Odium theologium is a rather ugly sounding Latin expression that was used in days gone by to refer to the bitter doctrinal rivalries that were fairly common among theologians of all stripes. These ardent polemical debates did at times degenerate into acrimonious personal attacks. Because of this we are prone-living as we like to assume in a kinder and gentler time-to dismiss the need for polemics simply because the language used in such clashes strikes us as so offensive. Unfortunately, as Robert D. Preus points out, some people mistakenly conclude that there is some inevitable connection between orthodoxy and bitter invective and plain belligerence. (1) The heated exchange, for example, that took place between the highly acclaimed Arminian John Wesley and his equally celebrated Calvinistic opponent Augustus Toplady quickly comes to mind. Both men were stalwart evangelicals. Both had the courage of their convictions, and each man did his best to articulate and defend his position. One cannot read their diatribes without being impressed with their rhetorical, literary and even satirical skills. But their exchange is nonetheless so marred by its acidity of language as to rightly be considered scandalous and a glaring blemish on both men's careers. (2)
This is not to say, however, that the issues over which the two men crossed swords were unimportant or that even the intensity with which they argued was in itself inappropriate. J. I. Packer, in his stimulating article, "Calvin the Theologian," writes of the role of polemics in the Institutes:
The harsh controversial passages, which cause modern readers much offence, are actually essential to its design. Just as the Bible, being the proclamation of God's truth to an intellectually warped world, is necessarily polemical at point after point, so Calvin, as a Christian and a minister, could not but be a fighting man, and the Reformation, as a renewal of biblical faith amid ecclesiastical paganism, could not but be a fighting movement, and the Institutio, as a Reformation manifesto and apologia, could not but be a fighting book. John Calvin was a peace-loving person who found controversy a tedious burden, and who worked tirelessly to bring Protestants together, yet any account of him which minimized the intensity of his commitment to the conflict of God's Word with human error, as well as sin, would be an injustice. We may not dismiss Calvin's polemics as mere appendages to his positive teaching, as unnecessary as they were unpleasant. Rather, we must reckon with Calvin's insistence that some notions ought to be fought to the death. (3)
Wesley and Toplady would have wholeheartedly agreed. Indeed, polemics, which is what Wesley and Toplady were engaged in, should be conducted in an open arena and undertaken in a serious fashion. After all, the purpose of polemics is not argument for argument's sake, but the critical evaluation of truth claims. Granted, how we do polemics is a legitimate concern. But if we value, as we should, the truth of the gospel, then we are going to have to engage in polemics.
One cannot read Paul's epistle to the Galatians, for example, without detecting this refrain (cf. Gal. 2:5,14; 4:16; 5:7). Because true Christianity is important, it must be preserved from error. The history of the Christian church often discourages people because there is so much controversy. But theological controversy is to be expected. The establishment of truth and the exposure of error are never reached without conflict and controversy; and, as Warfield pointed out long ago, there are, regrettably, those in our midst who fear controversy more than error. (4)
The lamentable situation in Warfield's day has multiplied tenfold in ours. To say that polemics is not greatly appreciated in our day is a drastic understatement-polemical theology is vilified and despised in the minds of most evangelicals. There are any number of reasons for this existing hostility toward polemics, but I am going to focus on what I perceive to be the main culprit.
Polemical theology serves a noble and important role only when doctrine is highly valued. If doctrine is devalued or considered to be an awkward encumbrance-like some embarrassing relative we wish wouldn't make an appearance at family gatherings because he or she makes everyone else uncomfortable-then, of course, polemics will always be held in contempt. In a very provocative article entitled "Theological Pluralism and the Unity of the Spirit," the late Jacques Ellul, speaking of what he refers to as the attitude of agnostic tolerance, makes this telling observation:
At the present time it is not, on the whole, so much a disposition toward intolerance that confronts us. Instead, I see around me a broad tolerance reigning everywhere except within the "sects." It does not appear, however, to be a positive tolerance and a progress of the human spirit beyond the intolerance of the past but rather what I would call a "tolerance by default." That is to say, when we consider the reaction against intolerance in the preceding centuries, we are perturbed by the vast number of ideologies, by the scientific critiques, and by the uncertainties of life in the modern world; and we adopt a rather skeptical attitude, somewhat disabused of previous illusions and, even in the churches, somewhat agnostic. There is nothing absolute, there is not a jot or tittle in the Bible of which we can be sure, there is nothing left of absolute truth. As a consequence we can "tolerate." This attitude implies an absence of doctrinal formulations (for example, the incredible theological poverty and mediocrity of the "theologies of liberation"!).
