Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Is every argument essentially the same?

Whether we are talking theology (perhaps ESPECIALLY if its theology!), football, favourite TV programmes, what food we like or just about any topic on which its possible to have more than one opinion, isn't every single argument/debate/discussion basically a rehash of the self-same concept?

This concept is that whatever we're talking about we have the same unspoken criteria in play: "this person is wrong because they don't agree with me! If they could just see everything as I do then they'd be okay and I could also then like them..."

So, another way of saying, "the best car to buy is a Ford", is, "the car I own is a Ford..." Or, more pertinently for the theologically inclined, "God is best represented via the Anglican Church", actually translates as, "I am an Anglican!"

Can we ever get beyond this myopia? Do you? How do you do it?


  1. Good questions again, Martyn. Questions of epistemology have always been hugely contentious. I think we all certainly do have unspoken assumptions from which we argue, though I don't think I would agree that the concept is essentially self-referential (they are wrong because they disagree with me). For instance, when I engage in theological conversation and am faced with opposing viewpoints, I want to say that one is wrong because it is unbiblical. I know this is tricky because my own assumptions about the interpretation of a certain doctrine/theological position come into play. But at the same time, I am not attempting to locate the authority of an argument in my own subjective understanding, but the objective teaching of Scripture.

    Now I realize this opens a whole can of worms because people believe that to get to an ultimately objective understanding of Scripture is impossible because we are all rooted in a certain context. I personally disagree with that because if that is, in fact, the case, there is no point in ever talking about theology or biblical interpretation. The very point of such talk is grow in our knowledge of God and His revelation to us, and we can't properly understand it why even bother talking about it in the first place?

    Anyway, just a few thoughts...

  2. Oh...as a great resource on exploring some of these epistemological concerns, I highly recommend John Frame's work, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. It was very formative in a lot of my thinking on epistemology.

  3. Philosophically speaking this isnt necissarily the case. Kant, a theologian himself, suggested with his Catagorical Imperative moral code that we ought to live on Earth treating everyone as "ends in themselves" etc but he was fully accepting that this was not the case with humanity nor would it be likely to be for any forseeable time. Marx said the same with the possibility of communism in the future.

    So my point is, it is possible to hold an arguement that acknowledges that the point your arguing for isnt the position you hold at this moment in time. Though perhaps its more possible in academics than day to day debate...

  4. Thanks for the helpful comments guys. As the theologian Dr Graham McFarlance very wisely notes, "Theres more to the truth than words can convey..." While acknowledging this, I agree with Jake in saying that this doesn't mean that we give up the task of seeking truth. Instead, we just need to seek this truth with an open heart/perspective and a great degree of personal humility.
    I also think, Rob, that your observation that, "...perhaps its more possible in academics than day to day debate..." shows HUGE wisdom. Its all very well us pontificating on theories isn't it, but VERY much more difficult in our everyday life to act in the humility of our finite knowledge. Sometimes I fear that we live in an age where everyone is afraid of not knowing stuff. Its cool not knowing stuff - it means there's more to know and the fun of finding it out!!! At the end of the day, no-one likes a know-all...