A way to resolve quibbles over terminology

The WordA-WordB Technique

Fighting over definitions

Often in apologetics oriented conversations, participants will disagree over how some term, like “Christian,” “God,” or “faith” ought to be defined. Sometimes it is wise to just allow the other person their stipulative definition, but other times it is not. Other times, you need to be just a little more strategic. Let me show you a cool trick.

I remember...

I remember having a conversation with an individual who insisted on using an erroneous definition of “omnipotence,” a definition which conflicts with how the word is used by Christian and non-Christian scholars alike. On his definition, God could not be omnipotent unless God could create square-circles. Of course, since creating square-circles is logically impossible, any entity with the ability to create them is also impossible. Nevertheless, he insisted that this is what everyday Christians mean, and if it is what everyday Christians mean, then using some alternative definition of omnipotence which gets God out of the problem is, according to him, just “moving the goalposts.”

What would you do?

What is the most tactical way to respond in situations like this?

(a) Do you keep trying to argue that the academic definition trumps the allegedly common Christian one?

(b) Do you try to argue that he is wrong about what the common Christian means?

(c) Do you appeal to other virtues of your definition in order to defend it?

(d) Do you concede, granting that God is not omnipotent, but might still be nearly omnipotent, which is all you need?

(e) Do you take a different tack entirely?

The technique: what I did

Answer: If you have the time and energy, (a) might be worth a shot, but something closer to (d) is preferable; ultimately (e) is probably best. Here is why: your interlocutor is unlikely to give up his definition, at least not without a fight, and in apologetics you need to learn to "take the path of least resistance" to maximize efficiency in your conversations. On the other hand, you should not be required to say that academics are wrong about the meaning of omnipotence. In situations like this, consider using what I call the WordA-WordB technique. That is to say, in this case of omnipotence, break up the term into “omnipotence A” (your definition) and “omnipotence B” (his definition), and then say “Ok, good job, you've refuted the existence of entities which are omnipotent-B. Let's talk now about whether an entity which is omnipotent-A exists.” Of course, this is what you meant in the first place, but now you can immediately proceed forward with your case without quibbling over the proper meaning of the word. It might be good to educate him on the correct meaning another day, but that takes a back seat. It works, try it!

Question: What terms do you find yourself quibbling over in your discussions? Can you see this technique working for you?