Why good arguments often fail
Review of Why Good Arguments Often Fail by James Sire (IVP). This is one of those increasing rarities, an IVP US book that makes it onto the IVP UK catagloue. We're richer for it though. It was published in 2006 and I remember reading it a few years ago and thinking, hmm, that should help my preaching. So this last week, I determined to read it again. It's both an incredibly strong book and an inherently weak one – both at the same time.
It's strength comes from the very careful analysis of argument (much of which can be applied to preaching) with the specific view of informing evangelism (in the author's case campus evangelism). But it also has an inherent weakness, namely, it's just not quite spiritual enough….. Let me explain before I return to its strengths.
There is, of course, a reaons why good arguments fail. Funnily enough, I'm preaching on it this Sunday:
the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor 4.4)
Therefore, the answer to failing arguments is primarily spiritual and the remedy must be spiritual too – to preach God's word in the power of the Spirit, soaked with prayer. I am sure Sire would not disagree with this, but he says very little about it in the book. However, it is also true that in that same passage, the Apostle says:
on the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor 4.2)
Perhaps I'm being pedantic? After all, what follows in Sire's book is superb. But I would not want anybody to read it (least of all impressionale young campus evangelists) and just think that we've got to make a good argument. However, proclamation is surely not less than that, and this is why the book is ultimately helpful.
The book starts with a chapter borrowed from another, namely Love is a fallacy from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis by Max Shulman (1951 – collection of short stories which later became a TV series). You can read the chapter here (quicker) or even watch it on youtube (keep going to the end for the punchline….).
The first half of the book is then dedicated to explaining the various logical fallacies people use and then showing how they can be avoided. I think this is a rich vein for preachers (and I even wonder whether the short story should be required reading on Cornhill!). For example, we have:
- unqualified generalisations: "statements that contain a grain of truth but are so unqualified that they almost succeed in being false" – e.g. "Christians know the truth about God."
- hasty generalisations: statements that contain truth but extrapolate too far. "Church is a wonderful place." Listeners are going to see through that!
- false cause: arguments that simply claim too much. "Everything that is great about the UK comes from our Christian heritage" – just not true, but I've heard preachers use similar arguments.
- contrary hypotheses: arguments that are not internally consistent. We once tried to hire a church for a conference but were told by the vicar that we could not as "they were an inclusive church" – think about it!
- hypotheses contrary to fact: something that expresses what we wished were true, but may well not be. "If only you would read the gospels you would see clearly that Jesus is the Son of God."
- false analogy: drawing distinctions between wrong things. Perhaps this is where many of our illustrations suffer?
- poisoning the well: perjorative statements up front that simply turn some people off. "the new atheists don't understand anything about Christianity" Really?
- non sequitur: an argument where the conclusion doesn't really follow the points made.
All of these are very cleverely illustrated in the Love is a fallacy short story…..
I find this sort of challenge really helpful. My preaching has got to stack up. And it's easy when you're in monologue to abuse the audience and not argue carefully. Of course, the type of preaching we espouse guards against this – mostly because we're using the logic and argument of the text to make our case (although that presupposes we've done the careful work to understand the logic of the text).
The remainder of the book deals with other reasons why arguments fail: attitude, misreading the audience, gaps in worldviews between us (important one that), moral blindness – and ends with a worked example through Paul's Athens address, plus loads of recommendations for resources.
I don't think this book will transform your preaching, but I do think it will help it.
Now, I'm off to see Christopher to tell him about Love is a fallacy….
New online journal
There's a new online journal out called Credo. OK, so it is written by baptists (hoorah!) but it looks very serious and thoughtful and I've enjoyed the one or two articles I've read so far. Contributors include Bruce Ware, John Frame (so not all baptists…), Timothy George and Tim Challies. Free, and worth a few moments of your time – especially this launch issue on the doctrine of Scripture.
A one page article interested me (and made me smile). It was a series of short one line interviews asking a variety of men how difficult it is to interpret Old Testament Scripture. I love Walt Kaiser's entry "2 (on a scale of 1-10) relatively easy"!!
