12 September 2006

Of straw men and slippery slopes (part two of two)

by Dan Phillips

In part one, I broached the topic of valid and invalid inferential arguments -- or, put in English (and sorta chiastically), straw men and slippery slopes. The former is the misrepresentation of a position so that it is easier to knock down. While effective, it is always illegitimate. Slippery slope arguments, on the other hand, can be valid or invalid. It all depends on whether you can really demonstrate that each oof! and ouch! and crunch! on the way down the hill necessarily follows from that first step.

I dwelt more on legitimate slippery slope arguments in that post, and on cries of "Straw man!" raised to fend off what actually were legitimate arguments. In this post, I turn to consider two real, live, legitimate, illegitimate straw man arguments.

The apostle Paul was the victim of such arguments. We see some reflected in Romans 3:7-8; 6:1, 15. To wit:

But if through my lie God's truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8 And why not do evil that good may come?--as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just. (Romans 3:7-8)

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? (Romans 6:1)

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (Romans 6:15)
These verses carry a cluster of lessons, of which we'll just highlight a couple.

I lump these together because they all seem to have sprung from the apostle's teaching about the sovereign, invincible, justifying grace of God. The accusations reflect the apostle's preaching, by way of distortion. Paul preached that God's saving grace was visited not only without the assistance of man's good will and works, but in the face of his ongoing and definitional sinful rebellion and hostility (cf. Romans 1:18-3:20). The background of grace is not neutrality. The background of grace is militant opposition.

So these distortions depend on understanding Paul's doctrine of justification as meaning the monergistic, forensic, and positive imputation of Christ's righteousness to sinners -- by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.

The argument of Paul's opponents seems to have run something like this:

"Okay, so if this Paul is saying that our lies serve to highlight God's truthfulness, and our evil showcases God's mighty goodness, and our sin merely gave an opportunity for greater displays of Divine grace -- well, then, hey: let's just sin a whole lot more, so that we glorify God a whole lot more, and give God a chance to show a whole lot more grace! I mean, the worse we are, the better He is, right? According to Paul? So let's be much worse, so that He can be much better and more 'gracious'? That's Paul's Gospel for you! See what a bunch of junk it is?"
This is a straw man. Here's the recipe:

  • Take a dash or two of truth (monergistic grace glorified against the black backdrop of human sin)
  • Leave out everything else Paul says about the awfulness of sin, our death to sin in Christ, and the might power of genuine, God-given, gutsy grace to save and sanctify
  • Set up the caricature as if it were the reality
  • Knock down the caricature
  • Do victory dance, move on to next conquest
Paul clearly had no patience whatever for, nor sympathy with, his straw-manners, and he makes short work of them. I pity da fools... but not a lot.

This misrepresentation was of a life-and-death issue. The contemporary counterpart to which my mind now turns is also heavily-freighted with importance and implications. We hear it from an odd amalgam of various sorts: charismatics, liberals, apostates, and flat-out unbelievers.

(NOTE WELL: this grouping is an observation, and is not intended as guilt by association. For instance, one could observe that I agree with Jehovah's Witnesses that the Bible has 66 books, and with Roman Catholics that God is a Trinity -- but this coincidence doesn't associate me with either cult in any other respect.)

It is a commonplace that opponents depict folks who strive to hold and practice a robust belief in Sola Scriptura as if we had a "paper Pope," or as if we worshiped a book, or had a dead God. We're told we're making the Holy Spirit unnecessary, leaving Him with nothing much to do. We're making God distant and impersonal, since we think Christians are "stuck with a book," and "relate to a book," to "letters on a page."

Affirming the genuine, real sufficiency of Scripture -- with no need for extra supplements -- is depicted as necessarily producing a cold, intellectual, barren, formal, dead life. Search the comment threads of some of my past posts affirming the sufficiency of Scripture (as opposed to the "need" for fresh, semi-hemi-demi-sorta-revelation), and you'll see some of what I'm talking about.

