Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thoughts on Theological Polemic that Honors Christ

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

In Matthew 7:3 Jesus asked his disciples, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” The answer, it seems, is very simple! Because I actually think the thing in my brother’s eye is a log, and I only have a tiny speck of dust in my own eye. I’ve been thinking lately about how we tend to get so comfortable with our own views that we begin to think that our perceptions of things are “natural” while those of other people are not. In theology we often go through an early stage or period where we see strengths, weaknesses and problems with both or various sides of some issue. We wrestle through those issues, deciding which strengths outweigh which weaknesses and which problems are easier to resolve than others and we decide where we stand on the issue. We may decide tentatively initially, or we may decide with the zeal of the convert who has made a definitive commitment and who now believes they have finally come to the truth of the matter.
After we live from within the position we have adopted for a while, we tend to become more and more comfortable with the arguments we found in favor of our position and against the alternative(s). This is often to the point that we eventually fail to remember that the position we hold had and has problems of its own (which is why godly and intelligent people do not all agree on the issue and why we had to work through the issues and challenges in the first place.)
So the Arminian forgets that there are some biblical passages that seem to more easily support a Calvinist position and the Calvinist forgets that there are some biblical passages that seem to more easily support an Arminian position. Similarly, the egalitarian forgets that some biblical texts do seem to point towards a more complementarian position and the complementarian seems to forget that there are some that seem to support a more egalitarian position. Of course the number of issues could be limitlessly expanded to include various solutions to the problem of evil, the proper mode and subjects of baptism, the meaning and practice of the Lord’s Supper, Christian views on war and the use of violence, eschatological views, understandings of sanctification, and many, many more.
The longer we live within the viewpoint we have adopted the harder it becomes to recognize that what we originally thought to be branches of more or less equal thickness have over time begun to seem more like specks on one side and logs on the other. That’s not quite true. In many cases we don’t think ours are even specks any more, but the biblical and theological problems in the other person’s position clearly look like logs – obvious, embarrassing, ugly logs. I’m getting to the age where I need to visit the eye doctor on a regular basis. My vision is changing over time. Our intellectual and theological vision also changes with time. It may not deteriorate in general, but we may begin to have difficulty seeing problems with our own positions that once were not quite as difficult to see. Theological debate is made more difficult when we fail to realize that the advantages and normative status we attribute to our own positions, the positions which provide us with such a clear view of the deficiencies in others’ ideas, are not readily apparent to those with whom we differ.
When or if we enter into debate about any of the issues that have divided brothers and sisters in Christ it is important to remember that arguments and evidence that we now consider clear and obvious are not so clear and obvious to others, who are perhaps even more attuned to other arguments and evidence that we might tend to neglect or downplay. It is also important to make sure we practice love of neighbor and its proper application in the context of theological debate.
Roger Nicole, professor emeritus of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has written an excellent article reminding us of our obligations to those who differ from us. As he puts it, “what we owe that person who differs from us, whoever that may be, is what we owe every human being--we owe them love. And we owe it to them to deal with them as we ourselves would like to be dealt with or treated. (Matthew 7:12)”
Nicole helpfully reminds us that, “we owe it to our opponents to deal with them in such a way that they may sense that we have a real interest in them as persons, that we are not simply trying to win an argument or show how smart we are, but that we are deeply interested in them--and are eager to learn from them as well as to help them.”
Nicole provides a wonderful model for the way we ought to present the views of those with whom we disagree:
One method that I have found helpful in making sure that I have dealt fairly with a position that I could not espouse was to assume that a person endorsing that view was present in my audience (or was reading what I had written). Then my aim is to represent the view faithfully and fully without mingling the criticism with factual statements. In fact, I try to represent them so faithfully and fully that an adherent to that position might comment, “This man certainly does understand our view!” It would be a special boon if one could say, “I never heard it stated better!” Thus I have earned the right to criticize. But before I proceed to do this, it is only proper that I should have demonstrated that I have a correct understanding of the position I desire to contest.
D. A. Carson shares a helpful excerpt from Bryan Magee’s book, Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper (New York: Modern Library, 1999), 152-3, about what he learned about argumentation from Karl Popper. It takes the approach recommended by Nicole in the previous paragraph one step further:
I had always loved argument, and over the years I had become quite good at identifying weak points in an opponent’s defense and bringing concentrated fire to bear on them. This is what virtually all polemicists have sought to do since ancient times, even the most famous of them. But Popper did the opposite. He sought out his opponents’ case at its strongest and attacked that. Indeed, he would improve it, if he possibly could, before attacking it. . . . Over several pages of prior discussion he would remove avoidable contradictions or weaknesses, close loopholes, pass over minor deficiencies, let his opponents’ case have the benefit of every possible doubt, and reformulate the most appealing parts of it in the most rigorous, powerful and effective arguments he could find—and then direct his onslaught against it.
One could argue that Popper’s approach is most consistent with the Christian ethic of love for one’s neighbor (although the word “onslaught” may not be the best description for a Christian approach to debate!). All too often one walks away from a debate sensing that one person’s (or neither person’s) strong and valid points were ever acknowledged or that many of the points of criticism that were made were completely valid but that they addressed secondary or non-essential aspects of the opponent’s arguments rather than the key planks in the foundation or essential points of their argument.
I highly recommend a careful reading of Nicole’s whole argument to all who might ever enter into any kind of theological debate. It is full of wisdom and grace. I’ll just cite two more paragraphs, regretting those that I must omit.
To raise the question, “What do I owe the person who differs from me?” is very important, for otherwise any discussion is doomed to remain unproductive. The truth that I believe I have grasped must be presented in a spirit of love and winsomeness. To do otherwise is to do detriment to truth itself, for it is more naturally allied to love than to hostility. (Eph. 4:15) Belligerence or sarcasm may, in fact, reflect a certain insecurity that is not warranted when one is really under the sway of truth. It may well be that God's servant may be moved to righteous indignation in the presence of those "who suppress the truth by their wickedness" (Rom. 1:18)…. But when dealing with those we have a desire to influence for the good, we need imperatively to remain outgoing and gracious.
When we give due attention to what we owe those who differ and what we can learn from them, we may be less inclined to proceed in a hostile manner. Our hand will not so readily contract into a boxing fist, but will be extended as an instrument of friendship and help; our feet will not be used to bludgeon another, but will bring us closer to those who stand afar; our tongue will not lash out in bitterness and sarcasm, but will speak words of wisdom, grace and healing (Prov. 10:20, 21; 13:14; 15:1; 24:26; 25:11; James 3).
Of theological debate, like the making of many books, there is no end. In fact, healthy theological debate is vitally important for the health of the church and so it is tremendously important that the church learn to do it well, in a way that honors God and edifies the church. May God help us, as we seek the truth and its benefits, to recognize our own logs, and to be people in whom Christ’s own love, grace, wisdom and patience may be seen, so that (although this may seem a stretch to some) even our theological arguments could be perceived as having been practiced in such a fair and gracious manner that they may be seen as light shining before others who might recognize them as (Christ-inspired) good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16).

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