Oral vs. Written Debates About Theology: Which is Better?

Oral vs. Written Debates About Theology: Which is Better? March 5, 2019

Elsewhere, I have explained in great detail why I think that public oratorical debates between Catholics and anti-Catholics are unfruitful, unhelpful exercises, for many reasons. I think it is possible to overcome these pitfalls in written exchanges. My view of such public debates has remained constant for at least five years now.

I refused “King James” White when he challenged me to a live oratorical formal debate in 1995 (yes, he asked me first — I have the snail mail letter), and also when he asked me again in January 2001. My reasons are laid out in the aforementioned paper.

I think it is past strange that anyone who writes and/or has a book published would frown upon written exchanges, while glorifying these largely farcical, propagandistic, sloganistic circuses which pass for “public debate.” Different strokes, though, I guess. Two Protestant researchers who run anti-Catholic “ministries”/websites have expressed this opinion to me; both also declined my invitation to do a “live chat” in an IRC Internet room.

If a person is unwilling to subject their views to scrutiny I am not particularly impressed (to understate it). I think all solid views must be subjected to criticism and analysis, and I am always willing to allow my own writings to be so examined. That’s the dialogical spirit; that is being open-minded, and willing to change one’s own viewpoint, as warranted (or, at the very least, to modify one’s own particular opinions where errors are pointed out — as I have done many times, to the extent of even removing papers from my website on several occasions).

Imagine if the academic world restricted itself to the “canned” and artificial, self-serving, “anti-humble” atmosphere of oral “debates.” Every critique of some new paper would have to be in an oral debate with zealous partisans on both sides “rah-rah”-ing and eating popcorn. In my opinion, that would make a mockery of the very enterprise of the exchange of ideas and the academic undertaking of expanding our intellectual horizons.

Yet some now want to frown upon written debate and dialogue (Plato would be surprised to hear that) altogether. I find that very odd. In effect, this means that none of their views can be scrutinized except in a public debate. That is not a willingness to be examined. For my part, I now have multiple hundreds of debates on my website, where everyone can read the other side of any given issue and make up their own minds. That reaches many thousands more than public debates do, I think.

As a related aside, I have always held that degrees and credentials (though I respect them very much and have a B.A. of my own — sociology / psychology with much history and philosophy) amount to little if one has no coherent case in the first place. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And anti-Catholicism is nothing if not self-defeating and utterly illogical (and often radically unbiblical as well as a-historical) from A to Z, as I have pointed out at great length, in many ways.

Even Einstein wouldn’t be able to convince anyone that 2 + 2 did not equal 4. His brilliance cannot overcome the truth. And an imbecile or a trained parrot can say “2 + 2 = 4” and the truth will be just as profound and irrefutable as if a genius had uttered it. Truth is truth, and it has its own inherent power, and glory from God, Who is Truth.

It is said that in a public, oral debate, obfuscation, or “muddying the waters” is minimized by the other person’s ability to correct errors immediately, and to “call” the opponent on this, that, or the other fact or argument. But this assumes that immediate, spur-of-the-moment corrections are more compelling than a correction which resulted from hours of careful research with primary sources, Scripture, etc. Weird . . .

Funny, too, that Protestants are the ones so devoted to “written only” in their notion of sola Scriptura, whereas when we jump up to the present day they reverse that principle and wish to switch over to “oral Tradition,” so to speak.

It is said that in a live oral debate, factors are present to prevent tangents and rabbit trails. Yet there is not much to prevent various rhetorical tricks and “ambushing” tactics. For example, in my brief live chat with Bishop “Dr.” [???] James White (though I did think it was a good exchange overall, and I enjoyed it) he immediately confronted me with dense, historically complex claims about the Church fathers and what they believed about Mary.

I did my best “on my feet,” but I replied that if I had to come up with a list of fathers who denied the sinlessness of Mary, that would take a little time, as I didn’t have a source at my fingertips (and looking for one would bore the observers). Someone later described this technique perfectly as “quotes without quoting.”

See the live chat and my analysis of White’s sophistry in the live chat.

That is the sort of tactic and strategy which I find very annoying and unfair, bordering on unethical in some instances. Clearly, spontaneous, unexpected questions about patristic consensus, so-and-so’s views on x, y, and z and so forth are much more appropriate either for experts in that area, or for written papers, where the non-expert and non-historian has the time to look up the sources from people who do study this for a living.

It is said that live oral debates are a better use of time; that things can be said quicker than they can in writing. But I respond that truth takes time to find and communicate. Propaganda, on the other hand (such as the norm of today’s political rhetoric) is very easy to quickly spout. Evangelicalism lends itself far more easily to shallow rhetoric and slogans; Catholicism does not. It is complex, nuanced, and requires much thought and study. And thought takes time, no matter how you slice the cake.

