Other Religions

A Catholic Review of White/Stafford Divinity Debate about Jesus

by Art Sippo

I finally listened to the whole debate. It was very interesting. White did very well, but I think it was a methodological draw. In the end, when you are arguing what words mean, the only way you can know for sure is by going back and asking the author what he meant. Neither of these guys could do that because the Holy Spirit ably superintends the Catholic Magisterium, not heretical and apostate "scholars."

Here are my comments: The guy who did the intro to the debate makes the point that the way to absolute truth is through scholarly debate. No mention is made of superintendence by the Holy Spirit. This is typical prot schtick. I have condemned Protestantism many times as theological pelagianism and it is good to see that my accusation is borne out by their own admission.

White and Stafford both played the "my Greek grammar trumps yours" game. White was much more systematic that Stafford and his arguments made more sense. Unfortunately, he could not use the real trump card: the constant witness of SACRED TRADITION. He alluded to the fact that the "historic" Church (which for him means the Waldensians) always interpreted the Bible to mean this, but he did so purely to justify his methodology, not to verify that he Church could not have erred in such an important matter from the beginning.

Stafford was a very good Prot saying that he would go "anywhere that the text leads me" even into apostasy and novelty. He has far more faith in his own interpretation than in the faith of the historic Church.

The Section on John 10 that they discussed was a very interesting exchange. It reads:

Jhn 10:30 [Jesus said] "I and the Father are one." Jhn 10:31 The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jhn 10:32 Jesus answered them, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?" Jhn 10:33 The Jews answered him, "It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God." Jhn 10:34 Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, you are gods'? Jhn 10:35 If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), Jhn 10:36 do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, 'You are blaspheming,' because I said, 'I am the Son of God'? Jhn 10:37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; Jhn 10:38 but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father."

I agree with Stafford that White did not give a good answer to him. But there is a reason for that. What Jesus meant was that the judges of the Jews were called gods in the Scriptures and they were not the Messiah sent and sanctified by God. How much more should Jesus the Messiah have the right to call himself the Son of God? Would not the Messiah be greater than the judges of old? In Rabbinic exegesis this is arguing "a minore ad majus"€”from the less to the greater.

The reason White could not admit this was because it meant that the judges were in fact "other gods" worthy of honor by the people of Israel. It is this point that White is at pains to deny. When he said that no creature "no matter how exalted" could share in the glory of God, I KNEW he was thinking of Catholic devotion to Mary. At this point, Stafford had the better argument. God had no problem in the OT sharing his prerogatives with the judges of ancient Israel and even with angels at times. But White has to deny this because of the Reformed doctrine of the Creature/Creator distinction. This doctrine is an overt denial of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the Christian (also called uncreated grace, divinization and theosis).

White also made a serious error. He claimed that no monotheistic Jew would have a second god. As I have harped on in this list and others, the Jews at the time of Christ were speculating about angelic mediators and even believed in a Great Angel which the Talmud described as like "a second god." The work of Larry Hurtado, Margaret Barker, Charles Geischen, Crispin Fletcher-Louis and others has demonstrated this time and again.

But White is still holding the erroneous 19th Century view that "biblical" pre-Christian Judaism was a puritanical cult of radical monotheism. This was not true. And it is a good thing it wasn't true. The openness of the Jews to an angelic semi-divine mediator was a preparation for the revelations of the Trinity and the Incarnation. The above scholars have shown that St. Paul and the early Church borrowed heavily from this angelic tradition in order to express early Christological formulas.

Most modern biblical scholars would say that ancient Israel did practice henotheism, not radical monotheism. Radical monotheism is what Islam believes and it has no room for Incarnations, Sons of God, or Trinities. But it was a limited henotheism in which the one God oversaw all creation while his authority was shared with kings, priests, prophets, parents and other human beings in a hierarchical way. Obeisance to human authorities was conceived of as obedience to God, but God nevertheless was unique and had immediate access to everything in creation. Two way mediatorship though comes solely through the one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ. That is why Jesus Christ is Lord.

To be honest, it is possible to put an Arian spin on some of the Bible's teaching about Jesus, but the faith of the Church (and several biblical texts which White mentioned) has always supported the strongest identification between Jesus and Yahweh. The problem is that the Trinity is a mystery and cannot be reduced to simple terms in human words. There will always be some paradox there. It is the synthesis of biblical teaching not the mere words of the bible itself which are orthodox. And no Prot can make such a synthesis because he has no authority to do so.

White made a very telling point by showing that Stafford did not accept the eternal nature of the Son as the image of the Father. He failed, though, to use the term from scholasticism that describes it in the best way: The precedence of the Father's image in the Son is not a temporal precedence but a logical one. But White utterly rejects scholastic terminology, so he fumbled around trying to say that the "grammar" did not imply temporal precedence.

I think James did very well but was limited by his prejudices and heresies from making a complete defense of the Incarnation. Stafford held his own as well, but I think he was too dependant on trite objections and grammar tricks and did not have an overall synthesis to make his view stick. He kept harping that "nouns don't do this" when in reality, colloquial language equivocates on meanings all the time.

The closing statements were to me symptomatic of the problem. In the end, the argument was over grammar and not the faith of the Christian Church. White started to get sermonic, but he did so in an exhortatory fashion, not in a didactic way. That is why I think that in the final analysis, the contest was a draw. No methodological system can reveal eternal verities. It can illumine them, but not establish them as truth. In the end it was the presuppositions of the debaters, that determined their conclusions. Neither of them had the authority to declare any truth as certain. They each believed whatever it was they wanted to and just gave rationalizations for it.

Art Sippo
The Catholic Legate
March 9, 2004