John Frame:

A true and valid reductio must be distinguished from its fallacious imitators, one of which is the ‘slippery slope’ argument. A slippery slope argument goes like this.

‘If you take position A, you run the risk of taking position B;

position B is wrong,

therefore A is also wrong.’

Thus it is sometimes said that once one abandons belief in a pretribulational rapture, he runs the risk of denying the bodily return of Christ altogether, thus opening himself up to a thoroughgoing liberalism.

Or it is sometimes argued that if one accepts the textual criticism of Westcott and Hort, he runs the risk of denying biblical authority altogether.

Thus the slippery slope argument appeals to fear—to our fear of taking undue risks and to our fear of being linked with people (such as liberals), disapproved of in our circles, lest we incur guilt by association.

Often slippery slope arguments are buttressed by historical examples.

Such-and-such a theologian began by denying, say, total abstinence from alcoholic beverages, and five years later he abandoned the Christian faith.

Or such-and-such a denomination rejected the exclusive use of Psalms as hymns in worship, and twenty-five years later it capitulated to liberalism. . . .

In general, they prove nothing.

Usually, they do not rest on a sufficient statistical sample to establish even probable conclusions.

And they ignore the complexities of historical causation.

A denomination becomes liberal for many reasons, never just one. On the one hand, it may well be that rejection of exclusive Psalmody is in some cases at least a symptom of advancing liberalism. (I say that as an opponent of exclusive Psalmody, who nevertheless recognizes that people sometimes reject exclusive Psalmody for very bad reasons.) On the other hand, the denomination may be rejecting exclusive Psalmody for good reasons. This development may be quite independent of any trend toward liberalism, or it may bear a paradoxical relation to that trend. For example, the liberal trend may, for a time, help the church to break free of unbiblical traditions—God’s bringing a good result out of an overall evil development. (It could be argued that the development toward liberalism in the Presbyterian Church U.S., for example, enabled that denomination to take a strong stand against dispensationalism, a stand that to many nonliberals was a good thing.)

Thus not very much can be deduced from historical examples. They ought to make us think twice about what we are doing. They suggest possibilities, but they are never normative in themselves.

—John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987), 274-275.

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29 thoughts on “Why Slippery Slope Arguments Can Be Too Slippery”

  1. Danny says:

    Perhaps the slippery slope argument has never been defined? I’m sure the pointy heads have in fact defined it. However, as it is used by the regular ham&eggers, go like this: position A is wrong and not biblical, position B is worse given A+B.

  2. Patrick Schreiner says:

    We talked about this type of argument in class the other day. I agree it is usually not the best kind of argument. The slope is not always slippery and it is usually fear mongering.

  3. Chris Taylor says:

    I agree with Dr. Frame, which is why I disagree with Dr. Frame, Dr. Grudem, and CBMW in general. Dr. Grudem tries to use the slippery slope on evangelical feminists, but that assumes that evangelical feminism is not the problem itself.

    1. Jason says:

      I agree, there is not a need for a slippery slope in the argument against feminism. The word feminism means that being a female is sufficient and complete. The word is opposed to Christianity and its teaching that our identity is in Christ not ourselves. So creating a slippery slope argument is simply a compromise against feminism. Adding evangelical to the term does not magically make it okay within orthodox Christianity, it just muddies the waters.

      1. Danny says:

        Awesome!

      2. Dan Arnold says:

        Jason, could you give me an example of a Christian feminist who defines feminism this way?

  4. Inchristus says:

    BAM! @ Chris Taylor!!
    It’s intellectually shameful how many (esp. Grudem) use this fallacious reasoning against biblical egalitarianism.

  5. pduggie says:

    I like Frame generally, but there is a real slippery slope argument that isn’t a fallacy. The conclusion of it shouldn’t really be “A is wrong”, but “A may be too dangerous” or “we must have safeguards to prevent B”. Ie. The RISK is a real risk, and we should treat it like a real risk and insure or protect against it.

    Law professor Eugene Volokh has done some good work on this. One of the interesting points he makes is that when the Equal Rights Ammendment was debated, opponents said “This will lead to Gay marriage” and proponents dismissed that argument. When Massachusetts courts determined that the state had to provide gay marriage, it was their own state ERA that was part of the basis for their decision.

    “Volokh uses the example “gun registration may lead to gun confiscation” to describe six types of slippage:

    Cost-lowering: Once all gun owners have registered their firearms, the government will know exactly from whom to confiscate firearms. Gun-control opponents argue against limits on the sale of “assault weapons” because the confiscation of sportsmen’s shotguns will soon follow. Meanwhile, government officials defend their inflexible enforcement of a regulation, even in circumstances that some see as unfair, because allowing an exception would open the floodgates.

