On the Decline of the Footnote: Another Declinist Lament

Serious reading and study has been my fate and pleasure since I began college in 1975. Along the way, footnotes became my friends. Before college, I flitted with a few books here and there, mostly related to my interests in music and the counterculture I read the pop rock magazine called Cream and the more serious Rolling Stone. I read a book or two by Aldous Huxley. By looking up big words, I could whip off a sesquipedalian once in a while. I also enlisted them in writing for the West High School newspaper, The Eagle’s Cry (1973-75).

My writing in college required genuine research and official documentation. Enter the footnote. Since I was now philosophy major (after two years in journalism), my professors assigned papers—many papers. I wrote eighty-five pages of papers (on an electric typewriter, no less) in one quarter. They are all in my files somewhere.

As I began publishing in magazines and then writing books and academic articles, I had to master the fine art of the footnote. Gary North, a fiery and prolific writer, claimed that we could win the culture war through footnotes! That was an overstatement, but I mostly agreed. (In the preface to one of my books, I encouraged the readers to consult the footnotes, since I had spent two days rechecking them.)[1] Christians should out-think and out-write the world for Christ and his Kingdom. That requires thorough and proper documentation—and it was laborious before the word processor.

Thus, the footnote has been my nearly constant companion in the world of ideas. My first wife, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (1954-2018), edited all my published work through Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011). She was fastidious to ensure that the footnotes were shipshape. Christian Apologetics has well over a thousand footnotes. (I prefer footnotes over endnotes, since footnotes allow you to read the citation more easily than turning to the end of the chapter or the end of the book or article.)

Sadly, this old philosopher has noted a decline in the quality of the footnote in recent years. Of course, footnotes can just be flubbed—dates of publication are incorrect, titles misstated, page numbers are off. But, I detect a general shift in the specificity and—the authenticity—of footnotes. I will speak primarily of footnotes in publications, not in student papers, thousands of which I have graded. Concerning these efforts, I have two points First, too many students get creative or sloppy in footnotes. Be creative in your use of sources? Yes. Be creative in the form of the footnote? No! (The same goes for grammar, of course.) And concerning sloppiness—is it ever good to be sloppy? The student record for errors in one footnote (at the time of this writing) is six. Second, and on the happy side, I am proud of my student who correctly planted three footnotes in one sentence! Now on to professional publications.

Citations should almost always invoke the original source. Thus, if you quote Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900), you cite the primary work, such as The Anti-Christ, from whence the quote comes. What if you find a juicy quote in a book that cites Nietzsche? If so, you hunt down the original quote for yourself. Libraries and inter-library loan still exist. Only rarely do you write, “as quoted in…,” which means you have not seen the original source. Relying on someone else’s primary research is not advisable, except rarely as when the original source cannot be tracked down. However, if your footnotes says, “as quoted in…,” you need to give the original citation, so the reader can know what the primary source is, even if you have not seen the primary source in the original form.

Sadly, I now often find footnotes that refer to a secondary work for a primary citation that omit the bibliographic details of the original source. So, we might read:

  1. Frederick Nietzsche, as quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 198.

That is inexcusably incomplete, because I gave the original source reference in Truth Decay. Therefore, it should be cited.

Pandemic is another footnote infraction—omitting the original date of publication of a book. When I read a footnote, I want to know when the book was first published because it places the work in a narrative of the author’s other work and in a general climate of intellectual opinion. It is rather important to know that C. S. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain (a philosophical work) well before A Grief Observed (a lament over the death of his wife, Joy Davidman). Consider this footnote:

  1. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 16.

Lewis died in 1963, so that cannot be the original date of publication; that is, unless it is a posthumously published work—which it is not. Properly formatted, the footnote should read thusly:

  1. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (orig. pub., 1940; New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 16.

Yet another error is the missing footnote or the sin of omission. Most writing that directly quotes an author should include a footnote, unless the quote is common knowledge, such as “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” But much common knowledge is not true. Many cite Blaise Pascal as writing, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in every person that only God can fill.” It is a profound statement, but he never wrote it. Rather, it is a paraphrase of a longer and more philosophically nuanced quote from Pensées.

