Stating your opponent’s case

One of the things I have on my life plan is that I want to always seek to understand others’ ideas and perspectives, and always represent them fairly when explaining them. It is my conviction that when we state an opinion that we disagree with, we should do so with such clarity that someone who does hold that opinion would recognise their own opinion and acknowledge that you did it full justice. If you think someone holds an opinion that no sane person could possibly think was a good one, you probably aren’t representing your opponent well. If you can’t find any appeal in their views, maybe you haven’t understood them rightly. It seems to me that only once we have understood and appreciated an argument can we then argue against it.

I was reminded of this recently, while considering the writing of Erasmus at church. I believe that Erasmus was, quite simply, wrong in his debate with Luther, but it struck me as important that we allowed Erasmus to speak for himself, rather than only reading Luther. It is difficult to be persuasive in how we express the viewpoint of someone with whom we disagree, but to read Erasmus’ own words removed that problem. Indeed, in several places he wrote with great persuasiveness, and people found themselves challenging their own beliefs. This challenge to our own ideas is what makes this sort of exercise valuable, and it is only when we feel the same force of an argument that its proponents feel that we can benefit from it. We do not have to accept the truth of someone else’s view, but only by appreciating it can we learn from it and sharpen our own views.

The importance of representing opinions well even if they are not our own was also brought home when I was reading a commentary on Philippians recently in preparation for a talk I’ll be giving in a few weeks, and found the author had suffered from someone not accurately portraying his opinion.

“In the process of making a case for his interpretations, there is a tendency to represent the views of others in less than accurate fashion. In several instances … my own position has been badly misrepresented… It appears to me that other scholars have also not fared well, but they will need to speak for themselves.”

Moisés Silva, Philippians (2nd edition) in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series, p33

Let’s all make sure that we take the time to portray others in a fair light when we disagree with them.