James White and John 3:16: Rhetoric and Red Herrings

In “Calvinism’s Gospel Tautology,” I argued that there are two possible Calvinist renderings of Jesus’ words in John 3:16. The first puts these words in Jesus’ mouth: “whoever (of those who cannot believe) does believe: those persons won’t perish but have eternal life.” This dictum is no less pointless than it is absurd. To impute it to our Saviour is perfectly unseemly.

On the second reading, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus amount to a vacuous tautology: that the elect–i.e., those who (by definition) believe in Jesus and consequently have eternal life and won’t perish: these persons have eternal life and won’t perish. Well, of course. But there’s no more reason to come into the world to tell us that than there is for God the Son to become incarnate to break the news that bachelors are unmarried. As I said, if that’s what John 3:16 comes to, it isn’t good news. It can’t be; for it isn’t news at all.

On March 27, 2018, James White, Director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, devoted his entire Dividing Line podcast to reading and commenting on my post. In what follows, I make some brief observations about White’s questionable polemics. In a second post, I turn to more substantial matters. Shorn of the fallacious rhetoric (there’s no shortage of that), I think White has two minor points that merit a brief comment.

“Crazy” Logic?

White’s podcast proceeds by way of his reading my post aloud, pausing here and there (at certain trigger points) to make critical remarks. The crucial thing for the listener to recognize is that White stops reading just before he gets to the main argument. “This is where it starts getting crazy,” he says. The craziness results from the fact that

[Davis] gets into the concept of symbolic logic and you’re trying to create the concept of some type of tautology…So there is no reason to go beyond this because you keep going, going, and going.

So that’s it. There is no serious discussion of the premises in the argument, or their connection with its conclusion. This is a strange sort of argument analysis. In any event, White’s odd manner of speaking here strongly suggests that he doesn’t understand symbolic logic, and that’s the reason he stops reading where he does. Utilizing the tools of predicate logic isn’t a matter of “getting into” a concept “to create a concept.” I don’t even know what that means. Rather, I use symbolic logic to demonstrate a tautology. Throughout the podcast, White chastises and disparages philosophers who don’t know their Greek. I don’t suppose he thinks an acceptable response on their part would be to minimize its value and importance by calling it “crazy” (“Just look at all those strange letters!”), and then labelling its conclusions “silly.”

Corrupt Arminianism?

This disparaging of the techniques of argument analysis occurs in other places as well. At one point in my post, for example, I note that there is a wide scope and a narrow scope reading for the universal quantifier (“everyone” or “whoever”) in John 3:16, and I carefully distinguish these by way of displayed propositions. Here is White’s rather flippant remark: “I just love these…It’s normally the Arminians that out of either malice, misrepresentation [or] something end up doing this.” So the listener’s attention is diverted from the logical point at hand to the bad character of those Arminians who insist on clarity of argumentation. I’m sorry to have to say it: this is irresponsible and it sets a poor example for White’s Calvinist listeners. Here White could learn a thing or two from Guillaume Bignon whose rigorous yet gentlemanly manner of conducting himself in an argument I deeply respect.

The failure to understand the mechanics of basic argument analysis also shows itself in (at least some of) the many ad hominems peppering White’s monologue. Thus we are treated to comments like:

  • “He’s not exegeting the text; he’s abusing the text.”
  • “This kind of twisting of the text is used by others to deny resurrection, the atonement, the very existence of God.”
  • “Any Christian philosophical program: one of the absolutely fundamental classes that should be required is minimally first and second year Greek, and a class on hermeneutics…and not taught by philosophers.”

I’m afraid this too is a diversion–albeit an unintentional one. I suspect it stems from a failure to grasp how a constructive dilemma works. To see this, let’s grant White his two main requests. First, he wants to say that ‘the world’ can be legitimately restricted in its scope.1 He cites my quote from Sproul approvingly: “the world…must refer to the universality of the elect (people from every tribe and nation)” (Chosen by God, p. 179). Second, he would like ‘whoever believes’ in the ESV to be translated ‘everyone believing’. That’s fine. Then the James White interpretation of John 3:16 comes to this:

JW: God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

The question now arises as to how the universal quantifier ‘everyone’ is to be handled. Should we give it a wide or a narrow scope reading? That is, should we read it as

JW(w): God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone (of both elect and non-elect) believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life;

or as

JW(n): God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone (of the elect) believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life?

If JW(w) is correct, what Jesus says is pointless and absurd. If JW(n) is correct, what Jesus says is tautologous. The important thing to see is that I don’t take responsibility for either JW(w) or JW(n). I’m not arguing (by way of exegesis) for the truth of either. The argument is purely dialectical; it’s designed to help White (e.g.) apprehend the implications of his Calvinism. The implicit domain of the quantifier ‘everyone’ is persons. Logically speaking, we can let that quantifier range over all persons (elect and non-elect), or we can restrict it to some (e.g., the elect alone).