    Legal rule combination: Previously the government might need to search every house to confiscate guns, and such a search would violate the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
    Registration would eliminate that problem.

    Attitude altering: People may begin to think of gun ownership as a privilege rather than a right, and thus regard gun confiscation less seriously.

    Small change tolerance, colloquially referred to as the “boiling frog”: People may ignore gun registration because it constitutes just a small change, but when combined with other small changes, it could lead to the equivalent of confiscation.

    Political power: The hassle of registration may reduce the number of gun owners, and thus the political power of the gun-ownership bloc.

    Political momentum: Once the government has passed this gun law it becomes easier to pass other gun laws, including laws like confiscation.” (wikipedia)

    I think the best slippery slope warnings take the form of helping the weak. A weak person might decide to go back to idolatry if they see you eating meat that was offered to idols, etc. A poor dumb believer might drop their faith if you say the bible is super complicated and a historical Adam doesn’t fit.

  6. Ryan says:

    The beginning of Dr. Frame’s remarks refer to a “true and valid reductio” which “must be distinguished from its *fallacious* imitators, one of which is the ‘slippery slope’ argument.” People use the term “slippery slope” in different ways. Sometimes they use it in a broad sense to refer to the kind of fear-based argument that Dr. Frame is critiquing. If you use the slippery slope in the broad sense, you’re saying that if one accepts A, then they *might* slipe further down the slope and accept B, where B is some positition that the person currently denies. Hence the person shoudl be wary (be “fearful of”) accepting or affirming A.

    But sometimes people use the term ‘slippery slope’ when referring to a strict, valid reductio argument. In a reductio, you demonstrate that if a person accepts A, then they should also accept B *because there is no principled distinction between the two.* And position B is either unpalatable to the person or is explicitly denied by the person. So in the more narrow usage of the term ‘slippery slope,’ you’re trying to show the person that they *already* have slipped down the slope, even though they don’t see it yet.

    Frame is critiquing the broad kind of ‘slippery slope argument.’ But when Frame, Grudem (and others) use slippery-slope arguments in other contexts, it’s usually in the more narrow sense.

    1. Danny says:

      That’s what we need is a good academic definition. Because, you know, the academy owns the language.

  7. Inchristus says:

    Yes. I understand the distinction between the broad/narrow arguments. John Hick’s early pilgrimage away from orthodoxy is an example of the narrow version, for example. However, Grudem’s repeated broad brushing swipes at biblical egalitarians suggests he’s not making many valid distinctions. No biblically-minded evangelical who is an egalitarian would deny the authority of Scripture. There are hermeneutical differences but this is not the same as denying biblical authority. Grudem repeatedly makes this mistake.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Here is Grudem’s detailed attempt to substantiate his argument:

      http://www.crossway.org/books/evangelical-feminism-tpb/

      As Carson says, “I know full well that many dispute this point, but in my judgment, the kind of hermeneutics on which evangelical egalitarianism is based is so weak and disturbing that it opens the door for numerous other distortions of Scripture to multiply.”

  8. Jason says:

    I’m not sure how helpful it is to define an argument by what it is not. If I were to say “There is a such thing as a real fish, but they must be distinguished from fake fish” and then I spend time defining everything that is not a fish. Upon the completion of my article, I have given no more information as to what a fish actually is, I just have a much more robust understanding as to what they are not. The article begs the question, what is a good example of a valid slippery slope argument?

  9. Jesse says:

    What do you think about the argument against homosexuality that if accept homosexuality, then you have to accept all other forms of sexuality? Beastiality, polygamy, incest, and so on … Is this a slippery slope?

    1. Jason says:

      The argument for homosexuality apparently depends upon arguing that homosexuality is part of one’s nature and thus should be okay. If we accept that argument than it would be inconsistent to not extend the same courtesy to those who make the same argument against bestiality, polygamy, etc. It is necessary to add another aspect to the argument to separate homosexuality from the others (such as consenting adults) but this still causes issues with incest, polygamy, and so on. Ultimately, I think it makes better sense to argue from the Bible. The Bible does not concern itself with the nature vs nurture argument but rather prohibits sexual sin obedience through self control.

