How to Win a Theological Controversy: Lessons From the Pharisees

Mar 11, 2023 | Articles, by Guest Writers, Marrow Ministries Free Content

Tired of losing debates? Would you like a surefire way to win arguments? Consider learning from some of the best. The Pharisees had plenty of experience in theological controversy. Most notable was their interaction with the theological heresy of Christianity. Through the employment of several forms of fallacious arguments, they managed to discredit Jesus and his followers and effectively “win” the debate. One prime example of their methodology is found in chapter seven of John’s Gospel. A careful examination of this passage uncovers some valuable lessons that modern controversialists can utilize for silencing the opposition.[1]

When the Temple guards returned without having arrested Jesus, the leading priests and Pharisees demanded, “Why didn’t you bring him in?” “We have never heard anyone speak like this!” the guards responded. “Have you been led astray, too?” the Pharisees mocked. “Is there a single one of us rulers or Pharisees who believes in him? This foolish crowd follows him, but they are ignorant of the law. God’s curse is on them!” Then Nicodemus, the leader who had met with Jesus earlier, spoke up. “Is it legal to convict a man before he is given a hearing?” he asked. They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Search the Scriptures and see for yourself—no prophet ever comes from Galilee!” (John 7:45–52, NLT).

Appeal to Authority

Make blanket appeals to your own authority:

“Have you been led astray, too?” the Pharisees mocked. “Is there a single one of us rulers or Pharisees who believes in him?” (v. 48).

The argument seems to be, “We, by definition, are the authorities and gatekeepers of truth, and we cannot be wrong. None of us believe in that view. Therefore, that view must be wrong.” We might also classify this argument as a version of argumentum ad populum (all or most of a given group believe X therefore X must be right). Simple appeals to our creed or our rabbinical tradition can be very effective in intimidating the opposition and shutting down any debate.

Belittle Your Opponent

Disparage your opponent’s ability to understand theology and his qualifications to participate in the debate:

This foolish crowd follows him, but they are ignorant of the law (v. 49).

You can weaken your opponent’s position by calling attention to his lack of education or ability to understand “the deeper things of God.” This form of ad hominem (against the man) argument is particularly effective at discrediting any legitimate arguments your opponent puts forth: they can’t be right because the person advancing them is stupid and doesn’t possess the learning you have. For example, call attention to your seminary training and your opponent’s lack thereof. Or, if he does have a Ph.D., cast shade on the institution where he obtained his degree. This argument is particularly useful in swaying the layperson to your position: he just doesn’t have the intellectual furniture to do theology, and thus, he should implicitly trust in your opinion.

This pharisaical method of engaging in theological controversy is a great way to win the crowds and to silence (even crucify!) your opponent. Click To Tweet

Silence and Censure

Don’t really listen to or allow others to listen to your opponent’s position:

Then Nicodemus, the leader who had met with Jesus earlier, spoke up. “Is it legal to convict a man before he is given a hearing?” he asked (vv. 50–51).

Nicodemus’ question serves to highlight the fact that the Pharisees had not carefully and fairly listened to Jesus’s position, nor did they want others to do so. Never mind biblical principle (Deuteronomy 1:16–17; 19:16–17) or the fact that the Gentiles give the accused an opportunity to defend himself (Acts 26:15). Better to suppress and censure your opponent’s position than to give it a fair hearing. Indeed, you don’t want the audience to feel the cogency of your opponent’s arguments. Therefore, label him a heretic and don’t give him a chance to speak. This “book burning” method of argument can be particularly effective at ensuring your position remains on top.

Poison the Well

Discredit your opponent’s position through guilt by association:

They replied, “Are you from Galilee too?” (v. 52a).

The question is rhetorical. “Galilean” was in some sense a negative stereotype.[2] The argument seems to go like this: Galilee is a bad place. My opponent’s position is associated with Galilee. Therefore, my opponent’s position and anyone who holds it must be wrong. This method of argumentation is particularly useful in “poisoning the well.” Others will conclude you must be right because they’re afraid to identify with a position that has any negative associations. For example, you could associate your opponent’s position with known heterodox positions like “Romanism.”

Cherrypick Biblical Support

Cherrypick biblical data that support your position and that seem to undermine your opponent’s position (v. 52b).

“Search the Scriptures and see for yourself—no prophet ever comes from Galilee!” (v. 52b).

The claim seems to be that Galilee does not produce prophets or religious leaders. Never mind that Jonah came from Galilee (2 Kings 14:25). Hosea and Nahum may have originated from the region too.[3] But, for the sake of argument, let’s ignore that. At least one Greek manuscript has the article: “the prophet.” In that case, the argument is: the Scriptures do not teach that the Messiah will come from Galilee. They’d be appealing to passages like Micah 5:2, which associate the Messiah’s origin with Bethlehem while overlooking passages like Isaiah 9:1–2, which associate Messiah’s origin with Galilee. In any case, the key is to select only that biblical evidence that supports your position and ignore or suppress any biblical data that contradicts your position. Enhance this methodology by making sweeping claims like “There’s absolutely no support whatsoever for my opponent’s position”!

Conclusion

Learn from those who crossed land and sea to make a single proselyte. This pharisaical method of engaging in theological controversy is a great way to win the crowds and to silence (even crucify!) your opponent. Carpe diem!


[1] Of course, I trust the reader not to miss the irony.

[2] Scholars debate the precise nature of the stereotype. Some argue that those from Galilee were looked down on for being uneducated, much like the modern “redneck.” Others think that the region tended to produce anti-authoritarians who were given to sedition (see Acts 5:37). Still others are of the opinion that the stereotype simply reflects the common belief that Galilee could never produce the Messiah (see v. 52b).

[3] We know that Hosea hailed from the Northern Kingdom, which included Galilee. Nahum’s hometown is identified as Alqosh (Nahum 1:1), which some archaeologists locate in Capernaum of Galilee.

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