Yes and No

The Apostle Paul Explains the Faith to King Agrippa, his Sister Berenice, & Proconsul Festus – by Vasily Surikov, 1875

Have you ever said something to someone that was interpreted so completely differently than how you meant it that it just left you bewildered? I think it’s probably happened to all of us at some point, but maybe you’re finding it happening more often in the very polarized times we live in now (at least here in America where I write). Let’s work through a helpful solution to those frustrating misunderstandings today.

I was reminded of tendency toward misunderstanding in an unusual way recently – reading through the American bridge design manual (for a class on bridge design and not what I read just for fun – I’m nerdy but not that nerdy). The manual has the actual text of the code on the left half of each page with the commentary pertaining to that section on the right half instead of in some forgotten section at the back of the book, which is actually helpful when trying to understand what on earth they’re requiring in the code portion. On the page explaining that the design lane width on bridges is 12 feet, they allow an exception on bridges that are only 20′ to 24′ wide; the lanes will be half of that total width, down to as low as 10′ wide. Someone could read that and think there was an advantage then to designing narrow bridges, or even that the code had a preference for them. But then the commentary quickly clarifies that by stating “It is not the intention of this Article to promote bridges with narrow traffic lanes. Wherever possible, bridges should be built to accommodate the standard design lane and appropriate shoulders.”[1] The bridge manual affirms the allowance for narrow bridges, but then denies that it should ever be the goal. It should always be the exception and not the norm: the “least bad” solution given the circumstances rather than the first option. So yes, narrow bridges are allowed, but no, they are not preferred.

In working through tough theological or cultural issues, there is another type of Yes and No that comes up: the need to say “Yes, this is what I believe, but no, that is not what I believe.” Francis Schaeffer described the need well, writing, “the problem of communication is serious; it can only be overcome by negative statements that clearly say what we do not mean, so that the twentieth-century man understands the positive statements we do mean.”[2] Why is that? It comes down to the hearer’s presuppositions, our undefined terms, and the problem of equivocation.

Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy at Boston College and author of the excellent Socratic Logic textbook, notes that equivocation is perhaps the most common logical fallacy. That’s not surprising when one thinks about it, for it’s the easiest of the material fallacies (as opposed to formal fallacies) to commit. To equivocate is to use a term ambiguously. In fact, equivocation is the basis of most puns or plays-on-words; the twofold meaning is what makes them funny. But in more serious discussions, two people using the same term but having different concepts in mind is responsible for countless cases of futile discussions that end only in frustration as each side “talks past the other”. That’s why one of the most important things to do in any critical discussion, and particularly in controversial or highly emotional topics, is to define the terms well. Well-defined terms up-front keep people from misunderstanding each other and disagreeing needlessly, as well as from thinking they agree about something important when they actually don’t.

This is why Christian apologist Greg Koukl emphasizes asking “What do you mean by that?” when talking to people with different views. This is also why churches or organizations tackling tough issues will sometimes issue a statement in the form of “affirmations and denials”. You can see this exemplified in statements like the Nashville Statement on Biblical Sexuality (2017), the Chicago Statements on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) and on Biblical Hermeneutics (1982), or the recent Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel (2018) or creeds like the Athanasian Creed  of the 5th century. The inaugural Together for the Gospel conference in 2006 also chose to produce a statement in the form of affirmations and denials. And in 2016, R.C. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries put out their Statement on Christology with a lengthy section of affirmations and denials.

Why did these groups find it beneficial to use that format? They did that because an affirmation of what you believe can often be misconstrued, sometimes even to mean the very opposite of what one intended! We all approach a topic from our own unique background which can blind us to alternative interpretations of our statements. And many words, especially technical words, can have very different meanings depending on the context. That’s why the format of stating an affirmation of what we mean, along with a denial of what we don’t mean, is so helpful on complex issues. What we meant may need to be clarified later, but at least the denial portion can preempt many possible misinterpretations and prompt our opponents to ask for clarification rather than assuming they understood the initial affirmation. So next time you’re discussing a particularly controversial or complex issue, try explaining what you don’t mean as a way to clarify what you do mean. Also recognize that you might be reading something into their position that isn’t there, and ask questions to clarify things. “What do you mean by that?” is a nice neutral question, but if it seems like you’re still going around in circles with alternate unclear wordings of the same premise, consider prompting them for a denial so as to “bracket the problem,” as we like to say in engineering. Sometimes, the best way to explain a “yes” is with a “no.” Until next time, thanks for reading, and in the words of Paul, “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.” [1Th 5:21]

[1] AASHTO, LRFD Bridge Design Specifications, 6th Edition, (Washington DC: American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials, 2012), p.3-17.
[2] Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, Volume 1 – A Christian View of Philosophy an Culture, 2nd Ed. (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), p. 196.

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