Thursday, May 21, 2015

Incrementalism Debate Opening Argument [Clinton Wilcox]

This is my opening argument in a debate between "abolitionist" John Reasnor and myself, regarding the resolution Incrementalism is incompatible with Scripture (abolitionist is in quotation marks because all pro-life people are abolitionists, but those in AHA deny that those outside of AHA are actual abolitionists). John is affirming and I am negating the resolution. You can see John's opening argument here. And very special thanks to Scott Klusendorf and Steve Hays for looking this over and offering helpful comments.


The resolution as laid out before us is this: Incrementalism is a strategy incompatible with Scripture. As John is arguing the affirmative, he has the burden of proof. This means that John has the burden of proving his case. I will make a case negating the resolution, but even if I fail to make my case sufficiently, if I have managed to cast sufficient doubt on John’s position such that he has not affirmed the resolution, the debate goes to me. Additionally, John has posted AHA graphics with arguments on them. As they are not part of the body of John’s argument, I will ignore them (and you should, too).

Defining terms

John is correct in that we need to have a good understanding of the terms in this debate. John claims that we are committing an etymological fallacy by assuming these words mean what they mean (so I’m not sure John has a proper understanding of what a fallacy is). However, it is an etymological fallacy to assume that what a word meant 100 years ago is what it means now, since words evolve. What matters is how the words are being used now. By trying to force a definition onto the words that those who use it don’t mean, John is essentially attacking a strawman. It’s also incorrect to argue, as so many in AHA do, that incrementalists want to “regulate” abortion and not end it.

Unfortunately, while John said he wants to define these terms for us, he never tells us what he means by incrementalism nor immediatism. He only tells us what they are not. But if I were to say an ocean is any part of earth that isn’t land, I’m not really telling you what an ocean is, am I? So for the purposes of this debate, incrementalism is the political strategy that while we want to see abortion ended altogether, our political climate is such that ending abortion immediately is impossible. So we take incremental steps to eventually reach our end goal. Immediatism is the political strategy that incremental steps are either immoral or impratical, so the only legislation we should support is legislation that ends all abortion in one fell swoop.

Responding to John’s argument

John is also correct in that abortion is sin. However, what he and other “abolitionists” fail to do is make basic distinctions. For example, ancient Israel was a theocracy. Modern America is not. We are called to personal holiness; our nation is not called to be subservient to God. It’s significant that Jesus came to preach personal holiness, not to reform Roman society. In fact, he said “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21, NASB). The Gospel is the antidote to sin in a believer’s life; it is not the key to reformation of society. For that, we must work through the political process. The only counter-strategy AHA has to offer is in "seeding the culture," as they say, to hopefully change enough hearts and minds to eventually get all the votes they need to end abortion altogether. But the pro-life movement has been doing this for 40 years now. It's not a new strategy. The only difference is that AHA puts ideological purity over the lives of the unborn, so they can proclaim their "moral superiority" all the while children are dying because of their inaction. Why can't we work legislatively while seeding the culture?

John claims that incrementalism is condemned throughout Scripture, but never supports this claim. Until John provides evidence, this claim should be ignored.

John claims that God’s prescribed method is immediatism, but this false (and also given without evidence). The Bible is a book of history, prophecy, poetry, wisdom, and theology. It is not a book of political strategy. Immediatism is not prescribed by God, nor is incrementalism. Neither are they expressly condemned. So the question before us is whether or not incrementalism is compatible with Scripture, not which strategy is prescribed by it (because neither strategy is).

John claims that immediatism and incrementalism are mutually exclusive, but this is also false. His analogies from dark and light, etc., are false analogies. Incrementalism is compatible with immediatism because while we want to see abortion ended completely, if that is not politically possible to do, then one can take incremental steps to get there. In our political atmosphere (and really, in every political atmosphere since the beginning of human civilization), immediatism is impracticable.

