The following e-mail was sent Thursday morning, July 13th, 2006, at 10:26am MST:
Dear Dr. Caner:
I just returned from ministering in the United Kingdom at the School of Theology at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, as well as a quick trip up to Glasgow, where I combined ministry (spoke on the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality-a privilege that will surely come under fire in the UK before long) with pleasure (I ordered my formal kilt at a very nice men’s shop in downtown Glasgow!). I don’t detect any Scottish heritage in you, so I doubt you can understand my excitement on that last point!
In any case, as you have probably noted, Dr. Ascol and I have allowed things to “quiet down” some over the past few weeks. Obviously, a “time out” was needed, because things had gotten quite out of hand. In essence, from our viewpoint, no discussion was taking place. We were being told what was going to happen and how it was going to happen, and that was basically it. So we decided to let the dust settle and step back and take one more run at this debate issue to see if, in fact, we can arrange something that will be a blessing to God’s people.
From the start I have emphasized the need to put the audience first. We need to bless the people of God. Those in attendance that night, and those who watch the debate on DVD, or listen to the audio recordings, need to be encouraged in their walk of faith. They need to hear the Word of God honored and handled with proper respect and obedience. They need to see the proper attitude modeled by those involved in the debate.
With this in mind, I wish to go back to square one with you, Ergun. I wish to revisit the entire debate situation, this time doing so with one over-arching concern: what is best for the people of God? What makes for the best debate? As I present my suggestion for how this needs to be done, I will provide an argument from my experience in debate to demonstrate why this is best for the audience. If you disagree, I will respectfully ask you to provide counter-argumentation, not merely from preference or feeling, but from experience, providing reasoned arguments. This way our prospective audience can know that care was taken to consider them in the process of arranging this encounter.
I would like to go back to the beginning and touch on the following issues:
1) Who is involved in the debate
2) The topic (thesis) of the debate
3) The format of the debate
First, as you know, Ergun, my challenge was to you to debate Calvinism. We hardly need to go back over the e-mails back in February, let alone those I sent you as far back as 2005. When you first accepted this challenge, you did not say, “We would like to have a two on two debate. Are you amenable? Let’s discuss this.” You simply stated that it would be a four-man debate and asked me to arrange for my partner in the debate. Now, if I had been asked, I would have pointed a few things out.
A) Four man debates, while manageable, must, by definition and necessity, be much longer than two man debates. The four-man debate I engaged in on the topic of the Papacy at Boston College was around 3.5 hours long as I recall. Doubling the number of people involved increases the time required to allow each man to have any kind of meaningful presentation.
B) Four man debates tend to be more confusing to the audience. Even if all involved are equally concerned to be clear, not all are able to be equally clear. The individual in the audience must work through four styles and sometimes four different sets of emphases rather than just two. This increases rather than decreases the “scatter” inherent in any type of debate encounter.
C) Four man debates require all that much more effort as far as travel, lodging, expenses, and the like.
But as I noted, I wasn’t asked, despite the fact that the challenge had been presented to you specifically. I do not believe I had ever contacted Emir Caner about this, or any other, issue.
Now I have spoken with Tom Ascol, and he is fully supportive of my first suggestion. Since you seem very, very concerned about how long the debate is, and are intent upon limiting the encounter to 2.5 hours maximum, my first suggestion is that we limit the debate to a standard two-man debate, myself versus you. While Tom gracious agreed to join me in the four-man format, he is likewise the first to say he is a pastor, not a debater, and has no “need” to be involved. While I have a decade of experience in public debate, and hence have gone through some rather intense pre-debate discussions (though none, I must admit, of the same nature as our own), Tom has found this entire process, shall we say, less than edifying. He is surely not alone in that feeling.
A two-man debate would benefit the audience in allowing them to follow the arguments more closely. It would reduce “clutter” and allow for a more focused event. And most importantly, given your demand that the event not exceed 2.5 hours, it would allow sufficient time to actually engage in cross-examination and allow us to engage the biblical text meaningfully. In any case, my first suggestion:
1) Make the debate Ergun Caner vs. James White.
