Volume 46 - Issue 1

Coming to Our Senses: The Case for a Civil Elenctics and an Elenctic Civility

By Daniel Strange

There are occasions in one’s life when an experience is so surreal and discombobulating that even years later you turn it over in your mind again and again. A few years ago I took part in an academic symposium within the theology and religious studies department of a British University. The purpose was a ‘feasibility study’ of Buddhist-Christian ‘dual belonging’. Within the theology of religions/study of religion, dual-belonging or multiple-belonging is the growing phenomenon in which people identity with more than one ‘religious’ tradition. Rather than being a simplistic syncretism, proponents believe they are able to inhabit multiple traditions with integrity, recognising a liminality of identity, but a mutual cross-fertilization to be welcomed and explored. There were about twelve of us taking part in the symposium, Christians and Buddhist scholars, some of whom were dual-belongers, some whom weren’t but who were sympathetic, and others who were more critical. We’d read papers beforehand and met to discuss and debate.1 I was the only evangelical taking part and my paper was by far the most trenchantly critical of the dual belonging notion, arguing it not only to be impossible for the Christian, but moreover an act of idolatry and a spiritual adultery against Christ. Over those couple of days, getting to know and indeed getting on with the participants was both uncomfortable but also enjoyable. In particular I ‘clicked’ relationally with one of the dual-belongers in attendance. They were currently lecturing in Christian doctrine within a British theological training institution but had also recently taken Buddhist orders.2

The confusing bit was on the one hand, the genuine engaging conversation and bonhomie over our social interaction. I don’t recall this being an outward and superficial veneer of courtesy underneath which lay a seething bed of animosity. And while I did regard the whole experience of the symposium as being a ‘missional’ and apologetic opportunity, I don’t believe my social interactions were part of some crass and manipulative bait-and-switch tactic. However, on the other hand, was the implicit recognition of our deep theological differences, not simply at an ‘academic’ or ‘professional’ level, but at the level of the personal and pastoral. Given the contents of my own paper and our subsequent interactions, this delegate knew I viewed them as an idolater and apostate; someone I would be unable to invite to lead, preach, or pray in my church; someone whom given my polity would come under church discipline and whom I would be unable to share the Lord’s Supper; someone whom in love I believed (for both their own sake and for the sake of those whom they taught) needed to repent to return the pattern of sound teaching. The apotheosis of this incongruity was when an amiable exchange over dinner ended in a remark from this participant along the lines of ‘you think I’m going to hell, can you pass me the salt please?’

There was a jarring dissonance in this encounter that even now is hard to disambiguate. Is what I have narrated here a faithful example of the ‘tough’ loving of one’s enemies which this side of the eschaton is always going to entail an existential conflicted messiness? Maybe. But maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe that inner turmoil is a Holy Spirit-prompted red-light warning that I’d taken a wrong-step somewhere. Maybe I was in fact being unfaithful to Christ. Such unfaithfulness could be spun out in a number of directions. Perhaps I should never have accepted the invitation in the first place and so not associated myself with such people? Perhaps I was fine to attend but I should have been more hostile and unfriendly displaying my zeal and righteous anger for Christ over the idolatry I was witnessing. Engagement in the formal symposium setting allowed, yes, but fraternization informally or socially, no. Or conversely, was I being unfaithful to Christ in my harsh and narrow theological categorization of them as idolaters and apostates, not seeing them as friends: children of God in whom I could discern the work of the Spirit and the face of Christ?

1. Christian Civility

Recently, and quite rightly, the importance of Christian ‘civility’ has been emphasised by a number of evangelicals. In the 2010 introduction to the second edition of his book Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, Richard Mouw (evangelicalism’s pre-eminent civility campaigner), speaks of how people had been telling him that a revised edition of the book had been needed now more than ever.3 I repeat, this is in 2010. Remember, that the first edition of this book in 1992 opens with Mouw quoting from W. B Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming’: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world etc.’ I repeat, that’s 1992. If things were falling apart in 1992, and the need for ‘civility’ needed to be heard all the more in 2010 … well you know where this is going. Whether it’s politics, protests or pandemics, 2020 could well be called the year of incivility, with fragmentation and fracturing exponentially exacerbated by the phenomena of ‘cyberbalkanization’ and the ‘splinternet’. The temptation to talk past each other, to caricature and stereotype in our echo-chamber soundbites, is so strong. We feel squeezed, squeezed of the time needed for reasoned debate where we can discuss things properly, and squeezed of a space for fear of being threatened, abused and cancelled. That we’re fearful is part of this vicious cycle. Commenting on the way he had been misrepresented, vilified and subsequently removed as chair of a British government commission of building and architecture (he was later re-instated), the late Sir Roger Scruton wrote in 2019,

