Wednesday, September 15, 2010

White vs Price 2-Why White Lost Badly

I believe that during the White/Price debate that White pointed out that he was participating in his 96th formal debate. That's a lot of debating. Shouldn't White by this point know what he needs to do to win? One would think so. But I've now listened to this debate and I have to say I'm stunned. In a sense it's almost like he didn't show up. That's a strong claim I know, but the facts bear it out.

Here's something that's required of anyone that wants to win a debate. You need to make an argument in favor of the proposition you are defending. Isn't that obvious? Here's the topic. "Is the Bible True?" So what does White need to do? Most importantly he needs to make an argument that the Bible is true. What else? He needs to rebut Price's argument that the Bible is not true. Seems pretty simple, right?

So before the debate White prepared. He seems to have read everything from Price that he could get his hands on. He seems to have listened to many of his lectures and teachings. So if anybody is going to be ready to rebut whatever argument Price offers White is going to be able to. That's his secondary task. His primary task is to argue that the Bible is true, and since presumably he knows why he thinks the Bible is true this shouldn't require too much effort.

So let's get to the contents of the debate. Price starts and offers multiple reasons why we should not believe the Bible is true in the sense White would affirm it. First, evangelicals have often claimed that God providentially prevented this ancient text from being infected with error. That right there assumes that the infection of error is the normal course of events since a miracle is invoked to prevent it. So unless we are going to invoke a miracle here we should start with the assumption that errors are present. Second, the claim that Jesus and the disciples would have prevented error from accruing, which is a common evangelical argument, is disproved by the contents of the gospels themselves and contrary to what our expectations would be. In the gospels we're told that Jesus himself couldn't prevent listeners from telling tales he didn't want told. The gospels tell us that false reports concerning Jesus circulated widely and in fact Jesus directed the disciples to not bother correcting them. Making up things was considered pious and acceptable in this culture. Gnostic teaching was accepted widely. Gospel reports indicate erroneous resurrection belief. John the Baptist was thought to be raised but this is a case of mistaken identity. This is proof that this error is easy to make. In the Gospel of John we're told that Jesus did say he'd destroy the temple in 3 days, but John allegorizes the story. Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus said no such thing and only false witnesses say he did. Luke says that Steven is reported to have said it. Look at every day experience. What preacher hasn't been chagrined to learn what others have thought him to have said? Look at the fact that rabbis can't keep straight who it is that supposedly uttered a statement, attributing the same wise saying to various sages. Why does Mt 10 tell us that Jesus wanted the gospel to go only to the Jews, Mt 28 says he wanted it spread far and wide, and yet at Acts 15 they're debating whether the gospel should go to Gentiles as if they've never heard of the great commission?

So let's notice something here. What Price offers is reasons to disbelieve many of the biblical contents. You can agree with him or not (and I think it was an absolutely brilliant opening statement), but what you can't say is that he's not making an argument in favor of the proposition he's defending. That's kind of like a necessary precondition for having any kind of success in a debate.

So next up is White. Here is what he offers. Keep in mind, this is White's argument that the Bible is true.

Price affirms the principle of analogy which precludes supernaturalism. Price wouldn't believe the gospels even if they were written 10 minutes after the events. Price's hyper skepticism should evoke silence, but Price inconsistently makes positive assertions about historical matters. Price is wrong about biblical authorship. Price endorses Dennis McDonald's views regarding the Homeric epics and the Gospel of Mark, and that's wrong for various reasons. Price rejects the consensus of scholarship on whether I Cor 15 includes an interpolation, Pauline authorship of the epistles, and the corresponding dates of the text. Price is wrong in certain textual transmission claims. The Bible isn't all about miracle stories. Accepting biblical miracle stories doesn't mean I have to accept all miracle stories. There's nothing wrong with harmonization. And finally what good are these texts if they are deprived of their truth value?

