(From the author’s Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice)
After God comes the second major covenantal point, Man; but this refers to man as the Image of God, and thus God’s representative on earth. Representation plays a central role in a Biblical worldview, as Adam represented all mankind in his fall, and as Christ represents all believers in His death, burial, resurrection, and glorification. As the Image of God, we should act as faithful representatives of His character. Adam failed in this (and we do too), but through Christ, we aim for a higher standard: God’s commandments.
One of the most pressing concerns for scholars, students, debaters—and everyone actually—involves the question of representing the truth. By this, I mean both how we present our own arguments to the public and how we represent the arguments of those with whom we disagree. Representation plays a vital role in the Christian faith, and we must make every effort to treat God and others fairly and faithfully in what we speak and write.
Never forget that intellectual endeavors always involve at least two parties: while all pursuits involve at least you and God, more often than not, they also concern other people. Either way, this means that your claims, arguments, and propositions will always fall under scrutiny—the judgment of God and/or of others. As the proverb says, The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him (Prov. 18:17). We should therefore endeavor to present a case so impeccably clear and unassailable that our cross-examiners (whether they be casual listeners or critical analysts) can do nothing but submit to our reasoning or fall into fallacy themselves.
This means presenting our opponents’ arguments in their fullest, strongest, and most positive light possible. The Reformed scholar Loraine Boettner speaks strongly to this point. As he criticizes some enthusiastic prophecy writers for presenting their own theories with an authoritative air while ignoring competing views, Boettner writes, “True scholars do not hesitate to state the position of an opponent, and then expose the errors, if there are any.” In fact, he adds, “It has often been said that a person really does not know either side of a question until he knows both sides.”1 Many have noted that the influential medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas presented his opponents’ arguments better than they themselves did.2 Part of his success and fame certainly derives from this fact, and he no doubt earned the respect of many of his opponents for it, even if they disagreed with his conclusions.
In order to acquire the ability to represent others fairly, we must overcome fears and dysfunctions in our own souls. Fallacies arise quite often from the hidden sins and prejudices of the heart, and chief among these prejudices—perhaps subsuming them all—lurks pride. The great sin of all sins is that of spiritual pride or self-conceit: unduly exalting ourselves above others, even before God himself. As C. S. Lewis explains, “It was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”3
Pride will move us to miss truth simply because we already dearly hold certain perceptions and will not open up to other possibilities. Proud Naaman almost missed being healed of leprosy because he did not like the way the truth came to him. Through the suggestion of a servant girl, he traveled to Elisha’s house. Instead of meeting the soldier directly, Elisha sent a messenger to tell him what to do: go dip in the muddy Jordan river. Naaman grew angry. “I thought the prophet would speak to very important me directly! And why the Jordan? Why not one of the clean rivers in Syria?!” Were it not for the persuading efforts of his servants, he would have missed God’s blessing (2 Kings 5:1– 14). Were it not for the lowliest of people—a servant girl, a prophet’s messenger servant, and Naaman’s personal servants—and the muddiest of rivers, Naaman would have returned to his own country with his pride and his leprosy. God had in mind to get rid of both. If we, like Naaman, let our preconceptions and our own sense of self-importance drive our view of God and the world, we will risk missing the truth altogether. We must listen to everyone, and enter the muddy trenches of intellectual discourse in faith that God’s truth will prevail.
Jesus taught that the things which defile a man come from the heart (Matt. 15:1–20). Out of the fallen human heart come murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, and slanders. These hidden, spiritual forces drive us to hedge, overstate, ignore, or otherwise misrepresent views and opinions that conflict with our own. Jesus purposefully gave this teaching to correct the misrepresentation of godliness promoted by the Pharisees. They condemned the disciples for not washing their hands according to the tradition of the elders (Matt. 15:2), yet, as Jesus pointed out, parts of their beloved tradition ignored the commandment of God (15:3). They were attempting to enforce a piety not revealed by God while simultaneously breaking some of what God had revealed. Thus, they honored God in speech, but their hearts ignored Him (15:8). Such power does the heart have to trample God’s law in the name of God, and predispose a person against God in the name of righteousness.
Even the famous atheistic philosopher Antony Flew recognized the power that prejudices and preconceptions have in leading us to distort our arguments. He recognized this, keenly, in the careless use of the word “prejudice” itself:
Often it is treated as roughly equivalent to “opinion” or “conviction,” albeit with powerful pejorative overtones. In this all too common abusage I have my opinions and convictions, but you and he merely have prejudices—so called for no better reason than that they are yours or his and not mine. . . .
It is obscurantist and demoralizing to apply the word in order to abuse other people’s opinions, or even all strong convictions simply as such. . . . What is obnoxious, and what merits all the abuse in the stockpile, is the willful maintaining of preconceptions against the weight of the evidence. But to do that is not an always incurable feature of the human condition. Nor is it the exclusive prerogative of other people.4
Overcoming the fears and prejudices that distort our argumentation imposes a difficult and sometimes painful process, but we have good reasons to endure it. First, it is the nature of learning that we are often proven wrong. The process of learning indicates, by definition, that we don’t know everything already. When a rival argument confronts us, we can best address it by first representing that argument in its full force so that it may have its full impact upon us. If it contains any element of truth, then that truth will prevail upon examination. If it is complete falsehood, that too will become apparent. Either way, we have nothing to fear from the argument.
Second, in the end, the Christian intellectual position and your personal faith can only grow stronger through your practice of patient, humble honesty. If we set up our opponents’ arguments as weak (as Straw Men) and then defeat them, what have we accomplished? Not much. If we aim at the weakest parts of our opponent’s case, and bring that part down, how far have we progressed? On the contrary, if we present our opponent in his best light, and allow him his strongest case, and then defeat that case, we have not only made much progress, but we have dealt the other side the greatest possible blow. If we aim at the most impenetrable part of his armor and still break through, then we have achieved a triumph, and we leave the enemy with little defense, if any.
- Loraine Boettner, The Millenium (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984), 371.(↩)
- Noted in James V. Schall, Jacques Maritain: The Philosopher in Society, 4th Ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), xiii.(↩)
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Collier Books and MacMillan Publishing Co., 1984 (1952), 94.(↩)
- Antony Flew, Thinking Straight (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1977), 29–30(↩)