Tag Archives: debates


On words and meaning

In 2001, American writer/philosopher David Foster Wallace wrote a famous review of a dictionary.

Just ponder for a moment how a review of a dictionary might become famous.

It’s one of my favourite essays because while it does what it says on the tin, it also explains huge swathes of disagreement in modern life; it accounts for why so often we talk past one another in disagreements while using the same words.

It’s because the same words mean different things to different people based on an underlying understanding of how words work; what DFW called ‘a usage war’ — we’re seeing the fruits of that war, and most of the time we don’t even realise that’s what happening. He said, of introductory essays published in dictionaries:

“They’re salvos in the Usage Wars that have been” under way ever since editor Philip Gave first sought to apply the value-neutral principles of structural linguistics to lexicography in Webster’s’ Third. Gave’s famous response to conservatives who howled when Webster’s Third endorsed OK and described ain’t as “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers [sic}” was this: “A dictionary should have no traffic with … ‘artificial notion of correctness or superiority. It should be descriptive and not prescriptive.” These terms stuck and turned epithetic, and linguistic conservatives are now formally known as Prescriptivists and linguistic liberals as Descriptivists.

In one sense the war between prescriptivists and descriptivists is a war between objectivity and subjectivity; modernity and post-modernity; or conservatives and progressives. On the one hand are those who think words necessarily have an objective meaning, dictated by their ability to describe an actual thing, and only ever that thing. The meaning is fixed etymologically. Dictionaries tell you what a word actually means. On the other hand, there are those who think words are subjective; that our words are always analogies coming from our perspective attempting to describe reality in intelligible ways, but always limited — and also contested and subject to change, and meaning is dictated by usage. Particularly how the user conceives of the meaning of the word; but also how that word is understood in particular interpretive communities — and we must be mindful of that context, not just etymology.

I might be a nerd; but it fascinates me that this approach to language actually, fundamentally, plays out in disputes across those trenches — between modernists and post-modernists, and conservatives and progressives (and post-modern conservatives and modernist conservatives and post-modern progressives and modernist progressives). There are often things at stake in the definition of these words and how they’re used too; take a couple of examples; there’s currently a debate being waged within the LGBTIQA+ community, and within the feminist community (as much as those can be monolithic communities) about the meaning of words. Those communities are typically progressive (in many ways that we would understand that word). And yet, traditional feminists fought very hard for the word ‘woman’ to mean a particular thing; they’re now labelled as “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists” (TERFs), because they won’t broaden the label to mean something new — to assign the label based on a constructed gender identity, rather than an objectively observable biological reality (anatomical sex), even while recognising that gender is constructed. For members of the LGBTIQA+ community this same issue plays out for, say, gay men, who have lobbied for the recognition of their rights to love other men, only for the meaning of the word ‘men’ to also be contested. The contest is a language usage war.

I tend to be a descriptivist, because I think that better reflects the reality of how language is used, though deep down I’d prefer a more prescriptive approach to words and meaning. But this means we have to be careful, as individuals, when engaging in discussions, to notice not just what others are saying but how others are using words. It’s very easy to insist that other people are using words the way we believe they should be using them, and then crucify them, rather than entering the contest of meaning for words or terminology by bringing a broadened perspective, or arguing for a particular manner of usage.

One person responded to my last post about ‘toxic churchianity’ by saying I’d lost his interest in what I had to say by using the phrase ‘toxic masculinity.’ He suggested there is no such thing as ‘toxic masculinity’ — there’s just the objectively positive good that is masculinity and anything else is actually not masculinity. This was a ‘prescriptive’ approach to language, that doesn’t grapple with a larger cultural conversation around what the meaning of ‘masculinity’ is, and where some proffered definitions might sometimes need contesting and qualifying to distinguish them from others; I’m comfortable entering that contest for meaning, and that conversation, because of how I think language works.