So what is the nature and role of Scripture, anyway? Once upon a time, I wrote a statement of faith for a church I was pastoring. This is the article on Scripture:

The sixty-six books of the Protestant canon, in their original writings, comprise the verbally inspired, inerrant Word of God.

The thirty-nine books known as the Hebrew Old Testament are God-breathed, products of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, and thus free from error in all that they affirm (cf. Deuteronomy 18:18, 19; Psalms 19:7, 8; 119:89, 142, 151, 160; Matthew 5:17-19; John 10:35; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20, 21).

Similarly, the twenty-seven books known as the Greek New Testament are the eternally abiding words of Jesus Christ (Matthew 24:35), and are thus the words of God (John 7:16; 12:49). The Holy Spirit enabled the writers both to recall what the Lord said (John 14:26), and to continue to receive His revelation (John 16:12-15). As a result, the writings of the New Testament are the commandment of the Lord (1 Corinthians 14:37), are Scripture (2 Peter 3:15, 16), and are God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16).

For this reason, the sinner finds the way of salvation through Scripture (Romans 10:17; 2 Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 2:1-3). The believer is made fruitful (Psalm 1:2, 3) and successful in the will of God (Joshua 1:8), warned and kept from sin (Psalms 19:11; 119:9,11), made holy (John 17:17), given wisdom (Psalm 9:7) and freeing knowledge of the truth (John 8:31, 32), taught the fear of God (Psalm 119:38), counseled (Psalm 119:24), taught, reproved, corrected, and disciplined in the way righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16) by Scripture. Scripture is, in short, the fully adequate revelation of the person, ways, and will of God.
This statement is simply an interpretive summary of the Scriptures cited. My learned readers will immediately recognize that much more could be said about the Bible, along these very lines.

Now, if the Bible is what the Bible says it is, is it from Biblical, Christian faith that anyone denigrates the Scriptures as exampled above? Read that over one more time, think it through, before answering.

I'll be candid: I think it is an unbelieving position. It certainly comes from unbelievers. It comes also from believers; but I would say that these believers are not walking consistently with their professed faith.

Phrased differently: if anyone puts the Word down, he is denying the Word's self-testimony -- which, according to the Christian position, is God's own testimony. This does not come from Biblical faith.

If rejecting God's own testimony as to the vitality, power, authority, and sufficiency of His word is not unbelief, I could not imagine what would be. This rejecting or devaluation certainly is no fruit, no work, of the Holy Spirit -- who Himself created that Word (2 Peter 1:21).

Therefore, I conclude that the caricature of Sola Scriptura cessationism is a real, live, card-carrying straw man. Nothing to it, as to its factual contents. What is more, I will say that it is born either of ignorance, laziness, unbelief, or some combination of the three.

But now comes the perfectly reasonable objection: "But what of Rev. Dr. Joe Orthodox Coldboogeyman, who affirms Sola Scriptura, abominates every claim to ongoing revelation of any octane-level, and is as cold, distant, heartless, passionless, loveless, graceless, and lifeless a lump of frozen clay as you could ever hope to meet? What of him?"

First I'd say that no position is proven or disproven by the quality of any one of its adherents. I'll see your Rev. Dr. Joe Orthodox Coldboogeyman, and raise you a Benny Hinn -- and then maybe we can get back to arguing the facts of Scripture.

Second, I'd say the exact same thing. The problem with Rev. Dr. Joe Orthodox Coldboogeyman is not that he needs to be slapped on the foreheard. It is not that he needs to sing "Breathe" fifteen or sixteen times. It is not that he needs to shift his brain into "neutral" and start babbling incoherently. It is not that he needs to seek an experience, or emotions, of any sort.

The problem with Rev. Dr. Joe Orthodox Coldboogeyman is the same as the problem with Bud Wildeyedcharismatichead: unbelief.

Joe does not need to set his Bible aside, take his shoes off, and run after an experience. No, he needs to do the same thing as his tumbleweed Charismatic friend: he needs to believe what he says he believes. He just needs to believe it more heartily, more robustly, more consistently.

