I have been slowly writing a series of articles on logic and the Christian. Many Christians, like the larger culture around them, have become sloppy in their thinking. Logical fallacies abound, and it is important for Christians to spend time not just learning what to think, but even more importantly, learning how to think.
As a reminder, a logical fallacy is a flaw or error in reasoning that weakens an argument, making it unreliable or invalid. The last fallacy we discussed was The Either-Or Fallacy and we observed how Christians often miscategorize issues as either-or when many issues are more complex than that.
Today I want to discuss the all-too-famous (or perhaps infamous) straw man fallacy.
The Straw Man Fallacy in Theological Discussion
The straw man fallacy occurs when someone misrepresents or changes an opposing position to refute it more easily. The term “straw man” is derived from the idea of creating a weak and easily defeated representation of an argument, much like building a scarecrow out of straw. This tactic can be used to undermine the credibility of an opponent’s position without engaging with their actual points.
Usually in theological discussions the straw man appears in one of two ways. First, it can appear when people misrepresent the implications of what someone is saying (c.f., examples 1, 4). Second, and more commonly, a straw man appears when someone simply attempts to misrepresent a position itself (cf. examples 2, 3, 5, 6).
Example 1: Misrepresenting Implications of Anti-Rapture View
Original Argument: I don’t believe Scripture supports a pretribulational rapture.
Straw Man: So you’re saying you aren’t looking forward to Christ returning!
Just because someone is saying they don’t believe in a pretribulational rapture does NOT mean they are not looking forward to Christ’s return. Many amillennialists look forward to the return of Christ, yet they do not think that a pretribulational rapture is taught in Scripture. It is a misrepresentation of the amillennial position to say they do not look forward to the return of Christ.
Example 2: Misrepresenting a Biblicist Position
Straw Man: Biblicists ignore history and think there is no value in historical interpretation of a passage of the Bible.
Although the definition of biblicist can itself be a debated issue, for sake of simplicity, a biblicist tends to prioritize the Bible as the ultimate authority in matters of faith, morality, and daily living. It is entirely possible that a biblicist could downplay history and not care about historical interpretation, but most people who would be labeled as biblicists are attentive to the historical interpretation of theological positions. However, it is easier to attack biblicism if one can pigeonhole the viewpoint as a group that rejects history and doesn’t consider it at all in their interpretation. Yet, it is not intellectually honest.
Example 3: Misrepresenting Dispensationalism as Escapist
Straw Man: Dispensationalists are escapists who are not interested in the here and now because they’re only looking to escape in a rapture.
I have written entire articles about how it is not correct to label dispensationalism as an escapist system. Dispensationalists were instrumental in the United States in bringing the Word of God to bear on politics and institutional life. Many have (and continue to) dedicate their lives for societal change. But it is obviously much more convenient to attach a viewpoint which does not obey the direct commands of Scripture to be faithful in the here and now.
Example 4: Misrepresenting Implications of Cessationist Position
Original Argument: I don’t believe that there are miraculous spiritual gifts in operation today as defined by 1 Cor 12 and other passages.
Straw Man: So you’re denying that God does miracles today.
Although the cessationist position denies that the miraculous gifts (e.g., tongues, prophecy, healings, etc.) continue to operate today, that does not mean a cessationist denies that God still works through miracles today. A cessationist believes that God is able to intervene in a special way whenever He chooses. He is not incapacitated or unable to perform miracles today. But that is distinct from the question about whether the miraculous gifts (which had specific purposes for the church) continue to operate today.
Example 5: Misrepresenting the Reformed Position on Infant Baptism
Straw Man: Presbyterians believe that baptizing babies saves them.
This is tricky, because there are churches that believe baptizing babies saves them (e.g., The Catholic Church). But this is why it is important to actually understand a position you are trying to interact. The Presbyterian position does not believe baptism saves a baby, but identifies the baby as being a part of God’s covenant people. Whether or not an infant is a part of the new covenant is a related, but different issue than the question of whether an infant is regenerated or saved by baptism. If interested, I have a full discussion on the Reformed view of infant baptism here.
