Archibald Alexander, the first faculty member at Princeton Theological Seminary, was given the title “professor of didactic and polemic theology.” That seems a bit startling to us, because the term polemical in our day has an almost purely negative connotation. However, in the original plan of Princeton seminary, polemical theology was seen as a discipline separate from the positive exposition of systematic theology.

Alexander taught this as a distinct course that distinguished orthodoxy from all opposing views. If you look at the list of the subjects he covers, it is striking how much effort was given to help students discern and refute theological error. It is also striking that Alexander included in his course a lecture on “the evils of theological controversy.” In other words, he was concerned about two opposite errors—either refraining from polemics altogether or conducting it in an ungodly manner.

George Gillespie was a Scottish minister, a member of the Westminster Assembly, and a prominent controversialist, contending for Presbyterianism as the biblical model for church government. And yet in the forward to The Presbyterian's Armoury he wrote, “I have often and heartily wished that I might not be engaged into polemic writings, of which the world is too full already.” Again we see neither a shrinking from polemics nor any relish in it. Indeed, Alexander and Gillespie indicated that anyone who enjoys theological controversy, who makes it their main purpose and who feels virtuous as they do it, is in a bad spiritual state.

Trouble in Your Soul

D. M. Lloyd-Jones once had a memorable encounter with T. T. Shields, the pastor of Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto, and a leading defender of orthodoxy against the growing liberal theology of the churches in Canada. Shields regularly attacked other church leaders in both his preaching and his writings. Lloyd-Jones shared virtually identical theological positions with Shields, but he believed “that the Baptist leader was sometimes too controversial, too denunciatory, and too censorious. Rather than helping young Christians by the strength of his polemics against liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics, Lloyd-Jones believed that Shields was losing the opportunity to influence those whose first need is positive teaching.” (I. Murray, D. M. Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years, p. 271). We should recall that Lloyd-Jones was quite willing to engage in polemics himself. He and John Stott clashed publicly over whether evangelicals should remain in the Church of England. (Lloyd-Jones said they should not.) And yet Lloyd-Jones opposed making polemics a major part of one's ministry, and challenged Shields.

In their meeting, Shields asked Lloyd-Jones if he enjoyed reading the works of another contemporary defender of orthodoxy. Lloyd-Jones said that he seldom read the author, because “he doesn't help me spiritually.” Shields asked, “Surely you are helped by the way he makes mincemeat of the liberals?” Lloyd-Jones responded, “You can make mincemeat of the liberals and still be in trouble in your own soul.”

This touched off an extended debate. At one point Shields said that he was only doing what Paul did to Peter—contradicting and opposing him. Lloyd-Jones responded, “The effect of what Paul did was to win Peter round to his position and make him call him 'our beloved brother Paul' [2 Peter 3:15]. Can you say the same about the people whom you attack?” For this Shields had no answer. The simple fact was that his polemics were really designed simply to stigmatize and marginalize his opponents, not persuade them. Suddenly the younger Lloyd-Jones appealed to Shields in a bold way. In the 1920s, Shields had expected an appointment to McMaster University, but theological liberals blocked it. Lloyd-Jones pointed out that from that time it had changed the tone of his ministry.

Dr. Shields, you used to be known as the Canadian Spurgeon, and you were . . . but over this McMaster University business in the early twenties you suddenly changed and became negative and denunciatory. I feel it has ruined your ministry. Why don't you come back! Drop all this, preach the gospel to people positively and win them! (Murray, p. 273)

Part of Every Curriculum

On the lips of someone else, this could be seen as an appeal to “just preach Jesus” and not care about sound doctrine. But it is hard to accuse Lloyd-Jones of that. Rather, Lloyd-Jones was standing in the tradition of Gillespie and Alexander. Polemics is medicine, not food. Without medicine we will surely die—we can't live without it. This is why polemical theology must be a required part of every theological curriculum. Yet we cannot live on medicine. If you engage in polemics with relish and joy—if polemics takes up a significant percentage or even a majority of your time and energy—it is like trying to live on medicine alone. It won't work for the church or for you. That was Lloyd-Jones's message.

I fear that we are in a period in which many in the Christian church are dividing into extreme positions over the very conduct of polemics. On the one side there are seemingly more people than ever, especially through the internet, engaging in polemics, and yet it looks to me like there is a large number of younger Christians leaders who are reacting to this as if polemics is a pure evil. We want “conversation,” never argument or apologetics.

In the next post I'll give some ideas for a way that I hope could help some avoid the polarization that is occurring.

Editors' note: This is a cross-post from Tim Keller's blog at Redeemer City to City.