Saturday, November 21, 2009

Laurence Vance's Critique of James White's "Potter's Freedom"

I was recently pointed to "A Critique of The Potter's Freedom by James White," written by Laurence M. Vance. It can be found online in many locations, almost like it has become the "holy grail" for Arminians against Calvinism.

Due to time constraints I will not give a detailed response to Vance's critique of James White's book, which can be found at Amazon, Aomin, ChristianBook, Kalahari or Augustine Bookroom.

Vance starts off in the first paragraph saying that

"because it is so illustrative of the Calvinists’ continual rehash of their errors, it merits further attention because of its prominent place in the current round of what I call the TULIP Wars."

The only problem with this sentence by Vance is that he never gets to give further attention to the "Calvinists’ continual rehash of their errors!" Sure, he mentions a lot of stuff that he believes are errors, but he never gets to give it "further attention." He only attempts once to provide a sprinkling of exegesis from the passage in Romans 9 concerning the potter and the clay. However, the rest of the critique is made up of assertions and innuendo. Hardly an iron-clad case!

Next, Vance goes off on a tangent of a totally inconsequential nature! He tries to prove how Reformed Baptists are simply Reformed Christians that baptize adults by immersion only. Truly a big deal, wouldn't you say? During this tirade Vance makes a huge deal about the fact that Reformed Theology rejects dispensationalism and premillenialism. He highlights this issue twice in two consecutive paragraphs. Is this one of his litmus tests for true Christianity? Is his level of exclusivity based on eschatology? I personally do not believe in the fabled rapture, nor in dispensationalism, but in New Covenant Theology. I personally believe that using eschatology as a barometer for correct theology is theologically shallow and shows a misunderstanding of the essentials of the gospel.

In Vance's handling of the potter and clay imagery, he lumps a whole lot of Bible passages together as if they all say the same thing, which could not be further than the truth. He makes the reader believe that all these passages concern Israel as a nation. I can't say it better than John Piper at this point, so I'll quote him in reference to Is 29:16:

"The emphasized portion [the Greek from the Septuagint from the 2nd phrase to the end of the verse] is identical to Rom 9:20b but what the πλασμα says is not the same in Paul and Isaiah. This suggests that Paul is not so much citing a text for authority as he is adapting a common metaphor for his own purpose. But should someone want to press for an Old Testament meaning behind Paul's image, the Is 29:16 offers the most probable source. However, here Isaiah is not speaking of the nation as a corporate whole, but of the 'perverted' wise men (cf. 29:14) in Israel, who in their presuming to hide counsel from God, act as if they were God."1

The point is that the different passages that use the potter and clay imagery do not all speak of the nation of Israel as the clay. The clay is represented by almost as many images as there are passages that mention this subject. The only constant between all these passages is that the Potter is absolutely sovereign over the clay. It would do the reader good to read John Piper's book, especially the section that deals with the potter and the clay.2

Moving on, Vance says the following of Calvinists:

"Additionally, because they are hung up on the Reformation, Calvinists have substituted Reformed Theology for the Bible. The final authority for a Calvinist is not the Bible at all, it is Reformed Theology."

If this were true, then every Calvinist would have agreed on every point of Reformed Theology. Vance is setting up a straw man argument with no logic behind it. Does Vance really think that Reformed Theology fell from the sky and that it has become the 'scriptures' of Calvinists? This is truly such a juvenile argument that really warrants no response in actuality. I can say the same of Vance, of Arminius himself! But, where would that get us? Nowhere! To simply dismiss Calvinism with such a statement does not help in the debate. Dismissive attitudes such as that do not engender mutual respect. Of course, we all know that Vance has no respect for "heretics" such as Calvinists. This is what he wrote in his book, "The Other Side of Calvinism." Calling someone a heretic is to view that person as a non-Christian! Vance claims that White is trying in his book to show that Arminianism is opposed to the gospel, at least by implication. However, in one stroke of a pen, Vance has declared in so many words that Calvinists are heretics, meaning that they are not Christians.

Vance's claim that Calvinists have "substituted reformed Theology for the Bible" becomes quite an empty claim when one has a look at the Scripture index of Calvin's Institutes. Calvin's use of Scripture is of the most comprehensive I have ever seen! Loraine Boettner, in his excellent book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, also shows very comprehensive usage of Scripture! Similarly, Louis Berkhof, in his Systematic Theology has a Scripture index of 22 pages. Last but not least, James White, in his book The Potter's Freedom has a Scripture index of 5 pages. This is hardly proof that Calvinists rely on Reformed Theology and not the Bible. Rather, this points to a solid basis on the Bible for their theology.

