Jesus Shows How Arguing the Bible With People Is Pointless

This post is written by Andrew Marin, President and Founder of The Marin Foundation.

Specifically regarding the biblical texts regarding homosexuality, have you ever tried to argue with your other the theological and historical-cultural correctness of your views, while your other argues their theological and historical-cultural correctness of their views, in the same conversation? It gets nowhere because contemporary debate has been conditioned for people to talk past each other, and then wrongly understand [and label] it as dialogue. I refuse to enter into such “debates.” Why?

I refuse to do so because the Bible shows it is pointless.

In Matthew 4:1-11, Satan temps, tests, argues, debates, whatever you want to call it, with Jesus to try and use God’s own words against the Son. We all do this in one way or the other, well intentioned or not, because we’re all working through our own lens of interpretive correctness. This structure lends itself to engaging in theological debates through quoting verses that we already have a high-level of buy-in with, and believe strongly in, as our baseline justification for the potential of the other’s worldview conversion.

It doesn’t work. And it’s pointless.

The grand ending in vs. 11 is Matthew saying “the devil left.” The devil “leaving” does not mean Jesus “won” the argument, because all they did was quote verses at each other. Neither does it mean that Jesus’ quotes were so convincing that Satan began believing in the Way of Jesus, and thus, no longer led a rebellion throughout human history against God.

I rather believe in viewing this back-and-forth passage structurally. It is a brilliant example justifying the uselessness of quoting verses in response to others quoting verses against you. By saying this, I am not suggesting that it was not proper of Jesus to quote verses in response to Satan. This interplay was needed for Jesus to directly face Satan in humanity’s domain, and directly deny Satan’s advances–thus cementing His pure reign as Savior.

Moving further, I actually believe this passage was worthy of being recorded by God through Matthew because it is as an example of how not to engage others. As this passage shows, there was no conclusion reflecting the preemptively desired outcome from either party. Structurally, the overwhelming majority of Jesus’ other recorded engagements with others, were based in connections and conversations around humanity, politics, and religious ethics (all in all Jesus’ other engagements could be summed up as “The Way’s framework of civic engagement”), rather than Jesus having to prove his divinity.

Jesus was unconcerned with proving his divinity, in any sense, even when Satan or the religious gatekeepers tempted him to do so. He instead lived his divinity through his convictions and works, in which he relationally engaged with others–both with his disciples and those he encountered through moments in time. Therefore I see no point in quoting scripture against others also quoting scripture because neither’s desired outcome will ever become reality. Rather, we must live our theology such that Jesus’ divinity does not have to be proven but felt, and related to, through our own conversations, works, and relational engagements.

Much love.

www.themarinfoundation.org

About Andrew Marin

Andrew Marin is President and Founder of The Marin Foundation (www.themarinfoundation.org). He is author of the award winning book Love Is an Orientation (2009), its interactive DVD curriculum (2011), and recently an academic ebook titled Our Last Option: How a New Approach to Civility can Save the Public Square (2013). Andrew is a regular contributor to a variety of media outlets and frequently lectures at universities around the world. Since 2010 Andrew has been asked by the United Nations to advise their various agencies on issues of bridging opposing worldviews, civic engagement, and theological aspects of reconciliation. For twelve years he lived in the LGBT Boystown neighborhood of Chicago, and is currently based St. Andrews, Scotland, where he is teaching and researching at the University of St. Andrews earning his PhD in Constructive Theology with a focus on the Theology of Culture. Andrew's research centers on the cultural, political, and religious dynamics of reconciliation. Andrew is married to Brenda, and you can find him elsewhere on Twitter (@Andrew_Marin), Facebook (AndrewMarin01), and Instagram (@andrewmarin1).

  • Steve

    Three thoughts come to mind:

    1) “Jesus was unconcerned with proving his divinity”. Really? So when Jesus said thing like: “If I don’t do what my Father does, then don’t believe what I say. But if I do the same things my Father does, then you should believe in the things I do. You might not believe in me, but you should believe in the things I do. Then you will know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” John 20:28

    And when provoked by the religious gatekeepers, He said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” John 8:58. Or when He claimed equality with God in John 5:18.

    Or there was this little episode when He said to Thomas: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

    2) Saying, “therefore I see no point in quoting scripture against others also quoting scripture”. Arguments to nowhere over scripture can be frustrating. But in saying this, you’re essentially excusing yourself from ever having to make a cogent argument based in Scripture. You’re writing yourself a philosophical blank check, allowing you to claim anything that sounds good.

