Intellectual Snobbery

January 7, 2013 in Theology · 8 comments

Yours truly

I’ve been accused of intellectual snobbery. I suppose there are worse things — like say, being accused of just plain snobbery. Or boring old intellectualism. But intellectual snobbery — that’s a double whammy — a two-for-one insult worth paying attention to!

Ironically, I wasn’t labeled an intellectual snob for providing a too academic and esoteric argument, but rather for refusing to do so. That’s right — because I declined to offer up scholarly resources and arguments, I fell afoul of the snob police. One only wonders what would have happened if I had decided to bring scholarly resources to bear!

So what exactly is all this about? The good Mr. Stasisonline (presumably not his real name) took exception to my post “Can you be a Christian and still believe … ?” and we engaged in a friendly, though pointed exchange in the comments section of that post. In that exchange, Stasis (are we on a first name basis yet?) repeatedly tried to steer the conversation away from the point of the post — that one can believe homosexuality isn’t a sin and still be a Christian — and into a direct debate about whether or not homosexual behavior is sinful. While I demurred, I chose not to be led into a discussion that was both off-topic and unlikely to bear any meaningful fruit. I also made statements to the effect that Matthew Vines, blogs and YouTube videos do not represent serious scholarship.

That exchange resulted in Stasis posting a confusing rant that seems to denounce intellectual engagement with Christian belief. For Stasis, since “Christianity is accessible to anybody” there’s no need to engage with scholarly work, to explore ideas and beliefs that may challenge our preconceptions, to exercise our intellect or to use our minds. We should stick to online resources rather than buying “the books of authors whose work is poor quality.” I wonder if work of “poor quality” happens to be synonymous with work “whose conclusions I disagree with”?

Free online resources, though convenient, simply can’t substitute for real research: any significantly complex issue merits the time and consideration that is only available in book-length responses. And, despite the vastness of the internet, most of the standard Biblical references aren’t freely available online. TDNT, NIDNTT, NIDOTTE, HALOT, BDAG, the major Bible commentaries such as WBC, NAC, ICC, as well as scholarly journals like New Testament Studies, Journal of Theological Studies, Journal of Biblical Literature, Journal for the Study of the New Testament and Novum Testamentum simply aren’t freely accessible on the internet (unless you’re lucky enough to be associated with a major academic institution). So does that really mean I’m not allowed to reference a source like BDAG lest I risk accusations of elitism? Are the vast bulk of Biblical scholarship simply off the table when engaging in online discussions? Am I a snob for just mentioning these resources? Or am I a snob if I refuse to mention these resources? Am I calling into question the perspicuity of the Gospel by claiming that Christian theology and Biblical studies offer untold depths of intellectual engagement?

Mr. Stasisonline accuses me of intellectual snobbery – but I accuse him of ignoring the first and greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mat. 22.37). To forgo our God-given intellect, to be unwilling to engage with God’s creation and God’s Word at any more than the most superficial of levels, to be fearful of differing opinions – this is dishonoring God and the truth He has made available to us. God has given us minds to seek Him and to know Him. He has given us reason and intellect and curiosity and determination and it is our obligation to use those gifts to honor Him. We should seek to recognize and engage with those who have taken the time and effort to grapple with the extraordinarily difficult and extraordinarily important work of Biblical study and we should do our very best to follow in their footsteps.

But don’t take my word for it since I’m not a scholar. Here are a few real scholars that make similar points (though since they’ve written books, you may not want to waste your valuable time with them):

8 comments… read them below or add one

stasisonline January 7, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Hi again Dan, and thank you for letting me know of this post. I guess the fact that you let me know, implies that you are now open to further discussion, although on this new angle rather than the previous topic. Yes, my blog post was partially about you, but I deliberately did not name you or your blog, because my post was about the principles discussed rather than about you personally. I did not expect that you would read my post, so I do hope that you didnt feel offended. I dont mind you identifying or criticizing my blog though, and I do welcome further such interaction or evaluation.

My post on my blog was not intended to imply that academic work does not have it’s place. Thank you for pointing out that my post may be interpreted to mean that. I have now edited my blog post to clarify (and have written a postscript advising of the edit). The point of my comment about intellectual snobbery, was that if reading an academic work is the only way to understand a doctrine, it’s very elitist and is contrary to what we see in the Bible of Jesus’ early disciples being practical everyday people like fishermen etc rather than only intellectuals. Usually even complex doctrines can be explained and are explained at a level that is accessible for the common person, on various websites.

Certainly research and academic analysis is important, but good research tends to make it’s way down the intellectual ‘food-chain’, being summarised and cited, simplified and consumerised so that it’s soon accessible to all. If a given argument (with its general substantiation) is only available to intellectuals in book form, I tend to suspect that it hasnt “trickled down” because too few thought it worthy to repeat.

