Persuasion and Presuppositions
People are not blank slates. All people have biases and presuppositions that they bring to the table of any discussion. What is a presupposition? A break-down of the word gives the idea: this is what is pre-supposed or accepted as true before further discussion ever takes place. Understanding where people are is critical to any efforts to persuade them about Jesus Christ.
Since everyone has presuppositions prior to any discussion, admitting these is very important to the integrity of the discussion. It would not be correct or wise for Christians to try to say that they do not have any biases at all or that they are completely neutral in the discussions. Claiming to be Christians necessarily means that they are not neutral, that they accept Jesus as the only way to salvation, and that Jesus is Lord of their lives. They have already gone through the process of looking at the evidence and being persuaded so that now when they talk to others, they are presupposing the truth about Christ. This is unavoidable and necessary, but the point is simply to say that Christians need to be upfront and honest about their starting points. Paul did not go into the various cities to preach claiming to be neutral. His goal was clearly to teach Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). In doing this, he challenged others head on with the proof and sought to persuade them. Some were persuaded and some were not.
Likewise, the unbeliever has certain “givens” or starting points in his mind. He must be convinced or persuaded that the evidence for Christ is such that he ought to change his entire worldview in order to accept that truth. This is no small task, for changing one’s worldview is a monumental shift in that person’s life. No one does this easily, and Christians should not expect them to do so simply because claims have been made that differ from theirs. This is, again, why proof is needed.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul made the point that the message of the cross is such that it was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (1:18-31). To the typical Jew, the idea of a Messiah who was crucified on a Roman cross was too much to bear. This meant that He was accursed, so how could Jesus possibly be the promised Messiah? The idea seemed absurd. Likewise, to the Gentile, the idea of having to accept a Jewish peasant from Galilee, whom they had crucified, as their Lord and Savior seemed completely ridiculous. How could they be expected to understand and accept this?
Christians need to know that when they present Christ to the world, they will get the same types of reactions that the apostles received in the first century. Many will stumble over it and others will see it as foolishness. Many will not even want to consider the evidence because their presuppositions against Christ are already so strong and set. All Christians can do is try to share the good news and remove as many of those barriers as they can. No one can say this is easy. People can be very stubborn when it comes to letting go of what they have already imbibed and accepted as truth.
The fact of presuppositions is why simply stating facts often does not persuade others. People will see those facts through skewed lenses and it will not make sense to them. Persuasion is an effort to bridge that gap so that the facts will actually make sense. To do this, however, often requires getting to those underlying presuppositions and bringing those to the forefront in order to honestly deal with them.
While biases and presuppositions are inevitable, people can be honest about them and admit them. Christians should openly express where they are coming from and then encourage other parties in the discussion to do the same. This process can help the discussion move along so that the participants are actually grappling with the issues that really do separate them. If the unbeliever, for example, admits that he cannot accept the resurrection because he believes that science automatically rules it out, then other issues might first need to be considered. What is their understanding of science? Can science rule out the miraculous? Is nature alone capable of explaining everything? These are questions that may help uncover an unbeliever’s presuppositions that get in the way of accepting the resurrection evidence.
Paul is a prime example of an unbeliever who had to come face to face with his own presuppositions. He opposed Christ. As he says of himself in Galatians 1:13, he “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” His conversion is well known. Christ appeared to him and directly challenged why Paul was acting the way he did (Acts 9). Paul was confronted with the proof that overturned his previous convictions and he became the apostle Paul who reasoned, explained, and proved that Jesus is the Christ. His worldview shift changed the lay of the land as far as Christians are concerned.
Do not underestimate the power that presuppositions can have over how people receive evidence. Sometimes that is exactly where Christians need to start when they seek to persuade others.