As you know, White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation are all about “conversations for a new Reformation.” For over two decades, we’ve hosted a conversation between representatives of Lutheran, Baptist, and Reformed traditions on the White Horse Inn, expanding that circle in the pages of our magazine, Modern Reformation. We’ve also held public conversations with those who hold views that are antithetical to our own. (Check out our upcoming conversation with Roman Catholic theologian, Scott Hahn, here and our previous conversations with Arminian theologian Roger Olson here.) Part of the rationale is that we can’t defend the truth by creating caricatures. We have to engage the actual positions, not straw opponents we can easily knock down. Convinced that truth can take care of itself, we want to expose more and more people to the richness of that “Great Conversation” that Christians have been having for two millennia.

Especially in a “wiki” age, our communication today is prone to gushes of words with trickles of thought. We don’t compose letters much anymore, but blurt out emails and tweets. Just look at the level of discourse in this political campaign season and you can see how much we talk about, over, and past rather than to each other. Sadly, these habits—whether fueled by sloth or malice—are becoming acceptable in Christian circles, too. The subculture of Christian blogging often mirrors the “shock-jock” atmosphere of the wider web. “Don’t be like the world” means more than not imitating a porn-addicted culture, while we tolerate a level of interaction that apes the worst of TV sound-bites, ads, and political debates.

For my seminary students I’ve written a summary of what I expect in good paper-writing for my classes. It follows the classical order of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. It also explains why the pursuit of excellence in thinking and communicating is not just an academic exercise, but is a crucial part of Christian character.

I’ll skip over some of the rules specific to papers in my classes and get to the core points. Rules for paper-writing carry over directly to good preaching and good conversations.

It’s not just what we say, but how we say it, that matters. Peter reminds us to be “always prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet 3:15-16). We have to be ready with arguments and reasons, but we have to give thought also to how we present them.

Good Arguments

First and foremost we need to avoid the ubiquitous ad hominem (“to/concerning the person”) variety—otherwise known as “personal attacks.” Poor papers often focus on the person: both the critic and the one being criticized. This is easier, of course, because one only has to express one’s own opinions and reflections. A good paper will tell us more about the issues in the debate than about the debaters. (This of course does not rule out relevant biographical information on figures we’re engaging that is deemed essential to the argument.)

Closely related are red-herring arguments: poisoning the well, where you discredit a position at the outset (a pre-emptive strike), or creating a straw man (caricature) that can be easily demolished. “Barth was a liberal,” “Roman Catholics do not believe that salvation is by grace,” “Luther said terrible things about Jews and Calvin approved the burning of Servetus—so how could you possibly take seriously anything they say?” It’s an easy way of dismissing views that may be true even though those who taught them may have said or done other things that are reprehensible. Closely related is thegenetic fallacy, which requires merely that one trace an argument or position back to its source in order to discount it. Simply to trace a view to its origin—as Roman Catholic, Arminian, Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist/Baptist, etc.—is not to offer an argument for or against it. For example, we all believe in the Trinity; it’s not wrong because it’s also held by Roman Catholics. “Barth studied under Harnack and Herrmann, so we should already consider his doctrine of revelation suspect.” This assertion does not take into account the fact that Barth was reacting sharply against his liberal mentors and displays no effort to actually read, understand, and engage the primary or secondary sources.

Closely related to these fallacies is the all too familiar slippery slope argument. “Barth’s doctrine of revelation leads to atheism” or “Arminianism leads to Pelagianism” or “Calvinism leads to fatalism” would be examples. Even if one’s conclusion is correct, the argument has to be made, not merely asserted. The fact is, we often miss crucial moves that people make that are perfectly consistent with their thinking and do not lead to the extreme conclusions we attribute to them—not to mention the inconsistencies that all of us indulge. Honesty requires that you engage the positions that peopleactually hold, not conclusions you think they should hold if they are consistent.

If you’re going to make a logical argument that certain premises lead to a certain conclusion, then you need to make the case and must also be careful to clarify whether the interlocutor either did make that move or did not but (logically) should have.

Another closely related fallacy here is sweeping generalization. Until recently, it was common for historians to try to explain an entire system by identifying a “central dogma.” For example, Lutherans deduce everything from the central dogma of justification; Calvinists, from predestination and the sovereignty of God. Serious scholars who have actually studied these sources point out that these sweeping generalizations don’t have any foundation. However, sweeping generalizations are so common precisely because they make our job easier. We can embrace or dismiss positions easily without actually having to examine them closely. Usually, this means that a paper will be more “heat” than “light”: substituting emotional assertion for well-researched and logical argumentation.

“Karl Barth’s doctrine of revelation is anti-scriptural and anti-Christian” is another sweeping generalization. If I were to task you in person why you think Barth’s view of revelation is “anti-scriptural anti-Christian,” you might answer, “Well, I think that he draws too sharp a contrast between the Word of God and Scripture—and that this undermines a credible doctrine of revelation.” “Good,” I reply, “—now why do you think he makes that move?” “I think it’s because he identifies the ‘Word of God’ with God’s essence and therefore regards any direct identification with a creaturely medium (like the Bible) as a form of idolatry. It’s part of his ‘veiling-unveiling’ dialectic.” OK, now we’re closer to a real thesis—something like, “Because Barth interprets revelation as nothing less than God’s essence (actualistically conceived), he draws a sharp contrast between Scripture and revelation.” A good argument for something like that will allow the reader to draw conclusions instead of strong-arming the reader with the force of your own personality.

Also avoid the fallacy of begging the question. For example, question-begging is evident in the thesis statement: “Baptists exclude from the covenant those whom Christ has welcomed.” After all, you’re assuming your conclusion without defending it. Baptists don’t believe that children of believers are included in the covenant of grace. That’s the very reason why they do not baptize them. You need an argument.

An Exercise of Christian Piety

Everything I’ve said about logical fallacies is wrapped up with virtue. You earn your right to critique a position only after stating it in terms that one who holds it would recognize as fair. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” (Gal 5:22). The love of our neighbor is inextricably bound up with our love of God; love and truth are intimates, not rivals. Especially in the body of Christ we are to avoid “human cunning….Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” (Eph 4:14-15). The Ninth Commandment forbids false witness. In fact, the Shorter Catechism explains, “The ninth commandment forbids whatever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own or our neighbor’s good name.” Similarly, the HC: “God’s will is that I never give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone without a hearing or without a just cause…I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it. And I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.”

Logical fallacies are often the result of vice—sometimes malice, but more frequently pride and sloth. It is easy to hide behind the banner of truth in yielding to these temptations, but truth is not served well by arrogant assertions, sweeping generalizations or lazy caricatures. When love reigns, an argument is not only true but also good and beautiful. Therein lies its genuine persuasiveness. Sloth is evident especially when we create straw opponents, slippery slope assertions, or attack the person (ad hominem) or the source of the argument (genetic fallacy) rather than critique the argument itself.

It is possible to be so open-minded that we can fall for anything. “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” (Prov 14:15). Yet imprudence also exhibits itself in narrow-minded over-simplification of complex questions. The wise are “cautious,…but a fool is reckless and careless” (v 16). In either case, “The simple inherit folly, but the prudent are crowned with knowledge” (v 18). “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15:1).

As G. K. Chesterton quipped, “A quarrel can end a good argument. Most people today quarrel because they cannot argue.” In the din of talking heads shouting at each other, Christians have a great opportunity in the current atmosphere to end quarrels by offering a few good, at least better, arguments.