We in Britain are entering a dangerous social condition in which the direct expression of opinions that conflict—or merely seem to conflict—with a narrow set of orthodoxies is instantly punished by a band of self-appointed vigilantes. We are being cowed into abject conformity around a dubious set of official doctrines and told to adopt a world view that we cannot examine for fear of being publicly humiliated by the censors. This world view might lead to a new and liberated social order; or it might lead to the social and spiritual destruction of our country. How shall we know, if we are too afraid to discuss it?4

I believe the case for a Christian ‘convicted civility’ is strong. I have already mentioned the work of Richard Mouw, who defines civility as ‘public politeness’: ‘it means that we display tact, moderation, refinement and good manners toward people who are different from us.’5 Such displays are not merely external and superficial, but have an inner heartfelt commitment to those God identifies as our neighbours however different they are from us. Borrowing from Martin Marty, Mouw contends for a ‘convicted’ civility which combines a civil outlook with ‘a passionate intensity’.6 Mouw’s primary theological tool to construct the case for civility comes from his Reformed heritage in terms ‘common grace’, a doctrine to which he has returned to again and again throughout his long professional career.7

Tim Keller argues that it is the gospel of Christ that will produce the virtues of humility, tolerance, patience and courage needed for Christian civility:

The gospel removes pride, probably the greatest barrier to a sensitive yet clear exchange of ideas.… It tells us that we must never think we are beyond sin and the need for repentance and renewal. There’s the humility we need. The gospel removes cynicism and pessimism as well.… We should, therefore, never think anyone is beyond hope of change. That gives us the patience we need, grounded in hope. The gospel removes indifference.… For Christians, the uncomfortable question is this: If we have been loved despite our flaws, and if we have discovered the greatest thing in the world in Christ, how can we be either abrasive or quiet about it? That knowledge produces the tolerance, but more than that, it produces the love we need. Lastly, the gospel removes fear. While we should be concerned to not needlessly offend people, the assurance of God’s love and acceptance should give us the courage to face criticism and disapproval.8

Finally, similar civic virtues emerge in James K. A Smith’s public theology, which draws heavily from Augustine’s City of God and the work of Oliver O’Donovan. In the saeculum—the age between Christ’s first and second coming, we live permixtum—‘an age where church and world and thrown together, intermingled and mixed up in overlapping territory.’9 The implications for this are first, the recognition that there is a creational desire for peace even within the disordered loves of the earthly city which means, second, Christian critique is ad hoc rather than total or absolute because of the ‘desire for an earthly peace—which is only the semblance of peace—is nonetheless preferred to its absence, so even the citizen of the city of God can rejoice when the juster triumphs over the (even) less just.’10 Third, ‘the recognition of penultimate convergence even where there is ultimate divergence’11 recognises the call to love our neighbours ‘both propels us into the shared territory our neighbours inhabit and compels us to affirm those goods that resonate with what God desires for our fellow citizens.’12 Finally, as Christians we are not to lose our eschatology, but to patiently cultivate a teleological sensibility, ‘so we participate and collaborate in the permixtum, the contested but good space of our life in common, and do so in ways that hope to bend, if ever so slightly, the earthly city toward the city of God.’13

Notwithstanding some subtle differences from my position on public theology, I have benefitted greatly from the work of Mouw, Keller and Smith in their passionate pleas for a convicted civility in the public square. What I articulate now is intended primarily neither to be a caution nor a caveat, but rather a complement to their work. It is prompted by my continuing reflection upon my dual-belonging encounter narrated above, and also a recognition that the primary audience of Themelios is theological and religious studies students and pastors. What does a convicted civility mean for these callings?

In his book Christian Mission in the Modern World, John Stott writes,

the very concept of ‘elenctics’ is out of accord with the diffident, tolerant mood of today. But no Christian who accepts the biblical view of the evil of idolatry on the one hand and the finality of Jesus Christ on the other can escape it. Further, only those who see the need for elenctics can also see the need for dialogue and can understand its proper place.14

I want to suggest that the discursive framing of Christian civility is a passionate intensity that is not only ‘convicted’ but is ‘elenctic’ in its shape. Elenctics which derives from the Greek ἐλέγχω (to ‘convict’ or ‘unmask’), is a neglected theological term, indeed, it’s an entire ‘lost’ theological discipline which in previous eras had its own distinct place within the theological encyclopedia.15 It can be defined in the words of its greatest twentieth century advocate, the missiologist J. H. Bavinck, as ‘the science which is concerned with the conviction of sin … it is the science which unmasks to heathendom, all false religions as sin against God, and it calls heathendom to a knowledge of the only true God’.16 Elenctics has a missiological drive because it is not primarily concerned with an ‘on the back foot’ defence of the faith, but rather goes on the offensive, attacking unbelief. ‘Elenctics calls the non-Christian religions to a position of responsibility, and attempts to convince their adherents of sin and to move them to repentance and conversion.’17

