Ad Hominem refers to a logical fallacy, or in other words, a bad argument. This short video shows 4 ways this can happen:
An ASSOCIATION FALLACY “asserts that qualities of one thing are inherently qualities of another, merely by an irrelevant association. The two types are sometimes referred to as guilt by association and honor by association. Association fallacies are a special case of red herring, and can be based on an appeal to emotion.”
Michael Horton provides some which should be avoided when writing a theological paper in his classes (and, of course, in all of life!). I’ve reprinted below the ones that he lists (along with some images, which have some relevance to the fallacy in one way or another).
First and foremost we need to avoid the ubiquitous ad hominem (“to/concerning the person”) variety—otherwise known as “personal attacks.”
Poor papers often focus on the person: both the critic and the one being criticized. This is easier, of course, because one only has to express one’s own opinions and reflections. A good paper will tell us more about the issues in the debate than about the debaters. (This of course does not rule out relevant biographical information on figures we’re engaging that is deemed essential to the argument.)
Closely related are red-herring arguments: poisoning the well, where you discredit a position at the outset (a pre-emptive strike), or creating a straw man (caricature) that can be easily demolished.
“Barth was a liberal,” “Roman Catholics do not believe that salvation is by grace,” “Luther said terrible things about Jews and Calvin approved the burning of Servetus—so how could you possibly take seriously anything they say?”
It’s an easy way of dismissing views that may be true even though those who taught them may have said or done other things that are reprehensible.
Closely related is the genetic fallacy, which requires merely that one trace an argument or position back to its source in order to discount it.
Simply to trace a view to its origin—as Roman Catholic, Arminian, Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist/Baptist, etc.—is not to offer an argument for or against it. For example, we all believe in the Trinity; it’s not wrong because it’s also held by Roman Catholics. “Barth studied under Harnack and Herrmann, so we should already consider his doctrine of revelation suspect.” This assertion does not take into account the fact that Barth was reacting sharply against his liberal mentors and displays no effort to actually read, understand, and engage the primary or secondary sources.
Closely related to these fallacies is the all too familiar slippery slope argument. “Barth’s doctrine of revelation leads to atheism” or “Arminianism leads to Pelagianism” or “Calvinism leads to fatalism” would be examples. Even if one’s conclusion is correct, the argument has to be made, not merely asserted. The fact is, we often miss crucial moves that people make that are perfectly consistent with their thinking and do not lead to the extreme conclusions we attribute to them—not to mention the inconsistencies that all of us indulge. Honesty requires that you engage the positions that people actually hold, not conclusions you think they should hold if they are consistent.
If you’re going to make a logical argument that certain premises lead to a certain conclusion, then you need to make the case and must also be careful to clarify whether the interlocutor either did make that move or did not but (logically) should have.
Another closely related fallacy here is sweeping generalization. Until recently, it was common for historians to try to explain an entire system by identifying a “central dogma.” For example, Lutherans deduce everything from the central dogma of justification; Calvinists, from predestination and the sovereignty of God. Serious scholars who have actually studied these sources point out that these sweeping generalizations don’t have any foundation. However, sweeping generalizations are so common precisely because they make our job easier. We can embrace or dismiss positions easily without actually having to examine them closely. Usually, this means that a paper will be more “heat” than “light”: substituting emotional assertion for well-researched and logical argumentation.
“Karl Barth’s doctrine of revelation is anti-scriptural and anti-Christian” is another sweeping generalization. If I were to ask you in person why you think Barth’s view of revelation is “anti-scriptural anti-Christian,” you might answer, “Well, I think that he draws too sharp a contrast between the Word of God and Scripture—and that this undermines a credible doctrine of revelation.” “Good,” I reply, “now why do you think he makes that move?” “I think it’s because he identifies the ‘Word of God’ with God’s essence and therefore regards any direct identification with a creaturely medium (like the Bible) as a form of idolatry. It’s part of his ‘veiling-unveiling’ dialectic.” OK, now we’re closer to a real thesis—something like, “Because Barth interprets revelation as nothing less than God’s essence (actualistically conceived), he draws a sharp contrast between Scripture and revelation.” A good argument for something like that will allow the reader to draw conclusions instead of strong-arming the reader with the force of your own personality.
Begging the Question
Also avoid the fallacy of begging the question. For example, question-begging is evident in the thesis statement: “Baptists exclude from the covenant those whom Christ has welcomed.” After all, you’re assuming your conclusion without defending it. Baptists don’t believe that children of believers are included in the covenant of grace. That’s the very reason why they do not baptize them. You need an argument.
“It is perfectly logical and reasonable to examine a position, or the progression of a position, and work out its implications. Paul himself does this to the Corinthians.
