Learning about straw man arguments and bad faith

The internet is a great place to do research. There is so much out there that is interesting and factual. However, there is also a lot that is not factual or is founded on poor logic.

strawman scarecrow
The straw man is easy to knock down.

Today I want to show you what a “straw man” argument is. Think of a straw-man argument just like you would think of a scarecrow in a garden. A scarecrow is easy to knock down because it is not a real opponent, right? If you want to win an argument, it is tempting to setup a verbal or intellectual “straw man,” then you can just knock him down with your argument and declare victory.

It works like this. Somebody sets up an argument based on something their opponent did not say. They misrepresent their opponent–this is the first step in creating a straw man argument. Their misrepresentation becomes a “straw man” that they knock down by falsely discrediting their opponent. Let me demonstrate. Let’s say I said this: “Joel said we should never go to Rubios again. He is wrong and here is why.” Then I go into some detail about why Rubios is great and why we should continue to go there. I get to “win” the argument, but it was really no win at all, because Joel never said that we should not go to Rubios any more. I had a “victory” over something he never even said.  I’m sure you can agree that this would be no victory at all.

Now, let’s use a real life example that you will probably encounter somewhere on the internet: anti-Catholic Christians saying that the Catholic Church teaches people to earn their salvation by performing good works. These anti-Catholic Christians do this by misrepresenting what the Church teaches about meriting salvation.

The Catholic Church does teach us to merit our salvation. But these anti-Catholic Christians don’t understand how the Church uses the word merit. The just make up their own false definition (this becomes the “straw man”), then they refute it. They tell people that when Catholics say merit, it means that Catholics believe they earn salvation through good works, but it is not true.

Obviously this is a problem because it means that there is no real exchange of ideas and

straw man
The Church does not defend the idea that we earn salvation by performing good deeds. Those who say it does have committed the straw man fallacy.

no real conversation. But it may be the signal of a deeper problem: that the person is not interacting with others a good faith way. Good faith means treating others fairly, giving them the benefit of the doubt, understanding the limitations of the medium, being willing to overlook minor flaws in the argument, making genuine efforts to understand the argument, correcting or eliminating straw men and other fallacies in one’s own argument, etc. Bad faith means that the person just wants to win, is not willing to have an honest dialog, and will make no concessions. Repeated and uncorrected straw men might signal bad faith. They might signal that the person is not willing to have an honest discussion. If you ever sense bad faith, it is time to evaluate how much interaction you want to have with that person.

I do not know why anti-Catholic Christians do this all the time with the word merit. With all the information available online, it is easy enough to actually verify what the Catholic Church means. It makes me wonder if they are arguing in bad faith.

merit badges
Merit badges are super cool, but don’t get them mixed up with the Catholic teaching on salvation.

But perhaps not. For example, I have wondered if people associate the word merit with the Boy Scouts. Boy Scouts can earn merit badges, right? So perhaps the word merit is strongly associated with the word earn. Maybe their chain of reasoning goes like this:

“Boy Scouts earn merit badges which includes doing good deeds. Catholics believe they earn (merit) salvation by doing good deeds.”

I can see how somebody would assume that merit means earn, if they associate merit with the Boy Scouts. But I have no idea if I am correct about this. There must be something driving this pervasive problem and I’m just trying to explain what it might be.

I do know this: when Catholics say merit salvation, they do not mean earn salvation. They have not taken their cue from the Boy Scouts about what the word merit means.

Merit means reward, and the word reward is used quite a bit in the New Testament, even by Christ himself.

Merit in the Catholic world

I just wanted to take a few minutes to clarify the word “merit.”

But before I go into that, I want to touch on something related. In the Catholic world, the question of “Are you saved?” just doesn’t come up, yet Catholics don’t ascribe to “eternal security,” we don’t believe in the teaching called Once Saved, Always Saved. So it might be tempting to think that we are filled with fear, as if we Catholics are afraid that we’re going to hell unless we do enough good works. I can’t speak for other Catholics, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Quite the opposite in fact and I will go into that in more detail about that on Oct. 31.

If anybody tries to earn salvation, as if God could be obliged to provide it, they misunderstand the teaching. God owes us nothing and under no circumstances will He ever become indebted to us. It simply is not possible for God to become indebted to us because no amount of our good works oblige God to do anything for us. Salvation is a free gift, by grace alone. It is not earned in the contractual sense. But it is merited in the sense of a reward based on a love relationship, like an inheritance from a loving father. Please do not misunderstand what merit means; it does not mean that we can force God to owe us salvation if we behave well. The word merit comes to us from Latin and it means reward. There is a well known Catholic apologist named Jimmy Akin and he briefly discusses what the word merit means in this three minute video:





The Screwtape Letters, Letter 1

I have studied and practically memorized the first letter of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. It is brilliant. I found it to be a great consolation after the election of 2012. I was still working in an office at that time, and to console myself I copied and pasted portions of it into a Word document, formatted it nicely, printed it and taped it to the door to my office. I’d stand there and read it from time to time, and have ruminated on it for several years now. Please do read at least Letter 1, several times. It is available here.

I later learned that the actor John Cleese narrated the entire book, and it is available on YouTube. He does a phenomenal job. Start with Letter 1, then go from there. I recommend buying the book too. I used to have a copy of the book but can’t remember the last time I saw it. It might still be at Dad’s house. About three years ago I bought one for my Kindle. You can probably find an older edition very inexpensively on Amazon.

Catholics, works and salvation

You will often come across people who believe that the Catholic Church teaches “salvation by works.” If you encounter this, ask them what they mean. For example, if they are referring to “works of the Mosaic law,” or “works of the first covenant,” this is not true. The Catholic Church teaches that the Mosaic law is no longer in effect because it has been superseded by the New Covenant.

