How To Be Polemical

Michael S. Horton
Sunday, September 1st 1996
Sep/Oct 1996

po-lem-ic (pelem'ik) n-1 an argument, dispute, etc., especially a written one, that supports one opinion or body of ideas in opposition to another (The New Scholastic Dictionary of American English).

"Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).

Fondly remembered as "The Lion of Princeton," B. B. Warfield held the chair of Didactic and Polemic Theology at the Seminary from 1887 until his death in 1921. Many felt the blow of his pen, not a few expressed gratitude for his erudite candor, but nearly everyone recognized Warfield as perhaps the most formidable defender of the faith in the Presbyterian Church at the turn of the century. Having sharpened his wits in the forge of German universities, and consecrating his eminent gifts to God, here was a scholar who refused to surrender to the war between the intellect and the heart (or doctrine and life). Not in spite of, but because of, his constant devotion to Reformation theology, Warfield was an early proponent of civil rights for blacks as well as a defender of orthodox Calvinism who warned against reducing one's studies to dry, merely objective, academic data that might well turn a heart into stone.

Warfield was an example of what has become a dying breed in this century: a defender of truth at all costs, regardless of its unpopularity with either liberals or conservatives. He did not play politics. He bristled at the eccentricities of both groups and worried that even Princeton itself was giving in to the demand for a more "practical" seminary curriculum that ill-prepared ministers for their high calling. Few Christian thinkers were as thoroughly aware of the changes taking place in European and American scholarship and culture and even fewer were willing to be regarded as intellectual dinosaurs for taking their stand with the ancient Christian witness against the fads. Although he was a relentless critic of mysticism and enthusiasm, Warfield was at least as tough on naturalism. But nobody quite knew where to place him when the fundamentalist-modernist debate erupted after his death. Here was a man who formulated the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and yet regarded theistic theories of biological evolution as potential apologetic arrows in the quiver of supernaturalism. His very position at Princeton– Professor of Polemic Theology –committed him to a career of analyzing and offering criticisms of various theological traditions in the light of Scripture, as attested to in the Reformed faith. Warfield did not believe that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were merely witnesses to the beliefs of a particular group of Christians in a unique historical context, but that they were faithful summaries of the whole teaching of the Christian faith.

At the turn of the century, when Presbyterians were talking about adopting a "new creed" in common with American evangelicals (Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, et. al.), Warfield dashed off a thoughtful warning in the Princeton Review that noted the absence of such doctrines as original sin, the substitutionary atonement, and justification by grace alone through faith alone. The day Presbyterians sign it, he said, is the day they cease to be Presbyterians. It was not that evangelicals and Presbyterians at that time were clearly emancipating themselves en masse from classical Christianity, but they were downplaying doctrine in favor of unity, evangelism and social activism.

There was a time, of course, when every theologian, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, was a polemicist. Later, polemics became merely a distinct position on a theological faculty. Finally, it disappeared altogether in a spirit of congenial tolerance.

So it would seem that in our day defending polemics might be on a par with trying to defend Socrates' jury. In this age of "trash TV" and radio talk-shows that thrive on outlandish invective in order to attract listeners (and advertising), the cause of polemics runs the risk of being dismissed as part of the uncivil discourse of our time. So what do we do in the face of such cultural odds?

One group insists that we simply preach the positive message of Christianity and that this will eventually take care of the errors. Every defender of the Faith is accused of bringing division rather than simply laying out a positive case. In his battle with the modernists earlier this century, J. Gresham Machen, a student of Warfield's and young colleague at Princeton, replied, "I cannot conceive of preaching the truth without exposing error."

The church was born in doctrinal debate. It fought its way to dominance through centuries of arguments over doctrinal detail. The Reformation was a controversy between two different gospels. The Great Awakening was in part the result of the controversial and polemical defense of the grace of God and human inability. John Newton not only gave us "Amazing Grace," but polemical attacks on Arminian legalism in his day. Luther and Calvin not only wrote heated polemics against the Church of Rome, but against the "enthusiasts" whom we would know today as Pentecostals. But let us go back further. Where would we be without the polemics of Athanasius? And yet he was accused by Arians-that is, those who denied Christ's divinity (and this was in some regions the majority view)-as a divisive person. Thank God that Irenaeus preferred truth to tolerance when he drove Gnosticism out of the church.