Here’s another distinction John fails to make, just like Hunter did in his debate with Cunningham: slavery abolitionists believed in ending slavery altogether; they were immediatists in that respect. But like the incrementalists of today, they worked incrementally to make that happen. Immediatists are simply not reading history correctly. Like incrementalists of today, slavery abolitionists were immediatists by moral conviction, incrementalist by political strategy.

This idea about incremental laws implicitly ending with “...and then you can kill the baby” is just philosophically confused and an attempt to poison the well against incremental legislation. For one thing, every “immediatist” bill would also end with “...and then you can kill the baby.” There’s a personhood bill in Utah? Just go to Colorado, and then you can kill the baby. There’s a personhood bill in the United States? Just go to China, and then you can kill the baby. Every immediatist law is, by nature, incrementalist. This means that immediatism is necessarily incremental. By saving all the babies in Utah, AHA is condemning all the babies in every other state to death.

Second, it’s just a silly argument to make. All babies are currently targeted for abortion. We are not compromising with them, and allowing them to kill whatever babies they want. Those babies are already targeted. We are trying to save what babies we can, when we can. It’s not politically possible to save every baby. But unlike “abolitionists,” we are not willing to let thousands of children die for our ideology. It’s like these children are trapped in a burning house. There are children in rooms on the top floor that are locked, and we can’t get to them. AHA would let all those children burn because they can’t save them all. Incrementalists would rush in to save the children they can save.

John asserts that incrementalists support unjust laws, but here John is merely begging the question. He has not proven that incrementalist laws are unjust, he has only given one long irrelevant paragraph trying to compare incrementalists to a certain faction of slavery abolitionists. It’s irrelevant because it does not support the resolution, since he is trying to argue from history, not from Scripture. So even if he is correct (which is dubious), he has not supported the resolution with it.

John’s appeal to Moses and Pharaoh amounts to a false analogy. In fact, John’s first sentence shows why: Moses was given a specific commandment from God. God has given no such commandment to the pro-life movement. Additionally, this analogy works against him, since there were certainly other slaves besides Israelites in ancient Egypt. Yet Moses was told only to free the Israelite slaves. Moses was given an incremental command from God to free only the Israelite slaves. Moses was able to refuse Pharaoh’s deal because God gave him a specific command, and had given Moses signs and wonders to show that God means business. God has given the pro-life movement no such commandment, and he has given us no promise that we will win, no matter how faithful we are. By trying to claim Moses’ situation as our own now is an exegetical fallacy, since that promise was given directly to Moses regarding the freeing of God’s people from Egyptian slavery.

John also makes the statement that what we support and call for has consequences, and incrementalists should “confess their responsibility and guilt of abandoning most and showing unjust partiality.” This is just arrogance of the highest order. For one thing, John hasn’t even successfully made his case. For another, as I’ve already shown, it is immediatists, not incrementalists, who are abandoning children for the sake of their ideology (consider the burning building analogy). We do not have the ability to save all. If we have the ability to save some and do not take it, we are responsible for their deaths.

John’s appeals to Biblical prophets are just more false analogies. Again, Israel was God’s chosen people who were required, as a nation, to follow God. Other nations were not, though there were instances of God enacting judgments on other nations because of their extreme wickedness. God called the nation of Israel to repentance; he does not call other nations to repentance in the same way. We are not a theocracy, but as individual Christians, we are called to follow Christ and obey his commandments.

John’s analogy from 2 Kings 23 is a false analogy for the same reason. Josiah was a ruler of Jerusalem. It’s possible another king may have done the same thing, but they did not have commands for national holiness like Israel did, as God’s chosen people.

John’s next analogy is regarding Saul, but I feel I’m becoming like a broken record now. Saul was a Jewish king, and the Jews were called to national holiness; other nations were/are not. John has to show us where, precisely, God has given a specific command to the pro-life movement that we are not, or are only partially, obeying by supporting incremental legislation.

