Thesis, antithesis and synthesis
I hope to encourage preaching a sermon solving a contradiction.
Non-Christian skeptics love to point out apparent contradictions in the Bible, the Church, Christian history or even Christian propositions like morality. Sometimes the point is valid, sometimes not.
For those of us that believe the Bible to be God-breathed (1 Timothy 3:16), and truth (John 17:17), and for those who use culturally appropriate synonyms for these words such as infallible or inerrant, then there are no real contradictions in the Bible. By faith, many Christians believe that all apparent contradictions in the Bible have a valid explanation, whether or not we know what a particular explanation is.
Yet, in the church, its history and teachings, there are many points where contradictions can be genuine and criticism is valid. It is not only Catholics who hide behind the infallibility shield. Many Protestants too are reluctant to change areas of doctrine or practice even when clear contradictions exist. We too have erected a stubborn infallibility culture, which prevents reform.
We will examine the Hegelian three-point outline for a sermon: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. We will see how they can be used in a perceived contradiction and a genuine contradiction, and we will see this method can be used in explaining Proverbs 26:4-5 and hence similar seeming Bible contradictions.
Lesson Body A. Perceived Contradictions 1. Thesis
The first point of this sermon is the thesis. If it is a scripture, explain it fully as you would in a normal exegetical sermon. Show why it is valid and how it applies today.
The second point introduces tension to the sermon. It introduces a scripture which seemingly contradicts the first one and causes the congregation to doubt. When discussing two apparently contradictory parts of the Bible be careful to make it clear to the congregation that you will supply an answer to the dilemma later. Don’t allow them to think for a minute that you are going off on some wild or heretical tangent. Maintain the congregation’s trust, but allow the tension to build while you more fully exegete point two and make the difficulties between the two scriptures obvious even to a child in grade 3.
The third point to your sermon begins to release the built up tension, by knocking down one-by-one the apparent discrepancies between the two scriptures. However, don’t just knock over problems, also build bridges between the two contexts. Show clearly why each text of scripture is a valid part of God’s Word and that within its context, contains equally legitimate teachings. In this case, synthesis is a harmonization.
B. Genuine Contradictions 1. Thesis
If the thesis is a proposition of some kind, rather than a scripture, there may be genuine contradictions, rather than merely perceived ones. In this case fully explain the first proposition in the manner that an honest salesman would use to convince the people that it is correct. Be honorable in explaining the genuine advantages of this proposition. For example, many doctrines of the church are quite fallible. It is quite legitimate to discuss two sides of a fallible doctrine. For instance, the idea of women’s ordination has two equally legitimate sides which both use the Bible as their basis. The thesis could do justice to one side.
Now, fully explain the second proposition and be honest in presenting its advantages. Convince the audience about it, yet also show how it contradicts many points from the first proposition. For example, the other side of a doctrine of the church is presented. Or, on the issue of women’s ordination, the other side could be presented here with equally fair treatment.
When synthesizing two contradictory suggestions, clearly explain how biblical principles apply to each. Show where each has strengths and weaknesses and then synthesize or create a new third proposition that harmonizes the best sub-points from the previous two propositions.
Unlike the synthesis of two only perceived contradictions where synthesis is harmonization, in this case where there are genuine contradictions, synthesis creates a new proposition. For example, two apparently contradictory views on a church doctrine are brought together and a synthesized understanding is given. A number of examples of this are in Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology. For instance, he synthesizes several different theories such as Calvinism and Arminianism and different views of humanity.
Another example could be on the issue of women’s ordination. After having presented both sides fairly, we could make reconciling statements such as that there is nothing forbidding women’s ordination, and that what the Bible does not forbid we ought not. Yet, we need to honor each others’ faith on both sides of this issue. It is an issue of faith. Christians, who do not prefer women’s ordination, can honor the faith of those their sisters who believe in it and are ordained. Those men and women who have no biblical difficulty with women’s ordination can honor those who do.
Example Sermon Title: “Answer or Not” Goal
Teach wisdom in giving answers.
Have you ever tried to answer a question about your faith to a non-believer only to be having your answer used to ridicule you? For instance, you may be asked if you believe there is a God. You answer, yes, and are mocked as a fundamentalist wacko. That’s life! Sometimes it does not seem worth evangelizing a person who is not ready to listen, or who only asked so they could get something to use as ammunition against you.
When do we answer and when not? That can be a difficult decision which we will not always get right. Let’s examine an apparent contradiction in the Proverbs and show that there really is no contradiction at all, but a valuable principle that can be applied to a whole host of situations.
