Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The fine art of hand-waving

Contrary to one Jason Engwer's suggestion, I have, in fact, given up on trying to proselytize anyone. I don't see any hope of anyone in the Baptist/free-church camp converting from the astrological hermeneutic anytime soon. My purpose now is strictly defensive, which is a relatively easy position to take, as there hasn't been a substantive argument made against my objections to Evangelicalism. Steve Hays has tried to mount one several times, but he hasn't managed to do it yet. Indeed, his responses thus far have been a classic demonstration of what those of us in disciplines demanding analytical rigor call "hand-waving."

"Hand-waving" is the process by which someone substitutes assertion for argument. I've always understood is as an analogy to what magicians do to distract the audience while the trick is being performed, sleight-of-hand. Regardless of the origin of the phrase, the analogy is apt: Hand-Waver assembles a pile of evidence, waves his hands over it, and announces his conclusion. Problem is that if you do it in front of people trained to spot the trick, it ain't gonna work. Grizzled old veterans of this kind of analytical endeavor, like Perry Robinson and myself, tend to catch it. And of course, even the smartest people get caught in hand-waving sometimes; it's just part of being a fallible human being. Generally, when someone is flat-out busted, the standard response is to murmur some kind of a response and never to raise that argument again. But sometimes, people are really attached to (and really convinced by) their own argument, which, if the argument truly is hand-waving, amounts to "CAN'T you SEE that I'm WAVING MY HANDS?!"

Unfortunately, Steve Hays opted for the latter in his last response to me. So here's an object lesson on how hand-waving works:

He’s raised that objection before, and I answered him. What I said was:

Prejean is mashing together a couple of quite distinct issues: in particular, he is confounding a hermeneutical method with an apologetical method.

I can understand the source of the confusion inasmuch as the debate over at Crowhill went back and forth on these two issues as though they were synonymous, but they’re not.

i) The hermeneutical question is the question of how we ascertaining the meaning of a document—especially a document from the past, whether the Bible or the church fathers or a church council or a papal encyclical, &c.That’s what the grammatico-historical method (GHM) has reference to.

ii) The apologetical question is how we verify or falsify the truth-claims of a document.

Historical evidence (evidentialism) may figure in the answer, especially in the case of historical revelation, but that is not at all the same thing as GHM.

iii) GHM and evidentialism may intersect at various points. This can happen, for instance, when GHM is used to ascertain the meaning of a documentary truth-claim, while evidentialism is then used to verify or falsify that truth-claim.

Incidentally, this is applicable to his astrological illustration (see below).

Of course, this all fails to account for the fact that I completely reject the notion that the GHM is anything other than an empirically grounded method. In other words, my point is exactly that the hermeneutical question IS an evidential question, so the distinction Hays draws is spurious. Moreover, by abstracting the GHM into some hermeneutical principle that stands above evidential reliability, Hays has effectively immunized his view from evidential criticism, something that he is quick to accuse others of doing. So this isn't an answer, it's simply a reassertion of exactly what I reject. No proof, no argument, nothing. Hence:

Why does Prejean repeat himself when his objections have been answered? If he disagrees with the answer, he should explain why.

Reasserting the controverted proposition in another way is not an answer.

Once again, he’s raised that objection before, and I answered him. What I said was:

Unity, inerrancy, inspiration, and authority are exegetical results of applying GHM to the text of Scripture. They figure in the self-witness of Scripture. When we exegete Scripture, using sensible and responsible methods, we discover what it has to say about itself as well as other things. These are not theological assumptions, but exegetical end-results of the GHM.

The fact that this doesn’t come up in a historical text about Abraham Lincoln is irrelevant to the method. It doesn’t come up, not because the methodology differs, but because no such claim is lodged in the text.

Here, the wave of the hand is "sensible and responsible." What this hand-wave does is to sneak in the astrological hermeneutic based on the evidential reliability of the GHM. Problem is that it doesn't show that the evidential reliability of the GHM is applicable in this case, nor does it demonstrate that the conclusions drawn are within the scope of the GHM's reliable area. Similarly, "self-witness" is used equivocally; it assumes that the self-witness is what results from the application of the method. Still no argument, just hand-waving.