His 20 minutes are over and there's an obvious question that ought to be popping in to everyone's mind. Where is your argument that the Bible is true? I mean seriously. My criticism has nothing to do with the fact that I'm not a Christian. What I'm saying here is any Christian ought to be extremely unhappy with this. Any Christian should be calling him out and conceding immediately that this is absolutely horrible. Make an argument, James White. You need help? Heck, argue that miraculous events are knowable historically and this makes the Bible believable. Argue that biblical prophecy shows the accuracy of the Bible which justifies harmonization in other cases. Argue that acceptance of the Bible is a necessary precondition for making coherent sense of the world. You have to do something. That's what you're here for.

This is nothing but a massive failure on White's part in his primary task. So let's turn to the secondary task. Despite the fact that none of the arguments White made are even relevant to the proposition being debated, Price still obviously listened to what White had said and did what any competent debator would do. He rebutted White's opening statement. He argued that the principle of analogy does not entail that miracles are impossible. He said that exorcisms and healings happen today, but the historian cannot know if God was the causal agent even if he was. He said we must face reality and admit that ancient historical claims must be held tentatively. He said that his belief that the gospels represent a mixing of Jewish and Greek thinking is justified by various instances of mixing that we already know exist. He said that I Cor 15 could be an interpolation because we have no textual evidence of any kind prior to the Chester-Beatty papyri. Finally he said that though there is much in the Bible that is not true, this doesn't mean it doesn't have beauty and isn't worth studying. "Take up your cross and follow me" sounds like an anachronism. It's a post crucifixion saying that wouldn't have made sense to the listeners ears prior to the crucifixion. But that doesn't mean it isn't challenging, thoughtful, and interesting.

So let's notice something here. You can agree or disagree with Price's rebuttals. What you can't say is that he's not offering a rebuttal. He's obviously listened to what White said and he is rebutting the contents. That's something you really should do if you're interested in winning a debate.

So what does White do? For the most part he says nothing about Price's opening statement. He starts with this argument related to I Cor 15. He says that "taking up the cross" would have made sense prior to the crucifixion because they know what crucifixion was. Then he says that the evidence for the mixing of Greek and Jewish themes was after AD 70. So in other words, White isn't going after Price's opening statement. He's replying to Price's first rebuttal. Where is the rebuttal to Price's argument? Price could be wrong about I Cor 15. He could be wrong about pagan parallels. But he's already shown that the Bible can't be true in the sense White's believes based on his opening statement that had nothing to do with the Homeric epics or an interpolation of I Cor 15. If you don't rebut his argument you lose.

Towards the end of his rebuttal White finally made a point that touched on Price's opener. He said that the Islamic hadith came much further following the life of Mohammed so they aren't analogous to the gospels. Beyond that he repeated what he had said in his own opening, which is the claim that if Price thinks he knows enough about history to declare Jesus a mythical character how can he simultaneously claim that everything is so unknowable. Neither of these points are valid. It doesn't matter that hadith are later, the point was that it was considered pious and acceptable to put words in the mouth of the master even if they were false. And the second point doesn't work because he's not claiming that Jesus in fact said he'd tear the temple down or didn't say it. He's saying that the gospels record both. Whatever the truth is both can't be right.

But at least with these invalid points White is addressing Price's opening statement. That's kind of the point of a rebuttal. But that's not what he spends most of his time on. How can you expect to win a debate this way?

Jason Engwer tells us that "James White did well." No, he didn't. He did very badly. If you're going to deny this when White didn't even make an argument for the proposition and offered almost nothing in his first rebuttal, what's it going to take for you to recognize that a Christian did poorly?


Vinny said...

I don't understand why "You don't have any evidence for your position either" is considered a good argument, but Christian apologists clearly think that it is.

Quixie said...

Thanks for posting this. I actually forked over the $4.10 to Alpha/Omega so that I could listen to this debate for myself.
Your observations are spot on.
One issue that I found a bit disturbing was when (almost at the end of the debate) White implied that Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc, are inherently inconsistent with themselves. He said this in passing, casually. It surprises me that no one takes him to task on his transparent partisanship regarding this "consistency" he keeps harping on.

Another aspect of the debate that I find disturbing is the sermon given by the moderator at the closing. Such apologetic appeals simply have no place in academic debate. Granted, when White makes such an appeal, at least it is peripherally related to the subject at hand. When the moderator feels compelled to speak this way immediately following the event, it is just so much hubris.

thanks again