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Why We (Sometimes) Need Harsh Polemical Theology

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“I grew up and was nurtured in the Reformed tradition, where theological sparring is a spectator sport,” Brian Mattson says. “I participated in the games, honed my wicked tongue (which was all-too-often genuinely wicked), and vanquished many foes.”

Mattson no longer engages in the “heated theological debates of the day” because, he says, “I burned out.” But he recently stepped back into the fray for another fight:

“Why, then, did I just publish a polemical essay in The Calvinist International responding to David Bentley Hart’s doctrine of the (non)resurrection of the flesh?”

It was just over week ago. I had read Hart’s fascinating and dizzying article (regardless of his content, he is supremely talented), and thought that maybe somebody should write a response. It was one of those fleeting thoughts that quickly dissolves into “somebody else will do it.” I’m busy. I’m traveling this week.

On Tuesday I attended a funeral.

As I sat there with tears in my eyes looking at the handsome wooden box wherein the remains of my friend lay—after a rapid and sudden decline—a Christian brother so universally beloved the church building was bursting its capacity, the fire was rekindled. And it burned white hot.

This is not self-indulgent intellectual tiddlywinks. This is not a “hill to die on that isn’t really.” There is a man dead. And a very smug theologian of world renown has just proclaimed that the flesh and bones in that box will remain there forever.

I Was Nice When I Should Have Been Harsh

Mattson’s courage and passion convicts me of my own cowardice and insouciance. Seven years ago I was engaged in my own debate with David Bentley Hart. In a discussion on the death penalty Hart told me he believes Noah never existed, and that Jesus was mistaken for believing the ark-builder was a historical figure. Although I considered Hart to a teacher of unsound doctrine (2 Tim. 4:3–4), I was cowed by his credentials into a conciliatory silence. He was a world-renowned theologian, and I was not. He was a regular columnist for First Things magazine, where I was an editor, and I feared the repercussions of calling him out as a “false teacher” (2 Pet. 2:1).

I convinced myself that the most important thing was to remain collegial, and that harsh polemical theology is probably sinful. I now believe I was wrong.

Polemical theology, as D. A. Carson has explained, is “nothing other than contending for a particular theological understanding (usually one that the contender holds to be the truth) and disputing those that contradict it or minimize it.”

Polemics are therefore necessary, as Carson adds, for it is “impossible to indulge in serious critical thought without becoming enmeshed, to some degree, in polemics.”

So Christians should engage in polemics. But must Christian polemics always be collegial?

When Collegiality and Dispassion Are Not a Virtue

In academia, collegiality is the premier virtue associated with rhetoric, followed closely by dispassion. There is an unspoken rule in academic debates that disagreement should be congenial and that the first to raise their voice, even figuratively, loses the debate.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Professors can be harshly polemical against those the academy deems unworthy (such as creationists), but when they take such a stance against a respected peer it’s considered gauche and unprofessional. An excess of passion, expressed rhetorically, about one’s subject is symptomatic of cranks and pundits, not scholars and intellectuals.

Within a university setting, such collegiality is generally necessary for the advancement of knowledge. Because many evangelical pastors go to seminary or adopt the methods of academia, they naturally adopt a rhetorical stance that appears to be consistent with what they’ve seen modeled in the theologians they aspire to be. But few pastor-theologians question whether collegiality and dispassion are generally effective outside of the university, much less examine whether it’s always an appropriately biblical model for polemics.

When Paul Wasn’t Collegial

We often assume that since collegiality appears to be loving it therefore must also be the most biblical method of polemics. Yet when we look at the rhetors of the Bible—especially Jesus and Paul—we find they take a different approach to rhetoric. We sometimes even squirm when we see our Lord and his apostles being harshly polemical—harsh, at least, by the standards of modern academia.

A friend recently expressed to me his concern about Paul publicly chastising Peter for what seemed to him to be a minor transgression (Gal. 2:11–13). Not only did Paul criticize Peter in front of his peers and the rest of the congregation, he even wrote about it in a letter to be disseminated to other churches. Is that really, my friend wondered, the way Christians should engage with others?

Yes, sometimes it is. Sometimes the only way to love others is to be harshly polemical, for that is the only way to defend truth.

“We have an obligation to the truth, and that has priority over agreement with any particular person,” the great Reformed-Baptist theologian Roger Nicole said. “If someone is not in the truth, we have no right to agree.”

While I wholeheartedly agree that truth is prior to—and necessary for—love, Nicole adds an additional condition: “The truth that I believe I have grasped must be presented in a spirit of love and winsomeness.”

A spirit of love? Absolutely and always. A spirit of winsomeness? Not necessarily, at least not in the way that term is usually meant today.

As Carson notes, “Regardless of its audience and of the particular stance that is being challenged, polemical theology ought to develop a wide range of ‘tones.’” My friend believes that because Paul’s tone was not suitably winsome when he corrected Peter, the apostle was being unloving and un-Christian. He presumes the only “tone” for polemics is “winsome.”

But there are times when the most loving thing we can do to protect sound doctrine is to take a tone that is harsh and uncompromising. As Paul says, when we see people “teaching things they ought not to teach” we should “rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:11–12). While Paul’s tone may not always have been winsome, he was effective in guarding the flock (Acts 20:29–32).

As Harsh as Athanasius

Paul’s example should also remind us that strong polemics are not necessarily used to change the mind of our theological heterodox opponents but to protect those inside one’s own orthodox circle. Too often we become so concerned with our opponents that we forget the effect the debates are having on those who are listening from the sidelines.

If Arianism were to rear its head today, it’d likely gain acceptance rather quickly because there would be few pastor-theologians willing to speak against it as forcefully, passionately—and yes, harshly—as Athanasius. We’d thoughtfully debate the issue with our “peers” while the heresy infected our flocks.

Unlike the bishop of Alexandria, we wouldn’t risk being exiled five times by four world leaders. We fear we’d be shunned from symposia and conferences for having a pugilistic spirit, so we’d debate the heresy collegially and dispassionately. The result would be that many church members would assume, based on our respectful treatment, that Arianism is a legitimate and viable perspective that could be adopted by respectable Christians.

In forming their beliefs, many Christians follow the core constitutional principle of English law: “Everything which is not forbidden is allowed.” That is why we need to make clear—forcefully and unequivocally—that some things are forbidden. At such times it is necessary to remind our fellow believers that as slaves of Christ (Eph. 6:6) we are not free to follow our theological whims. And in expressing our point, strong polemical theology is often the most effective approach.

Along with being truthful, rhetoric needs to be effective—and strong polemics are effective. That is, after all, why politicians resort to harsh polemics (often sans truth) more often than they do academic discourse. They are out to sway people to their side and know that forcefulness and clear line-drawing are necessary for that task.

This is not to say, of course, that academic-type collegial rhetoric should be abandoned. In fact, I think for most topics it is an effective way to change hearts and minds over the long run (and by long run I mean 10 to 15 years). But in the short term there are often times when we need to throw up a fence to keep the sheep from wandering astray. In those cases, harsh polemics often provide the best fencing material.

Related: Tim Keller on “Three Rules for Polemics

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