Gospel Polemics

by Timothy Keller

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 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 help us neither avoid polemics nor engage 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.

1. Carson's Rule: You don't have to follow Matthew 18 before publishing polemics.

Don Carson wrote an editorial on Abusing Matthew 18 in which he addresses the often-made argument that a Christian should not publicly write criticism of other Christians' theological views without going to them first, privately, citing Matthew 18. But Carson points out that this passage is talking about two people in the same church, or at least in the same ecclesiastical connection, since if the two parties disagree the whole matter can be taken to “the church,” meaning the congregation and its leaders. Also, the sin described in Matthew 18 is still “relatively private, noticed by one or two believers, yet serious enough to be brought to the attention of the church if the offender refuses to turn away from it.” But public teaching that contradicts sound doctrine is in a whole different category. Carson points to Titus 1:9 that says that the godly elder must “encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” In short, if someone is publicly presenting theological views that are opposed to sound doctrine, and you are not in the same ecclesiastical body with this person (that is, there is no body of elders over you both, as when, for example, both of you are ministers in the same denomination) then you may indeed publicly oppose those without going privately to the author of them. Carson does add a qualifier, but that comes under the next rule.

2. Murray's Rule: You must take full responsibility for even unwitting misrepresentation of someone's views.

Don Carson says that if you have strong concerns about Mr. A's views, and you are considering publishing a critique, it may be wise to go to Mr. A first, but “not out of obedience to Matthew 18, which really does not pertain, but to determine just what the views of the [other person] really are.” This fits with some startling strong words by Westminster Seminary theologian John Murray. In his book Principles of Conduct he argues that “all falsehood, error, misapprehension, every deviation from what is true in thought, feeling, word, or action is the result of sin. . . . Quite apart from sin there would have been ignorance and lack of full understanding on the part of all created rational beings. But limited knowledge is one thing, falsehood in understanding or representation is another” (p. 132). In other words, to misrepresent reality to others is always wrong. He grants, of course, that there is a great difference between a deliberate lie and unintentionally passing on erroneous information. But he goes on: “[W]e think very superficially and naïvely if we suppose that no wrong is entailed in purveying misrepresentation of fact. Even when persons are, as we say, the innocent victims of misinformation, we are not to suppose that they are relieved of all wrong. What we need to appreciate is that the representation is false . . . a misrepresentation of God's truth.” He concludes: “This consideration that all falsehood, as a deviation from truth, is per se wrong should arouse us to the gravity of our situation in relation to the prevalence of falsehood and to our responsibility in guarding, maintaining, and promoting truth” (p. 132).

This is very sobering. In our internet age we are very quick to dash off a response because we think Mr. A promotes X. And when someone points out that Mr. A didn't mean X because over here he said Y, we simply apologize, or maybe we don't even do that. John Murray's principle means that polemics must never be “dashed off.” Great care should be taken to be sure you really know what Mr. A believes and promotes before you publish. This leads to a related rule from Archibald Alexander.

3. Alexander's Rule: Never attribute an opinion to your opponent that he himself does not own.

Archibald Alexander urged his students to be fair and temperate when they pursued theological controversy. They were to “strive for truth, not victory,” and they were to “know when to put a stop to controversy. It is a great evil in keeping it up” unnecessarily. He also urged them to not go public with criticism unless the error was very dangerous and important. Like Lloyd-Jones and (as we will see) John Calvin, Alexander taught that the ultimate purpose of controversy was to persuade and win over people in error. Therefore we must “avoid whatever is apt to create prejudice in opponents or auditors.” In other words, we must not argue in such a way that it hardens opponents in their views. (See David Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, vol I, p. 92.)

Perhaps Alexander's most interesting rule however, was this: “Attribute to an antagonist no opinion he does not own, though it be a necessary consequence” (Calhoun, p. 92). In other words, even if you believe that Mr. A's belief X could or will lead others who hold that position to belief Y, do not accuse Mr. A of holding to belief Y himself, if he disowns it. You may consider him inconsistent, but it is one thing to say that and another thing to tar him with belief Y by implying or insisting that he actually holds it when he does not. A similar move happens when you imply or argue that, if Mr. A quotes a particular author favorably at any point, then Mr. A must hold to all the views that the author holds at other points. If you, through guilt-by-association, hint or insist that Mr. A must hold other beliefs of that particular author, then you are violating Alexander's Rule and, indeed, Murray's Rule. You are misrepresenting your opponent.

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 help us neither avoid polemics nor engage 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 which 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.  The discipline is this.  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-centeredness 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.

In my previous posts (see Part 1Part 2, and Part 3), I have summarized some of the key insights of respected Christian writers on how to engage in polemics and theological controversy in a constructive way. Today I finish the series with the 7th and final “rule”… 

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. 

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