Wednesday, July 27, 2005

RB18396 - Rob #40: Jason's farewell and the end of the debate 

(RB18396) [Wed Jul 27, 2005 7:29 am] (Rob #40: Jason's farewell and the end of the debate)


I have decided to respond to Jason's departing post from last week because I think some constructive comments can be made. Jason's statements are introduced below by his initials (JB).

Well, with Rob's departure, I will be signing off, too.

I haven't "departed." What I said (on July 13) was that "my participation in this discussion group will be severely curtailed from now until at least the end of August." But I can still squeeze out some time for Jason. :)

We dragged out the John 8:58 thing nearly a year. I think the light generated constitutes the barest fraction of the 500 pages compared to the smoke, and I apologize to you all for that.

I have a more positive view of the debate. I don't deny that some smoke was produced (and I'll admit to having contributed at least to some extent in that respect), but I also think there was considerable light shed on the subject (for which Jason can have some credit).

I think it is no secret that after a while I found it exceedingly tedious to deal with the "try anything" approach of my opponent. My own reading of the debate is that it loses coherence after last November, as Rob tries to keep too many balls in the air at the same time and picks up threads of arguments that one has to look back to much earlier postings to make any sense of. His "helpful" quotes of the relevant parts of the earlier discussion are often too selective or too out of context to truly help (although towards the end of the debate he made an effort to quote more systematically).

Well, better to have made a serious effort to provide specific summaries of points previously made and actual quotations documenting those points complete with page numbers than to offer unsupported generalizations about the other debater's shortcomings, such as Jason offers here.

Far too often I found in his postings serious misrepresentations of sources and truly phenomenal leaps of argument, and it became much more like correcting student papers than engaging in a discussion of the issues. And we rather got stuck there, complaining about each other's arguments rather than moving ahead with the topic at hand. Of course, students don't usually object to my corrections of their mistakes.

This is sheer posturing, in which Jason attempts to cast himself as the beleaguered professor and me as the impertinent student. I have graded hundreds of student papers myself, and I know the difference between critiquing the arguments of one's opponent in a debate and correcting student papers. Does Jason really handle his students' work in the manner in which he responded to my posts? I hope not!

Well, what can I say? Rob is a man of deep convictions, and they rule him. I don't imagine he would find that attribute anything he would need to apologize for.

No, I would not; Jason is right about that. And as anyone who has taken Hermeneutics from me can testify, one of my "deep convictions" is that theology must be grounded in sound exegesis rather than dictating one's exegetical conclusions. Besides, I don't need John 8:58 (which Jason agrees does not contradict my theology) to support my theology, because the Bible teaches the eternal deity of Jesus Christ in other passages as well. Hence the subtext of Jason's comment here, which he makes explicit elsewhere, that my "deep convictions" have led me to mishandle the exegetical evidence, is false. I have no trouble recognizing that certain biblical texts, including some in the Gospel of John, express the preexistence of Christ without affirming that preexistence to be without beginning (e.g., John 1:15). If I thought John 8:58 were another such text it would not bother me in the slightest.

Moreover, both evangelicals *and* Jehovah's Witnesses should note the secularist prejudice implicit in Jason's remark: because he doesn't have religious or theological "deep convictions," he is able to approach the Bible objectively. (See below, toward the end of this post, for Jason's later claim to have some "deep convictions" of a different sort.) Such a secularist perspective ought to be objectionable to Jehovah's Witnesses, since they profess to have deep religious convictions that "rule them" as well. Nevertheless, not one Jehovah's Witness has objected to this claim (which Jason made repeatedly throughout the debate in one form or another). There is a reason for this silence, which I will explain toward the end of this post. Here, though, I will point out that if Jason is right, the hapless Jehovah's Witnesses who applaud him for his polemic where it seems to help their cause are no more able to read the Bible without their "deep convictions" controlling their exegesis than I.

He is an apologist for the dominant theological position in modern Christianity and that gives him the assurance of numbers and tradition and defending what already so many accept without thinking.

I accepted this "dominant theological position" after thinking long and hard about it and I advance scholarly defenses of that position. Jason's attempt at associating me with the nameless and faceless crowd of Christians who accept orthodox Christian theology without giving it serious thought is as fallacious as is his insistence on using the term 'apologist' pejoratively.

