Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Honoring wives and mothers


The primary objection to your argument was and is that you haven't demonstrated that it qualifies as a legitimate case for application of a fortiori. Once I raise the objection, the burden falls on you to demonstrate that it qualifies, not on me to somehow prove that it does not.

Actually, that’s wrong. The mere fact that somebody raises an objection doesn’t ipso facto shift the burden of proof. For his objection may be unfounded. Merely raising an objection doesn’t automatically create a prima facie presumption in favor of the objection. People often raise unreasonable objections to reasonable positions.

It’s not enough to raise an objection. Anyone can object to anything. The disputant continues to shoulder his own burden of proof. He needs to give his opponent a reason for thinking the objection raises a legitimate issue.

Take the case of false accusations. If someone accuses me of doing something I didn’t do, the mere allegation of wrongdoing doesn’t suddenly shift the burden of proof onto the accused. Rather, the initial onus lies on the accuser to present some plausible evidence to support his allegation. Only in that event does the burden of proof shift to the accused.

Likewise, when Christians say God is necessary to ground objective moral norms, many atheist quote “offensive” passages from the OT to disprove the claim. But the mere fact that they find those passages morally offensive doesn’t shift the burden of proof onto the Christian. The onus lies on them to show why the offending passages are, indeed, reprehensible–especially on atheistic assumptions.

Every argument has to start somewhere. Every argument has to take something for granted.

For instance, TFan said:

What makes you think that a wife has greater rights than a slave?

The argument was premised on the idea that slave is the lesser to wife being the greater. But that is not a premise I’m willing to accept without some reason.

I suspect most conservative Christians would find it off-the-wall to even think we need to argue that a wife has (or ought to have) a higher social standing that a slave.

Now, that doesn’t make it right, but it’s not as if my starting point is obviously unreasonable or dubious.

That said, it’s often useful to assume the burden of proof, even if that’s not incumbent on you to do so. For even if an objection is unfounded, it is often useful to demonstrate the groundless nature of the objection. But that’s not a given.

The illustration is just an illustration to help you see why your argument is not buttressed simply by identifying any way in which A is greater than B. You need more than that.

The objection could be briefly expressed this way: the argument you are using requires comparing two things that lie at different points on a single spectrum, with the second thing on the same side but farther from the dividing line that divides the spectrum; however, you haven’t established either that the two things are on the same spectrum or that the second thing is farther away from the dividing line that divides the spectrum.

That objection is unresponsive to some of the things I’ve already said. In this very thread (as well as follow-up post), I dealt some those objections when I said:

i) TFan hasn’t shown how marital obligations are different in kind from slavish obligations.

ii) Even assuming that they are different in kind, TFan hasn't shown how that's relevant to the comparison.

iii) Two things can be similar or identical at a higher level of generality, but dissimilar at a lower level of generality. TFan needs to show why specific differences vitiate the comparison. He needs to demonstrate that my comparison operates at the wrong level of abstraction.

iv) I wonder how his objections would cut against a fortiori arguments in Scripture, viz. Lk 13:15-16; 1 Cor 9:9-10. Are these the same kinds of things? They are clearly different in kind in some respects.

v) Now you seem to be saying the obligations could be comparable at a legal level, but not at a moral level. Legally of a kind, not morally of a kind. Yet you also say the two different kinds are “interrelated.”

These qualifications greatly complicate the nature of your objection.

Apparently you’d have to admit that even though the marital/slavish obligation is the same kind of obligation in one respect, that’s not the right kind of obligation to carry the a fortiori argument.

vi) Scripture classifies marriage as a type of “bond” service (cf. Rom 7:2; 1 Cor 7:15,39). Both husband and wife were bound to each other by marriage. So that’s analogous to slavery, without the pejorative connotations of slavery.

More specifically, your argument seems to rely on the following premises (my objections in parenthesis):

1) A wife has greater rights than a slave (a. the evidence you provide is actually explicitly the opposite - the slave has an explicit right never given to wives;

That’s an argument from silence. Scripture never gives wives an explicit right to relieve themselves. Does that mean they have no such right?

b. "rights" are an anachronistic framework in which to interpret OT law or its NT explication, "legal protections" would be a better framework).

i) It’s true that we should guard against the danger of imposing an anachronistic grid on OT legislation.

ii) However, the OT provisions aren’t confined to legal protections. They can also include privileges or prerogatives.

2) Wives have greater social status and grater social status implies greater rights (a. this isn’t actually a Scriptural teaching; b. male slaves had greater social status than female slaves, but had equal legal protection under the cited provision;

Of course, comparing menservants to maidservants is equivocal. You’re not comparing men to women, per se–or comparing women to slaves, per se.

To take a counterexample, noblewomen had authority over their slaveboys.

 c. in general, where the law provided different legal protection based on social status, the law provided more legal protection for those with lower social status, example, the wife who was also a slave had more legal protection than a normal wife)

You’re recasting the issue in terms of “legal protections.” But that’s simplistic and reductionistic. Let’s take some counterexamples:

i) In the OT, slavery was a demeaning condition. That’s why OT laws goes out of its way to limit the humiliation where Hebrew slaves are concerned. And that goes back to Israel’s experience in Egypt.