The solution for not believing what God says is never not to believe what God has said. The solution is a deeper, and a better-instructed faith in what God has said. For the Charismatic, it is faith that the Bible really is as sufficient and marvelous as the Holy Spirit witnesses that it is. For the cold, dead intellectual, it is faith that God is as beautiful and glorious and astounding as Scripture says He is.

Zombielike disbelief is never remedied by wacky misbelief.

It is remedied by sound, Biblical, God-centered belief. It is remedied by faith. And Biblical faith always has its genesis in, and focus set upon, the revealed Word of God (Genesis 15:6; Romans 10:17; Hebrews 3:19 - 4:2 [NKJV]; James 1:18).

Dan Phillips's signature


Tom Chantry said...

Thanks, Dan.

I find a great challenge at the end of this excellent post: do we believe what we say we believe: heartily, robustly, and consistently. Good challenge to begin a morning of work.

Colin Maxwell said...

Good stuff. Well said.

Paul said...

Another great post Dan,

In all of us there is a gap between what we say we believe, and what our actions seem to indicate we believe.

If we all truly 'believed' that The Word of God is '... more desirable than gold .... sweeter than honey' then surely we would study more and be more obedient to it.

Praise God for His ongoing grace.

Norman said...

"Affirming the genuine, real sufficiency of Scripture -- with no need for extra supplements -- is depicted as necessarily producing a cold, intellectual, barren, formal, dead life."

Not by me - straw man, as far as I'm concerned.

I am told - also by reformed Christians - that I need to live in relationship with Christ. I am to love Him.
I don't think I can live in relationship with and "love" a book.
Christ is a person.
How do these two fit together?

And could it not be that some of those you refer to as ignorant, lazy or unbelieving zombies are trying to figure out how to rhyme the intellectualism we grew up with - which did focus on the book above everything - with having a living, daily, passionate relationship with the person Jesus Christ?

I admit to being one of the zombies trying to figure that out.

DJP said...

Honestly, Schreef, it looks like you only read part of the post.

And the rest is simply incorrect -- or I can make no sense of it. How is it a straw man? Because nobody says it? Palpably untrue. Because you don't say it? Did I ever say that you, Schreef, did?

Do over, please, and show your work.

Anonymous said...

May our Lord and His eternal Word always be glorified!

James Scott Bell said...

Dan, I've always found the charge of "bibliolatry" to be an uninformed slur. I mean, no card carrying inerrantist "worships" the Bible, making it an idol. It is because it is God's revelation that we abide by it.

I'd like to ask where you think John Piper's "Christian hedonism" fits in here. I read Desiring God many years ago and loved it.

Rey said...

To cover my flank: Sola Scriptura, Cessationist with elbow room.

I wonder about four things, though. One: your general statement on Scripture may not express some things which a charismatic might highlight in their statement (ie: David breaking into song and worship as he leads the ark back to the people of God, the example of the early church exemplifying confirming gifts). Two: if some would have a problem with using your interpretative summary as the Given statement that is marked “True” by which the rest of your argument follows. Three: I know you didn’t base your argument on the terminology or the observational groupings but it’s scattered throughout enough to create quite the feel of an attack of character. It would be like someone comparing some of my beliefs to Hitlers, saying that just because we meet at this point it doesn’t make us one and the same, then peppering your examination of my beliefs as anti-semitic, focused on an agenda with some ultimate solution, and finally being frank with a “what he says is nazi-talk.” Four: wouldn’t some call the example you’re using a straw man especially with labeling it a commonplace practice among opponents of Sola Scriptura when you limit the commonplace practice to your comments section?

And to cover my back (side): I’m not picking a fight.

Rey said...

I forgot my smiley. :)

Christopher Barnette said...

Great Post. I love the character names, from now on I will refer to people I do not agree with as such. ;-)

DJP said...

JSB -- doggone it, I should have used the word "bibliolatry." Thanks for making up for my lack.

