Carl F. H. Henry was instrumental in the start of Christianity Today, and now the magazine has published a cover story on a major proponent of that theological heritage. Molly Worthen’s “The Reformer” deals with R. Albert Mohler Jr., who perhaps more than anyone else today carries the Henry torch. It’s clear from the piece that Worthen does not share Mohler’s conservative perspective, and I would suggest that in the way she deals with her subject, she is not liberal enough.
Her piece is not liberal enough because she does not engage arguments and evidence but resorts to rhetorical fallacies and framing comments that mock what she does not appreciate. The liberal thing to do would be to treat all positions and arguments with the respect one wants to be shown to oneself, then state clearly why one is persuaded by one argument rather than another, or how the evidence supports this conclusion not that one. I grant that on the surface this essay is not on the issues but on Mohler, but Worthen is making an argument on the issues in her essay on Mohler. Her argument, however, is little more than an ad hominen disparagement of Mohler combined with subtle appeals to authority. She prefers the positions that are respected in the “right” circles, the opinions held by the people who aren’t fundamentalists. Those people may indeed have the right views, but let’s have the evidence and the arguments rather than the fallacious presentation of the opposition as a caricatured straw man.
Worthen is clearly sympathetic with the moderates and egalitarians who used to hold sway in the SBC and at SBTS. Ironically, she quotes Mohler on the point that those egalitarians and moderates did not present complementarian arguments. Not presenting the arguments made by the other side is a common move made by some who would never be called “fundamentalists” but who are nevertheless fundamentalistic about their “liberal” positions. Did it occur to Worthen that Mohler’s teachers tried to indoctrinate him–they tried to teach him the right views to the point of not presenting the wrong ones? Mohler heard their best arguments, then heard what he found to be better arguments, and he was persuaded by the stronger argument, even though it wasn’t the popular position to take.
Just because someone is more conservative than you are does not mean they are a fundamentalist—even if other people are willing to call them that. Perhaps that word, “fundamentalist,” should be avoided. When used by Christians of other Christians (who don’t believe in second order separation), it’s little more than a theological slur. Worthen doesn’t hesitate to use it. Perhaps what makes someone the kind of fundamentalist Worthen doesn’t appreciate is the refusal to engage the evidence marshaled for the arguments made by those with whom one disagrees. In this situation Molly Worthen is calling Al Mohler a fundamentalist. But Mohler heard the arguments from both sides and came to a conclusion that has made his life more difficult. For that, Molly Worthen engages in subtle ad hominem insults (mocking the decor of his library, for instance) and employs arguments from the “authority” of the people who have the right view (pointing out that respectable people would never take the stands Mohler has). Who plays the role of the fundamentalist in this scene?
Rather than see Mohler’s intellectual pilgrimage as a valiant struggle for the truth, or if she disagrees, a sincere devotion to intellectual consistency and evidential conclusions, Worthen subtly conveys the impression that Mohler’s convictions on gender are intellectually untenable. In some circles they certainly are, but in circles where belief in the Bible is properly basic, Mohler’s conclusions are not intellectually untenable but intellectually responsible.
Even when we disagree with people, we can treat them with dignity. If we attack, the thing to attack is the evidence and the argumentation, not the person holding the view we are attacking.
Worthen resorts to reductio ad absurdum when she says things like this: “Presuppositionalism is a system of thought that boils down to the slogans advocated by that other prominent presuppositionalist, Francis Schaeffer” (source). So the answers one holds to life’s big questions—arrived at after reading, reflection, agonizing meditation, and countless conversations with people of other perspectives—boil down to slogans? Only an idiot would base their world-view on slogans, right? It would be absurd to do that. Doesn’t it follow that only idiots are presuppositionalists? But what if these ideas are more than slogans? Did the people who trusted Christ at L’Abri after philosophical conversations with Schaeffer do so because he was slinging slogans? Even if Worthen disagrees with presuppositionalism, she could represent it the way she would like her own position described, and I doubt she would appreciate someone saying that the foundational conclusions that comprise her worldview boil down to slogans.
Another example of ad hominem appears when she seems to say that arguing vigorously for one’s position is “pugnacious.” Worthen describes Mohler’s recent defense of seven-day young-earth creationism as “beguiling” and “well-mannered,” but nevertheless takes a swipe at him rather than his arguments: “In a recent speech, he was pugnacious . . .” If “pugnacious” has positive connotations, they don’t surface in this context. From this it seems that she disagrees with Mohler’s view on the topic, and she insinuates that advocating the wrong position makes you pugnacious–even if you conduct yourself in a well-mannered way when you defend your conviction, as she grants Mohler did. I wonder: are we allowed to disagree and have a debate, or is everyone who disagrees, no matter how respectfully and charitably they articulate their disagreement, pugnacious? Again, I don’t think Worthen exercised enough liberalism as she wrote this essay.
Or maybe we who disagree do not deserve to be respected. We have taken the wrong positions, and our positions can be dismissed without consideration. Our positions don’t need to be engaged. Not only can our positions be summarily dismissed without being engaged, those of us who hold these views do not qualify to wear the label “theologian” to say nothing of that grand title “intellectual.” And if someone happens to call us that, it will be pointed out that those who would never take our views don’t agree with the assessment. So Worthen says of Dr. Mohler, “Mohler is not so much an intellectual or theologian as he is an articulate controversialist, a popularizer and spokesman who has branded himself as one who speaks to and for evangelicals.”
Would Molly Worthen want someone who disagrees with her to engage the arguments she made for her position, or would she want them to call her names? (she’s not an intellectual or a theologian but a popularizer). Would she want them to respect her attempt to be as conversant as possible with her dialogue partners, or would she want them to make snide remarks suggesting that she only has books to give the impression of learning? (as she does about Mohler’s library).
The liberal position is the one that treats everyone with respect, even where there are fierce disagreements. Christians believe that all people are made in the image of God, therefore all are capable of intellectual and theological engagement. We may fail to treat others as we would like to be treated, but point it out to us and we’ll apologize, repent, and try to be more Christ-like next time. This should not mean, however, that in order to avoid the label “pugnacious” we must abandon careful analysis of the evidence, examination of the logical quality of arguments based on the evidence, and the desire to engage in a well-mannered debate. We don’t think it’s intellectually respectable to dismiss those with whom we disagree with ad hominem sarcasm, caricatured straw man argumentation, reductio ad absurdum, and subtle appeals to authority.
May the Lord bless Molly Worthen, and all of us, with genuine charity toward fellow humans.
If I ever write a piece like this one, I hope someone will care enough about me to tell me that I owe an apology to those I’ve treated as I wouldn’t want to be treated. I would also want new editors. Give me editors who care enough about the quality of my presentation to point out my blind spots and who refuse to allow me to flaunt my logical and rhetorical fallacies. That way of arguing may persuade the casual, uninformed reader, but it will lower me in the esteem of virtuous readers, people who care about valid argumentation, truth, and the golden rule.