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Inaccuracies arising from ignoring context or from placing a declaration, event or principle in an inappropriate textual, cultural or historical setting

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You may read through this page in the order it was written or follow the links below to the topic of most interest to you.

Fallacious Equation/Identification

Presumed referent fallacy

Misplaced focus fallacy

Cultural fallacy

Human wisdom fallacy

Fallacious Equation/Identification

This is the fallacy of stating, on the basis of a mere assumption or of insufficient or erroneous grounds, that "A is B," and then building an argument based on that erroneous equation. This fallacy is generally a contextual fallacy — that is, it arises from the context of the discussion rather than the logical forms themselves. This error is often connected with what Downes would term an overly broad, circular or poorly elucidated definition of an underlying term. One particularly interesting historical example of an invalid equation which had drastic real-world consequences is Luther's equation of the Papacy with the antichrist. Since Luther believed that he had the truth which the Catholic church had been suppressing for centuries and could see events occurring in his conflict with that church which looked somewhat like events foretold in Revelation, it was natural for him to equate the Pope with the antichrist. Natural, but as subsequent events have proven, quite wrong. That Luther, other reformers and their followers then took this equation as absolutely true and built doctrines on it at a time when reconciliation within the Church might otherwise have been possible was tragic. That the Catholic church reacted to this by demonizing Protestants and resuscitating the Inquisition was still more tragic. That both sides went to war over their disagreements is one of the greatest tragedies ever inflicted upon mankind... Return to top of page

Presumed Referent Fallacy

This is another contextual fallacy in which the hearer or reader of a statement which contains an ambiguous reference first presumes to assign the reference to only one of its possible objects then builds an argument around that presumption. The fallacy here is not in assigning a fixed meaning to the ambiguous reference, since the statement which contains the reference cannot be interpreted without resolving the ambiguity. Rather, the fallacy is in building arguments based on the presumed value of the ambiguous referent as if that presumed value had been explicitly stated and there had been no ambiguity in the first place. One example of this fallacy which has great historical significance is found in various denominations' treatment of the words "this rock" in Matthew 16:18. The context, on its face, does not clearly specify whether "this rock" upon which the Church would be built is the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, Peter's statement of this fact, or Peter himself. Yet the Catholic church argues vehemently that this verse proves that the Church was built on Peter himself, and the Orthodox churches and those Protestant denominations which teach the doctrine of apostolic succession at least in general terms agree with the Catholic position. On the other hand, the majority of Protestant churches just as vociferously deny that the Church was built on Peter, arguing instead that this verse proves that Jesus' built His church on the words of Peter's confession of faith. However, the truth is that this verse is ambiguous on this point and proves neither position as against the other unless the speaker indulges in some circular reasoning starting from a presumed referent... Return to top of page

Misplaced Focus Fallacy

This could also be called the "majoring on minors" fallacy. It comes in both doctrinal and practical versions. The doctrinal version takes a relatively minor point of doctrine — which may be either correctly or incorrectly formulated in and of itself — and makes acknowledgment of it a test of fellowship. This is usually done by insisting that "the faith once for all delivered to the saints," the "blessed hope" which we "must defend," includes the whole body of doctrine developed by the speaker's organization. Thus, it is said that the organization is justified in denying the salvation or full obedience of anyone who differs from their formulation of whatever minor doctrinal point the organization chooses to make into a loyalty test.

Here is an example taken out of my own experience: I believe that Jesus will return and remove the Church from the earth before the beginning of the time of tribulation and judgment on the earth's inhabitants spoken of in Revelation, but I do not believe this is such a major doctrinal point that anyone who disagrees with me must be unsaved, deluded or willfully disobedient. However, at one time I belonged to a denomination which made the pre-Tribulation rapture of the Church a test of fellowship, teaching its members that they should not participate in any "Christian" activity with people who claimed to be believers but belonged to denominations which did not hold this doctrine. My former denomination's position insisting upon this doctrine was foolish!

