Thursday, February 17, 2005

Holding v. White

Last year, a friend asked me to comment on a series on Calvinism by J. P. Holding. I did so, and posted the reply on my blog.

This morning, I was asked by another friend, on behalf of an acquaintance, if I'd been keeping up with the exchange between Holding and James White. The short answer is that I hadn't.

I see now that Dr. White has also hyperlinked my reply to his own website. That's fine with me. It puts me in very good company--better than I deserve!

But since I've been asked to comment on this debate, and since, indeed, my named has now been cited in this debate, I might as well contribute my own two cents, adjusted for inflation.

Regarding Dr. White's side of the exchange, I'd second everything he's said thus far. Regarding Mr. Holding's side of the exchange, I have rather more to say.

1. I'd just note in passing that Holding's reply is larded with an extraordinary amount of personal invective directed against Dr. White. I'll leave it to better men than myself to judge whether this sustained ad hominem attack is either good moral theology or good polemical theology. Certainly, though, it contributes nothing to the cogency of his arguments--although it may serve to deflect attention from the lack thereof.

2. In much the same vein, Holding attacks the very idea of a Christian apologetic blog:

"Quick theology is not solid theology…I must admit that I find the entire idea of doing work via 'blogs' (as well as the process of deciding issues by means of oral debates, havens for "sound bites") to be an entirely unworthy enterprise. This is why I never do oral debates and never will.

Impatience, however, is hardly the issue. I have time and I have ability to answer when I am inclined. I also have the discipline to wait until I am finished with all my research before I post my findings (where indeed research is required; which so far, as White as much admits, it is not). Hence blogs are also, in my view, entirely unsuitable venues for discourse."

i) This charge proves too much or too little. Is there really that much difference, technically speaking, between what Holding does at his website and what White does at his?

ii) As to Holding having "the discipline to wait until he's finished with all his research before posting his findings," Holding has elsewhere said:

"Let me add here that I had no idea, when I started that essay, what Molinism was or how it was defined,"

as well as:

"Update: To my surprise there is a name for this view I have proposed, and it is one advocated by various Christian philosophers like Plantinga and Craig, in various forms: it is called libertarianism. Well, you never know when you'll cross paths with some things. :-)"

So who's the one doing his theology on the fly?

iii) It should be unnecessary to point out that a blogger can also do all his research in advance of posting it. The fact that a blogger may post on the installment plan doesn't necessarily mean that he hasn't thought through his position before depressing the "send" button. But perhaps Mr. Holding is speaking from personal experience--to judge by the above.

3. Holding makes repeated appeal to "credentialed scholars." Now, since Holding is an intelligent man, I don't see the point of such a patently fallacious appeal. You can find credentialed representative for almost every position and opposing position. Reformed theology certainly has its share of credentialed scholars. So this appeal, which Holding reiterates ad nauseum, like a verbal talisman, is bereft of probative force.

4. On a semantic point, Holding says that "It goes this way for us: 'I will fulfill covenant obligation upon whoever I fulfill it upon, and I will satisfy kinship obligation upon whoever I satisfy it upon.' I should note here that my same source defines compassion likewise in terms of the social state of the Biblical world; 'compassion' means 'caring concern that ought to be felt and acted upon between real and fictive kin.' [30] 'So then, it is not of the one willing, nor of the one exerting himself, but of the covenant-fulfilling God.'"

i) But this commits a classic word-study fallacy. The interpretation of Rom 9:15 turns, not on a dictionary definition of "compassion," but on the meaning of the entire sentence and the way in which this literary unit functions in the whole flow of Paul's argument.

Holding is confusing the meaning of words with the meaning of concepts. What the verb means and what the verb refers to ("real and fictive kin") are two different things. The bare idea of "compassion" does not select for "kin."

What is worse, he is confusing the meaning of different concepts. All members of a covenant community may be real or fictive kin, but it hardly follows that all real or fictive kind are members of a covenant community.

ii) And in his multiplied confusions, Holding manages to make the verse mean just the opposite of what Paul intended. Paul's argument is that election and reprobation cut across all external bonds.

5. Holding refers the reader to "Pilch and Malina's Handbook of Biblical Social Values, which describes the ancient mind as one practiced in dualistic thought."

i) Notice that Holding constantly refers the reader to the same little thimbleful of sociorhetorical scholars. This, however, begs the very question at issue. Is sociorhetorical criticism the only prism through which we ought to read the Bible? He quotes sociorhetorical scholars to prove the primacy of sociorhetorical criticism. What a thoroughly vicious specimen of circular reasoning!

ii) But just suppose, for the sake of argument, that we agree with Pilch and Malina at this juncture. What follows then? Notice that the attribution of "dualistic thought" doesn't single out the "Jewish" mind or the "Hebrew" mind or the "Semitic mind." No, we are told that this extends to the "ancient" mind. But, if so, then Holding is in no position to drive a wedge between a Jewish mindset and a Greco-Roman mindset, and then play one off against the other.

iii) Holding is sure that he is right, and White is wrong. How very dualistic of Mr. Holding! Doesn't Mr. Holding realize that he is in bondage to that ancient binary logic whereby either he is right or Dr. White is right? Isn't the time past due for Mr. Holding to emancipate himself from the quaint old law of bivalence? From these moldering old "polarities" of primitive thought?

