Refuting the Backhanded Compliment

If you ever spend time listening to debates, on any subject really, you will often hear one or the other debater appeal to the audience with words to this effect –

Tonight we heard my opponent argue that x, y, and z are wrong. And he did a great job defending his belief that these are wrong! He nearly convinced me to join him, and become an opponent of x, y, and z!

Unfortunately, we didn’t come here to debate x, y, and z. We came here to debate a,b, and c. And that’s what my opponent didn’t even try to address in his arguments.

While it may be the case that the hypothetical opponent brought up irrelevant debate topics, it’s been my experience that those who argue as our hypothetical critic does are doing so in order to stop the thinking of their listeners.

Let me explain.

The hypothetical critic begins by falsely praising his opponent’s intellectual prowess. This is done in order to give his audience the impression that he is kind, scholarly, balanced, and willing to concede when an irrefutable argument has been presented, without regard to personal preferences. This backhanded compliment is, ironically enough, a way of poisoning the well. To poison the well, according to Logically Fallacious, is

To commit a preemptive ad hominem attack against an opponent. That is, to prime the audience with adverse information about the opponent from the start, in an attempt to make your claim more acceptable or discount the credibility of your opponent’s claim.

By saying that the hypothetical opponent is great at arguing against some other position, but that he is not so good at arguing against the position under debate, is to insinuate that what one’s opponent has said is completely irrelevant. It is information that has nothing to do with the subject matter at hand. If you are an audience member, in other words, the hypothetical critic is telling you to completely disregard all of what the other guy has said.

This is not only a morally reprehensible behavior – the poisoning the well fallacy is always a form of deception, and most of the time is also slander – it is also factually incorrect. While we may not be able to appreciate the ways in which a, b, and c are connected to x, y, and z, this doesn’t somehow eliminate the very real connection they share to one another.

In a debate context, it would hurt the debater bent on winning to honestly state “Sure a, b, c and x, y, z are related, but that relation would take a very long time to flesh out and evaluate.” It wouldn’t be conducive to him appearing to be valiant for the truth, and fixated on only those matters that really contribute to him finding out and defending the truth. It would also poke holes in his superficially airtight defense of his position in the debate. It would allow the audience to go and study on their own, and grapple with the difficulties involved in understanding the hypothetical opponent’s position.

backyTheology is Different

The hypothetical situation I mentioned above doesn’t mention any specific subject matter, so the question of just how complex and involved the relationship of a, b, c to x, y, z may be is completely undefined.

Theology, however, is different.

Theology is only properly deducible from the limited set of propositional data we have in the Bible. The Word of God is comprised of sixty-six books, and the totality of all of Christian doctrine is found therein.

So it is much easier to understand the way in which, for instance, the doctrine of the incarnation is directly related to the doctrine of marriage, than it is for a jury to understand how Joe Smith changing his child’s diaper has any relation to John Doe robbing a bank several thousand miles away from Joe Smith’s house.

Theologically, we are not lost in a sea of questions that have no answers, or ideas that have no discernible relation to other ideas. No. ALL of Scripture is interrelated. Therefore, everything is relevant when we are debating any doctrine.

We must learn to see past the “That’s not related to our discussion!” smokescreen put up by those who do not want us to think in a logically sound manner.

God is Logical.
Therefore, everything is connected; indeed, one doctrine cannot be dissevered from the rest without affecting the whole adversely.

The Bereans

In Acts 17:11, Luke tells us that the Bereans

…were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

Note that the Bereans did not simply listen for prooftexts that sounded like they supported the doctrines of Paul and Silas, nor did they simply decide that the message was true upon their first hearing of the preaching of Paul and Silas.

The examined the Scriptures daily.

The Bereans listened to the preaching, but they examined the Scriptures daily to see if the preaching was so. And this was to their credit. The question we have to ask is: How did they do this?

In our day, for many people a list of prooftexts is enough to convince them that doctrine x or y is the teaching of Scripture. But what did the Bereans have? The Old Testament and the preaching of Paul and Silas.

And what does this mean?

It means that the Bereans had to listen intently to how the Scriptures were being used by Paul and Silas in their preaching. They had to make sure that the teaching they were being given, which relied upon the Old Testament, was derivable from the Old Testament. They had to make sure that the doctrine presented to them was coherent with what they knew the OT teaches.

This is a task that involves more than just listening to texts that seem to support a doctrine – it requires listening and testing and thinking, and making sure that what is taught is coherent, logically, theologically.

An Admonition

Are you pondering whether or not a doctrine is true? Search the Scriptures through and through. Learn what God says about himself, about the world, about everything he mentions. Seek to understand the system of doctrine contained in the Word of God. Don’t fall for the backhanded compliment that is made in order to deceive you into believing a falsehood.

Love the Lord your God with all your mind.

Soli Deo Gloria

One thought on “Refuting the Backhanded Compliment

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