As for dogmas, we consider them unworthy of interest because, at bottom, they are nothing more than opinion. A diversity of opinion seems entirely acceptable, and this "tolerance by default" is as much evident in the theological sphere or among ministers of the churches as it is among the faithful. (5)
Evangelicals in celebratory fashion, and in growing numbers, are embracing a distinctively non-doctrinal mentality when it comes to understanding their faith. (6) David F. Wells, who I think is the most perceptive thinker in evangelical circles today, points out that what is actually shaping this mentality are the forces of modernity. (7) What is modernity and how does it affect us? Modernity is a somewhat slippery term, but, generally speaking, it refers to the modern condition with its relentless pressure for human homogeneity as exerted by the success of Western technology and communication. (8) "Modernity," writes Wells,
presents an interlocking system of values that has invaded and settled within the psyche of every person. Modernity is simply unprecedented in its values. It is, to put it in biblical terms, the worldliness of Our Time. For worldliness is that system of values and beliefs, behaviors and expectations, in any given culture that have at their center the fallen human being and that relegate to their periphery any thought about God. Worldliness is what makes sin look normal in any age and righteousness seem odd. Modernity is worldliness, and it has concealed its values so adroitly in the abundance, the comfort, and the wizardry of our age that even those who call themselves the people of God seldom recognize them for what they are. (9)
The tragedy coalescing within the ranks of professing evangelicals is traceable to the gullible and blatantly naïve assumption that culture is value-neutral and therefore harmless. Evangelicals who operate with this mentality fail to recognize that Christians are not immune to the powerful undercurrents of modernity that course through our culture and society. The Apostle Paul's admonition not to be conformed to the pattern of this world but to be transformed by the renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:2) constitutes the great imperative for the evangelical world. Detecting the sinister but subtle ways that modernity (worldliness) seeks to mold our thinking is not always easy or painless. Marvin Olasky has recently written about the infectious nature of neutralism in our society (especially within the ranks of political liberalism). What is neutralism? It is the notion that since all things are equal we should suspend judgment and become tolerant and even accepting of other peoples' opinions and life-styles. (10) D. A. Carson, in his recent book, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), refers to this under the rubric of Philosophical Pluralism (pp. 22-37). Of course, there is a limit to this kind of toleration. People who are outspoken in their opposition to neutralism are targeted as extremists and are portrayed as posing a serious threat to the well-being of society. Most Christians recognize this political correctness for what it is. They are made to feel ostracized from the rest of society because of their opposition to such things as abortion and homosexuality. But they fail to recognize that this same mentality likewise exists within ranks of professing evangelicals. How so? Listen to the words of John MacArthur: "In the world of modern evangelicalism it is allowable to advocate the most unconventional, unbiblical doctrine-as long as you afford everyone else the same privilege. About the only thing that is taboo nowadays is the intolerance of those who dare to point out others' error. Anyone today who is bold enough to suggest that someone else's ideas or doctrines are unsound or unbiblical is dismissed at once as contentious, divisive, unloving, or unchristian. It is all right to espouse any view you wish, but it is not all right to criticize another person's views-no matter how patently unbiblical those views may be." (11) MacArthur should not be dismissed as some sort of wild-eyed theological chicken-little. He is no alarmist, and there is ample evidence to support his concerns.
Note the similarities between this widespread mind-set among evangelicals and that of neutralism. Tolerance is valued over truth-and must be extended to everyone, except those disagreeable and critical exponents of truth who hold to absolutes, or, to put it into theological language, those who seek to maintain historical orthodoxy. Despite the fact that neutralism accents diversity, it does so in name only. Conformity is actually what drives it. The standard around which neutralism seeks conformity is human autonomy pure and simple. (12) Surprisingly, this desire for conformity has a noticeable parallel in Christian circles-the demand for visible unity.
