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It ain’t over till it’s over

“The debate is over” – this is an argumentative gambit I’ve noticed quite a few people using recently around the web. It’s a subtle rhetorical device, designed to make people who disagree with you sound petty and ill-informed.

The three debates that I’ve noticed it being used in are as follows:

  1. The debate concerning the place of faith and works in the Christian life, related to the so-called “New Perspective on Paul”
  2. The debate concerning God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in evangelism, related to mission strategy in the Diocese of Sydney
  3. The debate concerning evangelism and good deeds in mission, related to the Lausanne Conference

Here’s how the device is used:

  1. You raise the issue
  2. You declare with authority that “the debate is now over”
  3. You observe that nevertheless, certain people are still debating the issue

When you use this device, you are implying two things:

  1. You belong to a privileged circle of people who are properly qualified to talk about the issue (i.e., in the cases I mentioned above New Testament scholars, a group of Sydney Anglicans, missiologists), and who are no longer interested in talking about the issue.
  2. Those who are still debating the issue don’t belong to the privileged group. They are therefore ill-informed, or petty, and clearly not qualified to talk about the issue, and not worth listening to.

I don’t like this device, and I think it should should stop. Why?

  1. It’s elitist. Just because your own circle claims to have worked out the issue, doesn’t mean that other areas of discussion about this issue are irrelevant.
  2. It’s illogical. If people are still debating the issue, then the debate is not over.
Published inFaithJustificationMinistryPaul

7 Comments

  1. Reminds me of CS Lewis’s concern about our sinful desire to part the “inner ring”!

    (BTW is it possible to install Google +one button for those of us who have crossed from Facebook to Google?)

    • Hi Luke, good thinking. The Inner Ring is a wonderful little essay, first introduced to me by the very wise Andrew Cameron. I commend it to anyone who hasn’t read it.

      W.r.t. Google+, thanks for the tip; done.

  2. Hi Lionel,

    Well said!

    The person who thinks ‘the debate is over’ seems to have forgotten that the next generation (1) weren’t around when the debate happened previously and (2) haven’t read the books / articles and probably haven’t thought about the issue. If they aren’t prepared to discuss the issues again it seems to me that they either don’t care what the next generation thinks / believes or they don’t have much in the way of an argument to give them.

    Of course, if they are making the statement to their contemporaries they may be saying ‘I don’t want to continue the debate and am proceeding on the basis that I have won’.

  3. Hi Lionel, and a bit late, but I like what you are saying too.

    I’m intrigued of course by who’s doing what in your second and third examples. But that’s just gossipy curiosity.

    I think there is a time when it’s fair to say the debate is over, and it is really only the lazy or stubbornly biased person, or the ostrich, who does not want to see it. For example, what about the historical claim that Jesus did not die by crucifixion. Recently, I discussed this topic on a website encouraging Christian-Muslim dialogue. I showed that there is good evidence reporting this event in a number of early sources in the New Testament, in respected non-Christian historians close to the time (Tacitus and Josephus), and that across the enormous breadth and presuppositions of NT scholarship, it is almost universally accepted as fact (citing examples from atheists like Gerd Ludemann, Jewish scholars like Geza Vermes, sceptical scholars like Bart Erhman, as well as more orthodox Christian scholars.

    On the other hand, it certainly can be a strategy to avoid looking at new evidence, or reconsidering old evidence when a properly thought through new challenge is thrown up to old interpretations.

    Among our friends, I think sometimes complementarians have been lazy on the authentein issue simply relying on what other well known complementarian authors have said in this debate, without checking the evidence for themselves. At best we’ve read Baldwin’s article on the word in the Schreiner/Kostenberger book on 1 Timothy 2 and we say that settles it. But often the un-nuanced way the cite the article shows they did not read it carefully let along check all the occurrences of authentein in the original Greek themselves, let alone sometimes even check the standard Greek lexicon BDAG for the meaning.

    (For the record, I still think 1 Tim 2:12 means a woman should not preach in a mixed congregation or be a congregational elder. I am just not so dogmatically negative about NIV 2011’s translation of the verse!)

    • Hi Sandy – thanks! I think you’ve provided an excellent model of how to do this kind of thing properly. In each case, rather than simply saying, “the debate is over”, you have shown that there are specific people who are still debating the topic, and that there is another group of people who are no longer debating the topic. And you have given suggestions as to why the debate is finished in one area, and still going on in another area. I think this is very constructive, and helps people to be discerning about how to evaluate whatever “debates” are actually going on, and whether the debate is actually worth listening to.

      PS about the claim that “Jesus didn’t die by crucifixion”, you might be very interested in the website of Gunnar Samuelsson, whom I heard recently giving a presentation. I’ve written a post about this for the Briefing; it should be up in the next month or so.

  4. Lionel, as it happens, I was made aware of this research by my Muslim conversation partner, Abudullah, here who cited the CNN article to raise doubt over whether Jesus was crucified.

    So I read the article, and was astonished to discover that the scholar, Samuelsson in now way cast any doubt over the historicity of the death of Jesus by execution at Calvary, and in fact, accepted it was by crucifixion, just pointing out that there was some linguistic doubt over exactly the nature of the suspension and torture device used for the execution by the stauros word group from its wider use in ancient texts.

    There was certainly no support for the late and not-otherwise evidenced claim of the Qu’ran that Jesus only seemed to die on a cross, but in fact, did not die by such execution.

    My replies are here and here.

    Abdullah finally agreed that Samuelsson did not support his case.

    Nevertheless, follow the links and you can see the way the discussion went, although it is interleaved with other people’s contributions and so on.

    SG

    • Precisely – this was Gunnar’s point in the presentation too – his research had been completely misunderstood! It shows the need to check out news stories, and not to rely on headlines. In this case, the headline was utterly misleading (“Gospels don’t say Jesus was crucified, scholar claims”) and the opening paragraph was full of hyperbole (e.g. “attacks on Christianity”, “surprising”).

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