This point seems to be entirely lost on White, who instead takes his listener on a rabbit trail about exegesis, the Greek language, and the ineptitude of philosophers at interpreting the bible. White declares that a Christian philosophical program must include courses in Greek and hermeneutics, but “not taught by philosophers.” Perhaps that’s right; but then by the same token those courses shouldn’t be taught by those lacking basic skills in logic and sound reasoning. For the two go hand in hand.

Notes

[1] I will have more to say about this in my next post.

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12 comments on “James White and John 3:16: Rhetoric and Red Herrings

  1. Hello Mr. Davis,

    I’m just wondering if you could clarify for me your tautology premise and why you think that the presence of a tautology in a specific reading of the text makes that reading of the text illogical.

    First off, I don’t really see John 3:16b as being a repeat of John 3:16a. In (a), Jesus is saying that the scope of God’s love is to every tribe and nation. In (b), Jesus is saying that those who believe in (on) God will have eternal life. In the first statement, he is talking about who God loves. In the second, he is telling Nicodemus the prerequisite for eternal life, belief.

    On a different note, the scope of this argumentation is only towards those Calvinists who believe that God’s love is limited to the elect. Many Calvinists believe that God loves everyone but not in the same way as he loves the elect. (A great resource on that is “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God” by D.A. Carson)

    The main thing I would like clarified is how “the world” and “whosoever believes” being the same group of people is a problem from your perspective? Even if they mean the same thing it does not negate the usefulness of John 3:16b in proclaiming the gospel message that belief is what leads to eternal life.

    • Rich Davis says:

      Hello Caleb,

      These are fine questions. On the presence of a tautology: no, that wouldn’t make the reading illogical. On the D.A. Carson point: the argument is directed at a kind of Sproulian Calvinist. If there are other Calvinist readings of John 3:16, my argument may or may not apply to them. On the point about ‘the world’ and ‘whosoever believes’: in my next post, I’ll reflect a bit on James White’s comments on these expressions and draw some conclusions particular to him. I do agree with you, however, that even if 3:16b *were* a tautology, it could still serve to emphasize that belief in Christ is (as you say) “what leads to eternal life.”

      Cheers!

  2. James A Gibson says:

    Hello Dr. Davis.

    A question about how to understand your argument.

    In this post you say, “I’m not arguing (by way of exegesis) for the truth of either [JW(w) or JW(n)]. The argument is purely dialectical; it’s designed to help White (e.g.) apprehend the implications of his Calvinism.” A little later you say that White’s discussion about exegesis is a rabbit trail. It seems that you are denying that the assertion of Jesus in the surrounding context John 3:16 is at all relevant. Instead, you are focusing on positions that, you say, are entailed by Calvinism. And hence exegesis is irrelevant. Is that correct?

    The reason that it is not obvious is that in your original essay, you talk about the shock of how we cannot take Jesus “at his word”. This suggests you are thinking of the assertion made in the text. Later in the essay you say, “To put (3:16b) into the mouth of Jesus either has him teaching falsehoods or empty tautologies, neither of which is befitting to the Savior.” Both of these points suggest that you do have in mind the assertion of Jesus as found in John 3. But plausibly, an assertion’s meaning (or if you prefer, which proposition gets expressed) depends on all sorts of contextual factors, e.g., to whom one is speaking, what beliefs are plausibly thought to be held by an audience from the perspective of the speaker. Think: Grice and Davidson. And if this is how we are to understand your argument, then it is odd that you would criticize White for raising the point about exegesis. For how else could you understand which proposition is expressed without doing exegesis?

    Can you, then, clarify the extent to which you take your argument to be relying on the text? Cheers!

    • Rich Davis says:

      Hi James!

      Thanks for this insightful point. I don’t think I’d want to deny anything that you’ve said here. In a broad sense, I suppose any thinking about John 3:16 is (to a certain degree) exegesis. After looking up John 3:16 on Biblegateway, for example, I might remark: “Look, this verse contains the quantifier ‘everyone’.” I could make this observation without reading around in the immediate context. If this counts as exegesis, then even my setting out JW as a displayed proposition was exegesis.

      But then someone might wonder what the *scope* of that quantifier is. (I think this is Jeff Howe’s question below.) And to determine *that*, we might need to consult surrounding verses, chapters, and so on. This would be a more involved form of exegesis, since we’re probing the meaning to a greater degree. My point here is a simple one. We can leave the scope undecided, and *that* doesn’t seem to be exegesis in the narrower, more involved sense. We just say: “Well, it’s either JW(w) or JW(n).” The rabbit trail is criticizing the setting forth of the disjuncts, in turn, as though I were advocating the one or the other. I’m just making an logical observation about scope. It could be wide; it could be narrow. I don’t say which.

