Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
January 17, 1957
NUMBER 36, PAGE 2-3b

"Is Religious Debate Authorized Or Condemned?" (I)

James E. Cooper, Campbellsville, Kentucky

Recently a 20-page tract with the above title was mailed to me by Harry F. Roberts of Jackson, Tennessee. On page 13 he acknowledges himself to be a member of the Church of Christ. I have not had the pleasure of meeting Brother Roberts; hence, this review cannot be construed as anything against him personally.

In his preface, Brother Roberts says, "I may have misunderstood the meaning of some passages of scripture, I may have reached wrong conclusions, and I may not have always made myself clear, but I have written what God has said on the subject and the reader can feel free to study what I have said in the light of any other information he may have." If Brother Roberts has written what God says on the subject, he must then understand the passages of scripture, reach the right conclusions, and make himself clear. After reading his tract, I have reached the conclusion that he has (1) "misunderstood the meaning of some passages of scripture," (2) "reached wrong conclusions," (3) made himself "clear" and (4) "wrote what God said on the subject" only while quoting scripture. In the next paragraph, he says that his "only desire is to point out what the scriptures say and what the words used in the scripture mean .. . ." By artful maneuvering he comes up with the conclusion that it is wrong to engage in religious discussions, or debates.

His introduction points us to Romans 1:29-32, where the King James Version renders the word eridos, from eris, as "debate," and asks, "Now, can one preach from this translation and dare say that any part is untrue ?" He next admits that the Revised Standard Version renders this word as "strife," but comments, "a revised translation of the scripture is not to change the meaning but to bring out a fuller or more complete understanding of that scripture. Now, let us see if this translation does that, or if it brings out a different meaning. To do this we must study the meaning of the two words, 'debate' and 'strife.' If we find the meaning to be the same, neither translation is wrong, but both are true."

Before going further into his study of "debate" and "strife" notice that he misunderstands the reasons for the revision, one of which was that some words in the King James Version are archaic and do not now convey the same idea as they did when the KJV was published in 1611. Herbert Gordon May, in Our English Bible in the Making says, "Any translation becomes in part antiquated in time because of the archaisms it contains, as the language changes. Languages are not static." (p. 29.) The particular word under consideration is but one of the places where the revision translates with a word that today more nearly expresses to us what the Greeks meant when they used eris. Brother Roberts could have saved himself the trouble of writing his tract if he had only noticed that the archaic definition of "debate" is "to engage in strife or combat."

Certainly, one can preach from the KJV, and preach the truth, if he realizes that "debate" in Romans 1:29 is used in its archaic sense. The word does not occur in the sense of "to dispute, hence to discuss or examine a question by considering arguments on both sides." Asa transitive verb, the word now means "to contend for, esp. to strive to maintain, or controvert (a proposition) by argument." (Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, fifth edition, 1951.)

In giving his definition, Brother Roberts defines debate as "to engage in strife, dispute, contention: in words or arguments, discussion, controversy, contest, fight." He fails to tell his readers that the archaic definition is "to engage in strife." His next step is to define strife as "Earnest endeavor; exertion for superiority; emulation, contention, conflict; fight, contest, struggle, and quarrel." Then he jumps to contention and gives a "list of things that mean strife" which he finds under contention, "struggle, combat, feud, controversy, dissension, litigation, variance, disagreement, debate (emphasis by HFR), competition — rivalry, emulation." He then concludes, "Mr. Webster says these things produce strife. We now have found that strife and debate mean one and the same thing, and also, that neither the King James Version nor the Revised Standard Version translation is wrong, but that they are both correct and express the same meaning." Even here he jumps from "mean the same thing" to "produce strife" and vice versa, His conclusion is correct only in the sense that "strife" now denotes what "debate" did in 1611.

What did Paul mean in Romans 1:29? Did he mean that it was wrong to engage in a regulated discussion on a given proposition? or is he saying it is wrong to engage in strife, in the sense of an altercation, conflict, or fight? What did the word eris, as used by Paul, mean? Souter's Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament defines it simply, "strife." Abbott-Smith's Manuel Greek Lexicon of the New Testament defines it, "strife, wrangling, contention." Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament defines it, "contention, strife, wrangling." Neither of these lexicographers define the word in a sense that would have Paul condemning an orderly regulated discussion as is now described in the word "debate." It is true that a religious discussion can degenerate into a personal wrangle or fight, and that would be condemned as "strife," but not as "debate."

The word eris appears nine times in the New Testament. The KJV translates it as "debate" in only two passages, Romans 1:29 and II Corinthians 12:20. It is translated "contentions" in I Corinthians 1:11, and "strife" in Romans 13:13; I Corinthians 3:3; Galatians 5:20; Philippians 1:15; I Timothy 6:4; and "strivings" in Titus 3:9. The American Standard Version translates it consistently as "strife" except in I Corinthians 1:11, where it has "contentions." The Revised Standard Version translates it "strife" in Romans 1:29; I Corinthians 3:3 and Galatians 5:20; "quarrel" or "quarreling" in Romans 13:13; I Corinthians 1:11; II Corinthians 12:20; and Titus 3:9; "rivalry" in Philippians 1:15, and "dissension" in I Timothy 6:4. Thus, both the American. Standard Version and the Revised Standard Version drops the word "debate" from the passages in question. They know that in 1611 the word 'debate" meant "to engage in strife" but has since changed its connotation. We must conclude that these scholars knew Paul was not condemning an orderly discussion, but was rather condemning the wrangling attitude.

On page 16 Brother Roberts asks, "Can one get around debate by calling it honorable discussion? 'Discussion' means debate and debate is nowhere defined as honorable discussion." As far as I know, no one is trying to get around debate by calling it "honorable discussion." The attempt is to get around ignorant prejudice against debating by calling attention to the "honorable" part of it. We deplore envying, wraths, strifes, backbitings, etc., as vehemently as does Brother Roberts, but we don't find them in the word debate. An honorable and orderly discussion is not a quarrel, and can be such only when it degenerates into a disorderly discussion. No doubt, some religious debates have been characterized by such attitudes and actions, but such is not necessarily involved in the idea of debating. When such attitudes are manifested, do not charge them up to "debating," but to the wicked attitude on the part of the individual engaging in such tactics.