One of the things I have enjoyed the most about blogging is the opportunity to engage in substantive debate with fellow Christians and skeptics. My short time in the blogosphere has afforded me a wonderful opportunity for continuing education and I think this is one of the strengths of blogging.
For some time now I have pondered the ins and outs of Christian debate. Some relish it, and some abhor it. In my liifetime I have wavered back and forth. There have been times when I have abhorred it and even felt that somehow it was ungodly to debate and argue within the body of Christ. After all, if we are "one in the spirit," then to debate must somehow show that the spirit isn't moving because it breaks that oneness. At other times, like lately, I have seen the value of debate for growth and sharpening one's intellectual and spiritual development.
To be sure there are great dangers in debating. Cordial debates can often turn ugly. And, often someone can win the debate and lose the person. I remember reading an account of a debate that Francis Schaeffer had with an atheist where Schaeffer humiliated his opponent. Schaeffer won the debate but was very remorseful because he apparently didn't feel that he had advanced the cause of Christ, at least not in the life of his debate opponent.
With all that in mind I thought I would humbly offer several thoughts I have had on how to engage in debate in such a way that it will further the cause of Christ.
1. Remember who you are debating
All human beings bear the image of God, whether they name the name of Christ or not. There is inherent dignity in being an image bearer and each image bearer must be treated so. True, there are those who do their best to destroy the image of God in themselves and others, but this is cause for weeping, not anger.
2. Remember your relationship when debating a fellow Christian
When we debate with fellow Christians we are debating with brothers and sisters. We are to do good "especially" to members of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). Consider these words from John Newton "On Controversy." Newton once had occassion to advise a young man who was taking it upon himself to oppose the errors of another brother in Christ.
As to your opponent, I wish that before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write. If you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab concerning Absalom, are very applicable: “Deal gently with him for my sake.” The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.I particularly love that reminder that, upon entering heaven, all believers will be dearer to us than those who are dearest to us right now, including our opponents. Therefore, we ought to treat them with that end in view.
3. Remember who you are
This is one of the things that helps me "tone down" the rhetoric. If I believe the Bible then I have to confess that if Paul was the chief of sinners, then where does that leave me (I Timothy 1:15)? The Romans 7 struggle is my struggle. This doesn't mean that I can't share that which I have become fully persuaded of (Romans 14:5) but I share it from the position of humility.
I recently read someone who was giving tips on blogging and they said that we need to say what we have to say and don't be wishy-washy about it. If we use phrases like "it seems to me," or "it appears to be the case that," and other such things this tells the reader that we aren't convinced of our position. Good advice, to be sure, but the Christian writer always has to acknowledge that sin and finitude is everywhere present in his or her life, and is certainly present in what he or she writes. This is why I love the phrase a friend told me a few years ago - he said:
I'm absolutely 100% convinced I'm right, and I'm absolutely 100% convinced I could be wrong.This is good advice, and is a tagline worth putting on the end of every argument we make. A few years ago I read a compilation of articles in a book which were the transcripts of a debate on a very important theological topic. One of the things I admired greatly about these theologians is that virtually every one of them concluded his presentation with words that went something like "so that is my position, but I recognize I could be wrong." That's not being wishy-washy, that's being humble and in-touch with reality.
4. Remember how little you really know.
I Cor. 13:12 says:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.This ties in with the above. Not only are we finite and sinful, but we also know in part, and our knowledge is dim. We don't see God face to face, we see Him through a glass, and a dark glass at that. Think of it as looking at God through a smoked glass. We can know truly, but incompletely. When you look through smoked glass you can see the broad outlines of what you are looking at and some of the features, but you just don't get the whole picture, nor do you get a completely clear picture.
This doesn't mean that we can't know God truly, but we just don't know Him as clearly as we think we do. When we get to heaven we will see so clearly that we will look back on our knowledge here on earth and we will see that we were looking at things through a dense fog.
My purpose in saying that is too give us another reason to add to the humility factor.
