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Calvinism & John 6
Response to Dr. James White - Part III
Copyright © Tim Warner - 02/20/2007

After a two year delay, James White has replied to our last rebuttal in a submission to his blog dated, 7/06/2006.

Who is Really Being Subjective?

White writes;

“First, it is not fairly dealing with the historical context of John 6 to force some kind of unique dispensational "spin" on the text. The historical context is that of Judaism in the first century in Capernaum, not an artificial construct produced by a particular interpretation of "progressive dispensationalism." Mr. Warner confuses the two in his first response, found here. It should be noted that this kind of dispensational hermeneutic would mean that nothing before the cross--no teaching, no example, no command--could be seen as having any enduring quality. It is this kind of application of an over-arching concept that has given rise to every form of dispensational abuse of the text, such as is seen in the "Paul Only" churches where nothing but the writings of Paul are allowed to speak with authority to the church.”

Mr. White’s tactic seems to be to hurl derogatory terms, like “spin,” and then misrepresent our approach by claiming it is a license to demolish anything Jesus taught. We explained in the former article exactly how we distinguish between Jesus’ universal teaching (for this age) and what was limited to the uniquely Jewish situation during His public ministry. It is based on Jesus' own statements. In case Mr. White (or the reader) missed it, I will repeat it here from our last article in this series.

“We are not suggesting that the things taught by Jesus to unbelieving Israel are necessarily true only in that historical context, or more precisely, are necessarily untrue outside of that historical context. Certainly, some things can be applied more broadly. Our point is that Jesus' actual teaching in this instance did not extend beyond the nation of Israel during Jesus' public ministry. Therefore, using these verses to prove alleged universal truths goes beyond what Jesus actually taught in that passage. This is the difference between "interpretation" and "application." "Interpretation" is rightly understanding what Jesus actually meant when He spoke to that particular audience. Right "application" is determining what things can be learned from that particular interaction, and correctly applying the principles to our own situation. The former demands "understanding" (epignosis).  The latter demands wisdom (sophia).

On the other hand, the things Jesus taught to His disciples specifically have a broader application. We know this because all during Jesus' ministry He was training His disciples to take His message to the nations. When giving them the Great Commission, Jesus commanded them to teach the new Gentile coverts to "observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:20). We have Jesus' direct application of all His private teaching to His disciples being extended to all nations until the "end of the age." This command excludes the things the disciples overheard Jesus teaching to the Jewish crowds or religious leaders. Surely, there are some truths contained in Jesus' other discourses that discerning Christians can apply to ourselves. But this requires first having a thorough handle on what God was doing with the Jewish nation at the time. The problem with the Calvinist approach to John 6 is that they do not discern this distinction, nor take it into account in their application of Jesus' words.”

In short, our approach to Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels is very simple and straightforward, and leaves no room whatsoever for the “slippery slope” that White imagines. What Jesus spoke to unbelieving Israel was specifically meant for them as a nation at that time. His words do not necessarily teach a universal truth for all time. For example, His response to the rich young ruler's question, of how he might inherit eternal life, was “keep the commandments.” Does Mr. White wish to make this a universal truth, that salvation is through the Law of Moses? Conversely, what Jesus taught directly to His disciples is definitely for this age, because He commanded them to take His specific teaching TO THEM and teach it to all nations (Matt. 28:19-20). We are using Jesus’ own criterion for what should be proclaimed in this age as truth. We understand that Mr. White has no real defense against our approach. So, it is understandable that he would resort to the “slippery slope” scare tactics.

White then attempts to build a case for his “universal truth” angle on this passage.

The issues addressed by our Lord in the Synagogue at Capernaum were over-arching and remain valid to this day. He was addressing unbelief. He was addressing men who had listened to him teaching for hours on end the day before. And yet, despite hearing, they did not believe. Despite seeing (the miracle), they continued in unbelief. Despite "seeking" Jesus, He explains they are unbelievers. And it is in that context that He explains who comes to Him and who does not. There is not a hint that this has anything to do with a particular hardening of Israel so that the crucifixion could take place. There is not a hint that what Jesus says about the nature of unbelief, of the drawing of the Father, and of Himself as the very center of Christian experience, our life-blood, the giver of spiritual life, is only true for the brief period of time left before the crucifixion, at which time all of this was going to change anyway. And what a wonder that the Holy Spirit would record these words for us and preserve them when they would have little or no meaning for the church as a whole. So while Mr. Warner says I am committing the error of eisegesis "because he is assuming a universal application when the text does not warrant or demand such," the reality is that I am simply listening to the text in the context in which it was given without presupposing some kind of dispensational hermeneutic that inserts extraneous conclusions into the discussion. Unbelief, the drawing of the Father, Christ as the bread from heaven, and the strong demands of discipleship are all just as relevant today as they were in Capernaum, and it is Mr. Warner that has to demonstrate otherwise. He consistently fails to do so.”

