White vs. Sungenis debates

I would like to share a couple of comments about the recent White vs. Sungenis debates, on the basis of the Cross Examinations published on Youtube (on Free Will and the Bodily Assumption) and Sungenis’ written response to White’s post-debate comments on a radio show.

White’s challenge to Catholic apologists

I think the debates reflect some of the biggest problems in Catholicism and Catholic apologetics today, and White has put forward “the case against” very well. As I will make clear below, I don’t find White’s position credible either, but he has certainly put a serious challenge to defenders of the Catholic Church, which I believe still needs to be met. Starting with the debate on the Assumption, I will summarize White’s (valid, I believe) arguments (or my development of them) below:

1) The Catholic Church claims the Assumption is a Dogma revealed by God. The sources of revelation are the Scriptures (and Tradition, according to the Catholic Church). But the Dogma is not found in the Bible (or in early Tradition). Thus, the Church is wrong on an “infallible dogma”.
2a) The Church no longer says the Assumption is merely a pious belief, as it was when it first appeared, but it is now binding on all believers (according to the decree issued by the Pope in 1950) in such a way that to deny the Assumption is revealed is to abandon the Faith and become a heretic.
2b) This amounts to a denial of the sufficiency of the Gospel, because there is now additional, new revelation which must also be believed in order to be saved. By what right does the Church add to the Gospel, make a previously pious belief a part of the Regula Fidei? This is a different Gospel (Gal 1:8).

Sungenis’ weak defense

Sungenis’ defense admits that there is no explicit mention of the Assumption in the Bible or in early Tradition (he affirms implicit Scripture support and late patristic support). His argument, then, is that the Church has the right to make infallible decisions without explicit support in Scripture or Tradition, based on his reading of Acts 15. Here, he says, Peter decides to free pagan Christians from the yoke of circumcision, without any explicit support in Scripture or Tradition.

I think White made two good points in response: first, the council in Acts 15 does cite Scripture as support, namely, Amos 9:11. In his written response Sungenis claimed White didn’t answer his question about where this text talks about the cessation of circumcision. Actually White gave a very good answer, pointing out that if circumcised, the Gentile nations (Acts 15:17) would no longer be Gentiles but Jews!

Second, White asked Sungenis whether the Church has infallibly interpreted Acts 15. Sungenis said no. In his written response Sungenis totally misses White’s point here: it is not that non-infallible interpretations are illegitimate! White’s point is simply to show what a fallible business Catholicism is in the end, despite all the talk about infallibility: it all depends on the validity of Sungenis’ interpretation of Acts 15!

This is where White took Sungenis at the end of the Cross Examination, and it was an embarrassing thing to listen to. Sungenis admitted his whole defense of the Assumption falls if his interpretation of Acts 15 falls. In fact even I as a Catholic think that Sungenis’ interpretation of Acts 15 falls. To me it seems clear that the decision in Acts 15 is made in favor of the Gospel, which is the essence of Christianity. The point was precisely not to add any superfluous requirements or obligations to the Gospel, which is salvific on its own (Acts 15:9,11).

Sungenis appealed to Mt 16:18 and Acts 15 to argue that the Church can add new binding dogmas to the Faith. This seems to me to be the opposite of the sense of the texts, which simply show that the Church is in service of the Gospel. White asked how these texts (which in their context have nothing to do with later dogmas) give the right to a man in Rome in 1950 to bind something on all Christians which no Christian in the first 500 years ever bound on anyone?

Is this not a different Christianity, another Gospel? I might add, when did Christians start interpreting the above texts in this fashion (i.e. that the hierarchy has the right to add binding dogmas to the Faith)? Catholic apologists often cite certain texts in defense of the magisterium (1 Tim 3:15, etc), but never address whether this interpretation is exegetically or patristically sound. What if the Church derives her authority and truth simply from the Gospel and faithfulness to it? What if it didn’t receive a right to add new dogmas, what if this is a later invention by the Church itself?

