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Fallout

Some comments and observations following ‘The Great William Lane Craig Original Sin Flamewar of 2010–2011’.

On December 29, I posted the following comment on Facebook:

“As for your two moral objections, the first is an objection to the doctrine of original sin. But once more, that doctrine is not universally affirmed by Christians and is not essential to the Christian faith. So don’t let that be a stumbling block for you.” —William Lane Craig

This is why, contrary to the objections of some, William Lane Craig is not the world’s foremost apologist. The first duty of apologetics is to the truth. Not to unbelieving presuppositions. You can’t have good apologetics without good theology.

A number of people then proceeded to disagree with me and defend Craig. (Here’s the context for Craig’s quote.) That debate has been well and truly hashed out, but to summarize, my contention is threefold:

  1. Craig illicitly consigns the doctrine of original guilt to the status of a non-essential doctrine;
  2. Craig indicates that if a doctrine is non-essential, you’re not obliged to believe it;
  3. Per (1) and (2), Craig deflects the issue the wrong way: if he had wanted to avoid being sidetracked with this doctrine, he should have simply stated that whatever the Bible teaches on the matter must be believed; but instead he suggests that it isn’t necessary to believe anything.

This debate blossomed into an online conflagration between Steve Hays (who originally posted the quote that I then lifted to Facebook), Patrick Chan, myself, Glenn Peoples, and Matt & Maddy Flannagan. Here’s all the respective verbiage, in chronological order:

  1. Steve: Bible-optional Christianity (Dec 28; the post that started it all)
  2. Bnonn: Facebook wall post (Dec 29)
  3. Steve: How mere is “mere Christianity”? (Dec 30)
  4. Glenn: In Defence of William Lane Craig on Original Sin (Dec 31)
  5. Matt & Maddy: William Lane Craig, Original Sin and Original Guilt (Dec 31)
  6. Steve: Charity for me, but not for thee! (Dec 31)
  7. Glenn: (un)Friendly fire (Jan 1)
  8. Steve: Separated at birth (Jan 2)
  9. Steve: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! (Jan 2)
  10. Patrick: Any steeples in Peoples? (Jan 3)
  11. Steve: Every dog has its day (Jan 3)
  12. Glenn: Deal Breakers and Christian Essentials (Jan 4)
  13. Steve: Words of light and life (Jan 4)
  14. Patrick: Self-serving Peoples (Jan 4)
  15. Steve: Hansel & Gretel apologetics (Jan 5)

A lot of ink has been spilt. I’m loth to add to it. But some things need to be clarified for the sake of continued dialog and cooperation:

1. Craig’s bad apologetic method hasn’t been addressed

My original claim that William Lane Craig was wrong to demote the status of original guilt has received much criticism. That’s fine. But let me point out that my second and third claims, which deal more with his apologetic method, seem to have passed like ships in the night.

Remember, I said that Craig is essentially absolving the unbeliever of the obligation to believe what the Bible teaches about original sin (whatever that may be). As Steve has pointed out, this seems to be part of an overall apologetic strategy that draws the unbeliever in with some minimum facts about Christianity, and then tries to “trap” him by the regenerative work of the Spirit so that he’ll later come to accept doctrines which he currently finds objectionable. No doubt Craig would describe it differently, but that seems to be basically how the method plays out.

I think it’s important to distance ourselves as apologists from this kind of approach, and from any tactic of sidestepping a question that even implies that the unbeliever isn’t required to believe the words of Scripture. Because he is. Regardless of whether Craig is right to call original guilt a non-essential doctrine, his willingness to remove it as a stumbling block in this particular manner, so as to expedite his apologetic, is simply wrong.

2. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not shocked about anything

Glenn implied that I was shocked that earnest Christians could disagree with me on a matter such as original sin, and that this is because I’m insular, partisan, sheltered and so on. Now, I don’t grant his contention that Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics are generally Christians. In fact, I think it’s plain that both these institutions are false churches, and it worries me that neither Glenn nor Matt see this.

