Responding to James White (Part 6)

James White is apparently finished responding to my initial post. I have waited a bit and don’t see any indication he intends to address any of my responses, so I will let them stand in response to his first five posts. You can find both our posts here:

James’ Video, My Response

1st Rebuttal, My Response

2nd Rebuttal, My Response

3rd Rebuttal, My Response

4th Rebuttal, My Response

5th Rebuttal, My Response

6th Rebuttal

7th Rebuttal

8th Rebuttal

9th Rebuttal

10th Rebuttal

I will unfortunately have to divide my concluding remarks into two posts, since I want to address two lengthy issues White brings up in addition to the smaller details of his last five responses. I will start in this first post with White’s final remarks, since the concerns I have with it are fundamental issues that will illuminate the remainder of my responses (and my previous ones, too). In this final response White summarizes his fundamental concerns with the broad apologetic trend he sees represented in my comments. I’ve already discussed the problems with his assumptions about change within churches and theology in general, and Mormonism in particular (here), but in this final post White attempts to critique critical biblical scholarship as a whole. It is that critique that I intend to primarily address in this first post. I will first gather and summarize a number of points White makes concerning critical biblical scholarship in general. The intention is first to show that White’s approach to the entire endeavor of critical biblical scholarship is fallacious, uninformed, and is based on outdated and equally uninformed scholarship. I will then go on to show specifically where his arguments go wrong, and where his rhetoric misses the mark. Finally, I will try to touch on some smaller points made in this final post.

White begins by explaining that this last post of his is the reason he wanted to respond to my post in the first place, and it’s the reason he’s given his posts the title they have, “Guessing About God: Mormonism’s Inability to Resist the Onslaught of Modernistic Skepticism.” He explains that the shift he sees in Mormon apologetics is clearly seen in comparing Joseph Smith’s hermeneutic to those of modern critical biblical scholarship. His point of comparison is a 1966 book on Deuteronomy by Gerhard Von Rad. He then goes on to summarize the view of the Hebrew Bible that one must have in order for my argument to make sense. This rather lengthy summary characterizes “modern principles of skeptical criticism” in the following way:

“you do not look at the Old Testament as a whole; you do not even look at the individual books as singular units.”

“the foundation of this viewpoint is that of philosophical naturalism: that is, the basic assumption is of the disunity of the text”

“contradiction and error is the starting point, the first ‘given.’ That way we can produce theories that allow us to get ‘behind’ the ‘original’ and, well, to be perfectly blunt, get published and hope for tenure.

“While certain theories become predominant over time, it is not because those theories have been thoroughly tested (how do you test such things in the real world today?). In the main, once those theories find a “major” proponent they become widely accepted, whether they are sound or not.”

White thus characterizes critical scholarship basically as an old boys club filled with cynical people who can’t think for themselves and are really only concerned about publishing and tenure. White then rather unsubtly accuses me of some kind of academic elitism because of the way I presented my argument. “Many conservative Christians,” he states, “unfamiliar with the perspective of modern critical redaction theory, will not understand Mr. McClellan’s claims.” He continues parenthetically, “I find the willingness of redaction critics to throw out their conclusions without giving a thought to the fact that their readers will generally not have the means of understanding them rather educational.” White summarizes the approach of redaction critics in the following way:

You begin by refusing to allow any interpretation of these passages or terms used therein that is based upon looking at all that the Old Testament says. The many texts that say Yahweh is the only true God, and that all other gods are idols, such as Isaiah 43:10 or Psalm 96:5, must be seen as irrelevant, and kept separate from any texts that are under consideration. So, in the specific text cited at the end of the above citation, Deuteronomy 32:8-9, you cannot even consider testimonies to monotheism elsewhere even in the same book (since, on this theory, the book can be cut into small parts and isolated from any context at all, depending on the particular theory you are applying to the text). So, even though Deuteronomy 4:35 plainly states, “To you it was shown that you might know that Yahweh, He is God; there is no other besides Him,” that does not matter. That’s “over there,” and since Deuteronomy is a patchwork quilt of, well, whatever someone with a Ph.D. decides it is made up of, you can ignore that kind of thing. Remember, the basic assumptions include 1) internal contradiction, and 2) redaction of sources, often pagan in origin, must be looked to rather than any kind of divine revelation.

