Surface Thinking and Moral Justifications

The church has been struggling with various doctrinal hot-button issues for many years now. Most notable are: Women's Ordination, Homosexuality and Science/Religion (frequently expressed in the Age-of-the-Earth controversy). I have been an interested observer for multiple reasons, but one is to think about the types and quality of arguments that get employed in service of someone's position. Some time back I wrote a column where I reviewed different approaches that I believe were flawed. In this offering I will consider some additional ones.

My criticisms in this article will not be about disproving any positions, per se. The problems I attempt to demonstrate, below, simply have to do with what I claim is inadequate reasoning. And, my complaint extends to an inclination toward appropriating questionable arguments to obtain the moral high ground. Once someone can convince themselves they are laboring on God's behalf – defending truth – it seems to me they sometimes are less concerned with the quality of their arguments. It's almost as if the ends justify the means.

Consider now some examples of flawed (so say I) reasoning:

The Generic Mistake

Over and over people implicitly invoke the following form of argument:

1. Any viewpoint that comes from God is true, by definition, and superior to human-derived opinion. 2. The Bible is the Word of God, which makes its information superior to uninspired material. 3. I read some things in the Bible that seem to apply to a hot-button issue. 4. The conclusion from the Bible seems very clear to me. 5. God would not mislead me and I cannot see how one could reach a different conclusion about what I have read – other than the one I have reached. 6. My position on the topic is thus correct, because it is clear and God-derived. 7. There is consequently no need to investigate any opposing human-derived argument.

To a Christian, Point 1 should be a given. Ditto for Point 2, but the tricky part is to determine just what the “Word of God” legitimately means. People have a habit of making it mean whatever conclusion they personally draw from the material. Number 5 is the fallacy of the Argument From Ignorance. Just because we cannot see how our understanding might be mistaken, doesn't mean it isn't. Point 6 provides the siren-song of moral justification and Number 7 buffers us from feeling the need to do unpleasant, hard work that risks upsetting our current (and often desired) world-view.

This reasoning process begs the Interpretive Problem. We know human reasoning can be erroneous. And, correctly understood, God-derived information is definitively true. But, people usually have an aversion to hard work and cognitive dissonance. So by begging the possibility that we might misunderstand and/or misapply the Biblical material, we get to skip possibly disturbing investigation, and simultaneously feel we are defending God.

The Bible is Axiomatic

A recent web comment I encountered stated:

“we are not to judge the Bible by the evidences, we are to judge the evidences by the Bible! And if there seems to be a conundrum then we settle for the Bible and continue our research till we find the answers that demonstrate the the Bible’s position.”

Statements like this superficially seem to be the epitome of orthodoxy. If we're Bible believers we should judge truth by the Bible, right? But, first of all, this statement again begs the question of interpretation. It can be used to silently equate our own understanding about what the Bible is saying about some topic – with God-truth. But there is an even more foundational problem. No one was born believing that any particular revelatory source material is actually from God. Not the Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita, or any other candidates. No source is axiomatically true for someone. We elevate one (or none) of the possibilities for (hopefully good) reasons. That elevation process is frequently ignored or forgotten when we almost unconsciously privilege our preferred revelatory source, but it necessarily precedes the adoption of the source as authoritative. And the process by which we did the privileging – could be faulty. Further, and crucially important, we could interpret some material from that privileged source to a conclusion that is actually inconsistent with the rationale used to privilege the source in the first place! And this inconsistency can (and I suggest – often does) go undetected.

We ought to admit two possibilities:1) the source is not actually from God (we would like non-Christians to do just this); or 2) our understanding of the material might be in error. And we definitely should be cautious in using this “privileging” approach, because we would not like it used on us. For example, a Bible-believer would wish to reject the argument by a Moslem, who could say: “we are not to judge the Koran by the evidences, we are to judge the evidences by the Koran!”

