Or “An Affinity for Effigy”
What I Mean by Straw Man
The term “Straw man argument” or “Straw man fallacy” is usually understood to be based off of the common training technique of using mock versions of enemies (mock versions which are, in theory, made of straw). This “enemy” is much easier to defeat, since it doesn’t really fight back. Examples of such straw men can be seen in this video (skip to 41 seconds):
Well, I guess they are only easier to defeat in theory. Anyway, the rhetorical idea of a straw man argument is that the speaker describes his opponent in a fictitious way, which is referred to as the straw man, and then defeats this straw man, thereby making the listeners believe that he actually defeated his opponent.
So imagine if Robin Hood dressed one of those dummies up as Prince John and put it in the square. Then, he calls the town together at the square. Then he shoots an arrow at the dummy and hits it in the V-8 can. He then claims that Prince John is dead and the town believes him. This is the picture that we are painting when we are talking about a “straw man argument”.
The problem of course is that you haven’t defeated anything. This is why it is important that in any debate that you choose to participate in, you understand your opponents beliefs as well as your own.
Most Calvinists today are grossly ignorant about what Arminianism teaches. This includes some of their most prominent leaders, though I won’t list who here. It seems to me that most Calvinists understand Arminianism as the opposite of Calvinism (which on its own is an untrue statement), and define Arminianism based off of reversing what Calvinists believe, rather than defining it off of what Arminius and other Arminians have taught. This is, of course, conjecture on my part, but it seems consistent with the definitions of Arminianism I have often been given by Calvinists.
Straw Man In Action
One of the most frustrating examples of the straw man argument is a particular list of “the 5 points of Arminianism” that I often find come up. This site is an excellent example of this garbage. It lists the points of Arminianism as follows:
- Free-will or Human Ability
- Conditional Election
- Universal redemption or general atonement
- The Holy Spirit can be effectually resisted
- Falling from Grace
Even the parts that it names correctly it describes wrong. In either case, I want to know who on earth came up with this list? What is it based on? It clearly isn’t based on the Articles of Remonstrance which it contradicts. I also doubt that it is based off of any Arminian scholar.
Especially this term: “Human Ability”. Who believes in Human Ability? I don’t know anyone who teaches that as a concept. What does that even mean anyway? Especially since Arminians believe in Total Depravity, something that Calvinists seem to constantly ignore.
In fact, the only point up there that I can accept even in name is conditional election. But even here he fails with this erroneous statement: “The faith which God foresaw, and upon which He based His choice, was not given to the sinner by God (it was not created by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit) but resulted solely from man’s will. It was left entirely up to man as to who would believe and therefore as to who would be elected unto salvation.” Not true. We believe salvation is accomplished in Christ, and God’s prevening enabling grace is constantly working in man. How in the world is that “leaving it up to man”?
It is my opinion that many of the Calvinists who so misconstrue the basic definition of Arminianism are basing their definitions on Dort, rather than actual Arminians. By this I mean that they take the stances of Dort, and assume Arminianism to be the opposite of them. This is simply untrue seeing how the Remonstrants strongly supported Total Depravity, held to the necessity of grace, believed election was of God, and didn’t even take a stand on apostasy.
The End Result
The libel and slander is so pervasive within the A/C conversation that most people have no idea what Arminianism is.
Now, one may argue that words change meaning. After all, a word is primarily defined by how it is used. There is certainly some truth to this. However, when it comes to “isms”, they are generally defined historically. Even Calvinists who get it wrong still say that the foundation of what Arminianism is is based on what Arminius himself taught. They just don’t bother to find out what Arminius taught.
So we have a large group of Arminians who claim they aren’t Arminian, we have people who come to believe in Calvinism because they are convinced of this two-party false dichotomy, and we have an overall break-down of real dialogue between Calvinists and Arminians. On top of this, when it comes to how Christianity is perceived by those outside of it, we have a rather embarrassing presentation of Christians’ attitudes towards each other. There is zero good which comes out of misrepresenting the other side of the debate.
This also goes both ways. At SEA, we take great pains not to misrepresent our Calvinist brothers, but there are many who have no such scruples. However, putting Calvinists on the defensive where their walls go up merely makes it that much more difficult to explain anything to them. It doesn’t help.
Both of us need to stop it! There is a time and a place for polemics, and there is nothing wrong with making an argument from consistency (as long as it is formally made and not expected to be “understood” by the reader). Let’s put the straw men away, and actually listen to each other.