Friday, June 10, 2005

Svendsen gets Owen-ed

It's pretty rare for Dr. Eric Svendsen to get pantsed in a debate, which is why I am willing to credit his thesis on Mary (yeah, I have some problems with the methodology, but it's still a reasonable argument), his response to the "30,000 Protestant denominations" (the counter-charge that Catholicism included multiple denominations was weak, but the demonstration of flaws in the 30,000 figure was sound), and his presentation of some issues against Catholics in debates generally as being of solid quality. As I mentioned once, he displays "analytical precision" in many of his arguments, and quite honestly, presents a remarkably good case for his position, which is far from being the most robust from a logical standpoint. Moreover, he is willing to own up to the ramifications of his position, like conflict with the Reformers, the Church Fathers, and the Church councils, which displays more integrity and awareness of the historical record than some of his co-religionists. Finally, he gets summarily dismissed for his conclusions more than his arguments, and that's usually a sign that people aren't responding adequately.

But nobody's perfect. I myself was forced to examine my presuppositions about some areas of Catholic theology that I was previously inclined to defend, or at least, did not seem indefensible to me. In the end, I had to revise my beliefs in light of the historical and logical case against me, and that intellectual self-honesty was a wonderful experience that put me in contact with one of the great Christian martyrs (St. Maximus) with whom I previously had no familiarity. In other words, I became closer to Christ through humility. The point is that sometimes you're honestly beaten, and when you're beaten, it's important to know it.

The occasions on which Dr. Svendsen has been beaten are comparatively rare, but there have been a couple. One was in Shawn McElhinney's response to Svendsen's article on "The New Roman Catholic Apollinarimonophysites." I'll have some additional words on that one myself, now that I've finally been in one place long enough to feel comfortable about placing Amazon orders and that my copy of Harold O.J. Brown's text has arrived, but suffice it to say that Dr. Svendsen has simply lost this one on the historical record, no doubt about it. Another instance was just recently, in his "dialogue" with Dr. Paul Owen on the subject of baptismal regeneration (I put "dialogue" in quotes out of respect for Dr. Owen's attempt to avoid blog wars, recognizing that some of the responses may have said less than they could have in the interest of avoiding an all-out conflagration). The dialogue proceeded as follows:
Dr. Owen's initial post
Dr. Svendsen's critique
Dr. Owen's response on the exegesis of key passages
Dr. Svendsen's rebuttal
Dr. Owen's recap
Dr. Svendsen's response to the recap (Dr. Owen later updated his recap to include a response)
Dr. Svendsen's comprehensive response
Dr. Owen's reply to the comprehensive response
Dr. Owen's conclusion
Dr. Svendsen's conclusion (Dr. Owen later added some general thoughts to his conclusion not directly responsive)

In his conclusion, Dr. Svendsen argued that certain of his points on justification were unanswered. I will list those points and explain why most of them fail.

(1) the baptism/circumcision parallel according to which both are “passive acts,” and that if Paul excludes one then he has no basis for not excluding the other;

The logical flaw here is obvious; the theoretical possibility in this instance doesn't address the actual case. Dr. Owen summarized this well in the update to his conclusion:
Many Evangelicals use very poor arguments to defend their positions. In response to the basic Reformational teaching that baptism is a work of God (a means of grace), and not a meritorious act, one of my critics lamely replied: “Well, the Judaizers could have said the same of circumcision.” Uh, yes they could have I suppose; problem is they didn’t. There is not a shred of evidence that the Judaizers saw circumcision as a work of the Spirit, in which the believer passively receives God’s grace.

(2) the distinction between regeneration (the new birth) and justification (a forensic declaration by God);

The distinction between the entry point into righteousness and other facets of salvation appears to be a distinction existing solely in Dr. Svendsen's head in order to vindicate the Reformers under his theology, especially given the extensive record that Dr. Owen presents regarding the universal theme of baptism for the forgiveness of sins both in Reformed theology and Scripture (and Dr. Svendsen's exegetical gymnastics to avoid it). Note that the following arguments presented for his position entirely lack evidence, and as far as I know, completely contradict the scholarly opinion of their respective theologies.

Yet, even as illustrated by the Luther quotations Owen has provided, there is a fundamental difference between Luther’s view of baptismal regeneration and Owen’s view of baptismal justification. I disagree with Luther’s view that baptism regenerates, but Owen’s view is even more odious because it fails to distinguish between the entry point of being declared righteous and every other facet of salvation.

