The Socratic Dialectic: A Model Worth Following … To An Extent

Book referred to: Samuel E. Stumpf, “Socrates to Sartre and Beyond” in Philosophy: History and Problems, S. E. Stumph and J. Fieser. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2003. pp. 39-42.  All quotes are to be found in pages 39-42.

Socrates is one of the most famous classical philosophers for his lasting contributions to Western thought and modern philosophy.  What Socrates is probably most well-known for today is his method teaching and of arriving at truth, which he called dialectic.  This rather simplistic method is “the practice of disciplined conversation.” The parties involved in the dialogue would begin by discussing any problem and throughout the course of the dialogue, they would be forced to clarify their ideas until they arrived at a clear statement of the truth of that problem.  One key aspect of Socrates’ dialectic  was the use of questions to force another to either clarify his proposition or to force him to reconsider his position.  (An example of Socrates’ dialectic Plato’s Euthypro which you can read here.  It’s not long.)  Socrates poked and prodded at his audience’s ideas with his questions, working under the assumption “that by progressively correcting incomplete or inaccurate notions, [he] could coax the truth out of” him and expose any contradiction in their ideas so that they would abandon what they at first believed.  Socrates’ method invites the audience to be active participants in the search for truth.

The Socratic dialogue is an excellent model for Christians to use in not only education but in evangelization and apologetics as well (hereafter, both evangelization and apologetics are both referred to as evangelization).  only to a certain extent.  When speaking with unbelievers, we must be careful to avoid Socrates’ assumption that truth can be coaxed out of the subject. When it comes to the truth of the gospel – that a person is a sinner and, apart from saving faith in Jesus Christ, he is separated from God. The truth of one’s stance before God is not something that can be “coaxed” out of the unbeliever through a series of probing and clarifying questions. A sinner does not recognize that he is a sinner unless it is revealed to him by the convicting power of the Holy Spirit.

What role, then, can questions play in evangelization if one cannot draw out from the unbeliever the truth of the Gospel?  We learn from Socrates that questions place the onus on the audience to “see” Socrates’ logic in order to lead them to his conclusion. Socrates’ hope is that the audience is persuaded, through their participation in the dialogue, to at the very least see the error of their own view, and at best to accept Socrates’ conclusion. The dialogues, as Plato presents them, poses a problem for the believer, however. It seems that Socrates often leaves the dialogue open-ended (that is, with no explicitly-stated solution to the question originally posed), or he leaves the audience to infer the conclusion he sought to argue. When it comes to proclaiming the truth of the gospel, leaving a conversation open-ended or the unbeliever to infer what the gospel says of their place before God can pose problems. For instance, the unbeliever may infer an incorrect conclusion that leads them further away from the truth of the gospel. Leaving a conversation open-ended allows for multiple interpretations, potentially leaving the unbeliever to accept what makes sense to them as opposed to what the gospel truly teaches. As such, the Socratic dialogue is a helpful evangelistic too, but only to an extent.

In light of this, then, let us follow the example of Jesus Christ, who Himself utilized dialogue when teaching his disciples and small groups, when evangelizing, and when confronting the Pharisees.  Unlike Socrates, who used questions to coax the truth out of another, Jesus used questions to lead others to the truth.  Jesus, the Word of God in flesh, the Truth, then proclaimed the truth of God to an unbelieving people, blinded by sin, incapable of knowing the truth of the gospel in and of themselves.  Jesus always led his audience to an explicit answer so that they may hear the truth, not merely infer it. Even the parables were such that the audience would be able to link the parable to teachings found in the Hebrew scriptures (our Old Testament). In short, Jesus’ questions were purposeful; he led his audience to his intended conclusion. May we be as Jesus when we proclaim the gospel.  We as Christians can follow Socrates’ dialectic when evangelizing, but only to an extent.

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