How Do You Define “@%!#*! Loonie”?

How Do You Define “@%!#*! Loonie”? August 9, 2014

Jim Linville will be giving a conference paper in November with what may be the most amusing title on the program at SBL:

May Contain Nuts and B.S. (Biblical Studies): The Politics of Academic Legitimacy Online and the Need to Properly Theorize the Category “@%!#*! Loonie”

He has now put out an appeal for help in defining (and properly theorizing) the category he mentions.

Since his paper will be about scholarly blogging and the way(s) that scholarly bloggers identify, define, and interact with those viewpoints that might be deemed fringe, crackpot, and/or pseudoscholarly, and since these sorts of views are discussed frequently here, it seemed natural to link to his post, as well as to raise the question here. What makes a viewpoint utter bunk? What if anything differentiates a view beyond the fringe of scholarship from one at the fringe of scholarship? And how have you seen scholarly bloggers deal with comments that reflect such views? How do you think we should deal with comments from people promoting views that seem to us to be not merely unscholarly but fundamentally opposed to the endeavor that is scholarship?

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  • Anonymous Coward

    Really good questions to think about.

    I’d say at a first pass that one is being scholarly when one is thinking carefully, with other people who are being scholarly, about the evidence and its implications for matters that are important to broad swaths of a culture.

    Professional scholars do most of the best scholarship, but are not the only people who are scholarly. They are typically in the best position to do good scholarship.

    Good scholarship is scholarship (i.e., “being scholarly”) that follows reliable principles of evidence and works from a clear understanding of what others in the scholarly conversation are saying.

    Different situations are different, but very usually, people interacting with scholars who are advocating for methods or views opposed to the above should be either taught or dismissed. The manner of teaching or dismissal should depend on the case, of course, and various ethical considerations will come into play here.

    • Anonymous Coward

      //Good scholarship is scholarship (i.e., “being scholarly”) that follows reliable principles of evidence and works from a clear understanding of what others in the scholarly conversation are saying.//

      Into that I should have inserted something along the lines of “and that begins from a position of access to all the evidence available to scholars in the relevant area”

  • Sean Garrigan

    Another question I’ve wondered about is how one should best deal with views that are highly favored and respected by scholars, yet are obviously the result of controlling biases? Years ago I conducted an in-depth study of John 1:1, and was stunned when I came to realize just how un-scholarly scholars can be, and how obvious it can be that theological presuppositions control their thinking.

    Are you familiar with the rather embarrassing history of opinion over the question of whether QEOS is definite, indefinite, or “qualitative” at John 1:1c? Something in the back of my mind tells me that I’ve brought this up here before, but it bears repeating as a check for those who imagine that the only truth is that which is endorsed by the academy.

    Colwell wrote an article in the 30s in which he found that definite predicate nouns that precede the verb normally lack the article, and scholars transposed this and asserted the converse of the rule, i.e. that anarthrous predicate nouns that precede the verb are usually definite. Why did they do this? Obviously because QEOS at John 1:1c lacks the article, and rather than merely granting two possible renderings (i.e. “the Word was God” [definite] or “the Word was a god” [indefinite]) in light of the flexibility of Greek, and then offering their reasons for favoring the traditional rendering, they sought to discredit an indefinite rendering via the formation of a grammatical rule. Bruce Metzger, William Barclay, F.F. Bruce, and a host of others used Colwell’s rule as a basis for ruling out what seems to be the most natural rendering of the text, i.e. “the Word was a god”.

    Then, in the early 70s, theologians began to publicly address the blunder. Paul Dixon wrote a these while at DTS in which he argued that QEOS at Jn 1:1c is not definite but “qualitative” (presuppositionally nuanced), and shortly after this P.B. Harner offered a similar view in an article that appeared in JBL.

    Why did it take so long for folks to realize that Colwell’s rule had been abused? This is really a fascinating question, because surely someone as familiar with the biblical texts as these men must have realized that there are many, many examples of anarthrous predicate nouns that precede the verb that are clearly NOT definite, right? In John’s gospel alone over half of the anarthrous predicate nouns that precede the verb are not definite.

