The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

May 6, 2011

Christian Theological Dialogue (or, how to disagree without being a jerk)

"Be at peace among yourselves" (1 Thess 5:13, KJV)

 The setting? A Christian college dormitory. The topic? Election (of course!) A cacophony of voices rises above the normal sounds of every-day college life. Positions are vigorously debated, opponents are dismissed outright, and occasionally a voice is shrilly raised to protest somebody’s (alleged!) misrepresentation of their position. The debate continues far into the night and ends with neither side convinced of the other’s position. A few feelings have been hurt, and a few words spoken perhaps a bit too hastily.

Naturally graduation to the seminary level means that the same debate will be carried on with more intelligence, more poise, and a Kant-ian level of pure reasoning. Or perhaps not. Whatever the case, from the halls of a college dormitory to the postings on a Facebook page to the pure academic setting of a peer-reviewed journal to the coffee-fueled discussion of a Sunday school class, theological dialogue has always been and will always continue to be a part of the Christian life.

 But what, then, are the boundaries for such dialogue? When Christ are the Apostle Paul engaged in theological dialogue, they were hardly polite! Yet for those of us that lack the complete knowledge of our opponents’ hearts or the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to back our arguments, surely there must be some guidelines that, at the least, keep us edifying each other rather than tearing each other down!

 In order to facilitate some thoughts along these lines, I want to look at some examples of academic theological dialogue and then try to develop some principles that will facilitate us in our “dialogue/debate” with fellow believers on various theological issues.

 One more note: I’m incredibly grateful to the meek yet intelligent spirit shown by my fellow doctoral students at SEBTS. It seems that at the ph.d. level, we can actually disagree, have fun in the process, and still remain friends! The irony is that there is way more theological divergence between me and my friends at the doctoral level than there ever was at the college level, yet the dialogue remains significantly more cordial.

 The first example of theological dialogue we’ll look at is a positive one, between my advisor Dr. David Alan Black and Dr. Robert Stein on the Mark and the Synoptic Gospels. [let the record show, in the interest of full disclosure, that I’m fully on my advisor’s side on this one, but that’s irrelevant to my point]. Both Drs. Black and Stein are reasonably courteous in their interaction with each other, despite strong disagreements.

 In “Some Dissenting Notes on R. Stein’s The Synoptic Problem and Markan ‘Errors’” (Filologia Neotestamentarai 1 [1998]: 95-101), Dr. Black disagrees with Dr. Stein regarding whether or not Mark uses improper grammar. The nature of the disagreement is unimportant. What is important is how Dr. Black goes about disagreeing without getting overly-harsh. On page 95, Black desires “to show that Stein’s arguments fail in fact to demonstrate the peculiarities he has in mind” [regarding Markan priority based on allegedly inferior Markan grammar]. Ultimately his harshest criticism is that the Markan style is “misinterpreted by him [Stein]. . . he has suppressed information we need.” One page 98, he states, “Once again, Stein has suppressed information . . .”

This is, of course, acceptable dialogue. Claiming that somebody has misrepresented something or suppressed information is not an attack on their character, especially since Black never suggests that Stein is doing so deliberately.  Furthermore, Black interacts very closely with Stein on the evidence itself and does not introduce red herrings.

Robert Stein responds to Black in the 2nd edition of his book and is surprisingly courteous (Studying the Synoptic Gospels: Origin and Interpretation [2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001]. Actually, he only interacts with Black in three footnotes, so his response is not at all thorough, but nevertheless it is gentlemanly. Twice (p. 57 n11 and 58 n15) he actually concedes Black’s point that he should not have used the term “poor grammar,” but nevertheless sticks to his guns by asserting that Mark’s usage is still unusual and thus his argument is unaffected. On page 58, n13, Stein simply refers the reader to Black’s article for an alternative viewpoint (always an academically honest thing to do, though perhaps not as thorough a response as Black's article warrents).

Ultimately who is “right” on the issue is irrelevant (*cough* Dr. Black is correct *cough*). What’s important is that these two scholars strongly disagree with each other yet do not get personal. This is a good example of dialogue.

