This is an argumentative device in debate, and, I should add, an improper device at that. Ad Hominem is a Latin phrase that literally means, to the person. It refers to two different fallacies in argument:
- Making an appeal to emotion or prejudice rather than to logic or rational thought
- Attacking a person’s character rather than the substance of their argument
This is a favorite device of many politicians who play to emotions when pitching their plans rather than expounding the merits of their proposals. They also use ad hominem to discredit their opponents rather than rationally debate the merits of their opponents’ plans.
I will forego giving examples of ad hominem arguments in order to give time and space to our purpose in considering it: What concern should Christians have for ad hominem arguments, besides being careful not to use such a device? Note also that in this post I want to restrict the consideration to the second definition given above, though many good applications could also be made from the first.
Though personal attacks are technically out of bounds in good debate, evil men break rules (the law) because they are evil. It should not surprise us when the world does precisely that rather than answer the arguments we make for the truth of God’s Word. This is what Jesus faced when the people asked, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things?” (Matthew 13:55-56). The disciples were likewise despised because they were fishermen from Galilee. We can be sure to be despised and attacked personally over something in our life, e.g. birthplace, nationality, education, lack of education, physical impediments, etc.
We can do nothing about many of our physical attributes for which we may be despised. Though it is bad form to attack one’s person and it may be inconsequential to the subject at hand, it may also be perfectly true that we are short, fat, bald, or whatever and we will have to bear all such reproaches patiently.
Additionally, the ad hominem response may take the form of accusations against us of wrongdoing. Say that a certain man is ably and eloquently setting forth the doctrines of grace to a group of people. And then, someone in the corner yells, “Yeah, God may be sovereign but you’re an adulterer.” You know as well as I do, if that accusation is true, everything the man has said is lost and the party is over. I realize that if he was speaking the truth, the fact he was an adulterer does not alter the truth he spoke and I will try to deal with that aspect in another post where I consider ad hominem in evaluation of an argument and its impact on a Christian.
What is our response to be to this sort of ad hominem? There are two things primarily that we must consider in this regard. First, we must ensure that the accusation is not true. In other words, we must ever seek to have a conscience void of offense toward God and man (Acts 24:16). Actually, through a godly life we will give weight to our words and put to silence our detractors (1 Peter 2:12, 15; Titus 2:7-8). Secondly, we should rejoice. That’s right, when we are falsely accused, we should rejoice, “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).