  10. Martin says:

    Agreeing with Chris and Inchristus. An issue as important as Christ-centered egalitarianism (affecting half the church; including our wives, our sisters, our daughters) needs to be vetted on its own, without the fear of error. Fear pushes us into corners where the only truth we find is what we have ourselves fabricated.

    Slippery slope arguments are based on fears of the unknown and cultural bias. They distort our thinking.

    A good read for all of us seeking truth is ‘The Geography of Thought’ by Richard Nisbett.

    1. Chris Taylor says:

      Martin, I think you misunderstood my comment. I’m only concerned that Grudem et al. seem to think egalitarianism is a viable biblical interpretation. It’s almost as if they believe that egalitarianism is okay, just not what comes next. On the other hand, I’m convinced that egalitarian thought itself is contrary to the biblical witness. In this sense, it doesn’t really matter what comes next, since egalitarians have already identified themselves as opposed to the New Testament.

      Be well.

      1. Justin Taylor says:

        Chris, that’s how I originally took your comment—but found it confusing. I don’t think Grudem has ever given the impression that egalitarianism is itself a viable biblical interpretation. He’s given hunderes and hundreds of pages arguing the opposite.

  11. Chris Taylor says:

    I agree that Dr. Grudem has written much to show that egalitarianism is not compatible with the New Testament. However, it is also evident that Dr. Grudem, and CBMW more generally, usually guard their writings with ambiguous statements as to the orthodoxy of egalitarian interpretations.

    This from JBMW XV-2 (page 3):


    (3) There is such a thing as the slippery slope. This is the argument of Wayne Grudem’s helpful little book Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism (Crossway, 2006). There are a number of hermeneutical and theological moves made by egalitarians that seem to create a slippery slope toward liberalism. That is not to say that all egalitarians become liberals (Millard Erickson and Roger Nicole, for example, remain evangelical stalwarts). It is to say that where egalitarian modes of argument are embraced, subsequent generations are at risk for even greater error….

    Complementarians often say: ‘Egalitarians are not necessarily liberal theologians, but they almost always end up that way.’ I understand that there are many aspects of theology that need to be assessed before calling someone and all-out-liberal theologically speaking, so maybe I can just start by pointing out that immature Egalitarians are merely ‘slippery-liberals’, a little wet behind the ears, but when they are full grown, they will likely develop into ‘authentic-liberals’.

    Be well.

  12. Martin says:

    Chris, thanks for your clarification. I apologize for misunderstanding your post. That being said, after years in churches that have embraced a complementation view; I, by faith, hold the egalitarian view. I do not wish to debate the view here and I don’t think wish to either. However, I would hardly call me or the Evangelical Covenant Church of which I am a member, liberal. To be clear, I don’t think you are saying that.

    But, what I am saying is that we should not fear that holding an egalitarian view would make us liberal and, thus, we shut the door on finding truth. You have found it in the complementation view. I have found it in the egalitarian position. The position we each hold should be held by faith. Agreed?

    1. Chris Taylor says:

      Martin,

      This is a hard one. Your ECC church may not have a full-blown liberal agenda, but if you have female pastors/preachers, it is a liberal church, by comparison. Meaning, you will not find that happening in a conservative church, regardless of where it falls in its other doctrinal distinctives.

      We all know there are various aspects of the faith, where God fearing men have agreed to disagree: the mode and timing of baptism; Covenant vs. Dispensational theology; Congregational vs Presbyterian church polity; etc. In all of these types of areas, there are legitimate areas where men faithfully come to different conclusions, even though they all use a similar hermeneutic. Some things are simply not that clear in the Scriptures, and we have to develop a broader biblical theology with countless ‘good and necessary’ inferences to maintain any one of these positions.

      The difficulty with the egalitarian position is that you have to adopt a different hermeneutic altogether: one that can trump the clear commands of the New Testament. When Paul says, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man, …’, the egalitarian is forced to adopt a hermeneutic that allows him limit Paul’s commands to a certain historical or geographical situation. Once you’ve adopted such a hermeneutic, you lose the ability to hold the rest of the New Testaments teachings as once for all delivered. Hence the talk of slippery slopes.

      To be sure, God fearing men can faithfully hold an egalitarian position, and be members in good standing with most any evangelical church. However, I would submit that a church that has embraced an egalitarian position is no longer a conservative evangelical church, and so far, I’ve never heard of a liberal or progressive evangelical church.

      Be well.

