“Like the legs of the lame that hang limp is a proverb in the mouth of fools. Like one who binds a stone in a sling is he who gives honor to a fool. Like a thorn that goes into the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools” (Proverbs 26:7-9).
In circular arguments, a person desires to show that certain ideas lead to a conclusion. To prove the point he assumes the conclusion is true and then use it to prove his premise. A classic example is found in the strata and fossil evidence used to argue evolution. A particular stratum of rock is declared to be several millions of years old. If you ask how the date was determined you will soon learn that the fossils found within the strata led to date. If you then inquire how they know that the fossils are that old, you are told that it is because they are found in certain rock strata.
Even though circular reasoning is unable to prove its point, those caught up in a circular argument often fail to recognize their problem. They have already accepted both the premise and the conclusion as fact and so it does not bother them if the points are used out of order.
Circular reasoning is not all bad. It can be used to prove equivalence – that is that two ideas stand or fall together, but it does not establish truth. For example, John Calvin’s five points are equivalent. He argued that 1) mankind is totally depraved, 2) God unconditionally chooses who will be saved, 3) Christ’s death was limited to those so chosen, 4) those so chosen cannot resist God’s election, and 5) God will preserve those so chosen. You can start at any one and conclude the others, but none of Calvin’s points are true; they are just internally consistent.
Once points are shown to be equivalent, it is possible to uphold or pull down the entire set by dealing with only one point. For example, proving that people are not born totally depraved will cause the collapse of Calvin’s entire system.
Some will agree with a point but are unable to see that the point requires changes in their own life. It is a common failing in man which led our Savior to state, “And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye” (Matthew 7:3-5). We tend to see our own merits but fail to see our own failings, as the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. We can see what others need to do, but fail to do it ourselves. Speaking of the Pharisees of his day Jesus warned, “Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do” (Matthew 23:3).
Man is not known for his consistency. In discussing the failings of the Jews Paul asked, “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, "Do not commit adultery," do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? For "the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you," as it is written” (Romans 2:21-24). Anytime a religious person is unable to live up to the standard he imposes on others, he degrades the name of God whom he claims to follow. “They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work” (Titus 1:16).
Knowing this tendency, an effective counter is to present the failing as a problem being dealt with by an unknown third party. Once the person acknowledges that the action is incorrect, you can show him that his own actions are the same. A person of honest heart will then clearly see his own problem. This is how Nathan dealt with David’s sin with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder to cover up his sin (II Samuel 12:1-14).
In teaching people about God’s plan of salvation, I have noticed a tendency among many to rewrite their personal history to match what they have learned. They are unwilling to think of themselves being in error in the present or in the past. Hence, a baptism when they were infants becomes equivalent to biblical baptism in their minds. To counter this, discuss what a person has done toward their salvation before studying the Scriptures. You might even want to write the items down. Then open your Bible and as various topics come up, discuss if they match what was done in the past.
Here the appeal is to a person’s heart and not his intellect. Several denominations teach their doctrine in this manner. Mormons will ask you to pray and see if the Holy Spirit doesn’t tell you from within that they are right. Pentecostal religions aim for emotional excitement that keeps a person returning for more.
Christianity is not an unemotional religion. There are deep feelings of joy, a solid sense of security, and a firm feeling of duty, responsibility, and purpose in life. All are proper emotions. Even negative emotions have a place in our lives. Christians benefit from feeling a true fear of sin, a deep grief because his fellow man is caught in the bondage of sin, and even jealousy over the purity of the church and the gospel. Beneficial emotions are the result of our faith, but they are not the source of our faith.
False doctrine is often presented in the midst of emotional preaching, whose purpose is to make people feel good through the use of smooth speech. Unfortunately, smooth speech is popular (II Timothy 4:3-4). It is one of the things that led to the downfall of Israel. “Who say to the seers, "Do not see," and to the prophets, "Do not prophesy to us right things; speak to us smooth things, prophesy deceits” (Isaiah 30:10). People much rather be entertained than to hear the truth. But, the position is weak and easily collapses. “Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel: "Because you despise this word, and trust in oppression and perversity, and rely on them, therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach ready to fall, a bulge in a high wall, whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant” (Isaiah 30:12-13).
Sermons should teach the truth and people will react to the message emotionally. Some will be pleased, some grieved, some disgusted and will reject the truth, some will weep and others will rejoice. Notice the reaction Paul received to his sermon on Mars Hill near Athens. “And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, "We will hear you again on this matter." So Paul departed from among them. However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them” (Acts 17:32-34).
Appealing to raw emotion is empty. Strong feelings will not make a person a mature Christian. Tear-jerking, heart-pulling speeches will not produce a full-grown child of God. As we read about Jesus, the Master Teacher, in the gospels, we do not see him stooping to such tactics to draw people to him. Dave Miller made this observation in his book Piloting the Strait, “Current culture has groomed and conditioned us to be entertained. Television and the cinema have so developed in their sophistication that they are able to stimulate us and hold our attention with little or no effort on our part. As Neil Postman describes in his bestseller Amusing Ourselves to Death, we have allowed ourselves to shift away from rational assessment of truth in exchange for substanceless emotional stimulation. So in religious practice, worshipers appear driven by that which is ‘better felt than told.’“
Often catchphrases are used to justify indefensible positions, such as “God is too loving to condemn a man eternally in hell.” The Scriptures cannot be used to support such a position, so the emotions are appealed to instead.
Emotional appeals are also used to pull the “swing voters.” There will always be those uninterested in investing time and effort into learning the details about an issue. So an argument that brings in a strong emotional response will often attract the indecisive. For example, when schools are faced with limited resources and the hard decision comes to cut a portion of the curriculum it will not be the Latin classes which will face the ax. The first programs threaten with extinction are the sports programs because of their popularity. People are willing to pay higher taxes if it means sports programs can remain. This was the tactic used to get churches to support colleges from their treasury. It was recognized early on that education had little emotional appeal. Instead, the debate focused on churches supporting orphans’ homes. Advocates realized that any reasoning that allowed one would allow the other, so the argument that held the greater emotional appeal became the focus. Years after the support of orphans’ homes became generally accepted, the support of colleges from the church treasure was re-introduced and this time accepted with little debate.
We need to realize that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). What is important to us will drive our emotions. The danger comes when we let our emotions dictate what is important to us.