You know, I have reservations about Piper, and though I've read the book a couple of times, I'll never like the phrase "Christian hedonism." Future Grace did me a lot more good persoally -- and I think "future grace" isn't the best phrase, either. But he gets these things into his head, and nothing will persuade him otherwise.

All that having been said, unless I misunderstand him, Piper's saying basically what I'm saying (and vice-versa): to with, that the God who we know personally and specifically through Scripture alone is a glorious and marvelous God, and if we believe what He says about Himself in Scripture, we will taste and see that he is good.

DJP said...


What does #1 have to do with anything I said?

What does #2 mean?

Don't know what more to say about #3. Sorry you see it that way.

If by #4 you are honestly saying that you have never encountered this except in comments sections to my posts... I can't think of what to say that wouldn't sound sarcastic. I can't help thinking that you don't get around very much, if that's the case.

Even So... said...

Zombielike disbelief is never remedied by wacky misbelief.


Yankeerev said...


I knew it would come out...

Phillips is a Catholic JW infultrating evangelicalism...

Look out! Beware! Protect your children!

P.S. Great post...lots to ponder there...

Rey said...


Brother, I'm honestly not attacking you. These were merely honest observations in the context of your propesed argument, or if you wish sequentially-supported-thoughtflow (it’s made up. We could use Structured Presentation or whatever conveys the thought of argument while removing the negative connotations).

You’ve presented a sequentially supported thoughtflow and have covered it in two posts concerning Straw Men and Slippery Slopes.

In those posts you’ve delineated theur differences and in this post you present your sequentially supported thoughtflow.

From my list #1 is brought up because you put up your general statement on Scripture. Since is used to formulate your summary of Scripture (the bold text) which is then reformulated to present the Biblical perspective of the Bible. I noticed that it was missing elements which a charismatic might include that would support his or her charismatic teachings making your summary statement incomplete, in their sequentially supported thoughtflow.

#2 addresses your summary statement which it seems you used as the foundation for the rest of your sequentially supported thoughtflow but you presented it as the Bible’s statement “If the Bible is what the Bible says it is”. It means that you used the statement as a given truth by which the rest naturally follows but since you really haven’t established that the statement means the same thing you meant in your summary statement then it is detrimental to the thoughtflow. The charismatic could easily say “Yes, the Bible says what it says it is but what you said the Bible is saying is incomplete, therefore your conclusion doesn’t follow”

#3 is not how I feel, brother, it’s an observation and one I think a Charismatic brother or sister might note (and while reading your comments it looks like one already has). The example I used was an extreme for the purpose of highlighting that danger.

#4 doesn’t rely on my observation of “Paper Pope” outside of your comments; it’s in reference to the sequentially supported thoughtflow you’re presenting first stated as commonplace practice then pointing at evidence in your comments. The majority of charismatics I know talk more about the experiential and continuance of the New Testament than they do about my position with the Bible—and that still doesn’t make me any more right than you. That’s just a subsample of Charismatics. Now here we have two groups: which is the one that would define the commonplace practice? I wouldn’t be the one to say: it’s your sequentially supported thoughtflow.

donsands said...

Well spoken thoughts.

"So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ."

étrangère said...

huh, I posted and it seems to have lost it.

So, just wanted to say thanks Dan, for such a helpfully two-angled post - you know, coming at our tendancies to both extremes and not just one, so we can't just go out contentedly patting ourselves on the back. Always good.

DJP said...


Er, that is, um....

striving... said...

Just a quick thought. Dont most "charismatics" focus on the end times. And most I have met and talked to seem to misinterpret a lot. It is like the old question that so many unbelievers ask, "How do you know the bible wasn't changed over all the years and translations?" And don't we always say "Because it is Gods word." The more I read of my bible, the more I want, and I believe that that is God working in me to learn what I need, and the stronger it makes me to defend what I believe, I guess you could say it arms me for battles. :)

striving... said...

Hey, just re-read the first post and must be a lil' slow on the uptake. totally missed the point on that. Sorry:( The whole interpretation thing always throws me anyway. Are you saying that the jift is there in the bible, or that it is Gods word to be studied and believed that it is Gods word. If it is the first, then that gives people the right to say that it could be mans word not Gods. Please explain, Lamans terms, maybe, Striving to be better really fits here.