For a prescriptivist, language is ‘ontological;’ to name something is to describe it as it really is prescriptively, on every occasion. A word means what it means. This is a lot of weight for language to bear; and it limits the creative/artistic/poetic use of language where we can use words to create things that are not. This has interesting implications for how we exegete the Bible too — if words always mean what they etymologically mean in a prescriptive, technical, dictionary sense then we are assuming a certain sort of approach to writing from the authors of Scripture (a modernist one). This ontological thing is at play in a debate currently taking place within the conservative church, in a similar way to the debate playing out in the progressive communities described above. There’s a debate about how Christians who experience same sex attraction should describe themselves; and whether they should use the label gay. This debate, from a conservative prescriptive perspective is a no brainer; because to use the word ‘gay’ is an ontological claim about who a person is; and in Christ, one’s identity is transformed. In that theory of language, it makes no sense to use the label gay. But here’s why I’m not convinced by that argument; I don’t think language works that way, or that this is the claim being made by those people who use the label gay while pursuing a traditional Biblical sexual ethic. When you listen carefully to these brothers and sisters they say they use the label to describe their experience; or story. It’s not an ontological claim in terms of being an objective fixed reality (though I do think ontology/personhood/identity actually works narratively, not simply as a fixed objective reality too; I think a materialist, objective, ontology is a modern construct that we often impose on ancient texts, like Genesis, where ontology there is more relational and functional, and connected to a narrative — so my approach to language is theological, but this is circular, and prescriptivists would say the same thing about their exegesis, their theology, and their approach to languge). If we insist that words work a particular way; if there was no contest; then I think one camp in this debate could insist that the other use words in a particular, objectively correct, way. But I don’t think there’s much space for Christians, especially english speaking Christians, to insist things like that — because as people reading translations of texts from ancient languages, where the complexity of language has to be part of the fabric of how a translation is produced, we know we are experiencing the subjectivity of language as we read the Bible and dig into the Greek or Hebrew to find the semantic range of a word. We read a Bible that has puns, and deliberate ambiguity, and word play built in because words do not always have objective fixed meanings. Also, on the belief that words and labels function ‘ontologically’ and in prescriptive rather than descriptive ways; and the idea that a Christian cannot identify (ontologically) with their sin as though that is a prescriptive reality; someone ought to tell the writers of the New Testament who refer to Rahab as “Rahab the prostitute” and Simon as “Simon the Zealot”— those are descriptions of part of their stories, not a prescriptive ontological claims about them.

Understanding how we use language is important; but the debate is not neutral; adopting a ‘descriptive’ framework — one born to some extent out of post-modernity’s reaction to modernity — is now politically loaded. George Orwell famously noted how political regimes with nefarious intent blur the meaning of language through doublespeak and the creation of very technically correct prescriptive looking language to describe things in particularly opaque (though technically correct) ways; and we see this in modern bureaucracy where ‘public relations’ is used (or “effectively utilised”) to prop up powerful status quos. Progressives (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) want to change the meaning of words through pointing both to the contested nature of understanding, but also to the dubious authorities that gave words their meaning. Sometimes word meanings should be contested; etymology is a useful guide for description and employing words carefully to describe reality as we understand it. DFW notes that descriptivism is the air anyone educated after about the 1970s in the west lives and breathes.

“For one thing, Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively-via “freewriting,” “brainstorming,” “journaling,” a view of writing as self-exploratory and expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology. For another thing, the very language in which today’s socialist, feminist, minority, gay, and environmentalist movements frame their sides of political debates is informed by the Descriptivist belief that traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males’? and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic,’ homophobic, elitist: unfair.”

We’re not going to solve this dispute about how words work any time soon, but understanding that the way words and language works is contested might help us listen better to each other in areas of disagreement. It might also help those of us who care about objective truths contend for understandable descriptions of reality.


The problem with Christ-free (or non Christ-centred) apologetics

Krauss v Lane Craig round 2 happened in Sydney last night. The head to head is producing interesting conversations around the traps – and these are a good thing.

The conversation I’m keen to keep pursuing is the nature of properly Christian apologetics.

Here’s something William Lane Craig said in a pre-round 2 preview in Eternity

“E: Some Christians would say that if you don’t get the gospel out, or talk about Jesus in these discussions, then you lose. What do you think?

Oh, you won’t hear a gospel presentation tonight. It has nothing to do with Christianity per se tonight. We as Christians share with Jews, Muslims and even deists a common commitment to the existence of a creator and designer of the universe, who is the ultimate reality and from which everything else derives, and that’s what I’m defending tonight. This is a broad, theistic claim in opposition to Dr Krauss’ atheism.”

