In a sermon titled “How to Meet the Doctrine of Election,”1 Charles Spurgeon sought to give a biblical defence of the doctrine of election. In his defence, he noted that opponents of the Calvinistic interpretation of election often resort to misrepresentation in order to defend their own position: “The Doctrine of Election has been made into a great bugbear by its unscrupulous opponents and its injudicious friends. I have read some very wonderful sermons against this doctrine in which the first thing that was evident was that the person speaking was totally ignorant of his subject!”
Spurgeon complains that critics “dress up the doctrine like a man and then burn it.” He adds, “Nobody ever believed the Doctrine of Election as I have heard it stated by Arminian controversialists.”
Spurgeon’s complaint is not unique to discussion of the doctrine of election. The world of debate is replete with such straw man arguments.
A straw man argument refers to the process of describing an opponent in a fictitious manner and then proceeding to “defeat” that opponent. The victor thereby claims that he has actually defeated the opponent, while he has, in reality, achieved nothing of any substance.
Debate can be good and healthy, but it can also be pointless and even detrimental, depending on the circumstances. Solomon exhorted us, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (Proverbs 26:4). If an opponent of Christianity, or of a particular Christian doctrine, is belligerent and unreasonable, it will usually do little good to engage him in discussion. You are far more likely to contract his unreasonable belligerence than you are to convert him to your own point of view.
And yet, in the very next verse, Solomon adds, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (v. 5). If your opponent is open to civil debate with a willingness to be corrected if necessary, it is often a helpful exercise to engage in reasonable discussion. If you fail to do so, he may well go on believing error and growing conceited in it.
One challenge, then, is to discern whether there is any benefit to entering into discussion with a particular opponent. But once it has been determined that a debate is, in fact, warranted, a new series of challenges is presented.
One of those challenges is to avoid straw man arguments. We do not want to be guilty, as Spurgeon said, of setting ourselves to confute what no one defends. If we will engage those who differ with us in reasonable debate, we must understand and fairly represent our opponent’s beliefs as well as our own.
Unfortunately, straw man arguments are rife in the realm of theology.
Take, as an example, an article by Michael Vlach on the Theological Studies website.2 Vlach recounts an alleged incident in which covenant theologians Sinclair Ferguson and R. C. Sproul constructed a straw man in order to destroy dispensational theology.3
Vlach cites Ferguson as saying, “There are dispensationalists who seem to believe that God has operated with different ways of salvation throughout biblical history. . . . That would be a bargain basement distinction between Reformed Theology and that kind of Dispensationalism.” Vlach goes on:
So if you are in the audience or listening on the internet and you’re not aware of what Dispensationalism teaches, you are left with the impression that a major segment of Dispensationalism teaches multiple ways of salvation while Reformed Theology teach that saints of all ages are saved by faith. The problem with this statement is that Dispensationalists do not teach multiple ways of salvation.
Now, to be perfectly fair to Ferguson, saying that “there are dispensationalists who seem to believe that God has operated with different ways of salvation throughout biblical history” is a far cry from suggesting that “a major segment of Dispensationalism teaches multiple ways of salvation.” The fact is, there are some dispensationalists who teach that God saved people in the Old Testament different than he saves them in the New Testament. I have met some myself. This teaching may not represent “a major segment of Dispensationalism,” but that is not really what Ferguson said.
Nevertheless, you see the point. It would be simple to dismiss dispensationalism out of hand if all dispensationalists taught multiple ways of salvation. But since that is not the case, any attempt to do so would be to construct a straw man argument.
Take a straw man argument from the other side of the field. In a self-published and printed booklet, a pastor of a local church in Pretoria, refutes preterism with these words: “The preterist says that Jesus did return in 70 AD—in an invisible and, I might add, meaningless, ineffectual return. . . . It takes that there is no expected return of Christ, and we are now in the eternal state. We won’t even nobilize that by refuting it.”