More problems

The way most Catholics would probably respond is to go to the early ecumenical councils, which made all kinds of philosophical definitions, which even White accepts (the homoousios, Chalcedonian Christology, etc). Don’t these add to the Gospel as well? This is a difficult question indeed, and I do believe White’s acceptance of the first 6 councils is a bit arbitrary, as well as his limiting the patristic period to Augustine.

Be that as it may, the counter-argument doesn’t answer the problem but makes it more complex. On the one hand, one could argue that the Christological definitions were necessary, because their substance (Christ’s divinity and humanity) is explicitly taught in Revelation, whereas it is a very different matter with the Marian dogmas, which are late theological developments with no explicit basis in revelation.

On the other hand one could also argue that the Church erred in binding philosophical terminology on believers, without any explicit basis in Revelation. As far as I know, homoousios was a term suggested by the Emperor Constantine, not Scripture or early Apostolic Tradition. And does it really make the difference between Heaven and Hell whether one believed in one or two hypostases in Christ, as long as one affirmed his true divinity and true humanity, one person in two natures?

Are we infallibly sure God doesn’t treat such matters as adiaphora (non-essential)? The Nestorians and the Monophysites believed the Gospel and had the Sacraments, are we really sure they were all damned heretics (looking at ecumenism today, it seems the Church isn’t that sure)? Do we need to edit John 3:16, 1 Cor 15:2 and a host of other passages to suit later dogmatic definitions?

One more note about “new revelation”. Sungenis claimed White doesn’t understand the concept. General Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle, whereas private revelations continue as does the presence of the Spirit which helps the Church grow in understanding of the Deposit of Faith. Fine enough, but White’s point remains unanswered: if the Assumption is part of General Revelation, then it is to be found in the sources of Revelation, which it is not. The reason Catholics believe it as revelation is the 1950 definition. This is as good as new revelation. (Btw, in the debate Sungenis himself made the terrible mistake of saying God revealed the doctrine to the Church in 1950! If it was revealed, it was revealed when Mary was assumed.)

Predestination

Briefly on the Predestination debate. Sungenis said it was White’s weakest debate. Based on the Cross Examination, Sungenis was the weak one: he turned Romans 9 into his own (extremely un-pauline) interpretation of the Exodus events, whereas White followed the thought of Paul much more faithfully. Sungenis was right, though, to point out that (White’s reading of) Romans 9 creates a lot of problems, one of them being 1 Tim 2:4.

Sungenis did well in his written response on 1 Tim 2:4. Indeed White’s exegesis here is just as bad as Sungenis’ exegesis of Romans 9. The fact that Paul mentions kings and rulers is a far from clear indication that he only means groups of people and not all people. What to do with the contradiction between Romans 9 and 1 Tim 2:4, I do not know. Better leave it a mystery.

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13 Comments on “White vs. Sungenis debates”

  1. Patty Bonds Says:

    “Better leave it a mystery.”

    That’s what I’ve always said.

  2. Nick Says:

    You do make some good points, but I think the problem is not properly framed.

    Debates on peripheral issues like Marian Doctrines are bound to be disasters because the range of evidence is narrow and rests largely on larger issues like Infallibility. The result is that the debate shifts from the main topic, Mary, to Infallibility and a bunch of ranting on of a few pieces of evidence. How can we expect to have a 2 hour debate when this is the ‘game plan’? That means 1.5 hours will be spent on fluff.

    Such “debates” only serve to make folks like White appear more credible than he really is and generate hype, while making the Catholic side look ridiculous because it’s not being given fair representation. Sungenis only agreed to this for the purpose of generating income to feed his family and sell his books – otherwise it’s a waste of time since the two sides are approaching this peripheral issue from radically different foundational viewpoints.

    Also, I don’t think it was accurate for you to say White’s argument is valid in regards to #1: “But the Dogma is not found in the Bible (or in early Tradition).”
    If you grant that’s valid, then you cannot in good conscience accept the Dogma. The Church itself would never be able to base a Dogma off of no support in Scripture or Tradition. So that is not a “valid” argument because it misrepresents the actual Catholic position. One can disagree with the evidence proposed by the Church, which is what White is doing, but one cannot say the Church is not basing the teaching on nothing. Munificentissimus Deus claimed to base this on Scripture and Tradition; it never said “there is no support in Scripture or Tradition but we’re going to proclaim it anyway”.

