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I posted last week on “3 Things I Would Like to See Evangelical Leaders Stop Saying about Biblical Scholarship.” Today’s post is about rhetoric I have heard from evangelical leaders when defending a biblical position. Though these leaders may be well-intentioned, I feel their rhetoric only serves to score points, entrench positions, and detract from much needed conversation.

You’ll see that these three are interrelated.

1. The “it’s possible” or “be patient” argument. When faced with a genuine and serious challenge to a position considered important to maintain, I have seen a persistent tendency to argue for the mere “possibility” of the traditional position (or similarly, that the position is “not impossible”). Apparently, if a position is salvaged as possible/not impossible–however slim–that warrants maintaining it.

This type of argument is like that of a defense attorney charged with defending his client at any and all costs. Such a defense attempts to establish the client’s innocence by casting some shadow of doubt, however minimal, on the prosecution’s case. If innocence is “possible” that’s good enough. Sort of like the O.J. trial.

A close cousin is the “be patient” argument, which says, “Although what you say may look dire for our position at the moment, further study and exegesis will eventually vindicate our position, so no need to jump to conclusions now.”

Both tactics are obscurantist and would not be tolerated for an instance if the evidence were lined up in the opposite direction. Imagine if, say, biblical archaeologists had abundant and overwhelming evidence of the conquest of Canaan, but a small group of liberal renegades were holding out and constructing scenarios whereby their positions were “possible?” Or were calling for more “patience” as they continue to find new ways to defend themselves?

The “it’s possible/be patient” defense is an indication that the end goal determines the process.

2. Manipulating the process to arrive at the desired conclusion. Related to #1 is the use of manipulative rhetoric to achieve the desired goal. For example, one can begin a debate with a loaded premise that biases the argument toward the desired conclusion. For example: “Brothers and sisters, we must be ever on guard to defend the Bible against those who seek to discredit it by claiming it is historically inaccurate.”

Here we have an emotional appeal that subtly equates attacking the Bible with questioning it’s historically accuracy, i.e., anyone who really believes the Bible will not question the Bible on historical matters.

The key here is to question the premise, to require a defense of it, rather than simply accepting it. If you question the premise, the discussion can potentially go in a different and helpful direction (provided both parties are willing to do so). But if this type of rhetoric is allowed to set the terms of “discussion,” there will be no discussion.

3. The problem is your faulty presuppositions. Arguments over details can be avoided by appealing to opponent’s presuppositions. Now the debate is not about how to handle specific and complex data, such as whether the flood happened or who wrote the Pentateuch, but the faulty presuppositions that would drive one to doubt either.

This tactic is an effective way of disagreeing with someone who knows more. Saying someone is wrong because they have the wrong presuppositions leaves the disagreement on the spiritual level and so avoids accusing someone of incompetence. “Yes, I know you are brilliant and respected, and I’m just a simple [fill in the blank], but can’t you see how your presuppositions are leading your brilliance down the wrong path?”

But here’s the thing about presuppositions: they are not all created equal. They can be tested. Put it this way, if someone asserts that the Bible must behave in a manner “X” because it is God’s word, and yet in your reading of the Bible you are finding a lot of “not X,” you either (1) have to question your reading skills, (2) admit you are so spiritually depraved you can’t read straight, or (3) consider that the assertion may be in error.

That’s the choice, and after being fed a steady diet of  #1 and #2, #3 starts looking pretty reasonable.

I remember a discussion like this in graduate school. A professor was discussing how some scholars have a penchant for holding on to a theory long after the evidence piles up against it by talking about exceptions, or stretching the theory to fit the data, etc. He said, “If you find one thing that doesn’t fit the theory, it’s an exception. Two things, a sub-category; Three things, get a new theory.”

All of this is to say, the “faulty presupposition” argument only works if the presupposition is sound. At some point you may have to scrub a “theory” about the Bible and make one that aligns with what’s there.

I have a longer list of these kinds of arguments I’ve come across and I will get to them sooner or later. My purpose here is to expose (in a positive sense) unhelpful rhetoric used by those who, I am sure, want to speak the truth. But these tactics are not the way to get there.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.