Recently we came across something called “Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement” (pictured below), which was based off of an essay written by Paul Graham called “How to Disagree“. The essay resonated with us, as it highlighted many of the observations we have come to in our own lives when it comes to discussing and analyzing the Bible. We thought we would share it here — and hopefully it will help us to have more fruitful discussion on the matters of Christian doctrine.
During the course of writing our own Bible studies and moderating the comments, we have noticed that essays may be flooded with disagreement. That does not present a problem in itself, but much of the disagreement doesn’t address any of the central arguments of our theses. We do not want to discourage anyone from disagreeing, as we can all benefit from an honest and robust discussion — assuming we each act in good faith toward one another.
We have considered that perhaps we need to get better at disagreeing in a more constructive and mutually beneficial manner — to which end we wrote our article on begging the question — an informal fallacy we often see used in Christian doctrine. Unfortunately, that essay seems to have made very little impact on those who disagree with us and each other, as many continue to routinely use “begging the question” in their comments about Scripture — suggesting that they really do not understand their own logical fallacies.
Similarly, we found Graham’s essay useful in differentiating between productive and unproductive disagreements. As Graham rightly mentioned, many people may even be unaware of the weakness of their own disagreements and arguments. We must all acknowledge the truth and warning of Proverbs 21:2,
“Every way of a man is right in his own eyes”
Therefore, the threshold of proof that we demand of our own positions is naturally lower than what we expect from those who disagree with us.
Hopefully this essay will help us all to really reflect on our own underlying motivations — if each of us can honestly apply the pyramid to our own arguments. Furthermore, Graham’s hierarchy may help us to identify dishonest — whether witting or unwitting — arguments in others:
Paul Graham writes,
This is the lowest form of disagreement, and probably also the most common. We’ve all seen comments like this: “u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!” But it’s important to realize that more articulate name-calling has just as little weight. A comment like “The author is a self-important dilettante.” is really nothing more than a pretentious version of “u r a fag.”
Admittedly, such comments left by CFT readers never live to see the light of day — that is, they do not pass moderation — and we regret to say that we receive such comments almost daily. Hopefully everyone can agree without any deliberation that this form of disagreement doesn’t help anyone ever — neither us, nor any reader, nor the commenter. For anyone who does believe that such comments are useful, we don’t really have much to say.
Unfortunately however, many of us may agree with this in principle — but when we find ourselves disagreeing in practice, name-calling might seem like a viable and legitimate strategy of disagreement.
Paul Graham writes,
An ad hominem attack is not quite as weak as mere name-calling. It might actually carry some weight. For example, if a senator wrote an article saying senators’ salaries should be increased, one could respond: “Of course he would say that. He’s a senator.“
This wouldn’t refute the author’s argument, but it may at least be relevant to the case. It’s still a very weak form of disagreement, though. If there’s something wrong with the senator’s argument, you should say what it is; and if there isn’t, what difference does it make that he’s a senator?
Saying that an author lacks the authority to write about a topic is a variant of ad hominem—and a particularly useless sort, because good ideas often come from outsiders. The question is whether the author is correct or not. If his lack of authority caused him to make mistakes, point those out. And if it didn’t, it’s not a problem.
Probably the most fascinating thing about ad hominem disagreement is that the one who uses it more than likely believes what they are saying. In other words, when we are subject to ad hominem disagreements, we can usually assume that the one who disagrees is not being dishonest — at least in their own minds. Usually we are caught off guard when characterized by the one we disagree with, because we almost certainly will disagree with their characterization of ourselves.
For this reason, ad hominem is a very week form of disagreement — it immediately alienates the two parties from one-another. In other words, ad hominem is not very persuasive for the one we engage in ad hominem disagreement with. As such, ad hominem disagreement will usually work very well in convincing bystanders who already agree with our characterization of the one we disagree with. It will suffice to convince someone who was already looking for reasons to disagree.
The mechanism by which ad hominem disagreement does this is to mischaracterize the intention of the one we disagree with. This might take the form of, “I believe A is the truth. Person X disagrees with A. Therefore, Person X hates the truth.” Fundamentally — when we disagree with someone — they do not agree with our own beliefs. Therefore — in many cases, the ad hominem attack was inevitable — because we presumed the truth of our own argument without trying to convince the other party of our own argument.