And what of the Scriptures themselves? God gave us St. Paul, who told legalists to castrate themselves, just as Jesus had told the religious leaders of his day that they were a den of robbers, a nest of snakes, white-washed tombs that appeared spotless on the surface but were full of hypocrisy and dead men's bones. He told them that they travel over land and sea to evangelize one single convert only to make that person more a child of hell than he was before. And the prophets? They were so polemical that they were often executed by the very people against whose judgment the prophets were trying to warn. It seems that the whole progress of biblical revelation and church history through the ages has been forged out of the fire of controversy and the often angry struggles over truth. It is these great debates that have preserved the church from error and when the church grows lazy and fat, unwilling to be corrected, the world loses its only hope of salvation. It is never easy to correct, nor is it pleasant, but we are to "preach the truth in love." However, neither are we to pretend that our laziness, ignorance and apathy in defending the truth are really attempts to preserve the bond of unity. With Luther, we must say, "Unity wherever possible, but truth at all costs."

To be sure, there are abuses of polemical conscientiousness. Some, in the name of defending the faith, will seek their own name instead. Born aloft on the wings of the "martyr-complex," a number of people will always be there in church history to capture headlines as much by infamy as fame. But, as Paul declared, "The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached" (Phil. 1:18). This is surely no excuse for those who "preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely" (v.17), but the effects of preaching Christ truthfully from bad motives are far less damning for the hearers. One highly respected evangelical leader in our day has said, "I would rather have wrong facts and a right attitude than the right facts and the wrong attitude." That may sound pious, but it is in reality quite a selfish statement. Surely he is not saying that it is better for one's hearers to become Arians or Pelagians, so long as the preacher is full of charity, but it is open to that kind of interpretation. Stanley Grenz, author of Revisioning Evangelical Theology (IVP), argues that "a 'right heart' takes primacy over a 'right head.'" (1) Just think of all the heretics in church history whose motives were unimpeachable or courageous men and women who held their errors and gathered a following until their death. No doubt, many heresies gain their popularity by the outstanding character of their champions: they are often quite likeable people. Augustine never accused Pelagius of being a cad, but of denying essential Christian truth. Grenz does not seem to recognize that true beliefs are the prerequisite for godly motives, feelings and actions. Since atheists can be as kind to their postman as an evangelical minister, it is essential that we distinguish truth-driven godliness from vague religious and moral sentiment.

The chief advances of the Christian faith are due to those moments when leaders and laypeople saturated with Scripture rose up in defiance of the unbiblical trends of their time and place. We have the Nicene Creed, the Apostles' Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Reformation confessions and catechisms because, by God's grace, men and women had the courage of their convictions and dared to be polemical. It is never easy, but it has yielded the most fruitful harvests of Christian advancement. The Reformation, for instance, led to an impulse for the modern missionary movement; without it, there would not have been genuine "good news" to take to the world in the first place. Let us never forget that the question of that day was nothing less than, "How can I, a sinner, be accepted by a holy God?", and Rome and the Reformers gave (and continue to give) two entirely opposite answers. Before we get the Gospel out we have to get it right, and that is, to a large extent, what polemics is all about.

Polemical Over Politics

On a number of occasions, I have heard Christian leaders lament the fact that the "flower children" of the 60s are now in power. Whether in Washington, DC, or in the statehouse, whether in university faculties or art colonies in Laguna Beach or Greenwich Village, the radicals who opposed authority, institutions, and everything that stood in the way of their personal freedom are now filling the most powerful posts in the land.

