August 29, 2011

CALVINIST RHETORIC: Euphemism and Dysphemism
or "Poisoning the well while sweetening the pot"

What I Mean By Euphemism and Dysphemism

Both euphemism and dysphemism are replacing words in order to make a point. With euphemism, you replace a word with another to make an idea sound better (often to be less offensive). With dysphemism, you replace a word with another to make an idea sound worse.

A great example of a rhetorical use of euphemism is the titles pro-life and pro-choice. Using the prefix 'pro' makes both of them sound like they are for something, instead of being against something. Additionally, it makes opposing the position sound bad (who wants to be against choice? Or life?). Therefore, naming your position can make your position sound better, while making the other position sound worse.

An example of dysphemism would be my calling unconditional election "arbitrary election". The word arbitrary makes the idea sound a lot worse (though I would argue that it is not inaccurate).
Euphemism and Dysphemism In Action

Probably the most obnoxious example of Calvinist euphemism is the term "Doctrines of Grace" which Calvinists use as a synonym for Calvinism. They do this because the word Calvinism is distasteful to some, and it sounds more like a label which isn't very chic. So they give it a new name to hide that it is a philosophical system, and to try and make it sound like they are only defending grace. It also is an attempt to try and own the word 'grace', as if that is a purely Calvinist concept (despite the fact that the defining doctrine in Calvinism is unconditional election while the defining doctrine of Arminianism is prevenient grace).

There are plenty of other examples: sovereign grace for irresistible grace, sovereignty for determinism, effectual atonement for limited atonement, etc...

There are lots of examples of dysphemism as well. For instance, the calumnious use of Pelagius wherever possible. Even the term Non-Calvinist is a bit of a dysphemism, since it paints Calvinism as the only solid idea (very far from the truth).

The End Result*

The end result is a lot of confusion, misdirection, and sometimes outright lies (though I will clarify the lie point at the end). What you usually have is what is known as poisoning the well. Poisoning the well is essentially creating a bias before any real conversation has taken place. For instance, the term "Doctrines of Grace" implies that other theologies don't really promote grace. While most Calvinists do believe this, by renaming Calvinism, one is now forcing the other side to argue against the "Doctrines of Grace" and making it sound as if the person is arguing against grace itself.

This isn't to say that Calvinists are being dishonest (though it has happened). What I am saying is that Arminians should be aware that when we allow this sort of language to happen, we allowing them to choose the battleground so to speak. We need to break much of this language apart, and not allow one side of the argument to own biblical words like sovereignty, grace, and even predestination. We need to understand how these terms relate to Arminianism itself, and keep hammering that home.

About what I said above about lying. There is nothing inherently deceitful about euphemism or dysphemism. Indeed, with the exception of the rampant dysphemistic use of 'pelagianism' or 'semipelagianism' I cannot think of a single example that is universally deceitful. However, it can be easily abused by those who do lie. There is a great article on SEA about Calvinism on the Sly regarding how many Calvinist pastors like to hide their theology until they gain a base, and then subvert the original leadership. This is not something I want to accuse all Calvinists of doing, or even most Calvinists, but it is interesting that it seems to be principally happening from the Calvinist camp right now. I think it is because the rampant use of euphemism and dysphemism by well meaning Calvinists give such power-mongers tools.

To Calvinists out there, I do ask you to be blantent about your speech. Some euphestic terms are of course very legitamate, but you should never use a term for your own belief which is implying something about the other side's belief. That is when you cross the line from honest discourse, into something else.


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* This last section I have changed significantly. Please look to the comments to see what was formally written, as well as the reasons for the changes.

10 comments:

Colin Maxwell said...

Some de facto Calvinists do not like the idea of being named after a mere man (Just as Some de facto Arminians probably do not either) I personally have no hangup with labels, leaving it to the more mature elements to work out that I am not blindly following a man. I refuse to see conspiracy theories where none probably exist.

Unconditional election (which you have pointed to)is based on the sovereign grace of God having mercy (or grace) on whom He will have mercy. Hence the relevance of the title. To the Calvinist grace alone is the cause of election. Obviously the Conditional Election believer makes his faith a contributing factor in the cause for his election and not a mere instrument.

Jc_Freak: said...

Colin, I found your comment curious since this post isn't really about Unconditional Election, though it is mentioned. Ironically, I used "arbitrary election" as an example of dysphemism, I was not saying that unconditional election was an example of euphemism. Though I do not think the word 'arbitrary' is inaccurate (since 'lack of condition' is a definition for 'arbitrary'), 'unconditional' is a more precise term in this case, and I would say is the proper term for the belief.

I would also add that Arminians do hold that grace alone is the cause of salvation.

Colin Maxwell said...

Thanks for your reply. My reference to unconditional election was on the basis of yours near the end where you complain that the main plank of the Calvinistic Doctrines of Grace is unconditional election. I was merely pointing out that since election is unconditional then it must be purely on the basis of grace. While we all agree that salvation is by grace alone (no dispute there) yet you cannot make the same claim for your understanding of your election, since you have it based on your foreseen faith. Your faith (according to your doctrine) leads to your election. According to my understanding (Calvinistic) - my election leads to my faith, hence I believe through grace.

Thanks for taking the time to chat.

Jc_Freak: said...

Ah, I misunderstood. Sorry about that.

