This post is on the mechanics of debate and dialogue, with the Papacy used as an illustration.

“Reason” is not some magic wand that can fix every problem. But careful application of it can expose the contradictions, weaknesses, and implications not only of argumentation, but also of a concept itself. It is much harder, however, to use reason as a creative force. Analysis in Greek literally means “loosing or pulling apart”. The Protestant Reformers could easily expose the flaws in their opponents’ arguments, but putting something stable and beneficial in their place was far from easy or quick.

Reasoned debate can only function when the opponents have a starting point in common, and it is even better when this is explicitly spelled out and acknowledged. If there is no common material, and no shared acceptance of some basic form of logic, then all you really end up with are tendentious assertions countered by tendentious assertions.

Helpful debate and cross-examination should really involve:

  • Explanation of terms keyed to the background of the audience (theological, rhetorical, logical, historical, literary, linguistic, etc.) It’s no good saying, “That’s ad hominem!”, if the audience doesn’t know what ad hominem means.
  • Explicit spelling out of the (perceived) implications of particular beliefs or arguments (e.g. “If you believe in Zionism, that may cause you to…).
  • Careful argument/proof of why one point should necessarily follow another or be the case. “It may be the case…” is nowhere near as persuasive or compelling as “It must be the case, because the alternative means X, Y, and Z.”
  • Citing of source material, influences, standard texts. In an atmosphere of scepticism, it helps to provide your opponent with the ability to check that you are quoting your material accurately and in its proper context.
  • Structured presentation: diagrams and bullet-point lists, if used well, can be very helpful in showing the reader the relationship between certain things, and is very useful for quickly finding particular points of disagreement amidst material that is agreed upon.

“Know your opponent” is good advice for anyone. You will never win an argument if you use methods or concepts that aren’t held in common between you and your opponent. This basic principle has shaped the format of Catholic and Protestant apologetics. In recent years it has become more common for Catholics to use Bible verses rather than the Fathers, Tradition, or Councils in their dialogue with Protestants because they know the Bible is the only thing they have in common. “Because Augustine says so…” might be helpful in debate between Catholics, but it is not helpful when debating a Protestant precisely because the authority of Augustine and others is in question. You have to build with what you’ve got. Conversely, Protestants in recent years have had much more recourse to the Fathers, church history, and Catholic theologians in an effort to find weaknesses (points of contradiction or tacit admissions of error) and material in common with Protestant methodology and belief.

As NewEnglandSun and NEO have both pointed out, matters are complicated by the fact that Protestants don’t agree amongst themselves on all points of doctrine. A Catholic discussing Apostolic Succession with an Anglo-Catholic will probably find he has to explain less than he would in dialogue with, say, a Baptist. This also affects the emotional engagement of the participants. Certain doctrines are more likely than others to provoke anger or horror when defended or attacked based on the background of the people involved. For one man Apostolic Succession means very little, for another it is an essential ingredient in the preservation of the Faith across the generations.

One should also bear in mind that the failure of a particular author/speaker to enunciate or defend his position does not necessarily mean that his beliefs or argumentation are bad. Failure of the man is not identical to failure of the concept. This is why in some matters I prefer to direct people to other blogs for an argument: in my opinion, the author there will be better at making the case than clumsy me.


The Papacy is an excellent example of a way in which Protestants and Catholics can have debate and dialogue in a more structured way.

Rather than going back and forth with assertions regarding the interpretation of Matthew 16, this part of the argument can be temporarily suspended in favour of a more analytical review of what precisely the Catholic is attempting to prove. The following break-down will no doubt be familiar to some, but perhaps not all, here.

A) Peter is the chief of the Apostles.

B) The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and the Power of Binding and Loosing in Matt. 16 refer to (amongst other things) the government of the Church Universal on Earth and the formal pronouncement of dogma.

C) The Bishops are successors to the Apostles (more definition needed here).

D) Peter had the authority and the power to pass on his Keys to his successor.

E) His successor had the authority and power to pass on the Keys – and so on until Christ returns.

F) Peter’s successor in this sense was a bishop.

G) Peter travelled to Rome.

H) Peter was the first (monarchical?) Bishop of Rome.

I) Peter’s special authority was passed on to the next Bishop of Rome (presumably by the laying on of hands?).

[J) The position of Bishop is as the Catholics understand it to be, contra other possible understandings of what an episkopos or presbys/presbyter might be.]

It would seem that all of the claims in this list must be true for the doctrine of the Papacy to hold up in a debate (as opposed to acceptance of doctrine by faith). Failure of any single point would call the whole structure into question.

By considering this particular question in this way, we are able to leave aside the question of Matthew 16 for a while and consider other relevant matters (e.g.: the nature of episcopacy; the historical record as evidence for and against early Papal claims; Bible verses that might be consulted regarding some of the points above). This kind of structured approach allows for more fruitful dialogue, in my opinion.