A central command of Christian scholarship is the Ninth Commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Ex. 20:14). Scholarship and writing is an ethical endeavor, not just merely intellectual. As writers, teachers, and students, we constantly witness in God’s Courtroom, deny His Providence when we falsify reality, and we erect an idol when we create falsehoods. Looking at much of the Christian scholarly world, not to mention the educational world in general, we have much to be ashamed of.
Gary DeMar wrote about one perspective of this in his article “The Sorry State of Christian Scholarship”—an appendix to Theonomy: An Informed Response, edited by Gary North. Of course, I.C.E. published this back in 1991, approaching two decades ago. DeMar describes the unfair tactics many Christians used to attack Reconstructionism. Greg Bahnsen’s book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, received a scathing review in the Westminster Theological Journal, but only after the author of the review had a deal from the editor not to allow Greg to respond. This is a fairly well-known story by now. Likewise, after Bahnsen gave eight talks over four days at Liberty University, Norm Geisler headed a forum (riddled with inaccuracies) criticizing Bahnsen and Reconstruction. Of course, he did this only after Bahnsen left. The campus called this farce “a debate,” and a poster advertised it with the boast, “EVERYONE IS INVITED.” Of course, no one told Bahnsen, the ablest debater within three continents, and they quietly let him leave before attacking him behind his back.
I returned to reread DeMar’s article only after I crossed many questionable examples of scholarship in my own recent research. Positive statement where no positive facts have been ascertained, questionable citations, and ignoring important sources, all count as abusing Truth, and thus cross the line into bearing false witness.
For example, Ronald Nash states in his book The Closing of the American Heart that John Dewey “once wrote that ‘faith in the prayer hearing God is an unproved and outmoded faith. There is no God and there is no soul. Hence, there are no needs for the props of traditional religion.… There is no room for fixed, natural law or moral absolutes.’" But we have a problem here: no one has actually produced a reliable source to prove that Dewey actually “once wrote” this. Nash himself states in his endnotes that he took this from another writer who did not even provide a source. So he should have known better than to make a definitive claim. “Attributed to Dewey” would have been more honest.
This may sound nit-picky, but it brushes the commandment, You shall not bear false witness, and thus has tremendous ethical import in God’s court. It can also create tremendous practical problems if humanists can use it as a legitimate gripe against Christian scholarship.
I first encountered this particular quotation while studying David Noebel’s fabulous work, Understanding the Times. Noebel treated it more judiciously, stating that “Ronald Nash … quotes Dewey to the effect that…,” but even this could use revision. Nash doesn’t necessarily “quote Dewey,” he quotes something he believes Dewey to have said. While it sounds like something Dewey would have said (and he does display his radical self-conscious unbelief in other places), we have no confirmation. Phrases from the first sentence of the quotation—”faith in the prayer-hearing God … is an unproved and outmoded faith”—do appear in the Preface to the Humanist Manifesto II, but this was written by Paul Kurtz and Edwin Wilson (likely influenced by Dewey, but two decades after his death). Until we actually confirm a source, we argue dishonestly in claiming one.
None of this is to say that either Nash or Noebel are poor scholars—quite the opposite! Both men have made tremendous contributions to Christian life and scholarship. I have drawn from both of these particular books in writing my current project on biblical logic. In addition, I found a lot of confirmation and help in Nash’s book Christianity and the Hellenistic World when I wrote Manifested in the Flesh. The guys are heavyweights! But this means that their minor errors get magnified more greatly than the average person’s; they are held to a higher standard, and should be.
Worse than these are cases of “plagiarism,” a label which can have legal implications (which I don’t intend here!), and many people use too loosely. In every phase of my education I was virtually threatened with expulsion if I so much as used another writer’s ideas without attribution of credit. Every student faces this. Academia generally defines and enforces “plagiarism” very strictly. For example, this comes from Harvard’s website:
Students should always take great care to distinguish their own ideas and knowledge from information derived from sources. The term “sources” includes not only published primary and secondary material, but also information and opinions gained directly from other people.… Quotations must be placed properly within quotation marks and must be cited fully. In addition, all paraphrased material must be acknowledged completely. Whenever ideas or facts are derived from a student’s reading and research or from a student’s own writings, the sources must be indicated.… Students who, for whatever reason, submit work either not their own or without clear attribution to its sources will be subject to disciplinary action, and ordinarily required to withdraw from the College.
Now that’s tough stuff. So I get furious when I see esteemed Professors—the ones who enforce these rules on trembling students—push the boundaries with no outcry from their peers. For example, S. Morris Engel’s book on logical fallacies tells the story of the debate between John Henry Cardinal Newman and novelist Charles Kingsley. Kingsley had essentially slandered Newman, calling him a perpetual liar, and Newman replied by coining the phrase “Poisoning the Well” as a logical fallacy. Problem is, the exact same story in nearly the same wordsappears to have been told a decade earlier by philosopher Alburey Castell. Compare the two passages for yourself:
During the last century a famous controversy took place between Charles Kingsley and Cardinal Newman. It began, I believe, by Kingsley suggesting that truth did not possess the highest value for a Roman Catholic priest; that some things were prized above truth. Newman protested that such a remark made it impossible for an opponent to state his case. How could Newman prove to Kingsley that he did have more regard for truth than for anything else, if Kingsley argued from the premiss that he did not? It is not merely a question of two persons entertaining contradictory opinions. It is subtler than that. To put it baldly, Newman would be logically ‘hamstrung.’ Any argument he might use to prove that he did entertain a high regard for truth was automatically ruled out by Kingsley’s hypothesis that he did not. Newman coined the expression poisoning the wells for such unfair tactics…The phrase poisoning the wells exactly hits off the difficulty. If the well is poisoned, no water drawn from it can be used. If a case is so stated that contrary evidence is automatically precluded, no arguments against it can be used.