5. Remember the Burger King Principle.
You can't say everything every time you try to say something. If you try to say everything, every time you try to say anything, you'll end up saying nothing.They happened to be in the drive thru at a Burger King at the time of this conversation, so this came to be known to the Pratt family and his students as "The Burger King Principle."
What he was getting at is that almost any statement can be infinitely qualified. There are almost always exceptions to things we say, as well as differing nuances that come into play. If you try to deal with every exception and every nuance everytime you speak you will qualify things to death. A simple statement like "God is love," can be qualified almost infinitely.
"To say that God is love doesn't mean that He is not also wrathful."
"Love is not an emotion."
"Sometimes, the loving thing can appear very unloving."
The effect of this is that you can render any statement almost meaningless if you try to give all the qualifiers. We need to just say what we have to say and then answer the questions as they come.
6. Argue with what has been said, not what you think should have been said.
Because you can't say everything, whenever you say anything, some particularly contentious types like to jump all over the things you didn't say, that they think you should have said. This is one of the things that John Frame touches on in his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. We all have our own hobby horses and will read others through the lens of our particular hobby horse. Things that are important to me may not be important to you, yet you may think I have totally missed a point because I talked about an issue without addressing your particular hot button. Or, your hot button may have been incidental to my point, yet you feel I have missed something by failing to address it.
For example, I'm currently reading a series of end times novels called "The Christ Clone Trilogy." From what I can tell, these books seem to follow the dispensational premil view of end times. Those who know me, know that I am a committed amillennialist. I am really enjoying these books, they are fun reading, and are far better than the "Left Behind" novels. However, in saying that I enjoy these books, some may say think I am endorsing dispensational premillennial eschatology. I didn't say that, I only said I enjoy these books.
There are numerous examples of how we do that. In my case, it would be valid for someone to argue with me on the basis of my enjoyment of the stories. You may say "Wayne is crazy, those books stunk, they put me to sleep." This would be proper, but it would be improper to go on a diatribe against my endorsement of premil eschatology, because I never said that.
7. Read and listen sympathetically
Reading and listening sympathetically has two aspects:
a. Assume the writer/speaker doesn't contradict himself.Here is where I will gladly add a qualifier, against my thoughts on #5 above. The truth is that people often contradict themselves, and where there is a true contradiction then we can and should point out the contradiction. However, we need to have enough grace toward our opponents to treat them as if they are not contradicting themselves (or they are not consciously contradicting themselves). Its the old illustration of viewing the scene of an automobile accident from different perspectives. From one angle you see something you didn't see from another angle. And, the writer may be doing the same thing - in one place he may be describing his position from one angle and in another place from a different angle.
I hate to quote Emerson approvingly, but I am told that the following quote comes from his "Essay on Self-Reliance," which I have heard of but never read. He said:
"Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."This is true - often we are so eager to find inconsistencies in our opponents arguments that we don't show them some basic Christian courtesies. Charity would lead us to do the hard work of trying to see the connections in what our opponent is saying, rather than charging them immediately with inconsistency. When we see inconsistencies, let it be at the end of an attempt to understand their logic.
b. Impute the best of motives to the opponent.Sympathetic listening would also mean that we impute the best of motives to our debate opponents. Actually, it involves a refusal to speculate on the motives of our opponents. None of us can see into the hearts of someone else, only God can do that. To speculate on motives arrogates to oneself a prerogative which belongs only to God Himself. Speculating on motives happens when we quote something someone said and begin to explain what they meant and why they said what they said.
This is not always out of order - sometimes our opponent declares their motives or it becomes very obvious from their behavior. What I am arguing against is an uncharitable, judgmental spirit that imputes nefarious motives toward those who disagree with us.
8. Be careful with the "reductio ad absurdum"
According to the Internet Encyclopedia, the "reductio ad absurdum" is:
In its most general construal, reductio ad absurdum – reductio for short – is a process of refutation on grounds that absurd – and patently untenable consequences would ensue from accepting the item at issueIn other words, if I want to employ this technique against you, I would take your point, and reason it out to its logical conclusion, then show how absurd the conclusion is.