Oftentimes we fail to convince them not because our characterization of them was necessarily true, but rather because we simply did not engage with them in a particularly persuasive manner.
Generally when we come to believe something, we had certain evidence which led us to that belief. When we present that evidence to another person, we are surprised when that person doesn’t accept the evidence which we ourselves had readily accepted. Sometimes the other person may have seen it in a different way — or they may have extra information which changed their perception of the evidence in some way. Instead of trying to understand the other person’s different view, we presume ill-intent on their part because they didn’t accept the evidence the way we ourselves accepted it.
As such, ad hominem disagreement is generally a lazy form of disagreement. We refuse to apply any effort in understanding someone else’s argument and so we merely presume their intention. When we are wont to engage in ad hominem disagreement, we tend to isolate ourselves from other people — and we gravitate toward echo-chambers where everyone agrees with us.
Conversely, we tend to see those who agree with us as virtuous — because we have conflated agreement and disagreement with virtue and dishonor respectively. Ironically, because we have equated agreement with virtue, we tend to see those who agree with us through rose-colored glasses. We do not realize that this judgement error is a character flaw within ourselves and so we are cursed to repeat the mistake over and over again.
This is a large cause of schisms within echo-chamber-like communities. In such instances, most of us are there only because we agree with one another on a certain topic. As soon as some kind of disagreement occurs, we automatically revert to the ad hominem style of disagreement — because we never advanced to trying to understand our opponent’s argument — merely mischaracterizing them as soon as they do not accept the evidence which we once accepted.
Therefore, such communities are generally conversing with one another on thin ice without even realizing it. They have never learned to disagree properly. They will merely gravitate towards those who agree with them.
Sadly, in such cases we tend to overlook the sins of people who agree with us — at least until such time as they disagree, at which point their sins magically become offensive to us all of a sudden. Conflating agreement on our pet doctrines with virtue to the extent where we overlook one another’s sin amounts to nothing more than the sin of partiality.
In some cases, ad hominem disagreements are inevitable and even correct. However, the thing we accuse someone else of being must first be proven — it must be the result of having worked our way up the pyramid of disagreement in the conversation. The strength of an ad hominem disagreement depends on how well we have refuted our opponent’s central point — and potentially their unwillingness to engage in conversation on the central point.
A classic example from the Scripture would be 2 Peter 2, where Peter likened his opponents with “unreasoning animals” (2 Peter 2:12) — qualifying the statement with an argument on their licentiousness and love of money. In this case, He highlighted why the ad hominem was true. Furthermore, as is the case with all correct ad hominem statements in the Scripture, Peter did not say it based on them slighting him personally — or merely because they disagreed with him.
In the example Graham gives, he states that one must still prove the flaw in the senator’s argument — at which point the ad hominem would hold value. Conversely, the ad hominem should not be used without proving the flaw in the senator’s argument. If the senator’s argument were proven wrong by addressing the central point, one could then point out the conflict of interests by adding the ad hominem point to the overall argument.
Relatively recently there was a discussion in our comments section on the topic of Catholicism. Commenters were discussing whether or not praying to Mary or the saints for help was idolatry or not. One of the commenters presumed that Catholics weren’t aware of the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:3) — and followed the statement up with, “I guess it’s a catholic thing.”
While we do not agree with this Catholic practice, the disagreement itself was very weak. Firstly, the commenter explicitly presumed that Catholics are not aware of the first commandment. Secondly, the commenter tacitly presumed Catholics should see the first commandment in the same way they themselves see it within the context of the discussion.
The first presumption was not useful at all, because it is obviously not true — we’d be surprised if there are Catholics who are not aware of the first commandment. Yet that presumption was that everyone understands the first commandment in the same way.
Even if one were to prove to a Catholic that the first commandment prohibits them from praying to Mary and saints, the first assumption would still not be relevant — because it wouldn’t nullify the fact that they were always aware of the first commandment. Therefore, to claim that not being aware of the first commandment is “a catholic thing” would never have applied. Here is an important lesson: When one doesn’t bother to prove their ad hominem argument, one runs the risk of making a false ad hominem argument. A false ad hominem is also known as slander.
Likewise — as Graham stated, we should not be too quick to challenge the authority of another on an ad hominem basis before we have refuted their argument. At this point, challenging their authority on an ad hominem basis might have more weight. A great example of this error in the Scripture would be the blind man who was healed in John 9.