Undifferentiating Types of Miracles

This move has been employed at times by those trying to defend Young Earth Creationism (YEC). The Noachian Flood (1) and one-calendar-week Creation duration (2) – constitute miracles. So does, for example, Jesus' resurrection of Lazarus (3), or the water-into-wine miracle at Cana (4). An argument is sometimes made that people who do not agree with YEC or a global flood therefore must disbelieve miracles generally. Or, if we are asked to give up belief in any particular miracle (or favored explanation of some miracle) we are thus constrained to abandon all belief in miracles. But, in the cases of (1) and (2), the Bible provides some description of mechanism. Not so for (3) and (4). And, mechanism can be investigated. In the cases of (1) and (2) science declares there is substantial evidence contra the historically-approved Biblical interpretations. There is nothing comparable to investigate for (3) and (4). Those are “pure” miracles in the sense that no information about process is provided. Consequently it is, at minimum, inappropriate to label people who do not accept the classic understanding of (1) and (2) – as miracle skeptics, generally. It could, instead, be possible that the classical understanding needs re-interpretation. But, if one can be allowed to label the questioner as doubting all miracles, then their standing in the dialog is undermined. Likewise, if all miracles are undifferentiated, then giving up (1), (2), or any other miracle or favored explanation, would necessitate giving up central parts of the Christian story – like Jesus' resurrection – as it is miraculous. Since such “gutting” of Christianity is obviously unacceptable, making the move that all miracles are undifferentiatable, means that every miracle (even its preferred explanatory form) seemingly has to be retained – or the entire edifice of belief will fall. This can conveniently “teflon coat” one's preferred (and perhaps deeply-invested) current understandings – deflecting any investigation into alternative explanations.

Equivocation

Equivocation occurs when the arguer makes a word or phrase employed in two (or more) different senses appear to have the same meaning throughout. This has occurred in arguments used to demonstrate why the Bible condemns homosexuality. All the Bible verses addressing behavior that would be categorized as homosexuality, are strongly condemnatory. From this the implication is made that everything we moderns include under the term “homosexuality” is therefore condemned by the Bible. Even though the Bible does not address, for example, the concept of a committed, monogamous, lifelong homosexual relationship – directly analogous to heterosexual marriage. The Bible is silent regarding this sub-set of the full-range of what is covered today by the word “homosexuality”. But this is not considered significant for the traditional viewpoint.

The question is whether what the Bible prohibits, via those texts, should legitimately extend to include everything we moderns understand by the term. For the traditional view, there are no exceptions, and extension from what is said, to everything the term now covers, is correct exegesis. In doing this the traditional position has made an interpretive decision to extend the prohibition from what is explicitly condemned to that which is not explicitly discussed, but now is classified under the definition of the word homosexuality, generally. But why is this justifiable? Are the behaviors condemned in the Bible anything like lifetime monogamy? No. But the word “homosexuality” is used in all contexts.

Argument From Ignorance

From a recent web comment after an article about the problems with YEC:

“I need no “proof” that the flood changed a lot on earth’s surface. When young, I lived in an area of the United States that experienced flooding nearly every year and I could see with my eyes the changes a flood makes in the earth’s surface. If man did not come behind and reform things into how he wants them to be the changes made by the water would be permanent; at least until the next flood. So there is no question in my mind that God’s Word is true that a world-wide flood would bring catastrophic changes to the earth..”

This person thinks that their limited personal experience is sufficient to reach a valid conclusion – irrespective of any science to the contrary. I suspect that the hidden argument behind this one is what I've labeled above as the “Generic Mistake”, but accepting a sweeping conclusion about anything because of what “my eyes” can see – should be almost transparently problematic. It begs the possibility that my ignorance might cause me to make a mistake. We are not omniscient.

Assuming What Needs to be Proved

Also known as a Circular Argument. Continuing in the same comment, quoted above, I read:

"Perhaps the writer should let go and let God and quit trying to offer proof of the flood account, just simply rejoice that it left him such beauties and wonders to behold."

Here the admonition is to just stop inquiry and assume that the conclusion (YEC) is true. Now, this idea of “let go and let God” is sometimes employed to recognize human limitation or help an individual realize their need of God's assistance and stop trying to “do religion” independently of God. That's fine. But here is it employed to suggest that investigation should stop. How would a staunch Adventist react if, for example, a Catholic priest were to argue:

“Perhaps the writer should let go and let God and quit trying to offer proof of Sunday sacredness, just simply rejoice that the early church adopted this day in honor of the resurrection.”

