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Thursday, 25 April 2013

Historical Forces and Slippery Slopes

Slip Sliding Away . . . 

"Slippery slope" arguments can be true or false, valid or invalid.  In the public controversies over marriage, for example, slippery slope arguments have been deployed and serially mocked.  Yet they are proving to be true.  If one starts with the radical move in the eighties to legalise "no fault" divorce and then consider where we are now it is as plain as the noses on our faces that a devolutionary, downward spiral has been developing with respect to marriage.   There are strong forces within society that are driving this devolution faster and faster.  The concept of marriage is becoming so inflated that the institution will become more and more meaningless.  Almost anything and everything will end up qualifying as a marriage.

If someone had argued back then that it was the beginning of the end for marriage in society and that within a couple or more decades the parliament would be recognizing, legalizing, and sacralising homosexual "marriage" he would have been laughed out of the room as an idiot.  But in hindsight it turns out that the former signified the latter.  The slope has indeed been slippery, rapidly so.

The factor that makes a "slippery slope" argument true is when broader causative forces are at work.
  When cultures in general are integrating into the void  or coming out of it, for that matter, historical forces will be at work shaping and driving the culture either upward or downward.  A logical connection does not make a causative force in a culture.  People all too often think and act inconsistently and sporadically.  A causative force in a culture exists when churches, schools, media, literature, the wealthy, and politicians all join the fray.  Logic and argumentation in a certain direction will then become socially powerful.  One thing will lead to another because the historical and social forces are driving in one direction. 

Nevertheless, "slippery slope" arguments usually need careful qualification to be persuasive.  Philosopher and theologian, John Frame explains why:
A true and valid reductio must be distinguished from its fallacious imitators, one of which is the ‘slippery slope’ argument. A slippery slope argument goes like this.
‘If you take position A, you run the risk of taking position B;
position B is wrong,
therefore A is also wrong.’
Thus it is sometimes said that once one abandons belief in a pretribulational rapture, he runs the risk of denying the bodily return of Christ altogether, thus opening himself up to a thoroughgoing liberalism.

Or it is sometimes argued that if one accepts the textual criticism of Westcott and Hort, he runs the risk of denying biblical authority altogether.

Thus the slippery slope argument appeals to fear—to our fear of taking undue risks and to our fear of being linked with people (such as liberals), disapproved of in our circles, lest we incur guilt by association.

Often slippery slope arguments are buttressed by historical examples.  Such-and-such a theologian began by denying, say, total abstinence from alcoholic beverages, and five years later he abandoned the Christian faith.
Or such-and-such a denomination rejected the exclusive use of Psalms as hymns in worship, and twenty-five years later it capitulated to liberalism. . . .

In general, they prove nothing.

Usually, they do not rest on a sufficient statistical sample to establish even probable conclusions.  And they ignore the complexities of historical causation.

A denomination becomes liberal for many reasons, never just one. On the one hand, it may well be that rejection of exclusive Psalmody is in some cases at least a symptom of advancing liberalism. (I say that as an opponent of exclusive Psalmody, who nevertheless recognizes that people sometimes reject exclusive Psalmody for very bad reasons.) On the other hand, the denomination may be rejecting exclusive Psalmody for good reasons. This development may be quite independent of any trend toward liberalism, or it may bear a paradoxical relation to that trend. For example, the liberal trend may, for a time, help the church to break free of unbiblical traditions—God’s bringing a good result out of an overall evil development. (It could be argued that the development toward liberalism in the Presbyterian Church U.S., for example, enabled that denomination to take a strong stand against dispensationalism, a stand that to many nonliberals was a good thing.)

Thus not very much can be deduced from historical examples. They ought to make us think twice about what we are doing. They suggest possibilities, but they are never normative in themselves. —John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987), 274-275.
Hat Tip: Justin Taylor

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