James White used to be my favorite theologian. I remember stumbling upon him before I was even saved, during that time when God had first planted a desire to voraciously consume His Word and seek out those who claimed to believe it. It was one of his debates with a Roman Catholic (on Sola Scriptura, ironically enough), and that debate helped to reinforce my already nascent suspicion that the Catholic Church is a sham and led me deeper into Protestant thought. After God translated me from the power of darkness into the kingdom of His dear Son, my appreciation of James White’s work continued to grow to the point where I would not miss an episode of the Dividing Line, and it was largely by his influence that I began to seek out a Reformed Baptist church — which church is now my happy home.
I do not have a desire to say that a man who has had such a positive impact on me is teaching heresy. After the initial concerns I had when I heard him refer to the Trinity as three centers of consciousness, I was delighted to see that the Reformed Forum episode that he aligned himself with in his follow-up article carefully qualified itself by saying all such language is analogical and by stressing that the doctrine of perichoresis guards them from confessing anything other than one will in God and the total unity (not just harmony) of each “center” with the whole divine essence. And so, in our response episode we only said that such language was confusing and unhelpful rather than saying that there was anything heretical or even heterodoxical underlying it, which I didn’t think there was. However, my concerns reemerged when he openly began to attack the doctrine of inseperable operations — the doctrine that God, as an undivided being with one divine power upholding all things, acts as a single divine agent in creation through the Three Persons of the Trinity so that all Three Persons are always at work in every act of God. This denial alone, we will see, creates tension with the biblical affirmations of divine simplicity, the full-deity of each Person, and even monotheism, but James White has gone further and made statements that are at odds with Chalcedonian Christology and come too-close-for-comfort to the teachings of the kenotic heresy.
To be clear, I am not accusing him of being a heretic. When it comes to a doctrine as delicate as the being and subsistence of God, let him who has had made no ill-advised remark cast the first stone. One can say something heretical without fully thinking out its implications and its inconsistency with those orthodox doctrines that they indeed hold dear to their hearts. There is a certain amount of obstinacy that marks a heretic, where they will not only refuse to repent when their heretical assertions are pointed out but will make it known that they are not of the truth by casting aside the orthodox doctrines in favor of their error when push comes to shove. I do not say that James White is there. Nevertheless, heresy is heresy — a poison that must be publicly labeled and abhorred lest any of Christ’s sheep should drink and make shipwreck of their faith. We must warn that such teaching leads the soul to ruin and detracts from the glory of the Triune God and His work in creation and redemption, whose glory is the end of all things. And so, whatever debt or affection we may have to the man in question, I believe it behooves us to warn God’s people that these are not secondary issues and that it is not safe to follow a man in these matters as long he errs so seriously.
In this Dividing Line, James White has vigorously denied teaching the kenotic heresy and has charged all his accusers with dishonesty (1:13:15). Whether or not there is a crucial distinction between his teachings and the teachings of the most prominent teachings of kenosis is not for me to say. I do not claim to have studied kenotic writings in any depth and so I will neither be accusing nor vindicating him of that specific charge. But what I will say is that, like the advocates of kenosis, James White is involving the attributes of the divine nature in the humiliation of the Son and so is likewise departing from Chalcedonian Christology. That is the heresy I am concerned with, and it’s a concern that can be firmly established from what he has been teaching lately. The following excerpt from that Dividing Line is illustrative and will be referenced throughout this post:
… you then have the very difficult challenging text where Jesus says that only the Father — not the Son, nor the angels in heaven — no man knows the day or the hour, only the Father in heaven… you could understand that as some people have understood that, as being only in reference to the human nature, I suppose. But I think it follows very much along the lines of what we just discussed; there are certain aspects of the glory of the Son that are veiled during the incarnation, and so at that point in time, in the incarnate state (it’s not that the Son did not know before the incarnation and would not know at His exaltation or anything like that)… there was some reason why at that point in time it was profitable for the Messiah the Son to not know. Those are His words, you’ve got to deal with them… if you have to look at the words written by Matthew and come up with an interpretation that could not have possibly been what Matthew intended or anyone Matthew wrote to intended and could not have been known for centuries, millennia after the point of writing… we’re no longer dealing with with the Scripture being any kind of meaningful foundation of our beliefs.57:08-58:45
In no uncertain terms, James White understands the ignorance concerning the day or the hour depicted in Matthew 24 as an ignorance that not only exists in the Son’s humanity, but also in His Deity. As God, the Son knew the day and the hour before the incarnation and then chose to re-gift Himself that knowledge at His exaltation, but He did not have it during His humiliation. This construal conflicts with biblical orthodoxy in a wide number of ways. First, it paints God as a creature of time! He isn’t pictured here as the God who is superior to all and bound by none, but as a God who, like us, is traveling through a medium external to Him that the state and exercise of His attributes depends on, including His omniscience. This is in contrast to the declaration of the Son made during His humiliation (earthly ministry), saying that, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Note, He did not say, “Before Abraham was, I was,” but rather, “I am.” The past for us is ever-present to the eternal, timeless God. Therefore, it is absurd to imagine Him at one time knowing something and at another time not knowing something, when He is outside all moments of time and always experiencing everything that He is and has done. We may need time to do one thing and then another, shift from one thought to the next, but He can do all at once and time would be completely superfluous. His timeless independence is essential to His very nature as God, and is one of the attributes implied by the divine name the Lord assumes for Himself here.
