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White vs. Sungenis on predestination

The opening session of Discern 2010 was a debate between James White (from a Reformed perspective) and Robert Sungenis (from a Roman Catholic perspective) on predestination [mp3|stream].

White went first and laid out the usual distinctions (Monergism vs. Synergism, one force vs. cooperation, theocentric vs. anthropocentric, accomplished vs. theoretical) and marched through a dozen or so Scripture references to underline his points. He went further than I thought Reformed types usually go by stating bluntly that “Scripture does not teach free will.” Otherwise I thought he opened really strongly.

Sungenis then responded by saying that the Catholic Church affirmed predestination at the Councils of Orange and Trent and stating that the Church teaches some sort of conjunction of predestination and free will, while Luther and Calvin deny that man has free will. He underlines that free will does not equate to any sort of meritorious action or specialness on the part of the believer. He also begged the obvious Catholic question by stating “when you don’t have the truth you make distinctions ad infinitum.” He asked how limited atonement glorifies God, and gave an illustration involving a sinking ship, where is a captain of another ship and has the power to pluck all the people from the sinking ship but chooses to save only some. Sungenis also cited a handful of proof texts.

I thought White made a mistake by interacting with the ship story; pushing this story back and forth occupied much of the rebuttals, without much benefit to either side.

I thought Sungenis did a middling job of responding to White’s points (rather than dealing with the verses White cited, he just cited verses of his own). White in turn did a poor job of responding to Sungenis’s points:

  • I expected White to clarify what he meant by “Scripture does not teach free will,” but he just repeated the claim
  • Sungenis tied up one of White’s stronger claims (regarding Paul’s reference to the Ephesians being “dead in sin”) by accusing White of “making doctrine out of metaphor;” I thought this was his best point during rebuttal, and I didn’t hear White respond to it. I frequently find that I have the same problem about many doctrinal claims, and I’d never heard it put so succinctly.
  • Sungenis also claimed that most/all of the passages White cites as supporting the Reformed position can be read equally validly from the Catholic perspective. I really thought this was weak, but White didn’t respond to it.

Sungenis also made the point that Calvinism “empties the Scripture of admonition,” making every statement a command. I think this is an interesting but not necessarily valid point.

In White’s closing argument he stated that God decreed the Fall; I was under the impression that this is a position shared by some but not all Calvinists; I didn’t realize White was one of them.

Sungenis substantially oversold his position in his closing argument by claiming that Protestantism itself is responsible for confusion etc. regarding questions of predestination. He stopped just short of suggesting that we’d all be better off if we had a single Pope to interpret Scripture for us.

I don’t know that there was a clear winner here, but I probably would have given the edge to Sungenis.

A few hours later they debated the Assumption of Mary. I had other commitments and didn’t go; this is not a question I care about, and I tend to suspect that this is something people believe because they are Catholics and the Roman Catholic Church teaches it, rather than something that people come to believe that leads them to Catholicism, or whatever. James White deals a bit more with this debate than the one above on Tuesday’s Dividing Line [link].

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