Gospel Polemics, Part 4: Everybody’s Rule

In my previous posts (see Part 1Part 2, and Part 3), I have summarized some of the key insights of respected Christian writers on how to engage in polemics and theological controversy in a constructive way. Today I finish the series with the 7th and final “rule”… 

7. Everybody’s Rule: Only God sees the heart—so remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology.

As I read through what these men and others have said about the importance and the danger of polemics, one theme came up so continually across their statements that I could not attribute it to any one person.  That theme is about the evil of ad hominem arguments, the strategy of passionately attacking the person himself rather than engaging his doctrine and views. Gillespie warned against “acrimony… in the manner of expression.” If you have zeal, Gillespie, said, let it be expressed in the overwhelming force and power of your Biblical and logical arguments. “It is but in vain for a man to help the bluntness of reason with the sharpness of passion… let not a man cast forth a flood of passionate words when his arguments are like broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Much criticism today is filled with scorn, mockery, and sarcasm—“sharpness of passion”, rather than careful exegesis and reflection. Gillespie says such an approach is not persuasive. 

But no one has written more eloquently about this rule than John Newton, in his well-known “Letter on Controversy.” Newton says that first, before you begin to write a single word against an opponent, “and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord's teaching and blessing.” This practice will stir up love for him and “such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.” Later in the letter Newton says, “Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who ‘when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.’ ” It is a great danger to aim to “gain the laugh on your side,” to make your opponent look evil and ridiculous instead of engaging their views with “the compassion due to the souls of men.”

In the end, Newton strikes this same balance that we saw in Lloyd-Jones and others. He says that it is “a laudable service to defend the faith once delivered to the saints: we are commanded to contend earnestly for it, and to convince gainsayers.” But almost immediately he added, “yet we find but very few writers of controversy that have not been manifestly hurt by it.” Why? He answers:  “Either they grow in a sense of their own importance, or imbibe an angry, contentious spirit, or they insensibly withdraw their attention from those things which are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters which are at most but of a secondary value. This shows, that if the service [of doing polemics] is honorable, it is dangerous. What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?”

In short, our purpose in controversy should be to persuade our opponents, lovingly but forthrightly challenging them. What we often see instead is a form of polemics in which opponents are caricatured and mocked, and base motives are imputed to them. Those taking more theologically conservative views are branded ‘self-righteous’ and those with less conservative views are called ‘sell-outs.’ In this approach, persuasion is not the purpose at all. Rather, the goal of polemics is to “rally the troops”—to gain stature in the eyes of some constituency, and maybe to grow your fan-base—by objectivizing and marginalizing your opponent. While many people conduct this kind of polemic in the name of Biblical truth, it is ironically more in line with Nietzschean postmodernism, which sees all discourse as not about truth and persuasion but about the accrual of power.

Is it possible for the Christian church today to get past this division between people who do polemics destructively and those who want to avoid polemics altogether? One way to do it is to go back to these authors that I have perused so lightly. I would even ask seminaries to consider at least one course in “Polemical Theology” which would not simply list the errors that need to be refuted, but which would teach students how to go about theological dispute in a way that accords with Biblical wisdom and the gospel.

Yes, the gospel. John Newton puts his finger on the main reason that polemics go wrong. We do not think out the implications of the gospel of grace for the way in which we go about our disputes:

Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace. Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments. Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress his wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify. I hope your performance will savor of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others.