What Not to Say in Theological Debate

It’s all just so darn clear. Every day, pundits, politicians, and plebeians the world over make arguments about what is “clearly” the case. Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw declares that Ilhan Omar’s 9/11 comments were “clearly … not taken out of context.” California Senator Kamala Harris asserts that Attorney General William Barr “clearly” intended to mislead the public. Prominent atheist and evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, meanwhile, says that secular humanism is “clearly” not a religion. And yet, confusedly, the debates—on politics, on religion, on, well, just about everything—keep going. Perhaps things aren’t as “clear” as we often like to believe.

In my debates with Protestants, I am constantly being told what is “clearly” the case. There is a reason for this. One of the fundamental tenets of the Reformation was a belief in the clarity, or “perspicuity,” of Scripture. By this, early Protestants meant that the Bible was so clear that anyone should be able to understand its essential message. The Westminster Confession of Faith, one of the most important creedal documents of historic Protestantism, states: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” These “ordinary means” include things like a good translation, listening to good, biblical preaching, and prayerful contemplation.

And yet … there’s a bit of a problem. I often don’t see what my Protestant interlocutors claim is “clearly” true, whether it relates to Scripture’s interpretation or Christian history. Nor do a lot of other Catholics, or Orthodox, or even many Protestants in different denominations or theological strands than the person making the argument. If a certain interpretation of the Bible, or a certain conception of Christian history, is clearly to be understood a certain way, what does it mean when people don’t see it that way?

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There are more or less three options, and none of them speak well of the person who disagrees with the Protestant. The first is that the person is too ignorant or stupid to perceive what is “clear.” The second is that the person does indeed know what’s clearly the case, but he or she decides to willingly ignore it. The third is that the person is deceived by Satanic forces which prevent him or her from recognizing what is clear. Note that all three of these options presume some sort of fundamental defect in the Protestant’s interlocutor. Note also, interestingly, these three accusations were frequently employed by Martin Luther when engaging with those with whom he disagreed. It should be unsurprising that Protestants still make such charges.

To presume any of these things about one’s opponent is uncharitable. It is to begin from a default position of launching an ad hominem assault. If one argues with another about a topic, and then employs the “it’s clearly X” card, it short-circuits the conversation by undermining any shared, common ground. It is, by extension, inimical to the ecumenical project. You can’t dialogue with someone in good faith about Christian doctrine when you think he or she is stupid, willfully ignorant, or deceived by the Devil.

Ironically, what is rarely considered by those employing the “clarity card” is the possibility that they themselves may actually be wrong. There’s also good reason for this within the Protestant paradigm. Again, it stems from another section of the Westminster Confession of Faith regarding the nature of Holy Scripture. It reads: “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” In other words, one knows what constitutes Holy Scripture (and it’s divine nature) based on an inner, subjective confirmation of the Spirit—something that cannot be objectively evaluated by external criteria. It amounts to, in the words of the Mormons, a “burning in the bosom” regarding the nature of religious truth. If one’s criteria for determining religious truth is a subjective emotional experience, then to question its validity is to pull the bottom out of the house of cards.

I know about all of this from firsthand experience. It was my life for many years as an evangelical and then a Calvinist. In conversations about theology, my appeals to clarity were frequent, but I never noticed that I was demeaning my interlocutors and presuming an elevated intellectual and spiritual experience over against theirs. My own “house” started to crumble when I kept bumping into intelligent and pious Christians (including some Catholics) who possessed interpretations of Scripture incompatible with my own, and which we never seemed capable of resolving with recourse to a deeper study of Scripture. Yet it was only when I began to be exposed to philosophical argumentation—separated from “Bible battles”—that I recognized the inherent tension within the Protestant paradigm, which places the individual Protestant and his conscience on an unparalleled (and unwarranted) pedestal of epistemic superiority.

Now I’m hesitant to ever employ the word “clearly” in religious debates, whether with Protestants, Catholics, or anyone else. The use of “clearly” is an abandonment of charitable discourse, a breaking open of the glass, and the beating of one’s opponent over the head. It is to say, whether one realizes it or not: “It’s clear, so why don’t you get it, knucklehead?” But that’s rarely profitable for either side. If it were clear, we wouldn’t need to say it. By saying it’s clear when it’s obviously not to the one with whom we are debating, we are, in a way, communicating that there’s no point in debating any longer. You don’t argue with someone who can’t recognize what’s clearly the case. Much better, I’ve found, is to make my argument with the appropriate theses and evidence. It’s possible my argument isn’t clear, in which case it needs refining, or perhaps I’m wrong. Or perhaps, on some rare occasions, my opponent might declare, “Why, you’re clearly right!” Though he, and not I, must come to that conclusion.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Disputation between Luther and Eck at the Pleissenburg in Leipzig” painted by Karl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880) in 1867.


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