Monday, December 05, 2005

The Problem With Evangelical Propaganda

[The following blog post is by Jus Divinum.]

Just a quick note.

Awhile back, Steve posted an excellent, three-part critique [1 | 2 | 3] of Ben Witherington's The Problem With Evangelical Theology (Baylor Univ. Press, 2005).

Last night, Witherington posted a short comment in reply. You'll have to read the whole thing, but what he says includes the following:

I said quite clearly at the outset that I was dealing with these different Evangelical theologies as they are found at the popular and most widely disseminated level. This means unlike most of my work I deliberately avoided spending much time debating other scholars. The issues was the ideas, not who said what.

What is especially disturbing about your critique is its inability to be self-critical. This is unfortunate and it reduces your remarks to pure polemics, which is sad.


Just a few observations. First, Witherington is essentially saying that his book is useless in extending our knowledge on the topic, since he's only looking at "ideas" at a "popular" level, rather than examining the arguments given on behalf of those ideas in the relevant sources. But why should we care about "ideas" on either side of the issue, if those ideas are poorly argued? And why should we care about a book about those ideas if the author can't be bothered to assess the actual arguments given by the proponents? Of what use is such a book in educating the contemporary church on vital issues? What is the difference between such a book, and propaganda?

Second, Witherington is also trying to have it both ways. Judging by Hays's excerpts of him, Witherington does cite scholars and sources after all, but only when it suits him. Thus Witherington's citations of Achtemeier, Dunn, Volf, Cranfield, Barrett. In this latest comment Witherington profess intimate knowledge of Reformed sources as well. So why weren't the arguments in these sources exposed as fallacious, if indeed they are fallacious?

Third, it appears that Witherington can't be bothered to interact with a single one of Hays's posted arguments. Rather, he is content with vacuous broadsides. Witherington repeatedly accuses Hays of an "inability to be self-critical". But judging by this reply, isn't the shoe on the other foot?

In his book Witherington decries theological triumphalism. But the book itself is an example of such triumphalism: your detractors are wrong and you don't even have to interact with their best arguments, because after all you're focusing on "ideas" at a "popular level". Sure ;-)

3 comments:

  1. In case it wasn't obvious, Steve posted his reply as I was composing mine. Talk about a Johnny-come-lately! :-)

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  2. "I said quite clearly at the outset that I was dealing with these different Evangelical theologies as they are found at the popular and most widely disseminated level."

    As far as Calvinism is concerned, which Calvinist is proposing Calvinism the way Wirthington is in his book? The errors I am mostly familiar with in this area is either hyper-calvinism or anti/non-calvinists misrepresenting. Neither should fall under his categories.

    "This means unlike most of my work I deliberately avoided spending much time debating other scholars. The issues was the ideas, not who said what."

    Debating scholars or presenting to layman, he could at least present the proper understanding of the theological systems properly. If this isn't done it only adds to the confusion causing more misrepresentations.

    The issue here seems to be Ben's ideas and whether they are accurate or not. Do I understand this rightly then that a scholar can wrrite about ideas and thus doesn't have to be held to a certain standard?

    Mark

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  3. To be quite honest, this is typical of the way many of the writers of these books respond when confronted. They misrepresent the opposing position and then fail to interact with their own critics.

    Secondly, I personally find it tremendously hypocritical of a scholar of Dr. Wittherington's stature to accuse Steve of being incapable of self-criticism.

    A. Since Dr. Wittherington was misrepresenting Calvinism, there was no real criticism to engage. Steve's review spent more time unraveling straw men than dealing with substantive criticism.

    B. If Dr. Wittherington really believes in self-criticism, why did he pick the Wesleyan doctrine of perfectionism to critique for his critique of Arminianism, while choosing to critique the whole of Reformed soteriology? Perfectionism is a doctrine only some Wesleyans and very few Arminians as a whole affirm. Are there no broader issues with which Arminianism must content? If I was of a conspiratorial mind, I might think Dr. Wittherington did not wish to engage the broader scope of his own soteriology. Who then lacks the capacity for self-criticism here?

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