Caleb’s Rules of Theological Debate

The title says it all. Here they are in no particular order with no particular rhyme or reason (all of tweetable length).

  1. No matter what the topic, there is a Christian way of thinking. When we forget this, or more commonly never learn it to begin with, we mess up politics, theology, and so many other things.
  2. Listen to your neighbor’s argument as you would have your neighbor listen to yours.
  3. In all debate and discussion, give your interlocutor the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Before attacking any argument or view, try sincerely to defend it to yourself.
  5. The mind of Christ is not divided. We must always be ready to learn from each other.
  6. Attack positions and arguments as needed, but not the people who use them.
  7. Except to ask a question, don’t respond to an argument you do not fully understand.
  8. If a statement can be interpreted non-heretically: innocent until proven guilty.
  9. Use the label “heresy” sparingly, and avoid it whenever possible.
  10. Even heretics can have great insights: don’t assume everything they say is bad.
  11. Even the best teachers are fallible: don’t assume everything they say is okay.
  12. Just because something’s not heretical doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal.
  13. Just because someone believes something heretical doesn’t mean they are damned.
  14. Experience and education affect your perspective on evidence…
  15. …But experience and education do not magically alter the soundness of an argument.
  16. Just because you haven’t heard of a view doesn’t mean it’s crazy.
  17. Just because a view seems obvious doesn’t mean it’s right.
  18. Analogies, including in Scripture, can’t be stretched beyond their relevant intent.
  19. The apparent “plain meaning” of a Bible verse is not always the right one…
  20. …But the opposite of the “plain meaning” of Scripture is even less likely.
  21. Someone is not wrong just because they quote someone you dislike.
  22. Godliness and good theology don’t always correlate. Devotion outperforms doctrine.
  23. Every doctrinal position affects other doctrinal positions more than you think.
  24. Inconsistency is not heresy, and heresy is not inconsistency.
  25. Just something looks inconsistent to you doesn’t mean it actually is inconsistent.
  26. Many charges of inconsistency come from a small rational imagination.
  27. Generally, you can’t rule out theological positions on some a priori basis.
  28. Sarcasm is only worth using if it makes an important point in the argument.
  29. If I have all the arguments and all the truth, but do not have love, I have nothing.
  30. Charging your debate opponents with improper motives is bad form and bad love.
  31. Treat debate opponents like Jesus. He might be more on their side than you think.
  32. No doctrine should still make sense if you subtract Jesus.
  33. Avoid as much as possible saying “God couldn’t/wouldn’t do X.”
  34. Not everything that looks like a slippery slope is one.
  35. Never debate in such a way that you couldn’t go off together for ice cream later.
  36. If you form opinions about your interlocutor during a debate, keep them to yourself.
  37. Don’t change the subject with questions hanging.
Caleb’s Rules of Theological Debate

Theory and Doctrine: Interpretations in Scripture and Nature

Science vs Scripture. Reason vs faith. Why is it that these things are so frequently pitted against each other? Well, it’s not really a mystery. Doctrines of old oppose new scientific theories. Faith holds to things which are often difficult to understand. So of course these conflicts will arise. Yet I want to hopefully add some clarity to issues like this. I will use a simple case study to explain my thoughts.

The perfect example of the science-vs-religion mentality is the debate between evolution and creationism. Science, they say, teaches evolution, and the Bible teaches special creation. One must be wrong. The Christians who agree with this embrace creation and say that science is wrong,  while the skeptics who agree with this embrace evolution and say that the Bible is wrong. The problem with this is that “science says” and “the Bible says” are both completely wrong ways of framing the issue.

I want to put before you the thought that scientific theories are to the natural world what doctrine is to Scripture. The natural world is a great part of reality, and Scripture is a collection of writings which claim to accurately represent reality. So the natural world is real and cannot be wrong in any meaningful way. Scripture could be wrong in theory, since it is not the reality itself but describes it. Scientific theories and doctrines are interpretations of nature and Scripture respectively, and they can easily be wrong. Let me elaborate on this a bit.

