James White vs. Dale Tuggy Debate Review

AI generated image of Christ

Yesterday evening, James White debate Dale Tuggy on the topic “Is Jesus Yahweh?” at First Lutheran in Houston. White argued on the affirmative while Dale Tuggy, perhaps the most prominent American Unitarian, argued for the negative. While I am by no means an objective observer, in my view White won the day and Tuggy’s case raised more questions than it answered. I have written about both of them on the trinity on this site before. Below I will briefly outline each of their arguments and offer some critical commentary to show why White’s case was stronger. Below I am offering some of my own responses to Tuggy and not merely Whites. White did not in fact respond to all of Tuggy’s arguments in the debate. Thus, what is below is not strictly a review of the debate but a review of the ideas and arguments and how a Catholic can see them.

White’s Case

White rested his case mostly on three New Testament (NT) passages: Hebrews 1:10-12, John 12:37-43, and 1 Peter 3:14-15. White spent a fair amount of his 25 minute opening diving into each of these texts. Hebrews 1 is well known for it’s teaching of the deity of Christ. Verses 10-12 apply Psalm 102 to Christ. Psalm 102 speaks of God creating the world and being immutable and eternal. No creature could obviously have such qualities.

While less known, John 12 is another important text for Christ’s deity for John says that Isaiah saw “[Christ’s] glory” immediately after John quotes from Isaiah 6:10. Isaiah 6 begins with Isaiah seeing the glory of Yahweh in the temple. Thus, it seems that John is identifying Jesus with Yahweh.

The 1 Peter passage, while well known in apologetic circles, is a rarely used text in trinitarian debates. Yet, White, by diving into the Greek text, showed how Peter, by using the identical Greek of Isaiah 8:12-13 which tells the Israelites to “sanctify the Lord himself”, identifies Jesus as the Lord by telling his audience to sanctify “Christ the Lord”. Again, we find yet another NT author, this time Peter, identifying Jesus with the Lord God.

Tuggy’s Case

Tuggy, whose strength relative to White is his philosophical background, chose not to rest his case on philosophical objects to the Trinity, but to argue from Scripture, thus presumably to ward off an objection from White, that while White was arguing from the Bible, Tuggy was merely using human reason to reject the Trinity.

Instead of spending time working through a small number of passages and showing that they teach something, Tuggy chose to argue in a more roundabout fashion, arguing that 9 facts of the NT favor his view more than Dr. White’s view. Tuggy appeals to “the likelihood principle” which is simply weighing a fact’s likelihood against two competing hypotheses. These 9 facts were

  1. Jesus’ refers to God as someone else and is said to have a God
  2. No NT text qualifies Jesus’ subordination to the Father as only referring to his human nature
  3. All four Gospels feature mere “man compatible” theses like Jesus’ being the messiah
  4. The worship due to Jesus is for God’s exaltation not merely Jesus’
  5. Jesus’ super human powers come from God
  6. Jesus has limitations
  7. Jesus is called “a man”
  8. Jesus is never referred to as God in the highest sense
  9. No NT author worries that their teaching about Jesus is incoherent

This list includes some of the stronger arguments against Jesus’ deity such as his limitations (6), especially his limitations in knowledge and the fact that he is often described as beneath God (1). However, other items completely beg the question. To deny 8, is simply to agree with Dr. White’s opening presentation and thus his position in the debate. No one denies that Jesus is called “God” in the New Testament, the whole question is whether or not he is being called God in the highest sense. 3 also begs the question and assumes the truth of 8 and so is not an independent reason for favoring Tuggy’s thesis over White’s. If Jesus is called God in the highest sense then 3 is false since that is not a “mere man compatible” thesis.

Thus, taking away both of Tuggy’s question begging claims, we are left with 7 others. Do these favor Tuggy’s position over White’s? It is hard to say so since White generally holds to a conciliar Christology, i.e. the Christology that was promulgated in the first ecumenical councils of the Church. Such a Christology entails that Jesus is truly a man (7), who thus has limitations (6), who is distinct from God the Father from whom he proceeds (5) and thus can call the Father God (1) and share his glory with him (4). In other words, Nicaean orthodoxy entails most of Tuggy’s facts.

