What The Non-Believing Kids Are Writing

December 6, 2012 in Theology · 12 comments

Jeremy Witteveen, the Head Chef over at Le Café Witteveen, offers a few choice words in his post “What the believing kids are writing” in response to my post “I Do Not Permit A Woman.” So, to be equitable, I have a few responses of my own.

Regarding 1 Timothy 2.12, Witteveen says “You know, one of those verses that renders the concept of belief a bit silly, reckless and short-sighted.” How on earth can a single statement in a nineteen hundred year old letter have such drastic epistemological consequences? That verse alone renders the entire “concept of belief” silly? Really? But perhaps Witteveen is referring solely to Christian belief, meaning something along the lines of “I Tim. 2.12 renders Christian belief untenable.” But he’s going to have to flesh out that argument a great deal for me to even consider it. The fact that Paul (or another early Christian) wrote a letter with some less-than-clear guidelines pertaining to women hardly impinges upon the entirety of Christian belief.

Witteveen then says “Wilkinson does the standard, the message is out of context to today’s world, and shouldn’t be looked at so seriously.” But I made precisely the opposite point! I said “any understanding that simply dismisses the passage as being a product of an ancient culture that now has no relevance to our modern life has also run roughshod over the text.” We can’t simply dismiss this passage as being “out of context.” Rather, we must seek to understand the context in which it was written before even considering applying it to our modern life. Furthermore, I provided a range of interpretive possibilities, including one that Witteveen ignored completely: “There is another possibility that we must consider: that Paul really was a misogynist.”

Witteveen goes on to say “Not surprisingly, he says that some things are mysterious in the bible. Imagine that.” He makes light of this point, but I think it’s an important one. Too many people think that they have all the answers, especially when it comes to the Bible. If more Christians bracketed their particular biblical interpretations with the appropriate caveats and nuances and humility, it would go a long way toward mending the divisions within the Church. And if more non-Christians took the Bible seriously as a profoundly significant collection of historical, literary and spiritual writings instead of simply dismissing it as an out-dated and irrelevant book of religious rules, it would go a long way towards resolving the seemingly insurmountable differences between Christians and non-Christians.

Next, he says, “Wilkinson even opens the door to doubt that Timothy was written by Paul at all. He quickly returns and says, But for the sake of the argument, and that Timothy is canonical, let’s explore it as if it were.” But I did more than open the door, I said that “the majority of modern scholars do reject Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy for a variety of reasons, many of them very good.” It’s relevant issue, but ancillary to my main discussion, which is the interpretive options surrounding a specific verse. I don’t think assuming Pauline authorship for the sake of the discussion has a significant impact on any of the points I made. I could just have easily written the entire post solely referencing “the author of 1 Timothy,” but such a convention, though technically more accurate, quickly becomes tiringly cumbersome.

But for Witteveen, the issue of authorship seems important: “That begs the question, if you doubt one biblical author, which biblical authors should you not question?” I’m not sure what question we’re begging. There are very good reasons to doubt Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy and there are very good reasons to believe the Paul did write Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon – virtually no scholar doubts the authorship of those epistles. So what?

Witteveen then takes issue with my point that that the Bible was written in a far different time and culture than we live in now and that we often lack cultural and historical details that would be helpful in understanding the text. But this point isn’t at all controversial — it’s simply a given for the study of any ancient literature or history. Is he disputing this fact?

He goes on to say “One must ask the question, Was any part of the bible directly intended for us?” But of course every portion of the Bible was written to a specific people for specific reasons. Again, this should be an uncontroversial point. Many parts of the Bible were written in general terms and intended to provide foundations for all Christians, but no Biblical author sat down with pen and scroll and thought, “let me jot down a few thoughts for 21st century evangelicals.” Is this what Witteveen thinks Christians believe?

