Jesus the Debater

We tend to think of Jesus largely as a nice guy. And I feel certain he was quite nice– he perfectly displayed all the fruit of the Spirit, including love, patience, kindness, gentleness, etc. But he also spoke very strongly at times, and reading an extended discourse in Luke 20 I was struck by how aggressive he was in his rhetoric.

  • In 20:1-8 the Jewish leaders question his authority. He turns the question back on them, knowing that their desire is to accuse him, not gain information. His question stumps them.
  • In response (20:9-18) he tells the parable of the tenants, a crushing indictment of unbelieving Israel, especially its leaders.
  • In 20:19-26 the scribes and chief priests, knowing the parable is about them, try again to trick him with the question about paying tax to Rome. His response is simple and avoids their trap; they’re stumped again.
  • In 20:27-40 the Saducees ask a question about the resurrection of the dead (which they don’t believe in). He answers their question (there’s no marriage at the resurrection), but then in verse 37 thrusts back at them, proving the resurrection of the dead from Scripture. They had granted the resurrection for the sake of argument, but he’s not willing to let that lie; he shows they are just plain wrong.
  • 20:41-44 is another thrust, showing the error of the scribes in not seeing that the Christ would be superior to David (i.e. not just another good king, but something greater).
  • 20:45-47 is his conclusion to the crowds, who have presumably seen the entire exchange: Don’t be like these guys. I’ve shown you that their arguments don’t hold up, but there’s more: They’re all about their outside image, but the inside is evil.

There are a few things we can learn from this.

  • Debate is legitimate (with all the right caveats about Christian charity, honesty, kindness, etc).
  • Crafting an argument effectively is legitimate, including parrying by setting aside false charges, thrusting by showing the other side’s errors, and continuing to thrust by going to the bigger picture.
  • This must all be done in the service of God’s people. The crowds saw Jesus defeat the scribes and their colleagues; they knew he was right and they were wrong. But they also got his warning to beware seeking the praise of men.
  • We have to keep the right goal in mind, which is greater conformity to the Word of God and the image of Christ. It would be very bad, in learning to “fight” like Jesus, to fall into the errors of the scribes and love our own wisdom, our reputation for being smart and right.

7 thoughts on “Jesus the Debater

  1. Debate is good for believer and unbeliever but I’d always add that you should know your subject well before debating with others who also know the subject well.

    In the words of St. Augustine:

    Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, this is a disgraceful and dangerous things for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumable giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these subjects; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of the Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

    (De Genesi ad litteram, Book I, Chapter 19)

    So be smart and use reason to support your Scripture. I’d say not to rely on Scripture alone but I’m not sure how well that would go down.

  2. The quote from Augustine is great. It’s incumbent on Christians, whether it’s an in-house question or one in the public square, to be as well-informed as possible.

    The issue with reason and Scripture is that Christians hold Scripture as our ultimate standard, the standard by which all other things are judged. That same Scripture both encourages us to study and use our minds to understand Scripture (e.g. 2 Timothy 2:7) and warns us that our minds are affected by the Fall– because of sin, they’re not working as they should (Rom 3:10-12 describes our fallen state in moral, cognitive, and volitional terms).

    So we use our minds, or reason, in order to understand Scripture. But to elevate “Reason,” as though it’s some sort of pure, objective capacity we have, over Scripture is like navigating with a broken compass instead of evaluating your compass by the North Star.

  3. Romans 3:10-12 says that no-one has ever been good and righteous. It’s all a bit much if you ask me. It’s saying that no matter how hard you try to do good and help others you will never be good enough. It makes the Christian god come across as the most demanding parent ever.

    I don’t see people elevating reason to the status of a perfect ideal. Reason is a fantastic attribute to use and we should certainly make the most of it but it is only a part of being a human being. Reason alone is a step on the way to wisdom. Of course we shouldn’t neglect our reason or work against it by trying to fool ourselves into believing things that are unreasonable.

  4. You’re right, that’s exactly what Rom 3:10-12 is saying: no matter how hard you try to do good, you will never be good enough. Actually it’s saying more: in fact, you won’t try to do good and help others at all times, and therefore you will fall short of God’s absolute standard.

    This would indeed be terrible news by itself. But the same Bible, in fact the same author and the same letter (Romans 8:3-4, for example), also tells us that God, knowing we could not meet that standard on our own, came and took our place, meeting the standard for us. And then that he accepted upon himself the penalty for our having not kept the standard. He accepts us, then, based on his own performance, not ours. It then becomes very good news.

    As to your second point, you’re assuming that your reason is working properly. What makes you think it is? And why does your definition of what is reasonable get to trump everyone else’s? Christians, for example, think that the things we believe are very reasonable. We don’t suspend reason in order to believe things that are ridiculous; we just use Scripture to guide our reason. We have an ultimate standard outside our own minds, which the atheist doesn’t.

    Thanks for continuing to read the blog. I’m enjoying the interaction.

  5. why does your definition of what is reasonable get to trump everyone else’s?

    I never said that it did.

    We have methods to verify that our reason is working properly, checks and balances to verify that our behaviour is no unreasonably. Scientific research has taken the idea of not trusting our assumptions to invent the “Scientific Method” where experiments are checked and rechecked in order to reduce the effect of any sort of bias. Eliminating bias helps us to ensure that our reason is correct. It doesn’t leave decisions and ideas up to interpretation. Even truths that are uncomfortable are revealed.

    If you find guidance in your faith then that’s fine, I’m happy for you, but it is guidance for you and for like minded people. It isn’t objective. A Hindu or a Muslim may find guidance elsewhere and feel justified in their own beliefs. That’s fine too.

    We have an ultimate standard outside our own minds, which the atheist doesn’t.

    I assume you mean a moral standard? See, I disagree. I think that your moral standard comes from your background and your upbringing. The bible and your religion are simply one aspect of that. You probably don’t literally followed the bible for your morality. At least I’d hope you set your standard a bit higher.

  6. Just an additional thought from a first-timer on this blog. Jake, you are clearly baised in accepting the Bible as your ultimate standard. Could you provide some evidence to show that the Bible/biblical teaching is intended to be taken this way? I’m agreeing with you, but seeing it from the Bible might help.

    But speaking of being biased, I think Haverfrog is, too. So am I. I would argue that it’s impossible not to be. Even the choice to use the Scientific Method can’t be put in a test-tube and validated, right? Why not let rationalism or utilitarianism be our guide? Or pin-the-tail-on-the-decision blindfolded? Why not a mixture? There are pros and cons to each, but biased convictions lie behind all of them.

    If the answer to these questions is, “You decide”, can I decide for myself to disagree with this answer?

  7. Carlton, you’re quite right. I do have my own biases, we all do. I’d like to think that I try to limit them as much as I can and that I’m open to new evidence to change my views. I suspect that I’m less able to shake off my biases than I’d like. I do take pride in being aware of many of them though.

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