The blind man attested to the Lord Jesus having come from God on the basis that He healed him: “If this man were not from God, He could do nothing.” (John 9:33) Pharisees replied, “You were born entirely in sins, and yet you are teaching us?” (John 9:34) They challenged the man’s authority without being able to prove the man wrong.
Ultimately, the lesson we must learn is to address the argument first. If we go straight to ad hominem disagreement, it looks bad for ourselves — and we isolate ourselves from others. Proving the ad hominem disagreement first may strengthen the case — after we have engaged on the central point.
RESPONDING TO THE TONE
Paul Graham writes,
The next level up we start to see responses to the writing, rather than the writer. The lowest form of these is to disagree with the author’s tone. E.g. “I can’t believe the author dismisses intelligent design in such a cavalier fashion.“
Though better than attacking the author, this is still a weak form of disagreement. It matters much more whether the author is wrong or right than what his tone is. Especially since tone is so hard to judge. Someone who has a chip on their shoulder about some topic might be offended by a tone that to other readers seemed neutral.
So if the worst thing you can say about something is to criticize its tone, you’re not saying much. Is the author flippant, but correct? Better that than grave and wrong. And if the author is incorrect somewhere, say where.
We’ve noticed two different kinds of responding to the tone disagreements:
- Someone may find the thesis itself shocking and criticize it based on its shocking nature — regardless of the tone. The thesis itself becomes conflated with the tone.
- The thesis may be delivered in a tone which someone may find distasteful.
The first kind is probably what Graham refers to when he says, “Someone who has a chip on their shoulder about some topic…” We’ve noticed that some commenters take issue with our essays on this very basis — leaving comments along the lines of, “You should not tell people they will not attain to eternal life.” Those who leave these comments rightly interpret our message, but they ascribe to it a tone based on their personal prejudice against being “judgmental” or “legalistic.”
In this case, we did not move into the second category — delivering the message in a distasteful way — but rather they conflate the tone with the thesis itself. Conversely, to those who agree with the message — as Graham pointed out — the tone comes across neutral.
The righteousness is a result of the choice. The choice is not a result of the righteousness. Except your own doctrine of “racial salvation” has failed to produce the righteousness necessary to identify the children of the promise. You still haven’t addressed that aspect.
To which another replied,
Unless you’re the most high judge, how can you state this with such authority?
This is my opinion, and take on the scriptures, that proving to an Israelite that they will receive eternal death, and telling them that their beliefs bring forth no righteousness (hence condemning their current state to that of eternal destruction), is not the way to win over an Israelite.
If what the original commenter said was true, then the tone of the message is irrelevant. However, the one who replied did not like to hear that their own doctrine failed to create the necessary righteousness — so they criticized the tone of the argument — without bothering to address the argument in a Scriptural or doctrinal manner.
In such instances, the truth of the message is far more important. Grave messages are easily justified based on their truth. For example, if one’s life were in imminent danger, the one warning them should take all measures to make this fact known to them. We would argue that if one were convinced of another’s imminent danger, to not warn them by all means would be evil.
Imagine calmly warning someone of imminent danger — showing them evidence of the danger itself — but they keep criticizing the tone of delivery, merely because their sensibilities refuse to acknowledge any reality where they might be in danger at all in the first place. In such cases, any warning offered to them would provoke the same criticisms of one’s tone. If only the evidence itself could be reviewed and discussed, then either the one could be saved from danger, or the other could be relieved that there is no danger.
Sadly, this kind of disagreement also isolates one from the discussion itself. It is akin to someone blocking their ears and refusing to hear. Moreover, the one who disagrees would silence the conversation itself on the basis that they have been offended by it. Ironically, this kind of disagreement is very similar to what progressives use — “Your rights end where my feelings begin.” In the end, they would have truth become taboo, lest anyone get offended by it.
We’ve seen some commenters take this even further by claiming that we have some sort of morbid desire that people do not have eternal life — as if we have some sick fantasy over our brethren dying for all eternity. In line with the progressives example, this would be like accusing someone who is anti-abortion of hating women. Or like when white-nationalists express a desire to have segregated ethno-states, they are accused of hating other races.