If you wish to insist upon a four man format, please address the above points in your response. Please demonstrate, from your own debate history, how a four-man team benefits the audience in the debate process.
Second, the thesis or topic of the debate should truly not be a difficult thing to address. The fact that there has been no give-and-take on this subject is startling, and completely unnecessary. Once again, we have raised serious objections to your proposed statement, and that honestly, Ergun, should be enough. If one side says, “I’m sorry, but your statement makes no sense to us at all,” simple professional courtesy should say, “Alright, we will rephrase.” But beyond this, we have lodged, many times, reasoned objections to the statement, and as the record shows, no response regarding those objections has been provided.
I believe the thesis statement you have presented is at best incoherent, and at worst, heretical. It could be used to defend universalism, which is not even slightly relevant to the actual topic I have challenged you to debate, specifically, the doctrines of grace, and your denial of them. How is the audience helped by a thesis statement that none of them can understand? Or, at the very least, those on the “other side” do not think is even relevant to the supposed topic at hand? How is the debate assisted by wasting time interpreting a thesis statement that can be understood in more than one fashion? I do not believe any meaningful answers can be given to these questions, and my debate experience tells me that the debate will not be assisted by demanding a thesis statement be used that no one understands, let alone can meaningful deny or affirm.
And so I once again ask you to explain why the thesis statement I have suggested is not the best? Given your own sermon at Thomas Road, is it not the case that my thesis statement more clearly and fully captures your own assertions than does yours? Please explain, Dr. Caner, how the audience will be blessed by a thesis statement that makes no sense and is forced upon the debate by one side, rather than allowing for discussion and compromise to reach an agreement that would best benefit all concerned?
2) Let us arrive at a clearer, jointly agreed to thesis statement that will make the debate clear and understandable to the audience.
Finally, as to the format of the debate. Once again, I truly believe the audience would find the stilted parliamentary procedure far less useful in theological debate than the standard formats that I have used in debating Roman Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witensses, and Muslims. I have offered, repeatedly, to send to you examples of these debates. The offer stands. Here are the advantages to the debate format that was sent to you long before you suggested a parliamentary format:
A) Both sides have sufficient time in opening statements to make their case.
B) Both sides have time for rebuttal.
C) Both sides can engage in in-depth cross-examination of the other on the case they have made in their opening statements.
D) Both sides have time to make closing statements.
Surely you can see how the standard format allows for focus, clarity, and ease of understanding. It allows the audience to follow the debate process. I have never seen parliamentary format used in such a theological debate. Not once. I am not saying it would be impossible to use the format, I am saying it is inferior and there is no logical reason to utilize it.
Now, I would gladly use the same format used at Biola University in May of this year in my debate against Shabir Ally, if you would like. Since I did not come up with it, and it was used in exactly the same kind of setting, it would seem quite appropriate. Again, I will rush you the DVD’s of the debate if you wish to view it (and in fact, just on a collegial basis, I would like you to have a copy of it given that we both work in providing an apologetic response to the claims of Islamic apologists).
If you insist upon pressing the parliamentary procedure, I wish to ask you to please explain how it is superior in theological debate to the format I have proposed. And could you please answer a question? Have you personally ever engaged in a theological debate utilizing this format? If you have not, upon what basis can you possibly present it as being superior? So, in light of this,
3) Let us utilize a debate format that is actually designed for theological inquiry fitting Christians rather than one designed for political dialogue.
Now I would ask you to provide your counter-proposals. Please do so by interacting with the points I have raised, as I have shown myself ready and willing to interact with any points you have raised in the past as well. I want to hear and understand why you believe any of the proposals you have made as to topic, format, number of participants, etc., is better for the listening audience who wants to know why there is such a controversy over the doctrines of grace. People do not want to know why James White and Ergun Caner disagree with each other personally. They want the personalities out of the way and the Bible to take center stage. That is what I want, anyway. Will you join me in seeking the best for those who plan to attend that evening, Ergun?
I look forward to hearing from you.