      Perhaps the extent to which my argument relies on the text will become clearer in the 2nd post.

      By the way, James: Have you read Guillaume’s book yet? I hope someone reviews it for Faith & Philosophy.

      Cheers,
      Rich

      • James A Gibson says:

        Hi Rich.

        Thanks for that response. I have some ideas on how to respond to your argument, but I’d like to be certain that I understand your argument as you intend it to be understood. I’ll ignore JW(w) though since I don’t want to defend that. So here’s a reconstruction of your argument. By the Calvinist lights, there are two possible ways to understand 3:16 depending on the scope of “everyone”. The one that is not absurd (i.e., JW(n)) is one possible interpretation of Jesus, an interpretation open to the Calvinist specifically, because the Calvinist accepts that all the believing ones are elect, and they also understand the word “world” to refer to the elect. So the Calvinist has what appears to be only one non-absurd proposition to put in Jesus’ mouth, i.e. (x)(Ex -> -Px & Lx). But because that claim *is* trivial, we should not attribute Jesus in the text to asserting something trivial. Hence, not Calvinism.

        Is that fair? This is just a hunch, but my guess is that when you do the next post, you’ll argue that interpreting “world” in the way White and Huxford do nevertheless implies the symbolized sentence (JW(n)). Something to stay tuned for, I suppose.

        I do have Guillaume’s book, but I haven’t read through it yet. I had not considered writing up a review for F&P. Maybe I should. I figured someone else with less sympathy for his position would have something brewing already.

        Thanks again,
        James

      • Rich Davis says:

        Hi James,

        I think your interpretation is fair. You’re also right that I’ll (probably) focus on how White interprets ‘the world’ in the next post. I’d be very open to hearing about your ideas on alternate ways to take ‘the world’. That would open up the discussion in new ways. Excellent!

        Cheers,
        Rich

      • Well, actually my point was to what *authority* do we draw our exegesis from. By definition of the word, exegesis, it would be that of God and thus, scripture itself. If one doesn’t have a supernatural world view and divine revelation as their underpinnings to even begin exegesis then, their attempt to exegete scripture will start from a worldview outside the bible, presume no divine revelation to some degree or altogether and it works into eisegesis. So, when I read your statement, in regards to the qualifier of the word, “whosoever”/”everyone”, I saw a presumption starting from a human philosophical viewpoint as the starting point, which restricts the interpretation to a human point of view without even considering God’s point of view, as drawn out from the scriptures. It also, presumes the scope of 3:16 and that is an important consideration, as well. That leads to the reformed question of old, for whom did Jesus die for?

      • Rich Davis says:

        Hi Jeff,

        You write: “when I read your statement, in regards to the qualifier of the word, “whosoever”/”everyone”, I saw a presumption starting from a human philosophical viewpoint as the starting point, which restricts the interpretation to a human point of view without even considering God’s point of view, as drawn out from the scriptures.”

        Consider Romans 3:23–“All have sinned.” This verse contains the quantifier ‘all’. Is that observation in error (or in some way deficient) b/c it stems from “a human point of view”? Do I need scripture to tell me ‘all’ is a quantifier before I can conclude ‘all’ is a quantifier? Is that merely a restricted, human interpretation? To be sure, the *actual* scope of ‘all’ here s/b determined by scripture. But that ‘all’ is a quantifier, and that quantifiers have a scope isn’t thus determined.

  3. Nick Huxford says:

    Mr. Davis, it is interesting to see logic applied to the Bible…I take John 3:16 as “God so loved the world, not just the nation of Israel, but those from every “tribe, tongue and nation”, that he gave his one and only Son, that everyone believing in him shall not perish but have eternal life and that means EVERYONE;” You see the Calvinist has no problem with the promise that “all those believing” in Christ will be saved and that is all that John is talking about in this verse.

    • Rich Davis says:

      Mr. Huxford: on the matter of ‘everyone believing’ from amongst every ‘tribe, tongue, and nation’, please see my 2nd post on James White. I anticipate that it will appear late next week.

  4. Mr. Davis. I read your, ” James White and John 3:16: Rhetoric and Red Herrings” article and have seen JW’s DL and RFG vid’s in regards to this. In your article you stated, “The implicit domain of the quantifier ‘everyone’ is persons. Logically speaking, we can let that quantifier range over all persons (elect and non-elect), or we can restrict it to some (e.g., the elect alone).”
    I was wondering, how would the bible determine the implicit domain of the qualifier as to what way to read it, just the elect or all humanity? Thank you for your time to read my question, JHowe.

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