At first sight, it might not seem that elenctics and civility would make a happy marriage. The elenctic stress captures the biblical mood of war: of antithesis, confrontation and difference. The civil stress captures the biblical mood of peace: of commonness, in terms of common grace, a common createdness, and common arena in terms of the permixtum. However, both elenctics and civility, belong together and helpfully qualify the other. In other words, our elenctics needs to be civil and our civility needs to be elenctic. There is peacefulness in our warring, and warring in our peacefulness.

Such a union is possible when we recognise that the heuristic tool of idolatry and false worship is understood to have elements of both discontinuity/difference and continuity/commonality, when compared to true worship. Bavinck’s own exposition of elenctics, brings this out beautifully. On the one hand, with a Pauline zeal and ‘provocation’ (Acts 17:16), there is a viscerality in Bavinck’s description of idolatry: ‘Idolatry is despicable, a terrible rebellion against the only true God; it is satanic pride, self-idolatry, self-deification, an attempt to pull God down to the world, and to make God a servant of one’s self.’18 On the other hand, Bavinck’s writings (and by all accounts his life too),19 exude the adage suaviter in modo, fortiter in re,20 and what he himself calls the warm undertone of meeting-in-love: ‘the recognition of myself in the other person, a sympathetic feeling of his guilt and a sincere desire in Christ to do with this man what Christ has done with me.’21 Bavinck says,

Elenctics receives the greatest support from its repeated awareness that the sharpest weapons must in the first place be turned against ourselves.… Anyone who knows himself to any extent knows the finesse with which a man can escape from God, and wrestle free from his grasp. To be really able to convict anyone in sin, a person must know himself, and the hidden corners of his heart very well. There is no more humbling work in the world that to engage in elenctics. For at each moment the person knows that the weapons which he turns against another have wounded himself. The Holy Spirit convicts us, and then through us he convicts the world.22

I would like to take this idea of a civil elenctics and an elenctic civility and offer an example of each, one in a more ecclesial setting, and one in a more educational setting.

2. A Civil Elenctics

While Bavinck’s exposition of elenctics remains seminal, it is a curious omission that he does not reference Titus 1:9 in his New Testament survey of the occurrences of ἐλέγχω. For many years, and I presume paralleled in many evangelical seminaries and colleges, an exposition of Titus 1:5–9 has been a focal point in introducing students to the whys and wherefores of an evangelical theological education with an ecclesial context and telos.23 The minister (the Presbyter) is someone who has the Word of God applied in their lives—in their lifestyle, in their thinking and beliefs, and in their teaching. Refutation and rebuke are part of the minister’s calling. As Calvin puts it,

The pastor ought to have two voices: one, for gathering the sheep; and another, for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means of doing both; for he who is deeply skilled in it will be able both to govern those who are teachable, and to refute the enemies of the truth. This twofold use of Scripture Paul describes when he says, That he may be able to exhort and to convince adversaries. And hence, let us learn first, what is the true knowledge of a bishop, and, next, to what purpose it ought to be applied. That bishop is truly wise, who holds the right faith; and he makes a proper use of his knowledge, when he applies it to the edification of the people.24

The ethical qualifications required of the elder (vv. 6–8) should be context enough to point to the manner of pastoral rebuke/refutation, one that is humble rather than arrogant. But arguably there is an inbuilt civility in true refutation.

What is refutation? Refutation is not just saying I disagree with you, or giving a contradictory opinion. It is demonstrating where and how those who disagree with sound teaching actually do disagree with it. One might break it down into a number constitutive parts: (1) to know what is being said; (2) to be able to compare that to real faith and sound teaching; (3) to see the difference between the two and how the difference has arisen; (4) to know what really is a matter of indifference (one doesn’t want to cause unnecessary strife), or to say it’s false doctrine unless it is; (5) to then persuasively, honestly and lovingly demonstrate that to others. The aim is not just to say you’re wrong or correct an intellectual misapprehension, but it’s to bring the person back because we love them and we believe what they’re teaching is damaging people’s souls.