Witteveen also takes issue with my statement “We don’t know many details about the difficulties the church there was facing.” He asks, “Don’t we? Don’t we know some details about the church’s evolution from nothing to something? The evolution of the trinity concept? The evolution of the godman?” But, as has clearly become his pattern, Witteveen isn’t really reading what I said, he’s jumping to unwarranted conclusions. I said “the church there” referring to the church in Ephesus, to whom the letter was written. All of the early churches faced specific problems that were brought about by their particular contexts. Ephesus was home to the Temple of Artemis, which likely posed unique challenges to the Christian community there. But we have little, if any, details about what those specific challenges were — most of those difficulties we can only speculate about given Paul’s (or the author of 1 Timothy’s!) advice to the church there.

Witteveen takes issue with my conclusion that “In the end, we must be content with more questions than answers.” He responds with “Let that sink in for a second. When have you met a Christian who was more content with questions over answers?” Apparently Witteveen hasn’t met very many Christians. But now he’s met me (at least virtually), so I can at least be the token Christian with more questions than answers. But this point wasn’t being made as a universal standard. Rather, it was an acknowledgement of the insurmountable difficulties of this particular passage. We simply lack the information to arrive at a definitive understanding of what the author of 1 Timothy 2.12 really meant. Any honest analysis of this passage readily acknowledges that fact.

He goes on to ask “And more importantly, why should a person be so content with questions over answers?” We should be content with questions because questions are important. Once you stop asking questions you stop learning, you stop moving forward. Once you think you have all (or most) of the answers, you become smug and self-secure and self-righteous and egotistical. We must always ask questions and always challenge our assumptions. Witteveen would do well to heed such advice.

Witteveen then jumps to a truly bizarre question: “Why should a person be content with scripture, that is “divinely inspired” that was never intended for culture two thousand years later.” I have no answer to what, for me, is a nonsensical statement/question. I never said we should be content with scripture — if anything, I think if we ever are content with scripture it’s a sign we aren’t really taking it seriously.

He asks “Aren’t believers the first to point out that the bible’s relevance is unending, unyielding, immutable?” But again, I’m not sure what that even means. That the Bible is still relevant is clearly true — millions of people read it and study it every day. That it’s “unending, unyielding, immutable?” As a Christian I think that’s an incoherent description of the Bible.

Witteveen asks “Does Paul get a pass on this solidarity toward verbatim commitment?” As I pointed out in my post, giving Paul a pass is precisely what we shouldn’t do — we should try to understand what he’s really saying. I said, “If, in exegeting the text, we determine that Paul was advocating something we know to be clearly immoral, we must be willing to face those consequences.”

Finally, Witteveen completely misses the point regarding my final statement. I said “We must be content with a less-than definitive conclusion about this passage, but that also shouldn’t prevent us from coming to any conclusion at all.” He responds “Confused? Wondering what to think? Don’t know the mystery but want to solve the puzzle? Jump to a conclusion! That’s the answer.” Asking questions, positing hypothesis, asking more question, wrestling with the problem, interacting with differing viewpoints — those are all crucial parts of gaining knowledge. I never suggested that one should simply “jump to a conclusion” in order to smugly “solve the puzzle.” The entire point of my post was that if you think you’ve “solved the puzzle” of 1 Tim. 2.12, you’d be wise to reconsider, especially if you think it’s an absolute command against women teaching intended to be normative at all times and in all places.

Sadly, Witteveen misconstrues or ignores virtually all of the main points in my post, and instead chooses to jump to unfounded conclusions, proffer unsubstantiated assertions and posit incoherent and irrelevant questions. But don’t take my word for it … go read the post yourself. You’ll see how badly confused Witteveen’s thoughts are …

12 comments… read them below or add one

George W. December 6, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Wow. The two of you seem to have your mouths firing on all cylinders and your ears on idle.

If you re-read the first statement of Jeremy’s that you pulled from his post, you will see your first mistake:

You know, one of those verses that ren­ders the con­cept of belief a bit silly, reck­less and short-sighted.

