James White’s argument on latria and dulia

James White is known to oppose the traditional distinction between latria and dulia on the grounds that it is an unbiblical distinction. He has argued his case for example in his debate on the Communion of saints against Patrick Madrid, on the Dividing Line against William Albrecht and in this blog post. William Albrecht then posted a response via Robert Sungenis’ website. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

First, I should thank James White for being honest about the Catholic doctrine in his debates against Muslim apologists who have claimed that Catholics worship Mary along with God and Jesus. White has explained the Church denies the divinity and worship of Mary, adding that his criticism of the Church on this issue has to do with the latria-dulia-distinction. So, even though in White’s terms Catholics do worship Mary, he’s honest enough to tell them the Church doesn’t believe in or teach Marian worship.

White’s main objection lies in the fact that the Bible doesn’t give us the same terminology as Catholic theology with regard to latria and dulia. He is adamant that one must derive one’s theology from the Bible, and there is no biblical basis for the latria-dulia distinction in religious contexts (I’ll come back to the “religious context” point later): “You shall worship (latria) and serve (dulia) God alone.” The biblical command seems opposite to the Catholic claim that saints can be paid dulia.

The way I’d like to comment on White’s argument also has to do with Muslims. Namely, I think that White’s argument against Catholic veneration of saints could easily be turned against him by an astute Muslim debater in discussing the Trinity. They could easily point out that the doctrinal formula of mia ousia, treis hypostaseis is unbiblical. Not only does the Bible remain silent about the way the eternal relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is to be explained philosophically (the closest it comes is John 1:1), Hebrews 1:3 actually seems to deny the Christian usage altogether.

The passage in question describes the Son as the χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως of the Father, the very image of his substance. The word for substance here is hypostasis. Now hypostasis is a familiar word from Trinitarian dogma, but the problem is that there it means not the substance but the person. (As an aside, the King James Bible actually translates Hebrews 1:3 as “the express image of his person”.) The word for “substance” or “being” in Trinitarian dogma in ousia, and it is one of the highest priorities in Christian theology not to confuse being and person, as White so often underlines in his presentations of the Trinity to Muslims.

So, what we have here is that the Bible uses some of the same words as later theology uses, but uses them differently, and indeed in diametrically opposite ways. The same is true, it seems to me, in the whole latria-dulia-issue. Later theology can define its own terms, the Bible is simply not meant to do that for us. If Hebrews 1:3 doesn’t prove the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is unbiblical, neither can the Bible reject the latria-dulia-distinction. The Bible predates both of these theological controversies and doesn’t address them as such.

Religious context?

Now a couple of words about White’s major follow-up against Catholic apologist who cite biblical evidence for an appropriate application of dulia to men. White has said that dulia can be given to men in a non-religious context, but in a religious context it is inseparable from latria. He says the same of proskyneo, another Greek word related to worship or obeisance. Albrecht answered this by asking who defines a religious context and providing examples of seemingly religious-context-dulia paid to men (Joshua 5:14, 1 Chronicles 29:20).

I gather that what White has in mind when he talks about a “religious context” is bowing to statues and lighting candles before them. Here is White’s argument in his own words: “A man is caught bowing down before a Baal in Moses’ day in his tent. He is brought before Moses, and when asked for a reason for his idolatry, the man replies, ‘Oh, that wasn’t idolatry. Don’t you know that someday, in a language that will come into broad use in about 3,000 years, you will be able to argue for a less strict use of the term?’ I’m sure that would go over about as well as the, ‘Oh, I wasn’t worshipping the idol by bowing down and lighting candles before it, I was giving it dulia instead’ excuse.”

White’s argument might impress some of the people on his side, who assume that statues depicting glorified saints in the New Covenant are just the same as statues depicting non-existent pagan gods. They can assume that prayers directed to demons are just as bad as intercessory petitions to the great cloud of witnesses. But from our perspective there’s a big difference between a false god and a heavenly brother/sister in Christ. No homage is due to the former, but due veneration is definitely due to the latter. White’s example is mere rhetoric, it’s no argument at all.

The fact is that the Bible doesn’t address the issue of New Covenant saint veneration in any great detail. One of the major reasons is the fact that the first generation of saints was still largely alive. But very soon the militant Church felt a true and lively connection to the triumphant Church, death had not separated brothers in Christ from each other. And so early Christians painted pictures of saints in Roman catacombs, asked for their intercession in inscriptions, sang hymns to Mary, and so forth. If there are abuses, they should be fought, but it is an unfortunate break from Christian tradition and piety to start claiming that the old and venerable practice of honoring the saints is unbiblical and forbidden by God.

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One Comment on “James White’s argument on latria and dulia”

  1. MarcoPolo Says:

    Doesn’t James White suggest by the title of his book “Mary-Another Redeemer” that Catholics DO place Mary in a divine position with Christ?


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