Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
September 24, 1959
NUMBER 20, PAGE 8-10

Thoughts On Dishonesty

Ed Harrell, De Land, Florida

It is always a temptation for the reputedly learned man to bowl over honest and uninformed listeners with broad, sweeping, and positive statements. Anyone who disagrees with such self-styled authorities is dismissed with a thin, condescending smile of contempt. It is considered the grossest of presumptions to question the infallibility of these almighty scholars. When out of range of anyone who can speak authoritatively on a question, these light-headed, swell-chested authorities carry all before them. We have all seen such strategy used by unscrupulous debaters and writers. In fact, this sort of intellectual hypocrisy seems particularly fitted for the bitter battles of "preacher's pride." Invariably such a technique shields a bluff; almost always it is a willful, proud, hypocritical bluff; always it is ultimately a reputation-shattering bluff.

There are many degrees of being informed on a subject. We may get our information from some general source such as a textbook. While such information is useful, and generally fairly reliable, it is certainly not authoritative. Anyone who survives the freshman year in college must overcome the delusion of the infallible textbook. And yet many preachers today, plunging blindly and ignorantly into the dark unknown, stake their reputation on some statement from a freshman text. Of course, there is nothing wrong with studying and using such information but when a person presents it as absolute and positive fact, simply because he read it in a text, he betrays himself as a completely unreliable source of authoritative information. Such a superficial student has neither studied the facts nor formulated a conclusion of his own. He does not know the truth — he only knows the conclusions that another man reached. It is probably the right conclusion — but he does not know that. The only intellectually honest thing for such a student to do is to refuse to pose as an authority. The point is this: the right to speak with authority on a subject cannot honestly be claimed simply on the basis of an examination of secondary sources.

Many denominationalists, I believe, are in religious error simply because they have accepted as authoritative the Biblical interpretation of some "authority" rather than spending the necessary time to investigate the Bible, the original source of information. Only when the facts have been examined by the student himself can he arrive at an honest authoritative conclusion. Of course, since the correctness of our conclusions depends on the reliability of our facts, the possibility of error is still present. In the case of scriptural reasoning, we know we can arrive at truthful conclusions if we use the information without bias because the source material is complete, clear, and infallibly true. At best human reasoning is less dependable. If we succeed in ridding our minds of prejudice (which is no small undertaking), we are never quite sure that there is not some deceptive quirk lurking somewhere unaccounted for or, perhaps, some missing fact which might greatly modify our conclusions. But, the point is this, after we have made an honest, diligent, and unprejudiced investigation of the facts, then, and only then, we have the right to air the claim of authoritative scholarship. To do otherwise is the basest sort of intellectual hypocrisy and is explicable only in terms of shameful ignorance or sinful pride. Of course, the fact that a man is an authoritative scholar does not mean he is right. The honest scholar realizes his fallibility better than anyone else.

This article is not designed to increase the number of authorities in physics or history or anything else Of course, we all ought to be Bible authorities to the full extent of our intellectual abilities, but in the areas of human learning we are faced with obvious limitations. Everyone cannot be a physicist or a doctor or a preacher. The shocking truth is that any one of us can only be acquainted with an infinitesimal speck of human knowledge. There is nothing wrong with this ignorance. We are all ignorant. Wrong develops when we try to lie to ourselves, to more honest men, and to God because of an unholy, gnawing pride that makes us crave the praise of men.

The pompous simpleton who rants and raves with authority on every subject from intercontinental space travel to the Trinity is nothing more than an object of pity. He has no reputation so he can lose nothing. He who knows nothing might as well claim to know everything. The Bible has a description of this prolific breed: "These are wells without water, clouds that are carried with a tempest; to whom the mist of darkness is reserved forever." (I Pet. 2:17.)

More regrettable is the irreparable reputation — loss suffered by a useful man as the result of an outburst of intellectual dishonesty. Since we cannot be experts in every field of human knowledge, the only reasonable thing to do is to trust those who have proven themselves reliable in their field of specialization. For instance, I am not sufficiently trained to derive the meaning of a Greek word. When I want to know the meaning of a Greek word, I must go to the work of some scholar who by virtue of years of study and research is thoroughly acquainted with the language and accept as true his definition (at least as true as human reasoning can be). There are also other important factors in my acceptance of a scholar's work which cannot be over-looked. For instance, I must have reason to believe that he has treated his subject unbiasedly — that he has drawn scholarly conclusions in spite of his own opinions. Also, I must believe that he is intellectually honest; that is, I must believe that he will not claim to know more than he really knows. If a scholar meets these conditions, I then assume that he reached the same conclusions I would reach if I could spend the time and effort he spent in research.

The entire reputation of a scholar is inseparably involved in his usefulness in his area of specialization. It is most unfortunate when a man forfeits his usefulness in an area where he should be able to speak with authority by making absurd and egotistical claims for his views on every subject. If a man persists in making authoritative statements in an area in which it is obvious that he is incompetent, he forfeits the right of respectability in every area because he reveals a basic intellectual dishonesty. If a man will lie about one thing, he will lie about another. Of course, the lie might be either ignorant or vicious — but it remains a lie. Whatever the circumstances might be, it is dangerous to follow a man who has lied to you in the past.