Do you see your error yet? No? Allow me change the formatting for effect:

You know, one of those verses that ren­ders the con­cept of belief a bit silly, reck­less and short-sighted.

I don’t know about you, but I studied a bit of English in school. When I see “one of”- I immediately assume a plurality. When I see the word “those”- I believe my hunch of plurality confirmed.
So when I read your running commentary on that pullquote, you might excuse my astonishment when I find you jumping to the conclusion that Jeremy throws the baby out with the first quarter ounce of bathwater. You may be surprised to hear this, but non-believers are actually capable of considering multiple ideas as a unified whole and extrapolating based on the incremental value of each idea towards the much grander conclusion. I’m convinced that you understand the concept of preponderance; you know, that thing you ask the reader to do in this post (and the one that sparked the comedy of errors that is this verbal exchange).
Granted his choice to use the word “renders” rather than “render” might lead one to question his grasp of subject/verb agreement- but this should be cause for a grammar tutorial, not the subject of a fisking.

I love how you took the opportunity to turn his quote into “yes, Jeremy! Of course we can disregard the entire Bible based on one passage! *sigh* “. I guess one cannot hope to be both clever and correct.

While I’m here, maybe you would like to explore the nuances of these two humorously conflicting statements on your part- since I’d be a poor sport if I just continued the puffed-up chest thumping that has become this conversation:

He responds with “Let that sink in for a sec­ond. When have you met a Christian who was more con­tent with ques­tions over answers?” Apparently Witteveen hasn’t met very many Christians.

Can I assume it is not a stretch to interpret this as “It is unfair to pigeonhole and stereotype Christians as feeling that they have all the answers.”? I’m glad that you have more class than to stereotype Christians as being stubborn and unwilling to question- you know, like making a statement like this…..

If more Christians brack­eted their par­tic­u­lar bib­li­cal inter­pre­ta­tions with the appro­pri­ate caveats and nuances and humil­ity, it would go a long way toward mend­ing the divi­sions within the Church.

Yep, I’m glad you never said anything like that. That would make it sound like you think a minority of Christians take the appropriate measure of reflection upon their beliefs. Like they are stubborn, or unwilling to question or something.

If you said something like that you might have to forgive someone for generalizing about “those stubborn Christians”.

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Dan December 6, 2012 at 9:25 pm

George, thanks for rising to Witteveen’s defense!

Regarding “one of those verses that renders,” yes, it should be “render” and not “renders.” But as written, it seems clear to me that Jeremy considers 1 Tim. 2.12 part of a larger set of verses that each individually render belief silly. Of course a cumulative case can be made against Christian belief, but it doesn’t seem to be what Jeremy was saying. Perhaps he can clarify that point. To put it in terms of food, if I say “ice cream is one of the desserts that taste good,” am I saying that more than one dessert tastes good? Yes! Am I saying that ice cream is part of a larger set of good-tasting desserts? Yes! But does ice cream alone taste good? Yes!

As to your second point, the fact that many Christians don’t critically examine their beliefs is not contradictory with the fact that not all Christian think they have all the answers. It’s also true that many Christians do critically examine their beliefs and that many Christians do think they have all the answers!

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Jeremy December 7, 2012 at 9:02 am

Yes, Dan, my point is that there are many biblical passages and sections that render (is that the right verb tense?) belief silly.

Those include, but are not limited to, parts about Adam and Eve — and a talking (talking!) snake — lots of stuff in between all the way to seven-headed dragon monsters found in the book of Revelation.

That’s a sweeping, fallacious-a-licious statement and pathetically predictable coming from a non-believer.

I get it.

It’s a bit boring though, isn’t it?

How about a list of characters alone who make the gospel silly: Joseph, Abraham, Moses, Jonah, Joshua, Samson, Noah, Jeremiah, David, Elijah, Elisha. Hosea is okay, but stay away from Gomer. She’s mine. Ooooo Malachi!, Jesus, Luke, Matthew, maybe not John, but definitely Mark. Saul was pretty cool, but Paul? Whoa. Peter.

