January 30, 2012

Or "An Affinity for Effigy"

What I Mean by Straw Man

The term "Straw man argument" or "Straw man fallacy" is usually understood to be based off of the common training technique of using mock versions of enemies (mock versions which are, in theory, made of straw). This "enemy" is much easier to defeat, since it doesn't really fight back. Examples of such straw men can be seen in this video (skip to 41 seconds):

Well, I guess they are only easier to defeat in theory. Anyway, the rhetorical idea of a straw man argument is that the speaker describes his opponent in a fictitious way, which is referred to as the straw man, and then defeats this straw man, thereby making the listeners believe that he actually defeated his opponent.

So imagine if Robin Hood dressed one of those dummies up as Prince John and put it in the square. Then, he calls the town together at the square. Then he shoots an arrow at the dummy and hits it in the V-8 can. He then claims that Prince John is dead and the town believes him. This is the picture that we are painting when we are talking about a "straw man argument".

The problem of course is that you haven't defeated anything. This is why it is important that in any debate that you choose to participate in, you understand your opponents beliefs as well as your own.

Most Calvinists today are grossly ignorant about what Arminianism teaches. This includes some of their most prominent leaders, though I won't list who here. It seems to me that most Calvinists understand Arminianism as the opposite of Calvinism (which on its own is an untrue statement), and define Arminianism based off of reversing what Calvinists believe, rather than defining it off of what Arminius and other Arminians have taught. This is, of course, conjecture on my part, but it seems consistent with the definitions of Arminianism I have often been given by Calvinists.

Straw Man In Action

One of the most frustrating examples of the straw man argument is a particular list of "the 5 points of Arminianism" that I often find come up. This site is an excellent example of this garbage. It lists the points of Arminianism as follows:
  1. Free-will or Human Ability
  2. Conditional Election
  3. Universal redemption or general atonement
  4. The Holy Spirit can be effectually resisted
  5. Falling from Grace
Even the parts that it names correctly it describes wrong. In either case, I want to know who on earth came up with this list? What is it based on? It clearly isn't based on the Articles of Remonstrance which it contradicts. I also doubt that it is based off of any Arminian scholar.

Especially this term: "Human Ability". Who believes in Human Ability? I don't know anyone who teaches that as a concept. What does that even mean anyway? Especially since Arminians believe in Total Depravity, something that Calvinists seem to constantly ignore.

In fact, the only point up there that I can accept even in name is conditional election. But even here he fails with this erroneous statement: "The faith which God foresaw, and upon which He based His choice, was not given to the sinner by God (it was not created by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit) but resulted solely from man’s will. It was left entirely up to man as to who would believe and therefore as to who would be elected unto salvation." Not true. We believe salvation is accomplished in Christ, and God's prevening enabling grace is constantly working in man. How in the world is that "leaving it up to man"?

It is my opinion that many of the Calvinists who so misconstrue the basic definition of Arminianism are basing their definitions on Dort, rather than actual Arminians. By this I mean that they take the stances of Dort, and assume Arminianism to be the opposite of them. This is simply untrue seeing how the Remonstrants strongly supported Total Depravity, held to the necessity of grace, believed election was of God, and didn't even take a stand on apostasy.

The End Result

The libel and slander is so pervasive within the A/C conversation that most people have no idea what Arminianism is.

Now, one may argue that words change meaning. After all, a word is primarily defined by how it is used. There is certainly some truth to this. However, when it comes to "isms", they are generally defined historically. Even Calvinists who get it wrong still say that the foundation of what Arminianism is is based on what Arminius himself taught. They just don't bother to find out what Arminius taught.

So we have a large group of Arminians who claim they aren't Arminian, we have people who come to believe in Calvinism because they are convinced of this two-party false dichotomy, and we have an overall break-down of real dialogue between Calvinists and Arminians. On top of this, when it comes to how Christianity is perceived by those outside of it, we have a rather embarrassing presentation of Christians' attitudes towards each other. There is zero good which comes out of misrepresenting the other side of the debate.

This also goes both ways. At SEA, we take great pains not to misrepresent our Calvinist brothers, but there are many who have no such scruples. However, putting Calvinists on the defensive where their walls go up merely makes it that much more difficult to explain anything to them. It doesn't help.

Both of us need to stop it! There is a time and a place for polemics, and there is nothing wrong with making an argument from consistency (as long as it is formally made and not expected to be "understood" by the reader). Let's put the straw men away, and actually listen to each other.

For series index, click here.

January 23, 2012

Or "Say hello to my little friend!"