We would argue that this kind of disagreement takes responding to the tone to the extreme — and as such it becomes name-calling. Those who disagree in this way hypocritically emulate Marxist methodologies. In all of the above examples, one who disagrees would do far better by refuting the central point — which if true, there’s no need to discuss the tone — and one may avoid danger. If the central point is untrue, the one doing the warning could cease their warning. Like Graham says, “if the author is incorrect somewhere, say where.”
On the other hand, if the delivery of the message truly is distasteful — according to the second category we highlighted above — it may actually be a relevant disagreement within the Christian context. The Lord Jesus says in Matthew 7:15-16,
15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits…
Ironically, Christians do not pay enough attention to this form of disagreement. Paul gives us quite a practical list of good fruit in Galatians 5:22-24,
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Conversely, he gives us bad fruit in Galatians 5:19-21,
19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: sexual immorality, impurity, indecent behavior, 20 idolatry, witchcraft, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
In other words, if someone who exhibits any of these bad fruits delivers us a message, we have a very strong case that they are false prophets and ravening wolves. In such cases, responding to the tone is a very powerful form of disagreement. At the very least — whether the message is correct or not — the one who displays these bad fruits should change their behavior in order to support their message. Until such time as their behavior changes, their message should not be taken seriously by anyone.
Unfortunately many Christians believe such ravening wolves merely because they like what they here. In such cases, if only they could look at the fruits of the one they are listening to, they could save themselves a lot of trouble.
For example, Donald Trump has been lauded by many as a kind of world savior, yet the fruits he produces in his personal life show that he should not be trusted. However, many people are blinded by how they think he will improve their material lives to look at the fruit he produces. On the other hand, we see televangelists greedy for money — yet there are those who place their trust in them.
Paul Graham writes,
In this stage we finally get responses to what was said, rather than how or by whom. The lowest form of response to an argument is simply to state the opposing case, with little or no supporting evidence.
This is often combined with [responding to the tone] statements, as in: “I can’t believe the author dismisses intelligent design in such a cavalier fashion. Intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory.”
Contradiction can sometimes have some weight. Sometimes merely seeing the opposing case stated explicitly is enough to see that it’s right. But usually evidence will help.
We see this form of disagreement all too often on our Bible studies — and we find it rather strange. For what purpose would anyone document their views and place them in plain view? Firstly and primarily, that it might be a benefit to anyone who might read and agree with the views presented. Secondly, we expose our views to criticism and disagreement — and to this end we allow an open forum of comments.
We believe that our work should be exposed to criticism and that everyone should make up their own minds. As such, we do allow comments — so long as they aren’t entirely unproductive.
Anyone who may want to openly disagree in a comment is in a privileged position. Being able to read, examine and understand another’s argument provides a fantastic opportunity to disagree in the best possible way. With this in mind, we struggle with the sheer pointlessness of merely stating an opposing argument without even providing supporting evidence.
To make matters worse, we’ve noticed in many cases that when some commenters leave a contradiction type disagreement, they seem reticent to provide supporting evidence even when requested to do so. Incidentally, the same applies to ad hominem and responding to the tone type disagreements. In all three cases — if that’s what someone believes — they should be willing to provide supporting evidence for that claim. Otherwise it serves literally no purpose — nothing constructive can come from it.
All three cases betray the same problem: A lack of desire to understand another’s argument and address it directly. We suspect in many cases one may feel frustrated that an article may disagree with their own view — and they want to share their frustration — yet they are unable to support their frustration with their own evidence — or by addressing the article which frustrated them.
In such cases, if one refuses to at least provide supporting evidence, it’s probably just better to say nothing at all.
One of the best examples of this kind of disagreement can be found in the statement, “I don’t believe that a loving God would do that.” It’s the epitome of a contradiction disagreement and it comes in many different forms. As such, usually contradiction disagreements come from a place where a statement has merely disagreed with our own sensibilities.
Moreover, the worst forms of begging the question are delivered via a contradiction disagreement. In other words, when someone conveys a contradiction disagreement, they have usually presumed their own truth rather than proving their own truth. They have conflated the disagreement itself with the justification for the disagreement — the logic is completely circular. This may be what lures us into brazenly making contradiction type disagreements — because we expect that logic which appealed to us at face value should appeal to others in the same way.