Second, James White’s interpretation contradicts Chalcedonian Christology. The creed states, “The distinction of natures [was] by no means taken away by the union [i.e., the incarnation], but rather the property of each nature [is] preserved” . But omniscience is undoubtedly a property of the God who knows all things (1 John 3:20), and so it would not be the case that the property of each nature was preserved in the incarnation if the Son, as God, ceased to know something for a time (and, as already indicated, the very notion of God losing something “for a time” confuses the natures of Creator and creature). Now, James White denies teaching the kenosis heresy because he asserts that God the Son only veils His attributes without losing them during His humiliation. If this was all his theology amounted to, I would never accuse him of teaching a departure from Chalcedon. There is no question that those attributes are in a sense “veiled” by the human nature insofar as the divine nature can never infuse itself into the human nature. The human nature could not be omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent without ceasing to be a real human nature. As Tertullian says:
If the Word became flesh by a transfiguration and change of substance, it follows at once that Jesus must be a substance compounded of two substances — of flesh and spirit — a kind of mixture, like electrum, composed of gold and silver; and it begins to be neither gold (that is to say, spirit) nor silver (that is to say, flesh) — the one being changed by the other, and a third substance produced. Jesus, therefore, cannot at this rate be God for He has ceased to be the Word, which was made flesh; nor can He be Man incarnate for He is not properly flesh, and it was flesh which the Word became. Being compounded, therefore, of both, He actually is neither; He is rather some third substance, very different from either. But the truth is, we find that He is expressly set forth as both God and Man; the very psalm which we have quoted intimating (of the flesh), thatTertullian, Against Praxeas, Chapter 27. https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0317.htmGod became Man in the midst of it, He therefore established it by the will of the Father,— certainly in all respects as the Son of God and the Son of Man, being God and Man, differing no doubt according to each substance in its own special property, inasmuch as the Word is nothing else but God, and the flesh nothing else but Man.
Given that this is the case, whenever we look upon Him in His humanity alone — which we always do when we look only at His visible nature, since it belongs to the divine nature to be invisible (1 Timothy 1:17, 6:16) — then His divine attributes are veiled. This very truth is why the orthodox should have little difficulty with a verse like Matthew 24:36; if Jesus has two natures, assertions about Him will either be true of only one nature (e.g., “I thirst” [John 19:28]) or both because they are assertions that are predicated of the entirety of His Person, involving the exercise of both natures (e.g., “I am the way, the truth, and the life” [John 14:6]). And if it’s obvious that Jesus’ hunger and thirst are descriptive only of His human nature, should it not be equally obvious that any depiction of ignorance cannot be ascribed to the nature whose very essence is to know all things? So, it is quite accurate to say that just as Jesus’ eternal felicity is veiled by His human nature’s hunger, His omniscience is likewise veiled by His human nature’s ignorance, which could not know all things in itself without surpassing the finite capacity of a human mind altogether, making Him not truly man.
