As we saw in part one of this two-part series, rhetoric is the art of discourse aimed at persuasion—and the skillful and noble use of rhetorical discourse is a valuable facet of communication. But what happens when the power of persuasion is severed from the critical pursuit of truth? What happens when the art of skillful speech and debate is not anchored in fair-minded reason and in moral credibility?
The great Greek philosopher Plato (427–347 BC) used his mouthpiece Socrates to accuse some of the contemporary Sophist teachers of intellectual deceit because they intentionally used rhetorical skill to in effect make the worse argument appear the better.1 Smooth, fine-sounding speech or writing has the power to sway people. Unfortunately, without a strong connection to truth, rhetoric can be little more than a slick form of manipulation.
A Needed Intellectual Code of Conduct
Christian apologists are, of course, in the business of persuasion. Apologetics is the enterprise by which historic Christianity is shown to be reasonable and true (1 Peter 3:15). I would like to offer three basic principles drawn from Scripture that I think will help each and every believer—no matter their background or calling—become more reasonable, credible, and, thus, more persuasive in their witness for Christ.
1. Commitment to Truth-seeking
Historic Christians believe that God is ultimate truth (John 17:3) and that Jesus Christ is the truth of God Incarnate (John 1:14; 14:6). Furthermore, Christians believe that all truth is God’s truth (Isaiah 65:16) and that God has revealed his truth to humankind via his two books: the created world (Psalm 19; Romans 1) and Scripture (1 Peter 1:20–21). The basic consensus of Christian thought is that a person apprehends the truth when his or her thoughts cohere and correspond with reality.
Since the Christian worldview asserts that truth comes from God and human beings have been made specifically in God’s image in order to grasp truth, then believers in Christ should prize truth and be deeply committed to discovering it. For when believers discover truth of any kind they encounter the fingerprint of God.
2. Respect for Reason and Argumentation
The Christian worldview highly values logic and rationality, which find their source and ground in God (Proverbs 1:7) and even proclaim Jesus Christ as the logic of God (John 1:1). As the only creatures made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27), human beings possess profound intellectual faculties. Humans alone read and think—pursue, discover, and reflect upon the truths of logic, mathematics, science, philosophy, and the arts. Only human beings develop a comprehensive worldview and philosophize about whether their belief systems best match reality.
Since Christians affirm that God has endowed people with the gift of reason as part of their personhood, then believers should aspire to respect reason and seek to argue clearly and skillfully.
3. Dedication to Intellectual Honesty
A popular bumper sticker asserts: “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” Followers of Christ struggle at times to keep God’s moral commandments (Exodus 20), but as sinners forgiven by grace, believers in Christ are called to a life of truthfulness and honesty (Colossians 3:9–10). That fundamental moral call to honesty applies equally to the life of the intellect. And a believers’ intellectual integrity is critical in bearing witness to the truth of the faith. So, a dedication to honesty is never easy, but it bears great dividends when it comes to earning other people’s trust and ultimately impacting persuasion.
What would happen to the Christian church’s reputation among nonbelievers if followers of Christ actually treated the truth as if it were sacred?
For more on what the Christian worldview has to say about truth, reason, and intellectual honesty, see my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.
1. Plato, The Last Days of Socrates (New York: Penguin, 2003).