On the Limited Value of Moderated Debates

Moderated Debate & Artificial Discursive Constraints

You have heard it said that moderated public debates are the best means of demonstrating the truth of one’s doctrinal position. But is that really the case? I don’t think so. Let me explain why.

Debates Artificially Limit What Constitutes Evidence for One’s Doctrine

If you listen to any number of debates on, say, the doctrine of unconditional election, you are 9 times out of 10 able to determine who is going to use what text, and how they are going to use it. In part, this is to be expected, seeing as the subject matter is very specific. As a narrowly defined subject of debate, it follows that what constitutes evidence in defense of, or attack on, one’s view of that subject is going to be the same across the board, in some respects.

Artificial limitations, then, are limitations that are not necessitated by the subject itself. These limitations serve to more narrowly constrain what constitutes evidence for one’s doctrine, but, more problematically, also rule out legitimate forms of evidence that could establish one’s position (or refute the position of his opponent). This results in others perceiving a debater’s doctrine to have been established when he has presented evidence meeting the artificial constraints superimposed upon the subject matter under consideration.

Debates Artificially Limit the Acceptable Arguments in Defense of One’s Doctrine

Given that the lines of evidence are more narrowly drawn, this likewise limits the kinds of arguments one can present in defense of one’s doctrine. Consequently, if one has strong arguments in defense of his doctrine he may not be able to present them. And if he is not able to present them, then his position will have a weak defense in the minds of his listeners, including his debate opponent. This will misrepresent the doctrine’s defensibility, leading listeners to think that the only arguments it has in its defense are unsound.

Debaters are Artificially Constrained by Social Expectations

The social expectations that constrain a debater cover, but are not limited to, the following:

a. Speakers confident of the truth of their doctrine will speak with confidence in any given
social event concerning their doctrine.

b. Better packaged – i.e. concise and simplistic – arguments are better – i.e. sound – arguments.

c. Complex arguments are “off-topic,” evidence that a speaker is “intellectualizing” what he knows is indefensible.

d. Cross examination lays all of one’s cards out on the table.

Thus –

a.’ The debater who appears to lack confidence is interpreted to lack confidence in his doctrine’s truth. .

b.’ The debater who presents longer and more elaborate arguments is interpreted to have a weaker case (i.e. he is thought to be making his argument more complex to cover its lack of substance)

c.’ The debater who presents complex arguments, integrating sub-arguments inherent to the main topic are interpreted as being off-topic.

d.’ The debater cannot clarify problematic questions (e.g. leading and “complex” questions), and is therefore either answers unfair questions, appearing incorrect, or does not answer such questions, appearing therefore to be unable to answer in defense of his doctrine.

The Superiority of Dialogue

Dialogue is superior to moderate debate because it is not hamstrung by the artificial discursive constraints mentioned above. Knowledgeable interlocutors can adapt to one another’s presentations, non-fallaciously, in order to address their opposition’s claims and arguments. This allows for real time engagement when new or previously unheard arguments and evidence are brought forward by either interlocutor. This would eliminate the script-like nature of argumentation found in debates, allowing for one to actually evaluate his opponent’s position as his opponent has presented it.

As for personalities, it seems to be the case that without the aforementioned artificial discursive constraints placed upon them, interlocutors who are deceptive, irrational, sinfully aggressive, ignorant, etc will seemingly be a little easier to spot, since the format gives them enough of a wide berth to establish their doctrines as true in a rationally coherent, honest, charitable, and knowledgeable manner, but they have clearly chosen to not so do.

The Written Word is Best

Once a text is written, its non-omnipresent & non-omniscient author cannot nudge his readers to infer this or that conclusion by his intonation, gesticulations, dress, volume, and so on. The reader is left to decide, on the basis of the text, whether or not the author’s argumentation is sound. This stands in sharp contrast to moderated debates and non-debate dialogues, for in these latter formats mentioned one’s position can be changed, modified, denied, etc within the very contexts in which they are uttered. So while it is true that a dialogue is more open and, therefore, valuable as a real-life engagement with one’s opponents views that shed new light on what constitutes evidence in favor of one’s doctrine, it is likewise true that it is inferior to written exchanges.

The written word is best because it forces the reader to examine the arguments presented, not the personality behind the arguments presented.