The only two not so far addressed are 2) and 9) which are both facts about what the New Testament doesn’t say and thus, as arguments from silence, are the weakest facts which Tuggy can bring forward. However, on reflection 2 and 9 are hardly surprising. For one, out of the 27 books of the New Testament, only two could even arguably be considered doctrinal expositions: Romans and Hebrews. Romans is focused on the role of faith in salvation and how salvation in Christ incorporates both Jews and Gentiles. Hebrews, which does speak about the nature of Christ and specifically his priestly intercession on behalf of the elect, is a book warning Jews not to fall back in Judaism and away from the Church. Very plausibly, neither community denied the truth which they had received about Christ’s person and believed that he was both a man (Heb. 4:15) and God (Rom 9:5, Heb. 1:3 etc.). The Bible is not a systematic philosophical text and Dr. Tuggy himself does not treat it as such. Why then should we expect the Bible to qualify references to Christ as references true in light of one of his two natures so that the Scriptural statements about Christ are not seemingly contradictory?

Does the Bible philosophically qualify God’s “repenting” of his decisions and choosing not to punish certain people because of a change on their part to clarify that God doesn’t change his mind? Does the Bible philosophically qualify both his and Pharaoh’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? Does it qualify Genesis 2 which says that God was walking through the garden of Eden at a breezy time of day? Does the Bible qualify speech about God’s “jealousy” or his punishing sinners for 3 or 4 generations later? Such questions could be multiplied. If Dr. Tuggy allows the Bible to be relatively silent and not make explicit philosophical distinctions clarifying the above statements, then his argument from silence about a lack of such clarifications regarding Christ’s natures is hopeless.

Tuggy’s failed rebuttal

Tuggy attempts to deal with the three passages Dr. White presented are unsuccessful. With regard to 1 Peter 3, Dr. Tuggy tries to show that Dr. White’s appeal the the Greek text of the LXX is invalid since a parallel argument could be made connecting 1 Peter 2:9 and Exodus 19:6 which calls the Israelites a royal priesthood and a holy nation. However, this quotation seems to make Dr. White’s point. Just as Peter quotes Isaiah and applies a verse about God the Father to Christ, thus making Christ equal to God the Father, so too does Peter quote a verse from Exodus about the Israelite people being God’s chosen people and apply it to his Christian audience showing that they, just like the Israelites, are uniquely chosen by God to be holy. Dr. Tuggy mistakes Dr. White for attempting to identify the person of Jesus with the person of the Father. If White were doing that, his parrallel might work but White, as a trinitarian, is not doing that.

Tuggy then quotes James Dunn who states that calling Jesus “Lord” is a way of distinguishing him from God. Dunn is correct to a point. The NT authors typically use “Lord” to refer to Jesus and “God” to refer to the Father. That is their way of distinguishing between them. Trinitarians too distinguish between the Father and the Son so this is not an issue for them. It is true that Dunn does deny that Peter thinks that Jesus is God. Here Tuggy finally has a small success. He has notched one small appeal to authority, the weakest form of argument. While Dunn is a prominent scholar, his authority is unlikely to sway many trinitarians.

Tuggy’s treatment of John 12 is similar. He cites two NT scholars who deny Dr. White’s claim. If it were not easy to find a NT commentator who held to virtually every possible interpretation of the text, such an argument might be of some value. I say this not to dismiss scholarship, but merely to point out that because there are so many NT scholars and so many different views about almost every NT passage, it will always be possible for anyone to find some scholar who at disagrees with one’s opponent. The fact that academia today incentivizes novelty accentuates this point. People are always coming up with new interpretations of passages because such behavior is rewarded academically. I would have liked Tuggy to delve more deeply into the texts as White did rather than simply cite scholars and give a brief alternate account of a passage.

