Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Using Argumentation Theory in a World Hostile to Truth

  • Calvin Pearson Associate Professor of Preaching, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Ft. Worth, Texas
  • Updated Feb 10, 2010
Using Argumentation Theory in a World Hostile to Truth

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 (Matthew 10:16). 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.

"Was not!"

"Was so!"

"You're dumb!"

"You're blind!"

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?

In response to this perception, well-respected homileticians make a strong case that persuasion is the role of the New Testament preacher. Larry Overstreet, Don Sunukjian and many others make the point that preachers should seek to persuade.2 This article will attempt to describe how we are to engage in this practice.

A current cultural trend, articulated by pollsters such as George Barna and theologians like David Wells, highlights that we preach in a difficult context. Preaching the judgment of God upon sin to people whose favorite misunderstood biblical command is "judge not" is a heavy task. We must be skilled in argumentation so that our increasingly hostile listeners will have every opportunity to hear what God is saying and will take action based upon what they hear. We must be as shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.

Innocent as Doves: Biblical Mandates

The Scripture gives us many guidelines for our attitudes toward others. The hardest one to talk about is humility—but would anyone deny its importance? To say we are humble in our argumentation is presumptuous, as though we didn't have any motives. However, it is vital to see the following suggestions are not just another part of a method we learn so that we can "win" in our next debate.

C.J. Mahaney was asked to write a book on humility. (I suppose that otherwise it should not and could not be written.) In Humility: True Greatness he gives a picture of humility from the words of Carl Henry. When Mahaney asked the evangelical patriarch about maintaining a humble spirit, Henry responded, "How can anyone be arrogant when he stands beside the cross?"

In order to reach a world of wolves, we must attempt to bring Carl Henry's view of humility together with argumentation theory. Borrowing the wording from Aristotle's definition of rhetoric3, to be sheep, serpents and doves, we must seek to use every available means of persuasion while standing next to the cross of Christ.

Servant's purpose. If you want to be great in God's kingdom, you must be the servant of all. In contrast to this, our natural tendency in argumentation is to present our point in such a way that our hearers will think we are right. Our purpose is too often to win the argument so that we can show ourselves to be the greatest. To be dove-like we must seek to persuade so that the listener can benefit. Benefits to us should be of no consequence. Unlike the salesman who seeks the benefit of his customer and himself, we can seek to persuade purely for the benefit of the listener. We persuade to serve our listeners by seeing good take place in their lives.

Loving heart. Perhaps the first command we learned as children gives the proper motive in argumentation: "love one another." Motives are hard to discern, much less control; but we must ask ourselves, Why do we work hard to present the truth of God effectively?

When I am honest with myself, I must admit that too often, I step into the pulpit fully prepared with my words so that when I step out I will be fully affirmed by the words of others. Unfortunately, at that point, my motive is not love for God and others but love for myself. To be dove-like is to be motivated by love for God and others. We preach because we love the One whose Word we proclaim and because we love those to whom we proclaim it. We persuade out of love for God and for those we are seeking to persuade.

Shrewdness of Serpents: Contributions from Argumentation Theory

When Christ uses the image of a serpent, He refers to their shrewdness or craftiness. We must overcome the negative connotations of snakes and strive to be what Christ calls us to be. This shrewdness could easily be associated with the craft of rhetoric and, more specifically, argumentation theory.

The recorded study of argumentation began in the classical Greek period. Aristotle presents what he calls an enthymeme. It is a syllogism with a missing part.

When the middle element is left out, the audience must supply it. In a sense this is leading the audience to be a participant.

The principle upon which Aristotle builds much of his rhetoric is that an audience is more likely to be persuaded if they are actively participating. This is related to Stephen Toulmin's concepts presented during the 1950's. Toulmin suggested a graphic model for analyzing argument, which has three basic elements: (1) Data—an accepted statement, (2) Claim—statement to be proven, and (3) Warrant—a value or belief that makes the claim valid in the mind of the listener. These parts are interrelated and each is necessary for the argument.

The data and the claim must be stated, but not the warrant. One might say a warrant is the common ground in the area of values. Toulmin's concern for the audience is expressed even more strongly in Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca's The New Rhetoric. In this lengthy and complicated work, the bottom line is that the audience is what matters. This audience-focused approach expresses itself when they suggest that the audience may not fully buy into an argument but could rather increase in their adherence to a position.

This audience-centered attitude is even more pronounced in "Rogerian" argumentation. While Carl Rogers, the famed psychologist, never articulated a theory of argumentation, others—namely Young, Becker and Pike in Rhetoric: Discovery and Change—have taken this client-centered approach and applied it to argumentation. Their basic premise is to view the argument from the audience's view point.

The last argumentation theorist to be mentioned is a popularizer of this field, Deborah Tannen. She writes from the perceptive of a linguist and has given us not only help in the area of argument but has published a helpful book on gender and communication. The point of Tannen's book is stated in the title: The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words. She shows how our everyday vocabulary contains hostile, inflammatory words that have militaristic overtones. It is no longer a game of basketball; it is the battle for the title.

This brief summary of argumentation theorists gives us just a hint of how much work is being devoted to argumentation. When their concepts are in submission to Scriptures and to orthodox theology, many principles remain that can help us.

Sheep, Serpents and Doves

Now that we have reviewed in a summary fashion some biblical principles concerning humility and been introduced to representative argumentation theories, an attempt will be made to combine these into a set of principles. Admittedly, argumentation is very dynamic and refuses to follow set patterns. So this is not a step-by-step process; rather it is describing a mindset for preachers. Perhaps these will help us sheep as we seek to be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.