Since that question pretty much articulates the objection I raised in my previous post, I thought I might bash out this response.

I think the Apostle Paul would be horrified with this methodology.

I think this reconstruction of Paul’s feelings matters when thinking about how we defend our faith because I think Paul is perhaps the most effective Christian apologist of all time, and apart from Jesus, the best model for Christian engagement with the world and the intellectual defence of Christian belief (I won’t argue it here – read my project). Or read Acts 17 and Paul’s appearance before the Areopagus. Or try to account for Christianity still existing today without Paul’s contribution to Christianity today…

This statement means William Lane Craig went into a debate, deliberately limited by the title of the debate, and resolved NOT to know Jesus and him crucified. 

I can’t imagine Paul ever doing this. I can’t imagine any Christian apologist doing this – let me clarify. I think William Lane Craig is a Christian. And I think he’s an apologist. I think it’s just clear the “Christian” doesn’t qualify the “apologist” function.

I wonder if part of the problem is that in order to “give an account” for the hope that we have, we’ve tried to answer every objection people who don’t know Jesus might have when it comes to Christianity. That seems to be Craig’s modus operandi – convince people to be a theist and that will naturally lead them to Christianity – but Paul seems to pretty consistently aim to present the resurrection of the dead – particularly the resurrection of Jesus – because that is the absolute basis – the ground zero – of intellectual objection to Christianity.

It’s the point at which Christianity is falsifiable, and the point Christianity hangs on in terms of all the claims it makes about our status before God.

“16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” – 1 Corinthians 15

23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. – Romans 4

The intellectual offence Christianity presents is not that we believe in God – if we think it is, we’re giving far too much ground to the New Atheists.

Using a platform where you’re speaking to thousands of people who are interested in the relative truth claims made by Christianity and atheism to deliberately not articulate the core of Christianity – Jesus, his incarnation as revelation, his crucifixion and resurrection from the dead – is negligent at best.

That is where most objections to Christianity come from. That is where the offence is. The crucifixion. The resurrection. It has been since day one. The crucifixion has become such a core part of our cultural narrative – count the crosses you see in the average day – that the offence of the cross has been lost a bit.

But it was offensive. Here’s what Cicero said about 70 years before Jesus.

“Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man…”

It was equally offensive to Paul’s Jewish audience. Here’s what Moses said in Deuteronomy 21.

22 If someone guilty of a capital offence is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, 23 you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.

The Cross was – and still should be – an incredible impediment to apologetics, but it should also, I think, shape our approach to apologetics (see my earlier thoughts on Lawrence Krauss v WLC).

Apart from the Christians – who were actually accused of atheism in the Roman Empire – the Stoics were the closest thing to atheists going round in the first century. They were driven by rationality. They pursued decision making free from emotions. They were idealists. There’s something incredibly appealing about the Stoic framework. They certainly didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.

And this is where Paul goes in Athens. When he’s speaking to a Stoic audience – he doesn’t argue from cosmology – and in some sense the Stoics did with nature what the New Atheists do with science. Or present a sort of abstract monotheism – even though he’s talking to people who are potentially pantheistic, if not atheistic (though you couldn’t really get away with atheism in Rome). Here’s what the Stoic founding fathers believed.


The substance of God is declared by Zeno to be the whole world and the heaven, as well as by Chrysippus in his first book Of the Gods, and by Posidonius in his first book with the same title. Again, Antipater in the seventh book of his work On the Cosmos says that the substance of God is akin to air, while Boëthus in his work On Nature speaks of the sphere of the fixed stars as the substance of God. Now the term Nature is used by them to mean sometimes that which holds the world together, sometimes that which causes terrestrial things to spring up. Nature is defined as a force moving of itself, producing and preserving in being its offspring in accordance with seminal principles within definite periods, and effecting results homogeneous with their sources

“God is one and the same with Reason, Fate, and Zeus ; he is also called by many other names. In the beginning he was by himself” – Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Here’s what the poetic account of the founding of Athens declares about the resurrection…

Oh, monsters utterly loathed and detested by the gods! Zeus could undo fetters, there is a remedy for that, and many means of release. But when the dust has drawn up the blood of a man, once he is dead, there is no return to life. – Aeschylus, The Eumenides

So Paul is facing an essentially pantheistic/polytheistic audience who build and certify gods for every cause – and rather than providing evidence for a monotheistic God that the Deists would be happy with – he simply asserts that God exists and created the world on the way to getting to the real offence of the gospel.

