On Argumentation

For the past few months, I’ve been teaching a college/young adult Sunday School class.  So far, we’ve looked at the Trinity and atheism. In the course of this class, I’ve pointed out that, when discussing opposing views on any subject, there are three kinds of arguments one will run across. The first is the positive argument, which basically gives the evidence for the belief held by the one making the argument. This one is pretty simple. What takes a little longer to flesh out are the two other types of argument: offensive and defensive. Both of these handle information coming from the other side of a debate.

Offensive arguments are those that have, as their point of attack, the opposing view itself. (No, they are not arguments that offend people.) Take the Trinity for example. Suppose someone argues against the Trinity by saying, “Jesus can’t be God. Just look at John 14:28. Jesus says the Father is greater than Him.  No one is greater than God. So Jesus can’t be God.” This person is making an offensive argument. If the attack is successful, the position held by the Trinitarian is wrong. His whole view is destroyed.

Defensive arguments are those made against the positive arguments or offensive arguments of the other side.  These are not concerned with the opposing view itself.  Looking again at the Trinity, an example would be, “Jesus said, ‘I and the Father are one’, but that only means one in purpose, not in being.”  This argument only addresses one verse and one argument Trinitarians make for the Deity of Christ, and so even if it’s a good one, it would only prove that one particular argument for the Deity of Christ is bad.  I don’t happen to believe it is a good argument, since the context of the verse shows that Jesus was saying more than that He was one in purpose with the Father.  Even the Pharisees would have said that, and the context makes it clear that they believe He was saying more.

Another example that can bring this point home is this: “1 John 5:7 says that the Father, Word, and Holy Spirit are one, but this verse isn’t even in the Bible, as any level of textual study would show.”  Here’s another defensive argument about another verse that affirms the Trinity. The difference is that this is a good one.  Affirming this argument, though, does no damage to the doctrine itself, since it is not built solely on this one highly questionable verse.

So how are these arguments answered?  Well, to argue against a positive presentation for an opposing view seems obvious:  employ your own offensive arguments to show the falsehood of the position, or defensive arguments to show that the positive presentation is flawed.  For defensive arguments, the answer is to use another, hopefully better defensive argument to reaffirm your original argument.  Another possibility we shouldn’t forget in these cases is concession.  Maybe we were using a bad argument and the defensive argument used against us shows that.  As we saw with 1 John 5:7, there are bad arguments for good positions.  

Finally, what about offensive arguments?  If these are sound arguments, then our position is lost.  If someone makes an argument directly against the existence of God, for example, and it is sound, then God does not exist.  Obviously, a defensive argument of some kind is in order.  The person making an offensive argument is not necessarily making a positive case for his own position.  Sometimes there is an implicit case being made, but that’s another issue.

The vast majority of the time, if the position being attacked is true, the argument against it commits the “straw man” fallacy.  The straw man fallacy occurs when an argument misrepresents the position it is attacking and then proceeds to attack the misrepresentation.  It cuts down a straw man, not a real one.  In other words, most bad arguments against good positions misrepresent the position they attack.

This can be seen in the case of some atheistic arguments against God.  One version of the problem of evil says that an all good God would prevent all the evil He knows about and can prevent.  Since He knows all evil and is powerful enough to prevent it, then there must not be such a God since evil exists.

Here is an offensive argument against the existence of God.  Is it flawed?  The answer is found in the very first statement.  Is it really true that the Christian God would prevent all the evil He knows about?  Did He not know of the crucifixion?  Was that not His very purpose in becoming a man?  It was surely evil, but God not only didn’t prevent it, but He intended for it to happen as an integral part of His plan.  From this we can see that the definition given for an all-good God does not apply to the Christian God.

I want to look at another example before closing.  This example comes from a presentation by Timothy Keller called “Exclusivity: How can there be just one true religion?”  It’s part of a series called, “The Trouble with Christianity: Why it’s so hard to believe it.”  There is a common statement made against Christianity and religion in general: Religion leads to strife and is an impediment to peace.  This is an offensive argument, in that it attacks the moral goodness of religion in general and Christianity in particular.  And like most bad offensive arguments, it does so by creating a caricature of Christianity that looks like medieval Romanism and saying that Christianity’s exclusivity makes people feel superior to others.

Timothy Keller points out three distinctive things about Christianity that show that, while it does contain exclusive beliefs, those beliefs work to mitigate our natural tendencies to feel superior.  One is the nature of grace.  Christianity, unlike all other religions, places our good standing before God completely in the hands of God, not ourselves.  Salvation does not come from “performing the truth” but rather from admitting that we do not perform the truth, but that Jesus has done so for us and that we are literally at his mercy.  To be truly at someone’s mercy is always a humbling experience.  Second, the nature of salvation is a redeeming of the material world through physical resurrection and the creation of a new heavens and new earth, not an escape from it.  Because of this, we are called to serve others rather than be indifferent while we await escape from this world.  Third, the nature of Christ himself as God, coupled with His humble life reminds us how far He must have humbled Himself.  How can we go around feeling superior to others when our God made Himself lower than us by serving us?

While there are Christians who do go around feeling superior to others, it can be quickly seen that to do so is contrary to the message of Christianity.  For this reason, we can now see the flaw in the argument above.  It may truly apply to some religions, but it cannot apply to Christianity without addressing the nature of grace, redemption, and Jesus’ incarnation.  If it doesn’t do so, it is attacking a straw man, a cheap imitation of Christianity, and not the real thing.

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