In Conclusion

As my examples in this essay are (I claim) poor arguments, and they have been used to defend conservative or traditional positions, it's tempting to charge that I have a hidden agenda – trying to discredit such positions. I doubt any denials on my part would be persuasive for those deeply positioned. It may be that conservative Christians, as a class, have more people on average who produce bad arguments – I dunno. Perhaps I just haven't encountered enough equally superficial thinking by liberals or atheists.

But my bottom line here is to uncover any problematic argument – on quality grounds alone. No matter what position it tries to serve. When on a truth-journey the ends do not justify the means – where “means”, in this case, is using whatever argument seems to be persuasive to yourself and your audience, irrespective of validity. It would seem obvious that God is not honored by this, even in service of the truth. Consequently, one would think that an essay like this would be uncontroversial, except if the reader felt I had misstated one of the above argument-examples as bad, when it was actually good. That would be a legitimate push-back and fruitful for follow-on conversation. But I wonder if some readers will instead be irritated merely because my examinations seem to be against arguments they personally employ or approve of.

Rich Hannon is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

If you respond to this article, please: Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7659
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One of the problems with reasoning is that often we take a tradition and it becomes our obvious starting point even though it is factually wrong. In the above article you say: “To a Christian, Point 1 should be a given. Ditto for Point 2, but the tricky part is to determine just what the “Word of God” legitimately means.” The Bible is the Word of God is a tradition. It is not a fact, The Bible nowhere as a whole or as a book in the Bible makes the claim that it is the Word of God. The best one can logically do is say that the Bible contains some of the words of God and imparts messages that God wants to reveal. If one just uses the traditional term and says what does that term legitimately mean they are giving the term false validity.

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I have found through experience that the use of the word “clearly” is a harbinger of a weak argument. I will always be thankful to the person who helped me learn to shun the use of that word. They were “clearly” a friend. LOL

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Liberals, agnostics, and atheists did not reach that position by superficial thinking but usually by deep examination of the subject. Just as Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims are not born with their parents’ beliefs, there are no born liberals, or atheists. Perhaps everyone is born agnostic, however.

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This is an interesting statement. I have seen bad arguments on both sides and recognize them as such. Some atheists make absolutely horrible arguments. I think a person’s ideology keeps them from seeing the foolishness of some of their side’s foibles. But on to the Surface thinking.

  1. The axiomatic Bible. We Adventists have made the Bible our rule of faith. I quote it to prove my points, and recognize that I have made it axiomatic and a source of authority, in contrast to science, which is another source of authority. If you don’t want the Bible to be axiomatic, why argue as an Adventist? The GC is setting up a committee to look into Biblical interpretation, so the church is agreeing that an axiomatic Bible needs to be discussed. Nevertheless, to put the Bible in another portion but the axiomatic one just puts you outside Adventism. Now if you are comfortable there, fine, but don’t expect Conservatives to assume you are correct when you take that position.

This is such a foundational issue. If one does not agree that the Bible is authoritative, I would not have much to say. I don’t expect nonbelievers to agree with that and would not argue that they should. I might try to convince them of its veracity, but to do so with a fellow Adventist?

  1. Undifferentiated miracles. Here it seems Mr Hannon doesn’t like being called a skeptic. Hmmmm… I don’t like being called a bigot. I guess we both don’t like the identity politics of our age.

I see the birth of a child and the process of embryology miraculous. So, to differentiate as you do seems a bit of a reach to me.

  1. Equivocation. The example of homosexuality does not address the real issue. It is not homosexuality that is condemned in Scripture, but same sex relations. “You shall not lay with a man as you do with a woman.” So, the whole argument put forward here is flawed. The Bible may not recognize that there could be life long monogamy among gays (though I am no sure that is so, for the NT writers knew of Greek practice), but that does not make a difference, for it is same sex relations that are commended, not orientation, or gay marriage or any of that. The Bible does not use the word homosexual, but does condemn same sex sex.

  2. Ignorance. I would agree with Hannon on this. To argue from ignorance just makes you look silly. But liberals are just as capable, but they may do it with more finesse.

  3. Ditto with the circular argument.

I have read were an atheistic materialist argued that we are just a bag of chemical reactions, and that our actions and thoughts are determined by these chemical reactions. And then he argue and condemn ID folks as unreasonable. He could not see that if he were such a bag of reactions that his thinking was also determined by such reactions and had nothing to do with reason or truth. Conservatives are not the only ones with logic issues.