This form of the fallacy received its name from John Henry Cardinal Newman, a nineteenth-century British church-man, in one of his frequent controversies with the clergyman and novelist Charles Kingsley. During the course of their dispute, Kingsley suggested that Newman, as a Roman Catholic priest, did not place the highest value on truth. Newman protested that such an accusation made it impossible for him, or any other Catholic, to state his case. For how could he prove to Kingsley that he had more regard for truth than anything else if Kingsley presupposed that he did not? Kingsley had automatically ruled out anything that Newman might offer in defense. Kingsley, in other words, had poisoned the well of discourse, making it impossible for anyone to partake of it.
Engel wrote much later than Castell, and yet I am quite certain that he was at least aware of Castell’s work, because he quotes Castell for a different matter just a few pages later! The idea is the same, and more than one sentence is nearly identical here. I don’t know how Engel could escape the charge of plagiarism as the academy defines it. Yet, would he allow his students to pass if they did this in his courses?
Again, this is not to say that Engel is a bad scholar. His book on fallacies stands out among the many. Gary DeMar tells me that even Greg Bahnsen preferred Engel’s work on the subject, and that’s quite an endorsement. Yet this lackadaisical example is something to be ashamed of.
Likewise, I find Norm Geisler and Roland Brooks calling the “Genetic Fallacy” a “special type of reductive fallacy,” eight years after Arlie J. Hoover wrote about the same “Genetic Fallacy” as “A special form of the reductive fallacy.” Geisler and Brooks had apparently read Hoover because they list him with only four others in their very brief bibliography. But this scant, unconnected reference will not do. While it is a mere single sentence in an entire book, the idea and the language are identical, and this calls for a citation. To leave it uncited is to present it to the public as an original thought.
I am especially ashamed of this particular book when I read the “Preface,” where Geisler states three reasons for writing it. He claims that among the many books on logic: “First, there are few directed at Christians. Further, many books go right over the head of the average person. Finally, none use theological and apologetic illustrations throughout.” The last statement is utterly false. Hoover’s book had been around for eight years, Geisler knew about it, it is perhaps the most down-to-earth of all books I have seen on fallacies, and “finally” it probably contains more theological and apologetical illustrations in a brief 132 pages than Geisler’s 232! That he would ignore this while claiming the contrary deserves an apology on his part.
I have written elsewhere that I think atheist Sam Harris crosses the line in not citing ideas and arguments from other scholars, notably Bertrand Russell. While I do not necessarily expect his atheist comrades to get up in arms over such instances (to them, any Christian-bashing is a good thing, even if it falsely pretends originality), it still transgresses intellectual honesty which he so strongly touts.
I am much more concerned, however, for Christian scholars who cross that line. Getting another paper in, or another book out, is not worth transgressing the boundary of false witness. To this we are called, and if we cannot obey it, all of our scholarship, and our work in general for that matter, holds little value. It would then become a condemnation of the God of Truth, rather than a witness for Him.
 For a thorough description, see Gary DeMar, “Appendix: The Sorry State of Christian Scholarship,” in Theonomy: An Informed Response, ed. Gary North (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), 346–358.
 Ronald H. Nash, The Closing of the American Heart: What’s Really Wrong with America’s Schools (Probe Books, 1990), 91.
 Nash, The Closing of the American Heart, 214, note 40.
 David A. Noebel, Understanding the Times: The Story of the Biblical Christian, Marxist/Leninist, and Secular Humanist Worldviews (Manitou Springs, CO: Summit Press, 1991), 55–56.
 Christianity in the Hellenistic World was later reprinted as The Gospel and the Greeks (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2003).
 “Plagiarism Policy,” http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic25367.files/Plagiarism_Policy.htm (accessed January 15, 2009); emphases mine.
 Albury Castell, “Analyzing a Fallacy,” in Readings in Speech, ed. Haig Bosmajian (New York: Harper and Row, 1965); available athttp://www.philosophicalsociety.com/Logical%20Fallacies.htm#poisoning%20the%20wells (accessed January 15, 2009) ; emphases mine.
 S. Morrise Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies, 5th Ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 207; emphases mine.
 Engel, With Good Reason, 212.
 Norm L. Geisler and Roland M. Brooks, Come, Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990), 107.
 Arlie J. Hoover, Don’t You Believe It: Poking Holes in Faulty Logic (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), 29.
 Norm L. Geisler and Roland M. Brooks, Come, Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking, 195.
 Norm L. Geisler and Roland M. Brooks, Come, Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking, 8.