Now, About Those Differences, Part Seven: Second Premise Arguments

July 16, 2010

Making generalizations about either fundamentalists or other evangelicals is a bit presumptuous. Both groups are quite diverse, and exceptions can be found to most generalizations. Non-fundamentalistic evangelicalism covers an especially broad array of influences and movements.

The diversity of each group has rarely been realized by the other, however, and so each group does tend to posit generalizations about the other. One of those generalizations has to do with the matter of worldliness and legalism. Fundamentalists tend to think of other evangelicals as worldly. Those evangelicals tend to think of fundamentalists as legalistic.

We are not yet to the point of weighing the merits of these perceptions. For the moment, what we are trying to do is to understand what each group means when it speaks about the other. What do fundamentalists see that leads them to think evangelicals are worldly? What do evangelicals see that leads them to perceive fundamentalists as legalistic?

Articulating these perceptions more fully will be useful in two ways. First, it will furnish us with criteria for assessing the merits of the judgments that evangelicals and fundamentalists make about each other. Second, it will provide us with a device for distinguishing some evangelicals from other evangelicals as well as some fundamentalists from other fundamentalists.

In a previous discussion, I have suggested that the mutual recriminations of fundamentalists and evangelicals center upon two areas: standards of conduct and methods of ministry. I have further suggested that controversy over standards of conduct centers upon two kinds of issues: revivalistic taboos and second-premise arguments.

By second-premise arguments, I mean those attempts to apply Scripture that rely not only upon a premise supplied by a specific biblical passage or principle but also upon a premise supplied from outside of Scripture. The outside (second) premise may come from any of a variety of sources: intuition, experience, observation, deduction, tradition, or even authority. The second premise provides the warrant for applying the biblical statement or principle to a particular situation.

Here is an example of a second-premise argument.

Biblical principle: Christians should not engage in enslaving behavior (1 Cor. 6:12).
Outside premise: The recreational use of heroin is enslaving behavior.
Conclusion: Christians should not engage in the recreational use of heroin.

What I am trying to do here is to articulate an argument that I think will be acceptable to the majority of both parties. Perhaps there are better ways of making the argument, but very few evangelicals or fundamentalists are actively advocating the recreational use of heroin as a matter of Christian liberty. Most would actually deploy several related arguments to support their stance against the recreational use of heroin: it is addictive, it is physically destructive, it damages the testimony, it is illegal, etc. My point is not to evaluate these arguments. My point is simply that they are all second-premise arguments. They all rely upon some information or perspective that comes from outside of Scripture.

Without second-premise arguments, we would not be able to apply Scripture at all. Because our names do not occur in the text, the applicability of virtually every biblical promise, command, prohibition, and principle depends upon some version of the second-premise argument. This is true even in the matter of salvation. Here is an example.

Biblical principle: God commands all humans everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).
Outside premise: I am a human.
Conclusion: God commands me to repent.

This argument is so natural for us that we do not even realize that we are making it. Unless we did, however, we could not apply the text to our own situation. The strength of the argument depends upon the certainty of the assertion that we are humans. Since our confidence in this assertion is unshakable, we regard the application of the text as certain.

We regularly employ second-premise arguments in our moral reasoning. For example, consider a woman who is thinking about feeding her husband a large quantity of arsenic. For moral guidance we point her to Exodus 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill.” How do we respond if she asks, “What Scripture tells me that feeding arsenic to my husband will kill him?” We would reply that we do not need such a Scripture. We have other ways of knowing the consequences of ingesting arsenic, and it is precisely those ways that allow us to apply the biblical commandment to her situation.

Both evangelicals and fundamentalists rely upon second-premise arguments in all sorts of ways. When it comes to moral applications, however, I think it is fair to say that the more explicitly an argument relies upon the second premise, the more evangelicals tend to become suspicious of it, while fundamentalists tend to remain unbothered. In other words, many fundamentalists are willing to apply some second-premise arguments that many evangelicals find specious.

What are some examples of second premises over which evangelicals and fundamentalists might differ? Here is a very partial sampling.

  • Music is sensual (or rebellious).
  • Bikinis are immodest.
  • Theater is spiritually subversive.
  • Piercings and tattoos are worldly.

These premises pertain to the kind of issues over which fundamentalists and other evangelicals typically differ (though younger fundamentalists are inclined to take the evangelical side). What these premises have in common is that they rely upon an element of judgment. In the case of music, how does one judge whether a particular composition expresses rebellion or sensuality? For that matter, when is it wrong to expose one’s self to expressions of rebellion or sensuality? In the case of bikinis, how much exposure constitutes immodesty? Might this vary depending upon one’s culture? In the case of theater, how and why is it judged to be spiritually subversive? As for piercings and tattoos, are they always and necessarily worldly? If so, what makes them worldly? If not, how can we tell the worldly ones from the non-worldly ones?

Precisely because they do not come from Scripture, second premises are always subject to evaluation. To question a second premise is not to question biblical authority. Second premises can and should be examined.

Fundamentalists have sometimes failed to subject their second premises to careful examination. This failure has resulted in silly and sometimes scandalous applications of Scripture. This is the mechanism that some fundamentalists have used to prohibit slacks for women, ban interracial dating, and insist upon the mandatory use of a particular version of the Bible. One fundamentalist leader spent years denouncing the “demon of the AWANA circle.” No wonder some are skeptical of their judgments.

On the other hand, evangelicals have sometimes refused to accept any second-premise argument that relies upon a judgment. Evaluations of matters like dress or the arts are thought to be too subjective to be useful. In these areas, second-premise arguments are dismissed out of hand.

Neither extreme is really useful, and neither extreme gets one to the correct application of biblical precepts and principles. Of course, neither fundamentalists nor other evangelicals necessarily go to the extreme. Nevertheless, in general they do seem to follow these tendencies. Fundamentalists more readily accept second-premise arguments when the second premise relies upon an element of judgment, while evangelicals more quickly reject those arguments.

The True Christmas
Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)

SO, stick up ivy and the bays,
And then restore the heathen ways.
Green will remind you of the spring,
Though this great day denies the thing ;
And mortifies the earth, and all
But your wild revels, and loose hall.
Could you wear flow’rs, and roses strow
Blushing upon your breasts’ warm snow,
That very dress your lightness will
Rebuke, and wither at the ill.
The brightness of this day we owe
Not unto music, masque, nor show,
Nor gallant furniture, nor plate,
But to the manger’s mean estate.
His life while here, as well as birth,
Was but a check to pomp and mirth ;
And all man’s greatness you may see
Condemned by His humility.

Then leave your open house and noise,
To welcome Him with holy joys,
And the poor shepherds’ watchfulness,
Whom light and hymns from Heav’n did bless.
What you abound with, cast abroad
To those that want, and ease your load.
Who empties thus, will bring more in ;
But riot is both loss and sin.
Dress finely what comes not in sight,
And then you keep your Christmas right.

This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.