What I mean by Proof-texting

There are four different ways to interact with Scripture within a discussion:
  1. Exegesis: Carefully breaking down the meaning of a text through grammar, definitions, and context.
  2. Quoting: Repeating word for word what a particular passage says.
  3. Referencing: Just naming the Book, chapter, and verses to which you are referring.
  4. Inferencing: Integrating Scripture into what you are saying without reference to origin, by summarizing, partial quotation, or other means.
Naturally, we would like to exegete whenever possible. However, anytime in which you quote, reference, or inference Scripture in order to demonstrate the validity of the point which you are arguing, you are in a sense proof-texting.

I feel that all good Protestants need to have a love/hate relationship with Proof-texting. Whenever I quote a portion of Scripture, I have an intrinsic desire to explain how I know it means what I believe it means. However, prudence demands that sometimes I have to just quote or reference the passage. This is especially true if I am making an argument from across all of Scripture. However, whenever I do that, I feel icky.

The problem is that most people do not really understand how language works. Human language is fascinating in its complexity and diversity of expression. Every word has a range of meaning, and figures of speech diversify their meaning even further. However, it appears to me that most people are under the impression that words have intrinsic meaning.

However, they don't. Words are arbitrary symbols which are linked to certain categories of ideas, and these categories are broader for some words than others. Therefore, all words need to be defined by how they are used. This is called context. And the sentence itself isn't sufficient to define a word's context, for the same word can be used in the same sentence multiple ways.

However, whenever we simply quote, reference, or inference a text, we are necessarily separating that text from its context. This means that we are either assuming our listeners know the context (which is rare), or hoping that the meaning is apparent apart from the context (which again is rare). However, we can't avoid it, for if we are going to make generalized points, we have to discuss more than one passage. Therefore, proof-texting is a bit of a necessary evil.

However, most Calvinists, indeed most of my fellow evangelicals, don't seem to see it this way. Most "arguments" consist of rapidly firing a set of bible references or quotes at someone like a machine gun from an old mobster movie. Indeed, it seems to be believed that the sheer volume of biblical passages should be sufficient to convince a person (as if quantity was more important than quality).

This is probably unsurprising considering our culture of sound-bites and flash over substance. Exegesis can be long, technical, and confusing. Things which are long, technical, and confusing generally don't convince people. It is much easier for me to see two lists of Scripture and determine which one is longer than it is to analyze the individual passages in that list. I believe that those who do proof-texting believe they are honoring Scripture, and are attempting to demonstrate how their case is more biblical. But while such lists are useful as tools to enable to do more research after a conversation, within a conversation it is rare for these texts to be treated with the care and dignity that they deserve.

Proof-texting in Action

Machine-Gun Hermeneutic

There is no way I can get through talking about proof-texting without mentioning the MGH. In 2008 I published an article expressing what I call the Machine Gun Hermeneutic or MGH. It is a form of an argument from verbosity. An argument from verbosity (or elephant hurling) is a kind of fallacy where you overload the listener with more information than can be assessed. It is unfortunate, but it is easier for a person to recognize superiority in quantity than it is to recognize superiority in quality and elephant hurling can be fairly effective. The MGH in particular is overloading the listener with a series of Bible verses which the listener cannot practically assess. Calvinist websites and internet debaters do this often.

However, there are some inherit problems with these Calvinist verses. First of all, most of them do not say anything explicitly Calvinistic, such as Romans 8:29-30 or Ephesians chapter 1. However, any verse which says a word which Calvinists really really like to use, like election or predestination, is considered to be a "Calvinist" verse, whether those features are explained or not. This of course ignores the fact that Arminians use those words too.

A second reason is that the KJV was translated by Calvinists, and many subsequent translations are based off of the KJV. Take for instance Acts 13:48 which is usually translated with the word 'ordained' or 'appointed' for 'tasso', even though the word's core meaning is 'to position', or 'to set'. 'Appoint' or 'ordain' unnecessarily limits the scope of interpretation, as well as making it sound more "Calvinisty" (of course, even with using 'appoint' or 'ordain' it doesn't prove Calvinism).

And the final problem, at least the final one that I'm dealing with here, is that there is a certain amount of arrogance to believe that we haven't read these verses before. Take this video, which is a particularly heinous example of MGH (and straw man argumentation, but that's for another time). It consistently claims that verses are being ignored, or rewritten. However, we have read the whole Bible, and I've never read a single portion of it that I felt was out of line with my theology. If I had, I would have changed my theology. The problem isn't that one side ignores or is ignorant of certain verses; it is that we approach the Bible from different interpretive grids. (And ours is right of course ;-))

Scriptural Pot-Shots

There is one more kind of proof-texting that really hurls my elephant. It is where you take a verse which is theologically neutral, and then inference it to sound "more biblical" than the other person. For instance, using Isaiah 1:18 to make it sound like you are using reason, unlike your opponent. Another example is to use Romans 9:20 to gain some kind of moral high ground (which usually entails the speaker confusing themselves with God, but I digress).

