Wednesday, October 28, 2015
By Dr. Joshua Chatraw
Last week we posted the first of a series of posts, inspired by Jonathan Edwards, on the subject of posture in engaging the culture. Edwards encouraged believers to allow the Gospel to set the course for living out their message. What might it look like if we allow the Gospel to set the course for our engagement? Rule # 1 was listening and taking other seriously. Today, we have reached the second and third rules of the Gospel.
Rule #2: Avoid falsely representing the other side.
This is sometimes called building a “straw man argument.” Straw men arguments are constructed when an opposing position is described in a way that misrepresents the other side. Straw men are built in order that they can be easily torn down to make another’s view look unreasonable. This can happen when opinions are assigned to someone that are simply inaccurate.
For example, sometimes those holding the inspiration and authority of Scripture will be described as holding to a mechanistic dictation model of inspiration, as if they believe that God put all the biblical authors in some kind of trance and controlled their hand or told them verbatim what to say. Almost no evangelical theologian would describe the inspiration of the Bible in this way. Instead, they believe that God inspired Scripture through human authors so that their personality and context are evident in their writings, while at the same time God guided them to write what was true. When misrepresentations like this happen, it often frustrates evangelicals. Unfortunately, sometimes the shoe fits on the other foot; Christians have sometimes been guilty of frustrating those we are trying to reach because we have built our own straw men arguments to show the superiority of our position.
The “golden rule” demands we tear down any straw men we have created; or better, never build a straw man to begin with. Also, the example concerning inspiration illustrates another form of a straw man argument. This is when the other sides’ weaker arguments are presented, rather than selecting the best of the opposing sides’ positions. While there is a place for demonstrating the problems with less informed arguments, we should be careful that we are not choosing to respond to only the weaker arguments. Building straw men can build fervor and perhaps a false confidence among those who already agree with us, but it normally engenders distrust and animosity with those we are trying to reach. The Proverbs again guide in our engagement: “A false witness will perish, but a careful listener will testify successfully” (Proverbs 21:28).
Rule #3: Resist judging motives.
I recently listened to a lecture where the presenter started by giving the reasons he believed the opposing position held the position they did. The list included such things as “they love novelty” and “they are committed to a theological system over biblical truth.” These things might have been true. Yet, the problem is that he was not in the position to know the motives of those who held to the opposing position.
Besides, what is accomplished by speculating on motives? It certainly can have the effect of demonizing the other position—what Christian wants to be said to have modified biblical truth in favor of trendiness or a system? But consider if someone began a discussion explaining to you that you believe what you believe because, “You can’t handle the truth!” I guess something like that makes for a dramatic movie scene, but it rarely opens the door for a gospel conversation. We are incredibly complex individuals; there are normally multiple motives for our decisions. As the proverb reminds us, “motives are weighed by the Lord” (Proverbs 16:2), not us. Rather than being quick to judge the motives of others, we must allow God to judge the heart, while we engage the issues, not the motives. After all, this is the way we would want to be treated.