As an evangelical activist was recently bellowing about this, I could not help but think of the strange irony in his words. Here is a man who represents an evangelical subculture in which the very idea of authority in terms of creeds, confessions, discipline, liturgy and other formal structures of institutional coherence are ridiculed as "formalistic." Here was this evangelical leader on the radio going on and on about how these radicals now in government have torn down "traditional values." And this is the same movement that tears down "traditional theology" and "traditional worship" in the churches. One megachurch recently advertised, "If you're looking for a fellowship that won't put you in a box, we're here for you." The "flower children" didn't like formal religion. They started replacing the word "church" with the word "fellowship," to make it more relational than institutional. The flower children are not only in power in Washington; they are in power in the evangelical movement as well and while they might want to recover traditional morality, they show no signs of interest in traditional Christianity. They are children of their age, tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine-that is to say, with every trend in the marketplace.

This is why Christian broadcasting and publishing can make plenty of room for punctual attacks on the rascals in Washington even while those of us who seek to recover traditional Christian beliefs and relate them to our own day are regarded as trouble-makers. For the evangelical activists share with the counter-revolution of the sixties a theological relativism, an apathy with regard to questions of truth and an emphasis on subjective experience being more important than objective criteria. So while these activists can make fun of Bill and Hillary and their "culture of tolerance" that ends up being quite intolerant of those with moral conviction, these same Christian leaders turn around and enforce the same code of "tolerance" that ends up being quite intolerant of those with theological conviction.

Polemics vs. Nastiness

Having said all that, it is necessary to touch on the way we approach the task of polemics for the health of the church. In far too many cases, I have seen or heard about fine ministers being mercilessly attacked by well-meaning, but spiritually immature, brothers and sisters. This is the case with neophytes in any group: Nobody is more anti-Roman Catholic than a former Roman Catholic, and we have seen how mean some ex-fundamentalists can be toward their conservative Protestant brethren when they convert to Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox bodies. It is also too sadly true in our own circles. I remember well my frustrations when I became a Calvinist and the "Five Points" became something akin to Mao's little red book for me. I am quite sure that I alienated a number of folks who might otherwise have considered the biblical arguments I could have made.

Our own radio program, The White Horse Inn, is often polemical in its tone and substance. That is the cause to which I believe we are called with that program. As we have said often, it is not a church and should not be regarded as a sufficient, regular serving of "the whole counsel of God." Our attempt is to resurrect polemical debate as a means to the end of waking up a decadent and grossly unfaithful church and helping it make its way forward toward a second Reformation. And at a time when most Americans who claim to be Bible-believing Christians cannot, according to major studies, even articulate the basic message of the Gospel, what could be more relevant? Nevertheless, sometimes there are casualties of "friendly fire." This is especially true when our program is treated as if it were a balanced diet, when its purpose is actually to focus on a few key themes and set nearly every other question aside until these truths are recovered.

Sometimes pastors will tell me that even though they are Reformed (or Lutheran), they are beset by individuals who sit in the front row at church with pen and paper, not to be fed with the Living Bread, but to gather critical evidence of mistakes. Sometimes those who have just discovered the liberating power of the Gospel of justification will find a Reformed or Lutheran church and, still raw from being disillusioned about the churches where they never heard this clear note, will find errors that are simply not there. Others may have noted a failure in a sermon due to imprecise language or emphasis, but in these instances the charity that, as Luther said, "puts the best construction on our neighbor's actions," is absent. If we are going to be engaged in polemics-and there is no choice here-we will have to be responsible and careful in our handling of other people. God has given each a measure of faith and officers have been instituted in the church who have been (hopefully) tested in both their doctrine and spiritual maturity, and it is these individuals who are called by God to settle disputes in local churches.

Probably the best text in the Bible dealing with the offenses of our brothers and sisters is Matthew 18:15-20 which reads,

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that "every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses." If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.

