True Scotsmen and True Christians
“No True Scotsman” is a rhetorical trick where you modify the definition of something on-the-fly to rebut someone’s claim of an exception.
- Let’s say I proclaim, “All Scotsmen love haggis.”
- A person might say, “I’m a Scotsman, and I hate haggis.”
- I could then claim, “Well, then you aren’t a true Scotsman. True Scotsmen love haggis.”
Some Christians pull a version of this maneuver when confronted with the deplorable and regretful actions of various historical Christians.
It works a bit like this:
- Dave says, “Christians always do good things.”
- Jill says, “How can you say that? What about the forced conversions, burning of heretics, and wars of religion we see perpetuated by Christians throughout history?”
- Dave replies, “The people who did those awful things weren’t true Christians.”
This isn’t to say that this is always a trick. Sometimes, the intent isn’t to perform a rhetorical evasion, but to clarify the particular sense of the word they were originally employing.
In the above, it may be that there are two definitions at play:
- Jill’s definition of “Christian” is probably in the sense of outward and visible declarations of belief and/or allegiance. In this way, many people responsible for unimaginable atrocities have declared belief in Christ and themselves to be Christians.
- Dave’s definition of “Christian” is probably in the sense of an inward and relatively invisible state of an individual and her genuine relationship with Christ, which ostensibly prompts her to act charitably as she is being sanctified by his Grace. When a person commits an atrocity, then, it is a spike of evidence that they are not a Christian in this sense.
I believe that Jill’s approach is much better than Dave’s; Dave’s hinges on “unclear genuineness” which is toxic for communication.
EDIT: It’s been several years since writing this, and I now believe both approaches foster communication problems, and the Quiet solution is to use both ways every time and be boringly thorough. Using only one way causes Loudness (which might be your desire; here, spurred engagement at the expense of the clear thinking and relationships of those engaged).