What Motivates the Argument?

Motivation is a funny thing in debates and arguments. In some cases, it is the only thing on the minds of the people in discussion, so that the actual arguments never get addressed head-on. I’m sure you’ve read news stories about the employees who can only see sinister, selfish motives of the CEO of their company in making management decisions, and any arguments the CEO makes about what needs to be done for the survival and success of the company are not heard. Or there are the endless political debates on virtually any topic, where the argument of one side is not answered directly, but rather is answered with accusations of shilling for this or that special interest group. Money is said to be the motivation, and so the arguments are largely ignored.

In other cases, I see the opposite problem. Arguments are the main focus, which I think is better, but what motivates the argument is completely ignored. Now, as you can probably gather from my first paragraph, I consider it a fallacy to evaluate any particular argument solely on the grounds of the supposed motive of the person giving the argument. It’s pretty simple, really. If the motive isn’t a premise, it’s not a proper part of the argument. However, it is well established for philosophers to ask what motivates the argument. Sometimes this is obvious, but other times, when it isn’t right on the surface, we find interesting things out about the argument we’re evaluating.

One area I believe motivation is not really looked at is in theological debate. When we have people debating about the meaning of a text, or the merits/drawbacks of competing theological systems, what I perceive is an abundance of arguments on either side, but the motives are not as often examined. This goes for almost any issue you want to pick, whether the big ones like Calvinism/Arminianism or Trinity/non-Trinity, baptism, or other issues like spiritual gifts, sola scriptura, inerrancy, textual criticism, etc. Motivations do matter, and these are often under the surface in serious discussion.

Now, I don’t think we can know motives like we can examine arguments. We can’t see into hearts and minds, but we do have the ability to examine statements made by people, and people are generally pretty free with their motives. From this, we start to get a good idea of what generally motivates arguments. And it also helps us understand why arguments for positions exist in the first place.

So, for some examples from above, an Arminian may be motivated by a desire to preserve the love of God, as he sees it, or human freedom. A Calvinist may be motivated by a desire to preserve the sovereignty of God, as he sees it. A continuationist may want to preserve a sense of allowing in his theology for God’s freedom to act today, whereas a cessationist may want to preserve a commitment to Sola Scriptura. As I see it, when we examine what motivates theological arguments, it is usually, at bottom, a commitment to something almost everyone would consider a good thing. Whether that is a commitment to moral intuitions, justice, rationality, reverence, etc., it is usually something that both sides of the debate actually do value, but different sides have different ideas about what should take precedence over what.

So, for example, the Arminian may reject predestination because he values human responsibility, and believes that human freedom is required for human responsibility, and predestination destroys human freedom. The Calvinist, likewise, values human responsibility, and may even believe in human freedom, but believes that Scripture teaches predestination, and so he believes that we must define human freedom in such a way that it is compatible with predestination. Both sides believe in human responsibility, but for one, it is paramount and a reason to think that the other must be wrong about his interpretation of passages that speak of predestination, while the other side believes that what he sees in the passages about predestination is paramount, and so the other must be wrong about how he defines freedom and responsibility.

When we really study these motivations, we can begin to see which virtue or virtues are considered to be primary by each side of the issue under discussion. Everything else is then made to fit that primary motivation. Now, I think there might be a tendency among some readers at this point to say that we shouldn’t have any primary virtue motivating us at all, but we should just seek out the truth. While I agree with the sentiment, I’ve learned that there are limitations to that as a method. First, truth is what everyone is trying to get at, yet there are still disagreements. Second, we don’t know everything, and so the gaps in our knowledge mean that we have areas where we just can’t say what the truth is. The biggest issue, I think, is that we just can’t help but have hierarchies of knowledge. This comes in part from the fact that we know certain things with more certainty than others. Also, it comes from the fact that our values impact our thinking. If we consider a certain truth to be more or most important, we will naturally reject whatever we see as contradicting it.

I don’t think anyone is above this way of thinking. It is just a feature of our experience and our ability to know things. The hypothetical person who manages to get everything right is just someone who has picked the right thing to make most important, combined with being a very clear thinker and having all the relevant information available and worked into his system of thought.