But be that as it may, I’m not shocked at disagreement among Christians. In fact, that seems like a very strange thing to think, given that I tend to be pretty vocal about disagreeing with other Christians a lot of the time. It’s also odd given how shocked Glenn, Matt, and especially Maddy have acted at various points in the past couple of weeks. If I’m shocked because I’m insular, sheltered and partisan, what are their reasons? Or could it be that they’re actually not shocked, but I’m just misunderstanding—in which case why don’t I get the benefit of the doubt too?

3. I don’t think I’ve used the terms “liberal” and “evangelical” unfairly

Matt asked me on Facebook if I agree with Triablogue’s comments that Glenn is a liberal. I responded that since Glenn denies both hell and inerrancy, as they’re traditionally defined, it seems fair to use that label. I’d add that Triablogue have also observed that Glenn denies the historicity of Adam and Eve.

Glenn considers labeling him a theological liberal “below the belt”. I disagree. That’s certainly not how I meant it; I was just giving a brief and simple answer to Matt’s question. In my opinion, Glenn is theologically liberal. I’m a conservative Calvinist; I hold to a conservative view of what evangelicalism is. Traditionally, you’ll find that both hell and inerrancy have been doctrines affirmed in evangelicanism; and equally, doctrines which have been denied in liberalism. I think Donald Carson has written well on this (Jason Kumar, his Biggest Fan, could tell you for sure). Now, perhaps the term “evangelical” has become used so broadly in more recent times that it can include people who deny these doctrines; but in that case all that’s happened is that its meaning has expanded to be more…yeah, more liberal!

Simply put, since Triablogue and myself define liberalism in part by denials of eternal punishment, plenary inspiration, and a historical Adam, it’s not unfair for us to consider people who deny these doctrines liberals.

Notice that I never said Glenn is completely liberal, or a thoroughgoing liberal, or a liberal in every sense of the word. Obviously he’s not. As he himself has pointed out, he’s done much work in defending conservative views with which he agrees from liberal ones with which he does not. But I gotta point out, he’s also done a lot of work defending annihilationism from traditionalists—something that most traditionalists would consider a liberal thing to do! Simply put, if the shoe fits in this case, why try to deny it?

4. I’m not obliged to get into a protracted discussion on the merits of my opinion just because I told you what it was

Matt and Glenn were both upset with me because, when I answered Matt’s query about whether I agree if Glenn is a liberal, I then declined to defend that opinion on Facebook. Sorry guys, merely answering a question about what I think doesn’t oblige me to then get into a debate about it. You can treat it as an assertion on my part—that’s fine. Obviously without further argumentation it is. But you asked me for it. I gave it; but I never agreed to explaining it further (even though I did elaborate on my basic reasons for holding it) or defending it at length.

I find it strange that you seem very unwilling to accept this as my opinion, or accept that I have what I believe are good reasons for holding it. Your responses suggest that you think I’m being deliberately unfair and divisive. But how is that a charitable interpretation of my words? And let me point out that it takes two people sticking to their guns to make a division. Why do you get to be the good guys? Presumably we all think we have good reasons for our beliefs. So what’s the differentiating factor?

5. I don’t see any “wounded party” here

Matt, Maddy and Glenn have all made some show of how unfair and offensive the attacks on them have been. Matt and Maddy have claimed the parties opposing them are violating the principles of Matthew 18. Glenn has demanded that Steve repent of calling him a liberal.

Frankly—and excuse me for sounding a little uncharitable here but the apostle Paul was never afraid of saying it how it is, so who am I to differ?—this is a lot of two-faced ballyhooing. I mean, come on, are you eight? You don’t get to call people insular, sheltered and ignorant, would-be apologists, living in a bubble, partisans with unfair attitudes who fail to read patiently, carefully and fairly; and come in with a condescending attitude talking about how people can’t read in context, follow an argument, how you’re going to have to walk them through it, mocking their Alexa ranking (of all things) etc—and then turn around and put on airs, complaining about the conduct of others. That’s nothing but shrill hypocrisy, and I don’t mind pointing it out. If you’re going to demand a certain kind of conduct from others, it behooves you to set an example of it yourself. Especially when you’re citing Scripture as your justification.

