Debating Calvinism (James White, Dave Hunt)

May 8, 2007 at 9:13 pm (Books, Theology and the Bible)

I don’t know why I read this book. I wanted to pluck my eyeballs out by the time I had finished. I only forced myself to complete it because I started it. I guess I thought it would be helpful in my understanding of Calvinism, but if anything, it only made me remember why I despise systematic theology so much.

I digress. As my title suggests, the book I refer to is Debating Calvinism: Five Points, Two Views, which was basically a written debate between James White and Dave Hunt.

I could have blogged as I read the book, but I probably would have been too overly harsh on the authors – both of them – had I done this, so I waited until I was done, gave myself a few weeks to digest, calm down, and hopefully give a calm general overview of the book rather than give a point by point scathing review (er, other than my introduction of course).

The Problems with the Book

Problem #1: James White is an eloquent (Baptist variety) reformed systematic theologian to the T (get it, to the T? anyways…) and Dave Hunt isn’t an Armenian. I was hoping for a debate between a Calvinist and an Armenian so I could understand both systems better. Instead, mostly it was James White espousing his views, Dave Hunt attacking Calvinism in return, and then James White telling Dave Hunt how ignorant he was for not understanding/believing the Truth.

Problem #2: James White is theologically educated, Dave Hunt is not. This should be self-explanatory. I think Dave Hunt just has it in for Calvinism, which is why he wanted this debate. I think it is a sincere effort based on serious concerns he has, and I don’t want to demean him in any way.

Problem #3: This was really the major killer. Both James White and Dave Hunt acted like children throughout the entire book. Seriously. “You’re wrong.” “No, you’re wrong.” No, you’re wrong!” “Your momma!” “Oh yeah, well your momma…and your Bible verse too!” Okay, so maybe not in so many words, but quite honestly they were barely civil to each other. I just didn’t feel the love.

Problem #4: They talked past each other, and did exactly the same thing that the other said the other did. I.e, “You take your pet verse(s) and interpret the verses that don’t agree with the verse(s) you like best in light of your pet verse(s).” “No I don’t, you do.” And then they both do.

My Problem

Which leads me to my problem. I hate systematic theology. Because they both did that very same last thing. And then (James White especially, since he actually had a systematic theology) fill in the holes with principles drawn from the favorite verses, etc. etc. Proof-texting abounded on both sides. I despise proof-texting. Not that Dave Hunt was any better. Granted, I knew I was picking up a book that would use systematic theology, and thus would make me want to pluck my eyeballs out, I just think I had forgotten how much ST rankles my nerves. This is not a slam against either author personally, just a comment on systematic theology. Systematic theology, well, systematizes the Bible and theology.

Side Rant Having Nothing to Do with the Book Review

YOU CAN’T DO IT. Theology is fluid. It’s complex. It’s contradictory. That’s because God is complex, and sometimes seems a little contradictory. You can’t cage him. You can’t put walls around him. The instant you do, you’re bound to discover something that doesn’t fit into your neat little package. And so you’ll be forced to bend it, twist it, shove it, until you fit that square into the circle puzzle hole. And in doing so do great injustice to those very things you just wanted so desperately to understand. It is a sincere effort, but in our human limitations it just falls short.

Back on Track

On the upside, I did gain one item of interest from reading this book. I have been bluntly informed by James White that if I am not a Calvinist, I could not possibly believe in Penal Substitutionary Atonement, because this is a view of the atonement that goes hand-in-hand with the system of reformed theology. I in fact did not realize this before, but after reading his rational argument, I do see how this makes sense. I think this was meant to convince me to be a Calvinist, because most Christians believe in penal substitutionary atonement without even knowing it, “Calvinist” or not.

I, of course, refuse to submit so easily. Since I’m not a Calvinist, I guess I can’t believe in the penal substitutionary view of the atonement anymore. I’m currently exploring other options. Any thoughts?



  1. Dr.Q said,

    Once Mrs.Q, wezlo and I were in a biblical theology class at Eastern. The instructor required us to write a biblical theology of a biblical book (Deut, Jer, Mat or Rom). Mrs.Q told the prof “I don’t read the Bible. I’m a theologian!”

    While she half meant it in jest, this seems to be the problem in systematics. They just don’t known their Bible. I tried to explain the “open-theism” debate to a couple of bib studies friends, the debate was nonsensical to them — “of course God changes his mind, haven’t you read Exod?” was their response.

    As far as atonement theories: just read Milgrom’s Leviticus commentary and his discussion of כפר 😉

  2. aboulet said,

    To add a little balance, I think that systematics can be helpful. For instance, Proverbs is based on an overall, systematic understanding of the law; Deuteronomy is a systematic reworking of the law of Ex-Numb for the current context; and Paul definitely utilizes a systematic understanding of both the OT and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

    On the other hand, systematics can (and in many places does) go too far in their extra-biblical logic searching for an answer.

    As for the atonement, I like Wright’s view that he develops both in Jesus and the Victory of God and The Resurrection of the Son of God where he doesn’t lay out all the options and make an argument for the one he believes is best. Rather, he lays out all the options and shows how each speaks a certain truth about the atonement that the others, taken by themselves, miss out on. He prefers to look at the atonement with an emphasis on the Christus Victor, but not at the expense at other options. It’s more of a heirarchy of helpful views than a choose-one-at-the-expense-of-all-the-others.

    Scot McKnight lectured similiarly at the Emerging Church conference at WTS this past fall. The book, which is an outworking of his thinking and the lecture that he gave, it coming out soon called A Community Called Atonement.

  3. Patrick Smith said,

    I’ve read the same book. It didn’t leave me wanting to pluck my eyeballs out, but I also couldn’t read it in one sitting. I pretty much ended up reading one section of point / counterpoint and then putting it aside for a week.

    Your right: the debate was completely lopsided in James White’s favor. Dave Hunt simply lacked the theological background to provide a consistent refutation of Dr. White. Hunt was also unable (or unwilling) to provide an alternative perspective. He denies Calvinism without providing a foundation which can take it’s place.

    Dave also does a great disservice to his position by constantly misrepresenting what Calvinist actually believe. This seems to be a consistent problem for Hunt. I’m an ex-Mormon and I’ve read the book on Mormonism that Dave Hunt co-authored with Ed Decker. “The God Makers” prevents a view of Mormonism that is completely alien to real Mormons. In fact, it was the Mormon missionaries ablility to show me how “The God Makers” misrepresented their beliefs that actually led me to converting to Mormonism. It wasn’t until I was presented with another text on Mormonism that actually did present the errors of true Mormon beliefs that I left the cult.

    “Debating Calvinism” is really of no value to anyone but the Calvinist who is seeking to find ways to answer really shallow arguments against Calvinism. If you are looking for a well-balanced presentation of two opposing viewpoints, look elsewhere.

  4. Naomisu said,

    Dear Eliana,

    I laughed until the tears ran down my face. Not at you but with you. And this is in spite of losing close relationship with my son when he heard the gospel of “predestination” and preceded to put anything I said down to my being an “Arminian” or influenced (deceived?) by Arminian ideas because I had been brought up as a Methodist before I was confirmed an Anglican. Both of these things happened before I committed my life to following Jesus Christ. And here I was thinking I was just a Christian = I belong to Christ. LIke Paul said: We are all Christ’s.

    My advice about what view or theory to have of the atonement is to first trust in the Christ who actually atoned for you and to rest in His care, live your life in joy and see what understanding flows out of that. It’s always worked for me even when I have messed up and the specific understanding has come through repentance.

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