Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Biblical Progymnasmata V & VI - Refutation & Confirmation

I'm treating exercises five and six together because they are very closely related.

Aphthonius defines refutation as, "an overturning of some matter at hand" and confirmation as, "the corroboration of some matter at hand." He states that when refuting or confirming one should not choose a subject that "is neither very clear nor what is altogether impossible, but what holds a middle ground." In refutation one "should first state the false claim of those who advance it, then add an exposition of the subject and use these headings: first, that it is unclear and incredible, in addition that it is impossible and illogical and inappropriate, and finally adding that it is inexpedient." In confirmation one "should use arguments opposed to those of refutation and first mention the good repute of the claimant, then, in turn, provide an exposition, and use the opposite headings: clear instead of unclear, credible instead of incredible, and possible instead of impossible and logical instead of illogical and appropriate instead of inappropriate and expedient instead of inexpedient." Of both refutation and confirmation Aphthonius tells us, "includes all the power of the art" or rhetoric.

There are a variety of ways to go about using these exercises from a Biblical basis. The best way is to take a proposition, narrative, law, or some other aspect of Scripture and to argue on both sides of its assertion or truthfulness. Although others may find it inappropriate to engage in arguments against Biblical truths, I think it can be a healthy exercise for Christians for several reasons. First, it teaches the student to discover what argument are available both in support of Scripture and against it. The best way to uphold the truth of Scripture is to know what objections others are likely to raise against it. Second, in apologetic encounters the Christian will not be facing a sympathetic opponent, and so engaging in a debate on both sides prepares the Christian to face opposition without being unprepared or taken aback by opposition. Third, it teaches the Christian that the truth is not self-evident to all, but requires an exposition and defense against alternative viewpoints. Fourth, it is perfectly reasonable for the instructor to clarify to the student that the arguing against Scripture is a hypothetical exercise rather than an earnest means of taking God's Word to heart. Fifth, just as light is more conspicuous in the midst of darkness, the truth can be seen more clearly in the midst of many falsehoods. Although this truism does not hold for those who stand in rebellion to God's Word by their sinful nature, it is normative for those who abide in the Spirit and have the illumination of the Teacher, Jesus Christ, within them.


Refutation - What is stated about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is not probable.

(The False Claim) It is impious to attack a sacred text, yet what is not in accord with the light of reason is itself an impious stain upon humanity, and any sacred word that would turn the mind to irrational and impossible conclusions is not worthy of the virtue and integrity required for human flourishing. How is it rational to suppose then that when all those whom we observe dying, whose bodies decay and turn to dust, that one man should die and yet be raised again to life in a body that is not subject to decay, and moreover exhibits capabilities that no ordinary body possesses? Surely the sober minded and cautious soul will not assent in haste to what is fantastic, however desirable such fantasy may be.

(Exposition) The prophet Jesus, the Gospels and Epistles teach, was crucified, dead, and buried in a grave that was covered by a stone, and guarded by soldiers. For three days his body remained in the tomb until an angel appeared and rolled the stone away. At the same time did Jesus walk from the grave in a body that was not decayed in any way, yet bore the marks of his wounds, and exhibited the ability to pass through walls as if it were a spirit rather than a body. The credibility of these claims is corroborated by several eye-witnesses, and the additional claim that those opposed to Jesus sought to cover up the reality of this resurrection to life by claiming his body was stolen by his disciples.

But why should we accept the testimony of these supposed eye-witnesses whose affinity for their departed leader no doubt left them embittered to those who had taken his life? Surely it is more probable that the testimony of those who killed Jesus is more reliable, for it accords with common experience, the testimony of history, and what the most learned authorities have speculated upon with regard to the state of the soul after death.

First, our common experience shows that persons who die (and truly expire, rather than swoon) have their soul depart never to return to their bodies. When bodies have been exposed to the elements, or dug up from their earthly graves, moreover, the evidence of their decay is readily evident by all of our sensations--the smells and sights being the most distant; yet by means of touch, and even more scientific experimentation it has never been the case that any bodies have been resurrected or renewed from their death and decay.

Second, the testimony of history, although it may bear a few cases here and there, is overwhelmingly against the possibility of resurrection from the dead. Those few stories of resurrection have never been convincingly supported by evidence that the caution of reason recommends, nor have the common masses of people put much trust in stories, even when it might be suited to their own interests or highest wishes.

Third, the learned authorities, though disagreeing on the particular destiny of the soul, are universally agreed that whether the soul is destroyed or departs into the One, or returns to the earth again it never returns to the body from whence it departed. Just as the crab whose girth prevents it from returning to the external shell that was once its home, so too the soul which outgrows this life does not return to the corrupted shell that it inhabited before.

Thus we find that, however desirable it may be to believe in the resurrection of the dead to renewed bodies of incredible powers, there is no clarity to the testimony, nor possibility to its support, nor can right reason find it worthy whether by common experience, the testimony of history, or the learning of the wise. Let us not consider it blasphemy then to discard the testimony of sacred texts altogether, bur neither let us assent to claims that are better suited for children or poets, or others less concerned with what is wise and expedient.

Confirmation - What is stated about the resurrection of Jesus is probable.

Anyone who would deny the testimony of Scripture sets out to refute not the words of men, but the very knowledge of God, in whom, through whom, and to whom all things exist, subsist, and persist. What is more foolish to doubt: the light of human reason dimmed as it is by the frailty of human error, or the light of truth which was given by the breath of God Himself? Though all men should become liars by their claims, God remains true. Therefore it is our present task to demonstrate that the testimony of Scripture to the resurrection of Jesus is not merely probably, but as certain as any claim can be.