To repeat: there are two distinct issues here:

i) The identification of a truth-claim, and:

ii) The verification of a truth-claim.

(i) is a prerequisite for (ii).

Note the artistry in this simple hand-wave. By putting (i) apart from (ii), he effectively takes the verification of his method for identifying truth-claims outside of the scope of evidentialism, which is simply reasserting the same distinction that I reject. There's actually even more hidden in (ii), because you would see in practice that if a "sufficient" demonstration of "authority" is made per (ii), then one doesn't need to independently verify all of the truth claims of a source, something that would violate my own view of (i). At any rate, once again, he blows by the point in issue without argument.

[Regarding my argument that the condemnation at Constantinople effectively condemned Antiochene exegesis in speculative theology] There’s no real argument here. It simply begs the question in favor of Catholicism.

Here's a defensive hand-wave. Of course there is a real argument. Presuming that Antiochene exegesis is a reasonably well-defined phenomenon, then I made a historically testable claim that the Christological conclusions drawn by the condemned parties by that method were precisely the ones condemned at Constantinople. I'm speaking strictly of the historical fact of whether that condemnation was directed at conclusions that were by historical fact derived from distinctive methods of the Antiochene school. Even apart from any value judgments involved on whether Constantinople is or ought to be persuasive (the significance of the historical facts), there is a historical question here that is well within the competence of the historical method.

I’d add, though, that all arguments ultimately appeal to our intuitions of veracity and validity.If I find X obvious, and Y denies that X is obvious, then there’s not much more I either can or should do to make it obvious to him. We have to agree to disagree, and leave it to the individual reader to judge who had the better of the argument.

Which is exactly the point of stating reasonable objections. Hays doesn't get to accuse people of being irrational, hypocritical, or inconsistent for reasonable objections. I've seen no reason to think that my objections to Evangelicalism aren't reasonable, regardless of whether they are compelling or not, which means it's time to stop throwing potshots around. It simply isn't unreasonable to deny the separation that Hays asserted between hermeneutics and evidentialism, and if one denies it (and I do), then it isn't inconsistent for someone to reject astrological hermeneutics as a sound theological method. Unless there's some unbeatable argument for the separation between hermeneutics and evidentialism (and thus far, it's been entirely hand-waving, as I documented in my objections to Evangelicalism), then this argument that we are somehow hypocritical in our use of GHM needs to be retired. The hand-waving here is in the suggestion that this somehow excuses him from reasonable standards of civil discourse in making claims.

So if, for example, Prejean refuses to admit that Kenneth Kitchen (Egyptologist) has an advantage over a 5C Greek Patriarch when it comes to the interpretation of Exodus or the Joseph cycle, or that Donald Wiseman (Assyriologist) enjoys a similar advantage, then there’s really nothing more to be said.

The hand-wave here is equivocation again. They may have an advantage on what it means in the original context, but that isn't necessarily an advantage on identifying what the "message" of Exodus is to the Christian community, which is exactly the subject under discussion.

If Prejean denies the primacy of original intent, then there’s nothing I can do to make him agree with me, although I can point out that his denial is a universal solvent which will spill over and erase the ink on his Petrine texts and church fathers with equal efficiency.

But can he show it based on my premises? That's been the big failure of Hays's replies both to Tim and to me. He purports to "confront us on our own ground" and then resorts to hand-waving to display the supposed contradictions. Note that here he's even used a classic hand-waving metaphor: "point out." :-)

He may suppose that Mt 16 teaches papal primacy, but I’m an allegorist, you see, so I think that Mt 16 is really a repair manual for a busted carburetor.

Unless you can ground that interpretation in Cyrillene Christology, that doesn't show much of anything. The most obvious hand-wave: talk about something else entirely.

In that respect, GHM is true by default in the absence of a viable alternative. That’s not the only reason, but one reason.

No, that's not even one reason. As I said, it's fallacious to conclude that there is a viable alternative based on a perceived need for the method. "Ta da! I don't have to follow any reasonable standards of evidence!"

