Gospel Truth (no joke)

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by Neil Godfrey

Sometimes good advice comes from the least expected places. Who would ever have thought Christian apologists dedicated to . . . Christian apologetics . . . would espouse six rules for a fair, reasonable and honest exchange of ideas. There is a catch, however. The rules appear to be confined exclusively to exchanges among those who are more or less like-minded Christian apologists. It’s almost like reading a satire on Babylonian Bee — “Christians discover rules of reasoned and honest exchange of ideas for Christian fellowship. Fail to acknowledge the rules are standards among professionals and humans of all stripes and beliefs outside the Christian community.”

Here they are, presented by Andy Naselli from a Tim Keller book:

1. Take full responsibility for even unwitting misrepresentation of others’ views. In our Internet age, we are quick to dash off a response because we think Mr. A promotes view X. And when someone points out that Mr. A didn’t mean X because over here he said Y, we simply apologize—or maybe we don’t even do that. Great care should be taken to be sure you really know what Mr. A believes and promotes before you publish. This leads to a related rule.

Wow. What a difference to the tone of discussions that would make. Surely Christians would not need such a reminder; surely the point is more usefully directed to those outside the beloved fold.

2. Never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not own. Nineteenth-century Princeton theologian Archibald Alexander stated that we must not argue in such a way that it hardens opponents in their views. “Attribute to an antagonist no opinion he does not own, though it be a necessary consequence.” In other words, even if you believe that Mr. A’s belief X could or will lead others who hold that position to belief Y, do not accuse Mr. A of holding to belief Y himself if he disowns it. You may consider him inconsistent, but this is not the same as implying or insisting that he actually holds belief Y when he does not. A similar move happens when we imply or argue that if Mr. A quotes a particular author favorably at any point, then Mr. A must hold to all the views held by the author. If we, through guilt by association, hint or insist that Mr. A must hold other beliefs of that particular author, then we are not only alienating him or her; we are also misrepresenting our opponent.

Go on! Christians need such a reminder? Surely not Christian scholars. Never.

3. Take your opponents’ views in their entirety, not selectively. . . . .

4. Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak “straw man” form. . . .

5. Seek to persuade, not antagonize—but watch your motives! . . . .

The sixth rule might have more generic relevance (assuming anything can be more important or relevant than the gospel and theology) by simply saying stick to the point, the argument, not the motives, and avoid “attitude” and put-down.

6. Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology—because only God sees the heart. Much criticism today is filled with scorn, mockery, and sarcasm rather than marked by careful exegesis and reflection. Such an approach is not persuasive. . . . Newton also reminds us that it is a great danger to “be content with showing your wit and gaining the laugh on your side,” to make your opponent look evil and ridiculous instead of engaging their views with “the compassion due to the souls of men.”

Oh how we have tried, sometimes failed, but certainly tried. But why should these rules be hidden under the cloister of a Christian apologetics community? Why not post them as professional standards for all to follow?


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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Gospel Truth (no joke)”

  1. If they can do that, they have brought themselves as close to the scientific method, being Christian apologists, as they can get. It truths, it really does matter which tree their barking up, the tree of good and evil (they’ve been leaning towards the latter if you ask me), or the tree of life! If you don’t have life you have something else. Maybe Patrick Henry could speak to this: “Give me life or give me death!”

  2. Interesting article.
    Points 1 to 4 get 10 out of 10 from me.

    Point 5 “Seek to persuade, not antagonize—but watch your motives.” Could be improved.

    Depending on specifics it is likely that at least one side is mistaken in some way. So it makes sense to have a fluid mindset, one open to being wrong and wanting to be shown so you can have a change of mind i.e. the Greek meaning for repent in the Christian Bible.

    Seeking to persuade has a stance or posture that you are likely right and that attitude could be a bit closed. A better directive might be to really listen and see if you might be honestly and truly persuaded, given time for consideration. And if the interlocutor has the same attitude then the conversation will be one of mutual respect and openness, seeking truth.

    The worst thing about the article was at the end were it talks about talking with unbelievers. The unconscious attitude of superior standing as the article finished with “Express sincere sympathy for their difficulties, even as you challenge them directly for their selfishness and unbelief.”

    A piece on disagreement I love is by Paul Graham linked below:


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