All of a sudden that little ‘and refute those who opposite it’ becomes a complex and daunting task. This elenctic role is vital to the life of the pastor and the life of the healthy church, but there is a civility to it. Are we able to listen, really listen to a counterview? Are we able to describe without reverting to stereotype or caricature? Do I understand what a person is saying so that if I repeated it back to them, they would say, ‘yes, that’s it’? Oliver O’Donovan notes that ‘to “communicate” is to hold something in common, to make it a common possession, to treat it as “ours,” rather than “yours” or “mine”’.25 A ‘civil’ listening is not only enshrined in the common law principle of audi alteram partem (listen to the other side),26 but is surely an implication of Jesus’s commands to love your neighbours as yourself (Mark 12:21); to do others what you would have them do to you (Matt 7:12); and to love your enemies (Matt 5:44).

In this regard, for many years I’ve led a discussion with successive seminary tutor groups around two pieces I have found stimulating and helpful. The first is a simple but profound piece by Roger Nicole on ‘Dealing with Difference’ where he encourages us to ask three questions when faced with difference.27 First, what do I owe to the person who differs from me? We have obligations to people who differ from us. We want people to know what we are saying. We must attempt to understand what a person means. We must seek to understand their aims. Second, what can I learn from those who differ from me? I may be wrong. I may be failing to embody the truth in its entirety. I have not sufficiently perceived dangers to which my view is exposed. I may be being ambiguous. Finally, how can I cope with those who differ from me, in terms of defence (what Nicole calls ‘protective’) and offence (what Nicole calls ‘constructive’). Nicole’s conclusion is challenging:

Are we attempting to win an argument in order to manifest our own superior knowledge and debating ability? Or are we seeking to win another person who we perceive as enmeshed in error or inadequacy by exposing him or her to the truth and light that God has given to us. (2 Tim. 2:24–26).… A Christian in carrying on discussions with those who differ should not be subject to the psychology of the boxing ring where the contestants are bent upon demolishing one another. Rather ‘The Lord’s servant must not quarrel: instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses…’ (2 Tim. 2:24–26).28

The second discussion piece is the unpublished paper ‘Dealing with False Teaching’, given by the late Reformed Baptist pastor, Robert Sheehan, at a 1980s meeting of the British Evangelical Council.29 Sheehan notes,

The reasons why churches and individuals become ensnared in error are varied. The apostolic approach to error was not simplistic, enabling us to set out slick formula and rules of thumb. The apostolic approach to error was complex because it took all error seriously, but also took into account the nature of the error and the reasons why error had arisen.…

The apostles recognised that not everyone who is in error is in a state of open rebellion against the truth. Not everyone in error is seeking to pervert the gospel and overthrow the faith. Other factors have to be taken into consideration when assessing why error occurs in any particular situation.

In short, there are different kinds of error, different people who are involved in them, and different ways of handling those errors and people. Sheehan offers a five-fold typology. First, are the sincerely ignorant. The example given here is Apollos in Acts 18:24–28. He was eloquent, competent in the Scriptures, and instructed in the way of the Lord. Luke says that he taught accurately the things concerning Jesus. But there was something missing, and when Priscilla and Aquila heard him they explained to him the way of God more accurately. Apollos was in error but not denounced for it. He was teachable and this led into further usefulness in ministry. Second, are the sincere misinterpreters. Such people don’t want to be in error but they have misunderstood the teaching of the Bible on a particular point. Sheehan cites 1 Corinthians 5:9–11 as an example of this. Paul removes all reason for misunderstanding by further clarification. Third, are the temporarily inconsistent. This is Peter at Antioch whom Paul had to oppose. Peter was not regarded as unregenerate, but his conduct (not his teaching) was not in step with the truth of the gospel (Gal 2:11–14). Peter’s sin was public and because of his prominence, Paul rebukes him publicly. Paul realises Peter’s inconsistency is not a desire to repudiate the gospel but is motivated by fear. Paul does not condemn him as a heretic in confrontation, shows him the serious implications of his teaching and gains his restoration. Fourth, are the deceived—the ‘foolish Galatians’ (Gal 3:1). Here Sheehan notes four strands of arguments in Paul’s teaching: ‘a positive teaching of truth, a negative denunciation of error, a forthright yet accurate exposure of the false teachers and a warning of the dire consequences of persistence in false teaching.’ Fifth, and finally, are the deceivers. These people are enemies of the gospel who were fundamentally unwilling to be submissive to apostolic teaching even after an orderly and responsible process of investigation, testimony and decision (the dogmata of Acts 16:4): ‘there should not doubt that the teaching of the Apostle with regard to these wilful, persistent, stubborn heretics is that they are to be rejected and avoided; that their excommunication from the church is necessary. There is to be no sort of contact with them for religious purposes.’