    3) The issue of endless, fruitless Scripture arguments should keep any truth-seeking Christian awake at night. If all we have is interminable arguments based on private interpretation of Scripture, then who is to say what is true? As much as Christians fight against relativism, Sola Scriptura eventually descends toward it.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/loveisanorientation Andrew Marin

      Steve – A few thoughts:

      The verses you quoted (very ironic in relation to my post; this fact is not lost on me) were not Jesus attempting to “prove” his divinity. They were a few statements relating who is is. This is not how I understand “prove.” People can say whatever they want about themselves. I can call myself a car built by my father. Does that “prove” I’m a car, or that my father built me as a car?

      The reason The Way grew, and has persisted for over 2,000 years, is not because Jesus said a few statements that he is God’s son. However, if one takes those statements along with his works, relationships, teachings, and miracles, and then you have “proof.” “Proof” cannot be found in linguistic binaries; it must be more wholistic than that.

      Also, your reference to Thomas is post-reserection. That is a different scenario.

      I also think you might have accidentally skipped over the whole paragraph where I said: “**I rather believe in viewing this back-and-forth passage *structurally*. It is a brilliant example justifying the uselessness of quoting verses in response to others quoting verses against you. **By saying this, I am not suggesting that it was not proper of Jesus to quote verses in response to Satan. **This interplay was needed for Jesus to directly face Satan in humanity’s domain, and directly deny Satan’s advances–thus cementing His pure reign as Savior.”

      • Steve

        I’d contest that Christianity depended on BOTH Jesus’ statements about His divinity AND the miracles performed. If He’d just said He was God, how would they know He wasn’t a madman? If He’d only performed miracles, how would they know He wasn’t a prophet. Both were needed. Thus, Jesus could say, “You don’t believe when I say I’m the Son of God? Then how am I doing all that I’m doing?”

        Now, you say:
        “The devil ‘leaving’ does not mean Jesus ‘won’ the argument,
        because all they did was quote verses at each other. Neither does it mean that Jesus’ quotes were so convincing that Satan began believing in the Way of Jesus, and thus, no longer led a rebellion throughout human history against God”

        It begs the question, was Jesus trying to convert Satan? Nope. Jesus was showing Satan that He wouldn’t be successfully tempted to act in defiance of Scripture. Did Jesus accomplish that? You bet! The devil totally lost.

        As Jesus was very much adept at citing Scripture at hostile audiences. How about Luke 20:27-40, where He argues for the immortality of the soul against the Sadducees. Or in Matt 12:1-13, where he shows that human charity trumps Sabbath laws. Jesus even -proves his divinity from the Scriptures- in Luke 24:25-27, while disguised as a wandered. What did his Apostles do? Well in Acts 17:1-4, it says Paul reasoned from the Scriptures wherever he went. The point wasn’t that he could force people to believe, but by making a reasonable case, many would be persuaded.

        What you point out, however, is a real issue. Biblical arguments rarely result in people changing their minds. But this problem exists in all forms of argumentation. The problem isn’t in the use of arguments, but in human nature.

        What I like to point out to people is that if all Christianity had to go off was private interpretation of Scripture, we’d never know anything for sure. How do we know the Trinitarians are correct and the Nestorians and Arians were wrong? There must be an authority competent to resolve arguments, and it must be given from Christ Himself.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/loveisanorientation Andrew Marin

          Like the above comment by Pentheus, you are reading into my post, and thus, arguing from a standpoint, that I don’t believe in the authority of Scripture, and that my post is arguing against its authority. Neither are the case. As I said in the post, I am looking at this back-and-forth between Jesus and Satan from a “construction of dialogue” standpoint. With that as the framework to which I am presently engaging this passage (though admittedly not the only way in which I engage this passage, as you are inferring), then one must not infer (non)authoritativeness from this lens of construction.

          Therefore I understand what you are trying to say, and argue against what I have written, but your arguments have no correlation to what I am attempting to communicate through the lens of which I am attempting to communicate it. It’s like someone looking at the front of a house and describing it, and then another person on the other side looking at the back of the house at the same time and describing that–one not understanding why both descriptions of the same house do not sound exactly the same.

