Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Dueling Dane's deft defense

Eric Svendsen has returned fire against Paul Owen, and where his volleys strike, they strike true. Dr. Owen's last series included some pretty nasty jabs against Dr. Svendsen's linguistic abilities, and Dr. Svendsen has quite reasonably pointed out that the same criticisms have to be levelled against the people from whom he is borrowing his arguments, leading to some pretty absurd conclusions (such as Leon Morris, Craig Blomberg, Robert Mounce, and A.T. Robertson being incompetents). This is exactly the danger of equating disagreement with incompetence; it's almost invariably the case that some intelligent and highly-skilled person will hold the view that you are calling ridiculous. That's why one has to separate intelligence and credentials from being correct and to think critically about arguments and evidence, rather than who is presenting them.

Now, what Dr. Owen really means is that he thinks these other scholars are wrong as well, and the point that I'd like to emphasize is that there's nothing wrong with that. If he thinks they are drawing conclusions that aren't justified, if he questions their methodology, if he finds their reasoning unsound, if he thinks that their desire to defend a particular position has exceeded what their methods will allow, then it is hardly unfair to say so. If one doesn't give Eric Svendsen a pass on an argument, then one oughtn't give D.A. Carson or Wayne Grudem a pass on it either; an argument is an argument no matter who speaks it. The reason that I thought Dr. Owen "won" the previous confrontation is that I thought his arguments were stronger, not because I was impressed by his ability to insult his opponent. [NOTE: I've developed the habit of simply those kinds of statements to save my own time, since my interest is in the arguments, so if it seems like I'm blowing by some pretty serious statements, I probably am.] And if it is the case that the argument is stronger, it should be articulable even against scholars.

I think that the lack of interaction with Baptist or other free church scholars is creating the illusion that opponents of the Reformed Baptist position are unwilling to interact with the substantive arguments. In other words, the appearance is that Baptists are being attacked as if they have no reasons for believing their positions, but there is a peculiar silence on the scholarly work upon which they are relying, which ought to be relatively well-known to opponents. There really isn't an excuse for that, and I would encourage anyone who is going to publicly take on the Baptist position to publicly take on the scholars taking that position as well. If you aren't happy with the positions of Archer, Carson, Moo, Morris, Schreiner, Grudem, Blomberg, Nettles, Dockery, Stamoolis, et al., then you ought to articulate specific reasons that you think they are wrong and demonstrate why you believe that they are less than convincing (which doesn't mean that they've necessarily erred; they may have simply overestimated the strength of their arguments). If you can't commit to doing that, then any adversarial interaction on the subject (particularly in blogs) is likely to be unprofitable; better to simply say "read X, Y, and Z as an introduction, and interact with their arguments before we continue."

In this vein, as someone who would be happy to interact with scholars, I will confess a pet peeve of my own: the lack of scholarly support for certain historical arguments made by Baptist apologists. It's been no secret that I become irate (perhaps inordinately so) with people who offer patristic prooftexts without demonstrating the requisite familiarity with the scholarship to know whether their interpretations are simply loopy, particularly when such interpretations flat out contradict the conclusions of actual scholars without even addressing those arguments. Thus, if someone is going to present an argument such as "this shows that Athanasius believed in sola scriptura" or "this shows that Irenaeus didn't believe in the Immaculate Conception," for example, I would sure like to see an excerpt from a qualified scholar who agrees with your conclusion about that particular quote. And just for my general background, I'd like to know Baptist historians who specialize in patristic-era history to the point of doing serious scholarly work in the area (I know Michael A.G. Haykin is one), because I've found it extremely difficult to have meaningful discussions with Baptists on church history absent any knowledge of where their assessment of the historical record originates.

Anyway, I have to concede Dr. Svendsen's point that the personal attacks and the failure to interact with Baptist scholars didn't help Dr. Owen's case, and his argument, correct or not, hasn't really carried the burden it ought to have. Dr. Svendsen has reasonably shifted the burden of persuasion back on Dr. Owen, and now he has to evaluate whether it is worth his time to attempt to carry that burden or to drop it.