As with the above example, how would you define what a “loving God” is? No one should disagree that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) — but where in the Scripture do you find justification for your own version of a “loving God”? What is it about the assertion specifically that contradicts your version of a “loving God”? Our disagreement must take any reader through the baby-steps of the logic with the aim of convincing them, rather than presuming that they’ll accept the disagreement at face value.
Paul Graham writes,
At level 4 we reach the first form of convincing disagreement: counterargument. Forms up to this point can usually be ignored as proving nothing. Counterargument might prove something. The problem is, it’s hard to say exactly what.
Counterargument is contradiction plus reasoning and/or evidence. When aimed squarely at the original argument, it can be convincing. But unfortunately it’s common for counterarguments to be aimed at something slightly different. More often than not, two people arguing passionately about something are actually arguing about two different things. Sometimes they even agree with one another, but are so caught up in their squabble they don’t realize it.
There could be a legitimate reason for arguing against something slightly different from what the original author said: when you feel they missed the heart of the matter. But when you do that, you should say explicitly you’re doing it.
This is another form of disagreement we see quite often in the comments. First and foremost, this disagreement style suffers from the same problem as contradiction — it wastes the opportunity to directly address the argument which has been lain out in the article. Having said that, it’s still far better than any of the previous forms of disagreement. At least in such cases there’s something to talk about — and we usually accept them for this very reason.
However, we have noticed a big problem endemic in counterarguments: A counterargument does not prove that the one who made the disagreement understands what they are disagreeing about. As such, it is often not “aimed squarely at the original argument” — and ends up being “aimed at something slightly different.”
For example, in Will All Israel Be Saved — Or Just A Remnant? we propose that the context and central focus of Romans 9 is the children of the promise — and that the comparison between Jacob and Esau highlights that Jacob was one example of a child of the promise. We find that a common argument against the article is that the context of Romans 9 is centered around verse 13: “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” The argument claims that the context and central focus of Romans 9 is Jacob and Esau — as opposed to verse 13 merely being one example of children of the promise.
Unfortunately, the usage of the verse 13 context counterargument reveals that the one who makes the disagreement doesn’t understand the original argument in the article in the first place. One commenter said,
Rom 9:12 to her it was said, “the elder will serve the younger:”
Rom 9:13 just as it is written, “Jakob I love, and Esau I hated.”
The edomites were the vessels of wrath. Jacob was put on the altar for the pruposes of God and he made one son of Jacob for honour (Israel) and the other is for dishonour (esau).
This is what Paul is speaking about. It isnt only about Israelites as CFT suggests. This is what Paul is saying, the word of God has not failed, just that some of those in Judea were not true born sons. It is racial.
Here the commenter reveals that they do not understand our argument to begin with. We agree that Jacob and Esau were a vessel of honor and vessel of destruction respectively — therefore, the commenter’s counterargument argues the same thing which we ourselves would argue. In fact, we dedicated a few paragraphs to the topic of Jacob and Esau in Paul’s Romans 9 discourse. Like Graham said, “Sometimes they even agree with one another, but are so caught up in their squabble they don’t realize it.”
If the commenter had attempted to address the central point — instead of rushing to a counterargument — the commenter would have come to understand our argument in the first place. They would understand why merely quoting Romans 9:13 in counterargument does little to prove anything. We would expect that the commenter show us what we said — with quotes if possible — and show us specifically why it is wrong.
We should note however, that if a strong counterargument follows off the back of refuting the central point — the two being delivered together — then a counterargument is a very strong form of disagreement. It displays that the counterargument is accurately addressing the argument at hand by virtue of having already understood the argument by refuting it directly.
In our own studies, when we address the doctrines of other Christian circles, we generally try to refute their central point and present a counterargument in tandem with one another.
Paul Graham writes,
The most convincing form of disagreement is refutation. It’s also the rarest, because it’s the most work. Indeed, the disagreement hierarchy forms a kind of pyramid, in the sense that the higher you go the fewer instances you find.
To refute someone you probably have to quote them. You have to find a “smoking gun,” a passage in whatever you disagree with that you feel is mistaken, and then explain why it’s mistaken. If you can’t find an actual quote to disagree with, you may be arguing with a straw man.