If you do this in the midst of a variety of other proof-texts, it makes it sound as if another text is supporting your claim. However, it's not. If a text has nothing to do with the conversation, than it has nothing to do with the conversion. It is a form of enslaving the text to your theology, instead of submitting your theology to the text.

The End Result

Here is why this actually bothers me. When you search the Scripture for texts that sorta sound like your point of view so that you can win a debate, you are enslaving Scripture. As someone with a high view of Scripture, this bothers me immensely.

Scripture is supposed to transform our perspective. It is the Rule of Faith: the measuring rod upon which we test our beliefs. It is not a debate tool. Some people are so focused on using the Scripture to transform others that they forget to test themselves against it.

This isn't to say we shouldn't talk about Scripture when we have differences. Absolutely we should! But we should respect one another enough to know that the other side isn't simply ignorant about our favorite passages. They've read them, and clearly understand them differently. Therefore, we should talk about the passages themselves, instead of merely seeing who can quote more of them. We all would be much better off.

For series index, click here.

January 16, 2012


Babies have no sense, and I mean no sense, of danger. We have all the standard babyproofing that one would find: plugged the outlets, stowed away the pointy cornered coffee table, wrapped up the cords, stashed pillows away (which are agents of death apparently), and put all the poisonous stuff up high. Fine, I get that. He's still learning.

However, the shear lack of respect for gravity befuddles me. If I am laying on the couch, he wants to climb up on the couch. If I am holding him on the couch, he desperately (and I mean desperately) wants to climb right off. And by climb, and I mean crawl to the edge and fall on his head. Maybe he'll learn if I didn't catch him, but then again he may stop learning all together, and I'm not willing to take the chance.

I always thought that a fear of heights was programmed into us pretty well. Heck, babies don't like to lay on their backs because it makes them feel like their falling. However, to babies there is apparently bad falling (aka lying on your back in a crib) and good falling (aka actually falling). One time, he actually twisted right out of someone's arms while they were holding him... securely. We still haven't figured out how he did that, which is a bit scary by the way.

Anyway, I am really looking forward to this kid learning that falling is bad, before he makes me completely grey before I'm 30.

January 9, 2012

The Pen

[Warning: This post is more technical than most of my posts. Casual reader beware


Our present day culture is a pluralist culture. Living in a nation which holds as a fundamental law of the land that all philosophies and religions are to be treated with respect and at the very least tolerance (in the real sense of the word), it is little wonder that our society has not only been a magnet for groups holding a variety of different beliefs, but has also been a breeding ground for new ideas. This fact has some benefits and disadvantages, but I belief that it is, in general, a good thing.

However, one such new idea has been treated as a universal belief that all Americans should hold. Pragmatically developped to engender tolerance amoung the masses, instead of just the state, a movement has become widespread that we individually should except all persons' beliefs as being equally valid and true. For the sake of simplity we shall refer to this belief as American pluralism.

It is the intent of this post to propose an argument for dealing with pluralism. As of yet, no one has offered me a counter-argument. I simply refer to this argument as "The Pen".

American Pluralism

Pluralism, generally defined, is any worldview which allows for a variety of different beliefs to be equally valid, such as Hinduism or Existentialism. American Pluralism (referred to as simply Pluralism for the remainder of this post) in particular does not have a worldview to support its ascertions (though an individual proponent of it might). Indeed, grounding their belief with some kind of cosmic backdrop is counter-productive to their objectives.

What are their objectives? Essentially to stop philosophical and theological fighting. It is an attempt to make everyone get along. It does this by trying to take away the thing that we're are fighting over: truth. It dismantles truth by focusing on the individual as that which has the ultimate authority to validate. If I believe something is true, then it is true for me.

Therefore, truth is personal, and is seen as an extention of self. Much like Existentialism (indeed one might consider it to be a popular form of Existentialism), it is a belief that focuses on the individual. It is the life, experiences, and perspectives of the individual cognizant which defines reality. General reality is something we give meaning to by experiencing and believing in it. Therefore, any claims that we have on that reality are merely personal constructs which should be treasured, but not enforced upon others.

The Pen

Now, it is important for this argument to work that you envision me speaking to a Pluralist, in person:

"For the sake of argument, I will concede that there exists a reality unto myself. I have thoughts, experiences, and impressions which are my own, and to which not you nor anyone else is privy. Likewise there also exists a reality unto yourself which is equally your own.

