In reading what a number of respected Christian authors have said over the years about polemics and theological controversy, I have distilled a few rules. These rules, I believe, will not help us avoid polemics, but will guard us against engaging in them in a spiritually destructive way. Almost every rule is mentioned in some ways by multiple authors, but when a writer has put a principle in a particularly strong or apt way, I’ve put his name on the rule.
4. Gillespie’s Rule A: Take your opponents’ views in total, not selectively.
Another rule for polemics related to Murray’s Rule against misrepresentation comes from the 17th century Scottish divine George Gillespie. In his forward to “The Candid Reader” in The Presbyterian’s Armoury, vol. 2, George Gillespie says the he is quite willing to take criticism. “If any man shall, by unanswerable contrary reasons or evidences, discover error or mistake in any of my principles, let truth have the victory, let God have the glory.”
However, in turn he asks that his critics follow several rules for polemics that he has always followed with them. And one of them is this: “That my own words be faithfully cited . . . without concealing my explanations, qualifications, or restrictions, if any such there be.” Here Gillespie, I think, puts a finger on an oft-violated principle that would bring much more light and less heat to our debates. There are a host of Christian doctrines that have an “on the one hand” and also “on the other hand” about them—-and without both emphases you fall into heresy.
What if we find Mr. A making what appears to be an unqualified statement that sounds very unbalanced. If that is all Mr. A ever said about the subject, it would be right to conclude something about his position. But what if Mr. A was speaking or writing these statements to an audience that already believed some things and therefore the author was assuming those points of doctrine without stating them? Or what if, like Paul on Mars Hill, he was leaving out some important truths until he first establishes some more basic points? Or what if Mr. A simply couldn’t say everything he believes about a subject every time he speaks?
Gillespie says you should not pull some statements by Mr. A out, “concealing any explanations, qualifications, or restrictions” he may have mentioned elsewhere. This kind of “gotcha” game is now rife on the internet. Just because someone says (or fails to say something) in one setting—-either for good reasons or because of a misstep—-does not mean he fails to say it repeatedly and emphatically in the rest of his work. Gillespie is saying, “Be sure that what you say is Mr. X’s position really is his settled view. You can’t infer that from one instance.” If we build a case on such instances, we are in danger of falling afoul of Murray’s rule as well. We must take responsibility for misrepresenting the views of others.
5. Gillespie’s Rule B: Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak “straw man” form.
Gillespie asks his critics to follow another rule for polemics that he always followed with them. “I have sought them [my opponents] out where their arguments were strongest, and their objections most plausible.” This should be our practice in polemics, Gillespie says, rather than seeking out our opponents’ views where they are weakest or least crucial to all their thought. It is not right, he says, “to lift up an axe against the outermost branches [of a man’s views] when he ought to strike at the root.” This may be the most comprehensive rule of all in polemics, because, if it is adhered to, most of the other policies and principles will follow. Do all the work necessary until you can articulate the views of your opponent with such strength that he says, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.” Then and only then will your polemics not misrepresent him, take his views in toto, and actually have the possibility of being persuasive. That leads us to something that Calvin once wrote to his friend Farel.
6. Calvin’s Rule: Seek to persuade, not antagonize, but watch your motives!
John Calvin was a reformer in Geneva, Switzerland. His comrade in this work was William Farel, who was very out-spoken and hot-headed by temperament. At one point Calvin wrote Farel a letter in which he urged Farel to do more to “accommodate people,” that is, to seek to attract and persuade them, to win them over. Calvin then distinguished two very different motivations for seeking to be winsome and persuasive: “There are, as you know, two kinds of popularity: the one, when we seek favor from motives of ambition and the desire of pleasing; the other, when, by fairness and moderation, we gain their esteem so as to make them teachable by us.” The Farels of the world believe any effort to be judicious and prudent is a cowardly “sell-out.” But Calvin wisely recognized that his friend’s constant, intemperate denunciations often stemmed not from a selfless courage, but rather from the opposite—-pride. Writing to Viret about Farel, Calvin said, “He cannot bear with patience those who do not comply with his wishes.” (Bruce Gordon, Calvin [Yale, 2009] pp. 150-152.)
In short, it is possible to seek to be winsome and persuasive out of a self-centeredness, rather than a God-centeredness. We may do it to be popular. On the other hand, it is just as possible to be bold and strongly polemical out of self-centereredness rather than God-centeredness. And therefore, looking very closely at our motives, we should be sure our polemics do not unnecessarily harden and antagonize our opponents. We should seek to win them, as Paul did Peter, not to be rid of them.
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.