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Birth, ancestry, and that which ourselves have not achieved can hardly be called our own. Take for instant: Surfaced the Surface thinking of the activities in the Garden of Eden and its Moral Justifications. The Bible, no records, show that Adam and Eve were married. A great perhaps!?

I agree 100%. For anyone to think that evolution is consistent with Christianity simply displays ignorance of Christian theology. And it also displays ignorance of the evidence for evolution or of the complexity of what it purports to explain (embryology is a great example, so is cellular and molecular biology.) If you take the Bible as the word of God and belief that the Ten Commandments literally came from God then you also have to belief that God himself states that he created the world in 6 days (Exodus 20:11). In fact, I don’t know how anyone can consistently claim to be an SDA when they deny the very basis of the seventh day Sabbath.
Other churches that have gone down the path of liberalism have suffered greatly: for a particularly horrific example see http://articles.latimes.com/2006/jul/09/opinion/op-allen9.
Three quotes from the Bible come to mind:
2 Timothy 4:3: For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions
Isaiah 5:20-21 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.
and for the last word:
Satan: “Did God really say?” (Gen 3:1)

It seems like you were just:

How would one ever know if one had “God’s viewpoint” in mind? Maybe by one’s brain exploding from overload?

It seems to me that “God” could lie to me so convincingly that it would forever be undetectable. (I’m pretty much of a sucker.)

After all, God fooled the Adventists about the Second Coming. And the disciples on the way to Emmaus.

“I have seen that the 1843 chart was directed by the hand of the Lord, and that it should not be altered; that the figures were as He wanted them; that His hand was over and hid a mistake in some of the figures, so that none could see it, until His hand was removed.”—Early Writings, p. 74.

Mrs. White is here referring to the error in calculation on the principal prophetic chart used by the Millerites in the early 1840’s, that led them to calculate that the 2300-day prophecy of Daniel 8:13, 14, would end in the year 1843, Jewish spring-to-spring reckoning,* whereas the correct reckoning was October 22, 1844.

When the two disciples walked the road to Emmaus the Sunday afternoon of the resurrection, Christ joined them. “But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.” Luke 24:16. Thus they walked and talked, thinking that they were conversing with “a stranger in Jerusalem.” No accent of voice betrayed Him, no mannerism apparently gave a clue to His identity. Finally, as He sat at meat with them in their home at the end of the journey, and blessed the bread, “their eyes were opened, and they knew him.” Verse 31.

http://www.whiteestate.org/books/egwhc/EGWHCc23.html

Okay, so it’s fair game for God to manipulate our perceptions?

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter.
–Psalm 25

If God can manipulate our perceptions, then, even if our reasoning is impeccable, our conclusions may be wrong because our premises were faulty.

Case in point: October 22, 1844.

But, in the case of Adventists, God is even more logically unmanageable than that!


Here’s where it gets interesting!

Ellen White: I saw the Father rise from the throne, and in a flaming chariot go into the holy of holies within the veil, and sit down.

Then Jesus rose up from the throne, and the most of those who were bowed down arose with Him. I did not see one ray of light pass from Jesus to the careless multitude after He arose, and they were left in perfect darkness.

Those who arose when Jesus did, kept their eyes fixed on Him as He left the throne and led them out a little way. Then He raised His right arm, and we heard His lovely voice saying, “Wait here; I am going to My Father to receive the kingdom; keep your garments spotless, and in a little while I will return from the wedding and receive you to Myself.” Then a cloudy chariot, with wheels like flaming fire, surrounded by angels, came to where Jesus was. He stepped into the chariot and was borne to the holiest, where the Father sat. There I beheld Jesus, a great High Priest, standing before the Father. On the hem of His garment was a bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate.

Those who rose up with Jesus would send up their faith to Him in the holiest, and pray, “My Father, give us Thy Spirit.” Then Jesus would breathe upon them the Holy Ghost. In that breath was light, power, and much love, joy, and peace.

I turned to look at the company who were still bowed before the throne; they did not know that Jesus had left it.

Satan appeared to be by the throne, trying to carry on the work of God. I saw them look up to the throne, and pray, “Father, give us Thy Spirit.”

