Monday, July 13, 2009

In Defense of Polemics

If you read my comments on other blogs, you might notice that I'm not afraid to engage in polemical discussions. That is, I'm willing to engage error masquerading as truth and to call a spade a spade. But if you read this blog, you'll notice that that's not been my modus operandi on this blog so much. Remembering my commitment to be a benefit, that may have something to do with the fact that I think there's more benefit to be given and to be enjoyed in ways other than polemical argumentation. However, I think that polemics can certainly be in the service of benefiting people by presenting Christ to them.

Not everyone agrees with me there. If you lurk around the Christian blogosphere long enough and read widely enough, you'll find that some people find any manner of disagreement utterly distasteful, and they chide you for being "divisive," "unloving," disobedient to John 13:35 (which is laughable, given the content discussed in my recent post on that passage), too worried about doctrine, Pharisaical, or -- the postmodern favorite -- "uncharitable."

And if you do manage to find a group of folks who don't mind differing viewpoints, you better make sure you don't disagree with someone too severely, and that you preface your disagreement with about 150 things you like about your opponent, or about what your opponent just said, or a slew of qualifiers about how the issue you're disagreeing over is not an essential Christian doctrine, and how you're sure they're a fine person in real life. You get the idea.

But again, I disagree with these people. I think that strong disagreement and polemical argumentation can be very beneficial to the body of Christ.

Why do I think that?

Well, throughout the New Testament we find statements from the Apostles exhorting the Church to speak truth each one with his neighbor (Eph 4:25). As demonstrated in my previous post, the way that the body builds itself up in love is by exposing each other to the glory of Christ by speaking truth to each other. When error is presented as truth, harm comes to the body, just as it would if someone served poison instead of food at a meal.

And we have commands exhorting the Church to "expose error" (Eph 5:11). Continuing with the same illustration, if it was common knowledge that someone was masquerading poison as healthy food, those who cared anything about the people to whom it was being served would do what they could to find out what's real, nourishing food and what's not.

Also, the very nature of divine revelation requires that it be the standard of measure of all our thinking. We are told not to believe every spirit, but to test the spirits because many false profits have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1). Reproof and correction are also said to be things for which Scripture is profitable (or beneficial) (2Tim 3:16). And as he approaches the end of his life, Paul's solemn charge to Timothy is to "preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction" (2Tim 4:2).

And one of the clearest Scriptural examples that I can find of polemical argumentation being for the benefit to the Church is in Acts 18:27-28:
And when [Apollos] had arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.
Apollos greatly helped the believers. How? "For," the Scripture says, "he powerfully refuted the Jews in public." A strong, public refutation of error was of great help to the body.

And these strong, even public, rebukes were not limited to unbelievers. In Galatians 2, Paul confronts Peter. Listen to the strength of his language.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
Even Peter was subject to this kind of rebuke. And as his error had far-reaching effects, his error found a far-reaching rebuke. His actions were presenting some idea about the Gospel that was false -- hypocritical, even. And his actions were causing Jewish believers and even Barnabas to be "carried away by their hypocrisy." And so Paul lets Peter and everyone affected by his error know that such thinking is wrong, contrary to grace, and is a blight on the pure Gospel of God.

Now, in today's "evangelicalism," Paul would be labeled a Pharisee (how ironic, right?), unloving, arrogant, full of himself. He'd be told at least 27 times that he had a log in his own eye or, "Physician, heal thyself!" He'd be accused of being unChristlike, because Christ said they'd know us by our love for each other. And a million other things.

But guys, don't you see how he was loving Peter?! Don't you see that such confrontation was for Peter's great benefit?! If not, here's a little wisdom from John Calvin writing to the heretic Socinus (for more on Socinianism, check this out):
Were I, under the pretence of indulgence, to encourage you in a fault which I judge so ruinous, I should certainly act toward you a treacherous and cruel part. Wherefore I am willing, that you should now for a little be offended by my seeming asperity, rather than that you should not be reclaimed from those curious and alluring speculations, by which you have been already captivated. The time will come, I hope, when you shall rejoice, that you have been awakened even in this violent manner, from your pleasing, but fatal dream. (The Panoplist, Or, the Christian's Armory, p. 76; see here; emphases mine)
You see? Confronting error benefits even those in error by showing them the truth. They are benefited by seeing Christ more clearly than they had been seeing Him, and with greater precision and contour than they had been seeing Him. To gaze into a blurry image of what is perfectly beautiful is infinitely less delightful, satisfying, and beneficial than to gaze into an accurate, clear, precise image of it. Laboring to present that accurate, clear, and precise image of Christ is indeed loving, as it seeks to present to the object his greatest benefit. (See also Hebrews 12:10, 14; Colossians 1:28-2:3.)