Finally, at the end of the second section of Vance's paper, he goes into a diatribe as to why Calvinistic Baptists aren't "real Calvinists" or perhaps only "second-class Calvinists." Why this is so important to him only he will know. The fact is that Calvinistic Baptists and Reformed Christians from Presbyterian and Reformed Church backgrounds are getting along really well! This can be seen in ventures such as Together for the Gospel.

Next Vance goes into "Ten Arguments that Crumble under Scrutiny," ostensibly to disprove James White and his Calvinism.

First, he claims that "White tries to make all Christians either Calvinists or Arminians" and gives the page numbers where White does so. Perhaps Vance missed the point ever so slightly! White is simply talking about the Arminian/Calivinist debate, and he does not classify all Christians in either of these two camps. Remember, White is responding to a very well known Arminian who made many assertions about Calvinism. Hence, he is writing as a Calvinist refuting the claims of an Arminian. For instance, Vance gives page 20 as an example. Yet, on this page White speaks consistently about what Dr. Geisler wrote and how Dr. Geisler is an Arminian. On page 295 White specifically mentions the debate between Arminians and Calvinists. Dr. White set the limits of the discussion as between these two camps. Not once does he even allude to what Vance claims!

The fact that we "continually read of Arminians (p. 147), Arminianism (p. 175), Arminian positions (p. 235), Arminian preachers (p. 231), Arminian exegetes (p. 153), and Arminian views (p. 136)," is quite easily explained. The debate of Dr. White's book covers Martians, Venutians, Calvinists and Arminians! So, since the debate is between Calvinists and Arminians, it makes sense that White will speak of Arminians!

Vance's second point is that "White uses the guilt by association argument (pp. 33, 85, 92, 233)." His point here is that "Calvinists typically associate Arminians with every conceivable heretic or heresy" such as Roman Catholicism "so as to discredit them." Page 33 in Dr. White's book is almost completely taken up by a quote from the Jesuit, Loyola, in his fight against the "heresies" of the Protestant Reformation. There is no mention of Arminianism or any specific Arminian at all on this page! How is this guilt by association?

pottersfreedom On page 85 Dr. White writes:

"The religions of men, Roman Catholicism, and Arminianism, all share one thing in common: the deep desire to maintain the ability of man to control the work of God in salvation and always have the 'final say'"3

This is simply not guilt by association. Dr. White clearly states the reason why he believes Arminianism is wrong.

Dr. White believes that Calvinism/sovereignty of God is the doctrine that came from the Reformation, and one only has to read Martin Luther's "Bondage of the Will" to realize that. Hence, the title of Dr. White's book! The same traits as that of Roman Catholicism, with regards to salvation, also known as synergism (man as co-worker with God in his own salvation) can be seen by Dr. White, as he shows on page 92. As the Reformation was against the Roman church, and Dr. White sees similarities on the issue of salvation between the Roman church and Arminianism, Dr. White sees it fit to want to defend the doctrines so hard fought for during the Reformation. As a result, Dr. White points directly at the issues he has with Arminianism, hence it is not guilt by association.

On page 233 Dr. White has a long paragraph that covers almost the whole page on how Catholicism sees the work of Christ. Then, at the bottom of the page Dr. White starts a section with a 7 line paragraph on historic Arminianism that carries on for 2 more pages in which he doesn't mention Catholicism or even tries to equate Arminianism with Catholicism. There is just no guilt by association here. Again, Dr. White is very direct about his qualms with Arminianism!

Third, Vance makes out as if "White claims that non-Calvinists misrepresent Calvinism." The section on page 21 that Vance points to actually proves the point Vance claims White is making, even if he does no such thing! Vance truly misrepresents White here! Nowhere on page 21 does Dr. White ever make the assertion that non-Calvinists misrepresent Calvinists! What Dr. White claims is that Dr. Norm Geisler misrepresents Calvinists in his book Chosen but Free. To make a blanket statement that White says that non-Calvinists as a group misrepresent Calvinists is categorically false. Vance here does exactly what he claims White is saying. So, in a way Vance proves his own point. He misrepresented Dr. White, a Calvinist! The fact is, however, that many Arminian theologians have gone out of their way to misrepresent Calvinism to their congregations and in their books and on radio.

"Fourth, White exalts God’s sovereignty above His holiness (pp. 41-
44)." Maybe I have a problem with my eyesight, but I could swear that the section is called "The Free and Proper Kingship of God." Now, I don't know about Vance, but when I write and call a section "A," I generally stick to the subject matter pertaining to "A!" The subject matter pertaining to "B" will be dealt with elsewhere! Pages 41-44 of Dr. White's book deal with the subject matter of God's sovereignty, not with God's holiness! This is really an inane complaint by Vance.

