Monday, February 09, 2015

Don't Be a Nitpicker

A Facebook comment states,

I agree that Swan is nit-picking, but best stay away from Will Durant. His footnotes are impressive looking, but I remember trying to follow up some dubious claim Durant made about Bucer and finding it hard to do. Part of the problem is that just because he's an older source himself, his secondary sources are hard to find. That doesn't make him wrong. (I don't remember what the claim was about Bucer, but I remember finding it completely unbelievable as a Bucer specialist.) It seems to me that Durant impresses people just because no one else has really done what he did. But someone ought to, because it should be done better.

This was a reaction from an Anglican to my recent entry, Melanchthon: Under cover of the Gospel, the princes were only intent on the plunder of the Churches. According to his general information at Catholic Answers, this Anglican is "seeking admission to the Catholic Church." Despite his swimming of the Tiber, I've read a number of comments from this person over the years in regard to Reformation-related issues, many of which I've found helpful. Even his very Facebook comment verifies that my finding on Durant aren't so outrageous. Frankly though, this criticism that I've engaged in "nit-picking" is bogus, and leads me to believe that either my entry wasn't read carefully (if at all), or that perhaps I didn't explain the background of the post well enough.

First, my scrutiny of the Melanchthon quote was primarily in regard to a comment in a recent CARM post which used the Melanchthon quote. If you follow this CARM discussion,  notice that a Lutheran challenged the quote here saying, "I am not familiar with Durant, is there something online about his citation or works?" The same Lutheran also stated, "After doing a little checking it seems that Will Durant is problematic where appeals are concerned. James Swan Beggarsallreformation blogspot, just go to the main page and search Will Durant for a number of examples. Thanks again for the citation, but can you offer another perhaps more reliable source for the same claim?" To Which the CARM Roman Catholic responded in part, "That is my only source. I'm sure you could study Melanchthon's works and letters and see for yourself. I'm sure you'll understand if I don't. The history of Germany after the Reformation speaks volumes. I don't need further evidence." The Lutheran responded, "I'm not familiar with this caricature of Melancthon. I'm neither denying nor affirming and your source is suspect." And so, I took a look at the quote, demonstrating in my blog post that the polemical point being made originally was inaccurate and the Melanchthon quote used not only didn't support his point, but was itself of a bogus construction. This isn't "nitpicking," it's checking out the facts put forth to substantiate a polemical point.

Second, I did eventually reply on CARM in regard to this issue. The person who initially posted the quote had claimed he got the quote directly from Durant. I demonstrated that he cut-and-pasted it from a webpage, and that webpage constructed the Melanchthon quote from two different pages in Durant's book (which would be enough to demonstrate the quote was spurious). I then demonstrated Durant probably didn't read Melanchthon, but took it from two different volumes in Janssen's set on Germany. In checking Janssen, it became obvious Durant wasn't even correctly quoting Melanchthon. This isn't "nitpicking," it's checking out the documentation put forth to substantiate a polemical point.

Third, I recently read a statement by Robert W. Jenson who inadvertently described how the Reformers are often quoted by both Protestants and Roman Catholics:
Active participants in the continuing theological argument are inevitably and properly cannibals of their predecessors. They dismember predecessors’ systems or structures of intuition, and use bits and pieces for their own purposes.
We're all guilty of this, for better or for worse. Some people are able to use those "bits and pieces" in a more fair and honest way than others. Some people take those "bits and pieces" and put them into their own theological worldview without at least trying to understand how they fit in the theological system in which they live to their fullest. Roman Catholics do this with the Reformers, Protestants do this with aspects of Roman Catholic theology as well. What I've found is that many of Rome's defenders create historical caricatures when they read books on the Reformation, as was the case with the Melanchthon quote. Rome's defenders have a popular notion that the Reformers were saddened by the Reformation at best, or at worst regretted it and their role in reform. This is a caricature. Neither Melanchthon or Luther (or Calvin and Zwingli for that matter) regretted the reform of the church. They were not gleefully ecstatic over every facet of change brought on by the reform movement, but they certainly were not always longing for the days previous to their reform work. So when I demonstrate that one of Rome's defenders "dismembered" and "cannibalized" Melanchthon's words, this is not nitpicking, It's demonstrating the shoddy work of those putting forth propaganda.

Here's what one of Rome's defenders thinks of all this:

Swan is an obsessive-compulsive pest situated somewhere on the autistic spectrum whose mania is to the search the Internet for poorly understood religious odds and ends that, he imagines, bolster his idiosyncratic Fundamentalist delusions. He periodically does data dumps on his blog. No one needs Swan. We all have search engines of our own.

There is one thing I agree with here: Rome's cyber-defenders also have search engines. With these modern marvels of technology like Google and Bing they should be able to put forth accurate citations.


Austin said...

I intended to comment on the original Durant post but never got around to it. I've noticed the same thing with Durant, particularly in the Reformation volume. I first discovered the discrepancies when I noticed an Arminian polemicist quoting Schaff in an incredibly dishonest manner (literally putting together two paragraphs that appear around 700 pages apart from one another!). I did some digging (because of course they didn't mention they were citing Durant) and tracked the dishonest citation back to Durant. I was very disappointed as I've really enjoyed reading Durant over the years. I still enjoy reading him, and will frequently pull a volume of his off the shelf and just read random chapters for my enjoyment.

James Swan said...


I have a few of Durant's volumes. The positive for me as well is that Durant is very readable. The negatives for me have been his references. If I recall, I think I actually bought his volume on the Reformation because of people quoting from it on the Internet (in a polemical way).

Quoting historians is right and proper, but they aren't infallible guides to history- at least that's the lesson I learn every time I visit my copy of the Reformation by Will Durant.