Monday, September 13, 2010

White vs. Sungenis on Predestination

After listening to a recent debate between James White and Robert Sungenis on predestination and free will, which the reader can listen to here, I felt compelled to write some notes on the more confusing and erroneous points Sungenis made in his opening statement. I have tried to categorize his statements as best I can.

Church History

Sungenis cited the Council of Orange to explain in what way he believes man possesses free will: enabling grace. However, it is not clear to me in what way Sungenis purports to harmonize Catholic soteriology with several of its canons. He cited Canon 4:

“If anyone maintains that God awaits our will to be cleansed from sin, but does not confess that even our will to be cleansed comes to us through the infusion and working of the Holy Spirit, he resists the Holy Spirit himself who says through Solomon, "The will is prepared by the Lord" (Prov. 8:35, LXX), and the salutary word of the Apostle, "For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13).”

Canon 6 makes a similar condemnation:

“If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10).”

Does Sungenis believe the Holy Spirit is infused into unbelievers and, if so, what is the nature of such an infusion if not regenerative? White cited a staple passage for the doctrine of total depravity, Romans 8:7-8, in his opening statement, but the verse following is more relevant to this question:

Romans 8:9a You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you…

If indeed Sungenis believes that the infusion of the Spirit is of a similar nature to that described by Paul – and if the Spirit is said to be infused, I do not see how he could contend otherwise – then in order to remain consistent, he would have to contend a prima facie absurdity: that to be “in the spirit” implies nothing more than that one’s nature, upon infusion, is enabled to choose to believe or disbelieve God’s word; one is not neutral if he is in the spirit.

This confusion aside, Augustine’s influence is nowhere else more evident than in the particular Scriptures the council cites to support its declarations, for Augustine was not shy about repeating passages like 1 Corinthians 4:7, 15:10 in order to press his [similar] arguments. That Sungenis believes Lucidus from the 5th century is the first [post-apostolic] forerunner of “absolute predestination” – i.e. predestination without respect to free will – betrays an unfamiliarity (to put it generously) with Augustine, who most certainly believed in monergism.


After a little church history, Sungenis proceeds to explain how free will is incompatible with total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.

Sungenis’ understanding of unconditional election is somewhat questionable, as he believes it implies God elects arbitrarily; in a later clip, he asserts that a God who decrees sin in order to manifest His justice and wrath as well as His mercy and grace is arbitrary. But this doesn’t make sense at all. God’s choices are grounded in His consistent, righteous desire to uphold that which is infinitely worthy: His glory. How exactly is that arbitrary? Sungenis’ unsupported accusations, arguments from incredulity (“What kind of God would [do this]?”), arguments from silence (“Wouldn’t God get more glory if He saved all men without exception?”), and utter failure to distinguish between a desire to manifest of His nature to His people from a sub-human need to “prove who He is” are just several samples of the kind of question-begging and straw man argumentation Sungenis resorts to throughout his opening statement, as will become more apparent.

In any case, Sungenis is obviously not a Molinist, since he believes free will and unconditional election are not compatible. Moreover, Sungenis appears equally unswayed by the argument that new Eden provides an example par excellance of a situation in which man could possess free will and yet be unable to fall away; perhaps he doesn’t believe Christians will retain free will after death. I cannot discern that free will bears any direct relation to the extent of the atonement, but at least Sungenis seems to recognize that classical Arminians cannot consistently believe in total depravity and that free will is mutually exclusive with sola gratia.


After this contrast, Sungenis explains why he believes in a kind of predestination that works “in conjunction with” free will: the Bible says so. Now this is an admirable reason to believe a doctrine is true, but if one were, on this account, to expect that Sungenis would endeavor to immediately substantiate his assertion and explain the way in which free will relates to predestination, he would be disappointed. Instead, the audience is treated to a lengthy speech in which Sungenis more or less says that systematic theology is hard and God is incomprehensible. One of his arguments could be constructed as follows:

P: Philosophers have debated God’s nature for thousands of years.
P: It is possible that, in some way we do not understand, God’s nature is reflected in all the variant positions which have been advocated during these debates.
C: Analogously, free will and predestination could cohere.

Or maybe:

P: Contrasted concepts of either/or questions which I can’t answer can both be taught in Scripture.
P: The coherence of free will and predestination is such a question.
C: The Bible teaches free will in conjunction with predestination!

Though spoken in a bit of jest, it was truly painful to listen to the way in which Sungenis attempted to excuse his prefatory gymnastics. His follow-up argument was nothing more than a tu quoque argument against White: since White believes Adam possessed free will yet believed God ordained the Fall, White must believe that predestination and free will can cohere. But even if all this were true, it does not follow that free will is biblical.