Mr. White has simply restated his original claim. But, he has done absolutely nothing to support it from the text in question or any other text. To White, Jesus was merely addressing the concept of “unbelief” in general. There is no historical context to consider, and no special audience to consider. He might as well have spoken these words at the end of a sermon in a Baptist church! Mr. White seems to have little regard for the “grammatical historical” approach to hermeneutics, at least with regard to the “historical” aspect. Yet, he followed the above comments with this remarkable statement: “Given his over-riding external paradigm, Warner then reads into texts meanings they simply would not have borne in their original contexts.”

White has repeatedly tried to portray our approach as imposing an “over-riding external paradigm” on this passage. Yet, we have consistently appealed to internal evidence from the actual passage itself, as well as Jesus’ own statements elsewhere regarding His teaching. How can the "original context" affirm White's "universal truth" paradigm when the context itself limits Jesus' words to those who actually SAW Him perform miracles? "Everyone seeing the Son and believing ... may have everlasting life" (v. 40). Mr. White, on the other hand, ignores the internal evidence, makes far reaching claims of universal application. Yet here he says that our meaning would not be borne out in the “original contexts.” Why not, Mr. White? Is it simply because you say so? The readers must understand that what we are doing is interpreting John 6 in its historical setting. Jesus spoke these words to a specific audience. It is the "original context" to which we are appealing! Jesus' words apply to His original audience! If Mr. White wants to apply them to a much broader audience, the burden of proof is on him to show why, not simply take it for granted.

We stated at the outset that Mr. White seems to have a concept of Scripture as a theological textbook, rather than a record of God’s progressive dealings with mankind. That thinking is amply illustrated here.

Mr. White's Attempt at the Grammar

“Present tense verbs mean, to him, something completely different than they have meant to Christian exegetes down through the centuries. For example, present-tense participles now only have to do with the Jews believing while Jesus was speaking, not with anything to do with Gentiles in the future. Consider what this means: none of the promises of the Gospel of John are relevant today. Ponder that a moment! All those precious promises, including such texts as John
1:12-14, 3:16, 3:36--all those glorious promises of chapters 10 and 14, the High priestly prayer of 17--restricted to the Jews before the cross! But, wait, you say, that's ridiculous. Of course it is, since John wrote the book long after the cross and said he wrote it so that Jews and Gentiles together might believe!”

Notice that White’s argument here is not a grammatical one. What he is actually doing is downplaying the importance of the grammar to exegesis, in particular the present tense participle. Not only does Mr. White want you to ignore the historical context. But now he wants you to ignore the significance of the grammar! He wants you instead to trust the "Christian exegetes down through the centuries." In other words, trust the Reformed commentators from the last five centuries who also ride roughshod over the grammar. And once again White’s M.O. is the same, using the “slippery slope” argument. Yet, White's warning once again misrepresents our approach. Let's look at the passages he cites.

In John 1:12-14, the Apostle John was the speaker, writing long after the Gospel had been opened to the Gentiles, and was writing to a primarily Gentile audience. John was explaining to his Gentile readers a simple fact: Since the Jewish nation had rejected the Gospel, it was now opened to all. "He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.” (vss. 11-12). The verbs “received” and "gave" are aorist indicative. Both indicate an historical occurrence (normally translated in the past tense in English). The verb “believe” in Greek is a present participle. The time element of the tense of the participle is relative to the time of the main verb (gave - aorist indicative). In other words, “believing” was present tense at the time God “gave” the Gentiles the right to be His children, (which is past tense in this statement). This passage, far from containing a “precious promise,” simply records a historical fact. Of course, we know from the rest of the NT that this condition continued, and will continue to the end of the age. But, Mr. White is being very sloppy with the grammar when he sees a “promise” here and when he claims that merely the use of a present participle indicates a universal truth. Nonsense! It is a present reality only because of the teaching of the rest of the NT, NOT because the grammar of this passage suggests it. That this was written by John to a primarily Gentile audience, and it explains the fact that the Gospel had been (past tense) opened to “as many as received Him” (rather than merely “His own” {Israel}), implies that that the passage applies to Gentiles.

