The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

A Lesson on How to Argue and How not to Argue

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Many Christians believe it’s wrong to argue to reason through a point with believers and non-believers. It’s not. To argue—to reason critically—is to use the God-given faculty of reason and apply it to God’s Word as a search light for truth elsewhere. The Bible tells us to “test the spirits to see if they are from God” (1 John 4:1). To test something means to argue its points. That is, to assume the starting point and work out its logic. It’s called “answering a fool as his folly deserves” (Prov. 26:4–5). Not believing every spirit means more than not believing; it requires taking action against that spirit once it is determined that the spirit is malevolent. Peter admonishes us to always be ready “to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). Paul reasoned with his fellow Jews and Greek philosophers of the Epicurean and Stoic schools (Acts 17:16–34). The Bible requires us to be critical thinkers. The word “critical” is derived from the Greek word kritikos, “able to judge.” The standard for that judgment is God’s word, not some supposed neutral body of critical analysis tools: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge [kritikos] the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

Argumentation assumes that there are absolutes. While being argumentative, that is, contradicting the truth, is opposed by Scripture (Titus 2:9), questioning a false premise and the faulty conclusions that follow from it is fundamental to the Christian faith. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in order to “put them to the test” (2 Cor. 2:9). Tested against what? And if they did not pass the test, Paul would argue them back to the faith. His letters are long arguments. The Bible itself is an argument from the truth to the truth.

Jesus certainly argued. He took on the religious leaders of His day with profound argumentation, at times reducing them to silence (Matt. 22:22; Mark 3:4; Luke 20:26). Paul opposed Peter “to his face, because he stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11). It’s not that we just reason with non-Christians and oppose their worldview assumptions. As Paul example with Peter shows, truth must be preserved in the church as a first principle. If the church loses its way, then there is no message for the world. God “argued it out with Israel” (Isa. 1:18). Israel was no good as a witness to the nations until it got its act together.

If there’s a Proverb that scares me to death, it’s this one: “Do not go out hastily to argue your case; otherwise, what will you do in the end, when your neighbor humiliates you?” (Prov. 25:8). Notice that there is no prohibition against arguing. I take this admonition very seriously. Arguing righteously and fundamentally (with the proper tools) is crucial for anyone who enters the debate arena. This is why debates scare me. I’m always afraid that I’ve missed something in my preparation. What does my opponent know that I don’t know? To prepare for my June 2010 debate with Jim Fletcher (“Is Modern Israel and Fulfillment of Bible Prophecy?”), I wrote a book. I tried to anticipate his strongest arguments and my weakest arguments. They’re usually the same. Once I determined what they were, I wrote detailed responses. The result was 10 Prophecy Myths Exposed and Answered.

Debates require that you know not only your subject matter but that of your opponent. In addition, to misrepresent your opponent’s view is to bear false witness (Ex. 20:16). We should be truth-tellers even if it hurts. The apostle Paul could reason with his fellow Jews, the Romans, and the Greek philosophers because he knew their worldviews. There is no indication that he misrepresented them. It’s easy to argue against a straw man. It’s even easier when such “debates” take place with no opposition, when there’s no one there to say, “That’s not true.” Several years ago I was invited to a meeting where the topic of “dominion theology” was going to be discussed. The person who was speaking on the subject did not know I was coming. As providence would have it, I sat directly across from him. As he started to explain what dominion theology was all about, I started shaking my head in obvious disagreement with his claims. He stopped after a few minutes and asked, “Who are you?” I gave him my name and told him that I was very familiar with dominion theology and he was misrepresenting it. He had gotten his information from a book that claimed to be a scholarly critique of the position. The book had constructed a “Straw Man.” It was like a scene out of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Life really is like this, and least in this instance it was!

A straw man argument is all about purposeful misrepresentation. The true position is not argued against but only a caricature of it built by the arguer to make his case easier to argue. Jesus’ opponents built a straw man version of His views. When Jesus was brought before Pilate, He was accused by the Council of Elders of  “misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King” (Luke 23:2). This was a caricature of Jesus’ views, but it was used by His opponents because such manufactured political views would be seen as a threat to Pilate, a ruler of Rome. The Council couldn’t represent Jesus’ real views accurately because they were not politically extreme. Jesus did mention Caesar and taxes (Matt. 22:16–22), but at no time did Jesus ever say not to pay taxes. A straw man argument only works when the audience is ignorant of the real position.

Arguments are easily diverted by “red herrings.” When an argument is about to go south, the debater abruptly tries to change the subject and hopes that neither his opponent nor his audience notices. The fallacy gets its name from the way tracking dogs are trained. The goal is to keep a dog focused on the scent of what he is tracking. Trainers accomplished this by dragging some tasty morsel (like a herring) across the scented track. When the dog got to that point in the trail and veered off in the direction of the new scent, the trainer would yank him back on the original scented trail. The red herring is similar to a magician who diverts the audience’s attention away from what he’s doing with one hand by getting them to pay attention to what is going on in the other hand. As Joel McDurmon explains it in his book Biblical Logic, “The person who tries to avoid a question by raising some other point is . . . is therefore ‘dragging’ or ‘throwing’ a red herring into the discussion” (322–323).

The Samaritan woman applies the tactic when she is confronted by Jesus about her sins. She tries to shift the discussion to questions related to worship (John 4:16–26). Pilate drags a red herring into his discussion with Jesus when he fails to acknowledge Jesus’ statement about truth by asking “What is truth?” (John 18:37–38).

In summary, arguing, reasoning with those who present a different position on some doctrine or set of facts, is not unbiblical. Doing it dishonestly is. If we are going to be respected for our attempts to get at the truth, there are several things we must do: First, prepare by studying your opponent’s position. This means reading what he or she has written on the subject. This is the least that should be done. Second, represent the point of contention accurately. This means no straw man arguments or red herrings. Third, admit when you are wrong. Fourth, the pursuit of truth is a righteous goal. Fifth, even though disagreements may remain, this does not mean that Christian fellowship should be broken.

This brings me to the point of this article. For a few years, I have been critical of one element of the teaching that goes on at Brannon Howse’s Worldview Weekend seminars and website. I’ve expressed this to him in several emails. His republication of a 1987 article by Dave Hunt on “Dominion Theology” deserved a response and a public airing of what I content is worldview schizophrenia: Teaching Christian worldview and coupling that teaching with the claim that we are assuredly living in the last days. I published the article “A ‘Howse’ Built on Prophetic Sand” in response.

Brannon responded with an article of his own and a radio show. I have not listened to the radio show, but I suspect that it’s not much different from the article. His article is an example of how not to argue as a Christian. My response is lengthy. If you are interested in my paragraph-by-paragraph response, you can access it here. I have offered to debate Brannon on this topic when he is going to be in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 9th or Morgantown, West Virginia, October 10th where neither a straw man nor a red herring will be possible.

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