New strategies for reading the Bible
The front page headline in this month's Christianity Today caught my eye
Why leading evangelical scholars are arguing for a new way to interpret Scripture
Got me worried! Novelty is not necessarily wrong, but we are right to be wary of new things. It turns out that this "new" way to read Scripture "turns out to be not so new and will deepen our life in Christ." So, not so new. And, without wanting to go all "I told you so" what we've been advocating for years. It's a long article and addresses some particular American problems with reading the Scriptures, but they are problems that appear to be more and more prevalent over here. So, here is the breakout box on 1 Samuel 17. It's worth repeating in full and if you can get access to CT, then go read the article.
Consider the well-known story in 1 Samuel 17 in which David faces and defeats Goliath. Let me give two possible approaches to preaching or teaching this text. Neither sees it as simply an account of a border skirmish in ancient history. Both approaches understand the Bible as authoritative.
In the first approach, the character of Goliath becomes a metaphor for the challenges faced in daily life. Hearers are encouraged to identify the “Goliaths” in their own life – low self-esteem, financial challenges, or a family problem. David becomes a model of the underdog who dares to step up to his own inner “giants” and “challenges.” The Bible is the answer book, showing us the way to face challenges in our personal life: visualize a positive outcome like David (17:36), act with confidence in the face of a challenge (17:37) and take risks (17:48-9). In this way, the Bible helps us solve our problems. Who is the hero of this rendering of the story? David – more specifically, his courageous human will. David’s faith in God may be noted, but it is David’s faith that is highlights. The living God is not a major character in this reading of the text.
In contrast, a theological interpretation of Scripture tries to understand the text as part of a God-centered drama. In this approach, God’s saving action is at the center of the narrative. While the mighty Goliath can taunt the people of Israel, David confesses, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine” (17:37). Rather than seeing David as the self-actualized hero, the emphasis here is on the saving action of the almighty God, whom David actively trusts. For as the text repeatedly notes, it was not a “sword” of David that brings deliverance from the philistines, for “the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand” (17:47; cf. 17:37; 17:50). Although David appears to be ill-prepared to encounter Goliath, David acts with covenantal trust in God that “The Lord…will save me from the hand of this Philistine” (17:37).
Thus, we are invited to actively trust in this same God – the God of Israel who finally reveals the nature of his victory over his enemies in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the 1 Samuel narrative shows how God’s surprising way of working contrasts with worldly appearances of power. Paul reflects on this mystery as it culminates in Christ crucified: “God chose what is weak in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor, 1:27b-30). As disciples of Jesus, we are called through the David and Goliath narrative to renew our trust in God’s deliverance, acting in confidence as we love God and neighbour and witness to God’s power in Christ crucified. Our confidence is in the Lord (not our faith or our commitment), for it is the Lord who uses even those who appear weak and lowly to accomplish his purposes.
What language shall I borrow?
I recently had the privilege of attending the West London Ministry Meeting at Duke Street Church in Richmond. Mike Reeves of UCCF was speaking to us about Richard Sibbes’ book originally titled Bowels Opened but soon to be re-published by the Banner of Truth with a title more appropriate for the 21st Century, namely The Love of Christ.
It was a glorious afternoon as Reeves opened up Sibbes’ book which is an exposition of The Song of Songs. Sibbes sees The Song of Songs as “nothing else but a plain demonstration and setting forth of the love of Christ to his church, and of love of the church to Christ.” One of the many things that struck me was how both Solomon and Sibbes are fetching for the highest language to describe the excellencies of Him who is “distinguished among ten thousand” (Song of Songs 5:12), our magnificent Lord Jesus. It reminded me of that line in the hymn ‘O sacred head once wounded’ which says, ‘What language shall I borrow to praise you, dearest Friend?’ What a great question! We live in a time when everything is ‘great’ and ‘wonderful’ and ‘brilliant’. And yet if we use superlatives to describe the mundane, how do we describe the One who is altogether lovely? So here’s something I am trying to do: reserve my superlatives for the Saviour. That is to keep the utmost language for my utmost Treasure. And to borrow whatever language I can to praise Him who is. The Puritans were good at doing that. So I am looking forward to reading Sibbes’, The Love of Christ.
Mike Reeves is one of the speakers at next year’s EMA. Book online here.
A difficult baptism text – but let’s be true to it
In their preaching groups, our second year Cornhillers are working through Colossians – a tough book for them, a real stretch. Last week we got to Colossians 2 and that particularly vexing baptism verse:
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col 2.11-12).