But to hold that baptism—or any work for that matter—must precede justification (the baptismal regeneration view), or worse, that it is baptism that actually justifies (Owen’s view) implicitly contradicts Paul’s own gospel and is in danger of falling under Paul’s condemnation as “another gospel.”

As much as I disagree with the baptismal regeneration view, its proponents are usually careful to distinguish regeneration from justification. I think the ramifications are virtually the same, but the official line is regeneration, not justification. Moreover, many of those who are in denominations that believe in baptismal regeneration view it as a mere abstract statement to which they don’t really give a lot of serious thought, and end up expressing faith alone in Christ in actual practice. Hence, it is simply not the case that I am excluding them from the fold.

In particular, the statement about believers in baptismal regeneration viewing it as a "mere abstract statement to which they don't really give a lot of serious thought" is just nuts. It's hardly possible to even *speak* to a Lutheran apologist without the question of sacramental efficacy coming up.

(3) the fact that many salvific things can occur simultaneously in time and still have a logical priority and order;

(4) the distinction (therefore) between baptismal regeneration and baptismal justification;

(5) the consequent distinction between the entire bevy of quotes from Calvin (and perhaps Luther as well) supporting the former but not supporting the latter);

This simply repeats (2) three more times. Owen is not the one who seems to have difficulty making the distinctions mentioned in (3).

(6) the ramifications of the “deck stacking” Owen engaged in when he wanted to show how many branches of Christendom are opposed to the Baptist view on this, but of course did not want this to apply to his own beliefs

Svendsen wins this one; this was an entirely baseless argument by Owen. Measuring consensus isn't relevant unless it's always relevant, and that leads to absurd consequences, such as those in listed in (a) - (e). Unfortunately, Svendsen tried to parlay his win on this point into substantive arguments with mixed success, for example:

(d) [the error of Dr. Owen's] “New Perspectivism,” which is completely contradicted by his professed mentors Luther and Calvin, not to mention everyone else

Dr. Owen is completely candid about Luther and Calvin being mistaken on this point, which shows that he isn't slavishly following the Reformers by rote (contra Dr. Svendsen's point (f)). Note that I believe that Dr. Owen does have an obligation to answer Professor Carson's series on this point, and Dr. Svendsen is right to raise that problem, but Dr. Owen's gaffe in "deck stacking" doesn't prove he's in error on that point. At any rate, the NPP has nothing to do with Dr. Owen's position on baptism, which was supported long before the NPP was a gleam in N.T. Wright's eye.

(e) his inclusion of Mormons as Christians,

Ditto. It needs a response, but the poor argument doesn't prove he's in error on the point.

(g) his failure to explain just how he subscribes to “justification by faith alone,” but then proceeds to suggest that we are also “justified by baptism,” completely nullifying the “faith alone” part,

This is simply yet another restatement of point (2) above, trying to make the win on (6) into a substantive argument on (2). It doesn't work for the same reason as above: Svendsen hasn't made out an argument for (2).

(h) his failure to grapple fairly with Paul’s extended arguments in Romans and Galatians on how a man is justified, in which discussion baptism plays absolutely no part even if it appears in latter contexts as a sign of dying with Christ and being clothed with Christ--that is to say, Paul takes pains to convince us that justification is by faith apart from works, but never makes that point about baptism, and indeed assumes baptism is parallel to the circumcision he is specifically excluding. Nor indeed does anyone in the entire NT ever say baptism justifies. It is always "by faith."

If Dr. Owen failed in this regard, I have an awfully hard time seeing it. Dr. Owen made extended exegetical (and unanswered) arguments in favor of his position and in criticism of Dr. Svendsen's, and to blow by those specific arguments at this point just seems unreasonable, plainly and simply.

In summary, Dr. Svendsen's entire case depends on a distinction between regeneration and justification for which he presents no evidence whatsoever, and moreover, is seriously contradicted by a significant amount of Protestant scholarship on the Reformers. Dr. Svendsen claims to be willing to shun the Reformers if he considers them to uphold Dr. Owen's position, and I think Dr. Owen has made out his case for why Dr. Svendsen must do exactly that. In the future, I'd look forward to seeing Dr. Owen's interaction with D.A. Carson's series and some explanation of how he reconciles the Christianity of Mormons with the traditional view of the validity of non-Trinitarian baptism, but for now, I credit him highly for this valuable summary of the historical theology and Scriptural understanding of the Reformers.