To those whose only concern is the appearance of visible unity among all who call themselves Christians, polemic theology is utterly distasteful. We are repeatedly told by those of this persuasion that the church's major fault is its deplorable lack of visible unity. Appeal is constantly made to the words of Jesus in John 17, and those who do not join this effort are portrayed as being in serious disagreement with Jesus! This, they claim, is our greatest sin-and what is chiefly to be blamed for this heinous state of affairs? Doctrine-or to be more precise-doctrinal distinctives. (13) But is this notion of visible unity what Jesus intended in his high priestly prayer in John 17? Our Lord's concern, as Robert Lewis Dabney pointed out last century, is for spiritual unity. The demand for visible unity is not only quite foreign to the text, it constitutes, in the words of Dabney, an enormous blunder. It is, in fact, an idol that is used to stifle any legitimate dissent, and, let me add, it is positively deadly to the health and welfare of the church. (14) I am reminded of the remark of Francis Bacon, the noted English philosopher and statesman of a bygone era. "Unity that is formed on expedience is, in reality, grounded upon an implicit ignorance. As everyone knows, all colors will look the same in the dark." W. G. T. Shedd, one of the great Presbyterian theologians of the last century, in a volume of essays that was designed to defend the historical faith and to attack the contrary (the technical meaning of polemic) wrote an essay titled "Denominational Unity Undesirable." He noted that the evangelicalism of his day was composed of those whose creed was either Calvinistic or Arminian. The various evangelical denominations, therefore, though some of them do not adopt everything in Calvinism, and others not everything in Arminianism, are yet fairly enough ranged under these two types of theology. Shedd points out that it would be foolish and harmful to expect the two to come into any meaningful organic and ecclesiastical union. However, the moral and spiritual union, which is grounded in a common trust in the Divine Redeemer and his atoning blood, is both possible and actual. But, please, pleaded Shedd, don't seek to obliterate doctrinal distinctives in order to establish visible unity. (15)
Shedd was writing about evangelicals maintaining their denominational distinctives. I don't think the thought even entered his mind that evangelicals and Roman Catholics should seek to form a coalition around a few summary points of doctrine, especially one that made no mention whatsoever of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. What would have been unthinkable in Shedd's day has actually happened. The document, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium (ECT) has sent shock waves throughout the evangelical community. The document carried the signatures of a number of highly respected evangelicals, including Bill Bright, Pat Robertson, Mark Noll, Os Guinness, Chuck Colson and J. I. Packer.
Packer produced an article for Christianity Today titled, "Why I Signed It," (16) and Chuck Colson wrote an article for the same periodical, "Why Catholics Are Our Allies." (17) Colson's defense of ECT is most distressing. He writes, "In becoming Christians, we all embrace a body of central truths, such as Creation, the Fall, substitutionary atonement and the infallibility of Scripture. But once inside the house [of faith], we find our fellowship within particular traditions." Colson uses the illustration of a large castle with many rooms, each room representing a particular theological tradition. Once we step out into the hallway, we see that the castle (read here the church) has many rooms (other theological traditions) which are all part of the castle. Given this perspective, Colson is saying that the doctrine of justification by faith alone turns out to be an item of one particular tradition which other legitimate theological traditions, such as Roman Catholicism, can reject and still be considered Christian. (18)
Chuck Colson is not only an affable man, he is a sincere and dedicated Christian. He is also in a position to exercise tremendous influence in the evangelical world. I mean him no disrespect, but he is gravely mistaken, and it is the task of polemical theology to engage such well-meaning people in an open and direct way and declare that the truth of the gospel is more important than anything else. People may take offense. There may be a schism, but it is the task of polemical theology to protect the truth-at all costs.
2 [ Back ] Cf. George Lawton, Within the Rock of Ages: The Life and Work of Augustus Montague Toplady (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1983). This is an excellent piece of historical research on the controversy between Wesley and Toplady.
3 [ Back ] J. I. Packer, "Calvin the Theologian," John Calvin: A Collection of Distinguished Essays, ed. G. E. Duffield (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), p. 154.