As I was studying, getting ready for my preaching group, it dawned on me that both credo-baptists (of which I am one) and paedo-baptists misuse these two verses.
- Credo-baptists misuse it by building a theology of baptism that says our baptism reflects events past which happened at conversion, namely that we have died with Christ and also have been raised with him. I confess to using it that way myself. But it's not precisely what the text says, is it? The text says that the dying and being raised happened with baptism, not that baptism is somehow a picture of what happened in the past.
- Paedo-baptists do not get off the hook either. This text is also used to make a link between the Old Covenant circumcision and New Covenant baptism. But that is also not what the text says. In fact, it makes no reference to Old Covenant circumcision at all. Rather it is referring to the circumcision of the heart (granted that is an OT phrase, see Deut 10.16) which is not a covenant sign but a conversion entry point.
We both need to be more humble before the text. Moo, BTW, has a helpful comment on this in his Pillar commentary:
The New Testament connects our coming to Christ (being converted and initiated into the new covenant community) to faith, to repentance, to the gift of the Spirit, and to water baptism, in various combinations. Any of these, in a kind of metonymy, could be used to connote the whole experience—implying, of course, in each instance, the presence of all the others. Water baptism, then, as a critical New Testament rite intimately connected to our conversion experience, could be used as shorthand for the whole experience. (p203)
Reading week: a thoroughly good idea
John Stott used to have this reading plan: one hour a day, one three hour period a week, one day a month and one week a year. I'm not sure I can keep up with that much structured reading (though I do read a lot). However, once a year I try to follow the "one week a year" pattern. Last week was my week and it was….mostly….reading. It didn't quite work out (a preaching group, a ministers gathering and an evening lecture interrupted the flow), but it was pretty good.
We think this is such a good idea that we give the Cornhill students a reading week too. This year, if you're interested, they will be reading either Pilgrim's Progress or Idols by Julian Hardyman (first years) or What is the mission of the church? by DeYoung and Gilbert (second years).
I tried to choose a balance of books, alongside spending some time in 2 Corinthians and Colossians for my Bible study. Here were my choices. I'll blog on some of them over the next few days, if you're interested:
- For personal encouragement I read Steve Wilmshurt's Mark in the Welwyn Commentary series. Truth is, I was given this to review, but it turned out to be a very warm pastoral and spiritually helpful book for my own walk with Christ. And good to get back into Mark's gospel again.
- For intellectual stretch (not too hard with me) I read James Sire's Why Good Arguments Often Fail. I've read this before, but wanted to come back to it again as I know it had some helpful things about preaching.
- For role related challenge, I picked up Leaders Who Last by Dave Kraft. More of this shortly,
- For preaching (that is after all my job, to help others preach) I read a manuscript of Teaching 1 Timothy by Angus Macleay, one of our 2012 books.
- And for an historical slant, I read the new biography of Bonhoeffer by Eric Mataxas. Again, watch out for a post.
As I said, more on some of these shortly. But let me commend a reading week. It's something well worth pursuing. Oh, and I also read some kids books with the….kids. Nice.
Doing the numbers
When you're planning a sermon series, there comes a point when you have to decide how you're going to divide up the book. Note this is even true if you take one week at a time and don't announce sections in advance. At the very least (in this situation) you are making weekly decisions – though I would contend that if you're going to take that approach (and I have sometimes), then your pre-work should have given some time to this question – otherwise there is a danger your sermon series could feel very bitty.
Now you have to make some crunch decisions. Take a book like Numbers. Is this going to be a three year series, or a shorter one! I would suggest that with such an unfamiliar book you don't want to rush things, but then neither do you want to get bogged down. There are obviously great benefits in going slowly – it gives a chance to tackle all the issues and also does justice to all your study. But, conversely. larger sections gives people a broader sweep of the issues the book raises and which we need to take to our hearts.
The answer is….. whatever is right for you. It will depend so much on context, congregation, location, style – all manner of things, in fact. I'm probably somewhere in the middle. I want to do justice to a book like Numbers, but I also recognise that a sermon series is unlikely to cover everything – these are not expository lectures I am planning. So here, for what it's worth, is my sermon planning for Numbers, a series I called "Homeward Bound" – though I might not stick with that title another time through. I've given each sermon a punchy one word title which is my effort to summarise the direction of the section.