Another positive example of cordial disagreement can be found in James Barr’s monumental The Semantics of Biblical Language (Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf & Stock, 1961). Consider the following paragraph, where Barr manages to take Metzger to task while simultaneously praising him! “With respect to the scholarship of the author [Bruce Metzger], I cannot regard this paragraph as other than a romanticization . . . its contrast with the careful scientific method of the rest of Metzger’s article is very noticeable.” Notice Barr disagrees with Metzger while at the same time declaring how great a scholar Metzger is! Classy! Of course, Barr was not always so courteous to his theological opponents, but his disagreement with Metzger here is still, in my opinion, “courteous dialogue par excellence”!

Now lets move onto a theological exchange that, in my opinion, gets a bit too personal on both sides. To avoid distraction, we shall refer to the scholars as “Dr. S” and “Dr. C” (see the bibliography at the end of this article if you really need to know who they are). Once again, the nature of the argument and who is correct is irrelevant. The dialogue is found in Westminster Theological Journal 67 (Fall 2005).

In the first article, Dr. S provides us with a mostly negative review article of scholar C’s book. The article is entitled “Biblical Greek and Modern Greek: A Review Article.” To be fair, Dr. S does start on a positive note, and calls the book in question “[Dr. C’s] most impressive contribution to date” (391). Yet overall the review article is very negative, Dr. S’s two major problems with the book, what he calls its two major weaknesses, are “the tendency to overstate opinions” and “failure to make use of the advances in linguistic science over the past eighty years” (393).

So far this is not a problem. Yet in the course of the review Dr. S makes two statements that push the boundaries a little, in my opinion. On page 396, he states, “various other comments in the book make one’s head shake in disbelief” and “these and other examples of naïve argumentation are perplexing.”

The reference to “shaking one’s head in disbelief” seems to be more borne out by emotion than logic, while the use of “naïve” may really not be the best term for academic debate.

However, Dr. C’s response is more personal (pp. 405-415). He has nothing good to say about Dr. S, and his first sentence sets the tone: “[Dr. S] has attempted to write a review of my book” (405). Notice the use of the word “attempted.” The implication is that Dr. S’s article is so lousy it does not count as a real review. Later, on page 410, Dr. C. states, “As usual, [Dr. S] fails to get to grips with the contents of this chapter, though he chides me for not using modern linguistic terminology. One is tempted here to ask, why didn’t he, with his modern linguistic terminology, solve the problem of the correct pronunciation of ancient Greek?” Here the last sentence is very emotional, almost a direct attack, and has nothing to do with the overall argument. Later, on 414, Dr. C states, “The following example show’s [Dr. S] lack of feeling for the Greek language . . . no one should blame [Dr. S] for his lack of feeling for Greek. . . . but [Dr. S] perhaps could be more careful with ironizing those who do have a feeling for Greek.” Here Dr. C basically launches a direct attack on Dr. S’s ability with the Greek language. Whether Dr. C is correct in his assessment or not is irrelevant; there are other ways to disagree with somebody than to argue that they lack the same ability in Biblical Greek than you do (to be fair, Dr. C is a native Greek speaker; still, I think he goes too far here).

Finally, on 414 Dr. C states, “The entire review is an aggregate of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and criticism of the reviewer’s own construals of my meaning.” This, of course, is simply not true since Dr. S deliberately made a point of praising certain aspects of Dr. C’s book. At best it’s a careless overstatement on the part of Dr. C.

Finally, Dr. S provides a very brief rejoinder. To his credit, he backs off on one of his points: “I accept [Dr. C’s] argument . . . in looking back at this point, I acknowledge that my assessment sounds hypocritical.” This, I think, speaks well of Dr. S’s character without detracting from his argument. It is no shame, and no weakness, to admit that you overstated your case or misrepresented your opponent. Overall, of course, Dr. S sticks to his guns and also urges the reader to analyze the disagreement for themselves, always a good thing to do.

The dialogue between Drs. S and C must still be within the acceptable scope of academic dialogue, otherwise WTJ would never have published it. Yet clearly there are some personal feelings involved, and the dialogue is not quite as commendable, perhaps, as the one between Dr. Stein and Dr. Black.

Now, then, let me make a few recommendations for theological dialogue that will hopefully equally apply to Christians no matter what the context.

1. First of all, don't get personal! If there are issues in the other person’s character that need addressing, then do so as Christ commanded you to do (Matthew 18:15-17). A theological discussion is not the place to bring such things up. Neither insulting comments nor comments directed at somebody's character have any place in theological dialogue and will just make you look like you’re still in grade school rather than seminary or Bible college. Never call into question somebody’s intelligence, piety, spirituality, walk with the Lord, motives, or devotional life! Only God knows the heart. If you seriously think that there’s a defect in your opponent’s character, confront it in the appropriate manner, not in the middle of a theological discussion (especially when others are present).

