The Priority of Persuasion

“Before we look specifically at Paul’s apology at the Areopagus, we need to understand an important element of apologetics. It is the element of persuasion. There are three basic kinds of arguments discussed in beginning logic courses. The first kind of arguments is a valid argument. A valid argument consists of premises (initial statements) and a conclusion (a statement related to the previous ones). The validity of an argument says nothing about the truth of its premises or its conclusion. It only says that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must follow. Here is an example:

1. All horses are unicorns.
2. Black Beauty is a horse.
3. Therefore, Black Beauty is a unicorn.

This is a valid argument, even though Black Beauty is not a unicorn. As a valid argument, it simply says that if the first two statements are true, then the third one has to be true. It does not say whether the first two statements are true. So validity and truth are two very different things when it comes to arguments.

The next kind of argument is called a sound argument. In a sound argument, the premises are accepted as true. If the premises are true and the argument is valid, the conclusion must follow and be true as well. Here is an example of a sound argument:

1. All people are created in God’s image.
2. Mary is a person.
3. Therefore, Mary is created in God’s image.

A sound argument has one thing in common with a merely valid argument and one big difference. As in any valid argument, the conclusion in a sound argument must follow from the premises. The big difference between a sound argument and a merely valid one is that the premises are accepted as true in a sound argument.

Of course, certain premises are accepted as true by one person, but not by another. The argument above would probably not be accepted as a sound argument if we offered it to an unbeliever. He might agree to its validity, but he would not agree to its soundness, since he would reject the first premise. Since Christians would accept the two premises as true, however, the argument would be sound to them.

It is sometimes thought that what is needed in apologetics is a found argument. If we can agree on the truth of the premises, since then the conclusion must follow, we can prove to someone that (for example) God exists. There is nothing wrong with this as it stands.

The problem, however, is that when we are discussing such vitally important matters as the existence of God or the truth of Scripture, unbelievers will rarely accept our premises. The best we can do is present a valid argument, which says nothing about the truth of the matter.

For this reason, the next kind of argument seems to be the most critical for a biblical apologetic. This is a persuasive argument. We should understand that a persuasive argument does not throw out the rules of a valid or sound argument. Its design, however, is to entice the other person. It is mean to carry an appeal that neither a valid nor a sound argument is able to carry. It is meant to bring the opponent into our arena of concern.

In apologetic context, persuasion is essential. A persuasive apologetic takes something that the non-Christian has already claimed to be true, and uses it to the advantage of the Christian defense. What separates a persuasive argument from other kinds of arguments is that, wherever possible and permissible, it incorporates the opponent’s beliefs to its own advantage. This “brings the opponent in” to the discussion automatically, by affirming what he himself has said.

It also is plausible. This means that something is “worthy of applause.” To make something plausible, then, is to present it in such a way that the other person will think it to be more likely. This is an important idea in persuasion. In attempting to make our arguments more plausible, we are being as “wise as serpents” in commending the faith.

It goes without saying that unbelievers are opposed to the gospel. For a multitude of reasons, they simply will not accept its truth. They have convinced themselves that it is something not worth believing–for them, it lacks plausibility. So, part of what we want to do in our discussion is to take what we can of what they do believe, and incorporate that into the truth of the gospel. In that way, we join together what they think is completely separate.

If you just present valid Christian arguments to the non-Christian, you will be met by stark disagreement. But if you adopt in your argumentation something that your opponent has agreed is true, then your other points may sound more credible.

There are two further things that should be said about persuasion as it is used in Christian apologetics. First, persuasion is an important element in Christian apologetics because of what we saw in Romans 1. People are made in God’s image. We all know God. This knowledge of God is suppressed in ways that distort the truth without annihilating it. Therefore, there will be things in the life and thought of the unbeliever that will be a product of this process of suppressing the truth about God. There will be, in some ways, the truth, but it will be twisted by sin. We need to become adept at seeing those truths as twisted and then adopting them into our discussion, which will untwist them. Paul did this at Athens in various ways, as we will see below.

The second thing that we must realize is that, in the end, the Holy Spirit is the ultimate persuader. When we speak of the necessity of persuasion, we are thinking more about method than goal. Of course, it is our desire that someone actually be persuaded. But, in the end, we do not have the power to persuade; only God’s Spirit can persuade someone of the truth of Christianity. But that should not keep us from the method itself.

This is part of the motivation of preaching. When we preach, we attempt to present the gospel in a way that will commend its truth. We could, theoretically, simply read Scripture and move on. Since God’s word carries its own power and authority, we could say that our responsibility was carried out by the reading. But that would be to ignore to entire burden of Scripture’s call to ministers of the gospel. It would be to ignore Christ’s own method of preaching, as well as the methods of others in Scripture.

Agrippa understood well that Paul was attempting to persuade him (Acts 26:28). Paul himself tells us that part of our responsibility, as it was his, is to persuade others (2 Corinthians 5:11). We will discuss Paul’s persuasive style more below. It is a central part of our apologetic. It takes thoughtful effort. It takes “premeditation” on Scripture and its truth. But it seems to be a vital approach in Scripture, so we should endeavor to make persuasion a part of our gospel communication, our preaching, and our apologetic.”

(Oliphint, The Battle Belongs to the Lord, 149-153)

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