West Wing Fallacy

Stop, just stop.

Stop using civil passages in the Torah to prove a point about morality!     

Evermore do I see this nonsense.  When a piffy social media post takes the civil laws of the Torah (first five book of the Bible) such as eating shrimp, touching a dead body, stoning, laws about fabrics, etc…, and somehow tries to prove a point about morality and the hypocrisy of Christians. 

The episode of the television show The West Wing had such a moment.  In the attempt to put some right wing, Christian fundamentalist in her place, the savvy President (Martin Sheen) points to the Torah to embarrass and display her hypocrisy and irrational view of scripture.

I see the same argument make its rounds all the time.  Let me try for a moment to help the believer and engage with those that think there is logic in this line of thinking. 

First, do you know what a straw man argument is?   It is an attempt to misrepresent a position.  Then, having misrepresented a position, an argument is made against the misrepresentation.  For instance a woman in general does not believe fast food is healthy and does not buy it for her family, yet she happens to enjoy a fast food coffee every once and again.  So she drives through the line and picks the coffee up through the window.  Just so happens the coffee cup is in her car as she take the car to be detailed.  The detailing person sees the cup and creates a representation of this woman in his mind as being a soccer mom who always feeds her family fast food and who is too lazy/busy to cook.  The detailing person then attacks the woman citing all the statistics of how unhealthy fast food is and describing how she should make time to cook a healthy meal for her family.  The woman is taken back and angered because that is not her position at all.  She just likes a cup of JO every now and then. 

Now the detailing person has done several wrongs here, one of them is to misrepresent the woman’s position on fast food.  He has ascribed to her an ideology that was not hers and then attacked the misrepresentation.  This is a straw man argument. 

The West Wing Fallacy is a straw man argument.  It is true that statements such as not touching a dead body, or not eating shrimp, and the like are in the Bible.  However, the context of such statements must be considered.  Sort of like the context of a fast food coffee cup found in the cup holder of a car does not tell the entire picture.  This leads us to our second point:

What is the context of the passages that say such things?  Well first let me stress the importance of taking words, and especially bible words and texts in context.  The process is called exegesis: the task/science of explaining what the Bible actually says.  This science is actually very difficult and requires much time and effort.   There is much to consider such as the original languages, the cultural times, the use of language in the culture, the covenant pieces, etc.  An average reader simply cannot just take a complex, nuanced passage and make the distinctions that are critical to actually understanding what the text is meaning.  Yet this is what happens all the time.  This type of fast and loose handling of the Bible is akin to a first year nursing student thinking because they have had one year of anatomy they are now qualified to diagnose a complex rare disease. 

Now briefly let me describe those passages so often taken out of context.  In short, those passages were written to a specific people (Israel) at a specific time (the formative period after taken out of Egypt) for a specific purpose (to distinguish them from the barbaric nations around them) for a specific duration (till the fullness of times comes and they are no longer needed). 

The Law as found in Exodus-Deuteronomy was given to Israel.  Think of it as their governing documents as a nation.  The Law is made up of two distinct parts: the civil law and the religious law.  The civil law has many types of commands.  It is these commands that many take out of context i.e. the West Wing Fallacy.  The ceremonial commands deal mostly with Israel’s worship system.   Without going in depth, the civil and ceremonial laws are set aside because of two major factors: 1. The nation of Israel was judged and is no more, thus a cessation of all civil and ceremonial commands.  This was God’s design, because a greater dimension of His covenant would soon be realized in Jesus.  2.  Because of the greater covenant in Jesus, who fulfilled all civil and ceremonial laws completely.  By his fulfillment of them, they are permanently set aside. 

The purpose of the civil and ceremonial law was specifically for Israel during that time frame.  God is in essence saying, you will not act like these other nations and here are some civil laws to separate you from them.  Also, God is proving a point with such civil commands, the point being is that He is Holy and through such civil requirements the nation is to understand how separate he is.  And to understand how separate they should strive to be: “be holy as I am holy.”  This nation was theocratic, meaning God was their king and he can institute whatever laws He desired.  As Israel failed as a nation, was judged and ultimately ended in captivity, the laws governing this nation ceased.  In fact, God promised all along a new covenant to his people.  The New Testament clearly bears out the civil laws of Israel are ceased.  Which means eating shrimp and touching dead things are no longer in force upon believers.  That is why those commands are in the Bible but not regarded as binding.  There is a distinction, a very important distinction that is being made here. 

Next, the laws pointed to an essence of morality.  In fact, there is an overarching morality in the Bible that transcends the civil laws brought to Israel.   While the civil commands ceased, the overarching morality that governs God’s creation is very much intact.  Laws concerning sexuality, marriage, murder, the tongue, etc., are found throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.  These axioms of morality have never changed and will never change.  That is why one can believe in the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman and eat shrimp without being a hypocrite.  The Bible has many overarching moral standards that are included in the civil law but also transcend the civil law and are binding for all time to all God’s creation.   In short, when civil commands have been set aside, the overarching moral commands are still very much applicable.  There is an important distinction being made here and should be considered.

The civil laws, while not being binding today, have a cultural setting.  It is extremely difficult to understand this setting, we simply live in two different worlds.  Yet, the laws are good, right, holy and have the God as the ultimate end.  These laws express above all the Holiness of God.  People simply do not understand or relate to these laws which is a testament to their unique character.   A comparison of Israel’s civil life verses other civilizations at that time would, I think, bear out a moral supremacy unrivaled.  A modern argument would be leveled against the notion of slaves in the Bible.  During that time I would argue, a slave in the context of Israel’s civil law, would have a quality of life much better than many in America who are enslaved to their master, the US government.  The point is that one tends to look over the ills and moral failures of their own culture while leveling judgement on a past culture not experienced. 

In God’s general purpose, he has established immutable laws fixed in his very nature.  Those laws are binding for all time.  Within God’s plan he has given civil and religious ceremonial ordinances to a specific nation for a specific purpose for a duration of time.  That time is up, and those laws are set aside.  This distinction is important and necessary in understanding the Bible.  To not understand this distinction and accuse a person of hypocrisy based upon this false understanding is a straw man argument.   In conclusion, when a Christian does not stone people, wear mixed fabric, or eats pork and simultaneously holds to the biblical view of marriage and definitions of men and women, they are being perfectly consistent with the teaching of the Bible and the Bible is being very consistent in its teaching.   

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