Anatomy of a Straw Man

Practice dummies used for military training are supposed to represent the enemy, but are much easier to attack and defeat.  When it comes to arguing a theological position, Strawman argumentation is far too common place.  When arguing against a particular position, you should be able to state the opposing position in such a way that someone who holds to it would say in response to your summation of it “Yes, that is what I believe.”  However, far too often the one engaging in apologetics will rather confuse his own assessment of an opposing position for that position itself.

What do I mean?

Let’s take Calvinism as an example.  The stock objections to Calvinism (that it makes all men out to be puppets or robots, that it contradicts the love of God for every sinner, etc.) have been answered ad infinitum in many forums.  Yet, when the assessment comes from the opponent of Calvinism, it is based on a faulty understanding of the doctrines of grace.   Usually the critic’s arrows are aimed at Hypercalvinism and not Calvinism properly so called.  Be that as it may, the objections are continually re-asserted and usually without the benefit of addressing the proponent’s specific defense of what he holds to be revealed in Scripture.

So, here’s a little exercise for you.  When an opponent’s assertion is made, ask someone (if possible) who holds that position “Do you believe {fill in the blank}?  I think you’ll find the answers interesting.

What’s the anatomy of the Straw Man?  Let’s consider:

Bob holds position X.

Larry disregards certain key points of X and instead presents the superficially similar position Y.  Therefore Y is a distorted view of X and can be set up in several ways, including:

1.  Presenting a misrepresentation of the opponent’s position and then refuting it, thus giving the appearance that the opponent’s actual position has been refuted.

2.  Quoting an opponent’s words out of context–i.e. choosing quotations that misrepresent the opponent’s actual intentions

3.  Presenting someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, then refuting that person’s arguments–thus giving the appearance that every upholder of that position (and thus the position itself) has been defeated.

4.  Inventing a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs which are then criticized, implying that the person represents a group of whom the speaker is critical.

5.  Oversimplifying an opponent’s argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious, because attacking a distorted version of a position fails to constitute an attack on the actual position.

That’s why when I read apologetics, one of the first questions I ask before I dig too far into the argumentation is, “Does this person really understand the position he or she is attempting to refute?”  Look for the  summation statement of what the author is attempting to attack.  The answer will be very telling.  It will also save you a lot of time, as you would best be served by reading the critics who actually understand the “enemy”.

[reference Wikipedia under “Straw Man]


About C. M. Granger

I'm a firm believer in God's sovereignty, man's responsibility, and a gracious orthodoxy. I love the Puritans and the Reformers, but I don't believe our understanding of theology reached it's zenith in the 16th and 17th centuries. I love the Reformed Creeds and Confessions, but I'm not a strict confessionalist. I'm Reformed in my soteriology (I'm a moderate Calvinist), but not in the historical sense of the term (I'm a Baptist). Some of my favorite theologians/commentators are Kevin Vanhoozer, John Frame, D.A. Carson, Thomas Schreiner, Andreas Kostenberger, Peter O'Brien, David Peterson, Douglas Moo, and GK Beale. The list of dead theologians/commentators would be too long to list here. I think it's important to read widely, to read primary sources for yourself, and to accurately represent the positions of those whom you oppose. I believe it's imperative to have a proper balance between systematic and bibilical theology. I try to never make a round verse fit into the square hole of a theological system.
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11 Responses to Anatomy of a Straw Man

  1. Here is my “Calvin Challenge” for the Calvin-haters: “Post here one — just ONE, please — direct Calvin quote and your source for this quote. Then cite Bible verses that show that this ONE Calvin direct quote is false. Do not, please, paraphrase Calvin and give just your opinion. Do not cut and paste stuff from the Internet. Just ONE direct Calvin quote; Bible verses to refute. Thank you.” As yet, the challenge is unmet. In fact, to date, most who responded could not even following the directions requested in the “CC.”

  2. Concerning 4.: Do you mean making up a “real” person (“I talked to this Calvinist on the train yesterday, and […]”) or rather a fictional representative akin to Galileo’s Simplicio.