    So what happened? Well, I can’t read minds, and only God can read hearts, but it seems pretty obvious that the reason Colwell’s rule was abused, and the abused version embraced and promoted by apologists, was because these scholars had theological presuppositions which made them *want* QEOS at John 1:1c to be something other than an indefinite noun. They thought Colwell’s research supported a translation of John 1:1c that they wanted to be true, and so they embraced it uncritically. I have a hunch that many who offered Colwell’s rule as evidence against an indefinite rendering never actually read Colwell’s article!

    Sadly, while this faux pass was eventually revealed by the findings of Harner and Dixon, as it turned out, the proposed solution (i.e. “qualitative” count nouns) was embraced just as uncritically as the converse of Colwell’s rule was. Neither Harner nor Dixon were professional linguists, and some who have actually taken the time to study their arguments have found them to be problematic, and replete with sloppy reasoning and unsubstantiated assertions. Once again folks embraced their findings, though, not because they passed peer review, but because they provided a theologically acceptable solution to a perceived problem. As Dixon himself tells us in the introduction to his thesis:

    “The importance of this theses is clearly seen in the above example
    (John 1:1) where the doctrines of the deity of Christ and the Trinity
    are at stake. For, if the Word was ‘a god,’ then by implication there
    are other gods of which Jesus is one. On the other hand, if QEOS is just
    as definite as the articular construction following the verb because,
    ‘the dropping of the article…is simply a matter of word order,’ then the
    doctrine of the Trinity is denied.’” (The Significance of the
    Anarthrous Predicate Nominative in John), p. 2

    Dixon was so motivated to secure his “qualitative” category that he managed to convince himself that there is only one solitary indefinite predicate noun in all of John’s gospel! Sound reasonable to you? It doesn’t to me, either. The fact is that most who write and teach biblical Greek are Trinitarian Christians, and John 1:1 is their most sacred proof text. The reason folks embrace Harner’s and Dixon’s views is not because they’ve passed rigorous peer review, but because rigorous, critical review is precisely what their peers haven’d undertaken, for in their minds the rejection of an indefinite rendering is theologically necessary, not because of the grammar, but in spite of the grammar.

    People who don’t think that these sorts of issues are common in the academy are naive.

  • arcseconds

    Well, one telling point is how familiar they are with the scholarly literature and the arguments therein. If they have no idea whatsoever about what scholars actually say about an issue, or can’t give a recognisable summary of the mainstream argument (or arguments, if there’s more than one mainstream opinion) before detailing their own position, then one has good reason to believe their position is founded on ignorance rather than knowledge.

    And if they are resistant to being educated on this subject, even if it’s not to convince them that the mainstream opinion is correct, but rather just of what the mainstream opinion actually is and what it’s based on, then I think at that point one reasonable position to take is that they’re both beyond the fringe and unwilling or unable to even peer within the fringe.

    It might not be pointless to continue interacting with them, but I think it’s fair at this point to conclude that they’re not likely to contribute much to your or anyone else’s understanding of the subject matter.

    Anyone behaving like this is showing clear signs of crankdom, and I think most cranks actually do display these signs, but not all do. They’re sufficient but not necessary features.

    • arcseconds

      Seeing as the post wants us to ‘theorize’ the loonies, it might be worth making a distinction here…

      To me, ‘crank’ implies a solo operator, someone who’s gone and thunk some hard thoughts in their thinking shed down the bottom of the garden, and come back with some rather idiosyncratic ideas. They’re generally aware that they are in a small minority, possibly a minority of one. The Time Cube guy is a quintessential crank.

      Rank-and-file Jesus mythicists, Young-Earth creationists, climate change denialists, and holocaust denialists aren’t generally cranks in this sense. They’re more participating in something we could call an ‘alternative knowledge community’. They don’t think up their position themselves, they read books about it, and they’re inducted to it by authority figures, and talk about it a lot amongst themselves. In some cases, especially young earth creationism, they’re literally surrounded by the viewpoint. I’m sure they’re usually aware that their view is contentious, but I think they’re frequently in the dark about the fact that expert opinion is almost unanimously against them.