    The issue really is whether the Church’s credibility and authority is such that it can make such a pronouncement based on the evidence. That’s something the genuine seeker must weigh when searching for the “True Church”. In the midst of his journey, he must also consider other “contenders” such as White’s Reformed Baptist tradition and determine which side has better credibility overall.

    It’s funny to me that texts like Revelation 12:1ff are brushed off as laughable when we’re dealing with a peripheral issue like this, yet foundational doctrines like Sola Scriptura are primarily based on single texts like 2 Tim 3:16f. This causes the bigger picture to become skewed.

    One of the biggest problems in Catholic apologetics today is that not enough Catholics understand their opponent enough to address the important points. For example, in my interactions with White, I knew exactly what to zoom in on, where his weak points were, where as most of the folks who go after White don’t know what they’re doing. The result is that White is able to easily swat down these folks, making his *whole* position seem very credible to by sanders, while at the same time ignoring those arguments that truly undermine his theology.

  3. Sam Says:

    YOU WROTE:
    I think White made two good points in response: first, the council in Acts 15 does cite Scripture as support, namely, Amos 9:11. In his written response Sungenis claimed White didn’t answer his question about where this text talks about the cessation of circumcision. Actually White gave a very good answer, pointing out that if circumcised, the Gentile nations (Acts 15:17) would no longer be Gentiles but Jews!

    —-
    White’s response here was not good. Amos 9 does not reference circumcision as Sungenis said. Acts 15:17 doesn’t help White, because the very discussion at hand was whether or not Gentiles should go through the Jewish rite of circumcision to become true Christians, not Jews. The question was whether or not that rite would carry through to Christianity, and Amos 9 doesn’t say. The council needed to intervene. White acted like his point was obvious—but clearly the debate among the elders in Acts 15 shows that White is reading into the text something that isn’t really obvious. As I recall, Sungenis pointed out the fact that there was debate. Point being, White’s rebuttal with Acts 15:17 was irrelevant.

  4. Emil Anton Says:

    Thank you Nick, you seem to be the only Catholic so far that tries to understand me and succeeds:) I appreciate it:)

    As for argument nr 1, I’m not sure if I can accept the dogma in good conscience. Right now I think I accept the truth of it, I can even admit it’s been revealed (Rev 12:1) if we understand it sensus plenior with the sensus fidelium. But I don’t think the way it was DEFINED has been generally revealed, because for that to be the case the text of the definition should be there in the 1st century; I also doubt the Church really has the right to bind such new dogmas on all believers and threaten its rejection with anathema and defection from the Catholic Faith. Actually I think I doubt this with the present Church, because at present the Church at large seems to assume Protestants can have the Christian faith and saving grace even if they don’t believe in the Assumption.

    I’m glad you talk about the perspective of the honest seeker. I try to be one in addition to being a Catholic, because I ask that my dialog partners also be such in addition to their confession, otherwise there’d be no hope of them converting. But the problem is that honest seeking isn’t compatible with infallibility, it presupposes the possibility that one’s position is erroneous. This is the whole problem with infallibility, it doesn’t help, because one must needs reckon with the possibility that it’s all wrong. And at present it does seem to me that it is (not all of Catholicism, but the infallibility claims, because those very claims were made by non-inspired humans, thus, they were fallible – perhaps they were guided by the Spirit, but perhaps they were a result of pride or insufficient reflection on the centrality of the Gospel, or something else. We cannot know infallibly, can we?:)

    • Nick Says:

      Hi,

      There are a couple of issues here:

