Logic 101: the ad hominem fallacy

Argue – we all do it, whether it be over where to eat for dinner, or the best college football team, or over vital issues such as the Presidential elections and theology, just to name two.  (When I use the term argue, I’m not referring to a shouting match or heated debate, though these two instances are included.  Rather, I am referring to the general act of one seeking to prove a point or to persuade another to change his/her view.)  We all seek to make a point and have others agree with us.  Despite the fact that everyone argues, arguing is an art form.  When well done, an argument can persuade others to change their positions or, at the very least, consider other options.  However, most arguments are made on the fly and/or are not well thought out, making one prone to committing logical fallacies and thus damaging the credibility of their argument (even if the conclusion is true and one that should be considered).

One of the easiest, most commonly used logical fallacy in arguments today is when people resort to attacking another through name calling and character bashing rather than arguing the issues at hand ( just read the comments in many blogs and Facebook).  According to Patrick Hurley, author of A Concise Introduction to Logic, this is called ad hominem abusive arguments.[1]    When in our right mind, common sense tells us that name-calling and character bashing is at best sophomoric, something we did as middle-schoolers. Yet, this form of argumentation is utilized by practically everyone, even the brightest of our day because of its effectiveness in directing the audience’s attention away from the issues at hand and in turning them against the opponent.

Below is an example of the ad hominem fallacy (this is a comment on a post regarding a well-known church historian. The posts and comments are public, though one must be a member to post/comment):

[The article in question, I believe, is this one.

Note, the commenter fails to really address the issue of Traditionalists and Calvinists. Instead, the individual calls the article’s author a “buffoon” who writes other “cartoonish articles”, and even provides potential article “titles” by the author. By mocking the article’s author, the Facebook commenter seeks to build up the Traditionalist view of Southern Baptists by mocking and degrading the individual who supports Calvinsim.

“So what?” one may ask.  Is this really that big of an issue?  Is not the ultimate goal to win the argument – to persuade one to your view?  As Christians, we have the mandate of being ready to give reason for our faith in Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:15).  Implied in this mandate is the necessity for the believer to think through his beliefs in light of Scripture so that he may be ready to present as convincingly as possible the reason of his faith.  Yet, when one argues with an unbeliever (and even with other believers), or when he writes out his argument against those of differing views, and he resorts to name-calling and/or character bashing, he in essence resorts to cannibalism – feeding off the opponent to “strengthen” one’s argument.  In doing so, he discredits whatever argument he has for the gospel and, at the very least, comes across as not knowing what he believes or is arguing for.2

But, does not Scripture have examples of such argumentation?  For example, did not Jesus use such methods against the Pharisees?  In  a sense, yes.  Jesus did use such phrases as “white-washed tombs” and “hypocrites” because He knows the heart of man and sits as Judge over all.  The prophets (John the Baptist, the greatest of the prophets, called the Pharisees “brood of vipers”) even utilized such tactics because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit to communicate the Word of God, Who knows and judges the heart of man.  Yet, unlike Jesus (the God-man who knows the heart of man) and the prophets (who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak the direct word of God), we do not enjoy such a position or privilege.  While we can discern the intentions of others, we cannot sit as judge over the character of others (as is done in ad hominem abusive arguments), for we imply a superiority over our opponent that is not in accordance with Scripture (Matthew 7:1-5; Romans 14:10, 13 [3]).

In addition, the arguments of Jesus and the prophets did not rely on the ‘labeling’ of their opponents (for lack of a better phrase) as the substance of their argument; instead, their arguments were built upon solid premises meant to attack the false views of their opponents with ‘labeling’ used only when necessary to illustrate or drive home their argument.  When we make an argument, we must be careful if we do label our opponent, for we can fall into the temptation, especially in the heat of an argument, to rely upon labeling as the substance of our argument in order to build ourselves up and tear the other down, thus resorting to mere name-calling and/or character bashing, and committing the fallacy of ad hominem (and sin, if you ask me.  To sit as judge over another to build yourself up is just flat out sin).

May we Christians be careful in how we argue points with unbelievers.  May we especially be careful in how we argue doctrine with other believers.  It seems, though, at times that we show more grace and love when speaking with unbelievers than when we discuss doctrine with other believers.  One only has to turn to the example of Calvinism in the SBC to see the venom and vitriol spewed by opposing sides toward their opponents.  Unfortunately, some of these arguments, whether right or wrong, resort to mostly name-calling and character bashing of the opposing side.  Even if an argument is otherwise well-formed, the mere presence of ad hominem abuse discredits it.  We should take care to think out your arguments, making sure they are valid and true while avoiding any hint of relying upon ad hominem abuse.  Not an easy task at times, but well worth the trouble and effort.

[1] Patrick Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic 7th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2000), 125.


2Now, this is not to say that God can’t work in another’s heart despite our lack of clarity or use of logical fallacies, nor does it say that even with a clear presentation of the gospel one still can’t believe the gospel to be irrational.  Rather, it is to highlight our responsibility in knowing what we believe and doing our best to present our testimony and the gospel in a well-thought out manner.

[3] Romans 14:10, 13 states: “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God … Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this–not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.”

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