Thanks again for your interaction. We could be on the way to becoming good friends 🙂

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Dan January 7, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Admittedly, I was a bit miffed that your post took a clear (and I still think unwarranted) swipe at me. I appreciate that you’ve softened your position a bit, but I still think you’re off-the-mark in your assessment of the value of academic work. I agree that the essential teachings of Scripture are perspicuous — the Gospel is available to everyone. But there are countless aspects of Christian belief that defy quick and easy understanding. You mention the disciples — but to me they are a great example of how confusing (and challenging) Jesus’ teachings can be! The disciples often just didn’t get what was going on — they were often befuddled and confused and simply didn’t understand what Jesus was all about. In hindsight, we have a much better understanding of who Jesus was (and is) and what his teachings mean — but we still struggle to fully understand him. Many of his parables are less-than-clear: they convey deep spiritual truths that can’t necessarily be expressed in straightforward teaching…but to tap into those truths we must wrestle with the text. The same goes for the writings of Paul. Parsing the grammar of his extraordinarily long sentences is a challenge in and of itself, let alone dealing with the subtly sophisticated theology he presents.

Yes, good research and sound arguments can be presented at a popular level — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have all already made their way down “to the masses”. If that was the case, there would be no need to move beyond the commentaries and sermons of the early church fathers. Augustine worked his way through Christian theology at a fairly academic level and provided many profound insights…and the truth of his teachings has stuck with us…but others came after him, and others continue to study and teach and expound upon Christian belief. We should seek out the ideas of all those who are seriously engaging with Scripture, and not reject something just because it isn’t available at a popular level or in a mass-market format.

It seems to me that you discount books far too quickly and give entirely too much credit to the internet. Perhaps some day all written resources will be available online, but we live in a transitional time and a great number of important works simply aren’t readily available to everyone online (as I point out above). The fact that not all information and arguments can be readily summarized in a short blog post doesn’t mean that the arguments and discussions aren’t good,

I would encourage you to read C.S. Lewis’ Introduction to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation, and where Lewis mentions “modern books” also mentally include “blogs.” Lewis provides wise advice about the importance of engaging with the works and ideas of the past and the danger of becoming inordinately enamored with the “new” and “modern,” as well as the necessity of engaging with primary, rather than derivative sources, since “firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”

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stasisonline January 8, 2013 at 5:33 pm

Fair comment that some of Jesus’ teachings are not simple to grasp. And yes, I respect the value of primary sources and in-depth academic analysis which may sometimes only be found in books and journals. But if a reasonable reproduction of an argument is not available on the internet, I think it is reflective of the quality of that argument, and I dont think the brevity of internet posts entirely negates my point. Certainly a lot of what is on the internet is brief, be it a blog post or a Youtube clip. But there is also a lot of in-depth content. From series of hour-plus long clips of sermons to downloadable PDF minibooks to multi-page articles, if someone wants to share something in-depth on the internet, there are ways to do it. Sure you dont find such material on many of the populist websites, but Christian-focused sites are often not afraid of posting it.

Thanks for the recommendation of the C.S. Lewis book. Hope your day is good.

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Dan January 9, 2013 at 9:36 am

I agree that the internet is an amazing resource. Today we have available at our fingertips more information than anyone else in history has ever had access to! And I think we should make full use of that information. What we shouldn’t do, however, is assume that all good information and arguments are readily accessible on the internet or judge the quality of an argument on the basis of its availability.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. An important issue in the discussion of women in church ministry has to do with the role of Junia as described in Romans 16.7. Was she “outstanding among the apostles” or was she simply “well known to the apostles”? Michael Burer and Dan Wallace wrote an article that appeared in New Testament Studies arguing that in this verse ἐν plus a personal dative should be translated in an elative sense, that is, “well known to the apostles.” Their article is officially available here, but requires payed access to New Testament Studies. The article is available as a free PDF here, but I question the legality of posting this entire copy-written article online. Regardless, Dan Wallace provides a free (and legal) condensed version of his argument here. So that’s all well and good…you can read up on why Junia wasn’t an apostle, but was just well known to the apostles.

But here’s where things get interesting. Linda Belleville offers a decisive refutation of Wallace and Burer in this article in New Testament Studies. Belleville provides careful consideration of the relevant linguistic, grammatical and historical issues and deals with the numerous shortcoming of the Wallace and Burer argument. To my knowledge, this article is not freely available online.

Likewise, Richard Bauckham devotes a significant section of his book Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels to refuting Wallace and Burer’s thesis and arguing that Junia was a full apostle. To my knowledge, Bauckham’s arguments are not freely available online.

