I’m not “Quibbling with Words,” I’m Simply Trying to Understand You

This post is not prompted by any recent event or person (so, no, I’m not attacking anyone); it is simply the result of thinking about these things.

Last year I was contacted by a man with a long list of 19 or so questions (it is not uncommon for me to receive such lists, as I’m sure is true of other pastors), demanding simple “yes” or “no” answers. The problem was that most of the questions are not questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” The question “Do you believe in Predestination?” (not one of this man’s questions) is not a simple “yes-or-no” question. (This question is especially frustrating when presented at the end of the service when the person asking you does so while shaking your hand and with 80 people in line behind him.) Sometimes when I respond with, “What do you mean when you use the word ‘predestination’?” I am greeted with, “You must be a liberal because you quibble with words.” (Imprecise thinkers often accuse others of “quibbling with words” when, in reality, those of us who prefer to think with care and precision simply want to know what you mean.)

The fact is the word “predestination” means different things to different people. I would go so far as to paraphrase one well-known Bible teacher, R C Sproul, and say, “Everyone has a doctrine of predestination, because not only is the doctrine of predestination in the Bible, the very word ‘predestinate’ and its various forms are used in Scripture.” This means that if you believe the Bible, you must have some doctrine of predestination or you’ve just rejected something clearly taught in Scripture.

Not everyone, however, agrees on what the doctrine of predestination is and what it means to say “predestinate.” Arminians and Calvinists have had royal dust-ups over what it means to say that one is “predestinated to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29, KJV). Considering how differently various groups interpret this verse, it is not “quibbling with words” when I ask, “What do you mean by “predestination?” I’m simply asking where you’re coming from on this issue. Your answer will me tell me whether you are (1) picking a fight in which I will need to defend my own position, (2) simply seeking clarification, (3) completely ignorant (I don’t mean that in a bad way) and wanting a basic lesson in the various views, or (4) determining whether or not to visit my church or consider me a heretic.

Likewise, questions such as “Do you believe that Christians will go through the Tribulation?” or “Do you believe in a Pre-Trib, a Mid-Trib or a Post-Trib Rapture?” are not simple “yes-or-no” questions. These questions assume that the person you are asking believes in a future seven-year tribulation period and all that goes along with it. Without arguing for whether or not this view is Scriptural or correct, I will just say that increasingly, churches, (yes, even what are often termed “Bible-believing Baptist churches”) are holding to modified views of the end times that do not fit this traditional Dispensational-Premillennial framework. You must not assume that everyone with the same name as you shares the same presuppositions on secondary issues such as this.

I also place in this category questions that present the logical fallacy of false dilemma. “Do you hold to classical or presuppositional apologetics?” This is what is termed a false dilemma (the previous question might also fit into this category) because there are at least four major views of apologetics, not only two. A person might hold one of these two views, or he might hold to another view, or he might hold (as I do) to a combination of two or more of these views (in my case, a combination of mainly three). This question forces me either to fit into one of these two, or “quibble with words” once again by explaining myself (and having to educate the questioner in the process, a task not easily done considering that I had thirty weeks of two-hour classes and countless hours of reading, study, and writing before I was able to articualte my own position).

I might, however, also accuse some questioners of “quibbling with words.” Consider the man who emailed me and asked if we believed in Replacement theology (at the time I had not even heard that term; I have since learned that it is a pejorative term). He explained that he thought the name “Zion Baptist” implied that we did. He later doubted me (and expressed no small degree of skepticism) when I told him that the name Zion was chosen nine years before I was even born and was chosen, presumably, because the people who chose it simply liked the name. They could not have intended it to convey some hidden message about their theology since the people who chose it would be described as “Dispensational-Premillennial” (if they chose to accept any label), a position opposite to the position this man was claiming they held! Believe it or not (and maybe this is sad in some respects), but not every decision that a church makes is necessarily trying to establish, perpetuate, or illuminate a point of theology. Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” and if I may paraphrase, sometimes a name is just a name. Likewise, sometimes a question is just a question, a seeking to understand before being understood.

This same man emailed me back about two related questions in his list to which I had answered “I don’t know.” His response was, “You didn’t understand my question…[y]ou don’t know. This implies a possible yes.” I responded, “It doesn’t imply anything beyond “I don’t know. I couldn’t imply anything if I didn’t understand the question to begin with, could I?” He did the same thing later in the email to another answer I gave which was, “I have no idea.” He said that implied “yes.” I answered again, “‘I have no idea’ does not imply anything more than, ‘I have no idea.’”

While I love discussing theology and even, on occasion, having a healthy debate about a theological point, my ministry is not about picking fights and/or arguing with others over whether there is a “mishap atom in the universe” or whether or not Satan can “do something that God hasn’t decreed.” I encounter enough falsehood, lies, and error “out there” so I don’t need to (nor do I want to) pick fights with others “in here.”

So, please, don’t make problems where there aren’t problems, don’t pick fights when you don’t have to, and don’t be so quick to accuse others of impure motives or a refusal to stand for the truth just because they ask, “What exactly do you mean by that?”


About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
This entry was posted in blogging, Logic, Pastoral Ministry, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to I’m not “Quibbling with Words,” I’m Simply Trying to Understand You

  1. Arthur Sido says:

    Most arguments could be tempered if we would be more willing to avoid pigeonholing people so we can attack them based on our assumptions. I know I have been guilty of doing that on occasion. I don’t mind debating with people, even fairly pointed conversations, but it is far more intellectually satisfying to debate based on facts rather than caricatures. I would say that people who are inquiring in an accusatory manner about issues with a predetermined outcome may not be worth the ink to respond to (I.e. when the first question is what translation of the Bible do you use)

  2. Arthur:I like this expression; “avoid pigeonholing people so we can attack them based on our assumptions.” That is exactly what the “20 questions” guy was trying to do. He was trying to pick a fight with me and when I simply answered his questions honestly and wouldn’t argue with him, he moved on. He was also deceitful by not telling that he was in VA and wasn’t looking for a church home, he was just looking to put some Calvinist in his place.

  3. GordonCloud says:

    Great article, Mike. It seems to really frustrate some people when we say, “I don’t know,” or ask for further clarification.There are some who want you to cross your t’s and dot your i’s exactly as they do, or else they will stick you in a “pigeonhole” other than the one they are in.It’s good to hear from you and Tondra. Amy was very excited about it.

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