For White, redaction critics compartmentalize and then ignore inconvenient texts while overemphasizing other texts. The context is ignored so that atomistic considerations can apparently be thrown over the whole text. The inconvenient portions are ignored because of whatever reason someone with a PhD came up with, and divine revelation is precluded. To insist on consistency within the biblical text, according to White, is to guarantee you will never be published. The rest of his post addresses particulars of my argument, and I will get to that later, but for now I will respond to each of the points I’ve described above. (And for his specific claims about Deuteronomy and monotheism, see my posts here, here, and here. Obviously I am not simply ignoring those texts. White shows a marked naivety regarding what exactly critical scholarship argues.) I start with the way White characterizes critical scholarship.

Critical scholarship, according to White, is rationalistic, modernistic, and German. He quotes Von Rad. He calls critical scholars “liberal theologians.” He lumps their approach under modernism. White is here appealing to an early to mid-twentieth century characterization of liberal Protestant scholarship, particularly as found in the German school. This is an entirely obsolete view of critical scholarship that wasn’t even very accurate in its own day. What White is presenting is a broad and uninformed perspective he inherited from early and mid-twentieth century Fundamentalism. This is the kind of position that dominates in conservative seminaries and leads to students moving on to more academic programs thinking that no one has believed JEDP since it was debunked way back when The Fundamentals was published. That approach misunderstood scholarship in the early to mid-twentieth century and has continued to do so since.

A good example of how things are misunderstood and misrepresented is a 2002 article by one Colin Smith called “A Critical Assessment of the Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis.” The article comes from White’s own website and argues against JEDP, which it exclusively identifies with the Documentary Hypothesis (which is incorrect). From the beginning the article shows it cannot and will not address JEDP as it currently is understood. It’s clear the author does not understand the theory or its foundation very well, either. He does not directly engage a single textual argument. Everything takes place at the methodological level. He seems to think that tearing down Wellhausen will tear down everything that has followed. The author confronts (although not directly) critical scholarship almost exclusively from the nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth century. He cites a number of Evangelicals from the late twentieth century who criticize the early DH, but I count only one critical scholar from after 1950 that is cited (Lester Grabbe), and even then he is only referenced and dismissed on two minor points. The most oft-cited publication in the footnotes (35 references) is a 1969 book by R. K. Harrison, followed by a publication by James Orr, who died in 1913. Wellhausen himself is only cited six times in the footnotes (via a Project Gutenberg version of the book that has no page numbers). This is the only discussion of JEDP I’ve been able to find on White’s site. I see no indication he’s aware of the work of Carr, Baden, Van Seters, Levin, Friedman, Haran, or numerous others from the last fifty years. There’s no need within his worldview, though, since everything’s been debunked for decades.

Not only is White’s position outdated, it is incredibly uninformed. White is not familiar with early or modern critical scholarship regarding the Pentateuch, he’s only familiar with the caricature of early critical scholarship that has been filtered to him through Evangelical Fundamentalism. That caricature is demonstrably false. White accuses biblical scholars of blindly sticking to mainstream ideas and of promoting those ideas only in the hopes of getting tenure. Basically, White is accusing the academy of standing in complete opposition to its own fundamental values, namely objectivity, originality, and scholarship for its own sake. White must simply assume that these academics secretly oppose the values they repeatedly affirm in conferences, publications, and university departments. This is, of course, ludicrous. Universities don’t pay professors to say the same stuff everyone else is saying. Grants, fellowships, and scholarships aren’t handed out so that people can just promote the status quo. Dissertation committees don’t sign off on dissertations for not adding anything to the academic discussion, or for refusing to be objective. White’s caricature is grotesque and naive.

Moving on, White insists that disunity is the presupposition with any critical literary analysis of the biblical texts. I will set aside for the moment the fact that he does not and cannot empirically support any case for the complete unity of the biblical text. Of course, he doesn’t have to; he’s not approaching this from a logical or evidence-based position, he’s approaching this from pure dogmatism. The people who presuppose disunity are simply wrong because he presupposes unity and he’s right (at least, as far as his intended readers are concerned). White cannot possibly defend his presumption of unity on intellectual grounds, so he has to simply insist that a presumption of disunity is problematic in and of itself. Let’s examine that, though.

