Christians and Our Poor Debating Skills-Part 1

Posted on August 17, 2015

debateThe Apostle Paul made it quite clear in 1 Corinthians 2 that he was not interested in getting into a philosophical discussion with the Greeks. He concluded that a philosophy was not going to transform lives in Corinth, but would actually prevent people from knowing God. His conclusion:

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

It seems ever since, Christians have decided since Paul avoided public debate, so should we. And unfortunately, many in Christendom who do engage in debate do it so poorly that it would be better if they didn’t. We break so many rules of logic and reason it is no wonder that people scoff at what we have to say. And we think it is because they are rejecting God’s Truth. Many times, people are rejecting the poor way we present the truth.

I assume most readers did not take a debating class in school or a class in Rhetoric in college. It would be good if every apologist did so, but most will not. Therefore, I want to be helpful and point out the 8 ways that Christians often make huge logical errors as we present biblical Truth.

1. Ad Hominem Errors.

I know…you don’t like Latin or anything that smacks of it. Neither do I. But this is what this error is called, so learn it and know what it means.

Ad Hominem means to attack a person making the argument instead of the argument itself. As followers of Christ, we ought to remember that each of us was the Chief of Sinners before God forgave us and gave us Grace. Unfortunately, when we speak of what we’ve learned in life, we often take a high and mighty attitude that looks down upon others who have not learned what we have. Let me give an example.

Jim believes that every woman should have a right to choose whether to have an abortion. His friend Bill, a Christian is trying to argue that all abortion is wrong. In his argument, Bill says this:

“Jim, haven’t you been in jail three times for losing your temper? Why should I listen to what you have to say? You’re a violent man who endorses violence against unborn children!”

This is an attack against Jim and therefore against his argument. But when you make the attack personal, it is really  no longer about the original idea. What if Jim had been a wonderful member of society, giving to the poor, making time to help puppies in distress–would that make his pro-choice argument stronger? No. An argument stands or falls on its merits, not on the limitations and moral standing of its presenter.

There is another type of Ad Hominem argument. That is where a person is attacked for their personal bias in the situation. We call that Situational Ad Hominem. For instance, if we are talking with someone who works for Planned Parenthood, we might tell them their argument doesn’t hold water because they receive financial benefit from abortions. Though that is true, it doesn’t affect the legitimacy of their argument. They could say the same about a pastor: That a pastor receives a salary and therefore must tow the party line on abortion or lose his job. That doesn’t mean a pastor arguing the pro-life argument is wrong either.

2. The Polemic Approach

This is used more in public addresses than in personal debate, but it is good for all of us to recognize when it is being used by people whose positions we agree with. This is also called “Argument of Emotive Language”. Some have called this “Preaching to the Choir”. It is not always wrong and may even be part of a debating approach that contains good facts and logic. But it is dangerous when used alone.

We heard this a lot in the gay marriage debates. Public speakers against gay marriage would stand and tell the crowds that legalizing gay marriage would destroy heterosexual marriages. The speakers never really explained how that would work. But it would stir up the crowds. Statements like “God made them Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” bring cheers and laughter. But this kind of appeal just clouds the real question.

In fact, during the court challenge against Proposition 8 (the California referendum that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman ) the Appeals Court asked defenders of Prop 8 to explain the position that gay marriage would hurt straight marriages. Remember, this is in a court of law where polemics are discouraged. The defendants tried to prove that this would happen, but their arguments were weak. Once you remove the crowd listening to the emotional appeal, the argument doesn’t sound all that strong. When that happens, you know you have a polemic appeal and not a logical one.

Preachers will use polemics to rally people to good living, helping the needy, evangelizing the lost, giving to missions and church work, attending church, forgiving your brother. All of these are good things and ought to be taught. But when the only teaching appeal is a series of slogans, jingoisms, emotive language and telling people what they already believe, the effectiveness is lost.

3. Appeal to Faith:  This is one that Christians often feel justified to use. And it is a legitimate appeal in some circumstances. The problem with this appeal is that we use it too often and many times in the wrong circumstances. Let me explain.