In terms of characters alone that render the Bible silly, there’s probably not a better candidate than Mr. YHWH.

Again. These are broad, sweeping statements with poor explanation and dismal rationale. My inability to see the glory and role model found within their characters is likely a mental inferiority.

And making self-depricating statements is always an attention grabber and an argument winner.

Yawn.

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Dan Wilkinson December 7, 2012 at 9:27 am

Jeremy, I won’t try to compete with your self-deprecation! I fully agree that there are many Biblical passages that offer prima facie problems for Christian faith, but I think 1 Tim. 2.12 is far down on that list — there are many other passages (some of which you point out) that pose far greater challenges to the core of Christian belief.

My original issues with your critique were: 1) you didn’t clarify what you meant by “belief” (though I now see you were referring solely to “Christian belief” not belief as a general psychological disposition), and 2) regardless of what 1 Tim. 2.12 is or isn’t saying, to me it has little bearing on the primary tenets of Christianity. There are a wide range of opinions about this verse that all fall well within the confines of Christian orthodoxy. It certainly raises issues for those within Christianity, but, to me, it doesn’t come anywhere close to being a a defeater to the primary doctrines of Christianity.

“Yawn”
Sorry to bore you…feel free to move along if you can find more stimulating conversation elsewhere 🙂

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Jeremy December 6, 2012 at 9:17 pm

I am firing a very rare one-cylinder engine.

It’s known as a un-say-vay … en Français.

So don’t include me in the craziness.

Wilkinson is working on his own.

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Dan December 6, 2012 at 9:37 pm

Jeremy, may your engine run smoothly and carry you safely on your journey…

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George W. December 7, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Dan,
I was hardly jumping to Jeremy’s defence. My opening sentence, I felt, made that relatively clear.

Here’s the rub- the two of you seem quite content to just launch salvos at each other without taking the time to listen or relate to the others position. You seem content to lambaste Jeremy for misrepresenting your position, jumping to conclusions, and avoiding constructive dialogue; you seem to think the ideal way to do it is by misrepresenting his position, jumping to conclusions, and avoiding constructive dialogue.

The two of you are putting your two cents-worth in when a conversation costs a dime.

Did Jeremy mean that a single verse in the bible renders faith silly? One might interpret his statement that way. One might also choose to take a statement about “those verses” at face value and assume there to be a plethora of verses that make a unified case. One might for the sake of clarity choose to ask the author, since the assertion that one verse could render the Bible false seems specious and frankly indefensible. Of course, it is much easier to assume that that is what he meant and hold him to it- if only because it takes such little effort on your part to wave that comment aside.

Let’s be clear- you spent an entire post about how Jeremy is boxing with strawmen; it would have been a great post had you not spent so much time erecting then decimating your own. Maybe it was meant as irony. Perhaps you just failed at parody. I don’t know.

I’m not saying Jeremy did everything right and you are being unfair to him. I’m saying that Jeremy made some mistakes of language that belie some real truths and valuable lessons. You are not being unfair to him by choosing to brush him off- you are being unfair to yourself. We spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet talking about how to bridge the gap between believers and non-believers- yet we take every possible opportunity to avoid constructive dialogue.

When I asked you to be more generous to Jeremy’s point that it is difficult to find believers who are content with questions over answers- when you made the same general point not a few paragraphs earlier- I was really hoping that you might take that as cause for reflection. You two are speaking the same language- Jeremy saying “Christians have a habit of being dogmatic”, you saying “Christians have a habit of being dogmatic”. The difference in scope between “almost all” and “many” is just rhetorical flourish and exaggerating a point.

It is true that many Christians do question their beliefs and many Christians do think they have all the answers, just as it is true that many people are born in Canada and many people are born in the rest of the world. Many doesn’t mean “most”, or “a majority”, or even “a small fraction”- it means a quantity greater than or equal to “some”. I appreciate you pointing that out.

