March 6, 2013 § 8 Comments
It’s the commission of every believer to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15) Apologists exercise a particular desire to engage in rational debate in an effort to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.” (2 Cor. 10:5) We of course feel obligated to be good at it, but that doesn’t guarantee the acceptance of Christianity by skeptics.
A good argument is often rationally ignored in a debate. Since Genesis 3, the fallen heart of man is bent toward self-deceit(1), and as Romans 1:25 says, is more than willing to trade the “truth for a lie.” Only the Holy Spirit can open eyes to the truth of Christianity and the Gospel and bring a soul to see past the obstacles.
Sometimes though, I think apologists can put forth a logically impenetrable defense and actually become one of the obstacles. An impregnable argument can be a complete turn-off, and that’s actually not what we want. We want to demolish arguments, but not the human spirit in the process. As the mantra goes, the Christian’s goal is to win souls, not arguments. In thinking about past debates (and I’m sure others have seen this) there are times when an argument really comes together, as the result of the Spirit’s guidance, and practice, and by the humble discovery of the validity of Christianity’s deepest foundations. But it comes together as such a solid, air-tight case that the unbelieving opponent simply checks out of the conversation. And still in unbelief. Many times I’ve experienced an online debate ending without an atheist’s response, just when it was getting really ‘good’. I somehow delivered a debate-ender. By having the last word I would feel accomplished in demolishing their arguments and faithfully defending Christianity—then perform a self-check for pride. But now I wonder if I demolished any spirit they had to continue to seek the truth from me, or any believer. Winning the debate can mean losing the debate when the opportunity to win someone for Christ is lost or shortened.
I suddenly feel the urge to re-write some previous posts and re-do some previous debates (Oops… too late for that last one).
So going forward, how do we keep such a wall from going up? Colossians 4:6 gives us an answer: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Show grace in your defense. Grace is, after all, what we preach, why and how we are in a position to preach, and the desired result of it all: Sinners coming to terms with God’s grace through Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8,9). Do we show grace by intentionally presenting weak arguments to keep an unbeliever coming back? I don’t think so. I suppose it will take on different forms for different apologists, but we don’t want to compromise the truth just to make it taste better, but maybe our form. Here are three ways.
1. USE QUESTIONS
The Bible provides the only rational basis for objective truth, rooted in the nature of God, and no other worldview offers this.
Christians claim the Bible as the only rational basis for objective truth, rooted in the nature of God. Can you think of another worldview that does this?
The two propositions above are saying the same thing. Which one feels more open and friendly? The one ending in a question, doesn’t it? The objective truth of the Bible feels like it needs to be stated firmly as a stone wall. Could what you’re stating also be put in question form? Questions invite further dialog, as long as they are not snide or obviously rhetorical. Ask questions that should logically lead them to the same conclusion that you were planning to assert with a firm statement. Invite them to get there using their own cognitive abilities rather than forcing your conclusions on them. They need to know that you still want to discuss it.
2. USE GENTLENESS AND RESPECT
Grace comes in other forms too, from the admonition of 1 Peter 3:15 to give a defense “with gentleness and respect.” Concede good points made whenever they appear, and let your opponent know that you appreciate their time and that you’ve learned a lot from what they’ve offered (this is always true for me; I learn something about my opponent’s worldview at every encounter). At least in written correspondence, mood and temperament is often not clear, so clarify a gentle and respectful demeanor in debate forums with fewer ALL-CAPS and exclamation marks, and more happy emoticons. You may sacrifice professionalism there, between it’s a small sacrifice. Note the difference between PLEASE! and Please. 🙂
3. KEEP IT SIMPLE
Be brief, if you can. A lengthy post can be daunting and discourage response. Don’t launch every point in a single comment or post, unless you’re responding to series of points. I’ve found that the more stripped down my dialog is, the shorter the response, unless you’re met with a lot of extra rhetorical or emotional fluff—which you are free to ignore. Try to be succinct, yet thorough.
These approaches may seem like we are depending on and playing off of an opponent’s emotional responses to keep the discussion going. I’ve debated with many unbelievers who rely heavily on emotion to make their points, so the approach is fitting. When right reasoning is corrupt by sin, we resort to emotions. Those who challenge our faith are God’s human creation.
Ultimately we are only playing a part in leading others to Christ—God opens eyes and turns hearts. But God uses Christians and our apologetics, so the part we play shouldn’t drive seekers away, but keep them seeking. All debates must end, but may they not end because an opponent feels cornered and utterly beaten. If we are rejected, let it not be because skeptics don’t feel as though we want to listen and learn their position. Let skeptics reject the Gospel of salvation when it’s graciously presented in truth and love. Even if rejected, our apologia can be a seed that will, Lord willing, take root.
[Here is a debate of mine where I think grace was effectively applied: A Doubter Challenges Christianity.
And here is one where I think I lacked in it, effectively driving home the argument but shutting down the discussion, really before any clear presentation of the Gospel on my part: Evidence for God in the Laws of Logic.]