September 17, 2008

The Machine Gun Hermeneutic

Many Calvinists have accused Arminianism as being more devoted to human philosophy than Biblical truth. I not only believe this to be false, but my experience often shows that those who make these accusations are the ones most guilty of them. Many of these Calvinists mishandle Scripture, choosing to ignore the nature of the book in favor of asserting the power it gives to their own proclamations.

Since I have been debating on the internet, there has been one particular use of the Bible that I have seen them use again and again. I have come to call it the machine-gun hermeneutic. Hermeneutics is the study of how to interpret Scripture, and a hermeneutic is a particular method of interpretation.

I post this as a warning to all those who may see this technique being used. Do not be fooled. It does not demonstrate that an argument is biblical, but instead quite the opposite.

Argument from Verbosity

An argument from verbosity, or argumentum verbosium, is when someone provides an enormous amount of proof as well as a complex line of reasoning, so as to overwhelm the audience. The hearer is unable to examine all of the proof mentioned, or untangle the line of reasoning, so accepts the argument without truly challenging it. However, this does not mean that the proofs were strong (or even relevant) or that the line of reasoning was logical: it just means that there was too much for the hearer to take in and evaluate.

For example, if I wanted to convince you that flying is too dangerous, I could quote you the number of planes that have crashed in the past 5 years, the number of people that have died, and then break down by airline, in the end quoting 25 different stats. Believe me, I would sound convincing. But this wouldn’t change the reality that flying is the safest way to travel because in this case the number of crashes isn’t nearly as relevant as the percentage of crashes. However, I would have quoted you enough stats that you would be unable to actually examine the validity or applicability of those stats. That is an argument from verbosity.

The Machine-Gun Hermeneutic

The machine-gun hermeneutic is essentially an argument from verbosity using Scriptural quotations. I could break down the entire chapter of Hebrews 10, and demonstrate how the entire context, as well as the intention of the entire book, demonstrate that it is possible that a true believer can fall away from the faith. Then the Calvinist responds by quoting 5 Scripture verses, without discussing their context, and then claims victory. I’ve seen this many times. However, those 5 verses usually have nothing to do with the context at hand, or teach something incredibly different than what the Calvinist says. It doesn’t really matter, because I now have to sort through the context of 5 different verses, explain how none of them match up to what the Calvinist says, and my original point gets lost. The Calvinist still ends up winning.

I began referring to this as a machine gun hermeneutic based off a conversation I had once. My opponent essentially quoted 6 or 7 different verses at once, and then insisted I respond to every single one of them. I refused, because I knew it really wouldn’t be effective anyway, since he would ignore whatever exegesis I offered by simply quoting more texts (he had done it before). He claimed that I didn’t respect Scripture. I responded, saying that I believe Scripture to be a sword, not a machine-gun, and it is disrespectful to Scripture to treat it differently than how it was designed.

You see, a sword takes an incredible amount of skill. If you do not angle the sword exactly right, it doesn’t slice, it only nicks. Often even the higher sword masters do not slice every time they connect with the sword. This is not even considering all of the necessary parrying and thrusting techniques.

A machine gun on the other hand only takes as much skill as is necessary to keep the user safe. The techinique is simply to shoot a spray of bullets and to hope that one of them connects.
The machine gun hermeneutic works similar. One simply quotes as many Scripture verses as possible and hopes that the shear volume is sufficient to get a hit. However, this ends up discouraging one from actually reading the Scriptures. The contexts of the verses are never considered. The verses are simply memorized so that they can be quoted when needed.

Now quoting Scripture isn’t bad. It's not that I need to discuss the context of every verse that I quote. But it is the context of the verse which determines whether my quoting it was valid, and that is impossible to determine when I have 6 verses to sort through at once. In the end, the Scripture itself is ignored, but its presence causes the statement to sound offical.

Also see this posted at SEA.


bethyada said...

This is also known as elephant hurling.

This is a debate tactic known as ‘elephant hurling’. This is where the critic throws summary arguments about complex issues to give the impression of weighty evidence, but with an unstated presumption that a large complex of underlying ideas is true, and failing to consider opposing data, usually because they have uncritically accepted the arguments from their own side. But we should challenge elephant-hurlers to offer specifics and challenge the underlying assumptions .

Jc_Freak: said...

Yeah, I see that. Its a fun name for an argument from verbosity.

Marc said...

This is really good. I love that sword/machine gun simile - you should patent that!

I think you've really hit the nail on the head with Calvinists being "true" to isolated verses but not to Scripture as a whole.

Example: The Bible hardly mentions free will but it implies it in every verse pertaining to morality.

BL78 said...

Good article.