I am reading a book on the Catholic teaching on salvation to help me understand this point better, because “doing” is important in Catholic teaching, yet I know it is not the basis of our salvation. The book is called, “How can I get to heaven?” by Robert Sungenis. I am not very far into it yet, but so far Sungenis says that when Paul talks about “works” or “works of the law” in Romans, Paul is using those ideas to mean that we can’t obligate God in any way to owe us salvation:

“Paul is condemning justification by law only with respect to contractual obligation…” (p. 21)

Any reward or blessing we receive from God is only due to his grace, not due to an obligation that was somehow created in him by us behaving well. Sungenis goes on to talk about the role of works:

“… however, the law, as expressed and practiced in virtue, fully cooperates with grace in justification.” (p. 21)

He then quotes Romans 2:5-10 where Paul discusses the relationship of works to salvation:

But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.

These good works are done under God’s grace, not in order to obligate God, but out of love for him: “…love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10b).

For me, I think starts with the first commandment. We start by believing in God, loving him, then we love our neighbor as ourselves, then we learn what love really is so that we can do it the way God wants. Doing is important; the Bible is clear that we will be judged based on our works, which I think means we will be judged based on how much we loved and acted on that love. As it says at Fish Eaters:

We are saved by Christ’s grace alone, through faith and works done in charity [ie, love] inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The OSAS pattern is present in Catholic practice

When I was in Kindergarten and for part of first grade, I attended a small Christian school. One day in first grade, the teacher was reading one of the Gospels to us, at the part about the Crucifixion. She asked us to consider praying the Sinner’s Prayer to ask Jesus into our hearts, to accept Him as Lord and Savior. She said that if any of us wanted to do this, we could talk to her after school and she would lead us in a prayer. I immediately knew I wanted to do this, and so I approached her after school. She led me in a prayer, and I had a picture of Jesus actually coming into my heart. Later she gave me a small red New Testament with a lovely inscription that included a reference to Psalm 119:105:

“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

That was a powerful experience and the emotion of it stayed with me for years.

As far as I can tell, according to “once saved, always saved,” (OSAS) I am saved. The reason I bring this is up is not to argue for the doctrine, which I don’t believe as a Catholic, but to show how the OSAS pattern of salvation is present in Catholic practice.

So just to be sure that I still understand OSAS correctly, I looked it up just now on two different websites. I don’t know if these are representative of all who believe the doctrine, but the descriptions seem reasonable and align with what I remember:

The Bible teaches “once saved, always saved” — that we can be saved once and for all only through a repentant, saving faith in Jesus Christ. Once a person has accepted Christ as Savior, they may wonder if it is possible to lose that salvation. What if they commit a sin? What if they commit a lot of sins? What if they do something very, very wrong? Is it possible to be saved, and then lose that salvation? Fortunately, the answer is a resounding “no.” Once a person has accepted Jesus Christ as Savior, he/she is forever saved. This fact is referred to as the doctrine of “eternal security,” often summarized as “once saved, always saved.” From All About God.

“Once saved always saved” is the position that when a person becomes a Christian he can never lose his salvation… CARM’s position is that salvation cannot be lost.  We believe we are secure in Christ, not because of our ability and faithfulness, but because of God’s.  We believe that Christ paid for all of our sins: past, present, and future.  From CARM.org

I also looked up how to be saved from the same websites:

Salvation is simply a process of confessing and believing. A man must confess that Jesus is Lord… Next, he must believe that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. From All About God.

Believe in Jesus.  Receive Jesus, who is God in flesh, who died and rose from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1-4) as your Lord and Savior (John 1:12).  Ask Jesus to forgive you, to come into your heart, and to wash you clean from your sins.  Pray to Jesus.  Seek Him.  Ask Him to save you. From CARM.org.

As a child I prayed for Jesus to come into my heart, asked Him to forgive me of my sins, and asked Him to be my Lord and Savior. So I think it’s pretty clear that if somebody reading this truly believes in OSAS, they needn’t worry about me.

Now I am going to show how that same person needn’t worry about other Catholics, since the OSAS pattern is part of Catholic practice.  There are three components to being saved, according to OSAS. The person needs to:

  1. Confess that Jesus is Lord.
  2. Believe that God raised Him from the dead
  3. Sincerely ask Him to forgive the person’s sins.

Sincere Catholics do all of those. For example:

  1. Every Sunday, we recite the Nicene creed which states: … I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God…
  2. That same creed also states: …for our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
  3. Catholics who are sincere in their faith confess their sins regularly. So even the very first confession a person makes satisfies OSAS, it seems to me. The fact that it happens before a priest is not relevant to OSAS, since the scripture says, “Confess your sins to one another,” and, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The Protestant objection to confessing to a priest doesn’t apply to OSAS, since the doctrine itself doesn’t state that the person can’t confess with somebody else listening. Now, perhaps it is possible that the Catholic really believes that he is confessing ONLY TO the priest. But if he believes this, he is mistaken about Catholic doctrine. Jesus is definitely part of those sessions, and the Church teaches this.

Another example: these three things also happen during Catholic confirmation, which we regard as a sacrament that finishes the initiation process into the Catholic Church. The person is asked a number of questions to which he must give public assent in front of the congregation, among them:

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, [God’s] only son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered death and was buried, rose from the dead…

Since confirmation is a sacrament, the person needs to be in a state of grace, which means that he must have already repented of and confessed his sins. Going through the motions in an insincere way does not count, neither according to OSAS nor Catholic doctrine.

Now, as I said earlier, this is not an argument in defense of OSAS. Let me be super clear that Catholic doctrine does not teach OSAS. I am using OSAS as an opportunity to describe Catholic practice so that those who believe it can have an opportunity to see the Church in a new way.