My professor denied my topic, because, as he said, in order to speak on that topic I would have to appeal to the authority of the Bible, and he wouldn’t allow that. Imagine my surprise when one of the first speeches given by one of my classmates was on the topic, “The Bible is just a bunch of myths and legends.”
(What made it worse was that the guy basically appealed to the fact that the contents of the Bible has been referred to as, “the greatest story ever told,” and we all know that a story is fiction. Yep, that was the gist of his argument-- persuasive, right? See my forthcoming post on the fallacy of equivocation...)
This is a classic example of what I call the “you can’t, but we can” argument style. The essence of it is this: one party declares a certain topic, appeal, source of authority, term or phrase, or whatever, to be off-limits. The other side agrees. Then the first side proceeds to appeal to that topic, phrase, etc.; but when the other side brings it up, they are reprimanded for speaking on an off-limits topic.
This has plagued the political campaigns this year. Senator Clinton committed it when she castigated others for holding her gender against her, only to turn around and declare that a vote for her is a step of progress for women everywhere. Senator Obama has done something similar with regard to race (and his “youthfulness” as well). Most recently, the McCain/Palin campaign has employed it, first saying that Governor Palin’s pregnant daughter should be “out of bounds” for political discussion, then parlaying it into a mark in her favor as a Pro-Life candidate.
But it happens in the church, too-- and that’s where I’m even more concerned about it. A good example is this excerpt from one of my favorite books on the sacrament of Baptism, William the Baptist by James M. Chaney. This is a dialogue between William, a devoted Baptist, and his wife’s Presbyterian pastor, on whether immersion is a biblical mode of administering the sacrament (from pp.30-32):
William: ...I cannot express my astonishment to learn that you regard immersion as an unscriptural mode of baptism. You will find but few who will agree with you in that extreme view.
Pastor: Immersionists are zealous in their labors to make such an impression, but it is very erroneous. The ministers of our Church, as a body, agree with me. A few, regarding it as a mere external, look upon it with such supreme indifference that they can scarcely be said to have an opinion on it; and such may sometimes make concessions which our opposers are very quick to catch up and use to their own advantage. I have know a few who would push this question of indifference to such an extreme that, while unhesitatingly declaring immersion unscriptural as a mode of baptism, would yet, on request, administer the rite in that way. The Presbytery of Lafayette, in answer to a memorial, declared by a unanimous vote that, “it is inexpedient and IMPROPER for a Presbyterian minister to administer the rite of baptism by immersion.”
William: Such facts are new to me. But are you not mistaken as to the number of those who make such concessions? I have heard many sermons on the subject by immersionists, and by their quotations and statements they succeeded in making the impression on me that all Pædo-bapists agree in concessions that would seem to render the further discussion of the question unnecessary.
Pastor: Such concessions form the burden of their books and sermons on the subject. Some years ago I put myself to some trouble to hear a Baptist minister, who proposed to discuss the subject purely from a Bible standpoint. I was anxious to know what a man could say in favor of immersion, in three sermons an hour each, who would confine himself to the Bible, and let lexicons and Pædo-baptist concessions alone.
A worthy Baptist minister introduced the services by an earnest prayer, the burden of which was praise to God for His Word, for the clearness of its revelations, and its sufficiency in all things. I was delighted with the prayer: I regarded it as a prelude to a Bible discussion, and thought that a desire, long entertained, to hear such a discussion, was about to be gratified.
A gospel song was sung, and the minister, with only the open Bible before him, began his task. For about fifteen minutes I was charmed with an eloquent eulogy on the Bible. It was in the spirit of the prayer that preceded it. The massive Book, with its pages opened, was held up to our gaze; and “here,” said the speaker, “not in Creeds and Confessions of Faith, but here, in the Word of God, are we to look and find the mind of the Lord. TO THE LAW and the TESTIMONY if they speak not according to this word, IT IS BECAUSE THERE IS NO LIGHT IN THEM.”
What more could I desire? A Bible discussion of baptism! what I had so longed to hear.
As the sound of the speaker’s voice (in giving the quotation) was dying away, in a most reverent manner he gently closed the sacred volume, and with as much reverence as the case would admit of, he slowly pushed the source of light to his extreme left, taking one step to enable him to get it sufficiently far. The movement was inexplicable. But, in less time than it requires to tell you, the speaker was almost hidden behind books, large and small, which he piled before him, and on his right and left.
And now the Bible discussion!! For two hours we were treated to a learned dissertation-- by one who knew nothing of the Greek language-- on the meaning of “baptidzo.” Greek lexicons and Pædo-baptist commentators and writers were the sole witnesses. The Bible was wholly ignored. It was not mentioned once. No text was quoted from it!!
If it had been but a human production, I could but pity it on account of such treatment. Sacred volume, lifted so high to fall so low!
My disappointment was great, but I went to hear the second and third discourses, “et ab uno, disce omnes.” The discussion of the subject, in all, occupied more than five hours, and only at the close, and then only for about fifteen minutes, did the Bible receive any notice, and then all that was done was to quote a few favorite passages, taking it for granted that they were conclusive in favor of immersion, but making no attempt at proof.
William: In all the books I have read on the subject, and in all the discussions to which I have listened, I have noticed that such was their method, and I think it proper. It served to establish me in my views. with such concessions, and the plain teachings of the Bible, I have come to regard the question as removed from any debatable ground, and I cannot express to you my astonishment that you would intimate that a Pædo-baptist would undertake to uphold his views from the Bible alone! Am I correct in drawing the inference that any one would undertake such a task?
Pastor: Do you think any other method legitimate and satisfactory?
William: I certainly thing such a method best; but I see no objection to other aids, especially to the ad hominem arguments to which you have referred.
The gist: the Baptist pastor asserts “no creeds or confessions of faith” are admissible, but “the Word of God alone”-- in other words, “you can’t use your creeds or confessions” (which is convenient, since the Baptist church is ostensibly a “non-creedal” body). Yet, out come the commentators and Baptist resources-- perhaps what we might construe as the confessions of faith for a group that eschews confessions of faith.
So, here are some questions to ask to avoid this argument style:
- What are the topics, terms, phrases, ideas, appeals to authority, etc., that I consider “off-limits?” Why do I regard them as such?
- Is my desire for such a limitation an emotional response, or do I have reasons for it? What are the reasons?
- Is my perspective on these topics, etc., fair and just? Do I consider them “off-limits” because I am trying to cripple my discussion partner? If I allowed them into the discussion, would I simply have more work and research to do, or would I be admitting a harmful element into the debate?
- Am I willing to subject myself to the same (or similar) limitations? Have I represented my position and/or argument as one that IS subject to the same limitations, but have failed to fulfill that?
- Is the limitation I am proposing a matter of vital importance, or simply a difference of opinion? Would my discussion partner categorize it in the same way? (And what is suggested by an answer of “no” to that last question?)