Sheehan notes that a great deal of discernment is required in these situations but ultimately there are only two types of errorists: ‘There are those who are in submission to the Apostles, yet for some reason are not doing what the Apostles had said, and there are those who are not in submission to the Apostles. Those who are biblically submissive, yet in error, and those who are biblically subversive and, therefore, in error.’

I think a typology like Sheehan’s is helpful and calls for a prayerful wisdom and discernment in the pastor’s elenctic task which I would hope promotes many of the characteristics of civility (listening, patience, love, tolerance, etc.) that I’ve already outlined. Of course there are questions that remain and that demand further reflection. Pointedly, as protective pastors, is there a ‘civil’ way of driving away wolves? Paul’s wish that the Galatian deceivers would go and emasculate themselves certainly demonstrates his passionate love of his flock but, in terms of his interaction with the false teachers, was he being ‘civil’? Does Paul’s apostolic authority and place in redemptive history make a difference in how we are to interpret and apply this utterance? Should we, and I would say we should, contextualise ‘civility’ in a way that takes into account one’s character and one’s culture such that there can be a legitimate diversity as to what a biblical civility might look like amongst God’s people across time and across the world?30

A civil elenctics is the closest I’ve come in trying to describe (and justify?) my ‘dual-belonging’ encounter. If one considers temperamental, socio-cultural and contextual factors, perhaps the ‘“you think I’m going to hell, can you pass me the salt please?” incident’ is not as incongruous as it first appeared. Perhaps. To be honest, for me it still continues to be a source of ponderment.

3. An Elenctic Civility

I move from the more pastoral ecclesial setting to the more public and civic setting. What I propose here is an admittedly more provocative thesis and proposal. As a society, if we are going to further civil discourse in society so we truly communicate and allow the free exchange of ideas, then we need both time and space for such interactions, and at the moment we are suffering from a lack of both. Could Christians be the ones to create and sustain such time and space? Can we be the ones who engender and model civil dialogue? Crucially, the time and space for such civil dialogue cannot be conducted on a neutral platform, but must always be Christian and, I would argue, must always be elenctic. The discipline of the study of religion is one area where Christians might evidence such an elenctic civility.

In recent years, Roman Catholic scholars such as Gavin D’Costa and Paul Griffiths have narrated a genealogy which charts the Oedipal nature of religious studies in parallel with theology’s ‘Babylonian captivity’ in the modern university.31 Much religious studies has presupposed an alleged ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ scientific positivism which does not comport well with the theological task, and, in fact, can be shown to be as ideological or crypto-theological as any explicit ‘confessional’ approach to the study of religion.32 Unashamedly, the conservative Catholic D’Costa argues that contra modernity’s construal of the academic study of ‘religion,’ the fullest understanding and interpreting of the religions are seen ‘in the light of the triune God who is the fullness of truth. Only from this theological narrative can other religions be truly understood, simply because Christianity is true.’33

For those familiar with this discipline, such a statement by D’Costa raises a perennial question: Does such a position threaten civility in terms of dialogue and proper listening, in that a controlling ‘outsider’ theological interpretation is forced upon the religious ‘insider’ thus doing violence to their Otherness? Not necessarily, as ‘understanding, to the best of one’s ability, is a prerequisite to any form of judgement. Of course this understanding is not neutral, as it is structured by particular research questions, interests and methods.’34 D’Costa continues, ‘further, because Christianity calls for a critical engagement with all human culture, the world religious become a necessary object of theological interest, which requires understanding them as best as possible from the ‘inside’ as they understood or understand themselves, before outside interpretation can proceed.’35

Although D’Costa’s own Catholic ‘outside’ interpretation is markedly different from my own Reformed ‘outsider’ interpretation, the insider/outsider distinction holds and is helpful in enabling a ‘partisan objectivity’36 that can respect the Other while allowing for a theological interpretation of the Other which will for a theological of religions like my own, have missional and elenctic presuppositions and motivations. Detailed and granular ethnographic and phenomenological ‘listening’ work can take place even if the telos of such work is the unmasking of idolatry and the call to repentance and faith in Christ as true worship. Bavinck notes this in his exposition of elenctics:

To be able to approach effectively, to be able to convince of sin, a certain knowledge of the phenomenon of non-Christian religions is indispensable … elenctics must first of all begin with the precise and calm knowledge of the nature of the religion with which it is concerned. It must do this honestly and calmly; that is to say, it must not be too quick to interrupt, it must listen to this religion state its case.… In the very nature of the case elenctics makes thankful use of the data provided by the science of religion and by the history of religion. These two subjects constitute the building blocks with which it works.37

While I’m not holding my breath for the ‘academic’ study of religions to return and subsume itself under theology (let alone evangelical theology) anytime soon, it’s important that evangelicals, and other co-belligerents, do not accept the current status quo or withdraw from this field, which is itself a mission field. However, there are other spaces where I think we can proactively and constructively offer a faithful elenctic civility setting the agenda on our own terms.

