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.