Recently I attended a debate – if you can even call it that – between Dr. James White and Steve Tassi on Romans 9. The debate was supposed to be over whether or not Romans 9 teaches Calvinism, which, of course, it obviously does. Unfortunately for audience members like myself, Mr. Tassi used all of his opening statement to complain about how unfair the debate was instead of actually addressing Romans 9. He claimed that the debate began on unfair grounds because Dr. White reviewed some of Mr. Tassi’s statements the night before on the Dividing Line. The rest of the night turned into a downward spiral, though it was occasionally redeemed by White’s preaching of the Gospel and utter refutation of Mr. Tassi. Mr. Tassi performed quite poorly, broke the rules of the debate, and could not withstand Dr. White’s opposing arguments. Hence, Dr. White’s Facebook post:
It was a bloodbath.
Luckily, I did not mind so much since I attended the debate mostly just to meet Dr. White. My mind was already made up and I did not expect to learn anything from the opposing side anyway. That may sound arrogant, but so be it. The common arguments against the Calvinist view of Romans 9 usually involve argumentum ad misericordiam, some account of how Jacob and Esau non-soteriologically represent nations, or reasons for why we ought to interpret Romans 9 through the lens of Genesis and Malachi and not vice-versa. I’ve already heard them. None are convincing. Unless the debate had been between Dr. White and N.T. Wright, or some other scholar of high regard, I wasn’t going to hold my breath.
At any rate, there was a thirty-minute Q & A session at the end of the debate. I tried to get towards the front of the line as soon as possible so that I would have a shot at asking Dr. White about an issue that had come up a few times during the evening, and which I had been thinking about for over a year.
My question was on equal ultimacy. Mr. Tassi, alongside other speakers such as Jerry Walls and Leighton Flowers, has a tendency to argue that the logical conclusion of Calvinism is equal ultimacy. Since equal ultimacy is obviously untrue, so the story goes, then Calvinism must not be true. It follows a simple modus tollens form of argument:
Premise 1: C(alvinism) -> E(qual Ultimacy)
Premise 2: Not-E
Non Calvinists sometimes use the same argument for God hating the reprobate or for active reprobation. The logical conclusion of Calvinism leads to God hating individuals, but God doesn’t hate anyone, therefore Calvinism must not be true. The logical conclusion of Calvinism is active reprobation, but active reprobation can’t be true, therefore Calvinism must not be true…and so on.
I used to respond to these challenges by simply accepting the fact that equal ultimacy is true, that God hates the reprobate, and that active reprobation is true. I would then point out how the non Calvinist would import contrary theology within Premise 2 of their arguments, thus begging the question. In doing so, I avoided the inconsistency I perceived amongst other Calvinists, and would accept the unadulterated truth of predestination, election, and reprobation without complaint.
However, I knew even then that James White denied equal ultimacy. This bothered me for a long time, since I respected Dr. White too much to believe he was the one at fault. I must have misunderstood or made some simple mistake. So, for a year, I postponed answering my question on equal ultimacy until providence gave me an opportunity to speak with Dr. White himself.
Here’s a video of me asking Dr. White my question. I am the second audience member and I start my question at approximately 3:05 into the video. From 2:38-3:05, Dr. White made fun of my shirt which said, “BATMAN IS A CALVINIST: YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID.” Calvinist Batman on Twitter came up with the shirt idea.
“It is a common tendency among non Calvinists to say Calvinism leads to equal ultimacy, therefore Calvinism cannot be correct. I am partial to the view that equal ultimacy is actually true and that a ‘positive-positive’ view is not problematic. You and R.C. Sproul and others say that it is a problematic view, and I am not sure what exactly is problematic about it. In Romans 9:22 where it says God ‘prepares for destruction,’ where God ‘hardens,’ it seems very active, and I want to know either why it isn’t active or what I am getting wrong.”
“Yes you are wrong [laughter]. And Batman has nothing to do with it [more laughter].
Here’s the problem with equal ultimacy: Equal ultimacy does not mean that God is not active in both election and reprobation. That’s not what it means. What’s the phrase itself? ‘Equal’ ultimacy. The point is that what it requires on God’s part to bring about the salvation of a sinner, the extension of grace, the self-giving of the Son of God, raising someone to spiritual life, these are some of the greatest miracles in all the history of God. God doesn’t have to do any of that to bring the reprobate into the position of his final condemnation. So what is done by God in bringing about the salvation of his people is fundamentally different in its purpose, in its extent of power, in the nature of its power, than the concept of allowing people who are in Adam to remain in Adam and to continue to do the things that Adam and his fallen children long to do.
It can’t be an equal sign. Yes God is active in both, but the nature of that activity is fundamentally different that the very idea itself [of equal ultimacy] runs counter to everything scripture teaches. That’s why I was asking when the accusation was made [by Mr. Tassi], ‘Show me where “calling” is used. Because “calling” is a defined action of God that brings about the regeneration of individuals. Where is something even similar to that done [to the reprobate]?’ There was no answer because there is no answer, because equal ultimacy is not true.
Boom. Question answered perfectly in under two minutes.
What I was conflating was active reprobation and equal ultimacy. I did not realize that I could simultaneously believe active reprobation and that God’s act of election and salvation is fundamentally different from God’s act of reprobation and damnation.
Think about it, in order to accomplish the salvation of his elect, the Father had to choose his elect by divine decree, the Son of God had to become incarnate and atone for the sins of the elect on the cross after having lived a perfectly righteous life, and then the merit of Christ’s work has to be applied to the elect by the Holy Spirit. For the reprobate, God decrees their damnation and leaves them in Adam. God leaves the reprobate in Adam, whereas God had to lift the elect out of that state of condemnation through a series of additional acts. One takes less to accomplish, the other more. Yet, throughout all of this, I can affirm God is active and not merely passive.
It is not one or the other any more. I can reject the error of equal ultimacy while simultaneously affirming the truth of active reprobation clear taught in Romans 9 and elsewhere. Thank you Dr. White!