Prejean needs it just as much as I do, for without it he lacks epistemic access to the church fathers and church councils and papal encyclicals and canon lawyers and patrologists, &c.

Reasserting what he needs to prove, again without proof. See how it works?

i) The GHM isn’t predicated on “definitive” findings. You won’t find that presupposition in either Catholic or Protestant commentators. Where does Prejean come up with this qualifier? Not from actually reading the way it is done, evidently.

I never said that it was. I said that this was a theological method for culling what conclusions of the GHM can and can't be disputed. Misunderstanding isn't really hand-waving, though, so I can't pick on him too much for this one.

ii) There is, indeed, a threefold difference. For conservative evangelicals, their theology must agree with their exegesis.

And for people who don't agree with the original distinction (and concomitant hand-waving) that Hays offered but instead view the GHM as an empirical method, this is actually a bad thing. The necessity of theology and exegesis agreeing would, in my view, skew the objectivity of the interpreter's conclusions. IOW, this would make the astrological hermeneutic less convincing from a reliability standpoint than other practitioners of the GHM. ISTM that the more "objective" way to do it is to let the GHM say what it can say, and if there is no definitive answer, then there's no definitive answer. What Hays describes is, again, reasoning from a perceived need of a method to the existence of a method.

For liberal Protestants, they may let the text speak for itself, but they don’t feel bound by the teaching of Scripture.

True. But they're also not liable to make the text say more than it says. That's valuable in its own way.

For Catholic exegetes, they can deny that Scripture inculcates certain Catholic dogmas as long as they don’t deny the dogmas. Instead, they just refer that to the development of doctrine.


iii) If there’s an element of uncertain here, it spills over into Catholicism, for whether it’s a text of Scripture or a patristic text or the text of a church council or the text of a papal encyclical, all the same hermeneutical apply to any historical document.

Sure does. That's why, despite there not being a principled ontological need for an objective interpreter, it certainly makes life better from a practical standpoint.

iv) I’d add that the same uncertainties extend to textual criticism as well. Text-critical questions aren’t limited to the text of Scripture. They can also be raised with respect to the text of the church fathers or early councils, &c.

Yep. See how assertion of the GHM doesn't really resolve problems of epistemic fallibility?

v) Without a doctrine of providence, we’re all up a creek without a paddle.

I'd say that without the objective presence of God in the Church, we're up a creek without a paddle. But I fail to see how application of the GHM is God-dependent.

vi) The teaching of Scripture is redundant. It doesn’t turn on any one word or verse.

I think we all know that.

vii) But if God has left something uncertain in Scripture, then we should leave matters where he has left it.

Hand-wave again -- that word "uncertain" sneaks the astrological hermeneutic in without argument.

viii) Notice how Prejean treats the church as a makeweight for what is otherwise indefinite in Scripture. But the church cannot muster certainty out of thin air. That would require a booster shot of divine revelation to add to the deposit of faith.

This is a sneakier hand-wave; there's a real argument here that is not made explicit. Hays is arguing, based on his view of revelation as a fixed meaning at a fixed point in time, that later certainty is "new revelation." Since the disputed point is whether that is, in fact, what revelation is, it's begging the question (reasserting the disputed point).

All I can say is that Prejean is welcome to his opinion. For an evangelical, if a rule of faith is good enough for Christ and the Apostles and prophets, then it’s good enough for us.

And likewise, you are welcome to your opinion, but for myself, I see no reason to think that it was "good enough for Christ and the Apostles and prophets."

Notice the bait-and-switch tactic. While I’m talking about Chalcedon, he slips Cyril under the table as if the creed of Chalcedon codified every last detail of what Cyril had to say on the subject.

And notice the failure to mention the historical argument I have for believing that. Another defensive hand-wave: ignoring the opponent's evidence for no good reason.

The historical process doesn’t pick out winners and losers—people do. History is a descriptive discipline, not a normative discipline. It tells you who believed what. But history cannot tell you who was right and who was wrong. It cannot pole-vault from is to ought. That’s not a historical judgment.