4. Coming to Our Senses?

In formulating my own Reformed theological religious studies, I have drawn on the aforementioned J. H. Bavinck’s proposal of a universal religious consciousness, which he describes morphologically in terms of ‘magnetic points’.38 In terms of theological anthropology, these magnetic points are a faithful yet creative restatement of Calvin’s notions the sensus divinitatis, semen religionis and fabrica idolorum. The ‘magnetic points’ are aspects or perspectives to the one religious consciousness and while noting individual, cultural and religious variegation, are as perennial, fixed, and universal as both the imago Dei and the suppression and substitution of truth. I have renamed them as follows: Totality (a way to connect), Norm (a way to live), Deliverance (a way out), Destiny (a way we control) and Higher Power (a way beyond). Remember that these points are idolatrous responses to God’s revelation, each of these points are subversively fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the object of true worship.

As I have been presenting this material in a variety of contexts, a very creative proposal was suggested to me following a presentation of the magnetic points. I offer this as an excellent example of what I have been calling an elenctic civility and worthy of further development. This proposal would rename ‘the magnetic points’ as the ‘Five Senses’ and deploy them in educational settings with the aim of reclaiming the diversity agenda, an agenda that we know is so powerful and prevalent at the moment. Would it be possible to use the ‘Five Senses’ as a framework for ‘diversity committees’ to seek to engage with everyone in the school: Christians, Muslims, Jews, Secularists, black, white, LGBTQ+, etc.? So, for example, the group could use these uniting “senses” to make commitment and drive a programme of inclusion action. A ‘manifesto’ for such a programme could look like this:

(1) An understanding of our place in the world—five uniting innate human ‘senses’:

  1. Totality: We have a desire to connect with others and belong to something bigger than ourselves.
  2. Norm: We believe there are moral standards and responsibilities for all people.
  3. Deliverance: We live in a world which suffers brokenness, pain and ultimately death, and we all crave solutions for these.
  4. Destiny: We recognise that we do not control our world and that whilst each wanting to control our individual destiny, we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
  5. Higher Power: We perceive that there is more to reality than just what we see around us, and we would like to explore each other’s understanding of what that is.

(2) A commitment to how we want to explore these ‘senses’:

  1. We commit to valuing every member of the school community equally and we want to apologise for where we have not done this in the past.
  2. We seek an inclusion which accepts each person for who they are and what they believe, and acknowledge that it is acceptable to disagree.
  3. We commit to speaking openly and to listening to each other so we better understand our different views of the world around us, our place within it, and what may lie beyond our immediate reality.
  4. We call on the school leadership to shape the curriculum and extra-curricular activities to enable us to explore these five human senses, and to shape the school discipline policy in line with these priorities.

(3) A possible action plan within the framework of the five ‘senses’:

  1. A school survey asking for each pupil’s view, so we can share an understanding of our community’s thinking and diversity;
  2. Forums at which we will listen and ask questions about each other’s understanding of our place within the world;
  3. Exploration of thinking and practices, addressing where we have got things wrong through prejudice and ignorance, and devising a plan for change.

Such a framework might be accused of being an illegitimate ‘deck-stacking’ bait-and-switch ploy. Certainly this ‘five sense’ framework is explicitly theological but then what framework isn’t in terms of coming from some committed/crypto-theological stance? Within this framework there is the time and space for civil conversation and dialogue, but also the space for conversion given the elenctic nature of the theological task. Just as there is an intentional ambiguity in Paul’s use of the term ‘very religious’ in Acts 17:22b,39 so I think there is a similar intentional ambiguity in how we are speaking of ‘diversity’ here. In a sense we can, and we must, affirm the ‘dignity of difference’,40 by which I mean the difference of created human-beingness, which calls for a respectful civility and the free exchange of ideas. However, there is a sense, an older sense of the word, in which for the Christian, ‘diversity’ means opposing and contrary to the truth, and which, by the power of the Spirit, Christians are called to unmask and bring to shame. 41 ‘Conversational difference’ creates the space and the platform for ‘conversional difference’. For the Christian, both are needed, and both are mandated. The ‘five senses’ idea was suggested to me within a school setting, but could we not also consider such an ecclesial setting for such initiatives? Such an initiative would further both our opportunities for witness and evangelism, but also our responsibilities within civic society to create time and space for citizens to come together?

