How to Not Debate What Doesn’t Matter

There are some debates that just shouldn’t happen. Unfortunately, we often get sucked into such debates because we are zealous to contend for the faith, temporarily blinded by the fact that the person who is arguing against Christianity is arguing fallaciously in one way or another. For instance, Euthyphro’s Dilemma has absolutely nothing to say about God (i.e. the Triune God of Scripture) and yet critics of the Christian faith consistently press this issue as if it did. Rather than debating the particular issues that arise from accepting our opponent’s mistaken notion that Euthyphro’s Dilemma applies to God, we could end needless debate by (i.)correcting their poor theology and (ii.)exposing their unproven presuppositions. There are countless examples that we could look at but I’ve chosen one that I think is very relevant for those who have encountered the writings of proponents of “Higher Criticism” or arguments against the Christian faith based upon premises drawn from a “Higher Critical” interpretation of the Bible (e.g. Bart D. Ehrman, The Jesus Seminar, etc).

The example comes from liberal theologian William Barclay in Volume 1 of his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Concerning the Lord Jesus’ healing of the two demon possessed men recorded in Matthew 8:28-34, he writes the following:

This miracle confronts us with the idea of demon-possession which is so common in the Gospels. The ancient world believed unquestioningly and intensely in evil spirits….To these demons all illness was ascribed. They were held to be responsible, not only for diseases like epilepsy and mental illness, but also for physical illness….It may seem fantastic to us; but the ancient peoples believed implicitly in demons. If a man gained the idea that he was possessed by a demon, he would easily go on to produce all the symptoms of demon-possession….He could genuinely convince himself that there was a demon inside of him…Even if there are no such things as demons, a man could be cured only by the assumption that for him at least the demons were the realest of all things.[1]

Barclay’s argument here is that the demon-possessed men were not truly demon possessed; rather, they believed themselves to be demon possessed due to their ignorance. Because they weren’t really demon-possessed, Christ never really cast demons out of them. Instead, Christ played along with their assumption that for them the demons were the realest of all things, pretended to cast the demons out, and the men then believed themselves to be cured.

In instances like this it’s often difficult to hold one’s peace and give a thoughtful analysis of the argument being presented. However, it is necessary to do so if we are to avoid getting trapped in debates about particulars that only have secondary relevance to the argument being made by our opponent. When we look carefully at Barclay’s argument we see that it can be restated as follows:

Major Premise: Most of the ancient world falsely believed that all illnesses were caused by demons.

Minor Premise: The two demoniacs whom Jesus healed lived in the ancient world.

Conclusion: Therefore, the two demoniacs whom Jesus healed falsely believed that their illness was caused by demons.

Barclay’s argument commits what is called the fallacy of division, in which one ascribes to the parts of a whole attributes that belong to that whole. One assumes that what is true of the whole must be true of the parts as well. This means that even if the ancient world largely believed that all illnesses were caused by demons it does not logically follow that Matthew, Mark, Luke, Christ, or the two demoniacs also held this belief. Barclay is attributing to the parts what is largely true of the whole. His argument is fallacious and holds no weight whatsoever. Of course, he is entitled to his opinion; however, once he steps beyond mere opinion and attacks the veracity of the account given in Matthew’s Gospel, he is arguing fallaciously and needs to be corrected.

Therefore, knowing that Barclay’s argument as a whole fails to comment on whether or not the miracle of casting out the demons that infested the demoniacs of Matthew 8 is true, we need to look at the major premise, minor premise, and conclusion of his argument. Is the major premise true? For the sake of argument, let’s assume that it is true that “most of the ancient world falsely believed that all illnesses were caused by demons.” Regarding the minor premise, we know it’s true that the two demoniacs lived in the ancient world. The conclusion has no evidential support from the text and, therefore, has to be left open for discussion. We can, however, ask whether or not Matthew believed that all illnesses were caused by demons. Interestingly, we encounter a viewpoint that is very different from that which is presented in Barclay’s commentary. According to Matthew 4:24, Christ’s “fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought Him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and He healed them.” Matthew clearly makes a distinction between demonic oppression/possession and illnesses. While not excluding the possibility that illnesses may have had a demonic origin in some cases, his words directly contradict Barclay’s assumption.[2] And it is precisely because of the fact that Matthew contradicts Barclay that we can go on to establish the case that the two demoniacs were really demon possessed. You see, if Matthew himself differentiated between illnesses and demonic oppression/possession then either Matthew was lying to make it seem as if the Lord Jesus was casting out demons when He was really just playing Dr. Phil with a couple of social outcasts, or William Barclay is completely wrong.

Without delving into needless discussion of minute historical details, we can quickly get to the root of the tree (i.e. the logical fallacy involved in our opponent’s argument), dig it up, and dispose of it. It isn’t necessary for you to have a PhD in Second Temple Judaism to refute the claims of liberal theologians, like Barclay, who deny that certain narratives actually occurred or could have occurred — of course,  given their knowledge of the ancient world. If you know what you believe you can refute those who think they are refuting what you believe. If you can find a logical fallacy in their argumentation, then you can dismantle their attack on the faith, and build your case up from the solid foundation of Scriptural exegesis.

Soli Deo Gloria!

-h. 


[1] The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 1 (Chapters 1 to 10), pp.320-321 (The Westminster Press, 1975)

[2] We can also say the same thing about the testimonies of Mark (cf. Mark 1:34), Luke (cf. Luke 4:40-41), and John (cf. John 5:1-14 & 9:1-3).

About Hiram Diaz

Hiram Diaz has written 18 post in this blog.

Hiram Diaz is a New York native currently residing in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and children. His interests are philosophy and presuppositional & exegetical apologetics. He maintains Involuted Speculations, a blog about pretty much anything that pops into his head and can't find its way out until it's written down.

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