I assume that the normal principles of homiletics are being practiced: solid exegesis that leads to a sermon that is clear, interesting and relevant. The following principles are designed to augment these proven concepts.

1. Desire to see audience benefit. To a person committed to the proclamation of godly truths, loving our audience might seem second nature; but we must remember our sinful nature. Though we can never be certain that our motives are pure, we can, at least, actively pray for the good of our audience. We must consciously have their good as the aim of our discourse, and we must aggressively think of ourselves as their servants. This is not the view that seeks only to win, nor is it seeking a win/win middle ground. To be innocent as doves and shrewd as serpents, we must seek to put "win" in the column of our listeners.

2. State the opposition's view with accuracy and respect. We know to identify and address perceived opposition, but we must not stop there; we should strive to present how the audience might feel about an issue. When we preach toward repentance, we may think we are presenting the congregation's opposition by saying, "Sin is fun…" and we quickly add, "…but only for a season." Our acknowledgment of sin being fun is a good start in presenting how a congregation might feel, but we need to go further. Sin is not simply fun; it is part of a person's lifestyle, and it makes sense to them. In no way do we affirm sin; but we need to let them know that we recognize how hard and how disruptive repentance can be. We need to be cautious here lest we end up like the dispensational eschatology professor who presented the amillennial view with such effort that he unwillingly converted some of his premillenial students!

3. Seek to identify with the audience. Concepts related to this are mentioned in many homiletics textbooks, usually in the area of support material. We are taught to have illustrations that our hearers have experienced or at least have knowledge of. Identification is not limited to illustrations; it extends to delivery, style and virtually all areas of preaching. When speaking in deep East Texas, my southern accent tends to increase because I am instinctively attempting to build an identity bridge between me and the congregation. If others identify with you, they are much more likely to listen to you.

4. Understand and use the values or beliefs of the audience. Each audience will have a set of values. Though it may require years of listening and living with people, one can learn the values of a congregation. These values can help a pastor preach more effectively because he is supporting the text with the congregation's deep values. If a congregation in New England is being addressed, the value of tradition can be very important. A lifelong friend of mine has an annual men's picnic at a lake in central Massachusetts. He revealed one of his New England values when he explained that he continue to serve "Table Talk Pies"—even though hardly any one liked them—because that is what his grandfather served. The value was keeping the tradition. In speaking to an audience composed of people similar to my friend, the preacher can use their value that "traditions are good and should be kept" to persuade. In a sense, trusting Christ is a 2,000-year-old tradition—not that holding to tradition is the only reason to come to faith, but it helps to move a person.

5. Present how you might be positively affected by the opposition. This is an attempt to show the audience that they matter, since you can be moved by them. This effect upon you must come out of love and respect that you have for those to whom you speak. Perhaps you are presenting your complimentarian view of the role of women to an audience greatly influenced by feminists. You explain that the feminist teaching of women being "objectified" has helped you see a less-than-desirable mindset that you have toward women. When they hear that you have been helped by an opposing view, there is a possibility that they will feel more confident and secure, thus putting them in a position to listen more openly.

6. Ask our listeners to apply at least some of the truth (or in some cases all of the truth). As has been pointed out in evangelistic studies and in the experience of ministry, people often have to embrace the truth of the gospel in stages. It is rare that a person responds the first time he hears the gospel. Caution must be exercised: there is no middle ground when it comes to faith in Christ, but coming to faith may start with an awareness of sin. The person may not embrace Christ, but his understanding and feeling guilt is a start.

7. Give an invitation to take action on biblical principles. In James Crosswhite's book The Rhetoric of Reason, he presents the case that rhetoric has as its purpose action, not truth. A fireman trying to get a person to leave a burning building is not interested in the person believing a truth about a fire; he wants the person to leave the building—to take action. In most rhetoric studies, particularly in the area of argumentation, the issue is not truth but action. In contrast to this we are concerned with truth, but we want our hearers to go beyond an acceptance of truth to action.

Richard Weaver, a rhetorician with a worldview more palatable to Christians, closely links rhetoric and truth. He basically says that the speaker without truth has nothing to say. Certainly for us, the preacher without the truth has nothing to preach. It is not that we separate truth from belief, but rather we see the distinction between persuasion and truth.

Commitment to something does not necessarily mean you are positive it is the truth. Many times people are ready to take action before they are positive of the truth. Of course, truth is important, but at the point of persuasion we must link truth to action. If one accepts the truth that Jesus is the only Savior from our sin but does not follow through with trust, then we have failed to truly persuade that person.

When we stand in our world to announce, "Jesus died for your sins, and you must repent and trust Him as your Savior," we face both collective opposition from a relativistic mindset that rejects any "you must" type of statements as well as opposition from the individual sinful nature that rebels against God. Minds—hardened externally by culture's insubordination to its Creator and hardened from within by a choice of pride—cannot be moved by our rhetorical efforts.

Without the Holy Spirit's convicting work in a person, there will never be true persuasion. Therefore, relying upon His work, we must attend to our work with all the tools we can find while maintaining a proper attitude. We must be sheep in the midst of wolves, as shrewd serpents seeking to use every available means of persuasion, while as doves we stand next to the Cross of Christ.

1. Nancy Wood. Perspectives on Argument, 2004.
2. Larry Overstreet in "The Priority of Persuasive Preaching" and Don Sunukjian in "The Preacher as Persuader" make the case that persuasion is part of the role of a NT preacher. Spurgeon in his Lectures to My Students has a chapter entitled, "Conversion is our Aim" and Broadus in his legendary On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons has a chapter devoted to argument.  
3. Aristotle defined rhetoric as "the ability to see the available means of persuasion." Book 1 Ch 2.1.