Post-pandemic, we are, or we will, slowly emerge staggering and blinking into a new landscape. A civil elenctics and an elenctic civility is what the world needs right now, a call for us to come to our senses rather than perpetuate a stifling ‘sense-orship’. We can be the ones to offer it.

[1] These papers were published subsequently in Gavin D’Costa and Ross Thompson, eds., Buddhist-Christian Dual Belonging: Affirmations, Objections, Explorations (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2016). My own chapter is entitled, ‘“There Can Be Only One”: The Impossibility and Idolatry of “Dual Belonging”’.

[2] Out of a genuine inquisitiveness I did ask how this was possible institutionally. The response was that an agreement with the college leadership had been reached so that as long as the Buddhist belonging didn’t conflict with the teaching of Christian doctrine, then it was permissible.

[3] Richard J. Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010).

[4] Roger Scruton, ‘An Apology for Thinking’, The Spectator, 11 April 2019, For a perspective of where we are on this regarding British higher education, see the book by Claire Fox, director of the Academy of Ideas, I (Still) Find that Offensive! (London: Biteback Publishing, 2018). As I write this editorial (February 2020), the British Government have this week published their plan to produce tougher legal measures to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities including the appointment of a new Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion. Unsurprisingly, reaction has been mixed.

[5] Mouw, Uncommon Decency, 14.

[6] Mouw, Uncommon Decency, 13. See Martin E. Marty, By Way of Response (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981).

[7] See Richard Mouw, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); Mouw, Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Ground (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016).

[8] Timothy Keller and John Inazu, Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2020), 30.

[9] James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 49.

[10] Smith, Awaiting the King, 217.

[11] Smith, Awaiting the King, 218.

[12] Smith, Awaiting the King, 219.

[13] Smith, Awaiting the King, 220.

[14] John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove, IL: InverVarsity Press, 1975), 107

[15] I should note that the late Harvie Conn taught elenctics at Westminster Theological Seminary. See also Cornelius J. Haak, ‘The Missional Approach: Reconsidering Elenctics Part 1’, CTJ 44 (2009): 37–48; Haak, ‘The Missional Approach: Reconsidering Elenctics Part 2,’ CTJ 44 (2009): 288–304.

[16] J. H Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1960), 222. The concept is older than Bavinck and reaches back into Reformed history being used by figures such as Gisbertus Voetius, Francis Turretin and later, Abraham Kuyper. For a more detailed description of elenctics see Daniel Strange, ‘An Apology for Elenctics: The Unmasking of Sin in the Retrieval of a Theological Discipline’, in Ruined Sinners to Reclaim: Human Corruption in Historical, Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Perspective, ed. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, forthcoming).

[17] Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, 232. I note the monergistic and pneumocentric nature of Bavinck’s exposition of elenctics, ‘When we speak of elenctics we do well to understand it in the sense that it has in John 16:8. The Holy Spirit will convince the world of sin. The Holy Spirit is actually the only conceivable subject of the verb, for the conviction of sin exceeds all human ability. Only the Holy Spirit can do this, even though he can and will use us as instruments in his hand’ (An Introduction to the Science of Missions, 222).

[18] Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, 226.

[19] See Paul J. Visser, Heart for the Gospel, Heart for the World: The Life and Thought of a Reformed Pioneer Missiologist Johan Herman Bavinck (1895–1964) (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003). A shorter account of Bavinck’s life and work can be found in John Bolt, James D. Bratt and Paul J. Visser, eds., The J. H. Bavinck Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 1–92.

[20] ‘Gently in manner, bold in action.’

[21] Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, 127.

[22] Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, 272.

[23] It would be remiss of me not to mention at this point, Francis Turretin’s monumental Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992), no doubt the primary way Reformed evangelicals might have come across the term ‘elenctic’. Turretin’s ‘Preface to the Reader’ (1:xl) is illuminating: ‘Thus also as to the name, Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Let no one think that a full and accurate system of theology is delivered here. For this was not indeed the design proposed to me, but only to explain the importance of the principal controversies which lie between us and our adversaries (ancient and modern) and supply to the young the thread of Ariadne, by the help of which they may more easily extricate themselves from their labyrinth. For since in this fond-of-wrangling age it becomes the man of God not only to be imbued with a deeper knowledge of truth for rightly dividing the word of God, but also to be equipped with the powerful armour of righteousness and especially with the shield of faith, to convict antagonists, to quench the fiery darts of Satan and destroy the fortification and reasonings opposed to the knowledge of God, so that every thought may be brought captive in obedience to Christ—the progress of the studious cannot be better provided for than by teaching them to handle the sword with the trowel (which sacred history tell us the Jerusalem builders formerly did); that is, with instruction (paideia) in the truth, upon which the faith may be built, to join the conviction (elenchon) of the false by which the errors (either directly or indirectly impugning it) may be solidly refuted, so that they can be successful in setting right the many and weighty controversies which at this day and to our grief prevail extensively among Christians and miserably lacerate the church of the Lord.