So how do we accomplish this? When it comes to various disciplines, the answer may vary, but for now, I just want to look at theological issues like those noted above. It seems the obvious answer is to put the Scriptures as the highest authority, but many people on many sides of these issues claim to be doing just that. I think the answer is fairly simple in theory, but not easy to accomplish, since we are dealing with people, after all. I think that there are two primary considerations that should come above all others. A commitment to believe what is affirmed in Scripture, first, and a commitment to non-contradiction second. Let me flesh these out a bit.

By a commitment to Scripture, I specifically mean a commitment, before all other commitments, to affirm what Scripture affirms. This is a simple concept, but not easy to implement, since some parts of Scripture are difficult. Also Scripture is ancient, and so we need to study the historical context in which it was written to have a better understanding of it. It is written in languages no longer spoken in the same form as when it was written, so we have to have people trained in those languages available to translate it into modern languages. So, our knowledge of Scripture and its teaching will always be incomplete, but this doesn’t mean the core things cannot be known. It makes many things very plain, so we do have much certainty on those things.

Now, the second thing is a commitment to non-contradiction. What this means is that we should be logical and rational, but in a very specific way. I’ve read some who say that certain theological conclusions are “irrational” or “illogical” simply because those conclusions don’t make sense to them. But that is not what those words mean. I’m using a very specific meaning of these terms, which simply boils down to the fact that you can’t believe two contradictory things. It is a presupposition of mine that God is rational. It is also a presupposition that the Scriptures are the words of God. So, God will not blatantly contradict Himself. This does not mean, however, that God may not say and do things that don’t “make sense” to us. That is not the same thing as God contradicting Himself.

The reason I consider non-contradiction to be secondary is that, while I trust that God is never self-contradictory, I do not trust that people are always faithful in handling the Scriptures correctly. If we put non-contradiction above the Scriptures, then when we come across an apparent contradiction in Scripture, our tendency is going to be to try to get something in Scripture to bend to make our system of thought consistent. On the other hand, if we have the Scriptures above non-contradiction, then when we come across something difficult in the text, we will seek to bend our own worldview and our other thoughts around the Scriptures in order to avoid the contradiction. Ultimately, it comes down to trusting God’s words more than my own. I don’t believe God’s words can have any actual contradictory affirmations, but I know sometimes it is difficult to put things together in a way that is mentally simple and easy.

How does this play out in certain theological debates? Mainly, I see the major differences as attributable to commitments to certain beliefs as primary, ahead of the Scriptures. It’s not always easy to see, as everyone in these debates generally claims to affirm the Scriptures, but let’s consider the reasons some give for why we should believe their position to be true.

  • Calvinists: God is sovereign. Any belief in free will is a threat to His sovereignty.
  • Arminians: God is Love, and love doesn’t force anyone to love them back
  • Cessationists: Belief that God still speaks to people outside the Bible is a rejection of Sola Scriptura.
  • Continuationists: Belief that God does not speak any longer attempts to limit what God can do today.
  • Presbyterians: The children of believing parents are members of the covenant community and should be baptized as the children of the old covenant were circumcised.
  • Baptists: The New Covenant community is made of believers, so baptism is only appropriate for believers.
  • Trinitarians: God can’t be loving without a lover and a beloved, but He cannot be limited in expressing this by needing to create, so He must be multi-personal, expressing love within the Trinity.
  • Unitarians: Jesus cannot be God while having human attributes that are different from God’s, such as being ignorant of certain things or being able to be tempted, both things God cannot be.
  • Oneness People: God is one, and so He cannot be three. That is a contradiction.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive, either in the perspectives listed, or in the highest valued beliefs. I think it is very easy to find these beliefs among these groups, expressed as principles that should not be rejected and therefore their position should be accepted. I have included things I think are true as well as some I reject to show that correct belief doesn’t necessarily mean correct starting place. As I look at this list, what I also see is that, in many cases, if not all, I can readily affirm the importance of the underlying motivation these arguments represent. I believe God is love and I believe God is sovereign. I believe in Sola Scriptura and I believe God can and does act today in miraculous ways.