6. Holding says that to defeat his contention, "White must show one of any of these things: Paul was not Hebrew or subject to Hebrew thought patterns To; he was one or both, but these passages are to be taken as exceptions for X reason."

i) But this is tendentious. Dr. White would only have to do so on the prior assumption that Paul's neuropathways moved in the groove of "Hebrew thought patterns." But why should Dr. White assume that Paul in particular, or Jews in general, were so intellectually inflexible?

ii) Sociorhetorical criticism, being a subdivision of sociology, shares the same bias as sociology. In the perennial nature/nurture debate, the so-called social sciences (sociology; anthropology) come down heavily on the nature side of the debate, treating the human mind as a blank slate which is pencilled in by culture. And, like any half-truth, there's some evidence for that.

But in terms of a Biblical anthropology, men, by virtue of their common humanity, as members of the human race, have essential generic mental attributes as well as incidental cultural mental attributes.

7. "To suggest further that we could argue that Paul was some kind of exception ("transfers over to Pauline usage") is itself a counsel of despair, ad hoc special pleading at its worst."

This is a lovely example of a first strike straw man argument. You charge your opponent with your own fault to preempt him from doing the same to you. Since Dr. White would reject Holding's operating premise, he has no need to carve out "some kind of exception" for Paul. The special-pleading is all on Holding's part by trying to slyly foist this faulty premise on Dr. White in the first place.

8. According to Holding, "White's own classification of Romans 9 as 'logical' is similarly obtuse. Indeed, logicians would call what Paul does in Romans 9 a fallacious 'argument from authority'".

i) Holding's charge is faulty logic and worse exegesis. To begin with, an argument from authority not automatically invalid. The appeal is only fallacious if your opponent does not acknowledge the authority of your source. But if Paul is shaping his reply with a view to Jewish opponents, whether real or hypothetical, then the appeal to Scripture is perfectly legitimate inasmuch as both sides of the debate acknowledge the authority of Scripture.

ii) In addition, Paul's reply is not limited to an argument from authority. In addition to that, he also invokes a theodicean rationale for election and reprobation (9:17,22-23; 11:32).

9. "As one observer on TWeb -- a seminary student, as it happens -- puts it:

How is it that we appeal to Calvin over against the ECFs, who unambiguously took this to refer to man's ability to go against God's will? How about Origen (a native Greek speaker) who understood 20ff as being the part of an interlocuter [sic] and not being Paul's argument since it seemingly contradicts chapter 8."

Isn't this just classic? According to Holding, Paul writes and thinks like a Jew. Now you might suppose that this would be an awfully good reason to interpret Paul the way a Jew would read him, with an eye to the OT and Rabbinical modes of argument.

But, no, Holding endorses the idea that we should interpret Paul with a view to how a native Greek speaker and--we might add, hyper-Platonist--would read him. But, according to sociorhetorical criticism, wouldn't this reflect a Greek outlook which is just as blinkered as a Hebrew mentality--and, what is more, an outlook which is culturally incommensurable with the Hebrew mindset?

10. "Sorry, but White clearly does not have his exegetical ducks in a row. I recommend he read Kasemann, Fitzmyer, Esler, and Witherington. That should run the gauntlet for him, and maybe throw in a healthy dose of Cranfield for the grammar."

Well, it would be quite a trick for Dr. White to line up all these ducks in a row. Kasemann is a liberal Lutheran duck, Fitzmyer is a liberal Catholic duck, Witherington is an Evangelical Arminian duck, Esler is another liberal duck (subspecies: Anatidae Sanders), while Cranfield is a Barthian duck.

In addition, only two of the five (Esler, Witherington) belong to the sociorhetorical school of criticism. So it would, indeed, be no small feat to point all these ducks in the same direction. However, a quack like Holding may have just the right birdcall to make it happen.


  1. Thanks for posting this. It seems that Marvin Wilson simply stands on his own merit, regardless of what any other scholars may say on the subject of Scriptural interpretation. Maybe to JPH that Wilson is irrefutable? I have still not seen "why" Wilson is correct, but simply that he is.

    Anyways, brother Steve, your interaction is appreciated.

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