Monday, February 15, 2016

G.A. Wells’ “Guidelines for Hostile Writing”

It has often been observed that it’s the pioneers who take the arrows. As independent thinkers throughout history have bravely ventured into uncharted territory, they naturally put themselves in harm’s way. This is no less true of those who challenge sacred traditions than it was of those who explored the rugged lands west of the Mississippi.

One thinker who has found himself in the sights of a frothingly hostile community since the 1971 publication of his book The Jesus of the Early Christians, is G.A. Wells. Wells is infamous not only for his tireless defense of theses exploring Christianity’s origins, but also for his sweeping familiarity with the history of critical theology.

As such, Wells is well acquainted with the usual tactics employed by apologists committing defending the traditions of the Christian establishment and to treating those who dare to question Christianity’s claim as sworn enemies. In the view of those who are confessionally invested in Christian dogma, Wells is an unpardonable trespasser worthy of nothing but the fiercest condemnation.

In his 1996 book, The Jesus Legend, summarizes the patterns of hostility that he has observed in critical reactions to his work with the following “Guidelines for Hostile Writing and Illustrations of Their Use” (pp. 5-6), which I have found quite instructive:
1. Question his qualifications to say anything on the subject at all (‘Does this man know Greek?’)  
2. Never give the impression of carefully rebutting a rational argument, but speak patronisingly, as of a crude and discredited theory which deserves no more than a brief mention (e.g. his book is ‘fun’ and one must admire his mental agility and capacity for belief).  
3. Affix distasteful labels to him, suggesting his adherence to discredited philosophical or other modes. (Dispose of Strauss and Baur by saying that the Tubingen School of critical theology was ‘Hegelian’. ‘Negative’ is a useful label here, even though the Finnish theologian Heikki Raisanen has noted that “the history of biblical study is full of examples from Galileo through Strauss to Albert Schweitzer which demonstrate that it is the ‘negative’ results which have most forcefully driven research forwards.”)  
4. Lump him together with discredited commentators, and if he himself has criticized these, make no mention of the fact.  
5. Represent his minor errors and slips as indications of total incompetence.  
6. Make plausible-sounding objections to his case as if he were himself unaware of them and had not attempted to answer them.  
7. Say he relies on certain a priori dogmas; for instance, claim that he rejects the New Testament miracles not because he gives grounds for finding the evidence for them in the documents inadequate, nor because he is able, additionally, to account for the narratives without recourse to the idea of supernatural intervention, but because he arbitrarily rules out in advance the idea of supernatural events.  
8. Pick on a book he does not mention – the literature on his subject being illimitable – and call his failure to do so ‘a serious omission’.  
9. Do not produce arguments, but appeal to ‘authorities’, alleging them to have settled all that is in question. At the same time, complain that he does no more than this, and also that the authorities on which he relies are ‘out of date’.  
10. State his case in an elliptical way which, while it would not mislead the few who already know his work, will make others suppose that he is defending an untenable, even absurd position. Above all, do not quote him at length if his arguments are difficult to answer. (“No purpose is served by quoting the maverick and ill-founded views of G.A. Wells.”)  
11. Adduce propositions which, while themselves true, are irrelevant to his case.
Wells continues (pp. 6-7), citing F.F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents. Are They Reliable? (pp. 15-16), which
gives a signal example of this final guide-line when he rebuts arguments against the trustworthiness of the New Testament by pointing to its rich manuscript tradition – the mss. evidence for it being “ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors.” One can only comment that if there had been a Tacitus club in every European town for a thousand or more years with as much influence as the local Christian clergy, sections of the Annals would not have been lost. And if, instead of copying again and again the books of the New Testament, scribes had copied the works which they regarded as heretical; and if the authorities had also allowed works downright hostile to Christianity to survive instead of suppressing them, then we should have a much clearer picture of what underlay Christianity’s successful struggle against opposing forces. Mere possession of Porphory’s work Against the Christians became a capital offence under Constantine. It has been repeatedly pointed out that papyrus quickly deteriorates in a humid climate, so that a work was likely to survive only if recopied at intervals; and that this would be done only if it was officially sponsored or if it was both popular and free from official vetoes.
In my own encounters with Christian apologists over the years, I’ve been puzzled by the predictable frequency and animated vigor with which they supposedly think “the manuscript evidence” has any value as evidence supporting their worldview claims, belief in supernaturalism, miracle assertions, etc. Perhaps I just don’t get what impresses them so much about the quantity of copies of New Testament documents that have been produced in the intervening centuries.

And of course, in regard to Wells’ seventh point, we have more than ample rational grounds (as opposed to what apologists flippantly dismiss as “a priori dogmas” accepted “arbitrarily”) for rejecting the religious notion of “miracles,” given its unmistakable assumption of the primacy of consciousness metaphysics (cf. wishing makes it so). For more on this, see my blog entry Craig Keener on Miracles. In contrast to this, I have pointed out (see for example my blog entry W.L. Craig, the Resurrection, and the Complaint of Presuppositional Bias) how arbitrarily theists do in fact grant validity to the notion of “the supernatural” as a matter of default in spite of its clearly subjective nature, and yet apologists charging non-believing critics of Christianity with arbitrariness never seem concerned by this.

Of course, it goes without saying that the tactics which Wells identifies above are not available exclusively to defenders of religious confessions; many of these can be observed in secular sources as well, even in news reporting, arguments for legislation, political debates, etc. Identifying them is the first order of business if detecting and avoiding them is desired.

by Dawson Bethrick

1 comment:

praestans said...

Well done for looking at G A Wells - (90 this year).
The manuscript chestnut apologia is as britl as the fragmentary papyri