Using Logic in Theology:
The Fallacy of False Alternatives
By Steve Lemke, Provost and Professor of Theology and Ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
As a philosophically-trained theologian, it causes me considerable chagrin to see some of the most basic errors in logic committed over and over again in theological discourse. This fuzzy thinking arises in every area of doctrinal from time to time, but (perhaps because of my interest in this area) I note it particularly in regard to soteriological discussions relating to Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Over the next few posts, I want to identify several common logical errors which lead to ill-formed arguments, fallacious logic, and unsound conclusions. I apologize in advance that this discussion gets a bit technical at points, though I have attempted to convey it for a non-specialist audience. I beg for patience from those for whom it seems overly technical.
The Fallacy of False Alternatives (also known as the False Dichotomy Fallacy, False Dilemma Fallacy, All or Nothing Fallacy, or Black or White Fallacy) results when we simplify everything into an “either-or” choice, and thereby fail to take into consideration other viable alternatives. One of the common mistakes made by “shade tree” theologians is to oversimplify theology into Calvinism or Arminianism, as though those were the only choices regarding any given theological issue. They are not.
In logic, an “either/or” statement can be described as a disjunctive syllogism (“either A or B is true”). The logic goes pretty easily from there – if not A, then B; or if not B, then A. But many possible disjunctive syllogisms fall into the fallacy of false alternatives. The syllogism works only if there are just two possible alternatives. So, for example, the following argument might be proposed: “Either a Yankees fan or a Red Sox fan.” (Hence, if Yankee fan, then not Red Sox fan; or if Red Sox fan, then not Yankee fan). These teams are fierce rivals, of course, and to be a fan of one almost guarantees not being a fan of the other (a Yankees fan will not be a Red Sox fan, and a Red Sox fan will not be a Yankees fan) – but these are not the only alternatives. I happen to be a Rangers fan, so I could not properly be said to be either a Yankees or a Red Sox fan. At times I might cheer for either the Yankees or the Red Sox, but I would do so not because I am their fan, but because either of them winning or losing might afford some advantage to the Rangers (such as home field advantage in the playoffs). So the argument that you must be either a Yankees fan or a Red Sox fan commits the fallacy of false alternatives.
Likewise, it is simply mistaken to insist that Calvinism and Arminianism are the only possible options in soteriology. The “Calminian” majoritarian Baptist perspective (which affirms the paradox of both strong divine sovereignty and meaningful libertarian human freedom) is among those possibilities. Like the Rangers fan in relation to the Yankees or Red Sox, a Baptist might side with the Arminians at points and with the Calvinists at points, but we are not identified completely with either. To put it differently, a person might disagree with aspects of Calvinism and yet not be an Arminian, and might disagree with some aspects of Arminianism and yet not be a Calvinist.
Although there were early Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists and General (Arminianistic) Baptists, the consensus among many Baptists in America is that the tension or paradox in Scripture between human freedom and divine sovereignty should simply be affirmed by faith, rather than attempting to impose a theological structure on it. This “both/and” approach was voiced by Baptist pioneer John Leland, who described Baptist beliefs as he knew them in the churches in 1791:
“I conclude that the eternal purposes of God and the freedom of the human will are both truths, and it is a matter of fact that has been most blessed of God and most profitable to man is the doctrine of sovereign grace in the salvation of souls, mixed with a little of what is called Arminianism.”
[John Leland, “A letter of Valediction on leaving Virginia, 1791,” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland; ed. Louise F. Green (New York: 1845) p. 172 quoted in Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 322; cited in “Congruent Election: Understanding Salvation from an ‘Eternal Now’ Perspective,” by Richard Land, in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five Point Calvinism, ed. Steve Lemke and David Allen (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 46].
And thus we as Baptists can rightfully say, “Neither Calvinists Nor Arminians, But Baptists”!
One of the somewhat frustrating aspects of the reactions to our book Whosoever Will, at least to those of us associated with the book, is that our reviewers have tended to label us as being either of two “either/or” extremes: Arminians or Calvinists. One book from an Arminian perspective described the perspective in Whosoever Will as ”moderate Calvinist.” [J. Matthew Pinson, “Introduction,” Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation, by Leroy Forlines (Nashville: Randall House, 2011), 4]. However, another Arminian labeled the contributors to Whosoever Will as “anti-Calvinist,” and that “all the authors are Arminian in the classical sense,” while at the same time questioning why the authors were at “so much distance from Arminianism” and objecting to their criticism of Arminianism. [Roger Olson, review of Whosoever Will, on the Baptist Theology website at http://www.baptisttheology.org/WhosoeverWill.cfm. See also Olson‘s additional review, “A Good, New, Non-Arminian, Arminian Book,” available on the Roger Olson website at http://rogereolson.com/2010/09/02/a-good-new-non-arminian-arminian-book].
On the other hand, in an issue of the Founders Journal dedicated to critiquing Whosoever Will from a Calvinist perspective, one article sought to answer the “Arminian objections” presented in the book [Matthew Barrett, “Is Irresistible Grace Unbiblical?‘ A Response to Steve Lemke‘s Arminian Objections,” Founders Journal 82, rep. ed. (Fall 2010), 4]; while another opined that the authors should “accept the judgment that they defend a classically Arminian, or openness, position.” [Tom Nettles, review of Whosoever Will, in Founders Journal 82, reprint issue (Fall 2010), 44]. Likewise, in an otherwise balanced review of Whosoever Will in the online journal Themelios, Gary Shultz expressed the opinion that the contributors reduced to “simply Arminianism” (though he qualified that statement later by admitting that the contributors were not Arminian on at least one point).
That is quite a range – from moderate Calvinist to anti-Calvinist, from critics of Armianism to rank openness of God Arminians! The critics refused to accept our mediating position designation as “Calminians” or “majoritarian Baptists,” but wanted to force us into either an Arminian or Calvinist mold. This is not new. In fact, years ago I was once asked (seriously!) in an interview situation whether I was a hyper-Calvinist or an Arminian! Such limited options are the product of the logical fallacy of false alternatives, which does not recognize mediating positions between two extremes. Avoiding the fallacy of false alternatives can help bring clarity to theological discussions.