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?

This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.[2]

My last bleat targets the content of footnotes. Historically, a footnote refers to a written source, usually published. Occasionally, a footnote will cite an unpublished manuscript. Now, I am finding footnotes to YouTube videos, which, of course, are not written sources at all. I found this in the otherwise excellent Competing Spectacles; Treasuring Christ in the Media Age (2019) by Tony Reinke. If the video is of an expert speaking on their expertise, this is forgivable. But, still, published sources, given their legitimacy, should have the priority.

I could belabor the point pedantically. Some of my readers may have already rendered that judgment about this essay as it stands. Nevertheless, the footnote can be a loyal advocate for truth about what matters. Therefore, let us respect it by using it virtuously.


[1] I forgot which book. If you read this footnote, then hooray.

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. A. Krailsheimer (New York; Penguin Books, 1966), 75.

The Real Slippery Slope: Logic, Fallacy, and American Decline

Logic warns the wary of many fallacies. Everyone should master this canon of error—or you will be mastered by it. A logical fallacy is a typical way in which arguments go wrong through sloppy reasoning. Let me cite a few examples before turning to issue at hand—the slippery slope from same-sex marriage to significant changes in sexual ethics.

False dichotomy is a common and cunning fallacy. An either/or condition is set up. One must affirm either A or B, not both A and B, and not neither A or B. A proper dichotomy works like this:

You are either with Christ or against him. This covers all the available options. The condition is exclusive: Christ or not Christ (Matthew 12:30; John 14:1-6).

Here, though, is a false dichotomy:

We should not defend the gospel; we must preach the Gospel.

This is a false dichotomy because the Bible calls us to both defend gospel and to preach the gospel (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Peter 3:15-16).

Another popular fallacy is argumentum ad hominem, or argument against the man. Instead of critiquing someone’s argument for traditional marriage, an opponent instead attacks the traditionalist’s character and motives. Some claim that denying same-sex marriage means one hates homosexuals and lesbians. This response gives us two fallacies for the price of one.

  1. The person’s character is attacked, rather than the force of his argument. This is a glaring case of argumentum ad hominem. Even if the critic hates homosexuals and lesbians (and no one should), that does not, of necessity, undermine his argument, since his argument may work independently of his motives.
  2. The false dichotomy is claiming that you either (A) support same-sex marriage or (B) hate same-sex couples.

I have introduced two classic and chronic fallacies. May we avoid them! Another fallacy feeds on itself. Meet the false charge of fallacy. Those pumped up by the power of logic may hyperventilate at the prospect of proving someone wrong through uncovering a lethal fallacy. Sometimes the difference between a fallacy and a valid form of reasoning is subtle. Consider the slippery slope.

As a fallacy, the slippery slope errs by wrongly stipulating the implications of ideas: if A, then B, then C. We always slip down the slope into the abyss. “If you do this, then that will happen, and, God help us, the other thing will happen, which is horrible!” So, the slippery slope also contains a reductio ad absurdum argument. Let me illustrate.

Some complementarians claim that if churches allow women to be senior pastors, they open the door to accepting homosexuality. Since most evangelicals—at least twenty years ago, when my wife was writing much on this topic—do not accept homosexuality, then they should reject women as senior pastors as well. But for evangelicals with a high view of biblical authority and a respect for classical methods of biblical interpretation, there is no danger of any slope to slide down, since it is obvious that while the Bible records many women leaders favorably, it never endorses any homosexual activity.

However, some ideas have consequences that may not be foreseen or that may be denied by sheer willfulness. Defenders of same-sex marriage often say that concerns over polyamory or incest are reactionary and those that are worried about this commit the slippery slope fallacy. However, the slope is there, the sliding is underway, but the slippage may be overlooked. Consider the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.