(An apparent exception is that Jews/Christians are God’s “slaves.” But that master/slave relation isn’t demeaning inasmuch as that’s grounded in two genuinely unequal parties.)

ii) By contrast, to be a Jewish wife is not inherently demeaning. It lacks the pejorative connotations of slavery. It’s not punitive. It’s not a misfortune.

iii) A wife and mother was the feminine counterpart to the husband and father in a way that a slave could never be a counterpart to the husband and father. Although the wife was subordinate to the husband, her relation to him was symmetrical in a way that’s not the case for a slave.

iv) Apropos (iii), there was a pecking order in a Jewish household. As one scholar notes:

Wives occupied the second rung in the social order of the household.

By contrast:

As noted earlier, in addition to the blood relatives, the Israelite family included a variety of individuals who had by their own choice or through economic necessity come to be associated with the household…Slaves, both male and female, occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder.

D. Block, “Marriage and Family in Ancient Israel,” K. Campbell, ed., Marriage and Family in the Biblical World (IVP 2003), 58-59,77.

v) Children were required to honor both parents (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16). In Lev 19:3, the mother is even mentioned before the father as the obligatory recipient of filial honor. By the same token, children are condemned for dishonoring father and mother alike (e.g. Prov 20:20; 30:11-14,17).

By contrast, there’s no command to honor house slaves. In an honor/shame culture, higher honor is a mark of social rank.

vi) Wives could name children. In Scripture, naming is considered an exercise of authority. Indeed, that’s one of the complementarian arguments for male headship (Gen 2:19-20).

vii) Children were required to obey the instruction of mothers and fathers alike (Prov 1:8; 6:20).

viii) Malachi characterizes husbands who divorce their wives for illicit reasons as traitors and covenant-breakers (Mal 2:10-16). By contrast, slaves are, at best, employees–and often less.

ix) Paul discusses husband/wife relations as well as master/slave relations (e.g. Eph 5:22-33; 6:5-9). Both involve a degree of submission. But the wife clearly has a higher status than the slave. The husband has greater obligations to the wife than a master has to his slave. 

3) freedom from slavery is so closely analogous to freedom from marriage that if something warrants one kind of freedom it warrants the other (but obviously no one thinks that slave owners were bound by the law to permit unbelieving slaves to leave…

Which seems to be alluding to 1 Cor 7:15, but that’s a separate argument.

…nor does anyone think that adultery on the part of the master gave the slave freedom, nor did the death of the master free the slaves - if none of the things that explicitly justify liberation from marriage justify liberation from slavery, why should we think that anything that justifies liberation from slavery justifies liberation from marriage?)

Every argument from analogy has disanalogies. That’s the nature of the argument.

Notice, though, that TFan is trying to turn an a minore ad maius argument into an a maiore ad minus argument. But that misses the essentially asymmetry of an a fortiori argument. Whatever applies to the greater doesn’t apply to the lesser. They aren’t convertible.

An argument from the lesser to the greater takes the basic form:

A, what’s more B.

And to reiterate something I said before, how would TFan's dismissive approach apply to Biblical arguments from analogy, viz. Lk 13:15-16; 1 Cor 9:9-10?

Finally, what is TFan’s own position? To what is he opposing my position? To take two questions which come immediately to mind:

i) Does he think husbands have the right (duty, prerogative) to beat their wives under some circumstances?

ii) Does he think husbands have the right to divorce a wife on Biblical grounds (however defined), but a wife has no right to divorce her husband if he’s guilty of the very same offense?

And if he doesn’t like the paradigm of rights, we could easily recast the question: are the grounds for divorcing a wife the same as for a husband? Are there any grounds for divorcing a husband? 


  1. I'm not sure how to persuade you that you have the burden of showing that your a fortiori qualifies, steve. But you do. You don't get to just take that for granted.

  2. I devoted a fair portion of my post to doing just that. To baldly say I failed to discharge my burden of proof begs the question.

  3. I didn't say you failed to discharge your burden. Much less did I baldly do so. I responded to the opening salvo of your comments, which seem to suggest that you think you don't have the burden and that your argument gets a presumption of legitimacy similar to the presumption of innocence of an accused person.

    As for your attempted discharge of your burden, even assuming that wives were higher in the social order, and even assuming that both marriage and slavery are in some sense bondage, it does not follow that therefore if something breaks the bond of slavery, it breaks the bond of marriage. That conclusion is obviously false. For example, the arrival of the seventh year broke the bond of slavery, but did not break the bond of marriage. So, I can't see how you think you've discharged your burden.


  4. You're taking intellectual shortcuts by trying to deflect my detailed arguments with a few snappy one-liners. That doesn't seriously engage the argument.

  5. Well, thanks at least for saying that they are snappy. I'm content with them in terms of identifying the problems with your argument.

    I've set forth a positive case for my position at my own blog.

  6. Steve: Notice, though, that TFan is trying to turn an a minore ad maius argument into an a maiore ad minus argument.

    JB: That jumped out at me right away.

    1. Yes, it practically leaps off the page and smacks you in the face! How could anyone miss it? :-)

  7. Now there is something wrong with taking intellectual shortcuts and snappy one-liners?

    IS and SOL?