Body 1. Thesis: Don’t Answer (Proverbs 26:4)
The context is a question from a fool, and that is where we will start. When answering a fool or a foolish question, if we could be made a fool ourselves it may be best not to answer. Not all questions are of equal merit. There is a time not to answer a question or even completely ignore the person asking the question.
We are not obligated to answer a whole host of questions in our society. Some come from fools, but others come from conniving people who care more about selling a product than the public good. For example, the press often complains that politicians don’t answer the question asked. The fact remains that nobody is under any obligation to answer a question from the press. It is rather arrogant for the media to expect that they deserve an answer to any inflammatory, disparaging, witch-hunting, underhanded questions. A wise politician will try to preserve a measure of public trust rather than allowing the office they hold to be undermined by foolish questions from the press peanut gallery. I often have more respect for a politician in such situations, than for the underhanded media, their sneaky questions and their smug insinuation that a politician’s non-answer somehow must always be a cover up.
We are not obligated to talk to telemarketers, respond to scam emails requesting our internet banking log-in information, converse with door-to-door sales people, or give in to hawkers in the shopping mall asking us to taste their wares. We particularly want to be careful about giving out private information. Even seemingly innocuous information can be abused today. People wonder why I answer the phone with a, “May I help you?” rather than giving my family name or some other information. It is because that is the recommended procedure to counteract burglars and others who may be calling to see who you are or if you are home before proceeding to burgle you home. If I’m asked, who I am, I want to know who is calling before I will even answer that question. I am under no obligation to an unidentified caller.
We are under no obligation to answer a whole host of questions, and in many cases it is very advisable not to answer them.
2. Antithesis: Answer (Proverbs 26:5)
Some people say that there are no foolish questions and that we ought to always give an answer. In court or if questioned by an officer of the law, we may be in trouble if we do not answer certain questions. Beyond that, there is a social responsibility to answer some questions. For instance, if asked about a fire or crime we ought to always give out information, especially when lives may hinge on our answers.
Especially, ought we to answer a fool, to help him realize his stupidity. Willy Brandt the governor of the German state of Bavaria, was well-known for his ability to answer any foolish question from the news media and put a reporter in his place, because Herr Brandt had a remarkable recall for facts and statistics. When politicians don’t answer questions from reporters or seem to side-step them, it only adds to the suspicion that they have something to hide.
How many of us recall the teacher that seemed to be aloof and uncaring? Some teachers seem to have no time for struggling students. If you had questions, they seemed impatient and unwilling to take the time to answer. I remember going home frustrated about equations when I was young. The mathematics teacher could not or seemed unwilling to answer my questions in a way that I could understand the concept. Perhaps I had been playing the fool or was distracted by some foolish youthful pursuit. So, I asked my father. He simply made an equation analogous to a set of balance scales. If I took something from or added something to one side, in order for the scales to maintain balance, I needed to take the exact same amount from or add it to the other side of the scales. The fool (me) got his answer and has never forgotten it.
What then is the answer? Are these two proverbs a contradiction or are these contrasting principles?
3. Synthesis: Answer or Not Depending…
Before rushing to judgment about what a proverb means we need to understand the nature of proverbs. They are not meant to be the complete or absolute answers to everything. Proverbs are designed to be a partial view of reality only. So, these two seemingly contradictory proverbs are in reality a contrast between two facets of reality and each is not a stand-alone complete answer. In the contrast is the answer to the dilemma.
The resolution becomes clearer when we see that the two proverbs complement rather than contradict each other. If answering a fool makes you as foolish as they are, you may not want to answer. Or if by answering, you seem to give honor to a fool, it may be better not to bother.
On the other hand, if by not answering, they think they have outsmarted you or do so something even more foolish, perhaps an answer is in order.
So, answering a fool is both a potential obligation and a possible threat to the wise. In both cases, the purpose of any answer would be to curtail foolishness and not let it get out of hand. Now that calls for wisdom and insight. Those who claim that these two proverbs are contradictory may not understand the ambiguities of life. Life is not all laid out for us in clear black and white choices. There are many areas where we need wisdom to discern a right path.
When do we answer and when not? That remains a difficult decision which we will not always get right. Let’s understand the challenge to us, that there is a danger either way we choose. If we answer, we might become as foolish as the fool, and if we don’t the fool might be encouraged to be even more foolish. God can give us the wisdom to decide!
Choose an apparent contradiction in the scriptures or a real contradiction in some Christian proposition. Do not be too controversial, or try to turn the whole Christian world on its ears with one sermon. However, do choose something that would be of value in explaining the thesis, antithesis and synthesis to a local church.
We have examined the Hegelian three-point outline for a sermon: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. We have seen how they can be used in a perceived contradiction and a genuine contradiction. The Christian world is full of real and apparent contradictions. This is a good method of explaining them.