But I'm not jumping from an "is" to an "ought;" this is something that Hays has imputed to me. Whether Constantinople rejected Diodore and the two Theodores based on conclusions from Antiochene exegesis or whether Chalcedon was intended to affirm St. Cyril's Christology are legitimate historical questions to ask. The significance is debatable, but I'm not asserting significance. I'm simply asserting what the fact of the historical happening was. The hand-wave is blurring historical methods and conclusions from those methods.

I believe that Prejean is referring to a book which came out in the 1990s. Cyril died in the 5C. So he’s saying that the church had to wait 1500 years to find out where the truth lay in the Nestorian controversy. Doesn’t he realize how deadly that is to his thesis of definitive conclusions?

This gives me a little bit of a laugh, because no one actually thought otherwise in the East the entire time. The West had an incentive to emphasize Leo's role, and that in turn influenced the compromise theories of Harnack and Grillmeier, but my entire point is that the West had this wrong the entire time. Far from being a case of the sources closest historically to the controversy being mistaken, it is exactly the later interpretation, distanced from the historical facts, that strikes me as inaccurate. And this from someone who is arguing from a "philosophical hermeneutic" method that appears to date to the 20th century, BTW, as far I can tell. But to be fair, this is an actual argument, just a mistaken one.

Okay, if he doesn’t like the “arbitrary” adjective, I’ll call his argument circular instead. Remember what I said? So this is how the game is played:

i) Arbitrarily privilege your favorite outcome.

ii) Discount any authorities who disagree with you.

iii) Pick out the historical precursors who just so happen to chart a pathway to your preferred outcome, to the exclusion of all other precursors and historical outcomes.And see what he’s just done? He’s reasoned backwards from his Cyrillene Christology to “the moderate Alexandrian method that produced” it.

He first selected the outcome, then selected the method—picking out church fathers who line up with that particular trajectory. He did this, not the historical process. What is “correct” or “excessive” is relative to his freely chosen point of reference.

The losing party—the monophysites—didn’t disappear after Chalcedon. They’re still around—Copts, Armenians. The tree has many twigs and branches.

So are Gnostics and Arians and (in Hays's case) Donatists and Nestorians. But this is all the more vigorous hand-waving on Hays's part. He hasn't shown that McGuckin departed from ordinary historical methods in making his argument and responding to objectors, so this is a response only if we are willing to move out of reality and into pure abstraction. Pardon me for preferring the real. The mere existence of monophysite communions doesn't really detract from the fact that they have been rejected by the rest of the Christian community. To the extent that heretics can be excluded from the Christian communion, they were and are.

Incidentally, there is no such thing as “moderate” allegorization. That’s Prejean’s make-up distinction. Once you cut the text free from its historical moorings, you’re at sea without a map, compass, or coastline.

Here, he's just given up on argument entirely. "Look at me waving my hands! I am clearly waving my hands here!"

[Regarding Vigilius] It’s only a cheap resort if your opening gambit is to claim the historical process does privilege one outcome over another; that's the entire point of competing historical theories, only to immediately insulate your own guy from the competitive pressures.

Technically, this doesn't deserve an answer as a fallacious (tu quoque) argument, but I will once again state the matter, because it illustrates the problem.

There is a difference between historical conclusions and theological conclusions drawn from those historical conclusions. The historical conclusion, that Vigilius was condemned, is not even a matter of debate. The theological conclusion drawn from that historical conclusion (e.g., that the papacy's claim of infallibility is unwarranted) is a question of theological method. I never said that historical conclusions definitive resolve theological questions; I only said that it is an appropriate question to inquire as to whether Constantinople in fact did condemn Diodore and the two Theodores on the grounds I described or whether Chalcedon did in fact endorse Cyril's Christology. Maybe this bit of hand-waving comes from Hays's own confusion of empirical methods with theological methods (as with the GHM), but it's still not an argument to assume the conflation of the two (which I don't share) and then attack me based on it.

Like all devout Roman Catholics, Prejean practices double-bookkeeping. There’s one set of rules for the papacy, and another set of rules for everyone else. Whenever the papacy is in peril, the papist will declare a state of martial law. Ordinary due process is suspended.