          • Steve

            I’m not accusing you of thinking Scripture isn’t authoritative. Rather, you are pointing out the problem that occurs when there is no authoritative interpretation of Scripture. Someone comes to you and says, “I think it means this.” You reply, “I think it means this.”

            Fruitlessness ensues. The authoritative text has no authoritative interpreter. So all people can do is argue.

            But, as I’ve tried to show: Jesus argued from Scripture quite a bit and so did His apostles. The exchange in the desert wasn’t meant to say, “Scriptural arguments go nowhere and have no clear winners.” Rather, I propose that Jesus was the clear winner because He presented better points.

            When I read this I thought to myself, “I bet this fella gets a lot of people saying ‘your work is lacking a real acknowledgement of these scriptures’. Then you quote some back to him. Then the argument goes nowhere. So I read this post as a pre-emptive opt out of these exchanges in the future – and trying to find a Biblical justification for doing so.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/loveisanorientation Andrew Marin

          Also Steve, your CAPITAL LETTERS of “BOTH,” reiterate the exact conclusion to the post that I wrote (words, relationships and miracles): “Rather, we must live our theology such that Jesus’ divinity does not have to be proven but felt, and related to, through our own conversations, works, and relational engagements.”

          • Sara

            Jesus divinity was proven !
            on the cross!

            we should review the Gospel if we so quickly have forgotten that part.

  • Pentheus Makarios

    I am sorry to hear that you don’t consider scripture authoritative. The problem, though, is that moral feelings are definitely not authoritative – and argument based merely on moral feelings is exactly what you’re trying to avoid. The difference with Jesus, and all who truly follow him, is that his life is based on scripture (regardless of his feelings, consider Matthew 26:54 et al.) – not just his arguments.

    The key to such arguments is not to discard scripture, but to treat it as authoritative. Compare scripture with scripture. That is exactly what Jesus did when Satan misquoted from Psalm 91.

    For example, when confronted by a judgmental and offensive “christian,” you might say “it is also written,” then quote something like 2 Timothy 2:23-26

    Here’s a good resource on Arguing with Jesus: http://goo.gl/YuwfuX

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/loveisanorientation Andrew Marin

      Pentheus – I said nothing about not considering Scripture authoritative. Easy write off on your part to not wrestle with what I was saying.

      • Pentheus Makarios

        Sorry for the misunderstanding, maybe you can clarify things for me. What did you mean by “it is as an example of how not to engage others”?

        “Have you not read?” Was one of Jesus’ favorite questions.
        http://goo.gl/Q6I4jD

        And “it is written” is the most frequently used statement in the New Testament. http://goo.gl/ZEb7vb

        • Pentheus Makarios

          Okay, I read some of your responses to the comments below and think I have a better idea of what you were originally getting at. Just curious, did a recent debate prompt the article in the first place?

          D.M. Lloyd-Jones wrote that “There is nothing so
          dangerous as to come to the Bible with a theory, with preconceived ideas, with some pet idea of our own, because the moment we do so, we shall be tempted to
          overemphasize one aspect and under-emphasize another.”

          It seems to me that the sort of debates you’re discussing (which I agree can be tricky) often arise from such unbalanced emphases between debaters. I agree with your last sentence, which echoes John 13:35 (our true beliefs are proven by our relationships). My difficulty as a follower of Jesus is that the tension between knowing and doing isn’t always easy to manage, and it’s not meant to be resolved (Matthew 7:26).

          In any event, thanks for taking the time to reply – I appreciate the dialogue. Here’s a series on Matthew 4 that I’ve really enjoyed, it balances knowing and doing with regards to temptation: http://goo.gl/KQ0wtX

          cheers,
          Pentheus

  • Joel_Chopp

    Hi Andy –

    Thanks for your post. I think I see what you’re driving at, but I’m still a little unclear, so if you could, help me out a little bit so that I can see where you’re coming from.

    I don’t think you’re saying that we shouldn’t ground our beliefs in Scripture—you seem to be doing just that with this post; or even that you’re saying you shouldn’t argue from Scripture for your beliefs to other people to change their perspective—that seems to be what you’re doing in this post as well. At least that’s how I take your statement “I refuse to do so because the Bible shows it is pointless” followed by your take on the implications of the story of Jesus temptation for us today.