If I am not badly mistaken, intellectual dishonesty is rampant in the church of the Lord today. It is not the baser kind of pompous jackassery which troubles me; there are limitations on the damage that the "ranters" can do. On the other hand, intellectual dishonesty among the competent leadership of the church is bound to be ravaging in its effects. It was in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It will be today.

The church today has the PH D. craze. I do not believe there is anything wrong with a Ph. D degree any more than I believe there is some dark evil connected with an M D. or B. A. degree. Degrees from competent universities simply signify the meeting of certain standards by the student in some specialized area of study. I believe it is the part of an inferiority-complexed radicalism to try to make less of education than it is really worth. More dangerous, however, is the liberalism which makes more of a knowledge in a specialized area than it really is. A degree does not mean that the holder is some higher species of Homo sapiens; it does not necessarily mean that a man knows more about his subject of specialization than anyone else. It is not uncommon today for the average church member to assume that their distinguished Ph. D. preacher can speak with honest authority not only in the area of speech, history, or mathematics (in which he was trained) but that he can and should speak authoritatively in every area It is assumed that he knows everything. Anyone who does not have a Ph. D. is not allowed the right to question the pronouncements of these infallible doctors. It becomes presumptions to think that anyone else knows so much. "Our colleges" and "our big churches" become the seats of all wisdom — by virtue of their monopoly of all the "learned" preachers.

The preacher is not responsible for the poor, ignorant brethren who try to make a pope out of him but he is responsible for his own actions. Almost to the man the brethren who have been placed in this position have played the part of the all-knowing, infallible intellectual to the hilt. Seemingly, they themselves come to believe that they know everything. Speech teachers or English professors who know less about the Bible than some of their students take up the standard of brotherhood leadership by virtue of their superior education. They become fountains of wisdom on every subject, constantly spouting authoritative information to the delight of docile and admiring audiences. Intellectual honesty is forgotten. Admiring flocks find a study of issues and principles unnecessary since it is inconceivable that their Ph. D. (in education) preacher could misconstrue the scriptures. The few earnest, studious brethren who by virtue of years of honest investigation should hold Ph D. degrees in the Bible are dismissed with a condescending smirk by this new intelligentsia. These old warriors are nice, well-meaning, but incompetent ignoramuses. When this process is complete, that which wears the name "Church of Christ" will be a full-fledged denomination (it might even be the largest one of American original).

A Case In Point

It may seem a little brutal to bring one man to trial for intellectual dishonesty in a world that is full of it but I recently saw a case so brazen that it cries for exposure. A recent article by J. W. Roberts in the Gospel Advocate entitled "What is the 'Social Gospel'?" (July 2, 1959, pp 419-420) shocked me out of a long period of peaceful, half-interested silence. For some time I have been brooding over the constant outbreaks in brotherhood papers of what I considered intellectual dishonesty but up until now I would usually simply woefully nod my head and find something else to read. But I couldn't find something else to read after this article; I wanted to pour out this whole bitter accusation that I had had to keep pushing down.

I have read a good deal written by J. W. Roberts. I have, in the past, regarded him as a capable and honest scholar. I do not know him personally but I have admired his efforts to defend his convictions with good reasoning and Bible evidence even though I sometimes disagree with his conclusions. So much has been written in the brotherhood periodicals in the past year about the social gospel that I only get about half of it read (and that is often too much), but, when I saw J. W. Roberts' article, I read it with anticipation. It saddened me.

In his article on the social gospel Brother Roberts speaks as an authority. His statements are positive, firm, and absolute. He seems perfectly willing to stake his reputation as a scholar on his interpretation of the social gospel. He does not intimate that he is depending for his information on secondary sources, rather, the clear insinuation is: these are the facts. He assumes an air of condescending impatience toward those brethren who have a less perfect understanding of the subject: "For several years this writer has heard some of our preachers rail against the Social Gospel when he wondered if they really knew whether the thing they were preaching against was a fruit of this system of theology, or was an overemphasis of Christian benevolence (if such be possible) or a sentimentality on the part of believers." (p. 420). This impatience with all those who disagree with his conclusions later in the article turns to outright ridicule when he dismisses all opposing interpretations as "stuff and nonsense" (p. 420). That is strong language — even when a man is certain he is right.

J. W. Roberts' article is a worthless conglomeration of misinformation and misunderstanding. He has gathered his information from secondary sources which are out-rated and obsolete; his understanding of what he has read has evidently been imperfect. In short, his conclusions are false and his accusations and insinuations are inexcusable.