Example 6: Misrepresenting Dispensationalism’s Soteriology
Straw Man: Dispensationalists believe in two ways of salvation.
This is one of the many ways that dispensationalism is often mischaracterized. But as John Feinberg, a notable dispensationalist, argued over 40 years ago, there is only one way of salvation—by faith through God’s grace. Yet this is one of the most common critiques against dispensationalism that is often brought forward.
Why the Straw Man Fallacy Flourishes
The straw man fallacy has always been one of the most popular fallacies because it is always easier to dismantle a weak position that nobody actually holds. By attacking a weaker position, one appears stronger and of superior intellect. Thus, there are many advantages to mischaracterizing an opposing position. It is much more difficult to spend time learning and dealing with the real arguments.
And yes, just like the either-or fallacy, social media plays a big role in why straw man argumentation has been flourishing. The following are some of the reasons social media fuels straw man argumentation:
1. The Need for Brevity
Social media rewards brevity and conciseness. Dealing truthfully and honestly with complex arguments takes prolonged discussion and thought. Straw man argumentation allows a “slam dunk” on an opposing view, because it is more easily and concisely defeated. Yet, it is not defeated—only a cheap imitation of the view is defeated.
2. The Prevalence of Echo Chambers
Social media promotes feedback from people who think the same way. Many people are a part of private Facebook groups that think like they do, they have Twitter friends and followers who are the same. I mean, let’s be honest. Most of the time we only follow or friend people who we think are like us or who promote things we agree with. This creates echo chambers and makes us feel comfortable mischaracterizing other positions, because usually we won’t get called out for doing it. Or minimally, we are supported when we do so.
3. Confirmation Bias
Related to the previous point, social media is often damaging because it can solidify bad habits by providing confirmation of your ideas. Thankfully social media can also expose you to helpful correction (unless you block/mute anyone who disagrees with you!). Regardless, confirmation bias is a real side effect of social media.
4. Negative Algorithm Reinforcement
Statements that are controversial or that provide a drop-the-mic kind of moment are the things that get reposted and shared on social media. A fair, even-handed discussion of the issue rarely will see the light of day on the social media algorithms. So people are slowly trained how to talk on social media. The desire for likes and shares molds the content of their postings.
The Christian Obligation for Fairness
The straw man fallacy is a logical fallacy to be sure, but it should be especially offensive to Christians. Christians are to be trustworthy (Prov 12:22) and to speak truthfully (Eph 4:25). It is the Christian obligation not to lie to one another (Col 3:9). In addition to that, it is the Christian responsibility to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” and Christians do that by taking “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).
By the very definition of a straw man fallacy, a Christian is not destroying arguments against God if we are misrepresenting the position. We may feel good about destroying a position logically, only to find out that is not actually the position we are addressing! It is important for Christians in dealing with non-Christians (and especially with Christians) to be dealing fairly and honestly. That is to be one of the hallmarks of Christians.
Although I do hope that you will be able to identify and challenge the straw man argumentation that you see in future interactions, I also want to give a word of caution. I think it is wise and valid to distinguish between a straw man fallacy and ignorance. Some people may not be intentionally misrepresenting a position, and we should be patient with brothers and sisters who don’t know better. Not all mischaracterizations are equal, and an unintentional mischaracterization can (and should) be addressed, but it would qualitatively be different than intentionally ignoring the strength of a position or misrepresenting it. Although some might not want to observe such a difference, I think Scripture acknowledges ignorance as a valid category as well.
In summary, Christians ought to be people of honesty and truthfulness. It should be our aim to correct other viewpoints with patience and gentleness (2 Tim 2:25), not misrepresenting them, but doing our best to understand and evaluate them correctly, as we would want done to our positions. This mindset takes hard work, and it really limits the usefulness of “hot takes” online. But at the end of the day, all that matters is being faithful to what Christ wants. And Christ wants us to think well (Phil 4:8; Rom 12:2).