Bringing It Together

So, why this look at motives in argument? If I’m right about what I take to be the most important things, a commitment to Scripture and not contradicting oneself, then what we should see is that theologically true beliefs will be primarily argued for from Scripture, first, foremost, and throughout. Challenges will be met, primarily, through exegesis of the text, not appeal to other things. On the other hand, false beliefs, while they would also be expected to appeal to Scripture somehow, would primarily make their case by arguing from some primary principle. That principle might find support in Scripture, but then the arguments will stem from the principle itself.

As you dig deeper into true theology, what you will see happen is that the text will be the source, again and again, of the arguments for it. It will have the ability to consistently handle the text, no matter the context, or how much of a passage is examined. It will walk through large passages, consistently drawing the meaning from the passage, and demonstrating that the theology in question is actually being expressed by the writer, regardless of the form or genre of the text. You will see that the texts appealed to in support of the theology are actually talking about that subject, and the first texts discussed when discussing true theology will be those texts that are most clear about the subject and clearly about that subject.

As you dig deeper into false theology, you will find ever more sophistication in the argumentation and logical connections, while the connection to the text remains small. You will see appeals to principles based on what is “reasonable”, “morally acceptable”, “common sense”. You will be asked to accept interpretations because the other side “doesn’t make sense”. You will often see different passages of Scripture handled differently, based on whether they seem to either support or challenge the held theology. If they seem to support it, you will be told that it is the “plain meaning” of the text, but if they seem to challenge it, you will hear many long, strained, logically complicated arguments for why the text must not mean what it appears to mean. Proving the theology by means of citing single verses or parts of verses is common, and when a passage seems to completely overthrow the false theology, it will be argued that the challenging passage is “unclear”, when really, it is just difficult to accept if you hold the false theology. Scripture is effectively pitted against Scripture.

The fact is that these are complicated issues, but knowing what motivates the argument can help point us in the right direction. In my experience, whenever there is a major disagreement, it is because there are real challenges to overcome on all sides of the issue. If there weren’t there would be no disagreement. Drawing from the categories above, you can categorize the challenges to any theological system into two major groups: Scriptural challenges and philosophical challenges. Scriptural challenges are those that arise from passages of Scripture that seem to contradict one’s theology. Philosophical challenges are those that arise from difficult questions of logic, rationality, or other concepts that one considers to be important, that seem to contradict one’s theology. I would contend that the correct path to follow is to seek to be motivated by the text, and so it should favor theological beliefs that minimize Scriptural challenges, while allowing for philosophical challenges. False beliefs, because of our desire for consistency, will tend to minimize philosophical challenges first, and then seek to handle all the Scriptural challenges that arise from that.

When you look at a theological position, including your own, ask yourself. What sorts of challenges does this theology seem to face more of? Are the arguments against it primarily coming from the text, or primarily from philosophical commitments? If you have resources, such as websites or books on the subject, look at the types of arguments they defend against the most. I would contend that if it is highly lopsided in the direction of Scriptural challenges, from actual passages in the text, and if the position deals only a little with defending against philosophical arguments, then it is much more likely to be false, since it finds itself having to answer the Scriptures. On the other hand, if the position you are examining has to answer primarily philosophical questions and challenges, but comparatively few Scriptural challenges, then it is likely to be on the right track. The Scriptures are infallible. Our intuitions are not.

If the issue is less clear, then you may see the split more even. These are the issues where the Scriptures just don’t give us all the answers we want.

While the popularizers of false theology may claim their position is based on Scripture and deny that it is philosophically based, the body of literature already exists. You can test it yourself. If a theological view is philosophically based, then it will have little philosophical challenge, but much from the Scriptures that it has to deal with. Try it today. Go find your favorite popularizer of a given view. Yours or someone else’s. You will see where the motivations are when you see what the view has to defend against most.