      • This is a very interesting suggestion. Do you think that there is a genetic relationship between the two? Are “alternative knowledge communities” typicallly the product of cranks who have been effective at promoting their viewpoint?

        • arcseconds

          In some cases, yes. The Time Cube guy has followers! (I think there’s room for a third category of crank-fans, who don’t think up stuff themselves so much, but rather follow cranks before there’s enough of them to form an alternate knowledge community.)

          David Irving strikes me as being a crank. He’s quite an individual character, and from what I’ve picked up from newspaper articles on the guy didn’t learn his holocaust-denying ways from anyone else, apparently coming to them in his youth. In fact, if anything he seems to hold them because it’s such a reviled view. But he’s not the only or first holocaust denier.

          Which is another point that’s worth making: these views don’t necessarily have a single origin. In some sense they’re ‘obvious’ (well, not Time Cubism, I suppose).

          I don’t think they always start with cranks, though. A community that’s alternative in some other way can pretty quickly develop it’s own view of what’s true without some iconoclastic ‘free-thinker’ theorizing it. You must have seen a group of people go from a tentative suggestion to certainty within the space of a few moments after the suggestion is picked up with some enthusiasm instead of being shot down? This is Spinal Tap has a couple of excellent scenes parodying this phenomenon as Tufnel and St. Hubbins create for themselves a history of New York, etc.

  • Sean Garrigan

    Hi James:

    I know that this isn’t directly related to your questions, but I’m curious about something: What approach do you propose to people who aren’t scholars but who are smart enough to recognize that the relevant authorities in a given field are incorrect on some point, and that it’s obviously the preconceived notion(s) of the authorities about what should be true rather than what is true that causes them to make some authoritative declaration?

    I’m referring again to John 1:1c. If blogs existed back then and I as a blogger offered a series explaining why those scholars were incorrect, I may not have qualified as a loon, but I definitely would have qualified as a person who rejects the notion that non-specialists should only adopt opinions that conform with the scholarly consensus. Yet in this case, it would have been me, not the consensus view that would have been correct.

    I appreciate the view of folks such as yourself who feel that non-specialists should defer to the specialists, especially in cases where there is a scholarly consensus, as that seems to be a sound approach in principle. However, it doesn’t always work in practice, especially when a scholarly consensus just happens to support the preconceived notions or theological/worldview commitments of the scholars in question.

    The abuse of Colwell’s rule exemplifies the fact that you scholars don’t always fulfill your end of the social bargain. If you wish to convince skeptics to jump on the truth-via-scholarly-consensus bandwagon, then you folks need to do everything in your power to subject all truth claims in your fields of expertise to rigorous scrutiny/vetting, even when doing so could yield truth that isn’t what you’d necessarily like or expect.

    The Colwell blunder is shameful. Anyone who’d made his/her way through any beginner’s textbook on logic probably could have pointed out to the authorities that they weren’t thinking logically. That is to say, while it may be true that definite predicate nouns that precede the verb in Greek will usually lack the article, the converse simply doesn’t logically follow, namely, that anarthrous predicate nouns that precede the verb are usually definite.

    The most shameful part of all isn’t the bonehead blunder of thinking that the converse of Colwell’s rule applied, but that (a) they offered it against an understanding that they didn’t like, despite the fact that the GNT and LXX are riddled with example, after example, after example of pre-verbal anarthrous predicate nouns that are unquestionably NOT definite, and (b) even when they finally corrected themselves, they persisted in offering questionable theories that to this day haven’t received proper vetting!!!

    • I think that, in practice, if you side with a significant scholarly minority view against the view of the majority, the odds are pretty good that your view may one day be vindicated. 🙂

      But I have some qualms about assuming that something which is clear about scholarship of the past from the vantage point of today would have been clear to someone actually living in that time. Sometimes it is only the ongoing work of scholarship over time that brings to light what was defective in the work or the assumptions of an earlier generation.