4 [ Back ] Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield II, ed. John E. Meeter (Nutley: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), p. 216. In the Reflections: classic and contemporary excerpts session of Christianity Today (June 17, 1996) the nineteenth-century Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte was quoted to re-enforce this mentality. "Eschew controversy, my brethren, as you would eschew the entrance to hell itself! Let them have it their own way. Let them talk, let them write, let them correct you, let them traduce you. Let them judge and condemn you, let them slay you. Rather let the truth of God itself suffer than that love suffer. You have not enough of the Divine nature in you to be a controversialist." The Apostle Paul, thankfully, did not share this perspective.
5 [ Back ] Jacques Ellul, "Theological Pluralism and the Unity of the Spirit," Church, Word, & Spirit: Historical and Theological Essays in Honor of Geoffrey A. Bromiley, ed. J. E. Bradley and R. A. Muller (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 216.
6 [ Back ] I have sought to analyze this indifference in my chapter "Does Theology Still Matter?" ed. John H. Armstrong, in The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Chicago: Moody, 1996), pp. 57-73.
7 [ Back ] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 135.
8 [ Back ] This is how Colin E. Gunton defines the term in his The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 39.
9 [ Back ] David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 29.
10 [ Back ] Marvin Olasky, "Remarkable Providences: Where have you gone?" World (May 11/18, 1996, Vol. 11, No. 7), p. 30.
11 [ Back ] John F. MacArthur, Jr., Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses Its Will to Discern (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994), p. 22.
12 [ Back ] William A. Donohue has captured the essence of this pervasive perspective in his book The New Freedom: Individualism and Collectivism in the Social Lives of Americans (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1990). He has put his finger on the pulse of neutralism when he writes," The pro-choice movement is as emblematic of the new freedom as any contemporary social current. It definitively represents the quest for autonomy, perfectly expresses the belief in rights without responsibilities, and vividly illustrates the meaning of moral neutrality" (p. 61).
13 [ Back ] The burgeoning men's movement known as Promise Keepers has openly declared war on what it sees as one of the great dangers facing the church in the twentieth century: denominationalism. One of the promises a Promise Keeper makes is to actively seek to break down denominational barriers in order to demonstrate visible unity (promise No. 6). These denominational barriers turn out to be doctrinal distinctives-and not secondary ones, but major theological differences that separate Protestants from Roman Catholics. The Promise Keepers are decidedly anti-creedal. Everything revolves around the vague notion of "loving Jesus" and "being born of the Spirit." But what does all of this mean? Cannot Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses claim affinity on these two points? Did the Galatian Judaizers "love Jesus"? If so, then why did the Apostle Paul thunder in apostolic anathema against them? If all that matters is some subjective, considered notion of how one feels about Jesus and the Spirit, who are we to question the sincerity of such groups? Promise Keepers are striving for ecclesiastical unity based on such things as common experiences or group dynamics rather than a common theological confession. Cf. Steve Rabey, "Where Is the Christians Men's Movement Headed?" Christianity Today, April 29, 1996, p. 46ff.
14 [ Back ] Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney II (rpt. Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), p. 218.
15 [ Back ] William G. T. Shedd, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (rpt. Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1981), pp. 247-253.
16 [ Back ] Christianity Today, Dec. 12, 1994, pp. 36-37. For an extended treatment of the issues surrounding ECT, see R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995). Sproul addresses Packer's article in some detail (pp. 183-192).
17 [ Back ] Christianity Today, Nov. 14, 1994, p. 136.
18 [ Back ] Roman Catholicism does not merely reject the Reformation's understanding of sola fide, she pronounces it anathema; cf. "Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent: Latin text with English translation" in The Creeds of Christendom II, ed. Philip Schaff (rpt. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), pp. 77-206. I wonder how charismatics like Pat Robertson, Paul Crouch, and Jack Hayford, who have warmly embraced the Roman Catholic-Charismatic renewal, would react if the Council of Trent had pronounced an anathema on tongues speaking. Richard John Neuhaus has recently attempted to salvage (and defend) the role Trent played in the ongoing debate by contending that the whole thing is simply traceable to a misunderstanding. His argument is forced and disingenuous and very unconvincing. See his article "The Catholic Difference" in Evangelicals & Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, eds. Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus (Dallas: Word, 1995).