Boys, This Ain’t Scholarship
Posted on April 17, 2012
I’m not going to interact with the substance of Robert Godfrey’s and Mike Horton’s breezy responses to John Frame’s The Escondido Theology (just as they didn’t interact with the substance of Frame’s book), but I can’t pass up a “teaching moment” (as we say these days) to those onlookers who might want to learn a thing or two about scholarship — and substandard scholarship.
First, read this from Godfrey, the main point of his response to Frame:
Perhaps the simplest way to do that [“set the record straight”] is to refer to the thirty-two bullet points with which John has summarized our views at the beginning of the book (pp. xxxvii-xxxix). He introduces these bullet points by claiming: “Below are some assertions typical of, and widely accepted among, Escondido theologians. Not all of them make all of these assertions, but all of them regard them with some sympathy” (p,xxxvii). In response all of us on the WSC faculty wish to state clearly that we reject all of these thirty-two points as a fair or accurate presentation of our views…. In relation to most of John’s bullet points we believe and teach the very opposite of what is attributed to us.
Similarly, Horton writes:
Do not assume that if you’ve read The Escondido Theology you actually have any grasp of what I or any of us [sic] teach at Westminster Seminary California.
Frame’s book is comprised almost entirely of extensive and intensive book reviews from current Westminster Seminary California (WSC) faculty. They are not PR notices (like Godfrey’s presidential response) nor are they a list of disputed categories with sprinkled comments (like Horton’s response). They are weighty, analytical, documented book reviews. They take the authors’ leading arguments seriously and critically interact with those arguments. They agree with the authors on some points and disagree on other points. In other words, they are standard, scholarly book reviews.
Now consider what Godfrey is saying in his response to these reviews. A scholar and former long-standing faculty member interacts critically and analytically with prime works by the leading members of the WSC faculty, and that reviewer manages not only to unfairly or inaccurately depict every single one of thirty-two of their positions, but manages in addition, to portray their views as “the very opposite” of what they believe. In Horton’s language, you wouldn’t “have any grasp of what I or any of us teach at Westminster Seminary California” (emphasis supplied).
What’s so Bizarre
If you’ll think about it, this defense borders on the bizarre. Most disagreeing responses to scholarly book reviews go something like this: “The reviewer understood most of my views, misunderstood others, and he is wrong in his opposition to my views, and here’s why; and his misunderstandings of certain of my views are irrelevant because I simply don’t hold those views.” That is a credible disagreeing rejoinder to book reviewers, and scholars do it all the time. If the author is humble and interested in getting at the truth, he might even say, “The reviewer make some good points, and I’ll re-think my views in light of them.”
Never in all my years (many years now) of reading authors’ responses to reviews of their books have I read, “The reviewer misunderstood or misinterpreted or unfairly or inaccurately characterized every single one of my views that he discussed.”
This line of reasoning has an air of unreality about it. If a reviewer unfairly or inaccurately characterizes every single position of the book(s) — a whopping thirty-two in this case, not two or three, which is not entirely uncommon, but thirty-two — there is something more than ordinary misunderstanding going on. The reviewer is either so dense that he cannot understand arguments, or he is deliberately twisting the book’s arguments. In commonsense parlance, “Two’s a coincidence, but three’s a trend.”
Please understand what Godfrey is saying: “John Frame, a Princeton- and Yale- (and Westminster- ) trained theologian-philosopher, founding and longtime faculty member at our very institution, author of massive tomes on systematics and all sorts of other topics (much more than any current WSC faculity member), widely recognized as a rigorous thinker steeped in the best of the analytical philosophical tradition that prizes clarity and analysis, has managed to unfairly or inaccurately characterize every single position of ours — count ’em, thirty-two — that he addressed.” Or Horton: “Do not assume that if you’ve read The Escondido Theology you actually have any grasp of what I or any of us teach at Westminster Seminary California.” Any grasp?
Now if this is the case, there are two — and only two — explanations: either Frame is dense — no scholar at all, in fact — or else he has intentionally mischaracterized the WSC views and is therefore an immoral liar. Frame is either stupid or sinister.
If any faculty at any credible college or university received a book by a prominent scholar at a sister institution reviewing five or six books of its leading scholars, and the faculty all said, with one voice, “He has unfairly or inaccurately characterized every single position of ours, making it appear that we teach the exact opposite of what we actually think, and you could not get any grasp of what we actually teach by reading these reviews” they’d be laughed right out of their mahogany paneled offices. It does not happen, and could not happen.
Except at Westminster Seminary in California.
Young scholars and students, let this be a lesson to you: if you ever have the fortune of having your book reviewed by a world-renowned scholar, and you don’t like what he says, don’t respond by saying, “He didn’t understand a thing I said, and he perverted everything I said into its very opposite.”
Not, at least, if you wish to be taken seriously.
But implicitly accusing reviewers of either massive ignorance or malevolent intent seems to be quite acceptable at WSC. That’s not the way actual scholars interact with one another in the real world.
I myself am no great scholar and never claimed to be. But I have read great scholarship for many years. I know scholarship when I see it.
And, boys, this ain’t scholarship.