No True Scotsman (NTS) Fallacy

Question

What is the No True Scotsman Fallacy (NTS)? I was trying to defend the doctrine of eternal security when someone accused me of this fallacy. How do I respond?

Answer

Thanks for your question.

Let's begin with a definition. The "No True Scotsman" fallacy (NTS) may occur when one side of an argument makes a universal declaration, and when presented with evidence to the contrary, dismisses said proof as not being pure enough. Here’s how that goes for some Scotsmen:
Suppose someone says, "No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge." The other party counters this by pointing out that his Scottish friend likes sugar with his porridge. In reply he then says, "Yes, laddy, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."

In this example the argument makes a universal claim stating no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge, while dismissing evidence to the contrary when his Scottish friend likes sugar with his porridge. Then we observe a redefining of "Scotsman" to "true Scotsman." The is the NTS fallacy.

Perhaps another example may help:

Someone may say, "Christianity teaches that Christians are always to be loving. No Christian would ever hit another person, because anyone who hits another person isn't acting in a loving manner. Therefore, if a Christian hits someone else they can't really be true Christians."

Notice how broad the argument is. It is an overgeneralization that may easily be disproven. For instance, wonder if the Christian is a boxer by profession? Wonder if a Christian police officer is using justified force? Wonder if a Christian father has to defend his daughter against an assault? And did you notice the change in definitions from "Christian" to "true Christians"?

Wiki defines NTS as:
an informal fallacy in which one attempts to protect a universal generalization from counterexamples by changing the definition in an ad hoc fashion to exclude the counterexample.

In your question, you very briefly mentioned you were accused of this fallacy while discussing the doctrine of eternal security. Since I don't know everything you said or wrote, I can't specifically answer your question, "How do I respond?" This said, I can give some general pointers. If you made an overgeneralization in one or more of your arguments, (1) apologize; (2) clarify what you meant; (3) attempt to better clarify terms in the future; (4) ask for forgiveness; and (5) continue to lovingly defend the gospel.

In addition, keep in mind when discussing the doctrine of eternal security that the NTS accusation can be mistakenly thrown around because the person on the other side of the argument doesn't properly understand the doctrine of salvation and thus eternal security from a biblical perspective. Without understanding what it means to be a Christian, they simply assume something can't be eternal if it ends. In other words, what's eternal about something if someone may turn away from it? What they fail to understand is the full dynamics of coming to faith in the first place. In other words, just because someone declares something, it doesn't necessarily make it a fact.

As related to this issue, the Bible, at a minimum, teaches the following regarding salvation:

  • (1) Salvation results in a changed life (2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 5:22-23; cf. Col. 1:13-14).
  • (2) A person can't lose their salvation (cf. John 10:28-29; Rom. 8:29-30, 38-39; 1 John 5:11; cf. John 6:37, 39; 1 Pet. 1:5).
  • (3) Those who turn away from the faith were never saved in the first place (1 John 2:19; cf. Acts 8:9-25; 1 John 2:4-6; Jas. 2:17-19).

While there are many more truthful statements that could be made concerning eternal security or the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (see below), these three statements are immediately relevant to the issue at hand and are true. But some further explanation is needed.

A changed life is part of being saved, but this shouldn't be understood as sinlessness (cf. 1 John 1:8-10; 2:1). A genuine believer may at times still act very unbiblically and sin, for example, Peter's denial of Christ (Mark 14:66-72). Consider also David who committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband Uriah put on the front lines of battle to die so he wouldn't find out about this horrible sin. However, David never fully abandoned his faith or denounced God. Just as Peter repented, (Matt. 26:75), so did David (cf. Psa. 51). And though he confessed to being a sinning believer, David never declared himself to be an unbeliever. Both David and Peter were forgiven (cf. 2 Sam. 12:13; Heb. 11:32; John 21:15-17). So, the understanding of not ever fully turning away from one's faith is part and parcel of the scriptural definition of one being saved. If a person turns away from Christ, then they were never a Christian in the first place.

So, when those who merely "profess" Christ but don’t "possess" him (that is, are possessed of Christ as slaves to righteousness, Rom. 6:18; Phil. 2:13) and later abandon the faith, this is not an NTS fallacy. Rather, not abandoning the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3) is part of what it genuinely means to be saved in the first place (cf. Heb. 3:14). So, this is not a false logic issue!

If I may I will offer other piece of additional advice. When discussing eternal security with someone, it is exceedingly wise to begin with a proper definition of a Christian or of what it means to be saved in the first place. Proper definitions from the outset of any discussion may help avoid a host of problems later on. I hope this helps.

Related Topics

Losing Your Salvation
Backsliding Christians
Is saving faith knowledge in a set of facts?
Is it Possible Not to Sin?
Lessons on Repentance - Psalm 51

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).