      1) I’m not understanding how you’re objecting to “the way it was defined.” Obviously, when dogmatic definitions are given, they typically are given in an ‘academic’ format. Many dogmas dont have a definition from the 1st century in the sense of a formal dogma being proclaimed. For example, the heresy of Once-Saved-Always-Saved wasn’t really formally condemned until Trent. Before then, it was a given that apostasy and mortal sin were genuine dangers for the believer. So with the Assumption, *I* don’t know if that entails a full blown understanding was around in the 1st century or simply the ‘seed form’, such as no recorded burial site for the Blessed Mother, the Eastern tradition that she “fell asleep” rather than died, etc.
      I’m not sure of all the available testimony from the Church Fathers either, which is something I wish was easier to find. I don’t remember the quote, but if St John of Damascus’ testimony is genuine, he states that at the Council of Chalcedon (around 450AD) the Bishops told the Emperor that Mary had been Assumed, so (if genuine) that puts the belief into the early centuries.

      2) Whether the Church can issue “new” dogmas and anathemas is somewhat subjective, but I see your point. With every Ecumenical Council, taking place hundreds of years after the Apostles, those dogmas were “newly” proclaimed at the time. The question becomes, when, if ever, is it ‘too long after’ to declare. In other words, if it was so important, why did it take so long? I don’t know…but it’s also a sobering thought to realize the notion of widespread availability of the Scriptures and a “personal” Bible is something very recent in world history! It’s humbling to think that through most of Church history, the great majority of Christians couldn’t read and/or didn’t own a Bible.

      3) The status of Protestants as far as culpability is concerned is not something I see wrong with the “present Church” since I see nothing different from the traditional Church’s stance on the matter. One’s culpability is proportional to their ignorance, so a Protestant could be anywhere on a scale from genuine_but_ignorant_Christian all the way up to formally_excommunicated_heretic. A Protestant is just as bound to accept the Real Presence and Baptismal Regeneration as they are the Assumption, so the latter is not unique in that regard.

      4) How is honest seeking not compatible with infallibility? To reject the category of infallibility wholesale makes anything but agnosticism impossible. If Jesus really is the Son of God, He’s infallible. The honest seeker must weigh the evidence on whether or not they believe Jesus really is the Son of God. If they determine He is, then accepting infallibility goes along with that. They would be bound to that until their conscience determined there wasn’t enough evidence to believe Jesus was the Son of God. Same goes with accepting Scripture’s inerrancy. Christian Faith isn’t blind. Anyone of any religion is operating under some form of infallibility, even Protestants (who just don’t realize it).

  5. Emil Anton Says:

    Sam, the point is that the Council rejected a heresy in defense of the Gospel. This in no way proves that a Pope (without a Council!) 1900 years later has the right to add a new binding dogma to the deposit of faith, not to mention that such a declaration would necessarily be infallible.

  6. Emil Anton Says:

    Nick, 1) if it is a “definition” of what has been revealed, then it means that the decree specifically tells us what has been revealed, i.e. the contents of the definition, i.e. in this case that Mary was assumed into Heaven at the end of her earthly journey. But where is THIS revealed? Not in Rev 12:1, it only says John saw a woman in Heaven. If in history, and the Apostles saw it, fine, but a) what’s the evidence and b) did they bind it on people as part of the regula fidei? for a) we have one medieval manuscript of a 8th century text referring to a 5th century episode mentioning a 1st century event… sure, it could be authentic, but to hang the Christian faith on something like that? b) I don’t think there’s any evidence that they did, and so what right does the Church have to add to the regula fidei? Irenaeus assumes it cannot change.

    3) But it seems to me that there are genuine Protestant Christians who are not such because of ignorance but because of being rightly informed. My Lutheran friends know full well how baptismal regeneration and the Real Presence have both biblical and early traditional/patristic support, but they also know that neither the Apostles nor the Fathers included the Assumption as a part of the Christian Faith.

    4) So it all boils down to what one’s conscience says? But didn’t the “infallible Church” condemn the idea that everyone can choose their religion according to their conscience? And personally, I find honest seeking and infallibility to be in conflict because officially I’m not allowed to doubt the dogmas of faith, because they’re supposed to be infallible. What if my conscience and the evidence tell me they’re not, but I still want to be Catholic because I believe in Christ and the Scriptures and the (truly) Apostolic Tradition (eg as expressed in the Apostolic Creed) and deem unity with the universal Church important?