But all this is precisely what James White does not mean when he speaks of the “veiling” of the divine attributes. He does not speak of the divine attributes being obscured to us because we only see His humble humanity, but rather of the divine attributes being obscured to Himself in His Deity. In no unclear terms, James White tells us that Matthew 24:36 should be understood as teaching that the Son knew something before and after His earthly ministry but not during, and that this is not to be understood as only applying to His humanity. But what difference can be made between this kind of “veiling” and losing the attribute of omniscience? A mere veiling does not change the thing veiled but only prevents others from seeing it. James, in some places, speaks of the Son as not exercising His divine prerogatives during His humiliation, but even if we pass by the issue that this conception clearly makes God a temporal being who sometimes exercises a prerogative and sometimes does not (and also pass by the issue that God would need additional acts besides the act of His aseity to accomplish all that He does), it’s certainly the case that knowing about an event is not a prerogative to exercise or not exercise — you either have knowledge of something or you don’t. At best, you can be said to exercise your knowledge by applying, disseminating, or bringing it to the forefront of your mind, but in order to so exercise it you must first have it. If you once knew about an event (like the day or the hour) but no longer do, then, if words have any meaning, you have not simply “veiled” that knowledge but lost it, even if only for the time being. And so, this conception would require us to say that, in Christ’s earthly ministry, He lost the property of omniscience in His divine nature — which is really to say that He ceased to possess a true divine nature altogether, since omniscience is an essential property of the divine nature. He is now a metaphysical electrum, as Tertullian might say.
But as any confessor of divine simplicity knows, you cannot unravel one divine property without unraveling them all, because in God they are one. When defending the truths of the doctrines of grace, James White has rightly said to synergists that God does not foreknow things by passively looking down the corridors of time, but rather knows all things because He has decreed all things. God’s omniscience is a necessary consequence of His omnipotence. All things that exist have been created and are actively sustained by His sovereign hand — “For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). This is a foundation for the doctrine of inseperable operations. If it is of the essence of God to create and sustain all things that exist and transpire in creation, then we cannot say there is any outward exhibition of His power that all Three Persons are not actively engaged in, since all Three are the total and complete power of God. Even though some actions — or better yet, roles in the same action — terminate in specific Persons of the Trinity (hence the different prepositions given to their acts of creation and redemption in places such as Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1, as James rightly points out), nevertheless there are not three powers or, as the Athanasian creed says, “Three Almighties,” but one power subsisting in Three Persons, and so all Three are always engaged in all their ad extra works. If it were otherwise, a given Person would be less than the full power of God that creates and sustains all things that come to pass. And so, given that the Son’s omniscience is a consequence of His creating and sustaining all things, it is easy to see that the logical result of denying the Son’s omniscience during His humiliation would be to deny His omnipotence as well. Otherwise, one would be forced to maintain the absurdity that the Son continued to govern and uphold all things without knowing He was doing it in either of His natures! I do not, of course, claim that James White has personally made this application or denies the omnipotence of the Son in the incarnation, but it would be a necessary consequence if we believe all that the Scriptures say. Whether realized or not, this assertion of the Son’s lack of knowledge would have deeper, even more troubling implications then what first meets the eye.
Finally, I would be remiss to move on from this excerpt without pointing out the unbiblical hermeneutic that prevents James White from accepting the simple, orthodox understanding of Matthew 24. He criticizes the orthodox understanding — namely, an understanding based on the principle that some statements of Christ apply only to His human nature and not His divine nature — because this interpretation “could not have possibly been what Matthew intended… and could not have been known for centuries, millennia after the point of writing” (58:18). For starters, James White’s critique ignores that Matthew is recording Jesus’ words in this passage. If we believe Matthew is faithfully recording our Lord’s words rather than intentionally crafting and obscuring them for his own interests, why would we make the meaning of them entirely dependent on Matthew’s understanding of them? Surely, if no one else, Jesus knows that He possesses fully intact human and divine natures in one person and can predicate things of Himself that are only strictly true for one of them (just as we do for things that are only strictly true for our bodies or souls). Further, there is an unbiblical presupposition that is brought in which treats the human author as the primary author and restricts the meaning to what the imagined, reconstructed original audience would have understood. This stems from a post-enlightenment hermeneutic (more than a millennium after the original composition, mind you) which is demonstrably not what Scripture engages in when interpreting itself, as I discuss in depth here. Again, whatever Matthew’s understanding would have been, if we understand that his words were given by inspiration of God, and that Matthew’s agenda was God’s agenda, and that Matthew’s audience was God’s audience — i.e., the Church throughout every age, which was to understand it through the sufficient material He has provided elsewhere in Scripture — then we again ask, surely God understands the hypostatic union and means to express that truth to His Church through His Word, right? Lastly, I reject the idea that Matthew — an Apostle who walked every day with the visible image of the invisible God — did not know a truth so basic as Christ being fully God and fully man, and that God the Son remained fully divine with all His essential properties during the incarnation. As we already saw, Tertullian confessed it with great clarity circa 200 AD and so did Hippolytus from roughly the same time period, which is virtually to say as early as we have extant writings on the topic. Were members of the early Church able to obtain such clarity about this scriptural truth so soon if the human authors themselves didn’t grasp it? No one denies that the Church’s precision in articulating doctrine is refined over centuries of combating heresy, but the basic truths of the faith were once delivered unto the saints (Jude 3), and it behooves us to guard this truth from the external pressure we face to inject the Hegelian tendencies of modern historiography into our conceptions of “doctrinal development.”
