Common Fallacies Used In Argumentation

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Logical Fallacies
by Matt Slick

This is a fallacy of history in which one imports a modern or later concept or definition back into a belief or word of a previous age. For instance, it is all too common for a Roman Catholic apologist to see the word, "church," in the Biblical text and say that it is referring to the clergy, i.e. the priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and the Pope. However, in the New Testament, the word, "church," Greek: ecclesia, simply meant "congregation" which referred to the entire people of God, the laity and the clergy. [It should also be noted that, in the New Testament, the distinction between laity and clergy is one of degree, not of kind, but this is a point that will be argued elsewhere.] Thus, this anachronism results in giving more power to the clerical authority that would and should be given to all the people of God.

A straw-man is a logical fallacy in which one debate disputant will misrepresent the other debater’s position in order to more easily defeat his opponent’s "position" (which isn’t really his) and give the illusion that the latter was refuted. This typically occurs, for instance, when the RC and Protestant are debating John 6, and the RC accuses the Protestant of being inconsistent in his exegesis because he is not interpreting Jesus’ words ‘literally’. Except for hyper-dispensationalists, this is a misrepresentation of the Protestant method of interpretation, the grammatico-historical method or GHM. GHM does not mean that everything should be taken ‘literally’ but that a Biblical text should be interpreted in light of its surrounding context, culture, language, etc. Thus, some passages and sayings should be taken ‘literally’ and some metaphorically or figuratively all depending on the context.

False Antithesis:
A false antithesis is when a debater sets up a situation in which either position ‘A’ is the case (which happens to be the debater’s position) or position ‘B’ is the case and argues that since the facts are definitely not in favor of ‘B’, then ‘A’ must be the case even though his opponent’s position is neither ‘A’ nor ‘B’ but some other position ‘C’. Thus, just because ‘B’ is eliminated as being true doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘A’ is true since there is still the possibility that ‘C’ is true. This is also called the "either-or" fallacy.
This happens when discussing James 2:24. A Roman Catholic will assert that the "faith" spoken of in James is the same as the "faith" spoken of in Paul’s letters, and thus, they say, faith is simply an assent to truth which we must add good works in order to attain the expiation of sin. To them, faith is an assent to truth and there is no other possible Biblical definition of "faith". However, the Protestant Reformers made a distinction between three different kinds of knowledge or faith: noticia, assensus, and fiducia. Noticia is simple understanding of the truth, assensus is an assent to the truth, and fiducia is a trusting commitment to this knowledge or a ‘living’ faith. Thus, the Protestant would say that James is speaking of (and condemning) a simple assent to the truth (assensus) while Paul is speaking of a ‘living’ faith (which includes repentance), fiducia, which alone results in justification.

Straw-Man + False Antithesis:
A more common fallacy that happens in these Roman Catholic/Protestant dialogues occurs when the previous two fallacies are combined. This can happen when, for example, a Roman Catholic says that either meritorious good-works are necessary for the Christian (the RC position) or good works aren’t necessary at all for the Christian (a misrepresentation or "straw-man" of the Protestant position). They will then point to passages such as Matthew 7:21-23, John 5:29, Hebrews 12:14, or James 2:24 and say that since the "Protestant" position (again, a straw-man of it) is not the case, then the Roman Catholic position must be the case. Of course, since that is not the Protestant position, and the real Protestant position falls in between the two extremes presented (holding that good works are *descriptive* of a true Christian but not prescriptive to be saved as the RC holds), the RC argument does not follow.

Fallacy of Equivocation:
This is a logical fallacy which occurs when one definition of a word or phrase is imported into that same word which, from the context, does not bear the same meaning or connotation.
An example of that would be the same example used in the fallacy of anachronism (a.) in which a modern definition of the word, "church", is imported into a first century text. Thus, the RC argument actually utilizes both an anachronism and an equivocation of terms.
Another example would be when RC’s say that the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) teaches sola gratia, salvation by "grace alone", just as Protestants do. However, what a Roman Catholic means by that and what an historic Protestant means by that are two totally different things. The RCC means that grace is *necessary* for salvation but positive human effort must be added (which, they say, is itself moved by grace). The Protestant, however, holds that sola gratia means that, not only is grace necessary, it is *sufficient* to save the sinner. Thus, while in RC theology, a person can be given saving grace and yet fail to be saved, in Protestant theology, a person who is given saving grace cannot fail to be saved.

Text Isolation:
This is an exegetical (i.e. interpretive) fallacy. This occurs when an interpreter takes a verse, ignores the surrounding context, and (since the verse, phrase, or word is without context) imports a meaning or interpretation into the passage. This is an extremely common fallacy in Roman Catholic apologetics, and Dave Armstrong uses it on the majority of the verses that he cites. Thus, we will see this often.

