To know God and to make Him known.

The Power of Questions, Part I: Why the Socratic Method?

We tend to think the purpose of education is to provide answers—the information needed to function productively. On the one hand, this is true. But, on the other hand, as with all important human activities, it is not the only purpose. In fact, this pragmatic view is simultaneously the least important as well as the most significant of them all. This statement might seem paradoxical, but as we shall see, it really is not. Looking at it from an angle that is unusual in our utilitarian age, let us begin by considering the possibility that the purpose of education is not to acquire answers, but to develop the ability to ask questions.


There is a wealth of information available about philosophies and methods of education, but as Christians the first source we need to consult is the Bible. What can we learn about questions in Scripture? The possibilities are vast, but the first thing that comes to my mind is Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD.” The connection is made for me between reasoning and questioning because ‘to reason’ is defined1 as “using the faculty of reason to arrive at conclusions,” and a related verb is ‘to contemplate.’ Two synonyms of ‘to contemplate’ are ‘to debate’ and ‘to question.’


In Isaiah 1:18, the Hebrew word for reason, yakach2, has a rich array of meanings, including ‘to dispute, prove, decide, judge, rebuke, reprove, correct, and to be right.’ In the context of Isaiah I:18 yakach means ‘to dispute.’ This originates from the Latin disputare, meaning to discuss: dis (a prefix meaning separately, apart, in different directions) plus putare, which means ‘to think.’ ‘To dispute’ is defined as “engaging in argument,” specifically, “to debate”—“to argue irritably,” no less, or with “irritating persistence.” Synonyms include ‘to contest, challenge, impeach, oppugn,’ and of course, ‘to ‘query’ and ‘to question.’


Isaiah 1:18 thus states that the Lord invites believers ‘to question’ with Him. It seems audaciously inappropriate for us, but here God beckons us to engage in argumentation with Him. ‘To dispute’ is more fully defined as “to demand proof of truth or rightness of.” God thus extends the invitation with the ultimate goal of seeking out the Truth! But how does one engage in a persistent debate with the Creator? How does one reason with God about Truth? No doubt, the answer is as profound and complex as the question itself, but one thing seems certain: it is important that we note Isaiah 1:18 and take it to heart. The Lord invites us to reason with Him. Not only that, but Christ commands us to love God with all our mind—that which is defined as “the element or complex of elements in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons” (see Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). If we are to do this, we must apply ourselves not only to learning what it means, but also to practicing it. In what manner are we to carry this out? Even more importantly, how are we to teach our children to ask questions so that they will be equipped to accept the Lord’s invitation?


Let us turn to the book of Job in which the same Hebrew word, yakach, appears several times. Examine Job 13:3, “But I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God.” In the King James version, yakach is translated as ‘reason,’ but here in the NIV it is rendered as ‘argue.’ Next look at Job 13:15, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.” In this verse, yakach is translated as ‘defend,’ as to defend a position in an argument. Finally, ponder verses 23:6-7 where Job says, “Would he oppose me with great power? No, he would not press charges against me. There an upright man could present his case before him, and I would be delivered forever from my judge.” Here, yakach is translated as ‘present his case.’


Job yearns to query God—to learn why he is being chastised. It is important to notice, therefore, how God responds. “Brace yourself like a man,” God says to Job. “I will question you, and you shall answer me” (Job 38:3). Does God respond to Job with answers? No! God responds with more questions! And what is the nature of the questions? They focus on the creation, bidding Job to consider the unfathomable depth of God’s capacities. Ask questions about my creation, says the Lord, and thereby discover the character and awesome glory of your Creator. Indeed, “The heavens declare the glory of the Lord” (Psalm 19:1), and while “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” (Proverbs 25:2).


Here the Lord models the importance of questioning in education. God does not give Job any answers, but instructs Job through questioning. The Lord, in the oldest book of the Bible, demonstrates the significance of questioning as both a tool of instruction as well as an aid for us in discovering God and simultaneously seeing ourselves clearly. It is also obvious that questioning is important in redemption, for ultimately Job is restored to blessings because of his response to God at the end of the book—Job finally grasps who God is and who he himself is, and this leads him to repentance:


I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. [You asked], 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?' Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. [You said], 'Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.' My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2-6).


