Thursday, February 09, 2012

Lloyd-Jones on Debates

In Preaching & Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones (MLJ or “The Doctor” for some) recounts how he was once invited to a public debate on the question of religion with a man who “held more or less atheistical views at that time.”

MLJ declined and tells of how he was questioned for that.

Many felt that I was rejecting and missing a wonderful evangelistic opportunity.

But I maintained then, and I still maintain, that my decision was the correct one. Quite apart from any detailed reasons which I am going to give, I think it is wrong as a total approach. My impression is that experience of the kind of thing shows clearly that it very rarely succeeds, or leads to anything. It provides entertainment, but as far as I am aware, and in my experience and knowledge of it, it has very rarely been fruitful or effective as a means of winning people to the Christian faith.

But more important still are my detailed reasons. The first is, and to me this was an all-sufficient reason in itself, that God is not to be discussed or debated. God is not a subject for debate, because He is Who He is and What He is. …

To discuss the being of God in a casual manner, lounging in an armchair, smoking a pipe or a cigarette or a cigar, is to me something that we should never allow, because God, as I say, is not a kind of philosophic X or a concept. …

It seems to me that these supposed discussions and dialogues on religion that we have the television and radio are generally nothing but sheer entertainment. Equal time is given to the unbeliever as to the believer, and there is the cut and thrust of debate and jocularity and fun. The programme is so arranged that the subject cannot be dealt with in depth. I protest that the matter with which we are concerned is so desperately serious and vital and urgent that we should never allow it to be approached in this way.” (46-48)

Was MLJ too radical? How should we engage his proposition that weighty matters of theology are not well handled in armchair debates, particularly among scoffers? Is there something here that should inform us as to the value of something like the Elephant Room? Are there some areas in which MLJ’s principles against debate would not apply?

Regardless of how we conclude on these questions, we should give some thought to MLJ’s point, namely, that God is. And therefore, it doesn’t fit to debate or discuss that.

Perhaps it would be a bit like debating the existence and usefulness of air. Without it, you can’t even debate it.

We should take care before indulging the questions of scoffers, which it typically how debates are arranged.

Here’s the other side. I greatly enjoyed and learned from the debate between Gordon Stein and Greg Bahnsen. If you have listened to it, you should. Multiple times. I have greatly benefited from other debates, panel discussions, exchanges of ideas, etc.

After all, Paul engaged people in synagogues, on Mars Hill, in the marketplace, indeed it seems anywhere that he could get someone to engage.

So there’s good precedent it seems.

But we need to be careful.

I suppose I tend to side against MLJ here. But I think his point should be carefully considered.


Jon Gleason said...

Hi, Larry. If you think I Peter 3:15 is talking about apologetics ministries, then debates make perfect sense.

I don't think so, at all. That's tearing the verse way out of context.

I've become more and more hesitant to engage extensively with Jehovah's Witnesses. One pastor I heard described a lengthy encounter in which he gave them verse after verse, and then they left, and he said to himself, "You dummy, you just spent an hour educating the enemy so they can be more effective."

We need to equip believers to withstand the arguments of the scoffers. We need to answer the apparently honest questions of those who are doubtful but appear to be open. Beyond that, I think MLJ is correct.

Lots of people a lot smarter and wiser than me disagree with me on this....

Larry said...

Good comments Jon. Thanks.

The JW comment is interesting. I used to talk more with them. I still do, mostly because I know if they are talking to me they aren't talking to anyone else. However, I go directly after them. I don't let them control the conversation.

Jon Gleason said...

I talk to them, too. But I thought long and hard about that comment. I agree about controlling the conversation, and I've changed the content of what I'll say, too. I used to try to hit them with every verse I could, but that may just make it harder for other Christians to talk to them. I tend to focus now on just a few that they are less likely to expect.

Which is all perhaps off-topic, because private conversation is not the same as public debate.

The essence of public debate is that you treat the other person's view with respect, even if you disagree with it, and attack it logically. Both views start on equal footing, with the existence of God being decided by the listeners. That seems inappropriate when discussing the existence of God.

I don't see Paul's words on Mars Hill as being in the same category, personally. I don't see that he answered objections, he just laid out the truth, and walked away from those who weren't interested.

Larry said...

Interesting thought on the "essence of public debate." I wonder if we might better characterize the issue as treating the person with respect rather than treating their view with respect. Some views are just dumb. But we should still treat people with respect.

Just last night I was listening to Carson on The Intolerance of Tolerance (or perhaps the other way). I haven't gotten all the way through it yet. But I think he traces a little of this idea, that tolerance has shifted from affirming the right of an idea to exist to affirming that all ideas are equal.

With respect to Paul on Mars' Hill, you bring up a point I might address on my blog in more detail. Can we really say that Paul didn't answer objections? I don't think historiography, particularly in the Scripture, is designed to give a "blow by blow" account of anything. What if that is a summary of Paul's message? Paul surely spent many hours there. Elsewhere we are told that he reasoned with people. That seems to involve more than simply monologue, doesn't it?

So I wonder if this form of the "regulative principle" is not a bit overplayed. The fact that the Bible doesn't record that they did X doesn't mean that they didn't do X or that they were opposed to X. It simply means that, in Luke's purpose of writing, he did not feel compelled to include it.

I welcome response on this.

Jon Gleason said...

If you "welcome response" does that mean we are engaging in public debate? :)

Good points all through. As to personal respect, that is always a necessity, but the debate forum grants equal time and equal footing to both ideas. I'm willing out of personal respect to let someone spout silly ideas for a long time in private, but I'm not willing to do so in a public forum that formally gives their ideas equal respect.

The thought from Carson is interesting. Perhaps there are three "rights" here -- 1) the right of an idea to exist 2) the right of an idea to have a reasoned response and 3) the right of an idea to be viewed as (roughly) an equal. The problem with the public debate forum is that its rules formally treat the opposing ideas as equals -- #3. That just feels wrong to me. Furthermore, I'm dubious as to whether even the right to a reasoned response (#2) should always be granted to atheism. Too often, it is just "casting pearls before swine."

The proverbs about answering a fool according to his folly could be used to argue either approach, I suppose.

Also a good point on Paul on Mars Hill. Two responses. First, Acts tells us what Paul did, but I'm not sure it says this is supposed to be a pattern for us. Someone (Kevin Bauder?) had an article on SI not that long ago about the historical accounts which I thought was excellent on this point. We should be cautious about assuming that "what happened" at Mars Hill dictates "what should be" for us.

Second, if we hold to sufficiency of the Scriptures, then the record we have of what Paul said there tells us all we need to know of it. It included no record of anything remotely like today's apologetics debates (although your point about "reasoned" is well-taken). So while that may have happened, the Scriptural account of Mars Hill doesn't actually tell us it did, so we can't take it as an endorsement of debating Richard Dawkins.

My view would be that public debates with atheists are neither Biblical nor unbiblical, but extrabiblical. I have always thought that, on balance, Scriptural principles would point towards avoiding it. MLJ expressed his objections more effectively than I would have done. That's nothing new -- it's happened to me before. :)

Anonymous said...

As I pondered this, I found that preaching is primary in the Bible. I don't find any place much that anyone debated anyone because debate with unbelievers gives them the thinking that they may have something correct that is opposed to Scripture and is acceptable to the person who is going to debate them. Preaching is foolishness to them who believe not. Debate makes them think that they may have something right. I agree with MLJ. Of course, I am not a theolog like you guys.