      1. Inchristus says:

        Chris Taylor:
        What is “clear” to you is based upon your hermeneutical grid, which is not so clear to all. This does not, therefore, make one “liberal” merely because they do not share your presuppositions. I take it you’ve not read in detail, Phil Payne’s treatment of 1 Tim 2:11-15 (see chapters 16-21 of his magisterial Man and Woman, One in Christ). Granted you may have read critiques but I urge you to carefully read him (and many others as well who are conservative, evangelical). For a summary, see my 10-part series here.

  13. Caleb Suko says:

    Justin this is a helpful post. I’ve always suspected that the “slippery slope” arguments were weak but I never took the time to figure out why.

    Another aspect is that the argument is circumstantial. We can always find someone that has taken a truth and then went off the deep end. Sin is just that way. You don’t even have to be on a slippery slope to fall, you can fall when your standing firm on the truth.

  14. Martin says:

    I have a question that I am asking in all sincerity … often pondered the question, but never asked it.

    Wikipedia defines Biblical hermeneutics as the following: “Biblical hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation concerning the books of the Bible. It is part of the broader field of hermeneutics which involves the study of principles for the text and includes all forms of communication: verbal and nonverbal … and …

    Hermeneutics (/hɜrməˈnjuːtɪks/), broadly, is the art of text interpretation. Traditional hermeneutics is the study of the interpretation of written texts, especially texts in the areas of literature, religion and law. A type of traditional hermeneutic is biblical hermeneutics which concerns the study of the interpretation of the Bible. In religious studies and social philosophy, hermeneutics is the study of the theory and practice of interpretation.”

    My question is this … “is hermeneutical theory of God or is it a man-initiated construct based on our intelligence and ability to reason?”

  15. Chris Taylor says:

    Martin,

    Here’s my quick attempt to answer your question, ‘is hermeneutical theory of God or is it a man-initiated construct based on our intelligence and ability to reason?’.

    First, it is of God. That is, God created language as a means of communicating, and he identifies himself, in the person of Jesus, as the Word. He means to be understood and we may not bear false witness about what he has said.

    Not only this, we have his own witness in his Word on how to handle the Word.

    ————–

    (Luk 10:26) 26 And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?”

    (2Pe 1:20-21) 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

    (Mark 12:24) “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?”

    (1Co 2:13) which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.

    (Phi 1:9-10) 9 And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ;

    (2Ti 2:7) 7 Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

    (Col 1:9) 9 For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,

    (2Pe 3:15-18) 15 and regard the patience of our Lord to be salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard lest, being carried away by the error of unprincipled men, you fall from your own steadfastness, 18 but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

    —————-

    Because we of all that is written above, and much more like it in the Bible, we use logic and reason and prayer to wrestle with the Word.

    Be well.

  16. Martin says:

    So, it sounds like reason and intellect are God-given and God-ordained. Hermeneutical theories are the products or mechanisms utilized by our intellect. Hermeneutics (and, especially, a particular set of interpretive principles or, at least, the application of those principles) is not, in and of itself, God-sanctioned. At least, that’s my take.

    Now … about what you wrote, Chris … “I would submit that a church that has embraced an egalitarian position is no longer a conservative evangelical church, and so far, I’ve never heard of a liberal or progressive evangelical church.”

    Am I correct in concluding that you do not think my Evangelical Covenant Church is an evangelical church?

    1. Chris Taylor says:

      Hey Martin,

      I think you are mostly right. No one has a lock on which hermeneutical approach is the best or closest to Eden. In fact, we could probably argue that various approaches are appropriate depending on the genre of a text, etc. That said, we do have a lot of cross testamental treatment within the Canon. We can see how Jeremiah handled Daniel, Jesus handled Isaiah, Mark handled Isaiah, Luke handled Malachi, Paul handled Moses, Peter handled Paul, etc, etc. In a way, we are given a circular roadmap of how to handle the Bible.

      As far as the ECC goes, I should probably re-think my statement that I haven’t heard of a progressive evangelical church. I tend to think of evangelicals through the lens of Martin Lloyd-Jones’ little book, ‘What is an Evangelical?’ My guess is that definition is no longer appropriate. Today we do have liberal evangelical churches. If ECC churches has female pastors, it’s probably fine these days for them to call themselves evangelical, but I would submit, it’s probably not intellectually honest for them to call themselves conservative.

      Thanks for the generous dialogue.

      Be well.

  17. Martin says:

    Chris, thanks for the reply. I can live with that. Our church has warts, too. But, our pews are filled with people who love Jesus and have given themselves in service to the Lord and to a growing number of individuals in recovery from drugs, alcohol and debilitating lifestyles.

    Shalom

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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