      • Sean Garrigan

        I certainly agree that what seems obvious to us wouldn’t necessarily be obvious to people from previous generations. In the case of John 1:1c, however, I don’t think we can excuse Metzger et al, because of the cumulative evidence that bias clearly motivated their myopia, just as it still does to this day vis a vis proponents of Harner, Dixon, and other advocates of the new solution: The qualitative count noun, which clearly seems rather ad hoc. Have you read Harner’s JBL article or Dixon’s thesis? If not, I’ll be glad to send them to you privately. These studies have not been properly vetted for the same reason, I suspect, that Colwell’s study wasn’t properly vetted for over 40 years.

        The reason I don’t think that Metzger et al deserve an “ignorance” pass is, again, based on the cumulative evidence that theological presuppositions contributed to the myopia. I could overlook the faux pass of mistakenly assuming that since definite predicate nouns that precede the verb are normally definite, then anarthrous predicate nouns that precede the verb are probably definite. That inference may not be logically astute, but, hey, misconceptions happen. The reason Metzger et al don’t get a pass is because their theological presuppositions are what blinded them to both the logical problem with their application of Colwell’s rule, AND their inability or unwillingness to acknowledge what they saw in all Greek texts we have!

        Metzger was not only a world-class textual critic, which tells us that he was very familiar with the Greek texts, but he was a Bible translator, and the very translation that he helped create, the NRSV, contains example after example after example after example of nouns that are rendered into English with the indefinite article, yet which originate in Greek constructions where the noun appears before the verb without the article. IMO, this tells us that he was either being dishonest when he used Colwell’s rule to support a definite QEOS at Jn 1:1c, or he was so thoroughly blinded by his theological commitments that he couldn’t see what any first year student of Greek could see.

        Do you really think he and those who behaved similarly deserve a pass for this handling of the relevant material? I don’t. I can forgive them for their shortcomings, just as I hope people forgive me for mine, but we cannot excuse these failings, esp. since they continue even today when it comes to the most sacred proof text in the orthodox Christian’s arsenal. No, we must hold them accountable for their error, and let their blunder serve as a warning that we must do better.

        • Oh, whatever the reason for shortcomings of previous scholarship, they deserve to be pointed out and corrected. Of that there is no question. My point was simply that we should not let the ease with which we sometimes see the errors of past scholarship from our vantage point make us cocky, since the errors of ours will probably be similarly clear to future generations of scholars. 🙂

          • Sean Garrigan

            Something tells me that if the blunders, ineptitude, or deceit under discussion had to do with misinformation spread to support creationism, you’d be far less tolerant. Too bad, because, IMO, truth in translation is as important as any other. I get we all have our pet peeves and our sympathies.

          • Sean Garrigan

            “I get we all have our pet peeves and our sympathies.”

            I meant “I guess”, not “I get”.

          • I am more tolerant of those who submit their blunders before the academic community (which is the audience most likely to spot problems and draw them to everyone’s attention), than those who try to bypass the academy and pretend that criticism they receive is due to a conspiracy against them.

          • Sean Garrigan

            Yet the whole point here is that when it comes to John 1:1c — — the most sacred off all theological cows — the academic community failed and continues to fail. You want skeptics to have faith in the academy yet you and other members of the academy fail to live up to your end of the social bargain.

          • I have yet to see evidence that scholars who work in insular sectarian settings or people who reject the route of scholarship altogether have done a better job of getting at the truth. That sacred cows sometimes fail to get the kind of critical examination they need shows the problematic influence of religious dogma on the academy, not the need to abandon the academy in favor of religious dogma.

          • Sean Garrigan

            In this case — and in many others I would guess — the academy is itself the very torchbearer of religious dogma.

          • Well, if you mean that there have been and continue to be times when the consensus in the academy reflects a commitment to Christian orthodoxy that has never been critically examined, then certainly we see that in this instance. If you mean that the academy in the very nature of its ethos happens to foster a view that supports a traditional doctrinal stance, and shields that from critical examination and questioning, then obviously nothing could be further from the truth.