An appeal to faith is a way to end an argument by using faith as the ultimate appeal. It would be used in this way:

“I want to explain this to you, but it can’t be understood without faith. And because you don’t have faith, I can’t explain it to you.”

The reason this is wrong for Christians to use is because faith is not supposed to be our final appeal. Faith is a sense of trust in God. Faith says “even when i don’t understand, I trust God’s heart.” Faith has nothing to do with explaining something; it has to do with being able to trust even when we don’t understand something.”

If my child dies young, I can still believe that God loves me and is the King of the Universe. That is not an argument for God’s sovereignty or an argument for his love. Those arguments can be made many other ways. Faith in God is what I hold onto when the circumstances seem to suggest that God does not love or is not in charge. Faith is not to be used to explain the nature of God.

Here is what the appeal of faith looks like when it is used wrongly:

Seeker: “How can God be good if He allows evil things to happen?”

Believer: “If you had faith in God, you’d be able to accept that God is sovereign even if there is evil. I’m sorry, until you have faith, I can’t explain it to you.”

There is a reason this line of explanation is wrong. You can certainly explain the existence of evil without faith. God is a good God. God created all things, including mankind, and gave mankind the ability to choose good or evil. God left that choice free. Therefore, when man chooses evil, God does not prevent him because it would not be a free choice otherwise. This explains how God can be good but allow evil to exist. This is a logical argument.

Now, for people to believe in a God who allows evil, they must weigh the evidence and come to a decision. That decision is called faith. Faith does not help a person understand the argument. Faith comes after we have believed the argument. To put faith at the beginning is to make all logic and reason unnecessary. And God is the one who says “Come, let us reason together.”

4. False Dichotomy: In Rhetoric, this is one of the most common fallacies. This is also called a False Dilemma. A False Dichotomy is an argument where someone proposes there are only two legitimate choices, when there are actually more than two. It is used in politics all the time. If you have been watching the debates between the Republican candidates lately, you’ll hear this used all the time. Let me give a couple of examples:

“Either you want to cut off all immigration or you hate this country.”

“Either you stop voting to raise the debt ceiling or you want us to be owned by China.”

“Either you have a brain or you watch Reality Television.”

Years ago, this was used in the debate over Creationism. People would often claim that “either you believe in a literal six-day creation or you will need to throw out everything the Bible says.” “Either you believe in a six-day Creation or you believe in Evolution.” Over the years since Darwin, there have been at least 24 different variations of belief in the Creation account. And many of those variations are held by people who believe the Bible is God’s Word. They have simply adopted another way.

In the debate on homosexual practice, both sides like to frame the argument as a choice of two viewpoints. But recently, the debate has centered around a whole host of “third views”. The two main views are that homosexuality is a sin or that homosexuality is valid from God’s point of view. Using the False Dichotomy logic someone might say “Either you believe that homosexuality is a sin or you believe there is nothing wrong with it.”

But the issue is not that simple. There are people who believe that homosexuality is a sin, but being attracted to the same sex is not a sin. There are some who believe God endorses homosexual marriage, but not sex outside of marriage. There are those who believe that homosexuality is not a sin, but also believe it is wrong for modern society to endorse it (these are believers in the concept of Natural Law).

The problem with this logical fallacy is that it boils everything down to two alternatives, when there are often more than two. Some will say Jesus did this in the Bible. There was a moment he told his disciples “Whoever is not for us is against us.”  This certainly seems like two alternatives. But are there just two? At another point, Jesus says “Whoever is not against us is for us.” When you add the two statements together there are actually four views:

For Jesus

Not for Jesus

Against Jesus

Not against Jesus.

I think you can see the differences between these four positions if you try. Nicodemus, when he came to Jesus was not yet a believer. Yet he sought him out so he was not against Jesus. The crowd who wanted Barabbas to be released was not For Jesus. The Pharisees were actively against Jesus. The disciples were actively For Jesus. So look at these four examples: Nicodemus, the crowd, the Pharisees, the Disciples. These are four different positions related to Jesus. It is not just either or.

My uncle used to say “there are two groups of people in the world; those who lump the world into two groups and those who don’t.”

Next time, we will look at the four other common types of poor debating skills.