Paul, Timothy (Keller), and the Making of Good Arguments

grant-lemons-82179In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul engages the skeptic about questions concerning resurrection of the body. In verse 35 he writes, “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?'”

To this he turns to nature to make his argument. Instead of simply rejecting the error of “the fool” (v. 36), he argues for the plausibility of the resurrection from a commonly held belief—that plants rise from the ‘dead’ when the seed is planted in the ground.

Here’s how he argues. First, Paul uses the farmer’s field to explain the resurrection in terms of seed and plant (vv. 36–38). Then he points to the various kinds of flesh on earth and the various kinds of glory in the heavens (vv. 39–41). In order to begin taking steps to show how the dust of earth might be raised up and transformed into glory (see vv. 42–49), he appeals to nature to explain their plausibility. In these two analogies, therefore, Paul moves from shared belief in nature, to greater truth revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Materially, Paul’s words makes a strong argument for how the resurrection will happen. But formally, Paul’s approach to the skeptics is a vital lesson in how to communicate truth to a doubting world. In this approach to skeptics, we can learn much.

Start with Plausibility

Notice, before insisting on personal faith, Paul makes a case for the plausibility of the resurrection. Indeed, before his skeptics could personally embrace the resurrection, Paul had to make a case its plausibility. Because the Greco-Roman culture generally denied any material future for the body, Paul had to plant a seed in the imagination of his detractors. And that seed came from commonly held truths about the world, beliefs from which he could build a bridge to the revealed word of God.

In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul does this with the resurrection, and we see him do it again in Acts 17 with the idea of worship. There, he takes the worship of the unknown god and suggests that what they worship in ignorance, they could worship in truth, if they will listen to him about Christ and his resurrection.

In this type of argument, we find a pattern of moving from commonly held beliefs to other specific beliefs is a necessary way Christian witnesses must learn to share the gospel with skeptics. And no one has explained this biblical way of argumentation better than Tim Keller.

Preaching to Skeptics: Timothy Keller’s ‘A’ and ‘B’ Beliefs

In recent years, few concepts have caught my attention like Tim Keller’s argument for addressing culture through the schema of A Beliefs and B Beliefs. Here’s how he defines A Beliefs and B Beliefs.

To enter a culture, another main task is to discern its dominant worldviews or belief systems, because contextualized gospel ministry should affirm the beliefs of the culture wherever it can be done with integrity. When we enter a culture, we should be looking for two kinds of beliefs. The first are what I call “A” beliefs, which are beliefs people already hold that, because of God’s common grace, roughly correspond to some parts of biblical teaching. Because of their ‘A’ beliefs, people are predisposed to find plausible some of the Bible’s teaching (which we may call ‘A’  doctrines). However, we will also find ‘B’ beliefs—what may be called ‘defeater’ beliefs—beliefs of the culture that lead listeners to find some Christian doctrines implausible or overtly offensive. ‘B’ beliefs contradict Christian truth directly at points we may call ‘B’ doctrines. (Center Church, 123)

He explains, these beliefs will “differ from culture to culture.” Thus in New York City, to use Keller’s example, turning the other cheek is welcome (even if it is not uniformly practiced), but biblical mores about sexuality are not. By contrast, in the Middle East, “we see the opposite—turning the other cheek seems unjust and impractical, but biblical prohibitions on sexuality make sense.” (123) This same principle stands behind Keller’s insightful argument about the gay, Anglo-Saxion warrior.

In his book on preaching, where he again explains how to address culture by affirming what is right in culture, before contrasting biblical truth with what wrong, he makes this powerful illustration:

Imagine an Anglo-Saxon warrior in Britain in AD 800. He has two very strong inner impulses and feelings. One is aggression. He loves to smash and kill people when they show him disrespect. Living in a shame-and-honor culture with its warrior ethic, he will identify with that feeling. He will say to himself, That’s me! That’s who I am! I will express that. The other feeling he senses is same-sex attraction. To that he will say, That’s not me. I will control and suppress that impulse. Now imagine a young man walking around Manhattan today. He has the same two inward impulses, both equally strong, both difficult to control. What will he say? He will look at the aggression and think, This is not who I want to be, and will seek deliverance in therapy and anger-management programs. He will look at his sexual desire, however, and conclude, That is who I am.

What does this thought experiment show us? Primarily it reveals that we do not get our identity simply from within. Rather, we receive some interpretive moral grid, lay it down over our various feelings and impulses, and sift them through it. This grid helps us decide which feelings are “me” and should be expressed – and which are not and should not be. So this grid of interpretive beliefs – not an innate, unadulterated expression of our feelings – is what gives us our identity. Despite protests to the contrary, we instinctively know our inner depths are insufficient to guide us. We need some standard or rule from outside of us to help us sort out the warring impulses of our interior life.

And where do our Anglo-Saxon warrior and our modern Manhattan man get their grids? From their cultures, their communities, their heroic stories. They are actually not simply “choosing to be themselves” – they are filtering their feelings, jettisoning some and embracing others. They are choosing to be the selves their cultures tell them they may be. (Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, 135–36).

Learning from Paul and Timothy

So from Paul and his disciple Timothy (Keller), we learn much on how to share the gospel in various cultures. Indeed, such an approach to evangelism requires patient listening, thought-provoking and worldview-shaking questions, cautious assertions suggesting plausibility, before calling someone to repent and believe in the gospel. By no means does this approach skimp on the gospel—Christ crucified is the only way of salvation.

But in our increasingly post-Christian world, communication skills and biblically-faithful arguments like the ones inspired in Paul and modeled by Keller are essential for effective evangelism. Indeed, it has always been the power of God in the gospel which raises people to life and grants salvation, but wise witnesses will also learn how to craft arguments that lead skeptics to consider first the plausibility of Christianity and from there its reality. (Another good example of this is the way in which Larry Taunton engaged Christopher Hitchens in the last decade of his life).

May God grant us wisdom and we proclaim the wisdom and power of God in the gospel. And may God lead wise witnesses to skeptical sheep, that their minds and hearts may be convinced by the good news of the gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Grant Lemons on Unsplash