Often, this second half of the passage is used as a pretext for "naming and claiming" prosperity, but as we see, the context will not bear that interpretation. The issue here is church discipline. God has given his ministers and church officers the "power of the keys," and this is why the Apostle Paul labors to establish New Testament churches on the orderly discipline of elders and pastors. (It is a good idea to interpret this passage along with 1 Timothy.) As the apostles prepared the church for their passing, they established offices for the ministry of Word and Sacrament, as well as for church discipline (the elders) and services of charity (the deacons). Here in Matthew 18, our Lord gives to his apostles the "power of attorney" in the affairs of his freshly inaugurated kingdom. As a head of state deputizes his ambassadors to speak in his name, the apostles were given the authority of Jesus Christ himself. However this changed in the transition from apostolic office to the offices outlined in the Epistles, the point is the same: by duly exercising their offices, ministers and elders are used by God to save and to judge. This, then, is no trivial office-nor is their spiritual authority to be lightly dismissed. If they fail in their task, false shepherds and false teachings will bar men and women from Paradise. If they pay attention to their high calling, they will save both themselves and their hearers (1 Tim. 4:16).

The context of Jesus' remarks here in Matthew must be taken into account. Admittedly, the situation that Jesus has in view here is a moral offense against a fellow-believer rather than a theological error. Nevertheless, the same principle stands. As Calvin advised, public sins deserve public censure; private sins, private censure. If, in other words, a brother or sister brings scandal to the whole body, one would not go first to that person, but immediately bring him or her to the church (i.e., to the officers). Eventually, they would have to face the whole assembly and confess their offense. But in the case of a private offense (such as the one Jesus here describes), there is no need for such public confession if the offender is reconciled to the offended party. In the same way, a brother or sister who holds an unorthodox doctrine should first be confronted privately rather than publicly.

First, Jesus instructs us to go directly to our brother or sister and confront him or her directly. As our Lord says, the best case scenario is that this individual will see the error for what it is and conclude that he or she needs to get a better grasp on the subject. In that happy case, "you have gained your brother" (v. 15).

If, however, the case is not yet resolved, the next stage in our Lord's command is to take two or three witnesses to the person. Sometimes we ourselves can be so zealous to root out the errors in others that we fail to see more serious problems in ourselves. Or perhaps we have misinterpreted the person and failed to exercise charity in the way we assessed his or her remarks. Two or three witnesses must be convinced that there is a problem before anything can proceed. If the witnesses, who in the Epistles are restricted to elders (officers who are given the spiritual oversight), do not concur, the matter is concluded. In extreme cases, the accuser might bring the case to the whole body of elders within the local church (often called the "session" or "council"), but if they rule against the accusation, the accuser is not free to spread further reports lest he or she be disciplined for gossip.

But if the elders concur with the accuser, and the offender refuses to listen to the officers, it must be taken to the church, Jesus says. Depending on one's view of church government, this means either taking it to the whole local congregation or to the presbytery/classis/district (i.e., regional body of ministers and elders who meet at various times to consider such issues as delegates from each local church). In the case of a minister, the local elders can suspend the pastor from exercising his office. If the errant is accused of heresy, the case is then taken to this body of elders and ministers representing the region's local churches (or in the case of episcopal government, the bishop). A minister's fellow-ministers and elders, therefore, not only suspend the minister from his duties, but from the ministry altogether. His ordination is revoked. Beyond this, there would be the final court, the national assembly of these regional bodies. In many Protestant denominations, delegates are sent from each presbytery ("classis" or "district" are other terms for this body). This final court goes by such names as "General Synod," "General Assembly," "General Conference," etc. The Council of Jerusalem reported in Acts is taken by many to have been such an assembly. At this council, major doctrinal disputes were settled and the church arrived at concord. If heretical or schismatic ministers have not been suspended by the presbytery/classis (or, in episcopal government, the bishop), these larger assemblies bear the responsibility to speak for the whole church.

Whether a minister or other officer of the church, one who has been convicted of such serious charges is not only suspended from the ministry, but, failing to receive correction and reproof, is excommunicated. "If he refuses to listen to them," said Jesus, "tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector" (v. 17).

