching. The fact that Jesus first restricted the disciples to Jews only, then expanded their mission to all the Gentile nations, proves the progressive nature of Jesus' teaching. It shows that we cannot assume that all of Jesus' teaching is directly applicable to us.

The "Gospel" message Jesus proclaimed to Israel was essentially that they must believe that He was the Jewish Messiah (the Christ). This has specific reference to the promised Davidic King who would one day sit upon the Throne of David and rule the nation of Israel. Jesus even told the unbelieving Jews, "Unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins." Where, in all four Gospels, do we find the Gospel being plainly presented to the Jewish people based on forgiveness through the death burial and resurrection of Christ, and their faith being placed in this fact? Nowhere! The Gospel, as we now understand the significance of the atonement, was not openly proclaimed until after the resurrection of Christ. It was for the first time explained in plain language to the disciples by Jesus the Sunday of His resurrection, as recorded in Luke 24. Until that day, it was always shrouded in cryptic language, keeping it a "mystery" to the Jewish people. This begs the question, is it necessary today to believe the Gospel as it is explained in the rest of the New Testament, based on faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ? Or is it sufficient to merely believe that Jesus was the promised King of Israel, with no reference to His substitutionary sufferings for the sins of the world? Is the "Gospel" proclaimed in the four Gospels to the Jewish people, that Jesus is the Messiah, precisely the same message we should be preaching? Or is something more needed as we preach to the nations after Jesus died and rose again? Obviously, it is the latter. These examples, and many others, illustrate that the teachings of Christ must be viewed against the backdrop of the unfolding plan of God that was applicable to that time and nation. Yes, much of Jesus teaching is directly applicable to us. But, the criteria for making this determination must be biblical, not an assumption. Jesus Himself gave that criteria when He sent the disciples out to all nations. He told them to teach the new converts to "observe all things whatsoever I have commanded YOU" (Matt. 28:20). That is, the things Jesus taught specifically to His disciples. That command does not include the things Jesus taught to the unbelieving nation of Israel, as is John 6. 

The problem with White's Reformed approach is essentially the same error made by Dispensationalists. It is simply wrong to assume an "all or nothing" approach to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels. Proper handling of Jesus' teaching demands evaluation based on the historical context and fully understanding what God was doing with Israel at the time. Only then can we correctly apply Scripture. The PFRS approach is not arbitrary about this. We base this distinction on clear statements of Scripture which give us the framework for making this distinction in every relevant passage where Jesus taught. Our criteria for making these determinations are explained fully in the Progressive Dispensationalism section.

Continue to Part II of our answer to James White.

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