2. Closely tied to the first point, mind your terminology. There’s a whale of a difference between the terms “idiot” and “misinformed.” The latter attacks the argument of the opponent, while the former attacks the character. After all, one can still be intelligent and yet be “misinformed,” but “idiot” makes a statement about somebody’s character, a statement that we have no right to make. Similarly “absurd” is not a good term to use, since you’re portraying your opponent as dim-witted (whether they really are or not is not the point! It’s not your call to make, and only the Lord can see the heart). Instead of calling somebody’s argument “absurd,” say that it “has not taken into account all the evidence” (and then show exactly what evidence it hasn’t taken into account). I would suggest it’s okay to say that your opponent has “misrepresented” the evidence, because that may imply a simple mistake or logical lapse on their part. Do not accuse your opponent of “falsifying” the evidence, however, since that’s a moral issue and should be handled personally outside of theological debate.

3. Stay humble! Guess what?  Regarding the non-essentials of the faith, you (and I) may be wrong! Yes, that’s right; despite the hours you’ve put into thinking through the topic, despite that “killer A+ paper” you wrote for your favorite professor, despite the fact that you once personally heard “great preacher Dr. Mucky-muck” speak on the topic, despite all that, you (and I) might still be wrong. There have been thousands of people before you, and there will be thousands of people after you, who have debated this topic, and probably the vast majority of them are more intelligent than you (and I). Also, none of us are in any position to judge our opponent’s intelligence; he or she may be smarter than we are, and even if they’re not, intelligence does not necessarily mean one is right! Finally, remember that the other brother or sister in Christ has just as much of the Holy Spirit as you do, so don’t assume that you have any sort of special divine revelation on the topic.

I’m not being post-modern here (after all, there is one correct position, but it’s not necessarily mine!), nor am I referring to the essentials of the faith. I will never admit the possibility of being wrong in such matters as the deity, death, and resurrection of Christ, inspiration of Scripture, etc. But I am referring to our views on various interpretations where Scripture is not as clear as we would like it to be. As the general rule, the clearer Scripture is, the more we can be adamant in our position. On a related note, see the interesting article by Craig L. Blomberg, “The New Testament definition of heresy (or when do Jesus and the apostles really get mad?” JETS 45 (March 2002): 59-72.

4. Don’t brush aside your opponent’s arguments. If you don’t like how they cited Scripture, don’t just accuse them of proof-texting and go on your merry way. Rather, interact with them on the level of the text. If you cannot offer an alternative to their interpretation of Scripture, then you have failed to adequately answer their argument. Similarly, don’t just brush aside any sources they bring to bear on the problem. Deal with them before going on the offensive again. Instead of saying “Clearly Dr. B is missing the point because he’s a Methodist [or Baptist or Presybterian],” try saying “Dr. B’s article fails to deal with the following issues . . .”

5. Finally, remember that your treatment of others is more important that winning a theological argument! If you can’t be polite when debating election, then don’t debate! If you find yourself raising your voice, then back off and go throw a football or something. I believe Christ is more concerned that we love each other rather than that we confound each other with brilliant theological arguments.


Black, David Alan. “Some Dissenting Notes on R. Stein’s The Synoptic Problem and Markan ‘Errors,’” Filologia Neotestamentaria 1 (1988): 95-101.

Blomberg, Craig L. “The New Testament definition of heresy (or when do Jesus and the apostles really get mad?” JETS 45 (March 2002): 59-72.

Caragounis, Chrys C. “The Development of Greek and the New Testament: A Response to Dr. Silva.” WTJ 67 (Fall 2005): 405-415.

Silva, Moisés. “Biblical Greek and Modern Greek: A Review Article.” WTJ 67 (Fall 2005): 391-404.

_______. “Some Comments on Professor Caragounis’s Response.” WTJ 67 (Fall 2005): 417-418.

Robert H. Stein, Studying the Synoptic Gospels: Origin and Interpretation (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001). Note that Stein’s first edition was written before Black’s critique and so naturally does not contain his response to Black.


  1. I enjoyed reading this. Well said. We all have a lot to learn.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement. It's definitely an area we need to continually work at.