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

I think part of the problem I have with WLC is that we seem to have a profoundly different answer to the following question.

PB: What is your best evidence there is no God, and what’s the best evidence there is a God?

Well, I would say that the best evidence that there is a God is that the hypothesis that God exists explains a wide range of the data of human experience that’s very diverse. So it’s an extremely powerful hypothesis. It gives you things like an explanation of the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, of intelligent life. But also the presence of mind in the cosmos, an objective foundation for moral values and duties, and things of that sort—it’s a wide range of data that makes sense on a theistic worldview.

The best evidence there is God is the historical Jesus. The creator entering the creation and revealing himself through his word made flesh. God became man and changed the world. That’s the best evidence for God. It’s also got to be the basis of our apologetics or we’re getting the foundations all wrong.

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Mad Skillz: How to run a debate at a theological college

Weird. Apologies to Arthur and Tamie. Just found this post in my “pending pile” thinking I’d posted it on the 24th of May. So, here you go. An extension to Mad Skillz for 2011.

Arthur and Tamie are pretty cool. I can tell that just by looking at their blog. And when you read it you’ll see that sometimes you can judge a blog by its cover. Or design. Anyway. I met Arthur once. At NTE. He was starting a Christian forum that I enjoyed participating in for a while back in ’05. Fast forward a few years and Arthur and Tamie are in Melbourne, studying at Ridley, ready to head to Africa to teach people about Jesus.

So anyway, Arthur and Tamie have a mad skill. They can run debates. At college. That are interesting. Here’s how.

Here’s how Arthur and Tamie ran debates at Ridley Melbourne.

Rationale (what and why?)

1. Make it engaging. The debate is for exploring issues together, not for being settled and definitive.

2. Make it fun. The debate is serious but it must not be dour. Be sure to create levity: compering that is warm and amusing, and speakers who love to laugh.

3. Make it irenic. The debate must be winsome and bridge-building, tactful and wise from top to bottom. Kill off potential antagonism and division.

4. Make it polemical. The debate must actively challenge people’s thinking. To that end, it’s useful to phrase the topic in terms of an artificial dichotomy: “Will the real Mars Hill please stand up?” “Mission: stay or go?”

5. Make it practical. The debate topic must relate directly to ministry and mission. A poor topic: “NT Wright’s understanding of justification is more accurate than that of John Piper.” A more useful topic: “New justification = better mission.”

6. Make it public. Although the debate is an in-house event, make sure it’s good enough to be published. Conduct it as if you will put it online—and then do so!

Procedure (when and how?)

1. Run one debate each semester. It’s quite easy to organise and is fantastic for building community.

2. Hand-pick the speakers. They need to be people with a good level of charisma and people-skills: people who can truly engage with the audience, acquit themselves well, and bring a positive light to both the issue and the college community. The speakers should also represent the whole college community, including both students and faculty, women and men.

3. Use an appropriate format. A traditional debating format may be fine, but be ready to vary this in service of the topic.

4. Prepare the teams. Gear up the speakers to interact directly with the topic, giving them guidelines and appropriate scaffolding, then leave them to prepare on their own.

5. Promote it effectively. Advertise with posters two weeks before the debate, and promote it creatively and casually.

6. Keep it short. 45 minutes is plenty of time for the entire debate.

7. Present it creatively. Pay close attention to the craft of the whole event. For example, introduce the debate using video clips, music, or infographics.

8. Announce a winner. This is not to pronounce a judgement on the issue at hand, but to promote reflection. Presenting a winner helps move the audience from being passive observers towards being proactive thinkers. Get an adjudicator who can do this aptly and wisely.

9. Provide a way forward. The topic isn’t abstract, so conclude the debate with recommendations for the audience, such as books to read or conversations to have.