Here is an example of the benefits of our Lord's wisdom in prescribing order and discipline in his church. In the case of someone falsely charged, it is "nipped in the bud" by the elders instead of allowing accusers to freely gossip and slander their leaders. But in the case of a false shepherd leading the flock astray, it preserves the church from the most serious dangers that can befall God's people. Those who do not exercise discipline according to Christ's rule, in order and decency, leave the door of Christ's pen wide open for hirelings.

At this point, I can hear someone say, "Then how can polemicists criticize well-known Christian leaders without following Matthew 18?" I have been asked this enough times to know it is frequently on the minds of many concerned Christians. I have quoted false teachers and those who publicly advance arguments that many of us regard as destructive. In only the most extreme cases have I accused public figures of being "false teachers," but I have sought to interact critically with the work of a good number of teachers and often this has elicited sharp attacks. Why did I not first go to these individuals and follow Christ's instruction as outlined here?

There are a number of reasons, but I will limit myself to two. First, as mentioned above in the quote from Calvin, private sins are to be addressed in private, but public sins require public exposure. When someone goes into print or occupies the airwaves with teachings that are regarded by a wide consensus of wise Christians throughout church history as dangerous, it is not only permissible, but necessary to expose such people publicly. The proposed cure must attempt to be as wide as the infection.

Thus, Simon the Magician, who professed Christ and then corrupted Christian doctrine, was publicly anathematized by Peter (Acts. 8:9). However serious and guarded our judgments must be, we can surely say with St. Paul, "Whoever preaches another Gospel…, let him be anathema." Paul advanced this procedure of public censure when he warned Timothy, "This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the words previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Tim. 1:18-20).

Second, such cases differ from those under consideration in Matthew 18 in that such public figures are rarely in one's own denomination. Granted, the New Testament does not prescribe denominations as God's chosen way of building the kingdom! It is a tragic measure of our indwelling sin, confusion, schism and error that we do not all agree and belong to one body. Nevertheless, here we are and what do we do about the order and decency required in the Epistles given our circumstances? The procedure of church discipline I have outlined above from the Scriptures does not take different denominations into account, but it does, I think, lead us to conclude that in order for the proper chain of authority to be followed, we must ourselves be under the same church authority as those we are bringing to the church court. Since that is rarely possible in our multi-denominational world, one can only bring public heresies into public view and hope that this will bring the authorities within the errant minister's denomination to the place where they will seek appropriate measures. Regardless, contemporary heretics gather their followings from a multitude of denominations and one is forced to meet public errors with public criticism. Having eluded their own authorities (or having set up their own sect), the only recourse we often have is to hold them accountable to the wider church from which they are seeking to draw away disciples. We do not, for instance, follow Matthew 18 in denouncing the heresies of cults, for in the case of clearly marked false teachers we are not obligated to treat such exponents as believers in the first place.

Clearly, there are difficult issues involved with polemics: defending the faith from errors within the Christian family. Furthermore, not all errors are heretical. Indeed, some take it upon themselves to censure their ministers for taking a different position on matters not even implicitly discussed in the confessional standards. If they create disturbances over these remote issues upon which Christians of goodwill may differ even within their own respective traditions, they should themselves be disciplined in precisely the same manner described above. As the church has divinely-given means to discipline her ministers and officers who stray from God's Word, so church members who take matters into their own hands and either create dissension or leave the church without following the prescribed order are themselves the offenders.

Satan loves disorder and error, both schism and heresy. One weakens the body by amputation, the other by poisoning. By both he keeps the church in constant turmoil. But polemics is never the problem. If we follow proper discipline in our own church life and call public ministries to account publicly, with grace and courage, we may, God willing, see a renewal of both truth and love in a time of intolerant tolerance.

1 [ Back ] Stanley Grenz, "Postmodernism and the Future of Evangelical Theology" The Challenge of Postmodernism, ed. by David Dockerey (Wheaton: Victor,1995)

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Sunday, September 1st 1996

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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