Again, truth and the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom requires time. I understand if someone doesn’t have that time: we all struggle with prioritizing. We all do what we can do, hopefully devoting time to theology as our Lord makes a way, within the pressures of daily living (turning off the idiot box as much as possible, etc.). But that is a separate issue: time pressures vs. the relative constructiveness of writing vs. speaking. Apples and oranges.

It is claimed that there is more interest in oral public debates. I’m not so sure about that, especially with the advent of the Internet, but perhaps this is true. In any event, that has no bearing on my own objections. It is not public debate per se I am opposed to, but the perversion of it by unworthy tactics and methods, which is the usual result when one is dealing with anti-Catholics. So I am actually supporting what I consider to be true debate, not the pale imitations of it which pass for “debates.”

It is asserted that it’s harder to get away with lies and half-truths in the public arena. Quite the contrary, I would maintain; it is much easier to disinform and misinform, because one can put up an appearance of confidence and truth very easily, through rhetorical technique, catch-phrases, cleverness, playing to the crowd, etc. These things are by no means as “certain” as avid proponents of oral debate make them out to be.

It is said that evasion and switching topics occurs much more in written exchanges, and cannot be pulled off in oral debates. Well, I do admit that this happens, and indeed I looked forward to that aspect in my “live chat” (in my opinion, more like a public oral debate than a written exchange, even though carried on in writing) with Bishop White. I asked him to name me one Church Father who knew what all 27 New Testament books were, in the first three centuries. He could not, and cited Athanasius, whom — I pointed out — came to the age of reason in the 4th century (c. 296-373), as I am sure he is well aware.

This was an analogical response to his demand of me to name names of fathers who believed Mary was sinless. He named me four eastern fathers who denied this and claimed this proved a patristic consensus. I challenged him (he being supposedly far more versed in the fathers than I, and a credentialed scholar) to give me some western fathers. First he cited St. Anselm (c. 1033-1109), who, of course, though western, was not a Church Father. More rhetorical and desperate silliness . . . . Later he came up with Hilary and Tertullian, and expected me to respond on the spot, as if I were a patristic scholar (so much for the inherent superiority of oral debate).

So I asked if this was from Tertullian’s Montanist period. He did not answer, but cited his work The Flesh of Christ as the primary source. Later, I looked it up and, sure enough, it is from his semi-Montanist period. Hilary made his claim once and very mildly, according to Luigi Gambero (a priest with background in philosophy and also author of a 4-volume work on Marian thought), in his book, Mary and the Fathers of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999, 186).

So we have one western father in a very subdued fashion, and another in his heretical period, plus four eastern fathers. This is what James White considers a “patristic consensus.” I find that a pathetic argument, and I think I did pretty well, given the ridiculous limitations of the situation I was in, forced to name a bunch of names when I had already made it clear that I couldn’t cut-and-paste while in his chat room.

But names there assuredly are. I believe I did pretty well, given that White is considered a master of live debate, and I confine myself almost exclusively to writing (but I think fast on my feet, I think). He was trapped by the facts of history, not any rhetorical brilliance on my part. This example, in my opinion, demonstrates clearly the limitations of this “spontaneous exchange” — supposedly so superior to writing and hard, well thought-out and documented research.

It’s true that people abuse written dialogue just as they do oral. I have no problem agreeing about that (it’s self-evident). Good dialogue, in whatever form, is always a rare thing, to be treasured when found. But in public oral debate the debater always has to be right; he can never admit he is wrong because that would not “go with the program.” But there’s no shame in that.

I attended a debate between Dave Hunt and Karl Keating, have listened to other similar ones, and have also attended political debates and creationist-evolutionist ones. I know the atmosphere very well. I am also thoroughly familiar with how anti-Catholics conduct themselves on lists and bulletin boards. These opinions do not arise from nothingness; they are backed up with scores of experiences (and wounds, in some extreme cases).

It is stated (by anti-Catholics) that Catholics don’t fare well in public oral debates. Under my thesis, I could readily agree with that. It is true that the Catholic faith is not conducive to an environment where sophistical carnival-barker, used-car salesman types try to distort, twist, and misrepresent it at every turn (and this need not be deliberate at all: it matters not — the end result is the same).

Nor is it required of us to engage unworthy, uninformed opponents. Bishop “Dr.” [???] James White (on his website) recounted how R. C. Sproul told him that he thought all Catholics were unworthy to debate. If one such as Sproul (whom I admire and like very much, by the way) can take such a view, why can we not take precisely the same view with regard to anti-Catholic debaters?


(originally January 2001; slightly revised on 9-30-04)

Photo credit: dnet (1-11-08) [Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License]


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