DJP said...

Striving -- I'd be happy to explain, but I'm sorry, I don't really understand your question. Could you reword it? Thanks.

Carrie said...

Well said, Dan.

That Sola Scriptura caricature straw man is a great point. A bit of a twist on the one you decribed and you have the RCs favorite target. Throw in the 35,000 denominations of straw men and you almost have all the bases covered.

REM said...

"...if anyone puts the Word down, he is denying the Word's self-testimony..."

Good stuff. Also, that Zombie quote was internet gold.

Luke and Rachael said...

I'm open to sola scriptura and inerrancy; I'd like to believe them; alas, I have real difficulty actually doing so. I have honest questions. Here they are.

Unsurprisingly, DJP's argument for Sola Scriptura rests on Scripture. Suppose we confine our glance to the passages he cites in the NT as proof positive of the doctrine; I personally don't think they offer much by way of unambiguous support for the conclusion. I could be wrong; let's have a look.

"Similarly, the twenty-seven books known as the Greek New Testament are the eternally abiding words of Jesus Christ (Matthew 24:35)"

Sure, Jesus' words won't pass away; granted. Which words? Probably the words he's just been speaking, the ones that probably have to do with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. Or maybe *all* of the words Jesus ever spoke. Okay; so all the words Jesus ever spoke won't pass away. Good.

"and [these words] are thus the words of God (John 7:16; 12:49)."

Agreed; Jesus' words are God's word; Jesus speaks for God.

"The Holy Spirit enabled the writers both to recall what the Lord said (John 14:26), and to continue to receive His revelation (John 16:12-15)."

In context, Jn. 14:26 is addressed to the disciples in the upper room, those Jesus is reclining with at Passover immediately prior to the crucifixion. So, taken in context, 14:26 states that the Holy Spirit will enable the disciples present in the upper room to remember all that Jesus has said. As for Jn 16:12-15, again, in context, these words are addressed to the disciples in the upper room; the Holy Spirit will speak through these men when the time is right.

"As a result, the writings of the New Testament are the commandment of the Lord (1 Corinthians 14:37), are Scripture (2 Peter 3:15, 16), and are God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16)."

Whoa. That first clause seems like a non-sequitur. All we've got so far is that the Holy Spirit will enable the disciples to whom Jesus is speaking in Jn. 14:26 and 16:12-15 to recall all his words, and that the Holy Spirit will guide them into all truth when he comes. Conjoin this with 1 Cor. 37, which in context is a claim that Paul is making on his own behalf to the Corinthians, and we can *maybe* get unambiguous support for the conclusion that what Paul wrote to the Corinthians was in some sense inerrant, and that John's gospel is inerrant, assuming that the John who wrote it was present in the upper room. Since presumably and plausibly neither Mark nor Matthew nor Luke nor Paul nor any other of the NT authors were present in the upper room, it's difficult to see (without further argument) why we should extend Jesus' words to them. I'm not saying we shouldn't; just that the text in itself, taken in context, doesn't license it.

Granted that 2 Peter 3:15-16 implies that Paul's letters are Scripture; what should we conclude? We're trying to figure out what properties Scripture has; to assume that the fact that Paul's writings constitute Scripture entails that those writing are inerrant begs the question. We can also happily grant 2 Tim 3:16 and still legitimately ask what it means for something to be God breathed; does it mean that it's inerrant in the modern evangelical sense; or maybe just highly reliable; or what? We can also wonder just which documents the author of 2 Timothy took to be Scripture. Maybe he saw himself and his contemporaries composing Scripture in the same sense of the OT; maybe.

Again, these are honest questions. I just can't help but think that the actual statements Scripture makes about Scripture aren't by themselves enough to get us a robust doctrine of inerrancy or sola scriptura. This doesn't mean these doctrines can't be maintained; it just means they can't be adequately defended *solely* on biblical grounds. Given that some pretty harsh words follow for those who have trouble w/ Sola Scriptura, one would hope for a bit tighter argument to shore DJP’s punchline. Thanks for the forum, and peace.


