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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).

Why Isn’t “Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner” Totally Working?

“Hate the sin, love the sinner,” is pretty catchy. But it doesn’t seem to be “working” in terms of certain goals.

You’d think it would be the perfect harmony of both tolerance and moral steadfastness. But it’s not really “hooking flies with honey” like one would hope. Gosh darnit, why does it appear to be struggling on these fronts?

The answer is boring, but simple:

  • It’s because “love” in the above is commonly shorthand for “rebuke” or “repair.”
  • And when “love” is shorthand for “rebuke” or “repair,” it naturally prompts ultimatums which, in turn, naturally catalyze rifts and/or insoluability.

(This natural procession is accelerated when the controversial sin is highly “visible” — like whether it’s sinful for women to do their hair, or whether it’s immoral to wear a fuchsia fez, or whether it’s improper to sing with instrumental accompaniment. Denominations have broken up for less!)

Thus, for the reasons above, in the real world, the quoted imperative is bad in terms of the goals of community, unity, and fellowship.

Of course, some folks are aiming for other goals. You can have whatever goals you want. Which goals you actually have — or “should” have — is irrelevant to the above point, and I am not making such a statement here.

“Orthodox” Confusion

“Quiet theology” means practicing theology through philosophical quietism, where philosophy is meant to be more remedial than exciting. As such, it is about treating conjecture like conjecture, being willing to say “Nobody actually knows,” and finding and tackling language problems that have been causing confusion and miscommunication.

The word “orthodox” represents one such confusing language problem.

Note: This is about the semantic difficulties with the word “orthodox,” and not an attack on the Orthodox Church, and not intended as a specific doctrinal indictment.

Five Questions

When determining truth or falsehood of a doctrine, there are roughly 5 big questions we can ask:

  1. Does it have logically coherent premises and does it proceed from those premises?
  2. If it has one or more naturalistic premises, are those premises consonant with science?
  3. Does it have historicity?
  4. Is or was it popular among acknowledged authorities?
  5. Is or was it popular within the Church generally?

These are in priority order. For example, its historicity is unimportant if its apparent cogency was based on bad science. Its popularity, even among the respected intellectuals, is unimportant if it can be shown the doctrine does not logically follow from coherent premises.

Notice that we’re trying to determine orthodoxy, or “straight doctrine,” meaning “true doctrine” by figure. When some doctrine fails 3+, the Fathers call it heterodoxy — something different than what ‘we all believe and have been believing.’

A False Dichotomy

But we’ve just put questions of logical validity and — if science is invoked in the claim — scientific consonance above questions of historicity and popularity (that is, tradition).

In other words, it is quite possible that there are various doctrines that are orthodox but heterodox. I’m confident that we can all agree: It’s not impossible for this to be the case for some doctrines.


And we know that, as language is mutating, more problematic nomenclature is developing. “Unorthodox,” for example, means “breaking with tradition, often with overtones of creativity and new insight.” Good gravy!

If we were to fix this language problem, we’d add a second qualifying dimension, and perhaps come up with a couple of new terms.

doxy2So we’d have “orthodoxy,” true doctrine, as opposed to “pseudodoxy,” false doctrine. And we’d have “heterodoxy,” different than our tradition, as opposed to “plesiodoxy,” near to our tradition.

The problem is that this remedy cannot be administered retroactively. The Church Fathers did indeed consider orthodoxy and heterodoxy dichotomous and single-dimensioned. Tradition was extraordinarily vital for preservation of the faith.

Why was it vital? The Fathers were dealing with three issues: Antiquated philosophy, false science, and logistical challenges.

The Fathers’ Strategy

Here are two uncomfortable facts to admit as Christians:

  • Early theologians were not that great at answering question #1.
  • Early theologians were really bad at answering question #2.

This isn’t to prop ourselves up as superior giants. It’s to merely admit the fact that when we stand on the shoulders of giants, we are net-taller than giants. We have post-Enlightenment philosophy. We have pivotal scientific discoveries from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries that have eliminated mistaken assumptions about how organisms operate. And so on.

Listen. Aristotle was smarter than you or I will ever be. But he also thought air, fire, water, and earth were elements.

We’re not boasting; we just have better tools. And it’s not like we built those tools ourselves. We received them as Christmas presents, for heaven’s sake.

Lacking those better tools, the ingenious progenitors of our theology did their best with what tools they had. Questions #3, #4, and #5 had primacy. “Don’t tolerate teachings other than the ones you received!” was the constant refrain from Fathers like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch.

But tradition is notoriously dynamic and volatile, especially given the logistical difficulties of the era. So the early Fathers — even up to the Apostles — came up with a way to settle it down.

doxy4By metaphor, the Hat of Approval is the deference given to the hierarchical authority of the Church, especially that which is expressed in Council decisions. We see the roots of “pleisodox/orthodox” conflation take root as a product of this logistical necessity.


It’s not perfect, but it was almost certainly necessary. And that appears to be the seed that, down the road, blossomed into our current semantic confusion.

Sad Ending

When discussing how to “fix” problematic nomenclature, there are roughly three routes you can take:

  1. Keep the existing nomenclature, but refine the definition (e.g., “‘Orthodox’ now means traditional doctrine, not true doctrine.”) This has partially happened already, just not “officially.”
  2. Create new nomenclature completely (like in the four-pronged diagram above).
  3. Abandon the remedial project and stick with what we have, and wherever it’s going.

All three options will catalyze all sorts of communication problems, but of different kinds.

I apologize for the sad ending. Confident, “100% upside” direction is often preferred by folks in general, even if it’s untrue.