JB: -
He completely missed the irony of his using that "Boldly spoken" anecdote on someone else, when he is the one in the fortunate position of speaking in the company of likeminded fellows.

Peculiar, isn't it, that after chastising me for giving quotes without sufficient context to understand what was said, Jason does just that? (And he didn't even get the quote right.)

The individual in question was a Jehovah's Witness who complimented Jason effusively, while asking no question or making any attempt to offer anything of substance himself (you can see the post here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/evangelicals_and_jws/message/15566). In
complimenting Jason for his treatment of John 8:58, that JW was complimenting a champion for his side. Obviously, he risked nothing, in terms of how he would be viewed by his "likeminded fellows" of other JWs, by complimenting Jason. That was my point, as anyone should have been able to understand who read my post. I believe, once again, that it was Jason who "completely missed" the point.

Unfortunately, being in that position militates against looking at things from a fresh and objective perspective. It also makes it difficult to understand a person like myself, who is not coming at this subject as a theological opponent. --

There are all sorts of agendas, and the wise person does not accept Jason's claim not to have one.

Rob never could shake off the mistaken notion that this was about interpretation, that to concede any of my grammatical points would be, in effect, to endorse a different theology than the one he holds.

The above is sheer fiction, as I have explained above.

All along I have repeated that the translation I have been explaining as the most accurate of the original Greek ("have been" or "have existed" as you please -- one of the more quixotic and pointless issues Rob raised) does not necessitate the Jehovah's Witness Christology any more or less than it does the Trinitarian one.

Jason's parenthetical comment refers to a serious weakness in his own argumentation throughout this debate which I exposed at the very end. The fact is that when that weakness was exposed, Jason actually denied ever having advocated "have been" as the best translation of EIMI in John 8:58! I am pleased that my critique on this point stands untouched by any substantive rebuttal.

It definitely rules out, as John's representation of Jesus intended, the idea that Christ was a mere human being. Beyond that, it could be interpreted along the lines of a number of different supernatural or divine Christologies, which is precisely what happened historically.

I don't claim that John 8:58 rules out every Christology other than the orthodox one. I do claim that, properly interpreted, it stands counter to Christologies that deny Christ's preexistence or that view Christ's preexistence as a temporal one akin to that of an angel. As to the proper translation in English of John 8:58, I claim only that "I am" is the best rendering; in order to infer anything for Christology from the text, one must still interpret it even after translating it. I have not, in other words, favored a translation of John 8:58 that would make an orthodox Christological understanding of the text explicit (e.g., "I am eternally God"). Jason is the one who has confused the issues of translation and interpretation here by complaining fallaciously that the "I am" rendering is tendentiously interpretive.

This history of diverse interpretation (with Athanasius and Chrysostom on one side, and a cavalcade of nearly forgotten figures on other sides) demonstrates my point that the original Greek had a greater flexibility of understanding than that which is imposed on it by the traditional English rendering.

If Jason reads this, perhaps he would like to offer us a short list of interpreters, say, prior to the eighteenth century, who explained John 8:58 to mean merely that Jesus had existed longer than Abraham. If I had to guess, the only individual he could suggest would be Arius. As far as I know, though, we do not have any comments from Arius extant on the question; the most we can do is to infer from Arius's Christology that he would have needed to explain John 8:58 along such lines. If he did, none of the Trinitarian theologians whose critiques of Arianism are extant give any indication that they knew of such an interpretation or that it needed to be answered.

And this same circumstance of confusing interpretation with translation has put Rob in the position of defending a translation that simply makes no sense to the innocent reader, but relies on a great deal of exposition, supposed connections to other passages that the person must be told about, odd word games that make the verb a secret code for a name (this is the "I AM nonsense," which is exactly like taking the sentence "The rainBOW MANaged to peek out over the hill," and saying it is actually a reference to Rob Bowman), and so forth.

It's an encouraging sign for our side when the opposition's last gasp is on the level of the baseless ridicule seen here. I have never advocated translating EGW EIMI in John 8:58 with all capitals ("I AM"), a fact that Jason here obscures, but his characterization of that rendering and its significance for those who do advocate it is hopelessly off-base. He never was able to make the case that the handling of EGW EIMI sayings of God in the OT and of Jesus in the NT by such exegetes as Raymond Brown or Philip Harner could be fairly dismissed as "nonsense." He first made the charge without reading them, and when pressed on the point, offered factually incorrect statements about Brown's appendix in his commentary.