Ironically, John’s appeal to James can be turned right around on the “abolitionist” movement. By not supporting incrementalism, they are, in essence, telling these children “we’ll be praying for you, be warmed and be filled, don’t die” but are taking no actions to help them. They’re like the priest and the Levite would saw the beaten and battered man but are doing nothing to help. The incrementalists are the ones who see these children in desperate need, and although we can’t save them all, we will save the ones that we can. We are the ones James talked about, who are actively helping these children survive by enacting incremental legislation that saves lives. AHA is content to let them die because they can’t save them all.

John is also misreading the history of abortion techniques. It is not incrementalism that is responsible for different abortion techniques. Abortion was made a safe procedure by the advancement of medicine (such as the development of antibiotics). Abortion pills would have become a reality with or without incrementalists, since it moves abortion from an invasive medical procedure to a pill that you just take at home and flush the remains. Abortion was always much more common in the early term than the late term; that’s not a result of incrementalism.

John incorrectly mentions that we have “abandoned” the 19-week-old child, the trisomy 21 child, etc., but conveniently neglects to mention every child saved by incremental laws that AHA would rather we have abandoned. We can’t save those children right now, but if AHA has their way, no child will be spared from the abortionist’s blade until such time as we can save them all (if that ever happens).

In summary, John has used scores of Scriptures out of context to try and support his position. He has made false analogies, appealing to Jewish kings. He has also made irrelevant appeals to history, when it is the Scriptures we are debating. It should be clear by now that John has not supported the resolution.


I would like to reiterate that the Bible is a book of history, prophecy, poetry, wisdom, and theology. It is not a book of political strategy. This means that neither incrementalism nor immediatism are prescribed by Scripture.

John asked where we find incrementalism in Scripture.  Before I get in to that, John is essentially making a fallacious appeal to silence here. It's the same kind of argument pro-choice people use when they argue the Bible doesn't mention abortion, so it condones it (or is, at least, indifferent towards it). In this case, John is saying the opposite: it is not prescribed by the Bible, so therefore it is condemned by it.

Now on to incrementalism in Scripture.

First, Paul was an incrementalist. He said that he has become all things to all men so that he may by all means save some (1 Corinthians 9). He didn’t become nothing to anyone because he couldn’t save everyone. Paul was an incrementalist, yet apparently John (Reasnor) would say Paul was only partially obedient to God’s law, and that Paul did not trust in God’s power. I suppose when Paul called himself the chief of sinners, he was justifying his sin, as an incrementalist.

We also know that God works incrementally. Because of the hardness of his people’s hearts, he allowed some sins, such as divorce. As Norm Geisler writes (Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1999, p. 608), “Sometimes God commands change because of the changing conditions of humanity. Such is the case with permission for divorce ‘for any cause’ in the Old Testament, and a strong prohibition in the New Testament...Jesus said the original law ‘was because of the ‘hardness of your hearts’...God sometimes overlooks certain things because of times of ignorance (Acts 17:38), but later does not.” Why aren’t “abolitionists” upset by this moral compromise that God made with his own people?

Additionally, we know that God’s revelation is progressive. An example of progressive revelation is Jews being required to sacrifice animals in the Old Testament to atone for sin, but in the New Testament we are no longer required to sacrifice animals since Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient to atone for our sins. Another example was when eating meat was forbidden before the Flood, and yet after the Flood eating meat was permitted. God revealed his revelation progressively, in incremental steps, to humanity.

So a Biblical case for incrementalism can be made as follows:

  1. If incrementalism is not expressly forbidden in Scripture, nor does it violate a clear Scriptural prescription, then it is compatible with Scripture..
  2. Incrementalism is not expressly forbidden in Scripture, nor does it violate a clear Scriptural prescription.
  3. Therefore, incrementalism is compatible with Scripture.

This is a sound argument in the form of modus ponens.

John has failed to support the resolution at issue, and I have successfully shown that incrementalism is compatible with Scripture, even if not prescribed by it (since the Bible is not a book of political strategy).


  1. >>For one thing, every “immediatist” bill would also ends
    >>with “...and then you can kill the baby.”

    You're incorrect on this part of your argument. If the unborn's right to life is protected in one state, it doesn't in any way imply that it's ok to kill the baby in a different state. Here's the right to life bill that was on the ballot in ND in 2014:

    The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.