While it is true that early source criticism sometimes got rather carried away with itself in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it didn’t begin this way. In fact, the first person to propose specific sources for the Pentateuch was actually writing an apologetic text directly affirming the unity of the text, and he was French, not German. Jean Astruc’s eighteenth century Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux, dont il paraît que Moïse s’est servi pour composer le livre de la Genèse, employed methods used by Greek and Latin scholars for identifying manuscripts and evaluating Homer. It argues that Moses produced separate narrative traditions that were later conflated by editors to produce Genesis. Astruc proposed separate narratives because he felt the evidence simply pointed to separate narratives (which it absolutely does). He maintained their compositional unity, though, insisting on Mosaic authorship. While Astruc’s methodologies were later taken up by Eichhorn and other German scholars among whom the approach flourished, the vast, vast majority of scholars who have approached the question have been believing Jews and Christians who are first concerned with a factual and logical approach to understanding the Bible, and who have decided that the evidence simply points to separate traditions. Even Wellhausen describes his study of the Pentateuch as beginning from an assumption of unity.

When one arrives at the conclusion that the text is fractured and then proceeds forward from there, it’s hardly accurate to say they are beginning with a presumption of disunity. Additionally, subsequent scholarship is not responsible for laying out the entire case for disunity with each and every publication. At some point scholarship has to be able to agree that the conclusion no longer needs to be made from the ground up. White prefers to ignore these facts and insists that any scholar who arrives at the conclusion of disunity must have presupposed it.

White’s position is perplexing for other reasons, too. It insists that critical scholars presuppose disunity and will not engage the evidence that has arisen out of the presumption of unity. In other words, he’s asserting that scholars who argue for disunity have never had to engage an argument against it. Why does he say this? It’s because he presupposes unity and will not even allow for the possibility that his presupposition is incorrect. As a result, anyone who disagrees with him must be doing something wrong, and must not be aware of how weak their argument really is. This is another rather grotesque caricature of critical scholarship. Anyone familiar with source criticism knows that it is constantly in dialogue with the notion of unity and synchronic analysis. They let the evidence guide the evaluation whereas White predetermines what the evidence is and is not allowed to say and then pretends to interact with it.

His treatment of Deut 32:8 is a good example of this. He provides the notes from the apparatus of the Göttingen edition and then states simply that the reading is unsure and that’s that. He states this “without fear of contradiction.” I’m curious on what this fearless conclusion is based. Is it the fact that a couple scholars have actually argued for the priority of “sons of Israel”? Does this mean any time a scholar publishes a challenge to a scholarly consensus that the consensus is automatically undermined? The fact that an argument has been made in print for “sons of Israel” no more indicates academic uncertainty than the fact that millions of people believe Elvis is still alive indicates uncertainty about his death. To insist otherwise is simply naïve. Scholars who argue that “sons of Israel” is original are simply wrong, and I will be happy to fully and directly address any publications White can cite to the contrary. Certainly it can’t be that. Is it because the argument for “sons of Israel” is the strongest? He doesn’t say a word about how strong it is, so it can’t be that. Is it because there are several different variants attested in the critical apparatus? Certainly he’s aware of the priority of the different Greek manuscripts in this case, as well as the Qumran witness—the earliest of them all—that is not found in the apparatus. It can’t be that. Is it because there are a couple different suggestions for reconstruction? I don’t believe this is the case. There is absolutely no question whatsoever that the text did not originally read “sons of Israel” or “angels of God.” The uncertainty is whether the text originally read “sons of El,” “sons of Elohim,” or, as Joosten has argued, “sons of Bull El.” I am at a loss to explain why he feels his assertion is valid, much less why he feels fearless in asserting it, unless he does so simply because he presupposes it. Whether or not this is the case, in the end, all he does is sidestep an argument he knows he cannot win.

Let’s examine another problem with his caricature of the critical method. White states,

While certain theories become predominant over time, it is not because those theories have been thoroughly tested (how do you test such things in the real world today?).

I would first ask what evidence White can produce that these theories have not been thoroughly tested, but it’s clear he can produce nothing beyond his own assumptions. On the other hand, there is a mountain of evidence that flatly contradicts his assumption. Even as early as the 19th century scholars found ways to empirically test the methodologies of source criticism. Tatian’s Diatessaron was the first text to be pointed to as analogous to the processes suggested by source critics. Tatian took four separate gospels and conflated them into a kind of gospel harmony. Scholars have noted the sources for each word of the text and then examined the phenomena that occur at the major seams, pointing out that those phenomena are the same things source critics have used to identify separate sources. Objections were quickly raised on the grounds that the Diatessaron is too late to bear on the question of Pentateuchal composition. Later discoveries silenced those objections. Primary among these discoveries were a number of versions of the Gilgamesh epic, which actually preserved multiple stages of its literary development from millennia before Tatian. Again, when the major seams were examined, they attested to the same literary phenomena. The Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and even the Samaritan Pentateuch, because they sometimes preserve earlier stages of a text’s development (or later stages), produced a number of similar examples, although on a smaller scale.

