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Subtle Argumentum ad Hominem

After an interesting exchange on Twitter this afternoon, I have decided to address the subtle use of argumentum ad hominem in this edition of the Upward Trek. If this proves helpful, perhaps I will address other observations I have made on the psychology of error in future editions.

For those unfamiliar with the term, argumentum ad hominem is Latin for “argument against the man.” A man is guilty of this error when he answers his opponent’s position with accusations against his character rather than with arguments based on the word of God. Men resort to this tactic when they face arguments they cannot answer. Unwilling to surrender the point, and desirous to win the battle, they take up the cudgel and assault their opponent’s character. This psychological reaction indicates that in their own mind they have lost the debate. They have recognized that their axe is dull, and they are desperate to take the tree down.

Usually, the accusations are straightforward charges of bad character: you are proud, you don’t believe the Bible, you don’t believe in grace, you need to listen to the Spirit, and such like. But sometimes they are more subtle: you aren’t an archaeologist, you don’t have a degree, you don’t know Hebrew, etc. Such charges insinuate that if you were humble, you would realize that you aren’t qualified to talk about the subject. But formal education has no monopoly on either ascertaining or defending the truth.

I faced a particularly subtle accusation today. A claim had been made in a Twitter conversation that Matthew 7 bans all judging. I responded by pointing out that Matthew 7:1-5 only bans hypocritical judgment. After I had responded to a few volleys from the author by pointing out his inconsistencies and answering his assertions with Scripture, the person abruptly closed the conversation with “I’ll pray for you.” When he had no answer for my arguments drawn from the Bible, he reproached me with a subtle charge of character deficiency. He obviously felt that he was on moral high ground and that I was a proud man who doesn’t have an ear for the truth.

This practice of replying to straightforward arguments from Scripture with argumentum ad hominem gets my hackle up. Why? Because far more is at stake than the mere fact that I am right. God’s honor is at stake. If I stand in need of prayer, for instance, for believing that believers have an obligation to “judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24), then so does God. After all, he is the one who gave the command and wrote its many companion passages.

“Eyes wide open, brain engaged, heart on fire.”

Lee W. Brainard


  • Avatar
    Paul Porter
    August 22, 2020 at 4:19 am

    Jesus Himself could have accurately been accused of the technical use of ad hominem argument in at least one of His confrontations with hard hearted Jewish leaders; e.g., in John chapter eight, where He was speaking to people who refused all truth and logic, and would not be convinced by any logical argument nor evidence of any kind, because their personal character was evil — and Jesus cut to the point and directly told them so.

    • Avatar
      September 23, 2020 at 12:37 am

      Argumentum ad hominem is not pointing out error, wrong spirit or attitude (as pride), or sin. It is not argumentum ad hominem to tell a proud man that he is proud and needs to grow in grace. Nor is it argumentum ad hominem to tell a carnal Christian that he needs to repent. Nor is it argumentum ad hominem to reprove Pharisees for their unbiblical teachings.

      Argumentum ad hominem is evading truth (whether a true point or a true argument for a true point) by finding fault with the one who made the point. Jesus never evaded truth by pointing out error or sin. He is incapable of evading truth or light. It would be argumentum ad hominem for a Calvinist to reject your appeals to the Bible with the claim that you are so proud that you deny sovereignty. No believer denies sovereignty. But many deny Calvinism’s determinism for which they employ sovereignty as a euphemism.


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