Appealing to Ignorance: Another Note on Methodology

If it ain’t one logical error, it’s another. From the strawman fallacies of the “New Atheists,” to the “Loophole theology” of the postmodern “theologians,” to the fallacious methodologies of those who would wish to subject the Word of God to their fallacious historico-critical analyses – we who believe the Gospel of Christ are experiencing no shortage of erroneous claims made against the certainty of our faith.

One that I’ve been mulling over lately is the argumentum ad ignorantiam (appeal to ignorance) fallacy that I’ve encountered in the past. One website summarizes the fallacy in the following manner:

[The appeal to ignorance is] the fallacy that a proposition is true simply on the basis that it has not been proved false or that it is false simply because it has not been proved true. This error in reasoning is often expressed with influential rhetoric.

Philosopher and logician Irving M. Copi puts it this way:

The argumentum ad ignorantiam [fallacy] is committed whenever it is argued that a proposition is true simply on the basis that it has not been proven false, or that it is false because it has not been proven true.[…] A qualification should be made at this point. In some circumstances it can be safely assumed that if a certain event had occurred, evidence of it could be discovered by qualified investigators. In such circumstances it is perfectly reasonable to take the absence of proof of its occurrence despite searching, as positive evidence towards its non-occurrence. (taken from wikipedia’s entry on the appeal to ignorance, here).

In a recent theological encounter, a friend and I were discussing the development of doctrine in church history. My argument was – and still is – that those theologians who state that certain basic and fundamental doctrines of the faith have developed over time (such as the doctrine of the Trinity), being previously unknown, or known only in a germinal way, to the writers of the New Testament, are employing a postmodern hermeneutic similar to Michel Foucault’s genealogical method (for more info on the genealogical method, see here).

To put it simply and briefly, my friend believes that Scripture shows us that the church’s Trinitarian theology developed over time (being either unknown or known only in a germinal form in the book of Acts). I, on the other hand, argued that Scripture gives us absolutely no ground to say that the church’s Trinitarian doctrine developed over time, and that they were, more or less, ignorant of the doctrine. His argument was as follows:

1. If the doctrine of the Trinity were known by the early church, then they would have baptized new converts according to the Trinitarian baptismal formula given in Matthew’s gospel (cf. Matthew 28:19) and not “in the name of Jesus.”

2. The early church did not baptize new converts according to the Trinitarian baptismal formula given in Matthew’s gospel, but in the name of Jesus.

3. Therefore, the doctrine of the Trinity was unknown to the early church.

Is this a sound argument? Not at all. Here are some reasons why…

1. The argument is an example of the argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacy, arguing from the silence concerning the Trinitarian baptismal formula exhibited in the book of Acts, rather than arguing from validly drawn inferences concerning authorial intention (i.e. proper exegesis of the book of Acts), historical conditions under which the apostles baptized new converts, and internal evidence of the apostle’s theology (as carefully exegeted from their sermons and interactions, e.g. Compare Acts 2:21 with 4:8-12 to see an implicit understanding of the full deity of Christ as YHWH; Acts 5:1-4 & 7-9 explicitly displays Peter’s understanding of the full deity of the Holy Spirit; Acts 13:2-3 explicitly shows Luke’s understanding of the distinct deity and personhood of the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit).

…but even then, it is only a fallacious argument if we accept the first premise as true, and we have no good reason to accept it as true.

2. Therefore, consider: Who determines why the early church did not baptize new converts according to the Trinitarian formula given in Matt. 28:19?

2a. Who determines whether or not they did baptize new converts according to the Trinitarian formula given in Matt. 28:19?

An appeal to ignorance can work in any direction. For instance, I could have replied:

Considering that the apostles had full understanding of the full deity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and since that is how the Lord Jesus commanded that they should baptize new converts, it goes without saying that they did indeed baptize some accordingly.

…but that would be just as fallacious as my friend’s argument.

The fact is: We don’t know (i.) whether or not new converts were all baptized into the name of Jesus, or some were baptized according to Matt. 28:19’s formula, and (ii.) why the baptisms recorded in the book of Acts don’t follow the Trinitarian formula given in Matt. 28:19.

A much more exegetically sound and plausible reason for the baptisms recorded in the book of Acts being those done in the name of Jesus would be, I think, as simple as giving consideration to the unique conditions under which the church existed. The Lord Jesus has just resurrected and ascended and sent His disciples into the world to make converts, so an appeal to Christ’s authority over all, as well as an exhibition of His Lordship (via the miraculous events in the book), would underscore and prove the veracity of the claims of these otherwise powerless and weak men (cf. Acts 2 and 4). It is the resurrection power and authority of Christ that is being stressed, not the disciples’ lack of a proper understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Why is being able to recognize logical fallacies necessary?

Because logical fallacies are not from the Lord, nor do they serve His purposes (see here for an example of who uses fallacious arguments in Scripture).

“Your Word is Truth” was Christ’s declaration – it should be ours as well.

-h.

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One thought on “Appealing to Ignorance: Another Note on Methodology

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