- Numbers 1-4: Numbers
- Numbers 5-6: Purity
- Numbers 7-8: Worship
- Numbers 9-10: Preparation
- Numbers 11-12: Discontent
- Numbers 13-14: Rebellion
- Numbers 15: Grace
- Numbers 16-18: Rejection
- Numbers 19: Cleansing
- Numbers 20-21: Salvation
- Numbers 22-24: Blessing
- Numbers 25: Seduction
- Numbers 26-30: Beginnings
- Numbers 31: Victory
- Numbers 32: Disunity
- Numbers 33-36: Inheritance
Mrs R and I had a hot date last weekend going to see Bach's St Matthew's Passion at the National Theatre. Wonderful stuff if you like that sort of thing. And many of the words (it was an English translation) taken straight from the gospel account, of course. Edifying too, then. But it all ended rather sadly.
The Passion (perhaps the clue was in the name) ends with the death of Jesus and the carrrying away of the body by Joseph of Arimathea. Then some of the narrating cast sing a series of questions to answer which, loosely translated, mean "Where is my Jesus?"
For those who know the gospel accounts, it is entirely unsatisfactory. The normally reserved Mrs R told me later that she was tempted to stand up and shout "He's alive!" though I'm rather glad she didn't! But she would have been right. We need the cross and the resurrection, otherwise the death of Jesus is just another hero story and not the story of the salvation of the world.
"He was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification" (Romans 4.25). Don't let your preaching, therefore, be just like the Passion. Tell the full story.
Drawing lines of application
Just last weekend I preached 2 Cor 2.12-3.6 – a passage in which Paul defends his ministry to the Corinthian brothers. In many ways it's a fairly straightforward passage to exegete. There are one or two hurdles, but on the whole exegesis is pretty plain.
But what about application? There are quite a few passages like this where Paul is talking about himself, his ministry, or perhaps praying for a particular church. How do we draw lines of applications from such passages? We must, of course, otherwise our preaching will be nothing more than dry lecture information (and perhaps we are gullty of that?). Here are my convictions about that particular passage, all of which I tried to convey in the sermon as I tried to move to 2011 in East London.
- Paul's ministry as an Apostle is unique and so we must be careful about drawing direct lines of application without thinking it through. I am not Paul, and neither are my people.
- Paul's ministry is given to him to (in part) equip the saints in works of ministry themselves. That is what Eph 4.16-17 says. Therefore the principles that underpin Paul's ministry should also (with care) underpin ours. Every saint in the local church has works of service (or ministry) to do, and we can learn from Paul.
- Paul's ministry was one of church planting. Our ministry is (for the most part) rooted within the church, so we must take care not to create individualistic principles.
If you're interested, I used the three pictures Paul uses in the passage to make my points. This is a Sunday evening service at our church where the style is more informal and we are trying to engage with many people for whom English is not a first language and preaching is a relatively new concept. So we have a short (for us) 25 minute sermon and then 15 minutes of Q&A. My principles were:
- The open door: I called this gospel focus, making the most of every opportunity (v12-13)
- The pleasing fragrance: I called this gospel calling: keeping the main thing the main thing even when it is the stench of death (v14-17)
- The heart letter: I called this gospel reality: our message is one of the Spirit and therefore life, not of the law (3.1-6)
Blind spots and inconsistencies
We all have them – and we often need others to point them out. Not so long ago I went on a long journey with a fellow pastor who was hot on Sunday observance but drove the whole way at 90mph (on a 70mph motorway). Just a short while ago I spent an evening with some London Christians who love Jesus on Sunday morning but on Saturday were seriously (and I mean, seriously) hard drinkers.
In both cases, neither could spot the inconsistency of their position, as I’m sure I cannot in my own life. I need people around me to graciously and lovingly point out such areas. And I do need it (and so, I epxect, do you):
- it’s part of the work of putting sin to death in our bodies which we must be committed to
- we are called to live pure lives in the world (see, for example, 1 Peter 2.12)
So, if you can’t work it out yourself, ask someone close. What are your blind spots and inconsistencies? Then, in the power of the mighty Spirit of Christ, put them to death.