Blog

Matthew Flannagan’s Interactions with Thom Stark

A note from Paul Copan:

New Zealand theologian and philosopher of religion Matthew Flannagan is a good friend of mine.  He and his wife host an excellent blogsite—MandM.  Knowing that the kinds of comments Stark made in reply to me sounded much like what Matt had experienced, I asked Matt to comment on his previous exchanges with Thom Stark.  This is what he wrote. 

Hi Paul,

I still have not yet read Stark’s lengthy “review” of your book, but I do plan to respond. I have dipped in a bit, and it looks like more of the same stuff he wrote on his blog and in his emails to me. What you have written [in response to Stark] looks good, and it will be great read alongside Richard Hess’s response. 

Here is a brief overview of my interchange with him.

Sometime after I wrote a post on the Canaanite issue I was made aware of a post called “The Flannagan Delusion” by Thom Stark. The post not only called me “deluded,” but it contained nasty vitriol, speculated on and dissected my alleged motives, and distorted my position significantly. Stark did not respond to the line of argument I had made in the article he was responding to.  Instead he had put together a series of statements I had made in comments boxes on other issues and tied them together and presented them as my position on the Canaanite issue.

The post was part of a series with snarky titles in the same vein as “The Flannagan Delusion”; “Attack of the Clowns” was one.  In each case Stark speculated as to what other positions I held and attacked my basis for holding them even though I have never written on these issues. He continued to ignore my central argument.  He attacked my scholarly credentials; he stated I was not an Old Testament scholar and that my ideas were such that anyone in the field would recognise them as terrible.  The problem was I was not doing Old Testament Studies in the piece he was responding to; I had engaged in Old Testament Ethics—these fields overlap, but they are not the same.  I have a PhD in Theology specialising in Ethics. Stark, at the time, had a Bachelor of Divinity; so this ad hominem argument cuts both way.

Stark accused me of incompetent translations of texts. When I pointed him to museums and Egyptologists whose translations I had used, he said they were poorly translated as well. Then on another forum he would back-pedal and say the opposite.  Every time he actually responded to an argument, rather than dismissing it with ad hominems, he nearly always attacked a subtle misrepresentation of my views. This was pointed out to him numerous times and when it was, he would change what he said to a different misrepresentation and launch another ad hominem based on this new straw man.  

He also made fairly sweeping statements about the field of Philosophy of Religion, another area I specialise in alongside Ethics, that according to Stark’s CV he does not. Stark appeared to be using an historical critical method that treated the text as a collage of different human authors writing at different times. I was adopting a more Canonical approach where one treats the final form of the text as having a single divine author. These approaches have different hermeneutical implications. When I pointed out some underlying philosophical and epistemological differences behind these methods and why I adopted the ones I did, he dismissed the work of leading philosophers without argument and would, mistakenly, suggest they were fideists. When I tried to explain to him that the dialectical context required that I make certain assumptions, he simply reasserted his position and accused me of being dishonest.

He then responded to some other writings I had made on divine command meta-ethics where again he misrepresented my position and this time attributed to me a stance I was arguing against.  He made sweeping comments about the literature and simply asserted that experts agreed with him. Being thoroughly read up on the literature on this topic, and being published in it, I knew his claims were simply false. I tried discussing this with him but it was futile.  After several days of pointless and frustrating exchanges where I felt Stark was being quite rude I got a very cordial email from Stark apologising; he said he thought it had got out of hand and offered to take the blog posts and comments down; I then discovered that the blog posts had disappeared from the web and cannot be located on any wayback engines or caches; they have vanished without a trace.  

I began an offline dialogue with him which began civilly but quickly degenerated into the same pattern from Stark. Misrepresentations, sweeping assertions, and claims that people who disagreed with him were not really credible scholars while those who did were. He finally broke the conversation off claiming I was a fideist and a liar.

