In a previous article I overviewed the history and theology of Eastern Orthodoxy. In this article I shall expose some of the common fallacies that Eastern Orthodoxy apologists commit when arguing for their position.
1. The first it what I shall call the Antiquity Fallacy. This is the fallacy that appeals to the antiquity of a position to prove its truth – the older the position, the better. This type of argument is fallacious because the age of an idea or position is irrelevant to the truth of it. There are innumerable positions that are at the same time ancient and false just as there are many discoveries that are recent and true. And so to assert that one’s theological perspective is true on the basis that it has been around longer than any other view (assuming that it can be factually established) is to use flawed reasoning. Thus even if Eastern Orthodoxy has antecedents that pre-date any other tradition – and this is something that is runs counter to the historical evidence – it does not follow that Eastern Orthodoxy is true.
2. The second is the Consensus Fallacy. This type of argument fallaciously appeals to a consensus of people. This fallacy may take a crass form of appealing simply to the number of people who adhere to a particular position or, in a more sophisticated form, to a consensus of reputed experts or those who are in a privileged position. But is a position really proved to be the case just because the majority of people or even experts believe it to be the case? Take the example of Darwinism. Most “experts” believe Darwinism is true. Does this mere fact prove that Darwinism is true?
These first two fallacies often appear together in Orthodox literature. I call this the Ancient Consensus Fallacy. I will deal with arguments that combine fallacies below.
3. The third is the Mormon Fallacy. This is a fallacious appeal to personal experience, whether an individual’s experience or a group’s. Many have spoken with Mormon missionaries at their door and have discovered that they (Mormons) ultimately assert the truth of their religion on the basis of personal experience. When asked how they know their view is true they often respond that God has personally revealed it to them or that they had a burning in the bosom. But personal experience is not determinative in establishing the truth of one’s position or to even give warrant for another to belief in that position. Every cultist and religious practitioner has a testimony. The point is not whether one feels something to be true, the point is whether something is true.
Thus, the way to answer a Mormon is to say, “I have a burning in my bosom which testifies that your position is wrong.” What is he to say at that point? You can see how the debate has degenerated: “I testify that you are wrong” “I testify that you are wrong” and so on. We are left with mere name-calling – fool, fool; heretic, heretic.
Many apologists for Orthodoxy make this same appeal to personal experience. Though their presentations are usually not as obviously fatuous as that of the Mormon’s, since Orthodox apologists more often appeal to the experience of a group of people rather than the experience of an individual, it is fallacious nonetheless.
4. The fourth fallacy is the Continuity Fallacy. The fallacy is committed when one asserts the truth of his position on the basis of historical continuity.
Many religions can, of course, claim historical continuity. Muslims, for example, claim their religion has not altered since the time of Mohammed and has had continuity in its adherence to the prophet’s teaching. Does this thereby prove the truth of Islam?
This fallacy is seen in the argument that since church x has apostolic succession – Peter laid hands on x, x laid hands on y, y laid hands on z and so on – it must be the true church. Ignoring for the moment the factual controversy surrounding this claim – Rome claims to have apostolic succession in this sense as do the national churches that came out of the Reformation – continuity by itself cannot establish which is the true church.1 The question can always be asked: “Yes, but is that what Jesus and the apostles taught?”
5. The fifth is the Appeal to Unity Fallacy. This fallacy appeals to the unity, whether personal or doctrinal, of a position’s adherents in order to establish the truth of the position. All things being equal, unity is a good thing, but unity is not relevant in determining the truth of a position.
This appeal to unity is often used as a dig on Protestantism for its lack of unity. Orthodox polemicists never tire of asserting that there are thousands of Protestant denominations. This, they imply, shows the fraudulent nature of Protestantism.
It must acknowledged that this fragmentation of it is a great tragedy that is the result of human sin and no excuse can or should be offered to attenuate the sin much less exonerate it. Nevertheless, this lack of unity in Protestantism and supposed unity in Orthodoxy does not lend support to the falsity of the former and truth of the latter.
