As someone who spends a great deal of time on social media, I notice a lot of sources being cited by others as authoritative in the various political and cultural debates of our time. One of the frequent examples that strikes me as the most notable is the way that a former chess champion continually cites the Washington Post as an authoritative source on what is going on in the United States, not knowing that the WaPo is partisan enough that its credibility is next to nothing with many Americans, myself included . Yet this is not a folly exhibited by one person alone, but is something that many people engage in. We tend, understandably, to want to give a great deal of credibility to those sources that agree with what we say and that share a basic worldview with ourselves. Yet this tends to mean that we engage in conversation in an echo chamber, where both we and others use sources that are viewed with great confidence by the person using them but not by everyone else, and the conversation does not move anywhere. When we look at the Bible, though, that is not what we find when we look at debates. Let us look at three cases where a biblical personage is engaged in a polemical debate with others of a different worldview, and examine how it is that these heroes of faith defended their point of view, and gain some insights as to how we might be better served in our own efforts to engage with others, a task of considerable importance .
The example of using sources of high credibility to one’s debate opponents, unsurprisingly, can be found in the discourse of Jesus Christ with the Sadducees. In Matthew 22:29-34 we find Jesus’ rejoinder concerning the resurrection: “Jesus answered and said to them, “You are [f]mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven. But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the multitudes heard this, they were astonished at His teaching.” Intriguingly, this rejoinder depends on the present tense of the name of God. Yahweh was not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob only in the past tense, but He is still their God, and so they will live again. Note here that Jesus Christ in this debate goes to a source that would have been respected by his opponents, namely the Torah, as the Sadducees did not respect the prophets and writings nor the Talmud as a reliable source.
When we see Paul engaging in a discussion with the heathen philosophers of Athens, we see him too adopting a strategy that shows his use of friendly texts from the writings of his audience’s culture and worldview in Acts 17:22-29: “Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.” Here we see Paul avoiding citations of the Hebrew scriptures that would have been expected of someone like himself from a Jewish background, but rather a citation of Greek writers who were nonetheless friendly to the biblical worldview in Epimenides’ altar to the unknown God that showed His previous interest in Athenian affairs, as well as Aratus, who is largely unknown except for a couple of poems in hexameter that point to human beings being children of God, a biblical aspect of his worldview that Paul is keen to adapt to true religion.
A third example is in the book of Jude, which again cites a couple of works that are not highly regarded by Christians today but which were regarded highly by the gnostic audience of Jude’s harsh rebuke. Jude 9 reads: “Yet Michael the archangel, in contending with the devil, when he disputed about the body of Moses, dared not bring against him a reviling accusation, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”” As Jude’s opponents were deeply interested in angeology, it is unsurprising that Jude would make reference to the Assumption of Moses, pointing out that even when one is dealing with Satan, it is not an appropriate response on our part to revile such wicked rulers, but rather to remind our readers that God will judge them, lest we fall into condemnation. Likewise, in verse fourteen and fifteen Jude makes use of the Book of 1 Enoch as follows: “Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men also, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment on all, to convict all who are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.”” Here Jude takes a highly unorthodox source and draws from it Orthodox views about the importance of godly living among believers, a matter of considerable weakness to many libertine Gnostics who bore a great similarity to the ragamuffin professed believers of contemporary times who did not see their own godly living as an important matter but viewed the sins of the flesh as nothing because only the spirit was to be considered of any importance.
What do these three examples tell us? Most importantly, they tell us that the standard biblical way of dealing with polemical debates with others was to draw our conclusions from the premises and writings that were considered as authoritative by the people we are arguing with. It is of no use quoting the Bible to a Muslim in missionary work, but if one can find a hadith that makes the point one is looking for, that will be viewed with greater respect. Likewise, we should not quote the WaPo to someone who is hostile to American leftists, but rather Fox News or something from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. And so it goes. If we wish to engage other people, we must engage them with what they consider important and valuable, and so it behooves us to find in the writings that others respect the conclusions that we urge our audience to believe. If we can find our truth and our worldview in the writings of those who we are debating, we can at least be assured that those we are debating will give the matter a fair hearing, rather than dismissing it because of its lack of authoritative status alone. Why this is such a rare phenomenon in our times is a mystery to me.
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