Let me further add that I objected in private communication with Rob to the idea of posting summaries, since these only invite the temptation to badly represent the arguments of the other and try to lead the reader to see in the debate what we want the reader to see. Rob has now posted two such summaries, neither of which bear even the slightest scrutiny as fair and accurate representations of what they purport to summarize.

Unbelievable! The truth is that my summary of the debate was quite accurate and fair to Jason; I worked hard to summarize his arguments fairly, and the bald assertions he makes here to the contrary are no substitute for argument. I honestly have to conclude that Jason feared summaries because they threatened to undermine his characterization of the debate. I could respect his trying to show factually with specifics that I had unfairly represented the course of the debate. I cannot respect such an extreme and unsubstantiated criticism.

Indeed, I found his last posting almost a caricature of his method in this debate, and simply not worth responding to. Since we were supposed to be talking about the essential matters of John 8:58, I long ago grew tired of constantly needing to deviate from this purpose to correct Rob's claims about what had just happened in the debate, and his slick efforts to dodge getting caught at some dubious tactics, not to mention the several times when he apparently unawares actually ascribed to and criticized in me something that was his own position (such as the absolute copula)! So I did have a few laughs along the way.

The attentive reader will note that after the initial sentence quoted above, Jason's comments do not actually claim explicitly to have anything to do with his assessment of my last post in our debate (my #39, on June 8). Yet it would be natural to assume that they did; that is, one would think that the sentences in this paragraph were directly related in some clear way. Either way, once again Jason's comments are totally lacking in substance. He is making vague assertions that appear to be intended, not to refute me (Jason in effect admits he's given up trying to do that), but to embarrass me. This is the tactic of a debater who doesn't have the goods.

What did my last post in this debate cover? See the end of that post for a more systematic review of that post; here is a shorter, more pointed summary:

There is a lot of substance here, and Jason made no attempt whatsoever to respond to any of it. His vague assertion about me trying "to dodge getting caught at some dubious tactics" appears to be a dodge.

But the truly frustrating thing was Rob's tactic of blithely carrying on without answering my direct questions and without ever taking a position on the actual grammatical construct involved in John 8:58. The fact that he could take one position on Tuesday, a completely different one on Wednesday, and say that I couldn't criticize him for taking Tuesday's position when it was Wednesday, or vice versa, was just the most absurd situation I have ever found myself in intellectually. The fact that he could devote dozens of pages to a position, and then say it was not his position when it was shown to be indefensible, then revert to that position as if nothing had happened, finally brought me to recognize that I was not dealing with the normal conditions of intellectual exchange.

More sheer fiction. When I charged Jason with changing his position on something (e.g., on the proper translation of John 8:58, the subject of the entire debate!), I stated the charge clearly and specifically and I backed it up with careful documentation. Jason, though, is a scholar, so he doesn't need to do that.

In the end, then, true dialogue never happened. I suppose no one expected that it really would.

I am a realist when it comes to exchanges of this type. I expected a debate, and we had one. I did not expect Jason to be open to my point of view, and of course he was not (characterizing my view as impossible, as "Yoda English," and the views of the scholars I cited as "foolish," "nonsense," and the like). I did not expect him to consider me to be an open-minded person (despite the fact that I stated up front that his preferred renderings were possible and that I acknowledged mistakes in my argumentation as they were pointed out), and he went out of his way to portray me as a close-minded ideologue. I expected that we would disagree vigorously on both presuppositions and fine points of exegesis, and we did. However, I also expected that even if no one else learned anything from the debate, I would, and indeed I learned a lot from the process. I am happy to say that all of my expectations were fulfilled.

So everyone will take from the record of this debate what they want to. This is hardly a forum for open-minded mutual exploration, which is a shame because the two parties on this site share a deep conviction in the importance of these matters, which others do not. I share the view that these matters are important, but from the very different perspective of a historian and investigator. I know Rob ridicules the notion of an objective researcher, and it is all too easy for him to see my work as biased because it takes a position different from his own.