Satan would then breathe upon them an unholy influence; in it there was light and much power, but no sweet love, joy, and peace.

Satan’s object was to keep them deceived and to draw back and deceive God’s children.
–Early Writings, pp. 55, 56

You see, in Adventist Logic, the “careless multitude” are those who actually believed the Bible, and got Satan’s hot breath on them, while The Remnant are those God was able to fool!

Wouldn’t it just be easier to start a new church and never have to worry about all this ever again?

DO IT FOR THE KIDS! :slight_smile:

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I am inclined more and more to believe that Ellen White - in some instances - is no different to other visionaries - Julian of Norwich springs to mind. Perhaps we could include St John of the Cross and St Ignatius of Loyola. All these ‘visionaries’ seemed to come out of some crisis or other - in some instances it would be physical while at other times it would be a crisis resulting from some or other stressful dilemma. Perhaps we need to bring into the fold all the great mystics, whether it be Ramakrishna, Guru Nanak, the Buddha, or Arjuna on the plain of Kurukshetra. Perhaps Ellen White is very much a minor prophet amongst great majors, nevertheless she seemed in some instances to synthesise the best of thinking of her times and bring about some remarkably good consequences - such as the medical work (perhaps helped a great deal by Kelogg?). Remember it was often a synthesis which Gautama brought out of Hindusim and certainly that is the case of Guru Nanak. Or am I stretching a point too far perhaps, perhaps sloppy thinking - having recently read ‘Ellen Harmon White - American Prophet’ and ‘Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream’.

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Some of the things that often make some Bible narratives inexplicable, to the modern so-called “logical mind” are: i) deliberate obfuscation by writers ii) writers’ ignorance of science and technology iii) readers’ ignorance of context, and proclivity to the ascription of events as miracles, when they may well be , describing technology(a high enough level of which may seem as magic to the uninitiated—the saying goes or even ordinary events). iv) deliberate tampering, called pious lies to promote desired religious ends.And many dozens more. We honour the Jewish culture , and nation, for a selected collection which has been the moral bedrock of Western culture, even while learning more about these narratives, and even while recognizing that other cultures also have much to offer along those lines. So in forming ourselves we need not engage in SURFACE THINKING or theodical gymnastics. The fact that the Bible may be wrong in some instances(even most sacred ones) is not to say its narratives are worthless, in my opinion. America itself has no comparable religious compendium, relating so intimately to the acts of the almighty, so respect is due. HOWEVER ,just a few observations: Not everyone is convinced that Jesus DIED on the cross.Why not? the centurion’s spear prick drew blood and water. A dead body does not bleed. The water was from the traditional bag of water , preachers carried around wit them(also a bag of bread) and he was allowed the courtesy of keeping the tools of his office. He “gave up the spirit” became unconscious due to the snake-poison drink given to him to ease the pain. The Greek text indicates he was still alive referring to his body as “soma”(live body) rather than “ptoma”(corpse). The aloes stacked in the cave-tomb were used to flush out these poisons and he was taken to the monastery at Qumran to recover. He later travelled to Kashmir in India by spaceship and while on the way confronted Saul. The Indian Government claims to have many records of the acts of the “Pierced Jewish Messiah” in Kashmir where a thriving Jewish diaspora existed for centuries.This is one case where other views come to attention after non-surface thinking. Another is that David did not kill Goliath, according to many Christian theologians. But That explanation will make this post too lengthy.

Hi Spectrum friends, my two cents worth on points Rich’s points 1-7 is, I became a grateful Adventist in 2005 (i.e. that’s when I joined the church and I was grateful to be one) and I wrestled for years with the question of Bible inerrancy and ludicrosity. And then an old Anglican pastor (?), John Tyman of Uki in NSW, lent me a set of casette tapes, “NEW GREAT THEMES OF SCRIPTURE”; by Fr Richard Rohr. It was the path between the horns for me and explained how the Bible could be God’s 2nd greatest gift to humankind and at the same time say the things it says.
It’s available in DVD format through Amazon. There’s a book of the same name but it seems to be different - it’s the DVD version I recommend to anyone who’d like to see/hear what Fr Rohr has to say on the subject. It’s not Catholic doctrine by any means, although he is a Franciscan monk.
Hope this might help someone out there.

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