While refutation generally entails quoting, quoting doesn’t necessarily imply refutation. Some writers quote parts of things they disagree with to give the appearance of legitimate refutation, then follow with a response as low as [contradiction] or even [name-calling].
Graham makes a powerful point here: Refutation takes the most work. When we refute an argument, we need to take the time to understand it. Understanding someone else’s view or argument is key to disagreeing with them effectively.
When we disagree with someone, we need to demonstrate that we understand their argument. As such, many times we will unintentionally engage in a straw man fallacy. Yes, most of the time when people engage in a straw man fallacy, they do so entirely unintentionally because they did not understand the position in the first place. Their failing is not necessarily purposeful misrepresentation of their opponent — but rather a failure to put in the effort to understand their opponent.
In such cases, if a straw man fallacy is used against us, we should be patient to correct the opponent’s understanding. Opponents should also be open to having their assessment of the argument corrected. If someone refuses to accept that their own assessment of their opponent’s argument is wrong, then they move into willful use of the straw man fallacy.
As Graham states, we should not assume that merely quoting something necessitates refutation. We would argue that quoting some logic and then ridiculing that logic — instead of addressing that logic — merely constitutes name-calling. When we quote something we should be sure to address the logic behind the text conveys and explain why it is wrong.
Paul Graham writes,
Even as high as [refutation] we still sometimes see deliberate dishonesty, as when someone picks out minor points of an argument and refutes those. Sometimes the spirit in which this is done makes it more of a sophisticated form of ad hominem than actual refutation. For example, correcting someone’s grammar, or harping on minor mistakes in names or numbers. Unless the opposing argument actually depends on such things, the only purpose of correcting them is to discredit one’s opponent.
We would agree that correcting grammar or minor mistakes constitutes deliberate dishonesty. However, sometimes commenters engage in correcting minor mistakes without being deliberately dishonest. For example, in The Spirit Of The Law — Romans 7 & 8 (Part 1) we quoted the NASB 2020 version of Mark 7:19 which says,
because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thereby He declared all foods clean.)
We argue that this verse shows that the Lord Jesus declared all unclean foods (Leviticus 11) clean. We included a BibleHub link to Mark 7:19 in the article where anyone may compare multiple versions of the same passage. We have been adding these links to our recent essays in an effort to show we do not rely on any one Bible translation — despite having a preference for the articles themselves. One commenter wrote,
“If it weren’t obvious enough, Mark wrote, “Thereby He declared all foods clean.”
That line “Thereby He declared all foods clean” is spurious and found only in newer translations, like the NIV.
Furthermore, it doesn’t fit into the context of Christ’s message in Mark 7.
His disciples initially thought Christ meant food when they ask him:
“Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?”
To which Christ responds with the next 3 verses, saying:
“And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man.
For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders,
Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness:
23 All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.”
Christ is not talking about food, but things within a man that tempt man to sin, i.e. evil thoughts, murders, adulteries etc. All things listed clearly in verses 22 and 23.
When such things come out from a man he is defiled. When a man sins he becomes unclean.
I hope you guys take this to heart.
Later on, this commenter stated that they had taken issue with our doctrine exonerating the eating of “swine meat” — so we assume the commenter had accepted that their critique quoted above was sufficient to disprove our proposed doctrine.
Firstly, the commenter quoted our article — a good start. However, let us assume that the NASB 2020 translation is indeed spurious — and our usage of the verse was entirely unjustified. The commenter’s refutation still did not take into consideration that the usage of Mark 7 overall was merely one pillar in a series of pillars used to justify the doctrine which we propose. In such a case, pointing out the mistake would remove our ability to use it in the argument, but it would not disprove the overall argument.
Still under the assumption that the NASB 2020 translation of Mark 7:19 was spurious, the commenter did not consider our quote from Mark 7:18, “whatever goes into the person from outside cannot defile him” — a definitive statement showing that “whatever goes into the person” — meaning anything one might eat — cannot be considered sin. We would argue that “swine flesh” could reasonably be considered as something which may go “into the person” — and as such, it cannot be considered sin.
Therefore again, if the NASB 2020 translation of Mark 7:19 is spurious, the verse in question was merely one pillar in a series of pillars used to prove our interpretation of Mark 7. It would still mean we are able to use Mark 7 to prove our doctrine. Furthermore, the NASB 2020 was engaging in an uncharacteristically thought-for-thought style of translation — though the translation itself can be justified when looking at the original Greek. As for the rest of the comment, the context of the Lord Jesus’ teaching was a core part of our argument — and we would agree, “When a man sins he becomes unclean.”