Vance also writes that "White relates God’s decrees to Calvinism (p. 45)." I must be blind, but Dr. White does not even mention any derivative of the word "Calvinism" on page 45. The section"The Decrees of the King" starts on this page and all it does is explain the doctrine of the decrees of God.

Grudem explains the decrees of God in short definition form:

"The decrees of God are the eternal plans of God whereby, before the creation of the world, he determined to bring about everything that happens. This doctrine is similar to the doctrine of providence, but here we are thinking of God's decisions before the world was created, rather than his providential acts in time. His providential actions are the outworking of the eternal decrees that he made long ago."[emphasis supplied by the author]4

Vance further writes that "[t]he decrees of God in the Bible do not
relate in any way to salvation." The fact is that salvation is part of God's decrees. King David says that "in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them." (Ps 139:16) Is that something God did for David alone, and only in the Old Testament? No! David speaks here of something he knows happens in general. He knows that God has set forth the days of his life and every other person's life and that God is sovereignly in control. Now, if God is in so much control as David says here, that God has written all "the days that were formed for" him in God's book, why would that exclude salvation?

The apostle Paul also makes it clear that salvation is indeed part of the decrees of God:

"(3) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, (4) even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love (5) he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, (6) to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (7) In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, (8) which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight (9) making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ (10) as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (11) In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will," (Eph 1:3-11)

Vance also believes that if God only has foreknowledge of those things He has decreed to take place, it is an attack on God's omniscience. If God has decreed all things to take place, what else is there to "foreknow?" The fact is that God's foreknowledge is not mere awareness of what is going to happen sometime in the future.

God's foreknowledge is not as simple as in Tom Cruise's movie, Minority Report, where the police had a machine that could see into the future if crimes would be committed! In this movie the police could then arrest the perp even before he had committed the crime. This is mere passive foreknowledge. This is palm-reader foreknowledge.

We may have foreknowledge that on 25 December of every year it is Christmas. However, God's foreknowledge is not a mere knowing of what will happen in the future. God's foreknowledge is an active knowledge, more akin to God's predestinating work.

"Fifth, White appeals to men (pp. 125-31, 255)." Vance obviously thinks that he is the sharpest pencil in the box, since he needs no-one else to guide him in what he believes. He obviously came to what he believes all by himself on his island paradise. I am sorry for being so facetious here, but this complaint against Calvinism is truly laughable. The fact is that if someone else has said it better, then why not be humble enough to quote from them? We all know that giants of the faith have gone before us. Why not stand on their shoulders to see better? As if our Arminian brothers never read the books of others to gain more understanding. Have you ever seen an Arminian seminary without books?

"Sixth, White appeals to extra-biblical sources like creeds and confessions (pp. 78, 125)." Vance adds to this that "Calvinists often put the words of men above the Scripture." Those crazy Calvinists! Don't they know that they shouldn't have anything to believe in, just look at the Bible? The fact of the matter is that all human beings have creeds that they live by, whether those creeds are in writing or not! It is called a worldview. All that a creed does is to summarize what we believe in. If I ask you what you believe in, are you going to quote me the Bible verbatim or are you going to give me a summary of your beliefs? That is a verbalization of your creed, written or otherwise. How many churches have a statement of faith? That is a creed. A creed is simply a statement of what we believe! For an answer to Vance's claim that Calvinists prefer the words of men over Scripture, see my answer of a similar claim by Vance here.

"Seventh, White uses the standard proof texts: John 6:37, 44; Rom
8:28; 1 Cor 2:14; Acts 13:48; Eph 1:4; 2 Tim 1:9; and Romans 9 (pp. 96, 109, 154, 159, 186, 195, 208, 211, 213). Calvinists never seem to tire of running around the same circuit of verses." And the point being? Maybe we should use non-standard proof texts like Gen 1:1! Oh yes, that does not speak to the subject at hand at all! If I want to make a case for the doctrine of the Trinity, should I use any texts but the standard proof texts? If there is a text that speaks clearly to the case at hand, then use it! It is like saying that we should use something non-standard like a hammer to fasten a bolt! Simply amazing!

