Bad Arguments

When I was younger, I attended a Reformed church which had some very strong ideas about what we should and should not do on a Sunday. They called Sunday the sabbath, treated it like the sabbath, and had a whole series of dos and don’ts. I got caught up in a lot of these arguments (they were, and still are, interesting to me), like “is it acceptable to purchase something from a vending machine on a Sunday/the sabbath, since no-one’s actually doing any labour there?”

The answer was generally probably not; you don’t want to get too close to the line.

These skirmishes around what is and is not acceptable on the sabbath are a bit of pharisaical fun, but they tended to obscure the real question: Why are we treating Sunday like the Sabbath?

After all, sabbath is pretty clearly supposed to be Saturday, and Sunday isn’t Saturday, so what gives?

Now, I’m not particularly interested in litigating that stuff again (I’m sure I’ve written almost this exact post, up to this point, before), even if I do find it interesting in a sort of abstract, academic, looking-at-the-giraffes-at-the-zoo sort of way. And my current answer, that the Christian tradition decided sabbath rules no longer apply at some point and that the Christian tradition gets to change those sorts of things, isn’t going to be satisfying to certain sola scriptura types. But then no answer will be, because you can’t just sola the scriptura harder to find justification for traditions that simply don’t appear in its pages.

I very distinctly remember one of the answers: “Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath”.

To be clear, this is a terrible answer, one that anyone with any theological education whatsoever should be embarrassed to give. It’s uniquely unconvincing because it just doesn’t connect any dots. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath therefore we observe the Sabbath on a Sunday is, plainly, nonsense. Look at the amount of work “therefore” is doing in that sentence!

This is a Bad Argument. You can try to make it a Good Argument but you’ll have to make it a Different Argument to do that.

So why would anyone use it? Well… I can think of a few reasons.

  • They’re not very bright
  • They’ve never had to think about this before and they chose the first thing that came to mind
  • They find that argument convincing, so they think that you should too
  • They meant to make a different argument, or thought they were answering a different question
  • I’m remembering the situation wrong and they actually did make a different argument

I think the most charitable interpretation, to all sides, is that they found this argument convincing. Keeping in mind that I’ve had many versions of this logic thrown at me over the years (Do not be conformed to this world… therefore… you shouldn’t wear pants with flames on them), each version seemingly convincing to whoever said it.

And why not? Imagine a world where you’re generally non-evangelistic, non-ecumenical, where even your seminaries are hermetically sealed off from the broader Christian world: who’s going to tell you that your arguments suck? Other than, I guess, some annoying, rebellious teenager?

Anyways, the larger point is this: a lot of arguments have rhetorical utility outside being good arguments. We might use them to convince ourselves and folks who agree with us of something. These bad arguments might have the rhetorical function of a firewall, that is to say, not to convince you that the argument is a good argument for proposition x, but that arguments simply exist in support of proposition x. Which might just be enough. Not to know that you have good arguments, but that you know that there are arguments.

That is to say, a flimsy justification is better than no justification at all. I know, for me, that I use flimsy justifications all the time. How often have you decided to do something you knew was harmful using the absolute barest of pretexts to justify your actions?

That’s a uniquely human experience, I think.


A brief footnote: Trying to parse out the rhetorical goals of an argument isn’t taking the argument seriously. I get that response. But I think in cases where an argument is prima facie absurd, it’s the only way to give a little grace to the person making it. Otherwise you really do have to consider whether person you’re talking to is, after all, an idiot.


Another one, sorry, I guess we’re going to keep doing this: Let’s say that the church I was attending at the time had decided to ditch the whole “everything we do must 100% be justified from the very word of God” and gone with a more “this is how we’ve decided to do things in our tradition, based on our extrapolation of these principles that we feel best interpolates God’s intentions”. Would this have been much better for me as that annoying, rebellious teenager? I suspect, based on what I remember myself being like in those days, probably not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a better approach, or at least one that fits the actual data better. At the very least it’s a more honest approach; if you’re going to have traditions, don’t pretend like you don’t.

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