  3. Hi Michael,

    What I have in mind is closer to the former, although since we are talking about Christians in theological discourse one would hope #4 would not be in play since it is inconsistent with Christian conduct. However, some Christians, in order to buttress either weak argumentation or because of remaining sin, will exaggerate the less admirable qualities of their opponents. There are some Calvinists who are too critical or condemnatory of other Christians, and of course such a disposition doesn’t usually win over the hearts of those who disagree with them. Thus the non-Calvinist will paint a caricature of the Calvinist based on his limited experience with only these type of Calvinists.

  4. John Lofton says:

    Did I say Calvin was never wrong, CMG? No, I said what I said. Don’t try to put words in the mouth of people who did not say those words. That’s bearing false witness. Now, about my “Calvin Challenge”….take it if you dare.

    • Hi John,

      I’m not putting words in your mouth, that’s why I asked the clarifying question. If you’re not saying that Calvin was never wrong, what is your “Calvin Challenge” supposed to prove?

      I’m not a “Calvin-hater”, so I don’t feel compelled to take the “challenge”, but I would like you to clarify it’s purpose.


  5. Pingback: Anatomy of a Straw Man | The Threshing Floor — inertia

  6. Pingback: Anatomy of a Straw Man « The Lighthearted Calvinist

  7. CM –
    First, let me say I think your post is correct in general. Far too often debates about theological (and other) viewpoints involves setting up a “straw man” and refuting that. Your straw man anatomy seems to be valid which leads me an interesting observation:
    Your point one (of 5 [I wonder was there any specific intent with making 5 points?]) is actually a summary of how all of the following 4 are used.

    That being the case, were I to attempt a refutation of say “5. Oversimplifying an opponent’s argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.” I may overturn the central thesis yet it could still be claimed that there are still 4 points which remain. I, personally, could not do that since I agree with the main thesis but I hope you see my point. A Straw Man may be inaccurate when it comes to representing the opponent’s case but it may also be true of presenting your own.

    If I may illustrate from the Calvinist/Arminian debate (only because I know the positions better, I don’t know the political scene as well but straw men abound there too). A Calvinist in this debate will stress the Sovereignty of God. This leads the Arminian to stress man’s responsibility more. In turn the Calvinist will downplay his own views (which may be remarkably similar if not the same as the Arminian view) of man’s responsibility.

    The end result is neither accurately presents their own view nor understands the other’s (and that’s if they are actually listening – instead of working out the counter to the next view presented). Both go away from the debate with the other’s straw man confirmed, and never realising their own straw man has been taken as the truth of their belief. And who wins? The Devil – because it is possible that both really believe the same but express it differently. Not all Arminians and not all Calvinists actually believe the “implications” of their doctrine (as represented by the straw men).

    I have a suggestion. Let us allow the straw men to fight the straw men and let us go and have a cup of coffee and a chat about the wonderful Savior who died for you and me. We might find we have the same Savior and the same concerns to honor him.

    • Mr. Phillips,

      The 5 points were completely (or shall I say providentially?) a coincidence. 🙂

      In the main, I agree with you. Instead of letting the Scriptures define what we should believe, we form our beliefs over and against those with whom we disagree. I do think that the theological differences between Calvinism and Arminianism are important, but there is a certain degree of miscommunication between proponents of both–thus, strawmen are born.

      What I have found in my interaction with Arminians is an emotional precommitment to what they perceive as “fairness” on God’s part. Most of their logical objections to Calvinism can be sufficiently answered, if not for their outright rejection of the doctrines of grace at the outset (in many cases).

      Practically speaking though, you are correct. Arminians still ask God to save sinners, Calvinists (if they be worth their salt) still preach the gospel to every creature. In fact, some of the greatest evangelists in church history were Calvinists.

      Thanks for your comments. I’m always up for coffee and theology 😉

  8. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    “What I have found in my interaction with Arminians is an emotional precommitment to what they perceive as “fairness” on God’s part.”

    money quote right there.

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