Kent Brandenburg said...


What did you mean by this in the doctrinal statement you wrote?

"the twenty-seven books known as the Greek New Testament are the eternally abiding words of Jesus Christ"


Taliesin said...


A couple of points: (1) Your analysis assumes that Dan's doctrinal statement is the same as a defense of inerrancy. I would argue that a doctrinal statement is primarily a summation of beliefs with limited Scripture backing. Full development of many of the doctrines in a doctrinal statement would require more extensive documentation.

(2) As a brief beginning, you mentioned John in the upper room, but Matthew would have been there as well. Matthew records Jesus saying not the slightest mark would pass away from the Scripture (OT). This, and other passages as well, factor into building a case for inerrancy.

Luke and Rachael said...

Hi Taliesin,

I didn't mean to assume that Dan's statement is a full tilt defense of inerrantism; I see that it's not. And I have no wish to dispute your point that the author of Matthew was present in the upper room; we can add the author of 1 & 2 Peter too, if we want. So thanks for pointing out my mistakes.

I guess I just don't see how it makes much difference. It's all well-and-good to say that we don't need anything other than Scripture; but when it comes down to actually interpreting Scripture, we're going to need the help of some hermeneutic principles. And I can't tell how to extract those principles straight-up from Scripture; there's just not enough to go on. Sure, our hermeneutic principles can and should be plausible on Scripture; they should be supported by Scripture in some way. But they're might still be room for honest and thoughtful Christians to disagree.

The Bible under-determines a lot of things. It doesn't tell us how to make logical sense of the Trinity or the Incarnation, for instance. Paul doesn't come right out and tell us whether the wearing of head coverings and the prohibition of long hair on men is a cultural, or normative, practice. This leaves room for disagreement. To my eyes, Scripture also doesn't come right out and unambiguously state how to read it. When we settle on a hermeneutic, there's inferences and presuppositions at work that can't be extracted from the text itself. Or maybe they can; I'm open to correction. But if they can't, does this make them extra-biblical? Peace,


DJP said...

Kent -- excerpted that way, the statement confused me... and I wrote it!

If you read the whole paragraph together with looking up the references, I think it may be clearer that the point I am making is that the Son's words are the Father's words, and the apostles' words are the Son's words; therefore the words of the NT (written by apostles and apostolic men) are the words of God.

Thanks for asking; hope that helps.

striving... said...

Sorry I always get *key* tied. I guess what I mean is that I always hear people say "How do you know that the man copying the bible did not change the words to make them his own." Are you saying that that is a possibility, that Gods word has been changed? Or is that not at all possible? Gods word is Gods word and he would not let ANY joe schmoe change it right? Does it make since now? If not it is okay. I can talk to my *pastor* more about it also.

DJP said...

Okay, Striving, I think I get you now. Thanks. And I always encourage folks to talk to their faithful pastors, so that's a great idea.

To take just the Greek NT, we have over 5000 copies (in whole and in part) going back as far as the 100's. That's good news. But no two copies agree exactly in every letter, as I understand. That's as bad as the bad news gets, because by far most of the differences are of a letter or two here or there, or otherwise inconsequential. Some have, some lack a "the"; some have "you," some "us" (difference of one letter in Greek), stuff like that.

But no major doctrine -- the Godhood of Christ, the Gospel, etc. -- is affected by these variations.

So it's the job of textual scholars to reconstruct the original text from all these copies, and from early translations, and from quotations in the early Christian writers (of which there are many).

One of the best summaries of all this is in Reinventing Jesus, which I reviewed here.

striving... said...

Okay, I think I get it. It is just little things. It is still Gods word and nothing will change that right? Like I said before, the more I read the more I want and the better I can understand it. I relize now how so many people get their relationship with God. Just read the bible faithfully and it just speaks to your soul. I really enjoy your blogs. Thanks for clarifying that for me.