Sunday, June 14, 2009

Neo-Amyraldian debating tactics, elephant hurling and spin

Over in the meta of Dr. Bob Gonzales' blog post, in which Dr. Gonzales attempts to defend his position of the Well-meant offer (WMO) from the charge of irrationalism made by Sean Gerety, the Neo-Amyraldians Tony Byrne and David Ponter are hard at work playing the game of historical quote-mining. Byrne is well-known for committing the fallacy of elephant-hurling, or amassing huge quotes supporting his position and throwing them at his opponent as if large number of acontextual quotes would an argument win. So in my response to him, I called upon him to focus on one issue and decide to hold him there. For if he cannot defend the case that one of his citation does indeed prove his position, then why should we think that the multiplication of similarly questionable quotes would solve the inherent problem in his argumentation?

It is noted that in a forum involving others, Byrne misrepresents my position even when it was so explicit in my post on the subject I was discussing. This should surely cast doubt on whether Byrne has adequately represents pastors and theologians of the Reformed and Puritan tradition in his many citations from their works. Byrne's response is to throw three quotes which seem explicit in teaching God's desire for reprobates to repent, following which I called him out on one of them — the example given by John Bunyan, of which he quoted

“That God is willing to save even those that perish for ever, is apparent, both from the consideration of the goodness of his nature (Psa. 145:9), of man’s being his creature, and indeed in a miserable state (Job. 14:15, 3:16).” John Bunyan, “Reprobation Asserted,” in The Works of John Bunyan (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), 2:353.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, I have addressed Byrne's use of Bunyan's material here. As I have said then:

The next post to look at is one entitled John Bunyan (1628-1688) on God’s Grace, Goodness, Offers and Saving Will. As per his norm, Byrne highlighted all the words that he thinks promotes ‘common salvific grace’ or the ‘well-meant offer’ in yellow. However, looking at the context of the quote from Bunyan, does Bunyan actually believes in ‘common salvific grace’? I contend not. All the highlighted parts should be read together in their contexts to establish what Bunyan means by what he says, not just isolated as phrases and infused with established modern meanings. The entire quotation by Bunyan proves only that the offer of the Gospel is not proffered only to the elect but to all, such that even the reprobates could take it if they are able to (but of course they are unable to). As Bunyan states later, he says that “there is a difference between his withholding further grace, and of hindering men from closing with the grace at present offered”. In this sense therefore, Bunyan states that for God’s interaction with the reprobate, he withholds further grace, which is obviously referring to salvific grace. However, God does not “hinder men from closing with the grace at present offered”, which just means that with the grace given to even the reprobates, God would not prevent them from being saved if they are able to use this grace to bring themselves unto salvation (but of course they are unable to). What is damaging to the Neo-Amyraldian case is this following quote from Bunyan:

But I say, as I have also said already, there is a great difference between his being willing to save them, through their complying with these his reasonable terms, and his being resolved to save them, whether they, as men, will close therewith, or no; so only he saveth the elect themselves, … (Bold added)

As it can be seen, Bunyan here states that if God resolves (wills) to save them, then the proper objects of such a resolve must be only the elect. So therefore, Bunyan DOES not believe in God having any form of intent of saving the reprobate (’common salvific grace’). All of the talk about offer to the reprobate, grace given to them etc. are Bunyan using theological imprecise (even incorrect) terms to express something very true, which is that God will NOT hinder the reprobates from saving themselves IF they are able to do so. In more theological precise terms, God does not actively reprobate sinners, nor does He prohibit them from being offered the Gospel.

Byrne having seemingly being silenced, his good friend David Ponter comes to the rescue, and attempts to make some points to defuse my skeptical deconstruction of Byrne, which we shall look at.

Firstly, we MUST note that Ponter did not ever engage with my reading and interpretation of Bunyan's material. Whatever it can be said, the failure to prove my position wrong will forever undermine whatever proof the Amyraldians can come up with, for the simple reason that why should we believe their citation of other and especially obscure sources when the ones we have checked do not actually prove their position?

Ponter gave three points to defend the Neo-Amyraldian method of quote-mining from charges of anachronism, which are lifted from his post here. The points are:

1) Just because a topic was not debated, does not mean a given person could not have had an opinion on a given subject. Or that they could not have explicitly meant what they quite apparently said.

2) The allegation that we can not with certainty discern the position of the early Reformers on the basis of their alleged ‘unguarded’ statements is a two-edged sword. If it holds good for one side of the question, then it holds good for the other side of the question. For example, if the so-called unguarded statements which seemingly speak to an unlimited redemption and expiation, then likewise any statements which seem to indicated a limited expiation and redemption. When bloggers assert this rule against one side of the question, but happily [sic] go about trying to prove the other side of the question from the same sources, they are being capricious and hypocritical.