If you don’t think the other party is responding appropriately or fairly, why don’t you just walk away? It takes two, as they say, to exacerbate a situation.

6. I don’t want to overblow these issues to the point that they obscure others

You’ll notice I walked away from the Facebook discussion on January 2. That’s because I didn’t think further dispute was going to be of any benefit to anyone—and especially not to the cause of our working together in the future. Trying to continue the debate seemed likely to cause only more division and offense. I don’t want that. I’d rather just disagree quietly in these particular ways than let them be a barrier to us working together in others.

My only reason for starting the Facebook thread was to draw attention to an obvious error made by Craig, which I think reflects a larger problem that seems to be almost lauded in apologetics: namely, philosophy directs theology, rather than vice versa. A lot of people got very worked up after that. I suppose if they want to do that, it’s their choice. But for the record, I’m not worked up. I’m actually pretty calm; though surprised that there was such a furore. I think maybe it’s time to let it go and move on to more productive things.

For the record: I’m not trying to burn any bridges. I’m not trying to put anyone down. I’m not implying any kind of refusal to cooperate with them in a general sense. Triablogue does not speak for me. And I think it’s fair to point out that I’ve said relatively little about the comments made by them. I didn’t start, and neither did I add to, the attack. My sole concern when I posted on Facebook was an error on the part of Craig; not anyone else. And I only stated my opinion regarding Glenn’s doctrinal position after I was asked.

I’d like it if we could all treat each other charitably, forgive each other if we feel we’ve been wronged, and move on to better things.

4 comments

  1. Glenn

    “Glenn has demanded that Steve repent of calling him a liberal.”

    Just as a reminder – and I know it’s a reminder because you’re already aware of it, as I repeated it many times in the place you read about my concerns with Steve – my first concern was that he repent for calling me a liar.

    As you were.

  2. Jamin Hubner

    You’ve listened to the clips of Craig denying original sin in his debate with Shabir Ally on my website, right?

    ja

  3. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I haven’t actually Jamin. To be honest, I haven’t listened to much of Craig’s stuff. But it seems surprising that he denies original sin there; in the article I link he seems to affirm it.

  4. Nathan

    Wow. This is simply stunning.

    Theological liberalism relates to one’s approach to interpreting Scripture and it’s status as an authority, and the conclusions that are arrived at as a result of using that interpretive method. I know Glenn, and his approach to hermeneutics is as conservative as they come. Just because he arrives at different conclusions doesn’t make him liberal. It doesn’t even make his beliefs liberal. If you think this then you too (and me, and most of the other Protestants) are liberal, since tradition until the Reformation (and still today) believes that justification by faith alone is incorrect. Just because tradition says something to be true doesn’t mean it is. What is your highest authority? Calvin would have died to say it was Scripture and not tradition!

    If Glenn was using an unorthodox interpretive method you’d have a case, but really, examine any of his work and you’ll find that his method is easily as orthodox as, say, Carson for example.

    Having an opinion is great. Good for you! But if you can’t explain your opinion when challenged (especially if you want to label someone), or if someone points out flaws in your opinion and you don’t like it, perhaps you should consider keeping your opinion to yourself? You posted publicly. Live with the consequences. In saying they don’t like your opinion or that you should explain yourself is simply their opinion too. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    Want an example of how orthodox interpretive methods arrive at a conclusion you would consider liberal? Study Genesis 3 and show me by your exegetical method that Adam possessed immortality prior to being expelled from the garden. I’m not asking you to affirm eternal conscious suffering or annihilationism – the passage isn’t going to prove either. After you’ve done your exegesis, and arrived at the inevitable conclusion for that passage, what you do with it after that is up to you, but let me know your conclusion and how you arrived at it.

    Of course you’re also welcome to ignore all this and keep your liberal views on what liberalism is. ;)

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