          • Sean Garrigan


      • Sean Garrigan

        James: I’d like to share with you a more recent example of the sort of UN-scholarly nonsense that actually gets published, somehow, in peer reviewed journals in relation to the proper translation and understanding of John 1:1c. You seem to have a logical mind, and so I trust that the blunders I present below will be as obvious to you as they are to me.

        One of the issues that one must consider when attempting to determine how best to render John 1:1c is how the early interpreters understood the text. You are probably familar with the comments made by Origen in his commentary on John, where he clearly distinguished between hO QEOS and QEOS in the subject text. You may also recall how Philo noted a distinction between hO QEOS and QEOS in his writings, though they had nothing to do with Christianity, obviously.

        Well, another early witness to the understanding of John 1:1c is the Sahidic Coptic translation. The reason this translation is potentially important is because Coptic was the first language into which the GNT was translated which had both a definite and an indefinite article. Interestingly, at John 1:1c the Coptic text has
        neunoute (=was a god).

        As one might expect, when this became a subject for discussion, the folks at DTS felt a need to do damage control and bring the Coptic into harmony with their preconception of what John 1:1c *must* mean. Did their arguments reveal the sort of thoughtful contemplation one expects from scholarship, or they reveal that their motivations were purely apologetic? Let’s see.


        Here’s an “observation” that these two apologists offered:

        “Our small sample size is itself a clue to the Copts’ use of the indefinite article, or their neglect of it altogether. Of the 25 instances of the AnNS [QEOS], the vast majority are reflected in the Sahidic Coptic version with the definite article (21/25; 84%). Of these, the vast majority are also in reference to the God of the Bible’ (20/25; 80%). It is no exaggeration to suggest, then, that the Coptic translators were disinclined to use anything other than the definite article when translating [QEOS]. If the Coptic translators were so reluctant to use the indefinite article with [NOUTE], our question must not be what uniformly required the translators to use the indefinite article?’ but instead what individual circumstances required the use of a disfavoured construction?'” (p. 502)

        The “point” they seem desperate to massage from the data simply doesn’t follow. Let me restate the pertinent data:

        1. “Of the 25 instances of the AnNS [QEOS], the vast majority are reflected in the Sahidic Coptic version with the definite article (21/25; 84%).”

        2. “Of these, the vast majority are also in reference to the God of the Bible’ (20/25; 80%).”

        Do you see what they’re doing? They’re actually suggesting that the Coptic use of the definite article in contexts where NOUTE is a definite noun implies that the use of the indefinite article with NOUTE should be considered a “disfavored construction”!
        This is ridiculous. The only valid inference that we can make from the data is the rather obvious observation that the Copts wouldn’t be inclined to render definite nouns with the indefinite article! But then, who would?

        Here’s another example of their sloppy thinking:

        “The same category applies to John 1:1c. This qualitative/descriptive understanding makes the best sense within John’s prologue. The Copts understood John to be saying that the Word’ has the same qualities as the God of the Bible’.
        On the other hand, if one disagrees with our arguments above, the only other viable interpretations given the other usages would suggest that the Copts understood the Word’ to be either a god of the pagans’ (cf. Acts 28:6) or some usurper god’ (cf. 2 Thess. 2:4). Yet, this leaves one with much wider problems.” (Subject article, p. 509).

        Notice how, once again, they seem desperate to massage the data. They want to make it seem as though one has to either accept the “qualitative/descriptive” understanding or conclude that the LOGOS was either “a god of the pagans” or “a usurper god”. The problem — well, one of the problems — with this silly false dilemma is that, contextually (i.e. in the Prologue) it’s impossible to infer that the LOGOS is either a “god of the pagans” or a “usurper god”, ***regardless of translation***, because he is used by God the Father to create all things, and has a special place at His bosom!

        Yes, James, the abuse of language itself to support a theological agenda continues even today. This is why you and other members of the scholarly community MUST fulfill your end of the social bargain. Please, start vetting this apologetic nonsense and expose it for what it is. If the scholarly consensus should continue to promote “the Word was God” as the proper rendering of John 1:1c, then fine, but let’s do so with honesty and integrity.