Ultimately what we’d like to highlight above is that we must be careful to fully understand the argument — otherwise even a refutation runs the risk of missing the point entirely.
REFUTING THE CENTRAL POINT
Paul Graham writes,
The force of a refutation depends on what you refute. The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone’s central point…
Truly refuting something requires one to refute its central point, or at least one of them. And that means one has to commit explicitly to what the central point is. So a truly effective refutation would look like:
The author’s main point seems to be x. As he says: <quotation> But this is wrong for the following reasons…
The quotation you point out as mistaken need not be the actual statement of the author’s main point. It’s enough to refute something it depends upon.
Firstly, the claim the author of the article makes is that, because Paul quotes Isaiah 10 in Romans 9, Paul is therefore preaching to the Romans about eternal salvation, because apparently Isaiah is speaking of eternal salvation in Isaiah 10. The crux of the issue for the article being that a “remnant” refers to an eternal remnant and not a temporal remnant.
However this is entirely false…
In this instance, the commenter more or less understood the premise of our argument and thus was able to give a productive disagreement by refuting the central point. They gave a concise summary of our argument, demonstrating that they had understood what they were attempting to refute. Off the back of this comment, we were able to productively discuss the refutation.
WHAT IT MEANS
Paul Graham writes,
Now we have a way of classifying forms of disagreement. What good is it? One thing the disagreement hierarchy doesn’t give us is a way of picking a winner. [Disagreement hierarchy] levels merely describe the form of a statement, not whether it’s correct. A [refuting the central point] response could still be completely mistaken.
But while [disagreement hierarchy] levels don’t set a lower bound on the convincingness of a reply, they do set an upper bound. A [refuting the central point] response might be unconvincing, but a [responding to the tone] or lower response is always unconvincing.
The most obvious advantage of classifying the forms of disagreement is that it will help people to evaluate what they read. In particular, it will help them to see through intellectually dishonest arguments. An eloquent speaker or writer can give the impression of vanquishing an opponent merely by using forceful words. In fact that is probably the defining quality of a demagogue. By giving names to the different forms of disagreement, we give critical readers a pin for popping such balloons.
Such labels may help writers too. Most intellectual dishonesty is unintentional. Someone arguing against the tone of something he disagrees with may believe he’s really saying something. Zooming out and seeing his current position on the disagreement hierarchy may inspire him to try moving up to counterargument or refutation.
But the greatest benefit of disagreeing well is not just that it will make conversations better, but that it will make the people who have them happier. If you study conversations, you find there is a lot more meanness down in [ad hominem] than up in [refuting the central point]. You don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.
If moving up the disagreement hierarchy makes people less mean, that will make most of them happier. Most people don’t really enjoy being mean; they do it because they can’t help it.
We don’t have much to add to the above — we agree with it. Although just to reiterate, this knowledge does not guarantee that we are able to unanimously pick a winner — everyone will have to make their own decisions. The goal here is to be more effective and productive when we disagree.
Yes, “Most intellectual dishonesty is unintentional.” We would all do well to acknowledge that. If we can agree to strive to move up the disagreement hierarchy, we can at least limit our own intellectual dishonesty and be more persuasive. If someone refuses to move up the pyramid, then we can assume they are willfully intellectually dishonest.
CLOSING THOUGHTS — AMBIGUITY, GOOD FAITH, BABY STEPS AND A UNIFIED DOCTRINE
Something we have noticed with Christian doctrine generally is a refusal to acknowledge ambiguity. For example, some Christian circles insist that Hebrews 12:16 means that Esau himself was a fornicator — despite the inherent ambiguity in the verse. Our article Was Esau A Fornicator? was largely an effort to highlight the ambiguity of Hebrews 12:16 — if the verse is at best ambiguous, then it cannot be used to prove — prima facie — that Esau was a fornicator.
Many times we may come to a doctrinal understanding through erring on one side of an ambiguous verse. In other words, we fail to acknowledge the ambiguity and place it within our doctrine as if it weren’t ambiguous. Unfortunately, it is only when we expose our views to criticism that the ambiguity may be highlighted to us. Often when we overlook ambiguity, it is merely an oversight.