Don’t Get Me Wrong

I like moderated debates. I enjoy the sport of it all. But that’s the reason why I can’t say that it is a superior means of concluding that either one or another doctrine has good evidential and argumentative support, let along concluding that one or another doctrine is true.

Moreover, I think moderated debates can serve the function of introducing a doctrine to the general public. Within academic contexts the citation of proponents of one’s doctrine can drive listeners to study the doctrine in question more deeply and, ultimately, come to their own conclusions. Moderated debate also brings abstruse doctrines to a level most people can understand, and this useful for many people.

If we are seeking to come to a conclusion about whether or not a doctrine is biblical, I think written exchanges are superior.

Just my 2¢.

Soli Deo Gloria


The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church – Book Review

19381161The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church by John H. Roller

“The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church” is a brief work filled with quotations from church fathers, quotations which are not given detailed explanation that would substantiate the author’s belief that they — because they employ binaries such as life/death, immortality/destruction, etc — support the contemporary doctrine of conditional immortality.Given our historical and cultural distance from the historical and cultural backdrop of the writings of the fathers, it is all too easy to interpret their use of the aforementioned binaries as meaning what our present day colloquial speech may, in some instances, mean. So when examining the works of the fathers, it is isn’t enough to collate passages that contain words and phrases that seem to support one’s doctrine. Rather, it is necessary to explain one’s justification for interpreting those words and phrases to mean something identical to or concordant with one’s doctrine.

Ironically, by not presenting the passages he cites in a historically informed manner, but instead simply citing them and adding parenthetical remarks such as “not torment,” Roller is not presenting an “unbiased view.” Rather, he is begging the question and stacking the deck. In addition to these fallacies, we have to add his use of the word-concept fallacy, implying that because Clement did not use the phrase “immortal soul” or “immortality of the soul” that he held to the same conditionalist doctrine which Roller holds.

The question Roller does not ask is this — “What exactly do the fathers mean when they claim that the soul is not immortal”?

A cursory study of Patristic scholars will reveal that the consensus opinion of specialists in this field is that the fathers have employed Platonic language in the service of explaining Christian doctrine over and against the Gnostics. The fathers denied that the soul was divine, immortal, etc, and affirmed that it was created by God, sustained in existence by him, and given life or deprived of life by him.

Because the fathers deny the Gnostic doctrine of the immortality of the soul, in the case of those who have the divine spark at least!, conditionalists like Roller believe they were conditionalists in the contemporary sense of the word. However, that is not the case. The fathers to a man believed in the immortality of the soul, but they were also conditionalists. How so? They affirmed that the existence of anything is conditioned upon the will of God alone, while they also affirmed that the soul has been created in such a way that it does not undergo deconstruction/disintegration/decomposition into constituent parts as the body does.

The soul exists and lives conditionally, then, as an immortal entity. This is not the conditionalism of Roller, the Adventists, or contemporary annihilationists.

What makes Roller’s book attractive is its claim to being unbiased, as well as its claim to only deal with the original authors themselves. It would be nice if we could gather a long list of quotations from the fathers and decide what their theology was simply by such proof-texting. Unfortunately, if we really want to know what these men meant when they asserted that immortality was not natural to man, or that immortality was a gift for those whose faith has been placed in Christ, then we need to do more historical research on these men in order to better understand their use of binaries and phrases that have come to mean something completely different than what many contemporary authors may assume.

Roller claims that Athenagoras is one of the first, if not the first, fathers to believe that immortality was naturally proper to the soul. However, that is not the case, as a simple reading of Irenaeus, as well as an in-depth examination of scholarly patristic writing on the issue very quickly reveals. The church fathers were not conditionalists, but held to a view similar to the one contemporary orthodox Christians hold. Conditionalism, and Soul sleep (which Roller also seems to embrace), was not held by any but the heretics.

Arnobius the heretic, the Arabian heretics, and Tatian the heretic held to these such views. Moreover, prior to these heretics, it was the Gnostics themselves who taught that those who were not spiritual would be annihilated in body and soul (see Heracleon’s Commentary on the Gospel of John, for instance where he treats Matthew 10:28 in the same way that conditionalists today do).

If you want to know what the church fathers believed about immortality, it would be best to read patristic scholars, and those who are familiar with patristic scholarship, on the matter. Roller’s book is not a good place to learn about the fathers, but does serve to educate one about how not to do historical research.