Robert Baty has recently begun posting here. He is a retired IRS auditor. I’m a tax attorney. We are natural enemies — rather like Sam and Ralph, as shown in the picture (if you’re not familiar with the cartoon, sorry. It’s not worth explaining.)
The fact that we are here chatting about Christian doctrine as brothers in Christ shows the power of the gospel. 😀
Anyway, Robert has challenged my criticism of ad hominem arguments in Christian discourse. It’s good to be disagreed with. It forces one to sharpen his arguments. Here’s my sharpened argument.
Actually, there are cases when ad hominem arguments are permissible — and Robert is quite right to make the case. In law, they are permitted when facts are in controversy and the credibility of witnesses must be determined, particularly when the witnesses contradict each other. However, when it’s a question of determining law, ad hominem arguments are quite beside the point.
The distinction is that in a trial, the question is one of fact: what really happened? And witnesses sometimes lie. But in an appeal, the question is one of law: what is the law? And credibility is rarely relevant in such a discussion.
In doctrinal discussion, the question is normally: what does the Bible say? Moses’ and Paul’s veracity are not at issue.
Now, there are cases where the veracity of the person arguing or someone on whom he relies is at issue, but only as to underlying facts. If you argue for a given Greek construction, I might argue that the best scholars disagree, because it’s a question of expertise rather than pure logic. If I politely challenge your relative expertise in such a case, the argument is ad hominem, but appropriate.
On the other hand, should I argue that you are a scoundrel and well known to be untrustworthy in a discussion about instrumental music, I’m arguing an irrelevance. I mean, I don’t want anyone believing what I say about the Bible because of how highly they think of me. Nor do I wish to be disbelieved because of someone’s slanders about me. I mean, many preachers are unwilling to even join in the effort to persuade others of grace for fear of having their reputations destroyed. We have far too many preachers and editors who trade in gossip, slander, and lies by means of ad hominem arguments — all in the cause of “truth.”
Therefore, ad hominem arguments are sometimes valid and proper, but not when discussing the motives of our opponent. They are at best irrelevant and often false witness. I generally ban them on this blog, because they are almost always misused.
But the wrongness with such arguments isn’t absolute. It’s just that we in the Churches of Christ have grossly abused them for so long that we rarely use them correctly.
And so, you see, it’s good to be disagreed with — by someone who doesn’t attack your personally. Disagreement leads to deeper and better understanding. If it’s done without personal attack.
Thanks, Robert, for making me think.