Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Carson on Polemical Theology

Yesterday I posted a link to the book "Beyond the Bounds" in reference to a larger point I was trying to make briefly on the necessity of polemics. Polemics is the practice of proclaiming the truth with reference to specific errors. The Scriptures frequently engage in polemics. We find polemic in books as varied as Genesis and Galatians. The prophets, Jesus, and the apostles engaged in polemic. And so the polite, undiscerning, never offensive, and effete impulse so alive in the western church needs to be confronted. This is especially true in a culture that has been so heavily influenced with a post-modern hermeneutic which has no problem setting mutually exclusive truth claims side-by-side as if no claim to truth has any more validity than any other.

Don Carson's editorial in the latest issue of
Themelios addresses the issue of "polemical theology."

Caron writes:
Polemical theology is nothing other than contending for a particular theological understanding (usually one that the contender holds to be the truth) and disputing those that contradict it or minimize it. It is impossible to indulge in serious critical thought without becoming enmeshed, to some degree, in polemics. Every time you include a footnote that begins “Contra” you are engaged in polemical theology; every time you assemble six reasons as to why your interpretation of a biblical passage or your formulation of a theological issue is correct, and assert, or at least imply, that alternative interpretations or formulations are correspondingly incorrect, you dabble in polemical theology. The person who advances an exegetical or theological stance without reference to competing formulations may avoid polemics, but will usually not be taken seriously by those who have studied any issue, precisely because there is no serious engagement with those who disagree. It is not easy for Christians to be entirely free of polemics, and it is not wise to attempt such freedom. Their arguments will inevitably attract adjectives like ignorant, reductionistic, unengaged, naive—and rightly so.

So it is not surprising that the Bible itself casts up countless examples of polemical theology. One thinks of Yahweh’s sneering refutation and condemnation of the idols in Isa 40–45; of the direct condemnation of alternative stances in, say, Galatians or Jude, or of Jesus’ condemnation of hypocrites including what they teach (e.g., Matt 23); of the symbol-laden destruction of imperial pretensions in the Apocalypse. One also thinks of many subtler forms of polemics. When Jesus tells parables to indicate that the kingdom dawns slowly, quietly, over time, and in function of how the Word is received (e.g., the soils, the yeast, the weeds and the wheat), he is implicitly challenging alternative conceptions of the kingdom, and thus he is engaged in polemical theology. When the Letter to the Ephesians devotes much of its space to working out the glories and characteristics of the one new humanity that God has brought about in Christ, joining together Jew and Gentile (and, in principle, people from every tribe and language and people), it is overturning alternative views of ethnicity, of self-identification, of how to find the true locus of the covenant people of God. In other words, any robust theology that
wounds and heals, that bites and edifies and clarifies, is implicitly or explicitly engaging with alternative stances. In a world of finite human beings who are absorbed in themselves and characterized by rebellion against God, polemical theology is an unavoidable component of any serious theological stance, as the Bible itself makes clear.

Nevertheless, Carson wisely warns against building ones entire identity on polemics or what he calls the “everyone-has-got-this-wrong-before-me-but-here-is-the-true-synthesis.” He also helpfully points out that there is not one single "tone" to polemical theology.
[R]egardless of its audience and of the particular stance that is being challenged, polemical theology ought to develop a wide range of “tones.” Re-read Galatians. Within the space of six short chapters, Paul can be indignant with his readers, but he can also plead with them. He openly admits he wishes he could be present with them so he could better judge how he should adjust his tone. He can be scathing with respect to his opponents, precisely because he wants to protect his readers; he can devote several paragraphs to clarifying and defending his own credibility, not least in demonstrating that his core gospel is shared by the other apostles, even though he insists he is not dependent on them for getting it right. He happily connects his theological understanding to ethical conduct. All of this suggests that a mature grasp of the potential of polemical theology wants to win and protect people, not merely win arguments.
Read the entire article HERE.

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