Let us first begin by noting the special nature of the man of whom it is said, "he rose again." The testimony of his character is not simply that he was a prophet, but that he was God's own prophet. We read in the sacred histories that the prophets of God were often empowered to do miraculous and uncommon feats, at which the world marveled. But more than this, Jesus was the Son of God, greater than any prophet of God, and appointed for the singular task of redeeming humanity from its corruption and error. The full testimony of Scripture bears this out not only in the shadows and promises, which God gave to the Israelites, of which the apostle to the Hebrews relates, but more clearly in the narratives of the life of Jesus and his work on earth during his life. The miracles that Jesus accomplished (among which was the raising of Lazarus from death to life) and the wisdom that he displayed does not make it incredible to believe that God should raise him from the dead.

As for those who would reject the testimony of Scripture altogether, let us introduce an objection to their claims built upon the three-fold pillars of common sense, historical testimony, and the wisdom of men.

First, although common sense is quite often reliable for common occurrences, it is quite obvious from the nature of the word itself that uncommon occurrences will appear foolish to a sense that considers only what is common to be reliable. Is it not taught amongst the rhetoricians and orators that when one is defending the smaller man accused of attacking the larger man, when the facts are true, to nevertheless argue that the smaller man would never prevail against the larger, nor even attempt to try, for it goes against our common sense? Nor does it take a great deal of thought to find other examples where what is not commonly thought to be true nonetheless finds occurrence in patterns more frequent that human attention is capable of finding. It is the dullness of our memories and the limitations of our observance that leads us to miss even those things which are common, and which we call uncommon, merely because of our own incapacity! Rather than trusting in this pillar, we rather see it unfit for supporting our assent.

Second, the testimony of history might be dismissed upon the argument that it is no more than the record of common sense applied to the courses of life that appeared significant to the authors of history. But even if we consider history to be more acute than common sense, the very fact that it records testimony of resurrection should give us reason to consider it more probably than our opponent would have us believe. The Scriptures themselves, when considered as history, tell of Elijah's raising of a child, and of Jesus' raising of Lazarus. Still other accounts, though they be doubted, show that the testimony of history cannot be considered a formidable grounds for denying the unique resurrection of Jesus.

Third, the wisdom of men is so far from being comparable to the revelation of God that we might as well compare it to the buzzing of flies or babbling of infants. But since there are many who do not consider such ground established, let us answer the philosophers. We shall ignore those who consider the soul destroyed in death, or that no soul exists, for they argue not only against revelation, but also against the very inclinations of human nature towards itself, death and what lies beyond death in hope. This is not to say that these things are themselves proof of immortality, yet they are so commonly assented to that the burden of proof lies not upon us, but upon them to make their case credible. Those that think the soul depart never to return to the body introduce so gross a distinction between body and soul that we must wonder at how this design could enter their mind at all--indeed how even their mind and body could cohere at all! Since they have not adequately proven that the relationship between body and soul is one of prison to prisoner, why should we think it more probable than the relation of house to occupant? Just as an occupant may leave his home for a period of time, why should not the soul have separation from the body with no possibility of return? And though we witness the decay of those bodies in which the soul has departed, why should we doubt that when the God who made these bodies is unable or unwilling to refurnish them when he wishes for the soul to inhabit again the property which he appointed for them at the first?

Yet let us not stray too far afield from our present consideration, for whatever may be the general estate of man, we can only know such when we consider the purpose for which man was made, and it is evident to all pious observers that only the testimony of the Maker Himself is suitable grounds for determining what purpose creation is intended to serve. For if there is no purpose at all, we have no cause to consider the debate worth consideration whatsoever, for whether one be convinced of resurrection, or not, there is no purpose for which it matter beyond the expiration of air into the atmosphere. Yet when we consider that God made man so that he might worship and glorify God forever, it was necessary that God should redeem a portion of man to fulfill this purpose though man had forsaken this destiny through the rejection of God's purpose at his initiation into the world.

Therefore let none be dismayed by the pillars of common sense, the testimony of history, or the wisdom of men, for they cannot stand in and of themselves apart from the very foundation of God, who has made men whose minds seek the common, who directs history according to His special design, and who illumines man's mind to know whatsoever may be known, though man is often led astray by his rebellious designs. And let us believe that the resurrection of Jesus is not only probable, but true, and that it has established the pattern for all humanity, be they resurrected unto life abundant, or unto torment unending.

Summary & Use:

Although the examples above lack the polish of careful editing, one can nevertheless see the potential for fruitful survey of the various arguments that may be leveled for or against a given Biblical claim. Not only do these exercises provide a rich storehouse of commonplaces for the student to have ready to use to defend the truth of God's Word, but it also prepares the Christian to be prepared for the sort of arguments leveled by unbelievers against the faith. It is not enough to know what to teach, for one must be able to anticipate and reply to objections (however weak or strong) offered by those whom God is both drawing unto Himself and condemning in their unrepentance. Moreover the competitive spirit which hypothetical debate fosters can ensure that those participating do not settle for straw arguments that may be easily dispatched--for who wants to be exposed as ignorant, weak, or incapable in front of one's peers? Therefore those debating as opponents of Scripture will be forced to not only find the most formidable claims of unbelievers, but also find those Biblically sound refutations for those same claims.


I have shown how one may proceed to argue for and against a claim drawn from Scripture. One is not limited to a doctrinal claim such as the resurrection, but could also attack and defend the historicity of a Biblical narrative, the application of a Biblical law, or even the interpretation of a given passage of Scripture. There are few limitations and many possibilities for development, which is why it is said by Aphthonius that the whole art of rhetoric may be displayed in these exercises.

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