I have never ridiculed the notion of an objective researcher. I have offered serious reasons to think that Jason is not one. I admit to being tempted, however, to ridicule Jason's claim that I made the charge that he is biased merely because he disagrees with me. But I will rather let the record show just how off the mark Jason's claim is. The final paragraph of my post #39 bears repeating:

"Please note that I don't dispute that you are a scholar or that what you roduced may be characterized as scholarship. However, I have marshaled good support for my assessment of your scholarship as extremely one-sided and biased. I have deliberately held back expressing that assessment until the end of this debate because I had a responsibility to address your arguments first, however one-sided you may have been in presenting them. You will not agree with my rebuttal to your arguments, of course, but I invite those interested to read my post #38 for a complete review of the debate. I have responded thoroughly to your arguments and shown that you have not been able to meet the burden of proof that your position legitimately bears. Having argued to that conclusion, I believe I am justified in pointing out that your argumentation is not only inadequate to support your position, but exhibits telling evidence of bias. No doubt it is unintentional: 'That's the tricky thing about bias, it sneaks in and interferes with your work without your knowledge of it' (_Truth in Translation_, 167)."

The point I make about bias in my book is different. It is not identified simply by someone taking a position different from yours. It is identified by someone taking a position that does not accord with the ordinarily valid bases for a position, in particular exposed by self-contradiction. What I showed in my book in the case of John 8:58 as in other cases is that translators deviate from how they ordinarily handle similar grammatical constructs. That is, they don't deviate from some standard that I set; they deviate from a standard they themselves set.

I have refuted this argument; Jason can repeat it if he likes, but it has been refuted.

Towards the end of the debate, Rob himself identified sentences identical to the traditional translation of John 8:58 as ungrammatical. This is a classic example of the revealed hand of bias.

Without specifics, it's difficult to refute a claim like this one; I'm pretty confident, though, that Jason's claim is false.

Rob kept trying to pin on me that I am biased in favor of the JWs.

More sheer, unadulterated fiction. Indeed, this false assertion rises to the level of fantasy.

I criticize the NWT for its own weaknesses using the same principles I apply to other translations. And I explain at the end of my book my opinion about why the NWT tends to come out as more literally accurate than many other translations, which has to do with the circumstances in which the JWs formed as a radical break from existing traditions of reading the Bible. This is a historical observation and hypothesis that has nothing to do with favoring or disfavoring JW interpretations and theology.

When I get the chance, I plan to offer a thorough refutation of this characterization of the NWT. However, that is a project for another day.

I explain in my book the pressure of tradition on reading things into the
biblical text, and this is exactly the phenomenon involved in Rob's defense of the traditional reading of John 8:58, which was never very far from theological grounding, while I slogged on naively talking about how Greek works as a language, slow to realize that for Rob God trumps all rules and practices of grammar.

More posturing and condescension. It doesn't matter to Jason how often and how explicitly I deny or how thoroughly I refute his charge of a theologically grounded approach to biblical language, he's committed to repeating the charge whenever it suits him.

I think one may fairly conclude that the historian and the theologian belong to separate domains, and the difficulties of this debate suggest how hard it is to find common ground on which to have a meeting of minds.

A good theologian must also be an historian, because the Bible comes to us as a collection of documents produced in historical circumstances and ranging over a long period of history, and because the Bible's theology is rooted in historical events. So I have never accepted the simplistic dichotomy of history versus theology. Again, the attentive reader should note that, for Jason, the theologian is an inherently biased fellow doggedly determined to conform the Bible to his beliefs -- unless he is unorthodox, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, and then he is a courageous dissident daring to make a radical break from tradition. But Jason isn't biased in favor of the Jehovah's Witnesses. No, really, he isn't. He's just biased against orthodoxy -- and arguing that the NWT is superior to the most popular orthodox English versions of the Bible is a convenient way to tweak the orthodox. That's really what his book _Truth in Translation_ is all about.

In Christ's service,

Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
Center for Biblical Apologetics
Online: http://www.biblicalapologetics.net

After reading Bowman's final response to Jason B, I am reminded of a climactic scene from "The Help" wherein Aibileen says to Hilly:

"You a Godless woman! Ain't you tired, Miss Hilly? Ain't you tired?"

Ain't you tired Rob?
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