The Way We Argue
What matters in an argument? I know this is not a nuanced statement, but it seems to me that what matters is what is true.
The first question of a Biblical text is, “What does the text say?” The first question of history is, “What happened?” The first question of science is, “What are the facts?” To be sure these questions raise their own questions: “How do we determine what the text says, what happened, and what the facts are?” And, “What do we do when those using the same methods come to different conclusions about what the text says, what happened, and what the facts are?” Still, unless we capitulate to desconstructionism, we believe that we can ask the questions and arrive at answers.
But, to my observation at least, there is a tendency to try clinch arguments by raising other issues, which themselves are valid, but by themselves are not conclusive to arguments.
There is the “sounds like” argument. “That sounds like, Roman Catholicism, Federal Visionism, Pietism, Evolutionism.” By making associations, we can dismiss the question, “What is true?”
There is the “you know what he was like” argument. “He wrestled with some personal demons. He had an unhappy marriage. His children are estranged. He’s really not a nice guy. He did not die well.” By finding the flaws of men who held or hold positions we dismiss their positions without addressing their truth claims.
Another is the “if you say that, the whole house of cards collapses” argument. “Say the earth is more than _, 000 years old or that it is less than _, 000,000,000,000 years old, and then you have to accept ____ which is just unacceptable.” By pointing out the possible consequences of an assertion, we can refuse to address the question of the assertion’s truth or falsity.
Then there is the “if you believe that, this will happen” argument. “If you accept that, then infinite evil/unlimited good will come of it.” Thus, we chose a position based on the proved or likely results (pragmatism) rather than by issues of truth.
The issues of associations, lives, consequences, and results are valid concerns leading to legitimate questions. But they do not clench arguments. Truth alone can do that.
I may be naïve, but it seems to me that, for all their flaws and for all the criticism they receive, this was the approach of the great Princeton theologians, the Hodges and Warfield in particular. They looked at the text, the past, and the facts, and tried honestly to answer the question, “What is the truth?” But then I may be wrong.