Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Slippery Slopes and the Genetic Fallacy

[The following blog post is by Jus Divinum]

Phillip Johnson says that "the evangelical political right has historically -- not just theoretically -- fostered an ecumenical drift." I'm not quite sure whether by 'ecumenical drift' Johnson means Christians working with non-Christians in various endeavors, or whether he means Christians accepting non-Christians as their brethren. I'm assuming he means the latter. If so, let's concede this historical claim for the sake of argument. The question is as to its significance. Johnson says that this fact means that concern over political activism leading to ecumenism is not "a groundless or superstitious fear". That seems right; history should always give us pause. But should we give this historical claim any larger, more sweeping significance? In particular, does it mean that it is immoral or unwise for Christians (in large numbers or small) to cooperate with non-Christians of various stripes in political activism?

I submit that to think so is to fall afoul, if not of the genetic fallacy, then at least of the slippery slope fallacy. A good treatment of the latter is in John Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (P&R, 1987). Frame says on pp. 274-275:

"A true and valid reductio must be distinguished from its fallacious imitators, one of which is the 'slippery slope' argument. A slippery slope argument goes like this. 'If you take position A, you run the risk of taking position B; position B is wrong, therefore A is also wrong.' Thus it is sometimes said that once one abandons belief in a pretribulational rapture, he runs the risk of denying the bodily return of Christ altogether, thus opening himself up to a thoroughgoing liberalism. Or it is sometimes argued that if one accepts the textual criticism of Westcott and Hort, he runs the risk of denying biblical authority altogether. Thus the slippery slope argument appeals to fear -- to our fear of taking undue risks and to our fear of being linked with people (such as liberals), disapproved of in our circles, lest we incur guilt by association.

Often slippery slope arguments are buttressed by historical examples. Such-and-such a theologian began by denying, say, total abstinence from alcoholic beverages, and five years later he abandoned the Christian faith. Or such-and-such a denomination rejected the exclusive use of Psalms as hymns in worship, and twenty-five years later it capitulated to liberalism. On the use of such historical references in theological arguments, see chapter 9. In general, they prove nothing. Usually, they do not rest on a sufficient statistical sample to establish even probable conclusions. And they ignore the complexities of historical causation. A denomination becomes liberal for many reasons, never just one. On the one hand, it may well be that rejection of exclusive Psalmody is in some cases at least a symptom of advancing liberalism. (I say that as an opponent of exclusive Psalmody, who nevertheless recognizes that people sometimes reject exclusive Psalmody for very bad reasons.) On the other hand, the denomination may be rejecting exclusive Psalmody for good reasons. This development may be quite independent of any trend toward liberalism, or it may bear a paradoxical relation to that trend. For example, the liberal trend may, for a time, help the church to break free of unbiblical traditions -- God's bringing a good result out of an overall evil development. (It could be argued that the development toward liberalism in the Presbyterian Church U.S., for example, enabled that denomination to take a strong stand against dispensationalism, a stand that to many nonliberals was a good thing.) Thus not very much can be deduced from historical examples. They ought to make us think twice about what we are doing. They suggest possibilities, but they are never normative in themselves."

4 comments:

  1. I agree (for a change). The idea that if a believer gets invloved in any type of political activism, that they will consequently drop their faith like a dirty shirt, just doesn't hold up under the weight of reality.
    That kind of individual apostacy can occur if the desire to walk away from the truth is already present in the heart. And when that's the case, any old excuse will probably do just fine. It certainly doesn't have to be within in the political realms. Which, of course, is a whole different problem and discussion.
    As for group participation in wandering away, well, we are called sheep afterall.

    Those who put their trust in man will follow man. Those who don't, won't.

    Shalom

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  2. Jus sez: "I'm not quite sure whether by 'ecumenical drift' Johnson means Christians working with non-Christians in various endeavors, or whether he means Christians accepting non-Christians as their brethren. I'm assuming he means the latter."

    For the record, I DO mean the latter.

    efrayim sez: "The idea that if a believer gets invloved in any type of political activism, that they will consequently drop their faith like a dirty shirt, just doesn't hold up under the weight of reality."

    But I have never suggested that such is the case, nor have I ever automatically objected to "a believer [who] gets invloved in any type of political activism." On the contrary, I have expressly affirmed the legitimacy of such a vocation and the freedom of individual Christians to pursue it if that is what they are called to.

    Here are my actual complaints:

    My first gripe is with ostensibly Christian organizations and ministers of the gospel who in any degree dilute, suppress, deflect, or confuse the simple, pure gospel message they are called and ordained to preach, and either substitute or blend into their "gospel" a political message instead.

    My second gripe is with those who think (or act as if) political remedies for society's evils are more effective instruments for the improvement of our culture than the gospel message itself.

    My third gripe is with those who make politics a higher priority than evangelism in their dealings with unbelievers.

    My fourth gripe is with those who think political activism is a duty incumbent on all Christians.

    That's the heart of what I've said from the beginning. You may argue, based on this one article or that particular book, about whether I have been totally fair with Dobson, Colson, or others whom I may have expressly criticized for their political entanglements. And if you base your argument on a narrow set of criteria (what Colson actually said in this particular article), you might be able to make a superficially convincing case. But I don't believe I have misrepresented the dangerous drift of the movement(s) these men lead, or the message they are conveying to the average person in the pew.

    The truth is, this generation of "evangelicals" is more active in secular politics than any generation of evangelicals in post-puritan history (except, perhaps, the prohibitionist movement under Billy Sunday's influence). Yet today's evangelicals, on the whole, are so ignorant of gospel truth, and so utterly incapable of defending the gospel, that they really do not even deserve the name "evangelical."

    And I hate to see the very people who ought to be teaching Christians Scripture and sound doctrine wasting their energies instead trying to organize evangelicals to maximize the clout of the American political right.

    (BTW, I also hated it years ago when the liberal leadership of the church I grew up in were trying to organize their flocks to increase leftist clout. Both types of church leaders are guilty of abdicating their true calling, IMO.)

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  3. The truth is, this generation of "evangelicals" is more active in secular politics than any generation of evangelicals in post-puritan history (except, perhaps, the prohibitionist movement under Billy Sunday's influence). Yet today's evangelicals, on the whole, are so ignorant of gospel truth, and so utterly incapable of defending the gospel, that they really do not even deserve the name "evangelical."

    Phil, this may be true, but if so, the evidence would exist in only the last five years. Evangelicals were incredibly apathetic prior to 2000, and even in that election some 3 million self-identified evangelicals stayed home. The last presidential election was probably the best evidence of "evangelicals" (as defined by political pollsters) potentially proving your claim, but I don't know how you are measuring such a statement. % of population? Overall raw number? The media is blowing it out of preportion because this time around they showed up more forcefully at the polls in 2004 and made the difference for Bush. Nevertheless, I agree with your conclusion.

    Unfortunately this is only part of the story that you are willing to recognize, Phil as discussions on these issues are completely one sided on your own blog. The flip side of the coin lies with us who you would define as purely "evangelical" and yet we in large part do not put our faith into action. Instead, our leaders invest most of their time and energies telling the world why "they" are wrong and "we" are right, lines are naturally divided, dialouge is closed and the Gospel as a result never gets preached with any force and/or authenticity. Fences also never get mended. Phil, we (those you would define comfortably as "evangelical") are part of the problem as well. I wish you could acknowledge this...

    Brad

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  4. In case anybody is wondering, I often respond to Phil's comments separate blog posts. I responded to the ones above, here:

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2005/08/scattered-replies.html

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