What this shows is that (1) the methodologies used by source critics are testable, (2) they have been thoroughly tested, and (3) they have been shown to be reliable. Additionally, it shows that source critics constantly have the question of unity vs. disunity before them, and that they consider both traits fully and honestly. Here is a short list of some publications that directly address source critical methodologies and their empirical testing, as well as the value of diachronic and synchronic approaches to literary criticism (in no particular order):

David Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches (1996).

John Van Seters, The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the “Editor” in Biblical Criticism (2006).

Ernest Nicholson, The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Julius Wellhausen (1998).

Jeffrey H. Tigay, Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism (1985).

Jeffrey H. Tigay, Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (2002).

Jeffrey H. Tigay, “An Empirical Basis for the Documentary Hypothesis.” Journal of Biblical Literature 94.3 (1975): 329–42.

Z. Talshir, “The Contribution of Diverging Traditions Preserved in the Septuagint to Literary Criticism of the Bible.” Pages 21 to 41 in VIII Congress of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Paris 1992 (1995).

Michael V. Fox, The Redaction of the Books of Esther (1991)

George F. Moore, “Tatian’s Diatessaron and the Analysis of the Pentateuch.” Journal of Biblical Literature 9.2 (1890): 201–15.

Paul R. Noble, “Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Biblical Interpretation.” Journal of Literature and Theology 7.2 (1993): 130–48.

The remainder of the comments in White’s tenth installment covers the same rhetorical grounds as his earlier comments, so I’ll save myself the time. I will point to a couple final points, though. White argues in his final post that my accusation that his argument is nothing but petty sectarianism and dogmatism is ironic. He states,

I still find this kind of language coming from a follower of Joseph Smith to be ironic, given that Smith’s claims to prophethood are far more liable to such an assertion. Be that as it may, we have seen that in fact my arguments are logical, biblical, and compelling, and it is Mr. McClellan’s position that lacks a rigorous and, most importantly, self-consistent, foundation.

First, Joseph’s Smith’s claim to prophethood is quite a distinct claim that, as with revelation and the supernatural, is not open to empirical verification. It’s a religious claim, so it’s not really an analogy that serves to undermine the consistency of my argument (which has explicitly avoided all religious truth claims). I am perfectly happy to recognize that my belief in his prophetic calling is an exclusively faith-based claim. White cannot say the same about his beliefs. Next, I disagree entirely that White’s arguments are logical, biblical, or compelling, and I have provided numerous blog posts in defense of my position. He is free to engage my arguments if he wishes. But he will not. He cannot. He has yet to really engage my position directly. He’s only hurled fallacious and vague argumentation at a general methodological trend within LDS apologetics of which he believes me to be a part. He accuses me of not being “self-consistent,” but what he is really arguing is that that broad movement of which I am a part is inconsistent with Mormonism’s wider historical approach. That historical approach has nothing to do with me, of course, so the inconsistency he thinks he sees is not at all confined within my approach. I am being perfectly “self-consistent.”

White later argues that my appeal to the authority of self-definition is indicative of my unbiblical and corrupt worldview. As I already pointed out, in his responses to me White himself appeals to the authority of his self-definition as a Christian, so his argument is already thoroughly undermined. He now claims that respect for “self-definition” robs words of meaning. In another personal insult, White states,

rational, logical soul realizes that words have meaning

This is, of course, a rather ridiculous straw man. I never said words didn’t have meaning. My appeal to self-definition was intended to show, in part, that words mean different things to different people, and we can’t simply demand—based on nothing but our own dogmatism—that others adhere to our definitions of specific words. White’s definition of a Christian is not based on an objective or thorough look at the term’s usage (he stated that all of Christianity rejects Mormonism’s participation in Christianity, but this was obviously just an a priori assumption. I later showed that actual research shows the majority of Christians actually accept Mormonism as Christian). As I’ve shown, any objective definitions of “Christian” includes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

