James White’s 4 Keys to Effective Debating

I don’t know how I got there, but by some fluky mischance, I found myself embroiled in a debate with James White.

Anyone who has witnessed one of White’s 150+ moderated debates will sympathize with my unhappy predicament. As gracious as his attitude invariably is, and as measured as his responses tend to be, White’s logical jiu-jitsu methodically maneuvers his adversary’s argument into an inescapable chokehold from which the only relief is to tap out. Resistance is futile and potentially humiliating.

I was innocently ordering pizza when it happened. I asked the waiter for the gluten-free option, and in an instant recognized I had activated a launch sequence of sorts. White’s eyes narrowed as he sized me up like a gunslinger in a spaghetti western. Then, his opening gambit: “Have you been diagnosed with Celiac disease?” This wasn’t small talk.  It was bait. He enunciated the word “diagnosed” carefully as if he wanted an imaginary court reporter not to miss it.

I felt a pop of adrenaline hit my nerves. Instinct told me to back out of the minefield by retracing my steps— “Did I say gluten-free pizza? I meant soup-&-pea pizza. I have a speech impediment.” I was more confident in my ability to fake an impediment for the foreseeable future than to navigate the next five minutes with any intellectual dignity intact.

But the masochistic part of my psyche was curious to see this play out.

“No, I don’t have Celiac disease, I just think gluten-free flour is better for me.”

When a lawyer asks if you know the time, you don’t give him the time; you say “yes.” I should have just replied “no,” but instead I had painted a target on my forehead for him.

What followed is a bit of a blur to me. It must have looked like a Jedi Knight brandishing a lightsaber, making short-shrift of an Ewok armed with a stick.

I recall some disjointed phrases: “most unjustly vilified substance in the whole nutritional corpus” and “cherry-picked results” and “meta-studies show” and “ignorantly perpetuate fallacies…”

The force is strong in this one.

In God’s kindness the waiter reappeared, like an angel, to give me the way of escape: “We are fresh out of the gluten-free option, my apologies.”

“No problem ol’ sport, just bring me some pizza, extra gluten if you please, let’s not perpetuate anything, it’s an unjustly vilified substance anyway.”

Whatever mind trick I just fell prey to, I recognized this was a rare opportunity. I was a padawan with an audience with Yoda, why not milk it?

So I whipped out my moleskin notebook and fountain pen, hit record on my phone, and grilled @DrOakley1689 on how to debate more effectively.

Here are James White’s four keys to becoming an effective debater:

  1. Seek to be consistent. (Use equal scales)

This is mandatory in a serious debate: you can’t use unequal scales. You need to apply the same level of respect and understanding of how they employ their source material as you would want them to apply to how you employ yours.

Rookie debaters attack aspects of their opponent’s system that they would dismiss with an exasperated eye roll if the favor were returned. He offered a smattering of examples. Here’s some of his riff on this point, transcribed from a recording and cleaned up a bit…

A lot of arguments used against Islam or Mormonism will involve picking on their writings…..eg the Book of Mormon says Jesus was born in Jerusalem and apologists will say “see, Joseph Smith did not know what he was talking about.” But when we defend the Old Testament we often point out that that there are places where the author has used a very specific geographic term referring to a wider region. We defend against these alleged errors using that methodology—so we must be consistent and allow the Mormon the same methodology; i.e. they would say that Bethlehem is very close to Jerusalem, in the same general area.

There are a lot of arguments that I would not use when attacking the Qur’an because I realize that when defending the Old Testament I am going to have to utilize very similar responses from what I would expect from a Muslim. So we need to be very careful.

A lot of people attack Joseph Smith’s false prophesies – and there are false prophecies – but Mormons allege that there are false prophecies in the Old Testament too. So your argument saying that Joseph Smith was giving a false prophecy might boomerang and they will say that Jonah was giving a false prophecy, or Ezekiel when prophesying against Tyre (referring to Ezekiel 26:1-14).

Most Christian apologists are better at attacking the other side rather than defending the best arguments made against Christianity.

 

  1. Strive for accuracy in representation of the other side (use original source material)

How much attention would you pay to a debater who learned what they know about your faith from watching a YouTube video posted by an “ex-Christian” who “suddenly realized” the Bible was full of contradictions and that his church leaders didn’t have answers? Probably zero.

You need to examine and familiarize yourself with your opponent’s original source material. When you explain their view on an issue, they should nod in agreement with everything you are saying before you explain why you disagree. If they don’t believe you understand their position or if they think you have misrepresented their beliefs, they will dismiss any argument you proffer against the faulty position you have presented.

So, when you engage a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness or a Muslim, make sure you have read Joseph Smith, C. T. Russel, or the Qur’an.

It is “Absolutely vitally important to use original sources, to know their version.”

Some people disagree with this point because they say you are exposing yourself to false teaching. But you know what: Paul quoted from Aratus the Greek philosopher and when he wrote Colossians he uses the very language of the proto-gnostics and the Docetists. The writers knew that those people believed and actively refuted them. We have nothing to fear, true Christianity has nothing spiritually to fear from Islam.

Jot down chapter and verse to show your counterpart that you have taken the time to actually read and understand what they actually believe. Interact with that. Do not erect straw men and throw fallacious darts at them. You will only make yourself feel superior while getting no closer to winning the argument or the soul for Christ.

 

  1. Show love for your opponent. (Win souls not just arguments)

Speaking of winning, you need to decide if your goal is merely to win an argument or to win a soul.

Sometimes those two go together. By convincing them of what the Scriptures actually say, you win the person over to the truth by winning the argument. But sometimes your words might be true, while your attitude belies your lack of concern for the person you are debating and the people who hold their view.

Apologetics – especially electronic apologetics – is a very dangerous skill because it allows you to say things to other people you would never say to their face. It allows you to sit there and think that you are glorifying God when the reality is that you are just trying to get your sword bloody – you don’t care what damage you do in the process.  If you don’t love the people you are dealing with, if you don’t really believe that you are going to be praying for them, if you wouldn’t reach out to them in a meaningful fashion, then don’t even do it. You’ll end up doing more damage than anything else.

The easiest way to show love to a person is to actually love them. Jesus said to do this, so if you don’t you are being a poor debater and a bad Christian at the same time.

 

  1. Stay in the context of a local church.

Apologetics is not a balanced field. You spend your time immersed in error. If you are doing that divorced from a ministry in the local church you are missing the point of your gifts, you are stunting your own spiritual growth, and you are neglecting your responsibility to the local church in favor of the Universal Church.

I found this to be the most surprising and encouraging of Dr. White’s insights. He is an elder at his church, teaches a Bible study (from the Bible, not the Book of Mormon), and ministers alongside Christians. His apologetics and debating is his career, not his only ministry.

Apologetics must be done within the context of the church. The vast majority of apologists I know are not churchmen. They go from church to church each weekend and give their presentations but they themselves are not churchmen.

Apologetics is not a balanced Christian ministry, you’re always in defense mode. I jokingly tell my audience – I listen to the heretics so you don’t have to – and there is an element of truth in that. And that is not good in the long run if that is all you do. So if you are a churchman you will be forced to have balance.

Follow-up Questions

I may have another opportunity next year for a follow-up interview, so if you have questions you’d like me to ask him, leave them in the comments section below. But if you want to argue with what he said, trust me you’re biting off more gluten than you can chew.



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