Yes, one can summarize Belleville’s and Bauckham’s arguments and conclusion (that the weight of the evidence supports Junia’s apostleship), but if one wants to speak knowledgeably on the matter, then one simply must read the relevant literature, which includes the writing of Belleville and Bauckham (as well as Eldon Epp and Scot McKnight — and this literature simply isn’t all available on the internet.

Why have I taken the time with this example? To try and show that becoming knowledgeable about a topic requires engagement with all the relevant resources, regardless of their format. We both agree that we should seek out good information and good arguments and that the internet is a wonderful resource for doing that. But to say that “if a reasonable reproduction of an argument is not available on the internet, I think it is reflective of the quality of that argument” is simply fallacious reasoning. In the words of Bruce Waller “Difficult as it may be, it is vitally important to separate argument sources and styles from argument content. In argument the medium is not the message.”

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stasisonline January 17, 2013 at 8:05 am

Thanks Dan. Sorry, Ive only just noticed your above post.

My impression is that you are an intellectual. Yes, for an intellectual, who wants to be able to argue their case without basing it on citations of recognised experts, the free internet can be insufficient for sourcing information. But for the common person, who is satisfied with citing recognised experts, the finer details are often not essential. If Belleville’s and Bauckham’s arguments are particularly noteworthy, they will be summarised by others online. The full details might not be reproduced, and the common person might be quite happy with this, if they can review the basics of the arguments and point to recognised experts in the field who do or do not agree with Belleville and Bauckham.

Im not saying that the availablity of an argument on the internet is a 100% garantee of whether the argument is a quality one. But I am saying that all things considered, it’s generally a good indicator.

I suppose I agree with Bruce Waller’s statement that “Difficult as it may be, it is vitally important to separate argument sources and styles from argument content. In argument the medium is not the message.” I mean, there are a lot of arguments on the internet that are of poor quality, and there are other arguments on the internet that are of good quality. So medium and message do not necessarily directly correllate, and yes, on one level, the medium is not the message. But while agreeing with him on that level, Im not convinced that your quote is indicative of him disagreeing with my assertion that if the message is not on the medium of the internet, it’s often indicitive of it not being a quality message.

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Dan January 17, 2013 at 8:51 am

I’m not sure what makes one an “intellectual” in your eyes and whether you view that as a positive or negative designation. I’d call myself an intellectual in the sense that I try to use my God-given intellect to wrestle with and hopefully understand the world around me.

But I think that differentiating between “intellectuals” and “the common person” is a needlessly divisive distinction. Yes, some people have more expertise in certain areas and we would be wise to heed their opinions, but we all have the capability to think rationally, to judge the soundness of arguments and to arrive at tentative conclusions.

You acknowledge that an argument’s appearing or not appearing on the internet isn’t necessarily indicative of its quality, which is a step in the right direction, but the fact that you continue to think there is a strong correlation between medium and message baffles me. Waller is describing the genetic fallacy — the fallacious idea that an argument’s origins, rather than its premises, have a bearing on its soundness.

I wonder how you would have framed this discussion twenty years ago, when you couldn’t have deferred to the internet as a “filter” for good arguments? Would you have only limited yourself to books from certain publishers or magazine articles from certain authors?

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stasisonline January 22, 2013 at 6:19 am

Dan, I guess I define ‘intellectual’ as being a thinker; a person who focusses on ideas, and would tend to read a lot and know a lot, especially about the liberal arts. My reference to intellectual tendencies was not intended as a value judgement of intellectuals, but rather to point out there are characteristics of intellectuals that differ from the characteristics of the average person. Yes most people are largely rational, but intellectuals tend to have differing interests and priorities to non-intellectuals. All of which relates to the original point of contention… Im not getting a strong sense that your argument about approval of homosexuality and salvation is entirely rational. I still have a sense that it’s more emotional and heart-based with some scriptures added on top for defence, rather than being based primarily on Scripture. Are you hiding behind obfuscation? If you have a compelling argument for why the Scriptures dont mean what they appear to say, will you share it? Thanks Dan.

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Dan January 22, 2013 at 7:23 am

“Im not getting a strong sense that your argument about approval of homosexuality and salvation is entirely rational”
Likewise.

It’s telling that you ask for “a compelling argument for why the Scriptures dont mean what they appear to say”. Not only is this begging the question, it is also couched in terms of emotion (“compelling”) rather than reason and logic (“valid” or “sound”). But the short answer is no, I don’t think I have an argument on this topic that will be compelling to you. Your mind is already made up and you’ve shown little willingness to engage with issues beyond a desire to blithely refuting differing positions.

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