Common Mistakes in Theological Research #6: The Us Versus Them Problem

Every thesis has an argument.  In order to argue something “new” or “original” you need to know what has been argued before and where you can go with your own research.  There is a certain kind of thesis, a very common one, which is largely a negative argument: Professor So-and-so’s theory on X in respect to Y is WRONG.  Or, perhaps a lighter version: My solution to the problem Y is correct, which means that Professor So-and-so’s theory is WRONG.

Theses like these are often times very interesting and can have the power to shift consensus opinions.  These can often be very fun to read and can be persuasive if the evidence is there.  Once you have hooked your reader (in the first couple of chapters), he or she often buys into it and is waiting to hear more in your subsequent chapters.

The problem comes if the writer has an us vs. them approach.  This can even become ad hominem where the goal of the writer is to lampoon the opposing position.  There are a few problems here.  The first is that your viva examiner(s) may not feel persuaded by your very one-sided approach (especially if it is unrelentlessly antagonistic and vituperative).  Secondly, I am personally put  off by someone who treats their scholarly debators as punching bags using words like ‘absurd’, ‘clearly not’, ‘obviously’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘a very poor attempt to…’.  If we have read the appropriate literature on both sides of the ‘debate’ (whatever it may be), you show a certain air of intellectual superiority and academic ignorance when setting up your opponent as a fool.

How can you avoid this?  Be careful when the temptation comes to use polarizing words like all, never, always, etc…These kinds of statements can seem clumsy.  Also, when you seem to be setting the opponent up as a straw man and/or a whipping boy, it can make you come across as intimidated and insecure.  Be willing to highlight what you agree with in the work of your debators.

This us-versus-them seems to be a tendency that is more common amongst conservatives who sometimes appear to have an axe to grind.  If you are a conservative (as I could be labelled), this may be something to keep in mind when you formulate your thesis idea and decide whom your debating partners are.  Remember, it is a debate, not a lynching.  Your goal is to win the argument and further a better understanding of the text – not to stand victorious over the bloodied bodies of your ‘enemies’.

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2 thoughts on “Common Mistakes in Theological Research #6: The Us Versus Them Problem

  1. While studying with Scott Hahn, he gave some invaluable advice: Always make another’s argument the strongest possible before trying to refute it. You’re right, if one is willing to give in to strawman arguments, it makes their argument seem incredibly weak.

  2. In general, you have a good point. It is also almost always worthwhile to put the best possible spin on your opponent’s argument and if you can still demonstrate they are wrong, then you own view gains in reasonableness. It can further help your case if you can concede certain points to an opposing view — in other words, make an assumption against the self-interest of your own case — and conclude that your case is still stronger.

    Having said all that, what do you do if someone’s position really is absurd? What if it defies all logic and all decent standards of scholarship in other fields? Suppose polite reasoning does not work and no change seems possible unless and until scholars acknowledge that something truly awful is going on. Should we not protest awful scholarship?

    I will give one type of example. Most scholars would say that Luke 6:16 which calls Judas “the traitor” (using the Greek word, prodotes, for traitor) is a piece of evidence against Judas. (Everywhere else, in all the Gospels, the Greek word, paradidomi, is used to describe Judas’ action and it does not mean betray and has no connotation of betrayal, as a majority of scholars now agree.) Similarly, scholars would say that Mark 14:1 (accusing Jewish leaders of plotting to kill Jesus) is a piece of evidence against Jewish leaders.

    This is absolutely wrong. Both Luke 6:16 and Mark 14:1 are only evidence that once upon a time such accusations were made. They are not evidence as to the truth of the accusations. They could be true or they could be the result of malicious slander. Based on just these 2 accusations, we do not know which — true or libel? Luke 6:16 and Mark 14:1 are completely irrelevant in answering this question.

    NT scholarship or historical Jesus studies is the only field where such absurd reasoning is practiced on a regular basis. It is tantamount to what they would do at a witch trial. Luke 6:16 and Mark 14:1 are used to create an aura of evil regarding Judas and Jewish leaders. Even if you think you have other evidence to substantiate these charges (and I would argue that the evidentiary case beyond the accusations is weak at best), using the accusation or allegation as even a part of the case against Judas and Jewish leaders is absolutely wrong. No otherf field would tolerate such witch trial reasoning. An accusation or allegation cannot be used at all as an element to prove the case you are arguing. If a judge read the charges against a defendant and told the jury that these charges were part of the evidence against the defendant, he would be dismissed from the judiciary and quite possibly disbarred.

    So some things are terribly unjust and it is only right to say so in the strongest possible terms. Using Luke 6:16 and Mark 14:1 as evidence of the guilt of Judas and Jewish leaders is one of those grave injustices. They are certainly evidence that some people at the time believed these charges, but it is incredibly wrong to argue that they can be used as even one piece of evidence of their guilt.

    Leon Zitzer

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