James White, Romans and Justification

I would like to respond to James White’s recent YouTube video on Tim Staples and “Allowing the Word to Speak”. The video is impressively made, but some of its claims provide and excellent illustration of some of the main problems I have with White’s apologetics. First of all the title of the video is already deceptive. It gives the impression that what White will do is to “let the Word of God speak”, whereas his opponent’s exegesis is nothing but a mere twisting of the Word.

But obviously what one really gets is White speaking, using verses here and there to make his case. This is the whole problem with Sola Scriptura. White himself recognizes at the beginning how harmful private Bible studies can be, when Scriptural texts are considered in isolation etc. Then he goes on to give the impression that Catholic apologists use a methodology “common in many false religions” where they jump from text to text without considering the context. In contrast to this, White is going to help the viewer to understand the “flow of thought” in Romans. Only thus can one appreciate what the passages really mean.

I certainly have no problem admitting that one needs to understand the whole argument of Romans in order to correctly exegete particular passages, and I certainly agree one should try to follow the “flow of thought” of the Apostle Paul. What I don’t grant, however, is that White’s exegesis is at all the most obvious one. How does one enter the mind of the Apostle? Just by reading Romans? By listening to White? I’ve done both, but I’ve read enough Pauline scholarship to know it’s much more complicated than that.

The sad thing is that White wants to convey the idea that the Reformed doctrine somehow objectively and perspicuously follows from the “flow of thought” in Romans, whereas the rest are “false religions” that jump from text to text without considering the context. Well the truth is that I’ve seen some of the worst examples of the above-mentioned methodology on Reformed websites – and somehow I feel this in itself isn’t enough to make Calvinism a false religion. So I would call White to a higher level of honesty and to admit that these methods are used by people in the true religion as well as in false religions.

And yes, I would even dare to say James White often emphasizes a couple of verses without following the whole “flow of thought” in the book of Romans. If you read White’s books, watch his videos, listen to his debates, you will find him talking about Romans 4:3-8 and 5:1 all the time, but you won’t really hear him talk about any of Romans 6, although justification language abounds there as well. The reason of course is that there justification is connected with baptism and then obedience, which doesn’t fit into White’s flow of thought at all.

You’ll also see White jumping from Romans 4-5 to 2. Cor 5:21 or to a general statement of Reformed theology (as in this video at 13:10), asserting that our sins are imputed to Christ and his righteousness is imputed to us, although Paul nowhere states so. This is a grave violation of the apostolic argument. I would recommend N.T. Wright’s book Justification to anyone that would like to see how someone really trying to follow through the whole argument, to think Paul’s thoughts after him, can end up with a totally different interpretation of the Pauline Gospel.

Just one example, Romans 2:13. To say that this verse is evidence for a future justification by doing the law is, according to White, to ignore the context and “Paul’s intention”. I wonder who White is to tell us what was going on in the mind of Paul – has he entered it, does he infallibly know it? He claims to give us “the entire message of the book of Romans”, that “there’s no one who does the Law except Jesus”. Interesting, so this is the whole message of the book of Romans. I wonder why it never says that in Romans, then… yes, it says all have sinned, but it also talks about those who keep of fulfil the law in 2:27, 8:4 and 13:8, and they’re not Jesus.

James White declares that “Romans 2 is talking about Jews”, N.T. Wright thinks it’s talking about Christians who do the law in the Spirit. Both views can be argued for. And to be frank with you I’m not sure what Romans 2 is about and how it fits with Romans 3. It might be one way or the other, and these aren’t the only alternatives out there. Heikki Räisänen’s Paul and the Law argues Paul is simply self-contradictory. That, too, is a possible reading when one “allows the text to speak” without external doctrinal eyeglasses on.

What, then, shall we say? I hope this has helped once more to illustrate how James White, like many other apologists, can use convincing language and present himself as someone who “truly knows” the Word of God in opposition to those that twist it. In reality, White is not the only one who has read the Scriptures and tried to follow their argument as closely as possible. And the fact is that many of these other people come up with very different interpretations of the most central truths of the Gospel. That is again why we need to look at the Tradition as well as the Scriptures. Study Paul, yes, but don’t think you’re exempt from the many things hard to understand therein. Listen to the Church as well.

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7 Comments on “James White, Romans and Justification”

  1. Nick Says:

    I’ll respond more later, but here is what I’ll say for now:

    White (and Protestants in general) think Romans is the greatest book ever written and think it proves all their distinctives, but in reality when they say “Romans” what they really are thinking is Rom 1-5 & 9 (more specifically Rom 1b,2b,3b-4a,5:1,5b, and a few verses of 9b). This is very problematic, for where is the “flow” and “general argument” in this approach? Romans is 16 chapters long, and Rom 12-16 is sadly virtually forgotten about (though is very beautiful).