"However, there also exists this pen:

"This pen clearly exists within my reality. It is here, I am referring to it, and I therefore know it. However, it also exists within your own reality as well. You can see it, and therefore you also know of it. Therefore, there must exist some kind of shared reality between you and I: some place where this pen exists. If you deny the existance of this common reality, then you must admit that in some sense, this pen does not truly exist. But since it does exist, so does our common reality.

"It is important to recognize that when I am speaking of truth, I am referring to this common reality. When I say that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, I am referring to this common reality. When I say that there is but one God, I am referring to this common reality. When I say that God made the world, I am referring to this common reality. I am not simply referring to my own exclusive reality (though my own reality is of course included).

"As such, you cannot confirm what I am claiming by saying that it is true within my reality, while rejecting it within your own. This is impossible because my claim is upon this common reality of which you share a part. If, however, it does not exist within your own reality, then the claim is nullified. Therefore, because of the manner in which I have made the claim, the only options left to you are either to say that I am wrong, or that I am right.

"Unfortunately, this means that you must act against the fundational principle of your own position: accepting all positions as equally true. If you do so, then your entire belief structure becomes hypocritical. Therefore, you must either ignore my claim, which is a means of rejecting it by the way, or recognize that your pluralist belief is philosophically untenable. QED"

January 2, 2012

Judging Newt

As I am writing this, there is a great controversy rising around Newt Gingrich on the issue of judges. I'm scheduling this to publish after Christmas though, so I don't know where the controversy will stand when this goes public.

In either case, Newt is being criticized for saying that he will eliminate court offices which he has deemed to populated with activist judges, and he proposes putting more power in the legislature and away from the courts. Here are his words on the subject from his 21st century contract with America:

The Founding Fathers felt strongly about limiting the power of judges because they had dealt with tyrannical and dictatorial British judges. In fact, reforming the judiciary was second only to “no taxation without representation” in the American colonists’ complaints about the British Empire prior to the revolution. A number of the complaints in the Declaration of Independence relate to judges dictatorial and illegal behavior.

Since the New Deal of the 1930s, however, the power of the American judiciary has increased exponentially at the expense of elected representatives of the people in the other two branches. The judiciary began to act on the premise of “judicial supremacy,” where courts not only review laws, but also actively seek to modify and create new law from the bench. The result is that courts have become more politicized, intervening in areas of American life never before imaginable.

Look here to see my friend Chris's look at Newt's contract.

A big part of me agrees with Newt. In fact, the first political post I published on this blog deals with this exact issue. There I discuss a Constitutional amendment for the ability of the executive branch and Congress to overturn a Supreme Court's decision by declaring it outside of federal jurisdiction (something which I feel would also prevent those branches from overturning something for their own power). I still think that this is a good idea BTW.

However, I do share with the Conservatives' apprehension of a president simply getting rid of a judge because he/she disagrees with them on policy. Mind you, I don't think that this is what Newt is proposing (which I will get back to), but I do share that apprehension. Whenever you have a shift in power, you always have to remember the principle of inheritance. Even if you want "your guy" to have this power, you need to remember that "your guy" will not always be in power, and the next guy will inherit that power. Never give "your guy" power that you don't want someone else to inherit.

However, I think there are some built in checks and good reasons for what Newt wants to do. First of all, he has not proposed that as president he would overturn court decisions. He couldn't do that even if he wanted to. Instead, he is claiming that he can eliminate judge positions. According to him, precedent for this was established by Jefferson and Monroe. However, that is a rather old reference, and the political system may have changed since then to disallow the president from doing this. This is beyond my knowledge. Still, if he does remove these judges, their decisions would remain on the books. He wouldn't be able to undo them.

Second, he isn't attempting to centralize power to the president. Instead, he is trying to bring it back to the Congress, which is consistent with the political theories which founded the nation. Now I know that Conservatives have a tendency to treat the founding fathers as a monolithic group when the weren't, but I do agree that the Constitution doesn't really talk about three perfectly equal branches of government, though it does leave room for it.

Third and finally, his contract speaks of a national conversation of how to deal with this. He is not claiming that he has discovered the answer and is going to push it through (other than taking out certain judges positions and courts). Does he have a suggested answer? Yes, I do agree that presently it is too raw to put into practice as is. But then, that is how our system works. Just like no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, no piece of legislation survives first contact with the Congress. It'll get shifted, ironed out, and hopefully improved (hopefully being the key word there).

Newt right now is my guy. He is the one that I am rooting for because his ideas excite me, he has shown historically the creativity to deal with real problems, he has worked with both sides of the aisle without losing his fundamental philosophies, and he will bring the kind of experience, both in terms of leadership and interaction within the Federal government, that his predecessor was sorely lacking. His courage to actually deal with this issue is refreshing, and though I think his plan could use some work, I think his own words have shown that he is willing to negotiate and invite input to build a final plan that would be best for America.