The practical version of this fallacy occurs when a group infers from real or imagined scriptural "principles" behavioral rules which exceed the requirements of scripture, then applies them to everyone at all times and under all circumstances as a test of fellowship. For instance, I have through the years been affiliated with churches which prohibited drinking, smoking, dancing, swimming at pools or beaches attended by both sexes, playing pool or billiards, playing card games with regular playing cards (Rook and Uno cards were permissible) and watching secular "movies" ("films" produced by Christian ministries were permissible, if viewed at church-sponsored events). Some of these rules are wise, sensible rules that merely go beyond scripture. Others of these rules may be valid expressions of one person's convictions before God but are simply silly when applied to all people under all circumstances. However, the scriptures do not declare any of these behaviors to be proof of perdition or willful disobedience. None of them represent valid tests of fellowship... Return to top of page

Cultural Fallacy

The Cultural Fallacy involves inappropriately reading an aspect of a single culture into the message of the scriptures. It can happen in two different ways and in three different time frames. The two ways cultural factors can be inappropriately added to scripture are prospectively and retrospectively, and the three possible time frames are the present, the time frame of the biblical record itself and the time frame of some other relevant event in Church history (such as the time when a denomination was founded or a particular translation of the Bible was made).

The simplest of these to understand is the error of inserting into scripture a retrospective cultural reference from the present, such as assuming (quite incorrectly) that the social role of women in Jewish or Hellenistic society at the time of the New Testament was the same that it is today. Once this incorrect cultural assumption is made, it leads naturally to the conclusion that Paul's words about the role of women in society and in the Church may be imposed directly upon Christian women today.

Retrospective cultural references from the present are also often encountered in accounts of missionary work. In such accounts, it has been common to an unfortunate degree for missionaries to first read their own culture into scripture, then impose it on converts from other cultures as if it was really found in scripture. A particularly noxious example of this was the near starvation of the native Hawaiians after Congregational missionaries reached them in 19th Century. The missionaries read Victorian dress for women (long dresses with full undergarments required at almost all times) into the scriptures, then imposed this standard by law on the natives. Since most of the protein in the native diet came from shellfish caught by the women, diving for shellfish in a long dress was impossible, and the missionaries put the men to work on plantations owned by white men ("if a man will not work for us, let him not eat")leaving them no time for this activity, the Hawaiians paid with massive malnutrition for their newfound "Christianity." It is no wonder that most of them inwardly rejected the faith.

It is also possible — and not particularly uncommon — to incorporate into an interpretation of scripture a prospective application of supposed cultural conditions in Bible times to the present as if the cultural reference were a part of what the scriptures are telling us to do today. Further, it is possible to "freeze" as the standard for all time some aspect of the culture at the time a major event of Church history occurred, by first retrospectively reading it into scripture as of that date (establishing it as a pseudo-scriptural tradition), then consistently projecting that traditional interpretation into the present. A particularly interesting example of this is the manner in which conservative Christian dress codes based on the actual social norms of an earlier generation in our own culture (generally those of the oldest generation still living) are first read into the stories of the sins of Adam and Eve and Noah, then are mysteriously found there as commands from God for the present day... Return to top of page

Human Wisdom Fallacy

The Human Wisdom Fallacy has ancient roots, going back as far as the Greek believers in the First Century who demanded that the Gospel be restated to agree with human wisdom as expressed by the schools of Greek philosophy which were popular at that time. This error is still alive and well today — only the current trends in worldly philosophy have changed. The answer to the demand that God's good news comport with human wisdom is today the same as it was in the First Century — the two are incompatible, and the attempt to preach God's message by human wisdom makes both ineffective, because God's foolishness is wiser than man's wisdom. I Corinthians 1:17-31; Colossians 3:8... Return to top of page

Common Divisive Fallacies site index

Other Fallacies Referenced Above

Historical (Traditional) Fallacy

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Link to Dr. Bruce Cook's review of the book Our Oneness in Christ by Lauston Stephens and Ian Johnson.

©2000 by Ian B. Johnson