    • Nick Says:

      1) The lack of an abundance of (early) “definitions”, at least to our knowledge, is a valid concern. The issue then becomes how-far-back does something have to have explicit testimony for it to be worthy of dogma, as well as the reality of Church’s Infallibilty? Whether this is enough to overturn the whole Catholic faith is another thing to consider.

      2) I would not say there is such a thing as a genuine non-Catholic Christian who is rightly informed. To be rightly informed in this context is to know and understand the Catholic position on at least major issues, and from there to knowingly reject it. I believe the maxim of ArchBishop Fulton Sheen is very accurate: there are not 1,000 people who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they mistakenly think is the Catholic Church, which of course is a very different thing.

      In my experience, the case is too often that Protestants can come off as understanding Catholicism, but in fact really do not. And if we take the Catholic position as the Fullness of Truth means no reasonable individual could deny the Truth. Further, those Protestants who have studied up on Catholicism are usually seminary trained individuals to be either pastors or scholars, meaning they’ve invested their lives banking on Protestantism being true, and thus it’s not easy to question it. As for your Lutheran friends, they can argue the Assumption has no early support, but in the grand scheme of things, there are bigger doctrines that divide us. I would strongly bet that it’s not the Assumption keeping them Lutheran and the only thing keeping them from Catholicism. Issues like Justification are at the heart of why they’ve separated, and I believe that’s largely due to not understanding the Catholic side properly.

      3) I don’t think it boils strictly down to what conscience says, but also what the Truth is. Conscience really only determines culpability. The Church doesn’t condemn the notion all are to seek out the Truth and True Church, quite the contrary. What the Church condemns is the notion religion is whatever the individual determines it to be, without a singular Way, Truth, and Life available.
      Take the Bible for example. The Bible is objectively God’s Word, one is free to deny or accept this without being forced to, but people are not free nor should they be encouraged to to go about selecting some human work as their “bible”. Regardless of what their conscience ultimately tells them, the Bible remains the Word of God, and denying this is an error on their part. The Church can never say “go be bound to whatever book your conscience tells you is scripture” when the Church knows what the genuine Scriptures are.

      In all this, there is an element of humility, where we as individuals cannot and shouldn’t try to re-derive Christianity from scratch, based on our personal research, because it’s too grand and impossible a task. It reduces the Christian faith to a purely human institution that can only be examined from a purely empirical-historical standpoint, which is a Modernist error. Without a concept of infallible authoritative teaching, truth becomes whatever the individual deems it to be, including agnosticism, which is why so many Modernist “theologians” in high places have come to reject any divine elements in the Christian faith.

  7. Oskari Says:

    This is an interesting topic. I must say I agree with Nick’s excellent points, and I’m inclined to disagree with you, Emil, even if you certainly raise important issues here.

    Generally I think that you need more calm on this: less rushing, less conflating different issues together. Perhaps less argumentation, too. More prayerful reflection.

    I’d only like to add some minor comments and reflections as I’m not a theologian. I hope they are helpful.

    1) Emil, in your December 28 post, point 1, I believe you rather misstate the historical evidence for the Assumption. You write: “we have one medieval manuscript of a 8th century text referring to a 5th century episode mentioning a 1st century event… sure, it could be authentic, but to hang the Christian faith on something like that?”

    As you well know, there is much more converging – and earlier – evidence than the text from St John Damascene. Some of it has been discussed in this 1907 article:

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02006b.htm

    These articles also give an interesting discussion of some of the historical evidence:

    http://www.davidscottwritings.com/assumption.html

    http://www.philvaz.com/apologetics/a28.htm

    My point is not that this is new to you, or that it solves all the difficulties. Certainly, if one takes a doubtful approach to that evidence, then it is not too difficult to brush it all off as insufficient (but isn’t that true of all or most of Christian teaching?).

    Rather, my point is that in a discussion like this it’s important to stay calm and not rush into misstating the issue in order to make your present position appear stronger than it is.

