Question: "What is the Socratic Method, and is it biblical?"
Answer: The Socratic Method is a logical technique that emphasizes asking questions. These inquiries are aimed at uncovering flaws or errors in some statement or position. This process is named after the famous philosopher Socrates, who is credited with this technique in the writings of his student, Plato. Socrates’ use of this method differs somewhat from how the process is applied today, mostly due to differing assumptions about the nature of truth. Various forms of Socratic Questioning are used in psychology, debate, and education.
Socrates lived in an era of brilliant public speakers. These orators and rhetoricians were skilled at painting their views in a positive light. Using attractive words and carefully crafted arguments, lecturers would encourage others to adopt their perspective. In contrast, Socrates preferred to pursue debate by asking questions about the other person’s view. These requests would force the other person to justify, explain, or further develop his initial idea. Through these dialogues, Socrates would uncover weaknesses, contradictions, or flaws in his stance, mostly through the other person’s own responses.
The original Socratic Method differs from the modern use of Socratic Questioning due to changed perspectives on truth. In Socrates’ view, all truth was self-evident, to some extent. The mind of each person already “knew” truth but did not necessarily “realize” it. This is most famously demonstrated in Plato’s work Meno, where Socrates speaks with an uneducated slave boy. Using nothing but questions and the boy’s own logical responses, Socrates “teaches” him geometry. This shows the original goal of the Socratic Method as a means to uncover truth through inquiry.
Modern applications of this method, most commonly referred to as Socratic Questioning, almost always approach truth from a different perspective. Psychologists and educators often use purposeful questions to help people connect the dots between ideas they already know, are capable of deducing, or simply need to clarify. In practice, this is in keeping with Socrates’ original intent, although the worldview assumptions are different. In logic, debate, and other spheres, Socratic Questioning is used as an “acid test” of a position, looking for weaknesses or self-contradictions.
Crucially, modern use of the Socratic Method and Socratic Questioning does not usually proceed with an intent to determine truth. Rather, the method is used to test or to clarify a position. Unlike Socrates, few people today believe that all truth—scientific, mathematical, and moral—is present in all minds, awaiting discovery. Almost all references to the “Socratic Method,” in a modern context, are really examples of “Socratic Questioning.”
Biblically, the difference between examining one’s views versus “self-revealed truth” is important. Scripture records many statements that are fairly described as examples of Socratic Questioning. The most dramatic of these come from Jesus in His interactions with His critics. When challenged about paying taxes, Jesus’ response, “Whose image is on this coin?” embodies the essence of the Socratic Method (see Mark 12:13–17). The intent was to demonstrate a flaw in the other party’s thinking. The same is true when Jesus responds using questions in encounters with the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16–22) and with Pilate (John 18:33–38).
Christians are encouraged to apply the spirit of the Socratic Method, if not the actual technique, to their own spiritual lives (1 John 4:1; 1 Corinthians 11:27–29). The biblical command to “examine yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5) parallels Socrates’ quip that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Other scriptural instances of a Socratic approach include Job 38:1–11 and Proverbs 18:17.
The Socratic Method, in and of itself, cannot define or determine truth. By its very nature, all it can do is illuminate those instances when assumptions, definitions, or relations conflict with each other. As with any other mode of logic, this does not prove any of those individual components false, nor does it prove their opposites true. For instance, we may use the Socratic Method to challenge a claim that “aspirin relieves headaches because the tablets are yellow.” Showing that color is irrelevant to the medicine’s effectiveness in no way proves that aspirin does not relieve headaches or that it causes them. It merely shows that particular connection to be untenable.
Nor does the Socratic Method itself suggest alternatives to the ideas it attacks. For this reason, a questioner who is clever—or calculating—can frame Socratic questions in such a way as to lead toward particular conclusions. Even if those leading questions are themselves irrational or based on false premises, they can lend an aura of reason to an otherwise unreasonable approach. This tactic is especially common in the work of atheists, à la Peter Boghossian, who attempt to use Socratic Questioning to debunk religious faith. This effort is grounded in a blatantly false definition of faith, obscured through a calculated use of persuasion and rhetoric, rather than actual logic.
It is important to distinguish between the use of a method and the abuse of a method. In and of itself, the Socratic Method is neither commanded nor condemned in the Bible. The deepest foundations of the original Socratic Method are unbiblical: man does not possess access to “all” truth, and some aspects of reality cannot be learned through pure deduction. The more general application of Socratic Questioning, on the other hand, is something that Scripture not only demonstrates but recommends.