We have identified that questioning is important because (a) God calls us to reason with Him, (b) through questioning we come to comprehend Him, and (c) ultimately it is through questioning that we can give the answer—the account—which delivers us from judgment (see Job 23:6-7 above); for indeed, though, as believers, we are covered by the righteousness of Christ, we are told nevertheless that we will ultimately be called upon to give account before the Creator of all (see Romans 14:12 and 1 Peter 4:5). Later we will revisit this briefly, but for the moment we must solve a more immediate problem: how can we learn the skill of asking good questions? Where can we look to find this method of education best exemplified?


We find it in ancient Greece, in the method of learning pioneered by the philosopher, Socrates, and recorded in Plato’sDialogues. In the Socratic Method we see the birth of a basis and purpose of education that has as its ultimate goal the pursuit of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness—all attributes of God—through conversational dialogue: a process of questioning, answering, and further questioning. Socrates grasped the significance of reasoning through questioning. Even though he was a pagan whose ideas ultimately produced the idolization of rationalism because his method was man-centered, Socrates modeled a method of instruction that was strikingly in accord with what we have just briefly explored in the Scriptures. Socrates is famous for saying that the unexamined life—a life not filled with questioning—is not worth living.


Despite the fact that Socrates realized the significance of questions, he—and all of Greek philosophy—ultimately fell short of bringing this method to fruition because he did not have a God-centered worldview. Socratic dialogue elevated a man-centered rationalism that eventually gave birth to human secularism. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man, the rationalism that promotes endless questioning—in other words, constant hypotheses and subsequent explanation—without ultimately coming to a final conclusion that stands in and of itself (such as the conclusion of a Creator who exists behind the incomparable order and beauty of the creation) eventually results not in greater understanding, but in meaninglessness:


[Y]ou cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see. (Chapter 3, p. 81)


Nonetheless, we must appreciate that if the Socratic Method were to be transformed by the biblical worldview—if it were to be redeemed by the Incarnation—it would fill the need for a method of education closely based upon that which God himself invites, encourages, and demonstrated. David Hicks writes of Socrates:


Let us examine this…idealized version of the ancient schoolmaster…To begin with, he possesses two…traits. First, his temper and behavior are governed by ideas…Second, he has a broad and penetrating curiosity and a delightfully dialectical mind, eager to devise and test a hypothesis, [and] quick to challenge ideas and observations…A habit of provoking and asking questions of no immediate practical value accompanies this friendly, dialectical disposition. (Norms and Nobility, Ch. 3, p. 36)


Christians may, therefore, take the biblical worldview and unite it with the example of the idealized teacher, Socrates, and his Socratic Method, to answer God’s invitation to reason with Him, and thereby to comprehend Him more fully and ultimately to be able to give account—to, as the Hebrew word yakach used in Job evokes, ‘be right,’ and ‘be proven;’ in other words, to be justified.


How then do we learn the Socratic Method? How can we teach it to our students? Well, reading and studying Plato’sDialogues will teach the Socratic Method. Participating in many conversations, in which ‘iron sharpens iron’ (Proverbs 27:17) as we question one another, will allow us to flourish in the Socratic Method. But we also now have an excellent pedagogical resource at our disposal that translates Socratic dialogue into practical applications: Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School, by Matt Copeland.


Socratic Circles is a well-organized and easy to understand ‘how to’ manual for teaching Socratic dialogue. It delineates the method, stressing that Socratic dialogue is an explorative quest for understanding based upon shared ideas, the building of knowledge through exploration of hypotheses, and the development of answers based upon personal experience, critical thinking, and discussion. Among many other things, Socratic Circles will walk the teacher through every step of his or her role in facilitating Socratic dialogue, explaining how to:


• prepare for both the instructor’s role as well as prepare the students for the discussions;
• read text critically and carefully; 
• annotate the text; 
• keep the discussion moving;
• set goals;
• manage distractions; and
• give direct feedback and assess and evaluate individual students as well as group performance.