First, the unity of Eastern Orthodoxy is greatly exaggerated. Space constraints prohibit me from going into details, but there are many disputes within Eastern Orthodoxy – disputes over authority, jurisdiction, theology, attitudes toward the ecumenical movement, monasticism, ritual (there is, for example, a split in the Russian Orthodox Church over whether to make the sign of the cross with two fingers or three fingers) and even over the religious calendar. It is just not true to assert that Orthodoxy exhibits a conspicuous unity of faith.
Second, claims to unity are more or less vacuous. Definitionally, the unity of Eastern Orthodoxy consists in its constituent churches having communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. If any ecclesiastical body rejects the authority of this Patriarchate, they are not a part of Orthodoxy. It is, thus, not difficult to maintain unity on this basis. Every church, religious body or even social club has unity in this sense. It merely means that a group’s adherents have fundamental agreements with one another. If unity is to be considered a test for truth, then the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is the one true church because it is unified. This criterion obviously proves too much.
Third, this argument proves too much in the other direction. If unity is determinative in establishing the truth of a position then Christianity is false. Christianity has had three major schisms: the Oriental Orthodox Churches (including the Church of the East and the Coptic and Armenian Churches) broke off from the main body of Christians in the 5th and 6th centuries; the Byzantine Church and the Western Church split in the 11th century; the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant Church divided in the 16th century. Muslims can give a much better account of themselves in this regard. Does this entail the truth of Islam? This is a simpleton’s argument.
6. The sixth fallacy is that of Circular Reasoning. This elementary fallacy occurs when one asserts one thing on the basis of another and then asserts the other on the basis of the first. For example, one may argue that Marxism is true and its truth is seen in the outworking of the historical dialectic. He may then argue that history should be viewed as dialectically working itself in a certain way because Marxism says it does. Each argument is dependent upon the other for support.
This type of fallacy is prevalent, albeit implicit, in Orthodox thinking. Question: How do you know Eastern Orthodoxy is true? Answer: Because it comports with Tradition. Question: How do you know what Tradition teaches? Answer: It is preserved in the living and true Orthodox Church. But now we are back to square one.
7. The last fallacy is what I shall call the Cuisinart Fallacy. This is the fallacy of combining fallacious arguments in order to come up with a supposed stronger argument to prove one’s conclusion. Some Orthodox polemicists recognize that any given argument previously discussed is not sufficient to establish the truth of Orthodoxy. So rather than abandoning them, they combine them with other fallacious arguments to prove their position. The problem is that combining many bad arguments does not produce a good argument any more than combining spoiled or rotten food in a Cuisinart results in good and nutritious beverage.
When an apologist for Eastern Orthodoxy presents his case, it has been my experience that he inevitably commits one or more of these fallacies in reasoning. And this being so, his case is left unproved. And without proof, there is no reason to accept the claim the Orthodox Church is indeed the true apostolic church.
But just because the positive case for Orthodoxy is not proved, it does not follow that Orthodoxy is false. To declare so would be to commit the converse of the appeal to ignorance fallacy. The appeal to ignorance fallacy is committed when one asserts the truth of something on the sole basis that its falsity has not been proven. Thus, just because it has not been disproved that there is a colony of gnomes living in the center of the earth, does not entail that we should believe that there is such a colony. Conversely, just because the case for Orthodoxy has not be proved does not entail that Orthodoxy is false. All it means is that Orthodox polemicists have given no reason to believe that Orthodoxy is true. Nevertheless this is a fatal observation. If Orthodoxy does not give us any cogent reason to believe it is true, we are fully justified, indeed we are rationally compelled, to reject it out of hand.
In a future article, I will examine the Eastern Orthodox view of authority and show that it is internally inconsistent.
1. Though apostolic succession is not a sufficient condition for a church’s legitimacy, it is a necessary one. Many of the independent Protestant churches of our era lack this requisite credential.