18 Responses to “Matthew Flannagan’s Interactions with Thom Stark”

  1. Michael,

    What is the point of this? What factual information is there in it?

    Stark is vitriolic and missed some of Flannagan’s points; he likes to argue and has some bad debate tactics; he makes some philosophical errors. Fine. But what of all the hundreds of words he’s written critiquing substantive matters? Is this attack to be used as an exhibit as to why Stark is wrong? Is this not the essence of an ad hominem?

  2. Just have a look at Hess’s comments as a sampling! Flannagan was simply highlighting how difficult it was to engage Stark’s on arguments because of how Stark twisted the arguments and made it difficult to engage.

  3. This whole series of debates seems, to me, to be a pretty sad use of the internet. I’m glad that there are people who care about issues like these, but frankly I think it is very unfortunate that blog posts like this (and Stark’s vitriolic ones it references) exist and masquerade as useful dialogue.

    Grace and peace (or at least something like it),
    A Bystander

  4. Yes, it is sad that such warnings need to be posted. N.T. Wright has talked about the need to develop an ethic for blogging.

    Grace and peace to you!

  5. “Warnings”? Is that what you call this excuse to bag on his character?

    For precisely the same reasons that Stark needs to keep a perhaps tighter rein on his snark, there is absolutely no need to post what amounts to a personal vendetta. I agree that we need more civil discourse, and Stark is certainly trying to work toward it, but I know he has received an unreasonable amount of vitriol which he hasn’t published as an assault on character.

    These tactics need to stop. Let discussions of matters of substance suffice, people. Show yourselves to be more classy than Thom if you can, not less.

  6. Hello, Steve. Thanks for your concern. However, as both Matt and I have been the object of Stark’s scorn, this post does not come out of a vaccum. We are simply describing Thom’s track record, of which people should be aware. Productive engagement gets cut off from the outset. I believe this *is* a relevant consideration, as it makes one gun-shy about engaging in discussion with Stark, who demeans and engages in name-calling.

    Not that arguments shouldn’t be taken on their own merits. I addressed some of this, and Hess himself engages in tackling a number of Stark’s misguided/false claims.

  7. “We are simply describing Thom’s track record, of which people should be aware.”

    Which people?

    This blog is not a symposium made up of those who will interact with Thom and his writings: it’s primarily a stage popular with non-specialists who are eager (and sometimes desperate) to find reasons to dismiss his arguments against inerrancy. This post comes off very much as an attempt at poisoning the well for those who read his books, not simply as a cautionary tale to your fellow scholars. apologists, and professional theologians to advise them to ignore his critiques because he doesn’t always respond to inerrantists’ points politely enough.

    If his writing is too incendiary and ad hominem to provide anything illuminating enough to wade through, don’t you trust reasonable people to see that when they read his writing for themselves? And if you meant this as a rebuke to a dialogue partner’s behavior, wouldn’t better dialog begin with settling these disputes “out of court”?

  8. Steve,
    You ask, “What is the point of this? What factual information is there in it?”

    I kind of agree on this post, although since some of the blogs readers will be familiar with M&M and know that Thom has posted snarky replies to Matt’s work, I can see why Paul would have asked him to respond.

    Furthermore, how is it different from your post on Stark’s ebook? You simply make jabs at apologetics and inerrantists, and offer no “factual information” in it. It doesn’t really contribute more than saying you agree with Stark. This says Matt still agrees with Copan…and none of us are surprised, right?

    Personally, I think Matt’s arguments are different from Paul’s and I don’t think Thom has adequately addressed Matt’s actual arguments (yes, I’ve read his full ebook and his posts already, but he seems to want to categorize Matt’s arguments as something they are not). I look forward to Matt writing an actual review and possibly they can have a more substantive…

  9. Ranger,

    You may be right. But I want to point out that my post was intended to call attention to a resource that I considered valuable; my commentary was on my misgivings with apologetics, not with the attitudes and personalities of apologists. A casual reader of my post will note how careful I was not to besmirch Copan’s character, motives, or integrity, because it was not intended to point out character flaws in Copan et al. as an (apparent) attempt to short-circuit his arguments by bleeding his audience: unlike the above, it was a link to a substantive critique of arguments. Saying that someone’s got shoddy arguments by pointing out how they’re shoddy is not at all the same as souring potential readers from engaging those arguments just because those who make them seem to be behaving nastily.

