Question: "What is sophism? What is a sophist? What is sophistry?"

Answer: Sophistry is argumentation or reasoning based on falsehood, trickery, or clever wording. A sophism is a fallacious argument, usually relying on a clever method of deception. And a sophist is a person who engages in sophistry; that is, he is skilled in misleading people through circumlocution, equivocation, ambiguity, etc. A sophist has cunning ways of presenting a plausible yet false assertion.

Peter warned against false teachers in the church who would use sophistry to swindle believers: “In their greed they will make up clever lies to get hold of your money” (2 Peter 2:3, NLT). Similarly, Paul warned of divisive people whose goal is to mislead: “By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people” (Romans 16:18).

Taking its name from the Greek word sophos, meaning “wise or skilled,” Sophism was established as a philosophical school of thought prior to the advent of Socrates. Early on, sophism might have referred to anyone who demonstrated a particular skill or knowledge. An expert potter and an accomplished dyer of fabrics might have been considered sophists in their crafts; over time, however, Sophists were known as traveling intellectuals who excelled in rhetoric, that is, the art of persuasion. Some Sophists, known as “teachers of excellence,” found profit in instructing children of the wealthy; even so, philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle held low opinions of Sophists who, in their estimation, were more interested in besting their opponents in debates through the clever use of rhetoric rather than in supporting their beliefs with factual evidence. This has led to the modern idea that sophists win arguments through deception.

At the heart of sophism is the belief that truth is in the mind of the beholder. In other words, truth is whatever it is perceived to be by the believer. The philosophical Sophists justified their belief in the fluid nature of truth by insisting that the only knowable truth is subjective truth. Hence, in the mind of the ancient Sophists, truth was whatever it was thought to be. To further their beliefs in the transient nature of reality, Sophists became highly skilled in the use of persuasive rhetoric. For the Sophists to bolster their particular brand of truth, they relied on their razor-sharp communication skills.

The father of Sophism was the Greek philosopher Protagoras, who proclaimed, “Man is the measure of all things—of the things that are, that they are, and the things that are not, that they are not” (see Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Diels, H., and Kranz, W., Weidmann, 1951–52, 80B1). The philosophy of ancient Sophistry leads to the following conclusions:
• Subjective opinion is of more value than verifiable fact.
• Because people have varying points of view, truth becomes subjective rather than objective.
• Because cultures vary, truth varies according to one’s upbringing and environment.
• To understand what a person thinks, one must understand the person.
• No philosopher is capable of making an absolute statement on the nature of truth. (Protagoras believed the philosophers before him were merely expressing their subjective views, as no one can speak with the imprimatur of absolute authority.)
• Ultimately, strategic arguing can change perceptions of truth.

Callicles, another philosopher in the school of Sophistry, denied that nature implants a sense of right and wrong in individuals; rather, truth is established by the powerful, and might makes right. So, a wealthy land baron’s perception of truth would supersede the values held by a beggar or a peasant. Ultimately, Callicles concluded that it is the role of the mighty to rule the weak. In fairness, not all Sophists agreed with Callicles; for example, the philosopher Lycophron believed in the equality of all people.

Sophistry, far from being relegated to the ancient past, is alive and well in Western culture, for at the heart of Sophism is secular humanism, the belief that man need not submit to any form of divine authority. The beliefs of Protagoras are very much in vogue today, but how is the Christian to view sophistry?

Tenet 1: The only truth is man’s truth.
Rebuttal: All truth is God’s truth (John 14:6; 17:17; Ephesians 1:13). Stealing is wrong because God says it is wrong. Adultery is wrong because God says it is wrong, and no amount of rhetorical whitewashing will transform evil into good.

Tenet 2: Truth is subject to change.
Rebuttal: Truth is immutable, that is, truth does not change according to popular thought or current climate of opinion (Psalm 119:142; Matthew 24:35).

Tenet 3: Deliberate, intentional deception is an acceptable means of advancing one’s perception of truth. Skill in the use of rhetoric, not accuracy, evidence, logic, or reasoning, is the basis of sophism.
Rebuttal: A lie, no matter how eloquent, is still a lie. On the other hand, God’s Word is pure (Psalm 12:6; 119:105; Proverbs 30:5).

The ancient Sophists and their modern-day counterparts are, at best, purveyors of confusion and, at worst, masters of deliberate and willful deception. Recognizing that false teachers might find undiscerning disciples among gullible Christians, the apostle Paul warned the church elders in Ephesus to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28–30, ESV).