"Eighth, White claims that Jesus Christ taught Calvinism (pp. 153-
69). Chapter 7 in White’s book is called 'Jesus Teaches "Extreme Calvinism."' What a better authority to which to refer? Why not just say that to deny Calvinism is to deny Christ?" If you deny the fundamentals of the gospel, yes, then you deny Christ. However, Calvinists do not claim that the ordo salutis is a litmus test for salvation. A person with a wrong ordo salutis may be considered in error, but not a heretic, which puts that person outside the fold of Christianity.

"Ninth, White overwhelms the reader with theological terms (pp. 91-
92). Calvinists are the masters at this tactic." It is so sad that the church no longer knows its terms of theology. What Vance says here is more an indictment of the church at large than of Calvinism. It is not so long ago that many Christians would have understood theological terms. But, with the dumbing down of the church with pop-theology rather than Biblical theology, we get complaints like that levelled by Vance. I am not saying that Vance does not understand these terms, I am sure he does. But when the church does not understand its own historic terminology, one wonders what is being taught from the pulpit!

The thing about theological terms is that they contain a wealth of meaning, and if you need to go through that wealth of meaning each time you write or teach, it could considerably lengthen books and teachings. Just imagine every time you use a word, you first had to explain what it means, i.e. chair.

"Tenth, White … implies that if you are not a Calvinist then you deny salvation by grace (p. 91)." White here makes a comment about Geisler's words which Dr. White quotes: "God's grace works synergistically on free will." About this Dr. White says:

"At the most fundamental level it is a belief that is opposed to the Reformation, and I believe opposed to biblical teaching regarding God, man, and grace."5

Dr. White on this page nowhere says "that if you are not a Calvinist then you deny salvation by grace." What he does say is that synergistic grace, which is dependent on man's volition, is not the grace taught in the Bible.

Still under the tenth point, Vance says that White "implies that a
rejection of Calvinism means that justification by faith must be rejected as well." Let's see what Dr. White actually wrote:

"One cannot claim to stand in harmony with Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, or Calvin without believing both in the doctrine of justification by faith as well as the truth of God's absolute freedom and man's bondage in sin."6

Does this look anything like Vance's claim? This is the only place on the page where justification by faith is mentioned.

Lastly, but still under Vance's tenth point, he writes that White "implies that a denial of Limited Atonement means that the substitutionary nature of the Atonement of Christ is being rejected." This is not at all what Dr. White wrote on page 233! He uses three-quarters of the page to show how even Roman Catholicism limits the "atonement in its effect but not in its scope." Then in the last bit of the page he starts:

"Historic Arminians saw that believing in the idea of substitutionary atonement would not fit with their system of theology. Even though Arminians today may use this terminology, it does not strictly 'belong' to them. Arminian scholar J. Kenneth Grider assert that the idea of 'substitutionary atonement' is foreign to Arminian thinking…"7 [Grider's quote follows in Dr. White's book.]

Without spending lots of time on this point, comparing Dr.White's own words with that of Vance's shows that Vance has a disconnect with his own ideas of what White wrote and what Dr. White actually wrote.

Just to conclude, I would like to refer to Vance's third point. In this point, Vance says that Dr.White claims that non-Calvinists misrepresent Calvinists, and I answered the point there. However, it is clear from what I have shown above that Vance has grossly misrepresented Dr. White in his critique of Dr. White's book.

Instead of an approach of iron sharpens iron, Vance comes in with an unwieldy sledge hammer to pummel Dr. White's words into what Vance thinks Dr. White is saying. It is unfortunate, because there is no real way for a conversation between Vance and Dr. White to start. In my opinion, Vance does not want to start such a conversation, it is easier to for him to sling the mud of misrepresentation at Dr. White.



[1] Piper, John, The Justification of God: An Exegetical & Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23, Second Edition, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1993.
[2] Ibid., pp183-204
[3] White, James R., The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free, Calvary Press, Amityvile, NY, 2000, p85.
[4] Ibid., pp183-204.
[5] Ibid., p91.
[6] Ibid., p36.
[7] Ibid., p91.

1 comment:

sidgrace said...

Have you read "The Other Side of Calvinism"? Dr. Vance read every book in print on the subject and almost exclusively allows the Calvinists to speak for themselves. He does not build straw men he allows Calvinistic doctrine to be seen in its clearest light then refutes it from Scripture. You may not agree with his conclusions but your demeaning and dismissive tone should turn to one of respect. I have studied this topic for 35 years. I have been called Pelagian and semi-pelagian, arminian and many other names when I simply believe in salvation by grace through faith alone. Calvin and his followers use the most intemperate speech and then cry foul when they feel the least bit slighted. Arrogance and sensitivity are strange bedfellows. Consider reading Vance's book. You will not agree with it but it will help you to respect his scholarship .

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