The Reverse Reference Fallacy

Seems like the question of Jesus and his use of Exodus 3 is a hot topic right now, and I’ll have more to say on the subject. Right now, though, I think it would be a good time to turn our attention to a very common fallacy I see a lot of in the area of Bible interpretation, and that’s a fallacy I call the Reverse Reference fallacy. It’s fairly simple to describe, and fairly simple to detect, provided you disagree with whoever is committing the fallacy. Sadly, it is all but impossible to notice when the people promoting it are people you happen to agree with.

It works like this: So-and-so teaches some doctrine or tradition that refers to a particular passage of Scripture, and therefore that passage of Scripture is referring to the doctrine or tradition that So-and-so teaches. Amazingly, this sort of reasoning holds true even when we’re talking about a doctrine or tradition that arose centuries after the writing of the Scripture that supposedly refers to it! It sounds almost ridiculously easy to recognize as a fallacy when we lay it out in those terms, but in actual practice a lot of believers find it a great deal harder.

Sadly, there are a huge number of practical examples we can choose from. For example, let’s take the idea of papal supremacy. According to Roman Catholic tradition, Jesus established the office of the Pope, and bestowed that office on the apostle Peter, in Matthew 16:18.

[Jesus said] “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

Most Protestants can read that verse and realize that there is nothing written in that verse about the creation of a successible papal office that would serve as Christ’s personal representative on earth, in a position of supreme authority over all other earthly church offices. The words needed to express such an idea are simply not present in the text that the Catholic tradition refers to. Because Catholics agree with the tradition, however, they see Matthew 16:18 as a reference to the tradition of papal supremacy, and therefore the absence of the relevant words doesn’t matter. The tradition refers to the Scripture, and therefore that Scripture refers to that tradition, at least in Catholic eyes.

Protestants can’t understand why Catholics would make such a mistake, but it’s one they readily make themselves, under slightly different circumstances. For example, the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone refers to Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Because the tradition of salvation by faith alone refers to Eph. 2:8-9, Protestants see Eph. 2:8-9 as a reference to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, even though the crucial word “alone” is not actually in the text (and even though James 2:24, the only direct reference to “faith alone” in the Bible, says explicitly that “man is justified by works and not by faith alone”).

The Reverse Reference fallacy is one of the most powerful tools believers use to make the Bible say whatever they want. Because the desired doctrine does not need to be actually, literally written in the Bible text itself, you can attach virtually any idea you want, just by having it refer to a passage of Scripture and then pulling a Reverse Reference. Creationists, for example, teach that Biblical “kinds” are fixed, and cannot evolve over time, and then they quote Genesis 1:24, where God says “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.”

There’s nowhere in Genesis 1 where it is actually written that the kinds themselves cannot change over time, nor does evolution say that one “kind” of organism ever gives birth to a different “kind.” Each species reproduces according to its own kind, even in evolution. It’s just that the “kind” itself changes, over many generations, into different, descendant “kinds.” Genesis 1:24 says absolutely nothing that would make evolution wrong, yet because the creationist traditions refer to Genesis 1:24, then by Reverse Reference, Genesis 1:24 must be a reference to creationist traditions. It’s a fallacy, but try and show that to a creationist. They know, and they know that they know, that Genesis 1:24, the most ancient of texts, is a reference to a tradition that, historically, is a fairly recent addition even to creationist dogma.

Or look at the Rapture. In the early 1800’s, a rumor began to spread among Pentecostal Christians that there was going to be a literal Great Tribulation, but that Jesus would return before these dreadful events to carry good and faithful Christians safely out of harm’s way. This new tradition refers to I Thessalonians 4:13-17, a passage which says absolutely nothing about Jesus coming back before any Great Tribulation, but ask any fan of the Left Behind series (shudder), and they can tell you: pretribulationist tradition refers to I Thess. 4, and therefore I Thess. 4 refers to pretribulational traditions.

That’s not even going into all the permutations and variations that the so-called “cults” exploit in order to convince people that the Bible teaches ideas that no one in the first century ever even heard of. The Reverse Reference fallacy is extremely widespread because it so effectively exploits the Bible’s main strength, which is that you can easily read into it whatever you think it should say, and then claim divine authority for the ideas you “found” in its pages. Given that kind of power, it’s no wonder people are so eager to promote it, for their own ends.

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Posted in Unapologetics. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “The Reverse Reference Fallacy”

  1. Josh Says:

    Well said. Even though I’m now an atheist (for about 2 years), it was easy to see the fallacy in your first example (from Matthew), but harder to see it in the second (from Ephesians). This is a powerful fallacy indeed!

  2. mikespeir Says:

    Let’s just contrive something we’ll call “canonical context.” We’ll say that the whole Canon was inspired by one Mind, and what that Mind thought of 3000 years ago was only meant to be fully revealed a thousand years later as the True Teaching came to be realized. There, wasn’t that easy? We can hardly miss with that kind of hermeneutic.

  3. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Shhh, Rev. Moon isn’t ready to have the full revelation released to the public yet….