Brother Roberts includes in his article a short list of recommended sources. The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865-1915 (erroneously listed in his article as, The Life of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism 1865-1915), he terms a "recent study of the movement." Then, evidently to add prestige to this hardly imposing bibliography, he mentions some random books by Shailer Matthews and Walter Rauschenbusch, two outstanding personalities in the social gospel movement. This bibliography immediately reveals that the author is not familiar with the best and most recent scholarship on the subject of social concern in American religion. Although Hopkins' book is a good standard account, it has been greatly modified by later interpretations and could hardly be recommended without reservations. Henry F. May's, Protestant Churches in Industrial America and Aaron I. Abell's, The Urban Impact on American Protestantism, 1865-1900 are equally important interpretations Timothy L. Smith's recent Brewer prize winning book, Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth Century America has caused such a revision of these earlier works that an accurate picture of the social gospel movement demands a consideration of Smith's thesis (see my review in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. XVII, No. 4, pp. 362-364) It seems inconceivable to me that Brother Roberts could recommend such a superficial and misleading bibliography if he has studied the subject.

I have neither time nor inclination to undertake what Brother Roberts disposed of in two pages: an exposition of the history and content of the social gospel movement. An examination of two or three of his statements should be sufficient to show that he has misinterpreted the movement. He accounts for the origin of the social gospel as follows: "The Social Gospel (at its roots) was based upon the theory of the German Scholar Adolf Harsack." (p. 419). The scholarly naivet of such a statement is dumfounding The amazing variety of religious social reformers who formed the social gospel movement in the latter part of the nineteenth century was urged on by such a complex and nebulous network of intellectual motivations and practical circumstances that no reputable scholar of the movement would have difficulty in naming a dozen contributing factors to the rise of the social gospel It seems impossible that Brother Roberts could have read Charles Hopkins' book, which he lists in his bibliography, and make such a statement.

A second fundamental misinterpretation which Brother Roberts dogmatically affirms is that there is an inseparable connection between the social gospel and theological liberalism. He says: "The Social Gospel represented one of the most advanced and unbelieving applications of Liberalism and Modernism in the ranks of Biblical Theology. To accuse one of being a preacher of the Social Gospel is to accuse him of being a Modernist of the rankest sort." (p. 419) Labeling the social gospel movement as one of the manifestations of liberal theology is historically unsound. Recent scholarship emphatically points out that even the most conservative theological groups go through stages of more and less social awareness. Increasing social consciousness is not necessarily the result of theological liberalism — certainly not "rank Modernism." More often, increasing social content leads to theological liberalism. Timothy L. Smith's book traces the development of social consciousness among the Holiness groups (hardly "rank Modernists"). Other recent studies have demonstrated the presence of social concern among conservative bodies. The marked increase of social emphasis in conservative religious groups after the turn of the century is clearly a part of the social gospel movement in America. Almost invariably the result of the social gospel movement was a "softening" of the spiritual emphasis in conservative theologies. Two recent studies at Vanderbilt University deal with this problem: Milton L. Baughn's unpublished doctoral thesis, "Social Views Reflected in Official Publications of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, 1875-1900," and my M. A. thesis, "A Decade of Disciples of Christ Social Thought, 1875-1885." Professor Rufus Spain of Baylor University is now completing a work on the social thought of Southern Baptists which should point out the presence of "social gospelers" in this conservative group. My doctoral dissertation, which is nearing completion, is a social history of the nineteenth century restoration movement. The information from my research, to put it simply, flatly contradicts the dogmatic declarations of Professor Roberts.

All of this raises several questions in my mind. Did J. W. Roberts, who has a doctor's degree and is reputedly a scholar, not know any better than to foist off on the brotherhood as the authoritative information on the social gospel movement a smothering of jumbled excerpts from secondary sources? It is inconceivable to me that a man with his background could honestly present the information he presented in his article as a scholarly and authoritative study — that all opposing theories were "stuff and nonsense... Unfortunately only one alternate explanation seems possible. Brother Roberts took unscrupulous advantage of his awesome "doctorness" to dogmatically frighten away all less imposing scholars. Regardless of what he intended to do, that is what he did. He presented himself as an authority with authoritative information to an authority-conscious brotherhood. I imagine most of the readers of the Gospel Advocate will regard his dogmatic statements as sufficient proof that what he says is true. Those who examine his position will find it false; unfortunately they will also find that the man himself has been false.

I feel sure that this case could be duplicated every week from one of our brotherhood papers. But when it continues to strike weekly those who in the past have deserved respect. I cannot help but publicly mourn the ravages of pride on the intellectual honesty of a group of men who plead with others to search for themselves and accept only that which they know is true.

I have not meant this as a personal attack on a man. Perhaps some of my statements have been too hard. J. W Roberts, I assume, was not consciously trying to pervert the truth. However, after a long and concentrated study of the social gospel movement in this country I believe that Brother Roberts presented a fantastically misleading picture of its origin, content, and impact. I know (by his works) that he has posed as an authority on a subject without a proper acquaintance with the source materials or even the secondary materials. If he is familiar with these materials, he must have wilfully distorted the truth. This is the point: he, like so many of my brethren are doing every day, gave false information under false pretenses. I long to see an honest man — one who doesn't know everything.