    Back to Rom 1-5, White thinks Paul is building a grand ‘court-room’ scene where Paul exposes Gentiles (1b), then Jews (2b), as sinners all under God’s wrath but saved by faith through Christ (3b-4a). While there is some truth to this, it’s overall misguided. If one reads carefully, Rom 1b-2a is speaking of all men (Gentile and Jew), eventually being judged by their works (with 2b-3a referring to the Judaizers only). Rom 2:13 occurs in the context of final judgment and being judged according to works, it is not ‘hypothetical’ or an impossible to accomplish ‘truism’ – White virtually neglects this context (because his framework doesn’t fit 2a), and thus reads what he wants into it. Interestingly, Paul himself says he is “not yet justified” (1 Cor 4:4) – speaking in regards to final judgment, yet White doesn’t address this (nor does Tim, who should have mentioned it).

    • Emil Anton Says:

      Nick, thanks for the comment! You make some good points. I don’t think 2b-3a is talking about Judaizers if you mean the sort of people fought against in Galatians. I think it is talking about non-Christian Jews. There is no indication that they believe in Christ, cf. 9-10 with similar arguments clearly used of unbelieving Israel. White addresses 1 Cor 4:4 in his debate with Pacwa, saying it refers to his apostolic activity and not to his salvation. His argument against Staples on Gal 5:5 works here too: one should then explain how Paul can say in Rm 5:1 that he is has been justified. The answer would be probably what modern Pauline scholarship is also investigating: that there is an initial and a final justification… but we need to work out their relationship to each other. Does the final necessarily correspond to the present? Wright seems to believe so, and White obviously does, but there seems to be good reason to believe they don’t necessarily need to. This needs to be explained well, though… This will be a major chapter in my future book on the Catholic Paul, I hope.

      • Nick Says:

        What do you think about the claim that all men are being referenced in 1b-2a? I say this because texts like 1:22-23 are strong allusions to texts like Psalm 106:20. I see how 2b could be the non-believing Jews, rather than Judaizers, and I’m now thinking that’s a better fit.

        What do you mean that 1 Cor 4:4 refers to apostolic activity rather than salvation?

  2. Emil Anton Says:

    That’s a tough one and I really don’t know for sure – 2:1 seems to me to indicate a wider audience than mere Jews, and 3:9 seems to indicate that Gentiles were in question there, because where else did Paul show their sinfulness? The allusions in 1b are many, both to the Fall and to Israel. It seems the point is to show how all mankind has fallen, including Israel. There’s a parallel between the Fall and the Golden Calf episode.

    But the bigger question is whether it’s more collective than individualistic, as in can there still be people who are not under the wrath of God and fulfill the law in spite of the Fall etc. 1:18-2:1 as well as 3:9-3:23 seem to favor a view that not a single one is exempt, but all the rest of 2 seems to teach the opposite. This is my big issue.

    As for 1 Cor 4:4, if/since “justify” means “recognize as innocent”, “vindicate”, “acquit”, and if/since the context of 1 Cor 1-4 is Paul’s apostolic activity, then the issue could be simply whether the charges brought by people against Paul’s ministry will be shown to be false on the last day when everything comes to light.

    • Nick Says:

      That’s an interesting point, because some Catholics I’ve read say the list of passages in 3:10-21 – when read in context – point to the ‘collective’ rather than the individual. Check out the first part of this link that addresses this point:
      http://web.archive.org/web/20030416143517/www.catholicintl.com/epologetics/rescuing_romans.html

      Many of the OT passages Paul cites in 3:10ff, when read in context, mention ‘righteous’ men in various terms, indicating the original point wasn’t about an absolute sinfulness of all men (else Paul would be cherry-picking). Further, in those passages Paul is speaking of sinful Israel specifically, not the Gentiles.

      Also, the way 19 is worded is often overlooked: “we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable.” Here, to be ‘under the Law’ is the Mosaic Law, and thus it is speaking to the Jews. The way I see this, the Gentiles are sort of ‘condemned by default’ in virtue of simply being outside of the covenant (cf Gal 2:15). And this links to how the Law has power only to those ‘under’ it (e.g. 4:15; 5:13).

      I don’t think Paul is saying someone can fulfill the Law without the Spirit, thus all men are at least alienated from God. Now whether Paul is saying everyone is under His Wrath in a ‘positive’ sense, I don’t think Paul is saying this. With the Spirit, however, one certainly can fulfill the Law – and indeed must – in spite of the Fall.

      I think the context of 1 Cor 4:4 is more than just “apostolic activity,” for it’s more than just whether Paul is a genuine apostle, but more specifically the motives of “men’s hearts” and that Paul uses himself only as a example (4:6). The wording of 4:4 is Paul’s “clear conscience” and all this aside from what men think of him. It fits nicely with the Catholic notion of ‘conditional assurance’. White is reading all this with the presumption that a genuine Christian can never come under judgment, and this also influences his reading of 1 Cor 3 where he says it’s simply about whether a church official will receive a reward or not and not anything to do with attaining/losing salvation.

  3. Dave Says:

    Great Blog. Hope you can continue to post!


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