White wrongly states that the passages he named are “precious promises.” Yet, where is the “precious promise” in John 1:12-14, or John 3:16? Neither text has a “promise.” This latter text (John 3:16) merely explains how much God loved the world, and what He did to demonstrate that love (He sent His Son so that the believers might not perish but have eternal life). If Mr. White would parse the Greek text a little more carefully, he would realize that there is no promise here whatsoever. It explains ONLY history, and God’s purpose in sending His Son, nothing more.

It is not clear whether John 3:16 and 3:36 were spoken by Jesus (3:16) and John the Baptist (3:36), or whether they were commentary supplied by the Apostle John. If it is the latter, as many commentators seem to think, then there is no further need for our comment, because the words originated after the Gospel went to the Gentiles, and were written to them (therefore applicable to them). If it is the former, the intended audience must be taken into consideration, as our previously stated rule indicates. In both John 3:16 & 36, (assuming they are not the Apostle John’s words), the audiences were believers (or potential believers). The former, Nicodemus, believed (Jn.19:39). The latter, John’s disciples, also believed.

Finally, “all those glorious promises of chapters 10 and 14” should be handled in the same way as we handle all of Jesus' teaching. In the case of John 14, Jesus was speaking to His disciples, so the application is to all believers until the end of the age (as per Matt. 28:19-20). The statements in John 10 are “glorious promises” to Mr. White because he likes to use them to support his Calvinism. But, true to our rule, we must ask, "to whom was Jesus speaking?" For John 10 (the Good Shepherd discourse), the answer is provided in the context. “Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, 'We see.' Therefore your sin remains. Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber’.” (John 9:41-10:1)

Here, the context indicates Jesus was speaking to a hostile Jewish crowd. We would take His words here in the same way we would take His words in John six, where the crowd was similarly a hostile unbelieving Jewish crowd. Jesus was not speaking to “believers” or potential believers here. Granted, He spoke ABOUT His “sheep.” But once again, the grammar refers exclusively to the then present situation which Jesus sought to contrast to his hostile audience. “My sheep hear my voice…” (as opposed to you who are not my sheep, vss. 25-26) The present tense indicates the situation at the time. Literally, “My sheep are hearing My voice, and I know them, and they are following me, And I am giving them eternal life, and they shall not perish, neither shall anyone pluck them out of My hand.” (vss. 27-28).

Jesus was contrasting His disciples (who were believing and following Him) with the unbelieving Jewish crowds. He stated a present situation, one of comparison. Notice, the above statement immediately follows this: “But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you.” (v. 26). No doubt, Mr. White believes that Jesus was making a universal comparison between “believers” in general, and “unbelievers” in general. Not so. He was comparing two very specific contemporary groups of people. That Jesus was speaking exclusively of a historical group (His disciples) is proven a few verses later. “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (v. 16). The words, “this fold” refer to the group about whom Jesus had just said were hearing His voice and following Him (His sheep). Yet, when He referred to “others” (Gentiles who would be saved at a later time), He clearly said they are “not of this fold.” How then can the “sheep” in the previous verses be a general reference to ALL who would later believe on Him? It is grammatically impossible. Yet, White’s sloppy exegesis and wishful thinking seeks to make it so by riding roughshod over the grammar and context. White neither applies the “historical” nor the “grammatical” elements of sound hermeneutics to his exegesis.

In conclusion, White again denies our observations about the historical context, and portrays our approach as imposing a 20th century paradigm onto the text. He writes;

“Ironically, Warner accuses me of the very thing he is doing when he writes, "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." Yet just the opposite is true: the idea that the original audience would be thinking in a paradigm created by late 20th century American theology is the obvious mistake. The idea that Jesus' original audience, let alone John as he recorded these things, would think Jesus was saying, "All that the Father gives me--right now, at this very point in time, only amongst Jews in this particular audience, but never anywhere else or in any other situation--will come to Me, but this is relevant only until the cross, even though it will only be recorded decades thereafter, at which time it will only be of historical interest, but no longer relevant dispensationally" is clearly without merit. Obviously, even as John wrote these words, he did not in any way limit his words to the time period of the Lord Jesus' pre-cross ministry, but instead clearly made the application to Jews and Gentiles of his own day, calling them to faith.”