And so, contrary to the... squishiness... of our age, we ought to be ready and able (that's a big prerequisite) to speak truth, expose error, rebuke, reprove, admonish, and thereby benefit the body of Christ. Polemical argument and theological debate can indeed be abused in such a way that renders it profitless. But as we have seen, there is a place for it. Even a place for it in service of love for our neighbor as ourself.


olan strickland said...

But Mike, how can we have an ecumenical - let's all get along, join hands, and sing Kumbaya - movement where we unite over what we do together rather than divide over something as silly as the TRUTH if we use polemics?

Great post.

Mike Riccardi said...

Thanks Olan.

The objector in your hypothetical has an underlying assumption that he's working with; namely, that it's loving to "unite over what we do together" at the expense of mere doctrine.

I've heard these very statements from actual people in person:

1. (In a prayer:) Please don't let doctrine get in the way of our loving each other.

2. I let something as silly as a theological debate come between me and my brother!

What all these people don't recognize is that not only is it loving to expose error and show me the truth (as I see Christ more clearly, and therefore can enjoy Him more fully).

But it is unloving not to. To withhold from someone that clear perception of what gives them most joy is an act of hatred.

olan strickland said...

This is the philosophy of the apostate postmodern movements of our day. They want to do away with orthodoxy and replace it with orthopraxy forgetting that orthodoxy determines orthopraxy. And the real problem is that judging by appearance, uniting over what we do together, appears more loving than exposing error in order to show Christ more clearly - but it is not and never will be!

Mike Riccardi said...

Thanks for the link to that post Olan!

I think this section of it would be a great benefit for those who've read this original post:

However, right behavior (orthopraxy) only flows from right beliefs (orthodoxy); doctrine determines duty and in the Bible the doctrinal is given before the practical is given; we are not told how to behave until we are told how to believe because our behavior is transformed by the renewing of our minds (what we believe).

There can be no divorce or disconnect between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. To have orthodoxy without orthopraxy is to be like the demons and believe but unsavingly (see James 2:14-19). To have orthopraxy without orthodoxy is to pursue righteousness as though it were by works and not be subject to the righteousness of God which is by faith (see Romans 9:30 – 10:4).

Therefore a unity that is based on orthopraxy with no regard for orthodoxy is unbiblical and ungodly. It is rebellion and disobedience (2Cor 6:14-18).

Mike Riccardi said...

Here's a great quote from J. Gresham Machen, as cited in Piper's conference message:

Men tell us that our preaching should be positive and not negative, that we can preach the truth without attacking error. But if we follow that advice we shall have to close our Bible and desert its teachings. The New Testament is a polemic book almost from beginning to end.

Some years ago I was in a company of teachers of the Bible in the colleges and other educational institutions of America. One of the most eminent theological professors in the country made an address. In it he admitted that there are unfortunate controversies about doctrine in the Epistles of Paul; but, he said in effect, the real essence of Paul’s teaching is found in the hymn to Christian love in the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians; and we can avoid controversy today, if we will only devote the chief attention to that inspiring hymn.

In reply, I am bound to say that the example was singularly ill-chosen. That hymn to Christian love is in the midst of a great polemic passage; it would never have been written if Paul had been opposed to controversy with error in the Church. It was because his soul was stirred within him by a wrong use of the spiritual gifts that he was able to write that glorious hymn. So it is always in the Church. Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy. It is when men have felt compelled to take a stand against error that they have risen to the really great heights in the celebration of truth.

“Christian Scholarship and the Defense of the New Testament,” in: What is Christianity?, pp. 132-133. See, on this same point, What is Faith?, pp. 41-42; Christianity and Liberalism, p. 17.