The informal fallacy of false dichotomy (or false dilemma) is committed when two options are mistakenly or misleadingly presented as the only two possible or viable options. George W. Bush famously declared after 9/11, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” Whatever the rhetorical merits of his statement, it was, strictly speaking, an example of false dichotomy. There was no obvious logical inconsistency in adopting a position that neither supported nor hindered the Bush administration’s anti-terror policies. (Bush’s statement echoed Jesus’ even more provocative claim, but I would argue that in Jesus’ case there was no false dichotomy. As analytic philosophers would say, with typical understatement, George W. Bush and Jesus are “relevantly different”.)
The fallacy of false dichotomy is often committed in debates over the proper subjects of Christian baptism. The question is asked: Should or shouldn’t the children of believers receive baptism? Posed in that way, the question presupposes that there are only two options: paedobaptism or credobaptism (believers’ baptism). But ethicists recognize that with respect to a particular activity A, there are always three possible options:
- A is obligatory (e.g., adoration of God is obligatory).
- A is forbidden (e.g., adultery is forbidden).
- A is permitted, that is, neither forbidden nor required (e.g., arm wrestling is permitted).
Applying this to the debate over infant baptism, we can see that there are three possible positions to take:
- The baptism of infants is required (paedobaptist view).
- The baptism of infants is forbidden (credobaptist view).
- The baptism of infants is permitted, that is, neither forbidden nor required (dual-practice view).
The third position is routinely overlooked in contemporary debates over baptism, but that’s unfortunate and unwarranted. Of course, the mere fact that a position is logically possible is no reason to accept it; but neither is its neglect a reason to reject it. I don’t hold the dual-practice view and I could raise a number of arguments against it, but it’s a historically respectable position (it was held by no less a scholar than David F. Wright, who argued that it was commonplace in the early church) and since it lies in the logical (or deontological!) space between paedobaptism and credobaptism, it can surely be no less compatible with Christian orthodoxy.
For this reason, I was pleased to see that all three positions will be represented in a forthcoming book, Baptism: Three Views, due to be published by IVP in September. (David Wright edited the book; it was one of his last projects before the Lord called him home.)
I’ve suggested that the baptism debate in general tends to illustrate the fallacy of false dichotomy. But can I point to any particular instance? Actually, yes. When the above book was mentioned on another blog recently, one commenter joked that the dual-practive view used to be called “refusing to take a stand”. Joking aside, the comment reflects a misconception of the dual-practice view and the baptism debate as a whole. Defenders of the dual-practice view don’t refuse to take a stand. On the contrary, they take their stand on the position that infant baptism is neither required (as paedobaptists hold) nor forbidden (as credobaptists hold). This is a coherent position in its own right. But whether it can be justified from Scripture is another matter altogether; it will be interesting to see what Anthony Lane has to say in its defense.