James White came to Australia in August 2009 for several engagements in both Sydney and Brisbane. This provided an opportunity to request an interview with him. Graciously, he agreed, and below is the interview I conducted with him.
1. In your apologetics ministry, I believe one of your most distinguishing marks is that of your preparation. Frustratingly, this is often highlighted by just how unprepared your debating opponents appear to be. Could you give the readers an insight into how you go about preparing for a debate?
I appreciate the compliment in the question. I do attempt to be prepared, and, as long as I have the opportunity to study my opponent’s position, I will do so. I spent months listening to John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, Bart Ehrman, and Shabir Ally, before engaging in debate with them. I think this is necessary to honor God, the audience, and the opponent. But I cannot always do that since I at times debate men who have not lectured or written on the topics of our debate. But I always seek to provide something that will help believers in the future, and it is keeping that forward looking perspective that forces me to do the work that goes into serious preparation.
2. The merit of Christians participating in public moderated debates with Christians from differing denominations is questioned by some. However, for pastors considering such a debate, would you encourage them to pursue these opportunities, and what (if any) benefit do you believe such debates bring to a pastor’s congregation?
In the 17th century in England a ministerial student had to be able to debate in Greek by his junior year. In Greek, not about Greek. There are few more efficient ways for two theological positions to be fairly presented, contrasted, and evaluated in the light of Scripture, than in formal, respectful, biblically-based debate. Only in our post-modern society where people are deathly afraid of “offense” has this valuable tool become nearly obsolete.
3. Christians skilled in apologetics and trained in the Word are sadly lacking in much of the church. What role do you believe apologetics should play within the church, and specifically how does a local church go about training Christians in this area?
In the West we are living in a post-Christian society that is madly in love with anything that can be used to support unbelief. The days of innocent Christian believers who never dirty their hands with the arguments against the faith have passed us by. If we want to be at all active in the proclamation of the gospel we must prepare the ground which has been sown deeply in the weeds of noxious unbelief. Apologetics is no longer an “add on” that some “super Christians” might wish to study, it is now part and parcel of any serious effort at speaking the truth in love in our society.
4. Knowledge of the Scriptures in general is extremely important; however, for the specific benefit of one who may aspire to be an apologist, which specific biblical texts and/or books of the Bible would you suggest they study and have a firm working knowledge of?
We cannot divide the revelation of God up into parts, some of which are “more important” than others. The apologist must have a full knowledge of the Bible, including its over-arching themes and threads that tie the entire revelation together. I have often been asked what classes I took in college and seminary were the most useful to my work as an apologist, and I always respond, “Greek and Church History.” The believer who knows the Bible as a whole, in a balanced way, has access to the original languages, and knows the outlines of church history, will be ready for 90% of what unbelievers will throw out as objections to Christianity.
5. The training and discipline in God’s Word that a seminary offers is invaluable; however, what would you consider to be the greatest lesson you’ve learned in your practical ministry that seminary did not teach you?
I am very thankful that I was already involved in ministry before I entered seminary. I already had an idea of the “real world” and the need to be grounded in the local church. I never fell for the “ivory tower” part of a seminary education where extremely wise people sit around debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I already knew what I needed to get out of my schooling, so I focused on the main and plain things. This included many of the classes that others could barely stand, such as “New Testament Backgrounds,” a class that has allowed me to refute critics of Christianity over and over again.
I have learned many things that seminary did not teach me, but if I had to mention one, I would say that the centrality of the church, and ministry therein, was not a major portion of at least my initial seminary training. I am a churchman, and it is that consistent ministry in the church that has kept me from spinning off into the stranger elements of theological speculation.
6. Several weeks ago, some would say that a truly amazing event occurred; you joined the Twitter world (@DrOakley1689). As one with ministry experience in blogging, using IRC, and publishing videos via YouTube, do you have any thoughts / observations specifically related to Twitter and Christian ministry?
Honestly, no! I only began doing it so as to share random theological thoughts that would often come to me during the day but would never make it to my blog. A program on my BlackBerry Storm (Vlingo) allows me to send something directly to Twitter without even typing it out. However, I must admit, it was great to make some connections via Twitter that I would not have otherwise made, ministerially speaking, so it has its uses.