In terms of Hebrews 1, Tuggy attempts to deny that verses 10-12 are referring to Christ and thinks the passage shifts suddenly from talking about the Son to talking about the Father and then, without warning, back to the Son in verse 13. Such a strained reading is only possible for someone already dedicated to denying the deity of Christ. I will quote the passage here and let the reader decide if there are two sudden shifts around verses 10 and 13:

For to which of the angels did God ever say,

“You are my Son,
    today I have begotten you”?

Or again,

“I will be to him a father,
    and he shall be to me a son”?

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.”

Of the angels he says,

“He makes his angels winds,
    and his ministers a flame of fire.”

But of the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
    the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
    with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

10 And,

“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment,
12 like a robe you will roll them up,
    like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
    and your years will have no end.”

13 And to which of the angels has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?

Heb 1:5-13 ESV

Needless to say, such responses are unconvincing. Tuggy does no better in cross examination either and continues to argue in question begging ways such as assuming that if Christ is God’s son, he cannot be God and other similar such arguments.

Dr. White was not perfect and he could have been clearer in cross examination when Dr. Tuggy asked him if God had died on the cross. This is one question where is White were a bit more Catholic and were able to reference Pope Leo’s tome and the use of the communication of idioms, he could have answered Tuggy’s questions a bit more clearly. Overall though, his presentation was good. White made the correct point that we must form our philosophy around divine revelation and not the other way around. Tuggy in his denial of all things Catholic, does just that and allows his analytic philosophy to lead him to deny the straightforward meaning of passages in the Bible.

Tuggy is at his best when arguing against the trinity, especially against Protestants when looking at the early Church and offering philosophical objections. He did little of that in this debate and I think it hurt Tuggy in the end. He played on White’s court and it is hard to beat White when he is sitting deeply inside his own Greek exegesis.

3 responses to “James White vs. Dale Tuggy Debate Review”

  1. Hi Molinist,
    I will have to respectfully differ with your conclusion. At the very least, what can be said is that Tuggy attempted to address each of White’s main points, while White addressed maybe one of those nine facts (#8), and did not address the six apparent contradictions in his Christology (you omitted this from his argument). I understand that a judge must weigh the argument to the response, but White did not make the attempt in almost every case (as you have). As far as scoring a debate goes, in the formal/technical sense, White lost for not addressing his opponent’s claims.

    As far as Tuggy’s rebuttal, I believe it stands. Tuggy attempted to show that the way White used those three texts is neither obvious nor necessary in understanding the author. He stated that John (in chp12) didn’t quote from Isaiah’s throne vision but rather from the unbelief section, and we don’t need to take him that way. He stated that ZERO church fathers in the 9-Volume Ante-Nicene set argue that Hebrews 1:10 applies to Jesus. Therefore, it isn’t obvious or necessary. That is compelling to the honest on-looker. Finally, on the 1 Peter passage, you actually highlight Tuggy’s point in the Church-Israel analogy. You say the NT authors are “showing that they, just like the Israelites…” and Tuggy claims that Peter is saying “Jesus is sanctified as Lord, just like the Father/YHWH.” Now if you say Aha! Jesus is sanctified as YHWH, just like the Father is YHWH, then you have more than one YHWH, or you have YHWH as a referring term for the Trinity, which is not supported by the bible (or the Church Fathers, who often consider Jesus to be the Angel of YHWH/the Lord).

    Anyway, you admitted you had some bias, and I do too. I’m writing as an attempt to meet in the middle somewhere. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • I agree with a lot of this. White doesn’t tend to respond to all points in the debate. I was at the Trent Horn debates a few weeks before that and have seen a number of other debates of his and certainly by strict debate standards he would technically concede points by not responding. I have been thinking about this debate and am going to revise this article a bit. Overall though I was still dissapointed with Tuggy’s performance and don’t think that when it came to the texts he did as good of a job as White. This article was a review but I was also offering my own responses to Tuggy’s 9 points since as you point out white did not.

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