[Originally published as Could You be Wrong? A Quick Lesson in the Balance Between Dogmatism and an Open Mind]
When it comes to understanding Scripture, there is not only a wide range of interpretations, but a wide range of interpretive grids to choose from. There are those who think the plain meaning of Scripture—taken at face value—should be the underlying premise of all interpretation.
This is my personal view.
Nevertheless, I am sympathetic to those who hold other interpretations and try to give them the benefit of the doubt. I think this is the only way to have meaningful dialogue, and it seems this should be expected within Christian circles, especially.
In a sense, I want to teach you some practical application of the principles I mention in the above-cited articles.
By the way, this advice is helpful in evangelistic opportunities and in-house discussions.
Here are three ways to confidently argue for your own convictions while maintaining an open mind.
1. Admit Your Bias: State Your Reasons
The Bible seems to indicate that there is no such thing as objective neutrality; that is, one is unable to approach questions of spiritual significance without making metaphysical assumptions prior to examining the evidence. This is why die-hard Christians and staunch atheists can examine the same evidence, yet come to wildly different conclusions.
As Christian philosopher Greg Bahnsen used to say often, “They aren’t neutral, and you shouldn’t be either.”
Therefore, the best we can hope to do is admit our bias up front. I actually find that many Christians do this well, although some feel it is less important than others. I think we’re more honest to submit that we are operating within our bias, and invite the unbeliever to notice how features of the world make sense on our views, yet face difficulty on theirs.
This is a central feature of the presuppositional approach, and one reason I am a fan of it.
Then, after admitting our position, we can actually give reasons and even illustrations to show why our biases are correct. Incorrect assumptions lead to incorrect conclusions 100% of the time. But this need not be merely assumed, it can be shown!
A potential caveat is, that for in-house discussions, our biases are largely the same. All Christians, for example, share the bias that Jesus rose from the dead, therefore the “supernatural” is possible (at least in some sense). But not all share the bias that Scripture is inerrant, or that it should be interpreted via a natural hermeneutic. Nevertheless, we can give reasons for these biases as well, and should!
If we can’t, then we should not hold them!
From here, it is more likely that a productive conversation can ensue, rather than arguing nitty-gritty details with no clear understanding of the interpretive grid.
2. Admit Your Limitations: Argue Your View
At this point, we can advance the conversation. But it’s important not to assume you know too much. For example, it’s always possible that you are wrong. Integrity necessitates this! Unless you are God, fallibility is possible.
Some Christians might argue that fallibility is not possible with respect to knowledge about one’s relationship to God. I’m inclined to go along with that since Scripture indeed seems to indicate that one can know, without a doubt, the eternal destiny of his soul. Nevertheless, a helpful point in any discussion is to admit that you could be wrong.
There are practical ways to do this, though, which do not harm the integrity of your faith nor violate the principles of neutrality as laid out by the Bible.
For example, one may temporarily step into another’s worldview for the sake of argument. You might suppose that naturalism is true for the sake of argument, and then, get into some features of our world that are difficult to explain on naturalism. This is called an internal critique and can be very effective.
This sort of argumentation is not reserved for unbiblical worldviews, but can actually be used to consider other theological positions. For example, one could adopt the views of the Theistic Evolutionist (again, for the sake of argument) and point to Bible verses which must be untrue on evolution.
In one sense, this is akin to admitting your limitations. It’s basically like saying, “I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. Here’s why.” At this point, you would lay out the arguments for your own view. Invite your interlocutor to “step into” your worldview, where one can form a consistent view of the important questions in life.
This may not convince your opponent; but at least you’ve remained biblically faithful, argued your own view with confidence, and did not come across as off-putting due to dogmatic rhetoric.
3. Admit Your Teachability: Ask Good Questions
Lastly, you want to remember that the best way to learn is often to learn from what others believe! If you’ve done the second step correctly, you will have cultivated a spirit of teachability; in other words, others will know you are willing to hear them out.
In fact, I’d even recommend stating this verbatim: “Look, I’m teachable, tell me more about your views.”
This sort of attitude is not a sign of weakness, but one of Christlike humility. I reiterate—you are not God, and could always be wrong, perhaps except with respect to the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.1
A feature of teachability, however, is learning how to ask good questions. Of course, I always recommend the questions Greg Koukl advanced in his Tactics book:
- What do you mean by that?
- How did you come to that conclusion?
- How you ever considered…?
The above three questions are key to any meaningful dialogue, and if asked strategically, can lead to acquiring valuable knowledge that you’d be hard-pressed to parallel studying in a vacuum.
Learning more about other views, incidentally, is a great way to cultivate an open mind! Thus, it becomes a self-repeating cycle. The act of learning and asking questions invites curiosity, leading to the open-mindedness which is characteristic of most sound thinkers and effective apologists.
By practicing the above principles, one can truly put 1 Peter 3:15 into practice:
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear…
Apologetics is important, and learning how to defend the faith is key to becoming an effective witness and evangelist for Christ.
When you approach important conversations—especially with those who don’t know Christ as their Savior—it is especially important to maneuver with grace, wisdom, and skill. But if you’re to be taken seriously, you must also practice what you preach. Unwarranted dogmatism is unhelpful and can be so easily avoided. Don’t fall into the trap.
I pray you’ll take this advice to heart and use it in your spiritual conversations to be more effective for Christ.
- Plantinga has argued convincingly along these lines, which we discuss here.