I know a little about dealing with controversial subjects. My last book, Salvation and Sovereignty, presented an alternative to five-point Calvinism, and my current project (with Mark Rooker) is a book about creation and evolution. Calvinism and creationism—two lightning rod topics if there ever were any!
I’ve observed that advocates on either side of these two issues have produced an amazing amount of vitriolic polemics. Some of what’s available is well thought out and well written, while other material seems to be literary temper tantrums. All this has set me to thinking about what are the best ways to engage in a debate. With no claim of originality, I have come up with three rules of thumb:
1) Describe your opponent’s position in such a way that he can recognize it. Roger Nicole is the first person I heard make this point. The straw man argument tempts us all, especially when we feel strongly about the issues involved. One commits the straw man fallacy anytime he exaggerates or distorts his opponent’s position. He then easily knocks down the straw man to give the impression that the other person’s view is ridiculous or worse. When arguing against a position, one should present it as accurately as possible, with the least amount of pejorative language.
2) Know your opponent’s position well enough that you could argue it for him. In my theology classes I regularly give students the option of taking part in a formal debate to fulfill the research component for that course. The topic up for debate is generally some hot-button issue—the role of women in ministry, tongues as a private prayer language, or age of the earth. A student can sign up to be a part of two three-person teams. But there is a catch: neither team knows the side for which it will be arguing until the day of the debate. In other words, each team has to prepare thoroughly to argue for both sides. This way those involved begin to understand better for both sides the issues involved, the weak points in the arguments, and the possible blind spots. One should take a similar approach to most topics. Try to see where the other person is coming from. If you know your opponent’s position well enough that you could argue it for him, and you still can hold to your side with integrity, then you can be reasonably confident in your position. Ones’ writing should display a clear understanding of both sides of an argument.
3) Write as if your opponent and you were going to dinner together after you finish. In fact, if possible, you should make dinner arrangements as soon as you can. It is difficult to break bread with someone and be bitter towards them. Many times a change in tone, a sensitivity in word selection, or an expression of good will makes all the difference in the civility of a theological disagreement. Have I followed all three rules in all of my writings? I must confess that I have not. But I want to. And by God’s grace I hope to “love my neighbor as myself” even when I’m disagreeing with him.