For example, here's a real life example of how I might employ the "reductio ad absurdum." I would contend that the logical consequence of consistent Arminianism is Open Theism. In my view, Arminianism, with its denigration of the sovereignty of God in giving man the ability to thwart God's purposes, ultimately will end up in a view like Open Theism, where God doesn't truly know or control the future. Now, the question is whether I am being fair in saying that or not?
The truth is that most people don't take their views to their logical conclusions because they factor other issues into their beliefs. Most Arminians have a different view of free will than I do, but their doctrine of free will is not the final, or totalizing influence on their entire system of doctrine. They have other doctrines they factor in that keep them from becoming full blown open theists. So, I need to modify my use of the "reductio ad absurdum" when talking to or about Arminians. While most Open Theists may have started as mere Arminians (a la Clark Pinnock) I would be unfair to say that all Arminians are closet Open Theists.
If I may switch the argument to my side of the debate, let's think about the reformed doctrine of predestination. Many will use the "reductio ad absurdum" on us to say we are fatalists. And, actually, if this were the only thing we believe, the argument would have weight. However, this is not the only thing we believe. Fatalism depends on an impersonal force, our doctrine of predestination depends on a "personal" God. Also, our doctrine of predestination is informed by a host of other doctrines, like God's mercy, love, holiness, righteousness, man's freedom (rightly defined) and several other things. What I am saying is that there are a host of other doctrines that keep us from reaching absurd conclusions with our doctrine of predestination.
So it is when we debate with our brothers and sisters. As I mentioned before, when you say anything, you can't say everything, so when the Arminian talks about free will or the Calvinist talks about predestination, there are probably a bunch of other issues they won't be able to talk about at that time. We need to have the charity toward our brothers and sisters that enables us to listen or read sympathetically and use the "reductio ad absurdum" very carefully.
9. Be careful about the use of invective.
Although people like Luther and Calvin are a couple of my heroes I am not looking to resurrect their writing styles. The internet Shakespearean Insult Generator has nothing on Luther and Calvin. Whether they are talking about the stupidity of the Sophists or the ignorance of Erasmus, these guys could insult their opponents like no one you have ever seen. Yet, this kind of stuff is often a form of verbal bullying or a cover for a weak argument or a weak mind. Elbert Hubbard said:
If you can't answer a man's arguments, all is not lost; you can still call him vile names.Jesus takes name calling very seriously - Matthew 5:22. The one who calls his brother a fool is in danger of the fires of hell. So, we want to be very careful about the use of invective.
You will notice that I didn't say we can never use invective. Jesus uses it against the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. In Galatians 5:12 Paul says he wishes that those who were troubling the Galatians would "emasculate" themselves. In the Psalms, we have numerous imprecatory prayers.
So, there may come a time when we use invective, but it should be rare and should be done advisedly. It seems that Jesus and Paul only use such invective when there is an outright denial of the gospel involved. We use invective for much less than that. Angry words and name calling usually reveal more about the one who is speaking than the one who is spoken against.
In saying all of this I am not proposing that we abandon debate and just all play nice. When we are debating nothing is gained by hiding our opinions and views. We need to state our views plainly. Debate is a great means of "sharpening." When I state my views publicly I afford myself the opportunity to be corrected by brothers and sisters. And, hopefully, I will fulfill my obligation to love my neighbor as myself by helping him correct some of his faulty views.
But, in Christian debate, the object is not just to win the argument, but to win the person. And I would go further and say that debate is a great means of education. Often the goal doesn't even have to be to win or lose, but to learn (of course sometimes there are matters which are so clear from Scripture that we have to win the debate).
My experience, especially here in the Blogdom of God, has been that there are many people with varying perspectives and varying degrees of insight from whom we can all learn much. With this medium, we have a unique opportunity to encourage one another and to learn from one another. I hope we can continue to engage in vigorous debate, but in doing so, to do all in a manner that is Christlike and edifying.