What is “science?” Science is defined as “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” The term is also used to refer to the entire body of knowledge which results from this enterprise. Now, evolution is a scientific theory. So let me be clear on something:

In science, “theory” does not mean “idea,” “guess,” or even “educated guess.”

To explain what a scientific theory actually is, I cite About.com:

A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it. Therefore, theories can be disproven. Basically, if evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, then the hypothesis can become accepted as a good explanation of a phenomenon. One definition of a theory is to say it’s an accepted hypothesis.

Evolution summarizes several hypotheses about genetics, speciation, and related topics. It has been supported with repeated testing that has accumulated supporting evidence. So it is a scientific theory. Now, the question still stands whether enough evidence has also accumulated to disprove it, so it might be an invalid theory (as I tend to think), but that’s not certain.

Now to move on to what “the Bible says.” See, what “the Bible says” must be interpreted. There are different interpretations of various issues in Scripture, and collected interpretations and the reasoning behind them are called “doctrine.” Of course, there are correct interpretations and wrong ones. So correct doctrine is what the Bible actually says, while if a doctrine is incorrect it is not what the Bible actually says. And since there is always the possibility that we have made a mistake, saying “the Bible says” on controversial issues isn’t always helpful. Instead, we can better judge issues by saying, “This doctrine says” and clarifying that there are good reason to believe this doctrine is an accurate understanding of Scripture.

Did all that make sense? I hope so, because I felt like I rambled a bit. Now, moving on. To nuance the controversy of evolution and creation, we have to speak in this way: “The scientific theory of evolution and the Biblical doctrine of creation are in disagreement.” (Also, when I say refer to the doctrine of creation here, I am including all Biblical doctrines which reject evolution, regardless of the earth’s age or other details.) From here, there are four major possibilities.

Possibility #1: The theory of evolution is a correct interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is a correct interpretation of Scripture.

In this case, since nature is simply part of reality and Scripture describes reality, Scripture must be wrong. This is the view of most atheists and other skeptics, along with some liberal Christians, but those of us who believe in the inerrancy (or even infallibility) of Scripture reject this option.

Possibility #2: The theory of evolution is a correct interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is an incorrect interpretation of Scripture.

With this position, evolution is true, and it is compatible with Scripture. It is simply interpretations of Scripture which forbid evolution which are wrong. This view is popular among liberal Protestants, most Catholics, and a handful of Evangelicals.

Possibility #3: The theory of evolution is an incorrect interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is a correct interpretation of Scripture.

Most Evangelicals and all fundamentalists (but basically no one else) agree with this view, in which case evolution is entirely false and the Bible teaches creationism, which is true.

Possibility #4: The theory of evolution is an incorrect interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is an incorrect interpretation of Scripture.

This is a novel possibility in which the prevailing understanding of evolution is wrong, but so is the traditional doctrine of creation. Instead, some other theory/doctrine is true. I don’t know of anyone in particular who believes this.

I should point out now that out of these four possibilities, only #1 actually denies the truthfulness of Scripture. All three of the other options allow for the authority of Scripture to speak. A lot of people are uncomfortable with #2, but it is still a legitimate possibility. I myself find #3 the most likely, though I admit #4 is a very interesting (if pretty unsubstantial) possibility.

Now, the point of all this isn’t mainly about creation and evolution. Like I said before, this is a case study for how we should look at these issues. Any time some element of science, history, or philosophy seems to oppose Christianity, we need to think this way. Identify the interpretations, lay out the possibilities, and figure out which one is most likely. Don’t be afraid to examine your doctrine, and don’t be afraid to challenge theories. Either could be right or wrong in any given debate. So be rational. That’s why God gave us brains, after all.

Theory and Doctrine: Interpretations in Scripture and Nature