Evidently swayed by Greek philosophy, some puddingheads in Corinth denied the doctrine of bodily resurrection. Paul was appalled, and with inexorable logic worked out the implications of this view. Notice his progression, “If you are saying A, then B naturally follows, as well as C, and D, and….”
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then [A] not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then [B] our preaching is in vain and [C] your faith is in vain. 15 [D] We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, [E] not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, [F] your faith is futile and [G] you are still in your sins. 18 Then [H] those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, [I] we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)
Paul works out easily nine implications of this fundamental error, all designed to show where it necessarily leads. Perhaps the errorists would have cried, ‘Paul, that’s a straw man! We’re not saying any of that!’ To this, the apostle might have replied, ‘Not yet. But this is where your premises necessarily lead.'”
– Dan Phillips
Paradoxes are not contradictions. Contradiction is the hallmark of untruth. On the other hand, paradoxes reveal brilliant, dazzling, breath taking mystery.
On the Ligonier website I read the following:
“… the law of noncontradiction states that “A cannot be both A and non-A at the same time and in the same relationship.” The qualifiers “same time” and “same relationship” are very important. Some attempt to deny the law of noncontradiction by giving examples from the natural world that seem to render the law invalid. One example of this might be water. Water can be both a liquid and a gas and so therefore, the law of noncontradiction must not be true. However, the qualifier “same time,” makes this an inaccurate assumption. A molecule of water can be both a liquid and a gas, but that molecule is never both a liquid and a gas at the same time.
The qualifier “same relationship” is also very important. We see a good example of this in Christian theology. Many people mistakenly believe that when we confess the doctrine of the Trinity, we confess a contradiction. The doctrine of the Trinity, as traditionally formulated, states that God is one in essence and three in person. But this is not a contradiction because the way (or relationship) in which God is one is not the same as the way in which He is three. God is one in essence but three in person. If we said God was one in essence and three in essence, we would have a contradiction in the very being of God and would thus have to reject this teaching.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not a contradiction. Rather, it is a mystery, a paradox of sorts, something that appears at first glance to be contradiction, but when explored further really is not. The Christian faith has many paradoxes, but no contradictions.
The law of noncontradiction is presupposed in everything we do. If it were not true, all of the words on this page could have an infinite number of contradictory meanings and intelligible discourse would be impossible. The law of noncontradiction is not foreign to Christianity but is a tool to be eagerly embraced for faith and life.
Coram Deo – All drivers obey the law of noncontradiction. No one pulls out into the path of a speeding eighteen-wheeler thinking that the truck is both going to hit them and not hit them at the same time. When someone claims that contradiction and truth are compatible, show them that they obey the law of noncontradiction everyday without thinking about it.
With this in mind, John Piper mentions some paradoxes that stir my heart to worship.
God rules the world of bliss and suffering and sin, right down to the roll of the dice, and the fall of a bird, and the driving of the nail into the hand of his Son; yet, even though he wills that such sin and suffering be, he does not sin, but is perfectly holy.
God governs all the steps of all people, both good and bad, at all times and in all places; yet such that all are accountable before him and will bear the just consequences of his wrath if they do not believe in Christ.
All people are dead in their trespasses and sins, and are not morally able to come to Christ because of their rebellion; yet, they are responsible to come, and will be justly punished if they don’t.
Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, divine and human, such that he upheld the world by the word of his power while living in his mother’s womb.
Sin, though committed by a finite person and in the confines of finite time is nevertheless deserving of an infinitely long punishment because it is a sin against an infinitely worthy God.
The death of the one God-Man, Jesus Christ, so displayed and glorified the righteousness of God that God is not unrighteous to declare righteous ungodly people who simply believe in Christ.
Preaching to a congregation is obviously a very different scenario from teaching a class on logic in a University or Seminary setting. Yet I believe that we as ministers can teach the Scriptures using logical arguments without having to resort to using technical language which the vast majority of folk would not be able to understand.
I am sure that all of us as preachers have at times been guilty of speaking over the heads of our people. Yet one of the ways to remedy this is to simply be constantly aware of this tendency. Then we need to apply the discipline of working out how to say the exact same thing we would say to a group of intellectuals (using the same logic) to the people in the congregation, by using language and explanations which all can follow. This takes work – sometimes a great deal of work. Yet I do believe it is very much possible to bring logic into a sermon.
For instance, when I was preaching on the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16 to our congregation, I spoke of the need to think through what the verse actually said, rather than assume its meaning, which is something we all tend to do. The text reads:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:16 teaches that God’s love for the world is seen by the giving of His Son so that
all who A (believe in Him)
will not B (perish)
but will have C (eternal life).
There is no possibility of someone believing in Christ and then perishing, but all who believe will have eternal life. That’s what the text clearly teaches.
I then asked the congregation, what does this verse teach us concerning who it is who has the ability to believe? Continue reading