    There's no implied "and then you can kill the baby" in there.

    1. That doesn't seem right to me. After all, if you pass a personhood bill in one state, you're implicitly implying that unborn children in all other states are not as valuable. You're discriminating based on geography. If you really want to ban all abortions, you need a national ban (but then, there would still be abortions legal in other countries).

      At any rate, it's just a silly argument. It doesn't reflect the reality of the situation. It's just rhetorical nonsense. By supporting incremental legislation, we are not picking and choosing whom to kill. ALL unborn children are currently marked for death. Incremental bills just save what lives we can when we can.

    2. >>You're implicitly implying that unborn children in all other states are not as valuable.

      You're imagining an implication that isn't there.

      You're using an unreasonable standard to judge legislation. Legislation can only be judged within it's own jurisdiction. It doesn't make any sense to suggest that a law in New Jersey is somehow defective because it has no power in Idaho.

      More importantly i think, you're equivocating on two different concepts. One concept is incrementalism and the other concept is "and then you can kill the baby". These two issues are separate. One can write incremental legislation that doesn't imply "and then you can kill the baby". And we should write such legislation.

    3. "You're imagining an implication that isn't there."

      The same way "abolitionists" are imagining and implication that isn't there when they argue the same thing about incremental bills. I'm just using your own argument as a reductio to show the absurdity of it.

      "You're using an unreasonable standard to judge legislation. Legislation can only be judged within it's own jurisdiction. It doesn't make any sense to suggest that a law in New Jersey is somehow defective because it has no power in Idaho."

      It does if you have the power to change it in both states. Instead of working state-by-state, you should be working on the national level. Otherwise, you're discriminating against unborn children based on geography. You should be supporting an amendment to the US Constitution, not state-wide bans on abortion.

      "More importantly i think, you're equivocating on two different concepts. One concept is incrementalism and the other concept is "and then you can kill the baby". These two issues are separate. One can write incremental legislation that doesn't imply 'and then you can kill the baby'. And we should write such legislation."

      How does incremental legislation imply "and then you can kill the baby"?

    4. >> I'm just using your own argument as a reductio to show the absurdity of it.

      My argument? Huh? I'm not defending the AHA "immediatist" position. Where did you get that? I suggested in earlier post "And we should write [incrementalist] legislation", so it should be obvious that i'm not buying the immediatist" line. i'm just disagreeing with you on certain points that i believe don't help your position.

      I agree that if we have the power to change the law in multiple states, we should do so. OK, so we ban abortion in two states. i don't see how those bans are defective because they don't apply to all fifty states. In those two states those bans would be immediate. You could say that they're incremental in a very broad sense but i think that's kind of cheating because they're not incremental on their own terms; those terms being that laws only apply within the law's jurisdiction. Going further, even a US constitutional amendment would only be incremental in the way your using the term because French babies are still being murdered. So, i really don't think your reductio works. To you it seems "immediate" must mean we have to have a global ban on abortion. i think that is a strawman and really distorts the meaning of the term "immediate". Why can't "immediate" have a reasonable jurisdictional proviso?

      >>How does incremental legislation imply "and then you can kill the baby"?

      Well, if the law says a woman must wait 24 hrs before having an abortion, it's saying that a woman can have an abortion. So, there's the "and then you can kill the baby" bit. If the law says, she has to receive certain information before having an abortion, it's saying that the woman can have an abortion.

      To evaluate a law on the "and then you can kill the baby" standard, all you have to do is envision Roe v. Wade overturned. Now, look at the law. Would the law say that abortion is legal? If the answer is "yes" then it's an "and the you can kill the baby" law.

    5. Drew keeps missing the point. AHA accepts geographical discrimination but rejects chronological discrimination. That's an ad hoc distinction.

    6. Steve, the concept of jurisdiction isn't ad hoc but baked into the AHA view. T. R. Hunter argued in that debate with G. Cunningham that Wilberforce was an immediatist, not an incrementalist. But Wilberforce didn't outlaw slavery in the US, but only in Britain.