White cites Gal 2:4–5 to show that Paul rebuked people who had pretended to be Christians in order to bring true followers of Christ “into bondage.” White insists that, by my criteria, they should be recognized as Christians. I did not say that self-definition was the only criterion, however. I said there were others, but that self-definition was the first and the most important. That is still true even in light of White’s text. If the people to whom Paul refers indeed joined his congregation under false pretenses in order to subjugate it to some kind of outside or harmful authority then obviously that has to be taken into consideration. White doesn’t recognize this either because he has not thought it through or because he has not read my comments carefully enough. Either way, his criticism is invalid.

Next, I didn’t think I would see White appeal to this canard, but he actually insists on the notion that Mormons promote a “different Jesus.” It is an odd situation when two people insist they believe in the Jesus of the New Testament, but one then insists that the other’s Jesus of the New Testament is a distinct Jesus from his Jesus of the New Testament. The only way this can make any sense at all is if each conceptualization of Jesus relies on identifiers absent from the biblical text, and the differences lie between those extra-biblical identifiers. If both believe only in the person described throughout the text, neither has a belief that differs from the other. The difference in belief must come from qualities not found in the text. In other words, White is comparing an extra-biblical view of Jesus to an extra-biblical view of Jesus. As long as he is comfortable recognizing that fact, I’m perfectly happy to recognize that the aspects of Jesus I recognize that are not found in the Bible differ from the aspects of Jesus that White recognizes that are not found in the Bible. The notion that this excludes me from Christianity, however, can only rely on a non-biblical definition of Christianity (and a definition that would also exclude most first century Christians). In other words, we’re back to dogmatism and sectarianism. White’s argument can never escape that gravitational pull.

Finally, White argues that I mischaracterize his argument when I state that he’s really only arguing that Mormonism isn’t Evangelicalism, and thus isn’t Christian. He states,

Ironically Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, historical Anglican (still seen in the African branches, and down in Sydney, Australia), etc., all confirm monotheistic Trinitarianism as well. This is not merely a matter of “Mormons are not Evangelicals,” it is simply, “Mormons worship a god utterly unknown to Christians.”

Of course, as I explained in my original post and in my fourth response, his personal maintenance of the boundaries of Christianity is not limited to the doctrine of God. It only has to do with the doctrine of God when it comes to a religion with which White disagrees regarding the doctrine of God. The definition of a Christian he accidentally gave when he was not intentionally trying to exclude Mormonism was very clear to draw the lines just around Evangelicalism (it came from this response):

 I recognize the reality of God’s Spirit working in men and women who disagree with me on the non-essentials, and see a world-wide body of believers, the elect of God, united by a common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Scriptures are sufficient for life and godliness.

As I pointed out, this highlights sola scriptura and excludes Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Contrary to White’s rather selective argument, it is indeed merely a matter of “Mormons are not Evangelicals”; White just has different tools in his belt that he utilizes for dealing with each of the different non-Evangelicals he wants to exclude from Christian fellowship.


4 responses to “Responding to James White (Part 6)

  • diglot

    Good rebuttal.

    Moving on, White insists that disunity is the presupposition with any critical literary analysis of the biblical texts. I will set aside for the moment the fact that he does not and cannot empirically support any case for the complete unity of the biblical text. Of course, he doesn’t have to; he’s not approaching this from a logical or evidence-based position, he’s approaching this from pure dogmatism.

    That succinctly sums up White’s argumentation – assume the univocality and inerrancy of the biblical text due to a heavy reliance on a Church tradition which says so.

  • Meekmildmagnificent

    Why are you wasting your time with White? He isn’t a scholar, lacks credible arguments and his approach is a setup to atheism for anyone who studies these issues a bit. Scriptural fundamentalists like White are Christianity’s worst enemy.

  • eric bess

    Wait…so, source criticism follows from philosophical naturalism? Much like learning how to tie your shoes or making a building out of legos, I suppose. That’s absolutely ridiculous. Again, White is pressing everything against the backdrop of fundamentalism!

  • Hjalti

    Daniel, you might be interested to know that in his most recent podcast (26.05.2011) James White discussed psalm 82 and the use of that passage in the gospel of John. Here’s the mp3 of the show. The discussion of these passages starts ~30min into the show.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 300 other followers

%d bloggers like this: