I started writing a review of James White’s recent critique of Adam Harwood’s talk at Truett-McConnell, but then decided against it because White’s initial comments are extremely distasteful. Nevertheless, people need to know the truth and it is worth wading through the bad stuff to get there. First I will deal with White’s initial comments, then I will deal with the more relevant objections.
Regarding the initial comments, in the first five minutes White creates a number of straw men. White says that Harwood’s view is of “monobenevolence” (that God only has one kind of love), that Harwood disregards covenant relationship, and that there is no distinction in God’s love. This is wrong for two reasons. 1. There is no basis from the evidence provided to draw said conclusions. Perhaps White intended this to be a foreshadowing of his own conclusions, but he doesn’t say so and he doesn’t provide reasons for us to think he’s correct; these are just flat assertions. 2. Even though I do not speak on behalf of Harwood, I take it that Harwood does believe God has various types of love, has a conception of covenant relationship, etc. The objection Harwood has leveled against Calvinism is that, on Calvinism, God does not love every person (enough to save them), that Christ has not died for every person (but only for a predetermined number of people), and that God does not truly want to save every person.
White is largely mistaken for thinking that Harwood’s remarks were about the result of the atonement. Harwood’s remarks were about the sufficiency/intent of the atonement, not its effect/result. The absurdity of White’s mistake is disovered when he says that this leads to universalism. This is so far from what Harwood was arguing that I wonder if White carefully read the transcript or instead cherry-picked various pericopes.
Let us now delve into the more legitimate point of contention, of which there are two. First, White thinks Harwood took a D. A. Carson quote out of context regarding collapsing John 3:16’s ‘world’ to refer only to the elect. White provided the full Carson quotation, wherein Carson points out that ‘world’ refers “not because it is extended to so big a thing as the world, but to so bad a thing; not to so many people, as to such wicked people.” Harwood’s use of an ellipses of Carson’s extended remark is perfectly acceptable for many reasons.
On Carson’s comments, ‘world’ “in John does not so much refer to bigness as to badness” and is “primarily the moral order in willful and culpable rebellion against God.” To be brief: “so much” and “primarily” do not mean “only.” “So much” is a relative term, comparing two (non-exclusive) things. It could be that this is a case of emphasis, which does not negate other descriptions. Thus there can be secondary, tertiary, etc. reasons of the term ‘world.’ White missed how these two things (moral order/quality versus numbers/quantity) are not mutually exclusive. In fact, given White’s robust view of human depravity we can actually infer that given just how bad humanity is, Christ has come to save all (if all were to believe)! Let me repeat that but in different words: even if ‘world’ in John 3:16 refers exclusively to quality (and not quantity), and if it is evident that the quality of all of humanity is depraved, then we can still infer that Christ has come to save the world (quantitatively) (for those that will believe). So the objection from White fails and Harword’s point stands.
Also, Harwood agrees with Carson that “All the evidence of the usage of the word in John’s Gospel is against the suggestion” that ‘world’ refers to ‘elect.’ If Harwood was using the Carson quote to support his argument that ‘world’ does not refer to the elect (contra the numerous Calvinists that Harwood cited), then he has used Carson in precisely the right way. No matter which way White tries to spin it, Harwood’s point stands.
After mentioning his vast experience in his field, White then makes a peculiar claim that there are three views on the atonement: particular (limited) atonement, universalism, and anything other than that is sub-biblical. This makes for a strange comment because as previously stated, this debate is over the sufficiency of the atonement, not its effect.
The best explanation of how White’s comments can be so misguided is that he misinterprets Harwood to be making claims regarding the effect of the atonement. This explains why White thinks Harwood “works backwards” (a comment he makes a number of times). Perhaps if White understood that, then he would present more relevant arguments pertaining to the sufficiency of the atonement.
Second of the legitimate objections is that White criticizes Harwood’s view of God’s universal love for all people. He presents an example from the Old Testament where God does not love the Amorites to the same extent as the Israelites. He asks who were the prophets to the Amorites, did God love their high priests to the same extent as the Israelite high priests, and if the Amorites received the same love as the miracles from the Exodus. But this is, yet again, misguided.
God did love the Amorites such that he allowed them time to repent. Jeremiah 18:8 is clear that God’s national judgment and blessing is conditional upon the response of the people. Furthermore, God sent the Amorites the people of Israel to be a witness and a light for them. Israel was to be a spiritual city on a hill for other nations to see Yahweh’s might work and blessings and influence the other nations to follow Yahweh.
Ultimately, here is where White is mistaken: Harwood (and others) don’t believe that God is “mono benevolent.” Rather, God has both a general love for all people that includes the offer of salvation and He has a more specific love for those that do accept the gift of salvation. An analogy might be like someone who invites people into their house for a party. The host loves all people so much so that the invitation is open to all; yet only few accept. Of those who accept, the host has a specific, particular love given in various forms (such as food and fellowship).
Throughout the critique, White has misunderstood Harwood’s view. If he had understood the view he would have presented more relevant arguments against it. White’s critique doesn’t really have a coherent structure and is more of a scattering of attacks. I also think it is possible that White is unfamiliar with the growing movement of pastors and theologians who are (rightly) questioning the idea that God predetermines individuals for eternal salvation, and that because he is unfamiliar with it, he has based his objections upon faulty premises.