As Benjamin Franklin Said…
by Mark Gutman
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Two plus two equals four.” You don’t remember that famous quote? Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ben quoted as saying that either, although I have reason to think that he said it. Why don’t we give him credit for the line? Or why don’t we give some other famous person credit for saying it? After all, aren’t witty and profound statements normally made by famous people?
John F. Kennedy is known for saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” but he (or his speechwriter) appears to have lifted the quote from General Omar Bradley and/or Cicero (hard to pin down on the internet). Quoting Kennedy carries more clout nowadays than quoting either Bradley or Cicero, so we’ll give credit to the one with the highest current star power.
Putting words into the mouth of a celebrity seems to give the words more clout. You are more likely to pay attention to a statement I make if I tell you that some famous person said it.
I submit that the truth of a statement is more important than who said it, or didn’t say it. I don’t believe that 2 + 2 = 4 because Benjamin Franklin said it, nor do I disbelieve it because Adolf Hitler said it. The statement can stand on its own. A similar logic can apply to religious matters. A statement is not true because an authority figure said it; rather, authority figures state (generally) what is true.
Religious people sometimes are more interested in who said something than in whether or not a statement makes sense. In 1 Kings 13 a prophet delivers a message to King Jereboam and then refuses Jeroboam’s offer to come over for lunch because God told him to turn down such offers. Later the prophet is given another offer to eat with someone and again turns it down, only to be told by the new would-be host that, “God told me to have you come and eat with me.” “God said it” packed a punch that altered the prophet’s thinking – bad move. “God said it” turned out to be a claim that was not supported by evidence. And even today people fall into line if, evidence notwithstanding, they are convinced that “God (or God’s equivalent) said it.” Remember Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate and the recent Harold Camping story. Could Adventists ever quit thinking on an issue because of a mistaken thought (misinterpretation) that God said something?
Even in the everyday world, we add to our attempts to persuade by depending on something other than “logic” or “common sense.” If you are riding in a car with me and you see that I’m not wearing a seat belt, you may recommend that I belt up, reminding me that I’m better protected in case of an accident. But say that I don’t belt up. I counter that there are many cases where people died because they were either trapped in a vehicle by a seat belt or held where they couldn’t be thrown clear of something that hit them. So you raise your case to a new level, telling me that belting up is the law in this state, and that I can get pulled over by police for not wearing a seat belt, even if I’m not guilty of any other infraction. In other words, if you can’t achieve what you want by appealing to safety reasons, appeal to a higher authority. Use the police to add weight to what you’re saying.
Of course, you can do better than relying on my fear of the police; instead, you could refer to Romans 13 and the Bible’s admonition to follow the rules of our government. So rather than merely referencing the state government, you could warn me of divine punishment. Hard to top that! While I might not have a new heart that wants to wear a seat belt, you might at least bring about (coerce?) some outward conformity. (Many church members are more likely to be coerced by the police than by Romans 13.)
Reminding me of the risk of a fine might be a good idea, and one that I would appreciate if a police car sailed past me. But isn’t it a shame that I’m not moved to action by something more logical – by the nature of reality, by the fact that I am more likely to be better off if we are in an accident, which by its very nature is unexpected? Disobedience to the state could cost me over $100, but disobedience to God has more long-term consequences. For some people, that rebellious act of defying the state and thus defying God could be inviting God’s retribution (revenge).
I’ve noticed different topics of interest in the church over the years: movies (well, movie theaters), Sabbath activities, cheese, jewelry. Those are behavior topics. Then there are the theoretical, relatively non-behavior topics, such as salvation, inspiration, creation, and whether or not Jonah was a real person. For such topics, I find two types of persuasion tactics. One is a natural consequences, reality-based view, corresponding to the safety argument for using seat belts: Doesn’t this make more sense? Doesn’t this fit the evidence? Can’t you see how you would be better off if you agreed with me or did things the way I think you should? The other approach is the if-you-don’t-agree (with my understanding of a rule or theory), an authority figure will step in and administer the punishment you richly deserve.
I may find it frustrating when obvious (to me) truths are unseen or rebelled against by others, but should I load my argument by insisting that my quotation of God settles a matter? If you don’t eat the way I do (and that I think you should), why can’t I just let the natural consequences of your eating show that when you put two and two together, you get four? Isn’t the “wrath of God” his giving people up to natural consequences (Romans 1)? Similarly, if you don’t buckle up but are never involved in a car accident, it didn’t matter that you didn’t buckle up, so why should punishment be added on top of the risk you ran? Your rebellious attitude probably reaps troublesome results in other ways.
Proverbs 14:15, The Message
We do find some sources more helpful for guidance and learn to rely on them. If two people disagree over the correct spelling of a word, they will usually agree that a dictionary should settle the argument. Taber’s can be used for settling a medical dispute, and the Baseball Almanac may help a manager who tangles with an umpire. But can the Bible be used as a dictionary or a Taber’s? Or can Ellen White? For some people, one or both can. For those people, a preacher’s case is stronger if he uses a Bible text or an Ellen White quotation. Even in matters which cannot be proved otherwise, some people feel that the Bible has shown its trustworthiness in enough matters that it can be used with authority even when other evidence is lacking or ambiguous. Ditto for Ellen White. Of course, interpretation can be tricky, as two informed, sincere people can interpret the same passages in very different ways. Which can make it tricky to use a Bible or Ellen White quote to buttress an argument. For some folks, adding quotes from inspired writers is tantamount to bringing in Ben Franklin to help convince someone that two plus two equals four.
Two plus two equals four, no matter who says it, no matter who agrees or disagrees. Same goes for the Proverbs 14:15 quotation. Those who act in harmony with both those quotes will be better off than those who don’t. No one will need to impose a penalty for disbelieving either sentence.