To make matters worse, we may make ambiguous verses into cornerstones of our own doctrine — without ever acknowledging their ambiguity. In such cases, when another person highlights that ambiguity to us, we are so invested in the verse we can tend to flat-out refuse to acknowledge the ambiguity of the verse.
Sadly, this stance is very unpersuasive and intellectually dishonest. If we are to err on one side of an ambiguous verse, we need to prove why we have taken that side by bringing in extra witnesses. Ideally, we should also prove why the side we disagree with cannot be true — so we disprove the wrong side and prove the right side.
Another very difficult topic in disagreement is that of good faith. Good faith is the assumption that the one we are talking to is not being willfully intellectually dishonest. It also assumes that we ourselves do not engage in willful intellectual dishonest with others. If we are to have productive disagreement, we must have good faith toward one another.
We must all agree that we strive for the objective truth — instead of proving our own agendas. However, hopefully this article will go a long way in assisting us in having good faith by working toward the top of the pyramid — along with identifying others who refuse to move to the top of the pyramid.
We should not give merely argument which convinced us in the first place — often we need to take an audience through our line of thinking one baby-step at a time. We need to clearly lay out our premises and explain why a premise has led to a given conclusion. This form of argument is often called syllogism or deductive reasoning.
Incidentally, Paul uses this form of argument to devastating effect — especially in the book of Romans. We also find it in the book of Hebrews. Some of the epistles — like Romans and Hebrews — were written for the express of convincing the audience of something, rather than merely commanding them.
Sadly, many Christian circles do not acknowledge the intrinsically syllogistic nature of some of the Scriptures. For this reason, we tend to take something an author has said out of the context of their overall argument. In other words, we tend to base our doctrine off of their premises — rather than off of their conclusions. For example, Paul says in Romans 3:23-24,
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus
This is Paul’s premise, not his conclusion. Unfortunately many Christian circles make out as if Paul argued that we have sinned and have been justified in spite of our sin — and that’s the end of the matter. Those who draw this false conclusion often use these verses to justify lives of sin and lawlessness — as if our justification in Christ Jesus gives us license to sin as much as we want and still receive an eternal reward.
Ironically, we have seen our own studies fall victim in similar manner — our premises are taken out of context and criticized as if they are our conclusions. Such behavior demonstrates that either we do not understand the argument, or we are willfully dishonest to misrepresent the argument.
If we practice deductive thinking in our own arguments toward others, hopefully it will also help us to follow the arguments which some Biblical writers present to us. When we present an argument — especially if novel to others — we should carefully walk them through the argument. If there is a gap in our own argument, hopefully through discussion — at the top of the pyramid — that gap will become known to us.
Lastly, as Christians, we are in a very fortunate position in our scholarship — we have a limited, agreed upon body of writing upon which we base all of our arguments: The Bible. Yes, we disagree on finer details which lead to bigger disagreements down the line, but we can at least agree that we should base our lives on the Bible.
We should all acknowledge that our doctrinal position must be reconciled with the entire Bible. If our doctrine is able to agree with every single verse in the entirety of the Bible, then we have achieved a truly unified doctrine. We should be honest with ourselves — in good faith — when our position is irreconcilable with certain verses of the Bible.
Certain Christian circles cannot reconcile their views with Paul’s writings — so they discard Paul’s writings as divinely inspired. Other Christian circles believe doctrines not found in the Bible — so they add in extra-Biblical writings in an attempt to support their own positions. This error takes many forms, but here are some examples:
- Using the book of Enoch to justify the position that angels had sexual intercourse with people in Genesis 6.
- Using evolutionary, big bang or genetic “science” to justify certain positions on the nature of “race” or creation.
- Using flat-earth “science” to justify accusations of idolatry toward others.
We should not engage in doctrinal positions which require the use of extra-Biblical sources, including but not limited to: “Science”, apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, pagan writings or any Midrashic type writing like targums or the Talmud. We must see the world through the Bible — we must not see the Bible through the world. If we cannot agree on this principle, we will never reach a unified doctrine of the Bible.
Hopefully if we are able to apply Graham’s pyramid going forward in good faith, our disagreements will become far more productive and we can make massive leaps forward in our common Biblical exegesis.