Twenty Principles of Effective Argumentation

Compiled by Dr. David F. Coffin, Jr.


1. Principle of Humility—keep firmly in mind that, (a) you don’t know everything; (b) you have
been wrong before; and (c) you may learn something. One of the best ways of testing both
your understanding of, and the truth of, your beliefs is to plunge with equal measures of
boldness, humility, and openness into the fires of controversy.

2. Judgment of Charity—assume the best and most honorable motives on the part of your

3. Gerstner’s Law—do not debate a point of contention until you can state your opponent’s position to his satisfaction.

4. Seek Common Ground—attempt to establish common ground with your opponent as a starting point for the discussion.


5. Socratic Principle—follow the argument where it leads; the point is not merely to defend “our
side,” but to attempt to establish the truth of the matter.

6. Status Verbum—establish the meaning and use of the terms in the argument, especially those
essential to the point at issue, thus avoiding the useless logomachy.

7. Status Quæstionis—constantly work to establish and clarify the statement of the question at
issue: what it is and what it is not.

8. Charitable Interpretation—always attempt to understand and restate your opponent’s arguments in the best possible light until/unless he specifically denies such interpretation.

9. Objective Stance—avoid charging your opponent with various errors; rather charge the arguments. If your opponent is really “irrational,” you look rather foolish in bothering to discuss
the matter with him.

10. Public Confession—show your willingness to admit error, ignorance, or misunderstanding;
not only is this proper in itself, but it will create an atmosphere where your opponent will feel
free to do the same.

11. Freudian Fallacy—don’t confuse grounds with motives; if an argument if offered, it must be
dealt with, as an argument, regardless of the supposed motivation for offering it.


12. Terrier Principle—never leave a point at issue, once established, until it is settled, unless the
movement brings one closer to a foundational question.

13. Premise by Premise Method—don’t be afraid to interrupt (with permission), or be
interrupted, for the purpose of clarifying or questioning a premise in the chain of an

14. Hypothetical Pause—don’t be afraid to propose or accept, temporarily, a premise not agreed
upon, for the purpose of exploring its implications.

15. “Wouldn’t you say . . . ?” Method—pose questions for joint analysis; don’t constantly make
“authoritative” pronouncements. Pontification is only useful to the pontiff.

16. “Let’s think about that” Tactic—don’t merely respond to an assertion with a counterassertion, but attempt to “think through” the premises supporting (or the implications of)
the assertion set forth by your opponent.

17. The Evidential Wall—avoid the useless frustration of continuing to debate disputed evidence
not immediately verifiable; be content to agree to disagree until the required confirmation
can be obtained.

18. Name the beast—be familiar enough with the formal and informal fallacies to name and explain the error you believe your opponent to have made.


19. Legitimate Means of Escape—though the point of discussion is to establish your conclusion
(so long as you remain persuaded it is correct), leave room for legitimate dissent and further
reflection; very few arguments are immediately persuasive and thus it is essential to conclude
with your opponent “feeling” good enough about the discussion to give it further
thought. “Let all things (even arguments!) be done for edification.”

20. Fontes Solutionum (sources of explanation)—after you have demonstrated by argument that
your opponent’s view is in error, try to show how or why your opponent has gone wrong in
his thinking, taking into account matters ranging beyond the argument itself, e. g., motives,
otherwise legitimate concerns, experiences, prejudices, etc.

POSTMORTEM | or Why didn’t I think of that at the time?

It is a common occurrence for many that the best argument and riposte are discovered
only in the aftermath of the discussion as the dust begins to settle. The problem is that many of us
fail to learn from this useful mental review because it takes place somewhat haphazardly. Thus
the key is to consciously review the discussion, making notes if necessary, in order to use the insights gained as the basis for further study and reflection.

Carson, D.A. Exegetical Fallacies. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984.
Hoover, A.J. Don’t You Believe It! Poking Holes in Faulty Logic. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1982.
Moreland, J.P. Love Your God with All Your Mind. Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress Publishing
Group, 1997.
Sire, James W. Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980.
Stott, John R. W. Your Mind Matters: The Place of the Mind in the Christian Life. Downers Grove,
IL: InterVarsity, 1972.


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