Once again, it is a simple matter to refute preterist theology if indeed preterism teaches that the second coming took place in 70 AD. There are certainly preterist theologians who teach that, but to paint all preterists with the same brush is akin to painting all dispensationalists with the multiple-ways-of-salvation brush. If preterists unequivocally taught that the second coming did take place meaninglessly and ineffectually in 70 AD, there would be no need to attempt to refute it. Unfortunately, preterists cannot be painted with the same brush.
As Vlach says, the way to engage in helpful debate “is not by responding . . . with emotional rhetoric and straw man arguments but by discussing the real issues with those we openly embrace as true brothers and sisters in the cause of Christ.”
I suppose there are several reasons why straw man theology exists.
First, straw man arguments might be constructed unintentionally. In some instances, those constructing the straw men may genuinely believe that their opponent is being fairly represented by the straw man. It could be a simple misunderstanding of the opponent’s theology. If this is the case, then what is called for is some research and education into what one’s opponent actually teaches before it is refuted.
A second reason for the existence of straw man theology may be simple dishonesty. For various reasons, the one constructing the straw man may deliberately want to misrepresent his opponent. Such malice is neither helpful nor fair. Amaziah was guilty of dishonest straw man theology when he accused Amos of conspiring to kill King Jeroboam (Amos 7:10-11). Amos was hardly strategising to assassinate the king, but the accusation was effective in gaining the king’s support to exile Amos (vv. 12-13).
Third, straw men might be constructed due to insecurity. That is, if the debater is insecure or uncertain about his own position, he might be tempted to “win” the debate by creating a straw man to show the alleged ridiculousness of his opponent’s position.
So, why do we want to avoid straw man arguments? Let me suggest a few reasons.
First, we should be concerned about being taken seriously in our defence of the faith. While logical arguments are never going to win people to Christ, it is difficult for anyone to take us seriously if we habitually misrepresent what our opponents teach in order to break them down. If we want to be heard, we must be honest.
Second, it is simply unloving to misrepresent others when we enter into debate with them. I am not suggesting that we should not oppose false philosophies—it would be equally unloving not to do so!—but to come across as brash, arrogant and unreasonable will do little to gain the hearing of those who need exposure to the truth.
Third, to misrepresent others in this way is to be guilty of bearing false witness, a vice that is clearly condemned in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:16). No, God did not primarily have in mind dishonest rhetoric when he gave the ninth commandment, but the principle nevertheless applies. If we as Christians feel unfairly treated when unbelievers misrepresent us and our beliefs, ought we not to be extra careful not to do the same (cf. Matthew 7:12)?
We should probably note that, in our fallen and fallible condition, it is virtually impossible to completely avoid straw man theology. We have a tendency to quickly dismiss any philosophy that conflicts with our own worldview, and such prejudice can easily tempt us to resort to straw man theology.
So, how do we go about avoiding it? Let me suggest a few deliberate steps we must take in order to do so.
First, seek to understand, as much as you possibly can, the opposing view that you want to engage. Do not assume that you know all there is to know. Take the time to research the view that you wish to refute before you begin. Do this by going to the primary sources, rather than simply reading criticism of the philosophy or doctrine. After all, the critics may well have resorted to straw man theology themselves.
Second, read all the material you can before inserting your objections. It is easy to formulate absolutely devastating destructions in your own mind only to find out that your opponent has already dealt with your objection somewhere that you haven’t bothered to check. This is particularly appropriate when responding to an Internet article. Read the article in its entirety before responding. Most writers will try to anticipate and answer objections in their initial proposal, and your objections may be included in his initial assertion.
Third, don’t be afraid to consult others while formulating your own objections. There are probably others who understand the complexities and nuances of a given argument better than you do. Particularly when it comes to theology, understand the great heritage that we have in church history. There is no shortage of information available to you. Do your research before embarking on your course.
There is no doubt a place for well-formulated and reasoned debate in Christianity. But since God is a God of truth, we would do well to truthfully represent the opposing opinions with which wish to engage. Failure to do so is nothing short of intellectual dishonesty, which usually does more damage than good to the view that we ourselves represent.