Using Argumentation Theory in a World Hostile to Truth
- Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Growing up in Texas, my wife was trained to look at the ground whenever she goes for a walk in the woods. You see, you never know where a snake will show up. At a friend's wedding, the bride had two white doves in a splendid cage right next to her wedding register. Doves are always pleasant, especially at weddings. Christ, in His thought-invoking way put these two seemingly contrary images together with a third unlikely image of a sheep. How do these three images come together? And what do they have to do with preaching?
Christ tells us that we are sheep sent out among wolves (Matt. 10:16ff). To those who preach in these days of increasing rejection of truth, this image is easy to apply. After calling us sheep, He goes on to exhort us to be like serpents and doves. How can a preacher be shrewd as a serpent and have dove-like innocence? They almost seem mutually exclusive. Sheep, serpents and doves: how does this help our preaching? To my surprise, as I was reading about the strategy of presenting an argument, these three images—sheep, serpents and doves—started coming together for me.
As I read in a textbook about the use of argumentation in composition1, I found argumentation theorists suggesting that to present one's view most effectively, the presenter should thoroughly understand and present the opposing view. This takes an extra effort, but it should be done out of respect for another person. It struck me that this was a dove-like approach.
Another suggested that we craft our statements with a careful consideration of the audience's values and beliefs. This sounded like the shrewdness of a serpent. As I continued contemplating what argumentation theorists said, it struck me that many of their suggestions were good applications of the biblical commands. Perhaps we can better understand how to be a sheep, serpent and dove by looking at argumentation theory.
But does arguing have anything to do with preaching? Arguing is what we did as children. In the sand-lot baseball game, one brother said, "you're out!" Then the shouting began.
Normally, we do not think of preachers as those who argue, certainly not in the sense of an angry firing-off of words and gestures to push an opponent to adopt our view. Though we may slip into this self-centered form of communication when our insecurities get the best of us, arguing is not normally what we evangelical homileticians practice. It must be noted, however, that arguing is different from argumentation.
Simply stated, argumentation is the act of presenting material in such a way as to facilitate a listener to action. Argument shows up in many areas of life and in a variety of forms. Argument is a student with unforeseen computer problems persuading his teacher to let an assignment be turned in late. Argument is a lawyer persuading a jury to rule "not guilty" because the evidence submitted was collected in an illegal manner. Argument is a well-crafted commercial that combines words and music with a 30-second, tear-invoking plot that persuades the audience to buy a greeting card.
Because argument is in every part of life, it has been discussed throughout history—from Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. to Deborah Tannen, who popularized the topic 24 centuries later. By bringing a summary of argumentation theory into a beneficial relationship with biblical guidelines, this article suggests an application of being sheep, serpents and doves.
Preachers Are to Persuade
At first it seems that one appointed to proclaim the Word of God would not be concerned with argumentation. We preachers are commanded to proclaim, not persuade, so why craft a method to promote acceptance? Is that not the role of the Spirit?
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