According to the judges, no state may deny the right to same-sex marriage. The legal reasoning was tortuous and unsupportable, as the dissenting opinions stated. But we must go deeper. The idea behind the ruling—and behind all support for same-sex marriage—is that marriage is a socially constructed and purely human institution. Monogamy is merely a cultural and legal tradition whose cultural hegemony sputtered for years and is now ending. There is no reason why marriage should not be same-sex. In fact, to claim otherwise is to absolutize a relative and historically contingent institution. The same reasoning supported slavery, denied women the vote, and endorsed Jim Crow laws.

Given this standpoint, there is no reason to privilege couples only as constituting marriage. That would be two-ist and unfair. Therefore, by the same reasoning used to establish same-sex marriage, we must allow for polyamory. This is an open category which so far has meant marriage arrangements of at least men and women. (I have not yet heard of marriage arrangements of multiple men or multiple women.) A man has already sued to have two wives. A 2015 academic book by Ronald Den C. Otto is entitled In Defense of Plural Marriage. Amazon.com says this about it:

With over half of Americans now in favor of marriage equality, it is clear that societal norms of marriage are being quickly redefined. The growing belief that the state may not discriminate against gays and lesbians calls into question whether the state may limit other types of marital unions, including plural marriage. While much has been written about same-sex marriage, as of yet there has been no book-length legal treatment of unions among three or more individuals. The first major study on plural marriage and the law, In Defense of Plural Marriage begins to fill this lacuna in the scholarly literature. Ronald C. Den Otter shows how the constitutional arguments that support the option of plural marriage are stronger than those against. Ultimately, he proposes a new semi-contractual marital model that would provide legal recognition for a wide range of intimate relationships.

Once the traditional and God-ordained definition of marriage is breached, the floodwaters come rushing in. If love is love, and if any consensual erotic association should be deemed moral and be authorized by the state, then the logical implication is that the new sexual revolution will not end with same-sex marriage. The next step will be polyamorous marriages. Nor could there be a principle forbidding consensual incest or pedophilia. If you think pedophilia is different because the child is too young to give consent, you do not understand the deepest issues.

Breitbart.com posted a piece called “Inside the Sick, Secret World of Bestiality Forums.” The story is about BeastForum, a popular website trafficking in all manners of perversion. I will give no details. But if the animal is not hurt, and the human is not mean, why not practice bestiality? Given present trends, bestiality could emerge from the dark and dirty underside of American culture and move into the spotlight of our polymorphic perversities. (The Mosaic Law made bestiality a capital crime.)

Some will slide down this slope without fear, perhaps stopping shy of bestiality or a step before. Or perhaps not. But if one wants to apply the moral brakes, he or she needs a rational justification for stopping. I am not saying that most who deny traditional marriage will slide all the way down; but without an objective moral authority to tell us the nature of sexuality and to give the norms for sexual behavior, there are no such moral brakes.

However, if one who accepts same-sex marriage also opposes polyamory, incest, pedophilia, or bestiality, that person must face the full force of this reductio ad absurdum argument:

  1. If same-sex marriage is moral, then any consensual sexual arrangement (involving marriage or not) is moral.
  2. Same-sex marriage is moral.
  3. Therefore: consensual polyamory, incest, pedophilia, and bestiality are moral.
  4. But (3) is absurd, since these acts are immoral.
  5. Therefore, it is false that same-sex marriage is moral; it is immoral. This is by reductio ad absurdum.

One may not like this argument, but if the premises are true, then the conclusion must follow. I leave it to my readers to show that one or more of the premises are false.

When traditional moral authority is razed, then the unthinkable becomes thinkable, the illegal becomes legal, and the immoral becomes moral. This is the real slippery slope, and we are on it as a society.

May everyone—from politician to pauper, from professor to farmer, from all races, of all ages—hear the Word of the Lord:

Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
the people he chose for his inheritance.
From heaven the Lord looks down
and sees all mankind;
from his dwelling place he watches
all who live on earth—
he who forms the hearts of all,
who considers everything they do.
No king is saved by the size of his army;
no warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
despite all its great strength it cannot save.
But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him,
on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
to deliver them from death
and keep them alive in famine. (Psalm 33:12-19).