Over-extended Conclusion:
This is a logical fallacy in which the conclusion to the argument is more than that which can be supplied by the premises. For instance, if one has the premises:

A ---> B (If A is the case, then B is also the case.)
A (A is the case.)

the maximum conclusion that can be had from these premises is that B is the case since B flows from the conditional. An over-extended conclusion is where one would (falsely) conclude from the above premises that B+C+D+E are also the case. C, D, and E weren’t even in any of the premises, and so, it is impossible for them to be in the conclusion. One case of this in Roman Catholic apologetics is in their interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19, the alleged proof of Papal Primacy. Even if the "rock" of verse 18 refers to Peter, and he has the power to "bind" and "loose" in the sense of Roman Catholic dogma, it does not at all follow that this power was passed on to his "successors" as bishops of Rome. The word ‘successor’ or any variant of it is not even mentioned in the text and neither is there any suggestion of such a concept.

Infinite Regress:
This is a logical fallacy in which the conclusion of the premises results in an endless necessity of preconditions. The classic case of an infinite regress is the example of Indian cosmogony.
According to Indian cosmogony, the earth must sit on the back of an elephant, otherwise, it would fall. When asked what the elephant sits on (since, according to the same logic used in the premise, it would also fall), the Indian cosmogonist replies that it sits on the back of a turtle. When asked what the turtle sits on (otherwise, it too would fall), the Indian cosmogonist thinks a little bit longer and says, "Another turtle". When asked what "this" turtle sits on (yet again: otherwise, it would fall), the cosmogonist replies with yet another turtle (or if he’s smarter than that, he’d realize the problem). Under the assumption that the world requires something to sit on lest it fall, it would require an infinite number of things to sit on each other lest they fall as well with no end in sight since it simply pushes the problem one step back each time. Thus, Bertrand Russell called the infinite regress "Turtles all the way down".
The simplest way to solve this is to deny the premise. In this case, either one of those turtles must rest on nothing but be suspended by its own power, or (since the entire premise for the world resting on something is denied) the world rests on nothing but is suspended by itself. In the latter case, there would be no need for any elephants or turtles. The extremely common case of an infinite regress in the Roman Catholic/Protestant dialogues is when the RC states that in order to know the right theology with certainty, one must know (with certainty) what books should be in the Bible (true), and according to the RC, the only way to know what books should be in the Bible is for an infallible authority to give us infallible knowledge of which books should be included in the Bible. This authority, they say, is the Roman Catholic Church. Subtly assumed in this argument is the presupposition that for someone to have any knowledge with certainty, one must have *infallible* knowledge.
Other than the fact that this is an overextended conclusion (why not fill that answer with the Mormon prophet or the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society or some cult leader receiving "revelations"?), it commits the infinite regress. When asked how *they* know with infallible certainty that that allegedly infallible authority is indeed infallible, they must either invent another infallible authority (like another turtle which would further push the problem backward, yet again) or say that this infallible authority is authenticated through weighing the facts (i.e. historical research, other empirical data, etc.) without the need of infallible knowledge from another source (like a turtle resting on nothing but suspended on its own power). Of course, to say that something can be authenticated through fallible means (and thus, fallible knowledge) is to deny the premise put forward at the beginning, and then, this begs the obvious question: why can’t the canon of Scripture be determined in the same fashion (like the world resting on nothing but suspended in space by itself)? Thus, we would not need an infallible authority to tell us what Scripture is since we can do so through historical research.
Since God alone possesses infallible knowledge, we fallible human beings are always going to be limited to fallibility no matter which point we start at. Whether it is Scripture or the allegedly infallible Church, there must be a terminus. One does not have to have infallible knowledge in order to have any knowledge, but rather, one must have *reliable* (though fallible) knowledge in order to have certainty.

Superficial Reading:
This is an exegetical fallacy in which the interpreter finds a passage of Scripture that sounds like their theology’s position and conclude that that passage must be teaching that peculiar doctrine. It is usually combined with the fallacy of text isolation. This occurs when the Roman Catholic points to the term, "disqualified" [from receiving the reward], in 1 Corinthians 9:27 to "prove" the concept of mortal sin (i.e. the loss of the "reward" of eternal life). However, the reason why it sounds like (i.e. superficially) his theology is because he ignored the surrounding context and ended up seeing what he wanted to see. The passage starts in verse 1 and has as its context (by verse 23) the reward for preaching the gospel. Although he has the right to certain things (vv.1-14), if Paul does anything that will allow his opponents to bring disrepute upon him and his message (i.e. by making it look like he was in it for the money; vv.3, 6-15, 18, 26), then he will be "disqualified" (using Greek game terminology) in the eyes of his hearers from his gospel proclamation being successful (v.27). If this happens, then he will not receive the reward that he normally would have if his message was successful (vv.16-18). The passage has absolutely nothing to do with the loss of salvation.

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