    So is what you are objecting to is how these arguments are sometimes engaged in: proof-texting rather than serious exegesis and engagement with the text; unkind or dismissive attitudes toward the other; failure to offer your own understanding of the texts which the other argues from or about, etc.?

    Or are you making the stronger claim that we shouldn’t refer to Scripture in theological debates? Because, even though I don’t think that’s what you’re saying, a few of your statements seem to gesture in that direction, (e.g., “It is a brilliant example justifying the uselessness of quoting verses in response to others quoting verses against you;” “Therefore I see no point in quoting scripture against others also quoting scripture because neither’s desired outcome will ever become reality;” and the title of this post, “Jesus Shows How Arguing the Bible With People Is Pointless”).

    So my second question is about your take on Mt. 4. It’s definitely an atypical gospel text (not just another healing or feeding of the multitudes) so some interpretive differences are to expected, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard this text explained as Jesus showing us what not to do. I’ve always understood this passage to be teaching that when Scripture is used or interpreted wrongly (e.g., when Satan suggests throwing oneself off a cliff or some such thing) that the proper response is to show how that wrong interpretation doesn’t square with the rest of Scripture—that is to say, to use “canon-sense” in our response. So, I could be wrong about this, but I guess I’m just wondering what led you to your take of this text—has it been suggested elsewhere that this is what’s going on in Mt. 4?

    One possible place that we may be differing views about ‘argument;’ generally speaking, although conversion of the other’s perspective is one of the goals for dialogue and debate, it’s not the only goal. Faithfully bearing witness to my best understanding of the truth, regardless of the other’s response, seems just as important—if not more so—than how the other chooses to respond.

    So anyways – just those two questions. Thanks again for the post.

    Best,
    Joel

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/loveisanorientation Andrew Marin

      Thanks for asking Joel! Here are a few responses:

      1. I feel the most wholistic way to learn and implement Scripture into our lives is through transcultural, transgenerational, overarching principles that are applicable any time and place; to any people group or situation. This way one does not find themselves caught in endless back and forth quoting that goes nowhere. Same Bible, same authority, different technique of use.

      I can think of no other place in the Bible where an extended quoting of verses in response to the “other” quoting verses in the first place was tactically used. If I am wrong on this, please correct me. In all other places that Jesus quoted Scripture was for teaching, not for an endless array of quote/counter-quote arguments. Therefore, to me, if something stands out in the Bible as an “only,” it must be paid attention to–especially in light of contemporary arguing where people (Christians) feel justified in endless quotes as arguments. The overwhelming majority of times in the Bible show one way (Jesus quoting Scripture for teaching in conversation and relationship), and then at one place it shows another (in a tempting/bated/argumentative/evil form). I always look at the majority patterns as the transcultural way to engage.

      Arguing in such a back-and-forth fashion is a nice academic exercise and works well in that realm, and does help in the learning process! But in real life with everyday people, especially when it comes to an “argument”, not so much.

      2. In terms of Matthew 4, I believe your understanding of it is correct; in that when Scripture is used in the wrong sense it should be corrected. Now, the issue comes in contemporary religious culture when there are progressives who look at Scripture in one way and wholeheartedly believe their interpretation is correct and truth; and then you have conservatives who look at the same Scripture in a different way and wholeheartedly believe their interpretation is correct and truth.

      What do you get? A recipe for an endless back-and-forth that is not about learning but of attempting to convince their “other” their interpretation is correct and truth. If both believe in Jesus and the Bible as the word of God, how does one from the outside (or even inter-conversationally) then discern which believe is indeed correct and truth? It never ends, and just ends up making both parties more angry with the other, digging their heals in further, making the chasm and cultural/religious/political disconnects even further apart. All of this lessens the chance of an ultimate reconciliation under the Kingdom, this side of the return. I see no point in that.

      Let me know what you think, and if this cleared anything up for you. Thanks brother!

      Andrew

      • Christine QuinnJones

        Andrew , I agree that some people sometimes use the scriptures to promote their own egos or as a stick to beat people with, but I also agree with what Steve wrote about the temptations of Christ:
        ‘It begs the question, was Jesus trying to convert Satan? Nope. Jesus was showing Satan that He wouldn’t be successfully tempted to act in defiance of Scripture. Did Jesus accomplish that? You bet! The devil totally lost.’
        Jesus is the best advocate ever and the temptations passage is a fine instance of this.
        Christine


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