Even more painful is to listen to Sungenis couch his arguments in hypothetical language and then proceed to pontificate as though the hypothetical is a given. For example, he argues: “If God Himself commands that man participate in salvation by exercising his free will to accept or reject God, then… etc.” But since Sungenis never actually gets around to demonstrating that God commands man participate in salvation by exercising his free will, whether or not his conclusions follow from this conditional are irrelevant. Sungenis will later assume that the fact that all men are commanded to believe implies they can believe and that an “invitation” to believe likewise implies such a capacity, but when push comes to shove, he can provide no substantial argument.

Distinguishing Factors

Sungenis was eager to intercept the argument that free will implies that one who chooses to believe is smarter, more spiritually sensitive, or in some general way “better” than Joe Reprobate who chose, also by free will, to reject God. Yet if Sungenis believes it is within bounds to criticize the Calvinist for believing in a God who chooses arbitrarily, it is unclear why he would consider it out of bounds for the Calvinist to criticize Sungenis’ position on similar grounds.

Sungenis is also critical of being labeled a synergist or anthropocentric because he does not wish to be associated with others who have dissimilar beliefs to his own. Read that again and see if it makes sense. Even more puzzlingly, he says that if one wishes to learn about synergism, he needn’t look any further than the variance amongst Reformed Theologians regarding lapsarianism &c. Needless to say, Sungenis made not one whit of sense throughout this portion of his diatribe.

He continued in this nonsensical fashion by further criticizing Reformers for making such distinctions in the first place, accusing the origin of disunity on a general lack of possession of the truth; of course, given that Sungenis cannot likewise account for Molinism and Thomism within Roman Catholicism, it is little wonder that Sungenis feels the need to employ yet another disguised tu quoque argument, viz. for no other reason than to attempt to drag his opponents down to ground equal to his own: none.


A little more than halfway through his opening statement, Sungenis finally gets around to putting forward positive evidence for his position… or so it would seem.

In his first cited text, 1 Timothy 2:4, Sungenis assumes that “all men” refers to men without exception rather than without distinction when he in fact cites verses in context which would seem to support the latter interpretation (verse 1 and 6, cf. verse 2). Using his argumentation, Roman Catholics would retranslate Romans 3:23 such that Mary and Jesus are excluded. Apparently, Roman Catholics don’t believe all means all! Comically, Sungenis doesn’t ever connect God’s alleged desire to save all without exception to man’s free will, so one is left to speculate as to just how 1 Timothy 2:4 teaches the concept. The same goes for his throwaway citation of 1 John 2:2 (in which the analogous John 11:51-52 is unsurprisingly left unmentioned).

His other citations fare little better. Neither John 5:39 nor Matthew 23:37 imply, in their respective contexts, that the men mentioned could have been willing to act contrary to what they did, and in 2 Timothy 2:13, Sungenis reverts to assuming that a conditional statement implies actuality – whereas Christ and the apostles repeatedly said he who denies Christ is an antichrist. With that, Sungenis has run out of ammo. That’s all he had to offer.


The shallow nature of Sungenis’ argumentation is no more evident, however, when Sungenis is reduced to appealing to the emotions of the audience. Sungenis would seemingly have his audience believe that all unbelievers are poor, needy souls who are crying out for a Savior only to be stiff-armed at the goal line by the tyrant God of Calvinism. What rubbish! Men are slaves to sin and lovers of darkness before they are regenerated. White often uses imagery of a man standing on the precipice of Hell shaking his fists at his Creator. In less dramatic terms, he has related times when he has spoken to people who say they cannot possibly accept the God of Calvinism, to which he replies: “I know.” That is to say, apart from God’s unobligated grace and mercy, sinners are quite content with going about their own business of living in sin, thank you very much. Of course they reject God. Sungenis is a very good example of this: he presumes a loving God must attempt (and fail more often than not) to save all men without exception and is further willing to call the biblical God monstrous. One would do well to observe how quickly Sungenis proceeded from an incomprehensible God to an anthropocentric God.

One final attempt is made by Sungenis to show that God can predestine men according to their free will. The CCC, paragraph 600, states:

“To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of "predestination", he includes in it each person's free response to his grace”: "In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place." For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness.”

Sungenis claims that this illustrates how Roman Catholics are able to interpret Scripture at face value and compatibilize free will with predestination. But firstly, after complaining that White must interprets the “all men” of 1 Timothy 2:4 according to his preconceptions, it is ironic that Sungenis cites an interpretation of Acts 4:27 which substitutes “permitted” for “predestined” without further ado. And secondly, it is very interesting that this catechism predicates God’s predestination on creaturely wills. One wonders how Sungenis would respond to the objection that free will necessarily implies that God cannot be eternally omniscient.


Contrasted to White’s opening statement, Sungenis’ was poor. I had hoped Sungenis would challenge White, but even a lowly layman such as me can perceive the ridiculousness of Sungenis’ arguments. I may listen to the rest of the debate at some other time, if only to hear White’s rebuttal and the cross-ex, but if this is seriously the best non-Calvinism has to offer by way of a defense of free will, what a let-down.

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