All White can do is appeal to what is “obvious” and “clear” to Him, rather than give some solid reasons from the context, historical setting, or grammar to support his position. Such terms as “obviously” and “clearly” are subjective, and are largely dependent on one’s presuppositions. Our charge all along is that White’s interpretation in particular, and Calvinism in general, absolutely demands that one approach the text with these kinds of presuppositions. You simply cannot get what White claims OUT of the text unless you make the assumptions he does, ignoring both the historical setting and the grammar. He has proven nothing except that his interpretation is extremely subjective.

The Evangelical Nature of John's Gospel

Next, White appeals to the evangelical nature of John’s Gospel as support for his claim about Jesus' teaching.

“And given the same themes keep repeating from John 5 through 6, then 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, and 17, all leading directly to the general appeal of the gospel itself to "all the world," i.e., Jews and Gentiles, there simply is no reason to accept this artificial construction foisted upon the text by Warner's "progressive dispensationalism".”

Yes, it is true that by the end of John’s Gospel the appeal is clearly to all the world. But, to insert that idea into Jesus’ words to unbelieving Israel prior to the cross is unwarranted. At the conclusion to the Good Shepherd discourse, John informed his readers that Jesus’ audience did not accept His teaching. “Therefore there was a division again among the Jews because of these sayings. And many of them said, "He has a demon and is mad. Why do you listen to Him?" (vss. 19-20).

White's appeals to the evangelical nature of John’s Gospel seems to have ignored John's prologue where he wrote, “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not, but as many as received Him to them He gave the right to be called the sons of God...”  Yes, John's Gospel is primarily evangelistic. But, what John sought to record for his Gentile audience decades after the crucifixion emphasized the rejection of Jesus Christ by Israel, which then explains why afterward the Gentiles were offered adoption into the family of God (true to John's opening prologue). John repeatedly emphasized that the Jews rejected Jesus despite the fact that they saw His miracles first hand (John 6:30,36, John 12:37-40). Yet, John also recorded for his Gentile readers what Jesus said to Thomas about those who would believe in the future without ever seeing a single miracle! "Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29). John recorded this as an encouragement to the potential Gentile audience who had none of the advantages the Jews had, of personally witnessing Jesus' miracles or His resurrection. While recording Jesus’ dialogue with unbelieving Israel, how and why they rejected Him, John has essentially strengthened his final appeal to the Gentiles at the close of the book. “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31).

Whose View is More Recent?

Lastly, White again attempts to portray our position as something new and novel, and therefore not “Apostolic.” He writes;

"Warner attempts to hide his eisegetical insertion of his progressive dispensational hermeneutic by ignoring that his views are the "new kid on the block" and saying, "Mr. White prefers a generic approach to Scripture. He wants to view the Bible as merely a collection of universal truths." Of course, this is completely untrue, and it is an amazing thing to hide the wholesale import of progressive dispensationalism into the ancient text under the guise of accurately contextualizing that text. Yes, we need to start with the ancient text in its own context, but progressive dispensationalism in this form does just the opposite, as it starts with conclusions about what the text could not possibly mean.”

I suppose that Mr. White may simply be ignorant of what Progressive Dispensationalism really is. Our approach is anything but new or novel. While the term “Progressive Dispensationalism” is certainly recent, the theology is not. It is essentially the theology of the early Apostolic Fathers who were “Chiliasts” (premillennial) as we have amply demonstrated in our Progressive Dispensationalism section. Mr. White’s Calvinism and his Amillennialism are the new and novel views (relatively speaking). Amillennialism can be traced to the allegorical leanings of Origen, and systematized by Augustine in the fourth century. And White’s Calvinism can be easily traced to Augustine as well, as Calvinists admit.

What Mr. White fails to consider is that NONE of the early Fathers prior to Augustine were Calvinists, or viewed these passages as White does. They universally taught that everyone has a free will, that Christ died for all, that God’s grace was “resistible,” and that is the reason so many are not saved. None of them taught “eternal security,” “once saved always saved,” or “perseverance of the saints,” prior to Augustine (nor any of the other four points of Calvinism). For that matter, even Augustine did not teach that all “saved” people will persevere to the end! The “P” in “TULIP” was not taught in Christianity before the Reformation! Yet, Mr. White now wants to charge us with teaching something new and novel! The fact is, Mr. White is not following the theology of Jesus, the eleven Apostles, or Paul. He is an apologist for St. Augustine. If Mr. White wants to challenge this claim, we would be happy to provide quotes from the early Church to support it, and challenge him to show his Calvinism from any of the early Fathers prior to Augustine. May we refer the reader to our article on this topic, The Early Church.