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Dan December 7, 2012 at 11:11 pm

George,

I’m not looking to fling mud at Jeremy. He went to the time and effort to write a pretty detailed critique of one of my posts — a critique that I felt missed the mark by a wide margin at several crucial points, so I responded to his criticisms. You may feel that this isn’t “constructive dialogue” but I promise you that I’m not trying to misrepresent his positions or intentionally jump to unwarranted to conclusions. I’m trying to clarify my positions and point out where I feel Jeremy has misunderstood me and expressed flawed positions of his own. I am trying to engage with the issues he raised, but if I’m falling short of your standard for discussion, then I apologize for letting you down, though I hardly feel I have a commitment to personally satisfy you with my writing!

Is it really that difficult to find Christians who critically examine their beliefs? I don’t think so, especially in the interconnected electronic age we live in. But a snide comment like “When have you met a Christian who was more content with questions over answers?” falls flat for me. Sure, it’s a stereotype that Christians thump their Bibles and say “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” But can’t we move past those stereotypes? Can’t we engage in the constructive dialogue you seem to value so greatly instead of banking on stereotypes to try and prove our points?

The sentence you wrote that stood out the most to me was this: “We spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet talking about how to bridge the gap between believers and non-believers- yet we take every possible opportunity to avoid constructive dialogue.”

I’m interested to know how you think that gap might be bridged and what sort of dialogue you see working toward that goal.

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Jeremy December 7, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Oh no. I spent very little time and effort on my response.

So little, that you should be a little ashamed at responding to my response at all.

George, though, has a way of responding much more thoughtfully than I.

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Dan December 8, 2012 at 10:07 am

I’m certainly not “ashamed” about responding to your hasty response. But perhaps you should append a caveat to such posts. Something along the lines of “I really didn’t put much time and effort into this post, so it’s probably best if you just ignore it.” But for that matter, why take the time to post anything at all? Regardless, I’ve appreciated the exchange with George.

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George W. December 10, 2012 at 4:03 pm

I’m saying that atheists spend a lot of time trying to explain to Christians that we aren’t curmudgeony baby-eaters who “hate God”, and Christians spend a not-insignificant amount of time trying to convince atheists that they aren’t all Westboro Baptists committed to science denialism and social engineering.

I’m saying that there is a significant swath of socially liberal and scientifically literate Christians and politically active atheists who ought to be natural bedfellows but are fighting over what material makes for better sheets.

I’m saying that atheists and Christians have an awful lot more in common than we give each other credit for- not least of which is membership in the club of high functioning primates.

When I read a post on a Christian blog that seems to admit that there is a problem with a passage in the Gospels- be it a problem of interpretation or cultural relevance or fact- there is a part of me that applauds the fact that it gives you pause and part of me that wonders why it doesn’t give you more pause. That was what Jeremy was writing about- albeit in a language bordering on an inside joke.

One of those things that Jeremy and I both find fascinating is how people manage to “question everything” but stop just shy of disbelief. Both of us were Christians once- and not the wishy-washy kind either. You think we threw the baby out with the bathwater, we think you seem awfully attached to that tub of dirty, cold water.

I think you are a talented writer, Dan. I think you have some ideas that are far-fetched- crazy even- but you communicate them with a teacher’s gift for simplicity and a Deacon’s gift for sincerity. Some I’d like to talk to about further, some seem so off-beat I wouldn’t know where to start.

What I do know is that if we want to have anything that borders on constructive dialogue- we need to be meeting people where they are.

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Dan December 11, 2012 at 9:59 am

George, flattery will get you everywhere. 🙂

I agree with virtually everything you said…though I don’t think I would necessarily describe your position as having thrown the baby out with the bathwater. I don’t know precisely what you believe or why you believe it, but it seems likely that you have good (perhaps very good!) reasons for your current positions — I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to assume that you believe as you do for arbitrary or unfounded reasons.

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