It is heretical to deny the truths of Chalcedonian Christology, but this is not because that council has independent authority to bind the soul. The Church has recognized that departing from the truths of Chalcedon can be classified as heresy for a reason — a biblical one, the same biblical reason that motivated Athanasius to argue so passionately for the full, uncompromised Deity of the Son. The biblical reason is that without Christ being fully, truly, and properly God and man, there can be no salvation, “for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). In order to represent us, be our substitute, and unite us to Himself, He must be fully man; in order to convey God, unite us to the transcendent I AM, and swallow the infinite cup of His wrath in a finite space of time, He must be none other than fully God Himself. As some theologians have said, Christ’s humanity was slain on the altar of His Deity at the Cross, which is to say that His Deity — while itself impassible and incapable of suffering — sanctifies and provides the infinite worth to the slaying of Christ’s humanity necessary to pay the infinite debt of our transgressions to God. The worth and glory of Christ’s divine nature was absolutely necessary for Calvary to be effectual for His people. And so, we can see that there is grave danger in saying, as James White argues in the second half of this episode, that John 17:5 involves more than Jesus merely praying to have glory in His humanity. This would imply that Jesus’ glory was obscured in His Deity the very moment when it was necessary to sanctify Christ’s sacrifice at the Cross! The very essence of God is glorious, and this glory does not depend on anything outside of Him — “who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?” (Romans 11:35), so how could Christ’s divine nature lose this glory without Him ceasing to be very God? It is natural, I believe, and certainly much better to understand John 17:5 as showing Christ — who, in His humiliation, was not then being acknowledged and glorified as God by those who looked upon His humanity — praying that He might, in His humanity, receive such honor, glory, and exaltation as is fitting for the God-man. In this way, He would therefore be asking to in some sense share in that glory He always had in His Deity even before the world was, which would occur by virtue of being openly identified with that glory. The context of His prayer is the climax of His humiliation, and so the obvious fulfillment of His request is the end of this humiliation, i.e., the resurrection of His human nature from the dead and its enthronement at the right hand of the Father (unless we’re going to begin asserting that the divine nature died, rose again, and is spatially moved). This passage is meant to emphasis that, and not any loss of such glory in the divine nature, which is an impossibility if we compare Scripture with Scripture and allow the many places that clearly teach the timeless immutability of God and the unreserved identification of the Son with this God to guide our interpretation here. We must do this if we are committed to tota scriptura. If we are committed to this, we will not undermine the clear teachings of Scripture simply because we do not presently understand how to interpret a less clear passage in light of them. Even if there are readers who are not yet persuaded of either mine or other orthodox interpretations of John 17:5, they can rest assured that the full glory of God the Son that sanctifies Calvary’s sacrifice stands sure, and that their hope is by no means impaired while they patiently wait for more light on this passage. Jesus was fully God and fully man when He offered Himself up to the Father for them.
James White is teaching heresy — not just erroneous doctrine — when he involves the divine nature in the humiliation of the Son and it should be recognized for the danger that it is. Nevertheless, I am in no way accusing him of doubting in his heart that Jesus really is and has always been fully God and fully man since the beginning of His incarnation, and so I reiterate that I’m not accusing him of being a heretic. But his teachings de facto jeopardize this truth, and the logical result of such teaching would strip away the hope of the saints and undoubtedly ascribes to God a creaturely nature. It is a teaching that I would entreat James White to turn from for the good of his audience and himself. I pray that I will one day be able to change the title of this post to James White is No Longer Teaching Heresy.
James, if you do read this, know that I wish to represent you as accurately as possible. If you or anyone else can demonstrate that I have not done so at any point, I will happily revise this post accordingly and list any retractions I have made up front after I have been made aware.