Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

When we reason, we try to think about whether something is true. “Is there a God?” “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” are questions about the truth of statements. To answer them, we must construct and evaluate arguments.

What is an Argument?

Over centuries, philosophers have built up a body of knowledge on arguments including what kinds of arguments are possible and what makes an argument good or bad. We call the study of arguments logic. But what exactly is an argument?

One might think we are talking about what people do. People argue. But the examination of arguments is not an examination of what people do. Rather, the term as we are going to use it, means a set of propositions comprising premises and a conclusion. Propositions are what we express when we use declarative sentences to assert something we believe (statements). Premises are those propositions that are supposed to support the truth of the conclusion.

Sometimes, a set of statements can look like an argument, but turn out not to be. Warnings, pieces of advice, and statements about one’s beliefs sometimes include argument-type words such as ‘so’ or ‘therefore.’ However, if they don’t contain propositions that support the truth of a conclusion, they aren’t arguments.

Perhaps the closest thing to an argument is an explanation. Explanations show why something is the case, but don’t necessarily demonstrate that it is the case. This is a crucial distinction. For example, suppose someone asks you why you are a Christian. There are two ways to respond. One can explain how one acquired Christian beliefs or one can offer reasons to believe Christianity is true.

The first response is an explanation for belief, the second is an argument for its truth. According to the first approach, I could tell my own story about hearing the gospel and praying to the Lord. I could tell it without giving a reason for thinking the gospel is true. According to the second, I could present arguments for the existence of God or for the reliability of the gospels without saying how I came to believe it.

To be clear, testimonies are vitally important. Arguments aren’t the only thing with persuasive power. Our stories have an important role to play. But they don’t necessarily contain any arguments.[1] The importance of an argument is its capacity to give reasons to think a belief is true. But our psychology is complicated and influenced by factors including desires, emotions, personal experiences, biases, and cultural background. Hence, good arguments are best when accompanied by people who have Christian testimonies (1 Peter 3:15-16).

In sum, to discern the presence of an argument, one has to look for statements that support the truth of a conclusion.

Why Christians Should Study Arguments.

Some find arguments difficult and perhaps too cold for Christian thought. But we have good reasons for studying them. First, thinking logically is a way to serve God. As Augustine claimed, logic points to the mind of God. He writes, “the validity of logical sequences is not a thing devised by men but is observed and noted by them that they may be able to learn and teach it; for it exists eternally in the reason of things and has its origin with God.”[2] Indeed, since we are made like God, we have a capacity to order our thoughts like him. Doing so is part of our mandate to represent him well in the world.

Second, logic is a means to serve people. Although argument is not the only means by which we persuade people. It is the only means by which we defend the truth of our beliefs. Sometimes avoidance of argument is actually much less loving. As Greg Welty writes,

Useful Christian apologetics is incompatible with two kinds of people: the fearful and the over-confident. The fearful are too afraid to lay their cards on the table, while the over-confident engage in sleight of hand to effect a quick outcome when no one is looking. Both approaches hide the truth, though for different reasons, and so neither approach really makes a case. But anxious secrecy and cynical manipulation have a habit of disappointing people who are really interested in the truth. Make a case! Have faith that you think you can do it…, plan to be persistent in doing it…, think hard about how to do it…, and then do your best, being open to correction by others.[3]

Of course, not everyone is interesting in hearing the truth, but there are people just like you who are. Our role is to serve them. Making a case for something even when it is difficult is an act of service to those who want to know.

Third, logic helps us understand the Bible. When we are trying to understand an argument in the Bible, we usually have to reconstruct what is said to show its logical form. Having some knowledge of logic helps us see what is being claimed (the conclusion) and how each step in an argument leads to the next. Frequently, the task is not easy. For example, in his letter to the Roman church, Paul makes the following argument:

If our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? (Romans 3:5–6)

Paul tells us that he is using an argument. But what exactly is it? To reconstruct it, we have to figure out precisely what he is arguing for (the conclusion) and what he has marshalled in its support (the premises). We also have to consider what follows from what, the logical relations between statements. This passage is not easy, and I shall return to it in a further post.

Finally, apart from plentiful deployment of argument in its content, the Bible mentions occasions on which the Lord’s apostles engaged in presenting arguments (Acts 15:2–7; Acts 17:3; 18:4; 19:8). At the Jerusalem council, a lengthy debate took place. Eventually agreement was found, and the apostles came to one mind. A similar process goes on today in churches.

God could have given us other means to come to one mind, but good biblical argument is what he has given us. It is a healthy activity intended to bring about unity and confidence in God’s people. We should subject our beliefs to scrutiny, checking whether they are well supported by the Bible and hold up to objections. Doing so is important for the people of God even if it takes time and effort. The resulting unity is worth it.

[1] Sometimes a testimony contains both. For example, see Nabeel Qureshi, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 2014). Also, a testimony of personal experience can be used as evidence for a belief. For example, an experience of a miracle serves to support the claim that God exists.

[2] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, II.32. qtd. in Nance, Introductory Logic, 2

[3] Greg Welty, “Richard Swinburne” in The History of Apologetics, eds. Benjamin Forrest, Joshua Chatraw, and Alister McGrath (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 728-729.