Filled with concise explanations as well as with extremely practical and detailed information and rubrics about everything from how to structure discussions to scheduling and assessment, Socratic Circles is an invaluable tool for teachers who realize the importance of training their students to ask questions in order that they might be prepared to accept the invitation of the Lord. And as Christian educators, we must also bring into this an understanding that this process of questioning in relationship with the Lord actually plays a part in sanctification.


Recall what was mentioned when we first began, about how thinking of education as primarily being concerned with obtaining answers was both the least important and perhaps the most significant of all its purposes. We have discussed how it is unimportant in comparison to learning how to ask questions because the latter is given to us by Scripture as a priority. However, now we are equipped to turn our attention to the way in which it is the most significant. In learning how to accept the Lord’s invitation to question with Him, and by engaging in that discourse and conversation directly with Him in our Christian walk, the ultimate iron sharpening our iron becomes no less than Christ himself: The Logos. It is through this conversation with Him that we grow ever more Christ-like, literally more Logos-like ourselves, made ‘right’ and ‘proven’ (yakach), perfected and able to stand before our judge and give our account—give our answer—to our Maker.


If we revisit the verses in the New Testament which were referenced above about the giving of account (Romans 14:12 and 1 Peter 4:5), we find further corroboration for the importance of being in a state of ability to give answer, for the Greek word for ‘account’ used in these verses is, literally, logos. Through Christ and our conversation with Him—our ability to ask questions and engage in dialogue—we are, by His loving indwelling, remade and restored in His Image. Such is the power of questions.


“The intellect seeks truth, and it seeks beauty for truth’s sake, but the substance of truth is love.”  – Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake




1 See Merriam-Webster online for all lexical references:


2 See the Blue Letter Bible online:


To use Socratic Circles in the Challenge programs, refer to the Appendix which contains some helpful suggestions for source texts. Remember to integrate your Socratic Circles selections with content from one or more of the six seminars in your Challenge program. You may use just about anything that will spark connections and stimulate questions: a painting, a poem, song lyrics, selections of scientific writings, literature, and more. Keep the selections brief enough, however, to allow students to complete a careful, critical evaluation of the material. For example:


• Challenge A and B: Use a brief text about current events, a short selection from the literature readings (novels or short stories), a brief segment from the writings of one of the famous scientists (such as a small selection from Darwin’sOrigin of Species), or a section from Defeating Darwinism. You might even take a look at a part of the movie, Inherit the Wind.

• Challenge I-II: Examine the Gettysburg Address, or any selection from Words Aptly Spoken: American Documents, a portion of any of the literature readings, or a segment of The Taming of the Shrew. In addition, Copeland’s list of suggested texts with connections to Challenge I seminar content includes recommendations for To Kill a Mockingbird(for example, song lyrics from Johnny Cash and a painting by Thomas Hart Benton). A text segment from Sophie’s World would provide rich material for Socratic discussion. Articles taken from the economics texts would also be fruitful. The appendix contains connections to The Crucible (an essay by Sir Francis Bacon, a song by Meat Loaf, and a poem by Henrik Wergeland). You might also select a work of art or a music composition studied within the Debate Seminar, or examine a selection from Veith’s State of the Arts or Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? Another excellent text choice with many possibilities for integration with Formal Logic as well as Mathematics and Western Cultural History might be one of Chesterton’s Father Brown or Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mysteries. Again, any of the literature selections would be appropriate as well. 

• Challenge III-IV: A small selection from any of the Shakespeare plays would be ideal. Copeland also offers suggestions to connect with Julius Caesar (a poem by W.H. Auden, lyrics from John Mellencamp, and a sculpture from John Buck) and Romeo and Juliet (song lyrics from Creed, for example). Segments from Words Aptly Spoken: American Documents would also be appropriate. Copeland has suggested selections connecting with The Odyssey (poems by Robert Frost and Alfred, Lord Tennyson as well as song lyrics by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Kansas). Selections might also be taken from any of the literature and rhetoric readings. Upper Challenge level programs might also examine original Latin readings taken from Henle.


CATEGORIES: Articles, Classical Christian Education, Dialectic Stage (ages 12 to 14), Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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