Tuesday, June 14, 2022

When Normal Rules Don’t Apply

Was Adolf Hitler a Christian? And if so, how would we know?

One starting point would be to look at the things he said. Quotes like these employ language sufficiently “Christian” to inspire opportunistic atheists to say that he was, and even to assign Christians responsibility for the Holocaust:

“Overpowered by stormy enthusiasm, I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live at this time.”

(from Mein Kampf)

“Let us fall down upon our knees and beg the Almighty to grant us the strength to prevail in the struggle for freedom and the future and the honor and the peace of our Volk, so help us God!”

(from a 1936 speech)

The horrified Christian responds, “No true Christian would ever order the deaths of millions!”

Hmm. Is that a legitimate argument?

“No True Scotsman”

Some would say it is not. It belongs to a family of arguments commonly referred to as the “No true Scotsman” fallacy. From Infogalactic, the planetary knowledge core:

No true Scotsman is an informal fallacy, an ad hoc attempt to retain an unreasoned assertion. When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim (‘no Scotsman would do such a thing’), rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule (‘no true Scotsman would do such a thing’; i.e., those who perform that action are not part of our group and thus criticism of that action is not criticism of the group).”

In case it isn’t obvious, the words “informal fallacy” are shorthand for “This type of argument is not legitimate and should be discarded.” And perhaps in the case of our friends from the highlands they should be.

The “no true Scotsman” argument is a case of surreptitiously replacing one term in a syllogism with another. As a result, it really is faulty logic. Most reasonable people would say that any claim to be Scottish can be settled with reference to basic genetics. The science has spoken. But the “no true Scotsman” argument replaces a “yes or no” question with the unsubstantiated assertion that genuine Scottishness is a matter of character rather than genetics (hence the reference to rhetoric, which need not be true to be persuasive).

We usually call such tactics a “bait and switch” or “moving the goalposts”, and call the person who uses them a sophist. It should be obvious that we need to agree about what makes a Scot a Scot before we can talk meaningfully about the Scottishness of any particular individual. Both sides of the argument must be using the same metric.

No True Christian

But when a Christian asserts that “No true Christian” would do this or that, he is not necessarily baiting and switching, nor is he necessarily practicing sophistry. Unlike the question of natural descent, spiritual descent cannot be determined in a lab with needles, slides and beakers. Where the genuineness of one’s belief is concerned, the normal rules do not apply.

Simply claiming “I am a Christian” or using familiar Christian language in public are far from sufficient to demonstrate genuine faith. This is why George Barna’s polls so often produce shocking results: in many instances the pollsters are accepting mere claims to be Christian as a proxy for genuine faith, following which they produce horrified headlines when their poll results show that “Christians” are just like the rest of the world. Well, duh.

Likewise, any assertion about Hitler’s beliefs needs more than a few pullquotes with Christiany-sounding language to validate it. Hitler was a politician making a case for his own election, and we all know people who will say just about anything to advance an agenda.

Fruit, Consistency, Works

The fact is that there is no simple, scientific way to test faith in the way we can test genetics. Jesus taught that at times even angels may have difficulty telling the difference between false professions and real ones. If Satan disguises himself as an angel of light and his followers do the same, it sometimes requires a great deal of discernment to separate the wheat from the weeds.

Still, there are some indications we can look for. Consistency is one. John the Baptist demanded consistency: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” When asked what that might look like in the real world, he had several practical answers: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise”, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” and “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” Godliness has practical consequences that can be observed: generosity, honesty, contentment. It is not greedy, grasping or self-centered. A Christian ought to live out the things he claims to believe. If he doesn’t, something is not right.

And yet, even signs of good character and acts that appear godly do not provide an iron-clad guarantee of belief. They may have more subtle motivations behind them. Jesus taught that a person may do mighty works in the name of Christ without knowing him at all.

Negative Indications

And if we cannot be 100% certain a person really believes even when they display some of the familiar signs of belief, neither can we be 100% certain they do not ... even when their actions appear to disqualify them. Peter denied the Lord Jesus after publicly confessing him as Christ. The rest of the disciples ran away and deserted him. Thomas doubted the resurrection. He wasn’t unsaved, but he was certainly a pessimist.

All to say, identifying genuine faith is not always a straightforward task. Sometimes the frauds behave better than the real disciples. Immaturity, fear, inadequate teaching, misunderstandings about what the Lord Jesus really taught — all these can make for a fair bit of confusion among onlookers about what we really believe. Assertions that “no true Christian” would ever do this or that can often be rebutted with counterexamples from scripture. Patterns of behavior over time are a much more reliable guide to what one believes than individual actions, no matter how shocking they may be.

Still, there are things no true Christian would ever do. Judas managed to find one, and genocide is probably another. At very least such behaviors make it legitimate to question the veracity of belief. And if that question happens to take the form of an assertion that “no true Christian” would do such a thing, it is mere nitpicking to dismiss it as a fallacy.

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