7. This year, like every year, there are many young men completing their studies and preparing to enter the ministry. If you knew your answer to this question would be your final parting words to them, what book, other than the Bible or anything you may have published, would you recommend they read as it has had such a profound effect on you and your ministry?
I would say I would encourage them all to read and ponder Sproul’s The Holiness of God. The man who has a handle on the holiness of God (and hence his own sinfulness) stands upon firm ground in withstanding the winds of difficulty in the ministry. As to final parting words, “Stand firm, hold fast, act like men, find in your service to Christ your greatest treasure, love God and His truth supremely.”
8. Directing your answer to those who are hungry to know the Word better, as well as to men training to minister the Word of God; what “must have” items would you recommend for them to purchase to build their library (commentaries, systematic theologies, lexicons, Hebrew / Greek texts, etc.)?
We live in a day when we have access to more useful information about the Bible and its text than any preceding generation. In fact, we are in danger of the “data fog,” there is so much out there. But I have found the consistent exegesis of the text to be the greatest “weapon” in my arsenal, and the means by which I show God honor by allowing His Word to speak (rather than my inserting my thoughts into His mouth through eisegesis). And while I have a pretty healthy paper library, BibleWorks and the Libronix system from Logos run on my computer most of the time. Both have their strengths, as I prefer BibleWorks for exegesis, and Logos for doing reading in commentaries, journal articles, etc. I also have the Kindle2 from Amazon, which allows for much lower-priced copies of certain books in the theological field.
As to books, I will limit myself to the textual field. I have highly recommended the NET/NA27 diglott to folks, as it contains a wealth of textual and translational information. Likewise, Philip Comfort’s New Testament Text and Translation Commentary is one of the most useful resources a minister could have in dealing with textual issues in sermon preparation and study.
9. Could you comment on 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4; specifically Peter’s use of the Greek boulomai (“wishing”) in contrast with Paul’s use of the Greek thelo (“desires”) and how this relates (if at all) to God’s will(s) and desire(s).
See my comments on these texts in The Potter’s Freedom. I dedicated an entire chapter to “the Big Three” texts, Matthew 23:37, 1 Timothy 2:4, and 2 Peter 3:9.
10. Why is the atonement an important doctrine and in your opinion what are the present threats to understanding this doctrine correctly?
The majority of evangelicals in my experience hold a sentimental view of the atonement rather than a biblical one. Given that a large portion of the specifically exegetical discussion of the subject is found in the one book of the New Testament that is “closed” to most modern believers (Hebrews, and that due to its dependence upon the Old Testament scriptures, with which many of us today have but a surface level familiarity), they are more likely to embrace a sentimental/traditional understanding of the work of Christ than a biblical one. And since the categories found in Scripture relate to priesthood, mediation, etc., concepts foreign to most today, there is a grave danger of a general acceptance of a sub-biblical, surface-level view. And since this is the act whereby God glorifies Himself in the greatest fashion, misunderstanding here cannot help but have a ripple effect across the spectrum of one’s theological
11. One source states that “Islam is the fastest growing religion and the second largest religion in the world” with growth of “over 235 percent in the last fifty years.” How should the church and Christians in general respond to such statistics?
Well, with understanding, first. Almost every group I deal with makes such claims. There are many Muslims coming to know Christ. That’s a fact. At the same time, how do you determine a “real” Muslim from a cultural one? Many Muslims are so merely out of tradition, just “going with the flow” so to speak. So while Islamic expansion is a reality that must be dealt with, at the same time we need to be realistic. It is true that, for example, Muslim immigrants in France are having 4.56 children/woman in comparison with the native French population only have 1.5. However, the second generation is only having half as many children, as they become culturally impacted. So we need to be concerned, yes, but we need to be realistic as well.
12. During your stay in Australia, is it your intention to try the famous Australian spread Vegemite?
No, I want only pleasant memories of my time Down Under.
Dr. James White, thank you for your ministry and for agreeing to take part in this interview. I trust the Lord will bless your time in Australia.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Nathan W. Bingham