    2) As you have well explained in your other writings, dogma develops and the Church’s understanding of itself also develops over time. (I believe the realisation of this is especially thanks to Blessed John Henry Newman – more on him shortly.)

    That, I believe, includes all of these issues – mariology and infallibility too. What we have seen in the last two centuries is development in comparison to some earlier understandings (and compatible with many earlier understandings), but they are probably not the final word of the Church on these issues.

    That development is not, in and of itself, incompatible with the dogma of infallibility, understood in the way the Church has proclaimed it.

    3) I believe we can learn a lot from Blessed Newman. Actually, he’s extremely relevant for all of these topics (Mariology, role of Tradition, Patristic sources, Infallibility, development of doctrine, conscience…). But more than that, he’s important as a theologian generally: as an example of how to approach difficult questions like these with the eyes of reason and faith combined.

    (As an aside, if my memory serves me correctly, Newman was very doubtful about the plans to define papal infallibility as a dogma in Vatican I. But in the end he accepted what came out of it and concluded that certainly the Spirit of God had guided the Church in making the definition that the Council made.)

    4) Is infallibility possible? Of course it is – by the grace of God.

    Do we fully understand that dogma? Certainly not.

    Is that surprising? No. That dogma is part of the mystery of the Church, and as you very well know, the Church’s understanding of Itself is constantly developing and probably will do so until the end of times.

    5) It is perhaps apt to finish with Blessed Newman’s most famous adage:

    “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

    Be sure that my prayers are with you.

    • Emil Anton Says:

      Dear Oskari thanks for the comment. A couple of answers:

      1) It was not a statement of the historical evidence but a response to another comment appealing to that particular piece of historical evidence, so I wanted to show it is problematic to appeal to that alone as a fundamental argument.

      2) The whole “dogma develops” is very problematic. I don’t buy my old explanations any more. But first let’s be clear about terms. First of all if something is dogma, it is defined, so how can it develop? We should talk about the development of doctrine. And now the problem is that the now popular Newmanian idea of developing doctrine is not allowed by the Apostles and the earliest Fathers like Irenaeus, who say the faith is one and the same and nothing should be added to it. The usual response is “it is the same but we understand it more deeply”. Well that’s not the case if in AD 180 it’s enough to believe the Apostolic Creed but in 1500 you MUST also believe in Purgatory and in 1900 you MUST in addition believe papal infallibility and in 1950 the Assumption, as well. These are dogmatic additions, not reflections on apostolic doctrine. A deeper understanding of apostolic doctrine could be, eg, what Irenaeus says on the Incarnation (recapitulation etc, already revealed in Paul but simply developed by Irenaeus, and nota bene, these developments are not dogmatically binding on anyone).

      3) I agree Newman’s approach can be helpful, and it has to a degree. But I’ll get to him when I first read the Fathers, Doctors and Popes of the first 18 centuries:)

      PS) I am no longer in the crisis I was in when I wrote this post. Anyway always appreciate your prayers:)

  8. Nick Says:

    I would add something about the Apostolic Creed comment. The Creed is a summary, as we all know, so it shouldn’t be expected to mention everything important. The Sacraments aren’t really mentioned in the Apostle’s Creed, nor are details relating to ecclesiology, or even the Canon of Scripture, etc, etc, nor does it touch upon how to address future heresies/issues.

    We cannot expect our level of thought about Christianity to be mirrored in St Ireneaus anymore than Pentecostal Protestants can hope to perfectly model their church after Acts 2.

    • Emil Anton Says:

      But Irenaeus specifically gives a list of the truths included in the regula fidei and says no one would dare to add to it, and it mirrors the apostolic creed pretty well. Acts 2 doesn’t do that. So what right did later fathers have to add obligatory dogmas to the apostolic regula?

      • Nick Says:

        Could you give me the passage where he gives a specific list of truths? I’m not sure if I’ve seen it before. In 3:4:2 he lists 75% or so of what is essentially the Apostle’s Creed, but we must emphasize the term summary when speaking of such if we are to avoid being pigeonholed into a Christianity nobody today or most of history actually accepts.


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