    But I admit to feeling unhealthy urges to be sarcastic/snarky, especially when I feel my conversants are being intentionally unreasonable, obtuse, or deceptive. I work on it, too.

  10. Hi Steve, I don’t think pointing out someone engaged in the ad hominen is itself an ad hominen. Nor is the above an attempt, at least not on my part, to short circuit arguments, I was not offering a rebuttal of Stark. I was asked to express my experiences of dealing with him. In any effect most of what I say actually does refer to Stark’s arguments and at least hint at some shortcomings of them.

  11. Let me add, that Paul does highlight a problem. When the “Flannagan Delusion” was published I received lots of gleeful comments from people who highlighted it as evidence I was a complete academic hack, a moron, a charlitian and so on, when you respond and immediately it happens again, it actually takes an emotional toll on you. Silence is then interpreted by some of Stark’s supporters as substantive victory, this sort of tactic is not the way discussions should be conducted and I have no problem pointing out to people that this sort of thing is not the way one address these questions.

  12. “Silence is then interpreted by some of Stark’s supporters as substantive victory, this sort of tactic is not the way discussions should be conducted and I have no problem pointing out to people that this sort of thing is not the way one address these questions.”

    Why do apologists seem to see the matter as one person’s supporters versus another’s? The issue is the arguments regarding inerrancy and heinous acts in the Old Testament. I have yet to seen any substantial response to the important points of Stark’s argument. If there is any, it is greatly eclipsed by all the whining about tone and so on.

  13. Paul, I’ll omit commenting on the irony of a person complaining about “one person’s supporters versus another’s?” and then making a similar sweeping generalisation against “apologists”.

    As well as the person whose sole objection is an apparently “whiny tone” saying one should not complain about tone.

    As to responding to “substantive arguments” I agree one needs to respond to the actual arguments made. That was my point.

  14. carlos bovell June 28, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    Matt,

    Can you say more about your “adopting a more Canonical approach where one treats the final form of the text as having a single divine author” and perhaps mention which works you have in mind that elaborate on why such approaches are to be commended to believers?

    Feel free to respond by email if you like.

    Blessings,
    Carlos

    • Hi, Carlos. Check out Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “Reading Joshua,” in *Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham*. Edited by Michael Bergmann, Michael J. Murray and Michael C. Rea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Nicholas Wolterstorff, *Divine Discourse* (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). John Sailhamer’s book *The Meaning of the Pentateuch* (InterVarsity Press) has good insights in the intertextuality of the final canonical composition.

      Paul

  15. Paul,
    I’ve read your and Matt’s complaints about Stark’s tone and your response to a few of his critiques of your book. However, in my opinion his critical review convincingly refuted the vast majority of the apologetic explanations you gave to defend God’s character. Why have you refused to engage and challenge his critique? I came to “Moral Monster” looking for some answers after reading Stark’s “Human Faces” and after reading his critical review of your book I’m even more troubled by the morality of the Old Testament. Why not take up one issue here? For example, can you clarify for me why Stark has it wrong that there were two types of slavery in ancient Israel? Is he incorrect in stating that there was indentured servitude for fellow Israelite debtors and chattel slavery for foreigners? I hear apologists conflate these two categories often. When Moses says you can hand slave down as “property” to your children that seems, in stark opposition to your claim, exactly like the antebellum slavery of the south. How can you deny this?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Stark Wars | MandM - June 22, 2011

    […] Matthew Flannagan’s Interactions with Thom Stark […]

Leave a Reply