The straw man fallacy is familiar to most of us, it is simply the fallacy of misrepresenting an opponent’s position and attacking that misrepresentation as a substitute for criticising his actual position.
A variant and more common fallacy however is that of the “weak man fallacy”. The weak man fallacy is that one selects the weakest argument or example of the opponent’s side and keeps attacking or passing off that “weak man” as representative of the entire side.
The thing is that it is interesting to observe the following argumentative tactic very common among high church apologists when it comes to criticising Protestantism. When they want to criticise Protestantism, they select the lived foibles and practices of every Protestant Tom, Dick, and Harry and attempt to pass it off as characteristic of Protestantism. (Some Protestant bishop or pastor approves of same-sex marriage! See how degenerate they are! Not like us super orthodox and disciplined Christians!)
But when Protestants cite errors approved by Roman Catholic cardinals, bishops or clerics, or when they point out outright superstitious nonsense, plain idolatry and even wickedness endorsed and practiced by Eastern Orthodox clerics or laity, both past and present, the high church apologists would instantly retreat into, “Oh but you can’t judge our church based on what the laity or even some cleric here and there says! You must judge our doctrine and practices based on what is “officially” sanctioned according to some selective set of ecclesiastical documents.”
This honestly is profoundly unfair. So when it comes to judging Protestant denominations, you get to pick its weakest link or its most unrepresentative clerics or laity, but when it comes to criticising yours, we’re only allowed to criticise your most rigorous principles or your best practices.
If anything, Protestantism commitment to lower forms of ecclesiology and church life in fact already privileges distinguishing sharply between what is ideally or officially sanctioned and what actually happens in empirical space. Two doctrines in particular are important here: One, Luther’s principle of simul iustus et peccator, that all Christians are at the same time justified by faith alone to the exclusion of the works of the law and yet still sinners in the flesh, already says that for Protestants to behave badly is not to be unexpected, if anything it is precisely to be expected! Secondly, Protestantism is committed to the universal priesthood of the believers wherein clerics do not possess any special doctrinal authority nor are their opinions definitive of the church. Thus, the fact that our clerics occasionally and frequently sprout nonsense means nothing to us. The entire Body of Christ is the Church, not just a narrow set of clerics.
However it is precisely because high church denominations claim higher visibility, more realised sanctifications, and a higher view of their clergy, whereby their ecclesiastical documents and clerical words carry more weight. Furthermore concerning their boasts of greater sanctification especially due to their rituals we would expect more visible holiness. Thus the high church denomination in fact has the heavier burden to prove their superior visibility compared to Protestantism.
I am however happy to treat high church denominations like Protestants and distinguish sharply between their principles and their practices. I am happy to engage and examine their principles as a deductive system as well as their ecclesiastical documents in its historical context. I would even be willing to attempt to reconcile tensions within their theology.
Now, I have read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in full (how many Roman Catholics would even bother?), as well as many Roman Catholic theologians books and even Medieval theological texts in full. I have also read some of the best minds in Eastern Orthodoxy as well as old Eastern Orthodox catechisms. Thus I can honestly, and in very good conscience, say that I have actually invested a lot of effort in trying to understand their case. The thing is that I don’t see a do unto others as you would have others do unto you sort of ethic in many high church apologists.
If anything it is actually a lot easier to understand and grasp Protestant principles. Many Magisterial Protestant denominations like Presbyterianism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, the Reformed, etc, are defined and constituted by 16th and 17th century confessional documents which remains to this day denominational standards. These documents are not terribly long, at least, not as long as the CCC or even the Council of Trent (with the exception of the Lutheran Book of Concord.) I don’t expect the Roman Catholic to have read 800 pages of the Lutheran Book of Concord, but I do at least expect some bare minimum familiarity of the 39 Articles which is barely three pages.
There isn’t that charity of spirit, that presenting your opponent’s case in its strongest possible form, which is taught in every university course. How can one possibly present one’s opponent’s case in its strongest possible form when one can’t even be bothered to read it in the first place?
What we find instead is a confusion of discourse where principles float in and out of lived practice at random to shore up some narrative where Protestants are all the bad guys. When Protestant clerics or laity cock up, that’s because of their theological principles. When high church clerics or laity cock up, that has nothing to do with their theological principles which technically does not endorse it. They refuse to evaluate a principle as a principle but judge a principled based on its adherent’s practices when it suits them, and when their own adherent’s practices are nasty or contradictory then they say that we can’t judge their principles based on those practices.
If sometimes I am extremely harsh and biting when it comes to rubbishing Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox, it is this basic quite frankly lack of honesty and good faith which I encounter all too frequently when it comes to arguing with apologists or true believers.