[24] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. William Pringle, reprint ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1979), 296.

[25] Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 242.

[26] Audi alteram partem is the ‘motto’ of Christopher Watkins trilogy of books on Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze in P&R’s Great Thinker series. I believe these to be an exemplary model of what I am talking about.

[27] Roger Nicole, ‘Polemic Theology—How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us’, in Standing Forth: Collected Writings of Roger Nicole (Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor, 2002), 9–26. It can be found here:

[28] Nicole, ‘Polemic Theology’, 26.

[29] A network of conservative evangelical churches and Christian agencies begun in 1952, closely associated with Martin Lloyd-Jones, and from 2004 re-named as ‘Affinity’.

[30] For a helpful ‘compare and contrast’ exercise on some of these questions see Samuel James, ‘The Case for Civility’, The Gospel Coalition, 20 October 2020,, and Allan Bever, ‘Are There Limits to Civility?’, Jesus Creed, 4 February 2021,

[31] Gavin D’Costa, Theology in the Public Square: Church, Academy and Nation (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005); Paul J. Griffiths, ‘On the Future of the Study of Religion in the Academy,’ JAAR 74 (2006): 66–74.

[32] Paul Griffiths, ‘On the Very Idea of Religion’, First Things 103 (May 2000): 30–35. Griffiths here draws on the influential work of Timothy Fitzgerald in his The Ideology of Religious Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[33] Gavin D’Costa, Christianity and World Religions: Disputed Questions in the Theology of Religions (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 91.

[34] D’Costa, Christianity and World Religions, 93.

[35] D’Costa, Christianity and World Religions, 93. It’s worth listening to D’Costa as to how this is achieved: ‘Insider reporting is a descriptive interpretation that would usually be agreed on by an insider or a well-informed and sympathetic outsider. Outsider reporting is an interpretation of the insider reporting, which may be entirely congruent with the insider account, or may diverge. If it diverges, a plausible explanatory framework within the outsider report needs to be provided. It is quite possible that an insider might learn constructively from an outsider reporting process, or indeed contest and argue against it. Or simply ignore it. The question of truth operates in both areas, insider and outsider reporting, but obviously in different ways. For insider reports to be true, they must be intra-systematically coherent with the beliefs and practices of the insider group, and the question of their referential ontology might be part of the insider report, or it might not. For outsider reports to be true, they must be intra-systematically coherent with the world of the outsider reporter, who is of course an insider to her own world, and their persuasiveness to the insider about whom they are reporting is entirely contingent on a whole range of factors. If, for example, a problem is located in the insider’s world by both the insider and the outsider, the outsider may claim that it is best resolved by actually leaving that worldview, adapting it in a certain way consonant with an insider report, or adapting it in ways that would create intra-systematic dissonance. This process might happen through rational discussion, rhetorical persuasion, example of life lived, and in a whole range of explicit and implicit ways’ (93–94).

[36] This phrase comes from Terry C. Muck, Harold A. Netland and Gerald R. McDermott’s excellent book Handbook of Religion: A Christian Engagement with Traditions, Teachings, and Practices (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 4.

[37] Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, 241.

[38] See Daniel Strange, Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 250–54; Strange, Making Faith Magnetic: Five Hidden Themes Our Culture Can’t Stop Talking About … and How to Connect Them to Christ (London: Good Book Company, 2021). Bavinck own description these magnetic points are found in two places using different orderings: ‘Religious Consciousness and Christian Faith’, in The J. H. Bavinck Reader, ed. John Bolt, James D. Bratt and Paul J. Visser (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 151–98; J. H. Bavinck, The Church Between Temple and Mosque (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 37–106. The same points are also described in a less schematic way in Bavinck’s An Introduction to the Science of Missions, 247–72.

[39] Within the context of the pericope, δεισιδαιμονέστερους (‘very religious’) neatly encapsulates the anthropological ambiguity and complexity of religious alterity of human beings both ‘knowing’ and not knowing God, and simultaneously running away from God and running to him.

[40] > To use a phrase by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sachs.

[41] See Daniel Barbu, ‘“Idolatry” and Religious Diversity: Thinking about the Other in Early Modern Europe’, ASDIWAL. Revue genevoise d’anthropologie et d’histoire des religions (2014): 39–50.

Daniel Strange

Daniel Strange is director of Crosslands Forum, a centre for cultural engagement and missional innovation, and contributing editor of Themelios.

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