I used the word 'defining', and I mean it the same sense I mean 'distinctive' in this post. What I mean is that unconditional election is what makes a Calvinist a Calvinist. There are other expressions of sovereignty and grace out there, and Arminians believe in those concepts as well, but only Calvinists (and perhaps Augustinians) believe in unconditional election. That is what I mean by defining or distinctive. It is an identifying doctrine.

Everyone believe in grace, and I would argue that a disagreement about grace is at the heart of the debate. My problem is when certain Calvinists attempt to take ownership of the concept through the term 'doctrines of grace'. That strikes me as dishonest. I understand a desire to distance oneself from Calvin, but I have never seen this as the motivation for the term 'doctrines of grace', since everyone who I have seen use it would say they believe in Calvinism when directly asked.

Colin Maxwell said...

As said earlier, some folk are not happy with the basic thought of naming Bible doctrines after a man and I understand that, although I tend just to get on with it. I like (was it Piper's?) answer to "Are you a Calvinist?" He said: "Here's what I believe - you decide"

Regarding some other defining terms, I don't think they are especially there to mislead. Perhaps to better define. The classic example is "Limited Atonement" which conveniently fits into the TULIP memory aid, but hardly does justice to what was accomplished at Calvary. Every one limits the atonement to some degree, whereas Particular Redemption (to my mind) or "Effectual Atonement" is a richer designation. It is hard for me as a Calvinist to see why an Arminian would want to use "Effectual Atonement" any way, but that, I guess,is a matter that would be disputed.

If we have stole a march on you with the "Doctrines of grace" thing, then you have equally stole a march on us with the "Free will" designation, because Calvinists also believe in "free will" a seen in the title of the 9th chapter of our WCF.

Jc_Freak: said...

"Regarding some other defining terms, I don't think they are especially there to mislead."

I don't think that everyone who uses them intends to mislead, no. Indeed, euphemism and dysphemism or not about "misleading". They are about making something sound nicer and better, usually by emphasizing what the person wants to emphasize. There is nothing about any of these rhetorical points which is necessarily unethical.

We can take 'Limited Atonement' as an example. To be frank, 'Particular Atonement', while it is an example of euphemism, is a fine term to use since it is saying the same thing. However, 'Effectual Atonement' is saying something else, and is intended to say that the Atonement is not "effectual" in other systems (Something I would definately take issue with). I don't see anyway for someone to be using that term and not be implying that on some level.

However, I also believe that those using it really believe that implication, hence it not be unethical. They aren't lying. Instead they are making points using the names they choose for things. As an Arminian, I am now forced to take issue with that very name because I disagree with the point that it is trying to make.

I'm not trying to accuse Calvinists here of foul play: I am merely attempting to empower Arminians to defend themselves against certain kinds of tactics.

Jc_Freak: said...

After rereading that last paragraph, I see where I may have gotten a little accusatory. I might edit that.

Kevin Jackson said...

James White is a master of the euphemism / dysphemism technique.

Jc_Freak: said...

UPDATE: Due to my conversation with Colin, it became apparant to me that this post was more polemical than I had intended. For that reason, I have softened the last section, as well as shifted my empheses in that section to what I really should have said to begin with. For the sake of full disclosure, I include what I originally wrote within this comment:

"The end result is a lot of confusion, misdirection, and sometimes outright lies. There is nothing inherently Calvinist about euphemism/dysphemism, but it seems to be a common tactic among many recently converted Calvinists who are more concerned with pushing their agenda than being honest. If you are a Calvinist, say you are a Calvinist! Don't hide behind made up labels. Even if you think you are being honest, think about why you need to use different terms to talk about your ideas? Are you really trying to be clearer? Or are you trying to get an in, and bypass someone's defenses.

There is a great article on SEA about Calvinism on the Sly regarding how many Calvinist pastors like to hide their theology until they gain a base. This is not something I want to accuse all Calvinists of doing, but it is interesting that it seems to be principally happening from the Calvinist camp."

Anonymous said...

Another good example of a Euphemism designed to hid dark implications is "Giving the baby a bath" which has ever been used by a culture practicing birth-control by the drowning of female newborns.
This way the leaders can argue: "We are not monsters. We don’t teach people to murder! We teach people to give the baby a bath.

Obviously, such language tactics work to obfuscate the dark elements entailed.
At the same time leadership can present their doctrine as benevolent.

Since Calvinism is founded upon the doctrine of divine mono-causality (i.e. God causes by immutable decrees all that comes to pass), this view's causal-chain of necessity should be obvious to the logician.
Unless one is so significantly invested as to be forces into denial.
Which we should expect and totally understand.
I not only see "Doctrines of Grace" as a euphemism, but "Unconditional Election" and "Irresistible Grace" as well. The reason, is that according to this view, *ALL* that comes to pass are in reality "Unconditional" and "Irresistible" (as far as the creature is concerned). If a God, with limitless-power decrees that person-X will be the instrument through which action-X is performed, at time-X, and that decree is said to be "immutable" and is said to "render certain" action-X, then person-X is powerless to avoid the fate that has been "immutably" decreed. And since the doctrine states that *ALL* things that come to pass do-so by God's "immutable" decrees, then it follows that,(as far as the creature is concerned), *ALL* events are "unconditional" and "irresistible", not just Election events and Grace events.

Another Euphemism I got a big laugh over recently was a book titled "The joy of Calvinism". :-D