Series Posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
In the fourth part of this series I am going to point out that Jesus made use of argumentation in such a way that we are even able to categorize the kinds of arguments he made. Initially, though, a point should be made about the role of argumentation. Dallas Willard notes in his essay, “Jesus the Logician,” that, “Jesus’ aim in using logic was not to win battles, but to achieve understanding or insight in his hearers.” Too often those who disparage the place of apologetics in the life of Christianity fail to make this kind of distinction. Argumentation and logic, when applied in a humble and faithful way, are intended to part the clouds, not bludgeon people.
Utilizing some of the sections of Groothuis’ book, On Jesus, I want to outline and demonstrate a few ways in which Jesus used argumentation in the Gospels.
Escaping the Horns of a Dilemma
A classic way to corner an opponent and force them into an unfavorable position is to try to get them to answer a question that is formed with only two options, when in fact, there are more options available. The classic example is the Euthyphro dilemma in which Socrates asks whether God commands what is good or if things are good because God commands them. The best way out of a dilemma is to provide a third option.
This issue shows up most often in the Gospels between Jesus and his opponents. In Matthew 22:17 the Pharisees ask, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Just a couple verses earlier we learned that they asked this in order to trap him. The dilemma formed here was a “yes” or “no” answer. How did Jesus reply? “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matt. 22:18-22) Jesus did not accept the terms of the question put to him. Instead, he found a third way out of the dilemma.
A Fortiori Arguments
An a fortiori argument is an argument “from the stronger.” Here is how Groothuis describes this form of argument:
1. The truth of A is accepted
2. The support for the truth of B (which is relevantly similar to A) is even stronger than that of A.
3. Therefore, if the truth of A must be accepted, then so must the truth of B.
One well-known example of this argument in the Gospels is where Jesus defends his healing of a woman on the Sabbath in Luke 13:10-17. In this passage Jesus argues that it is an accepted truth that a person can untie an animal and lead it to water on the Sabbath. In addition, the well being of a woman is more important that untying a beast of burden, so it should be an obvious truth that Jesus healing the woman on the Sabbath should be an acceptable act.
Modus Ponens Arguments
The basic form of a modus ponens argument is:
1. If P then Q
3. Therefore, Q.
If you are attentive, Jesus makes a lot of use of this simple logical structure. Possibly the most common form of the argument is in terms of what the Messiah will do when He arrives. In a logical structure it might look something like:
1. Actions of type X will be performed by the Messiah
2. I am performing X-type actions
3. Therefore, I am the Messiah.
It is in these kinds of dialogues, by the way, that we probably find the most Scriptural evidence that Jesus thought He was God and that the NT writers thought He was divine. John chapter 5 is replete with these kinds of examples. In John 5:21, the Father gives life, and the Son gives life to whom He will. In 5:22-23, the Father is worthy of honor, and the Son is worthy of honor. In 5:27 the power of judgment is in the hand of the Father, and he has given that power to the Son.
Clarifying the Terms of a Discussion
Another important task in discussion or argumentation is definition. Nothing kills productive discussion like equivocation, evasion and propaganda. Jesus had a way of working a conversation to the point where people understood what he meant in new, unique, and powerful ways.
Take the Samaritan woman for example. She didn’t understand what Jesus meant when he used words like “drink,” “water,” and “worship,” but He was able to speak to her in such a way that she went away with a powerful grasp of who He really was claiming to be. A similar thing happened with Nicodemus and their conversation regarding birth.
A cousin to this category might be Jesus’ use of parables. Intelligent communicators are able to express deep thoughts, effective communicators are able to express deep thoughts intelligibly. Parables were a powerful and memorable tool that Jesus used to communicate truths about His kingdom to those who were willing to listen and learn.
Joe over at Evangelical Outpost is collecting posts and evidence along the lines of Jesus the Logician. Check it out.