How to Assess Theological Arguments

As my students and I debated during a Systematic Theology I course, it realized how little people are trained to assess the relative strength of theological arguments.photo-1457369804613-52c61a468e7d_opt

Consider the typical back and forth of theological discussions. Both sides present Bible verses to support their respective positions. Appeals are made to scholars, past and present, who agree with “us.” And, of course, the others’ view is minimized as “not necessarily true.” Perhaps, one uses a more sophisticated approach in accusing the person of “having assumptions.”

The Complexity of Theological Ideas

Assessing a theological argument is not so straightforward.

We cannot simply look at the text, interpret it, then reach a conclusion. Interpretation of specific passages is foundation, for sure, but exegesis is often intertwined with prior theological convictions. Also, the meaning of a passage might be disputed. We have to decide on the relative strength of various points that could involve the historical and literary context, the grammar and syntax of the passage, among other factors.

With theological arguments, one must synthesize our observations from a range of texts, each presenting its own interpretative challenges. The context of the passages could vary widely. Theological synthesis requires careful use of logic and is influenced by various philosophical ideas.

Theological arguments can be complex. So what are we to do? How can we and those we train assess theological ideas?

A “Rubric” for Assessing Theological Arguments

BIBLE

First, we must go to the Bible. We pose a few basic questions, which do not always have simple answers. The meaning of the first two questions is less obvious than you might think. Regarding a given theological idea, we ask:

1. Is it compatible with the biblical context (of a text or set of passages)? Both the near context and the context of the entire biblical Story?

2. Is the idea consistent with our understanding of the biblical languages (e.g., syntax, grammar, etc.)?

You might think these questions in fact are the whole of the process. Not true. Our temptation is to simply write off ideas we first believe are unbiblical (i.e., answering question #1). But this not only begs the question; we would miss the point.

The words “compatible” and “consistent” remind us that we are considering disputed ideas. We simply want to know whether a theological idea is remotely possible, even if we presently think it unlikely. Within a given passage, would a certain theological idea have at least some significance to the surrounding context? This naturally leads to a third question.

3. Does the theological argument directly contradict other biblical doctrines?

Credit: Public Domain
Credit: Public Domain

One should distinguish a “contradiction” and “tension.” Two ideas might be difficult to reconcile or to relate; yet, such tension does not necessarily imply a contradiction. Historically, Christ’s deity/humanity and the Trinity are familiar examples.

The presence of a contradiction, or even strong tension, might indicate a problem with the (new?) theological argument under consideration. On the other hand, it might expose a problem with one of our prior beliefs. Don’t forget that we might need to adjust our understanding of certain long-held doctrines. I don’t suggest you’ll completely throw out some teaching; rather, you might simply need to adjust certain aspects of a doctrine or what is emphasized.

In other words, let’s not assume that we are only ever assessing one single theological idea at a time. Doctrines are interconnected. We can’t regard previously held ideas as mere “givens.”

4. Distinguish the weight given to various texts

Explore how the argument applies the many relevant passages. On a given subject, not all texts are as clear and significant. We should not hold so firm to a doctrine that is based on thin evidence or unclear texts. A theological argument is as strong as the clarity and comprehensiveness of the passages it is based on.

BACKGROUND

Next, we consider the Bible’s historical and cultural context. Ask, “Does this theological teaching fit the historical and cultural background in which it was first given?”

Don’t assume the biblical writers are asking our questions.

In broadest terms, biblical theology begins with the writers’ questions; systematic theology is shaped by our questions (e.g., What is the church? What does the Bible say about X?). As a result, we can subtly press the Bible to answer questions that never occurred to the original writers and readers. Even if we can deduce reasonable answers, we will undermine the actual message and emphasis of the text.

Does the doctrine use metaphors and share a view of the world that would at all be recognizable to the original readers?

So we need to explore whether a theological argument addresses issues or questions that fit the Bible’s original context. This step requires tremendous humility, patience, and careful thinking. It requires a healthy skepticism of my beliefs and conventional teachings.

LOGIC

Logic is an indispensable part of the theological process. For example, a doctrine should be coherent and not self-contradictory. Furthermore, the stronger the argument, the more comprehensive it will be. That is, it has explanatory power. It can address many facets of of a topic.

Credit: flickr/theihno
Credit: flickr/theihno

The strongest arguments will also have diverse types of evidence. Not only will it draw from many passages; it will find confirming or at least suggestive support from other other disciplines, such as history, anthropology, literary studies, etc. Of course, we would hope to see similar ideas taught by theologians from other ages and cultures.

Not all evidence deserves equal weight. The fact that Protestant Reformers taught an idea does not automatically trump evidence showing that people from ancient biblical cultures understood a given concept in very contrary ways. The latter must be taken seriously.

Also, we will find support that is suggestive, not conclusive. In that case, one needs a lot of it. If we have a lot of suggestive evidence, we cannot treat it lightly.

SUBJECTIVE AND SUBTLE QUESTIONS

A few other habits of thinking get in the way of assessing theological ideas. For example, people fail to do the following:

Distinguish what is possible and what is definite or probable.

What is possible is not necessarily probable. Why say what is obvious? In theological discussions, I routinely hear people attempt to refute an argument simply by highlighting a mere possibility.

The objection typically begins, “Not necessarily.” When it comes to interpretation and theological synthesis, we logically could say “not necessarily” to countless true ideas. All the while, these objectors often refuse to address the weight and diversity of evidence for the teaching that attempt to counter.

Similarly, one ought to discern what is probable from what is most probable. This again requires we seriously consider the weight we give to various points. Thus, the evidence of two clear and comprehensive passages is stronger that 6 points from anthropology and history that merely highlight potential lines of thinking.

Don’t confuse silence with a denial.

Particularly in conversation or when comparing views, people have a bad habit. They suppose that not talking about an idea implies you deny that idea. Accordingly, if I say doctrine A concerns topic B, people wrongly assume I deny that doctrine A also involves topic C.

Here’s a specific example:

Some theologians reject double-imputation, specifically that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to Christians. On the surface, it appears they think individuals can establish their own righteousness, e.g. via works. However, many– if not most– of those theologians utterly reject works-righteousness. They fully affirm that our righteousness is due to Christ; however, they think this works in a different way, such as through union with Christ. They regard the traditional imputation concept as an analogy but not Paul’s explicit meaning.

Unless a theologian explicitly denies a truth, don’t assume he rejects that idea. No one can say everything all the time.

Finally, let’s talk about fear.

Some perspectives are hard to let go of. We fear accepting new ideas. What might this or that way of thinking lead to? What if you (or someone else) see that a certain teaching has a lot of merit and satisfies many of the above criteria, yet you (or they) are still reluctant?

Honestly ask yourself, “What motivates your insistence to hold on to your previously held but weaker point of view?” Might you be allowing friends or peers to assert more authority than Scripture? Theologizing concerns the heart as much as the mind.


In the next post, I will continue by asking, “What about historical theology? How should historical theologians influence the way we assess theological arguments?”

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