We interact, we converse, we discuss, we disagree, we argue, and we debate. We’re humans …. that’s what we do. But there are productive and unproductive ways to engage in these exchanges, whether in a public forum or in private conversation. One may be absolutely right in a position he holds, but with a mean-spirited and abrasive disposition he weakens his case and drives people further away. One’s views might be completely erroneous, yet he wins folks over with a more alluring approach. Assuming disputants are both rational and civil, how can the correctness or the wrongness of a case be determined, particularly in a religious discussion? Here are some logical and interpretive fallacies to recognize and avoid.
1. “Cherry picking” occurs when selected data are highlighted that appear to confirm a particular viewpoint while ignoring related information that suggests otherwise. How many have sought justification for something by instinctively reciting: “Judge not, that ye be not judged”? I would venture to guess that for many, this is one of the few biblical texts they have bothered to memorize, even if they can’t locate where the words are recorded in scripture. To “judge” is to make a judgment or assessment about whether something is right or wrong, true or false. If one cannot judge an idea or behavior to be wrong, neither can another judge it to be right. The fact of the matter is, the context of Matt. 7:1-5 (only a brief portion of which is quoted above from the KJV) merely denounces hypocritical judging. Righteous judgment, on the other hand, using God’s word as the standard, is biblically enjoined (John 7:24; cf. 1 Cor. 2:15; 5:3, 12; 6:2-5).1 All information must be gathered and evaluated before valid conclusions can be drawn.
2. Quoting references out of context is a logical fallacy in which statements are excerpted from the qualifying information surrounding them so that their intended meaning is distorted. A man once told me that he would never go to church because Christians are a bunch of hypocrites. When I asked him to justify his allegation, he replied, “Christians don’t drink, but the Bible says, ‘Eat, drink, and be merry’!” He was confident in his biblical assertion, yet he refused to examine the text to verify his position. By reading the immediate context of Luke 12:13-21, it is clear that Jesus, in addressing the problems of greed and materialism, tells a story in which the words of v. 19 (“take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry”) are attributed to a misguided rich man. The Bible does record this expression, but the context determines its meaning.
3. A “straw man” argument involves misrepresenting facts to make something seem more extreme or simplistic than it really is so that it can be more easily refuted. John Shelby Spong, in his Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism,2 challenges the integrity of Genesis by accusing its author of being “quite confused” about the nationality of those to whom Joseph was sold into slavery. In one reference they are identified as “Ishmaelites” (Gen. 37:25), while a few verses later they are called “Midianites” (v. 28). The fallacy of this charge is that of twisting a “both-and” situation into an “either-or” predicament. The caravan was comprised of Ishamael’s descendants who lived in the land of Midian (cf. Gen. 25:12, 18; Ex. 2:15; Judg. 8:1, 22-28). According to ethnic descent they were Ishmaelites and according to their place of residence they were Midianites (cp. Deut. 26:5). A fair-minded person sees no dilemma here, and upon closer examination Spong’s belittling accusation is not as compelling as it might have first appeared.
4. Emotional appeal is an underhanded maneuver that seeks to manipulate emotions in an attempt to strengthen one’s case rather than employing logical reasoning with factual evidence. Citing Matt. 7:17-18 in his God and the Gay Christian,3 Matthew Vines maintains that condemning same-sex relationships has historically been destructive to gay Christians, producing the “bad fruit” of guilt, depression, and suicide; whereas loving, committed, same-sex relationships produce the “good fruit” of joy and companionship. Objectively evaluated, this is not a reasoned argument drawn from careful exegesis of the Bible but a subjective emotional appeal. Contextually the “bad fruit” of Matt. 7:17-18 is applicable to false prophets and their corrupt teachings and sinful living. Vines’ emotive analysis is based on his own biased perception and a shrewdly misappropriated proof-text. Compassion, kindness, and upholding biblical morality are not mutually exclusive.
5. A “red herring” is something irrelevant and diversionary thrown into a discussion that distracts from the issue at hand. Renowned atheist David Silverman has argued against the Bible as an objective moral standard because Hitler’s Nazis murdered Jews in the name of the God of the Bible.4 Similar arguments have included the Catholic inquisition and crusades, sexual perversion of priests, immorality of televangelists, hypocrisy of professing Christians, ad infinitum. But surely we understand that violating and misconstruing biblical teachings have nothing to do with the validity of the Christian faith or the integrity of the scriptures. Legitimate evaluative criteria of any philosophy or moral standard cannot to be sought in its abuse.
-- Kevin L. Moore
1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the NKJV. The Bible addresses two types of human judging; one is denounced, while the other is enjoined. (1) Wrongful judgment or unfair criticism (Matt. 7:1-5; Rom. 2:1-3; 14:4; 1 Cor. 4:3-5; Col. 2:16) involves hypocritical assessments, or trying to discern another’s intentions and motives, or drawing conclusions without having all the facts, or making judgments based on misinformation, or using oneself as the standard (cf. Jas. 2:13; 4:11-12). (2) Righteous judgment (John 7:24; 1 Cor. 2:15; 5:3, 12; 6:2-5) relies on God’s word as the standard, evaluates observable actions and substantiated facts, and sincerely has the person’s best interests at heart (cf. Gal. 1:9; 1 John 4:1; 2 John 10-11). While making judgments (decisions) and condemning error is necessary and expected (Matt. 7:6, 15-20; 18:15-17), one’s attitude and behavior must be in line with the divine will (Matt. 6:14-15; 18:23-35; Rom. 2:21-23; Jas. 4:11-12).
2 John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Harper, 1992): 107.
3 Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-sex Relationships (New York: Convergent Books, 2014): 5-20. For a brief response to his main arguments, see Postmodernism and the Homosexual Christian Part 2.
4 “Examine Reality” was a debate between David Silverman (president of American Atheists) and Christian apologist Frank Turek on 18 April 2013 in Shreveport, LA, <Link>.
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