    7. The fact that they incorporate that face-saving distinction into their position makes it no less ad hoc. It's not a principled distinction. Rather, it's special pleading.

  2. I believe Clinton is responding to John's claim that: "Immediatists of abortion support state based total abolition as well as national based total abolition…Laws supported and written by immediatists call for the total abolition of abortion in whichever jurisdiction the law is written for…"

    But that would mean the individuals seeking the abortion (e.g. the mother, boyfriend) would still be free to have the baby aborted in another state where abortion isn't banned.

    He didn't suggest the wording of the bill would say "but you can still kill your baby in another state."

    Rather, he's saying that's a logical consequence of patchwork state laws. That *is* implied by laws that vary from state to state. That's the result of different laws in different states.

    Also, the "it's okay to kill the baby" imitates the language which abolitionists use when caricaturing incremental legislation. Clinton is respond to AHA on its own terms.

    1. >>Clinton is respond to AHA on its own terms.

      If so, AHA is being sloppy in its use of language.

      A lot of incremental legislation does imply "and then you can kill the baby". I don't condemn such legislation because i understand the political realities surrounding the issue. But i think we really should write legislation that avoids the "and then you can kill the baby" pitfall. It makes it a better bill and it satisfies all the pro-life factions.

    2. You haven't shown that the implication isn't there. Denying it is not disproving it.

      Clinton is judging (hypothetical) abolitionist laws by the same yardstick that abolitionists use to measure prolife laws. But they don't like it when the tables are turned and they double standard is suddenly exposed.

      You can *write* a bill anyway you like. But a bill is worthless unless it becomes law. A bill that's never signed into law never makes any difference. It's just a feel good intellectual exercise. Mentally writing ideal bills that will never pass, will never be enacted.

    3. >>You haven't shown that the implication isn't there.Denying it is not disproving it.

      And all Clinton has done is claim an implication is there. Claiming it is not proving it. i think it's quite obvious that the implication isn't there. Read the words of the ND proposed amendment. Maybe you can explain where it implies "you can go out of state to kill your baby".

      >>But a bill is worthless unless it becomes law.

      OK. Sure. But consider an abortion parental consent law. You could write it so that it pretty much says "as long as your parents give the ok, you can kill the baby". But why do it that way when it could be law written a better way?

      Don't we think that parents should consent before their kids get tatoos? Get a drug from the school nurse? Get a gall stone operation? Of course. So, instead of saying "and then you can kill the baby", you write the law broadly to handle any non-emergency operation, pharmaceutical drug, and so forth. You don't think such a law could pass?

    4. You keep talking in the abstract about writing laws a better way. Have you ever drafted legislation? Do you actually know what's involved in getting enough fellow lawmakers to vote for your bill? What specifically do you mean by "written in a better way"? What evidence do you have that laws like that get passed?

    5. "And all Clinton has done is claim an implication is there. Claiming it is not proving it. i think it's quite obvious that the implication isn't there."

      No, he didn't just claim it. He provided a supporting argument to illustrate the parallel with abolitionism.

      "Read the words of the ND proposed amendment."

      A "proposed" amendment. Do you have an example that's been signed into law?

    6. Wait a second, you didn't answer my question. Do you think the parental consent law that i described would be more difficult to pass than a similar abortion parental consent law?

  3. Sounds like you are more worried about political pragmatism than the power of the Gospel.

    1. Not at all. As Jesus himself said, we need to be as gentle as doves but as shrewd as serpents. The Gospel saves sinners from Hell, but it doesn't guarantee a pro-life convert. There are atheists who are pro-life, and there are Christians who are pro-choice. I don't bring up the Gospel in a conversation on abortion because it's off-topic. Even if I don't make a Christian convert, I can at least make a pro-life convert by appealing to science and philosophy. After all, all truth is God's truth, so by using science and philosophy to support the pro-life position and the fact that all human life is valuable, I am making arguments that are consistent with Christianity.


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