4) Such an allegation may find a place in the thinking of bloggers, at the academic level–which should be of more concern than “bloggers,” all the leading academic contributors do believe that certain positions regarding the Reformers can be discerned. For example, Richard Muller is quite convinced that men like Musculus, Kimedonius, Aretius, Zanchi, Ursinus and many others held to a form of what he calls non-Amyraldian hypothetical universalism and universal redemption. . Michael Thomas is another author that comes to mind. Roger Nicole is quite convinced on his side that Calvin held to limited expiation. Jonathan Rainbow likewise. Peterson has shifted ground on this too, conceded that the doctrine of limited atonement was debated in the time of Bucer (here he confesses Rainbow has persuaded him on this point. Keep in mind, too, Calvin spent a year with Bucer in Strasbourg.

To conclude, the fact that a topic was not hotly debated at a given point in time, or by given men of interested, in no way proves that these given men, at that time had no firm self-conscious opinion on the matter. That they did not argue a theological point for something does not preclude them from asserting that theological point. Its time that certain “bloggers” get beyond this naive assertion regarding anachronism and engage the primary sources directly, using public and testable rules by which a given man’s thought on the extent question and be ascertained.

Let us now look at Ponter's attempted defense.

1) There is no disagreement with this particular point per se. However, having a pre-controversy position on a subject does not mean that that position has exactly the same nuances and qualifications even meaning as the post-controversy position even if both position statements utilize the exact same words. Neither does it mean that the person espousing this position would hold to that position under different circumstances. Sentences are said and written in a particular historical and worldview context, and must be interpreted accordingly.

We need not look too far to the example of Augustine to see this reality, who pre-Pelgian was very much for the idea of free-will, like the rest of the Church Fathers, but altered his position when the Pelagian controversy started. It could very well be surmised that the initial patristic emphasis on free will occurs as a reaction to the fatalism in Greek religious mythology and philosophy (ie stoicism) and therefore the patristic emphasis must be read in this light: not as a denial of God's sovereignty but as a denial of fatalism.

Ponter's point here therefore fails to take into account the authors' Weltenshauung and prevailing Zeitgeist of the period these pastors and theologians live. Much like how Augustine changed his position due to his shock at Pelagius' heretical reasoning, it could very well be the case that the pre-controversy positions and sentences utilized by these saints were proper in their time, and they would be shocked if they were to see how such language is being used today to promote error, in the same way as Augustine was shocked by Pelagius' promotion of autonomous free will.

This is why context is so important when reading sources; not only for the Bible but for all texts. Historically, it seemed to escape the notice of Ponter and his fellow Neo-Amyraldians that most of these pastors and theologians and reformers were living in a vastly different world from today. Theirs was a Christian world, and especially in the case of the Reformers and Puritans, a Christian world even extending to the Christian nature of the State! Theirs also was a world of inclusion of the whole of society into the Visible Church, and thus any reprobates within would still be considered as being covenantally inside the Church. If the Neo-Amyraldians desire to prove God's desire for reprobates to repent, writing about God's desire for reprobates within the Covenant to repent is absolutely insufficient! What is required is for such as living in Christendom to write about God earnestly desiring the reprobates among the Turks (as was known as the major enemy of that time) or the heathen to repent, which I doubt they would be able to find one single example.

Theologically, we have already mentioned the idea of the Visible and Invisible Church, external and internal inclusion in the Covenant of Grace. The Neo-Amyraldians ignore this basic fact presupposed especially in Reformed and Presbyterian (and even Lutheran) circles, which shows the little attention they pay to the worldview of the authors of their quotes.

2) Ponter here thinks that those of us who accuses them of anachronism and states that the early Reformers utilize "unguarded" statements are in a dilemma created by our false reasoning. What Ponter seem to forgot is that I at least have given a viable alternative interpretation of the text by Bunyan which was quoted by Byrne, which takes into account the context of Bunyan's book. Nobody that I know is arguing, and definitely not me, that the views of the early Reformers or anyone for that matter, cannot be known because of their use of "unguarded" statements. What we DO assert, however, is that the possible use of such unguarded statements mean that work must be done in trying to understand the author's train of thought in their work and how they themselves define and utilize the terminology found within their book. That is why we have been emphasizing again and again the issue of CONTEXT, CONTEXT and CONTEXT. Only when we have taken into account their particular jargon and idiosyncrasies can we then understand the meaning of what they say, NOT merely importing our "modern" definitions into their writings in acontextual quote-mining.

3) As argued, nobody is saying that the positions of the Reformers cannot be discerned. What we are arguing for is a proper interpretations of their writings that takes into account their entire worldview and utilization of terms instead of importing our definitions and concepts into the words they say. This by the way is what makes reading works of the Reformers, Puritans and other saints gone by hard! It is not just the language barrier of the "thees" and "thous", but the cultural and ideological landscape barriers that must be overcome. With the rapid change in society and the deconstruction of Christian Western culture, the barriers are made even harder, but not impossible.

One thing that is hoped is that the Neo-Amyraldians would actually engage the primary sources, not merely quote sentences which seem to teach their pet doctrines. I have done so for the one case of John Bunyan, and we shall see whether Ponter or Byrne or any of the Neo-Amyraldians desire to truly interact with the arguments or are they desiring only to play the elephant-hurling game they have been playing so far.

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