No, I simply affirm the limits of empirical methods to answer theological questions, whether they are GHM or historical methods. Empirical methods work well when used where their assumptions hold, and they work poorly elsewhere.

I’ve already argued that GHM is the method of Scripture itself. He simply ignores the argument because he can’t answer it.

No, Hays has asserted that the GHM is the method of Scripture itself. I can grant that there are numerous explanations of past times in a present context within Scripture and still deny the conclusions. That means Hays doesn't have an argument.

Prejean is conflating his own position with mine. I’m not the one who’s mounting an argument from authority, he is.

Well, yeah, but I thought that the soundness of historical methods was a nice, shared empirical basis for authority. On the other hand, the application of the GHM in cases where it wouldn't obviously be reliable strikes me as a rather naive appeal to authority.

Also, I didn’t say “question” GHM. I said those who conscious go against the grain of the text. Even in medieval exegesis, the literal sense was still treated as foundational. In principle, the medieval exegete was not supposed to swap out the literal sense for the allegorical.

More hand-waving by equivocation. First, "the literal sense" is not "the most probable meaning by the GHM." Second, "foundational" doesn't mean the same thing for astrological hermeneutics and Catholics. Third, we mean different things by "swap out."

Once again, he’s conflating his own position with mine. I don’t care whether GHM enjoys traditional precedent or not. I brought that up as an ad hominem argument, reasoning from his own premises.

Ad hominem is ordinarily fallacious, but even the attempt to demonstrate inconsistency in my position fails, because I have historical warrant for disagreeing with the premises of the refutation and philosophical warrant for my theological criteria. But I'm am thrilled to have the admission that the use of the GHM is immune to history, that it's a castle in the air that Hays believes because he believes it. Sundering Baptist/free-church ecclesiology from reality is very convenient for my arguments.

i) Historical events are empirically equivalent. They don’t come stamped with “right” or ‘wrong” on their surface. That’s a value-judgment we bring to the historical process, not one we derive from the historical process. Empirically speaking, there’s no outward difference between the two thieves and the person who died between them.

The unique significance of that particular death is not inscribed on the event itself, but in the written record of the event.

I agree that significance is independent of whether an event actually happened. Fortunately, my arguments are about what happened, not what significance it has. Red herring here.

ii) The outcome is not a theological criterion. For one thing, there is often more than one outcome. And even if there were only one outcome, that would not make it right. The winners are not always right, the losers are not always wrong.

The False Decretals were very helpful to the cause of Roman primacy. The outcome was founded on a falsehood.

After the falsehood was exposed—which men like Bellarmine fought tooth-and-nail, the outcome remained intact despite the fraudulent foundations.

As a patent law attorney, Prejean should find this unsettling.

Errr, why? As a lawyer, I recognize the contingent nature of legal development; I'm not one of the Enlightenment-spawned enthusiasts of the "brooding omnipresence in the sky." But I agree that the significance of the outcome based on a theological criterion; I just have no idea why Hays considers my theological criteria unreasonable. I can see why Hays disagrees, but I can see no argument for considering them unreasonable. I'm not rationally obligated by Hays's criteria, and there's no rational obligation for me to reject my own criteria, so how does Hays come off saying that I am being inconsistent or unreasonable?

iii) Prejean is also confusing the difference between the right interpretation of an event and the rightness of the event itself. Suppose that McGuckin’s theory is right. That doesn’t prove that Cyril was right.

No, I'm not. Hays thinks I am, but all I'm saying is that McGuckin's interpretation of the events is correct. You can think that Chalcedon was wrong, but the question is what Chalcedon said.

iv) In addition, a “growing consensus” 1500 years after the fact is a recipe for skepticism. The “definitive” conclusion is always in tomorrow’s edition, never today’s.

When the growing consensus is that a later theory is false, and an interpretation that has been consistently offered since the event was right all along, it's a bit of a different case.

*whew* Following all that hand-waving is like being in an aerobics class! Hope that an actual argument is coming somewhere.