Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Truth and Controversy

Much of the Bible is polemical in nature because in the Scriptures God is routinely refuting errors. We see this as early as Genesis which operates in part as a polemic against pagan creation myths. The prophets often functioned as polemicists, in some cases even mocking pagans and their gods. This approach to defending the truth is also common in the New Testament exemplified in Jesus and the apostles. This is so because God's truth is not a trifle. What God has said is a reflection of who He is. Indeed, God has revealed His nature, His ways and works, and His redemptive purpose through what He has said in His Word. Therefore, defending the truth is not about winning an argument. Defending the truth is an act of magnifying God's glory.

I am convinced that what is behind the contemporary church's distaste for polemic is the erosion of the doctrine of the Scripture's inerrancy within the evangelical church. This, combined with a postmodern hermeneutic which holds that truth cannot be known clearly, has left us unable but mostly unwilling to wade into the waves controversy. After all, once we have decided that the Bible cannot be fully relied upon to speak truthfully then why ought we quibble over different opinions? And opinions are all we are left with once we adopt a diminished view of the Scriptures.

Justin Taylor cites some helpful passages from John Stott's book Christ the Controversialist (1970):

The proper activity of professing Christians who disagree with one another is neither to ignore, nor to conceal, nor even to minimize their differences, but to debate them. (p. 22)

We seem in our generation to have moved a long way from this vehement zeal for the truth which Christ and his apostles displayed. But if we loved the glory of God more, and if we cared more for the eternal good of the souls of men, we would not refuse to engage in necessary controversy, when the truth of the gospel is at stake. The apostolic command is clear. We are “to maintain the truth in love,” being neither truthless in our love, nor loveless in our truth, but holding the two in balance. (p. 19)

We need to distinguish between the tolerant mind and the tolerant spirit. Tolerant in spirit a Christian should always be, loving, understanding, forgiving and forbearing others, making allowances for them, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, for true love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” [1 Cor. 13:7]. But how can we be tolerant in mind of what God has plainly revealed to be either evil or erroneous? (p. 8)
Evangelicalism, how far you have fallen!


C.S. Haslam said...

Only problem is when debate turns into anger, which is all too often the case. "They will know we are Christians by our love", and "if anyone says 'I love God' but hates his brother, he is a liar". Well, actually, thats not the only problem. Another problem is when debate turns into division (which is usually a result of anger). Unity is supposed to be a defining point of Christians, "that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me". Sadly, it is not (hence hundreds of denominations, and wars between catholics and protestants even still to this day, with or without gunfire). So many things in Scripture ARE grey - we often lack the cultural references, innuendos, and the like to make assertive claims. When the ESSENCE of the gospel is at stake, then I am certain we should fight tooth an nail, as lovingly as possible, not just to be right, but for Christ's glory and the good of those with whom we speak. But aside from that, there are so many views that can be biblically argued from two or more sides, that the controversy and denominational splits over them seem quite detrimental to the body of Christ overall. I think that "debate" is much to hostile, has ruined too many a brotherhood, and left too many embittered. We DO see it in the bible (take paul and peter for example) but they argued over something extremely essential to the message of the completed work of Christ.
Now, i realize that I may appear to be doing exactly what I am speaking against, so let me say, that I say all these things to you in love as you are my brother in Christ. As I often 'discuss' things with people, and genuinely seek no anger or need to prove myself, I hope you will not hear anger in these written words, nor return with defense. Keep on Keepin on! Defend the gospel, but be prudent to fight a hard fight only on things which are essential, and remember that we must "believe and be saved". all else is growth from there. Cheers Mate!

Todd Pruitt said...


I don't read anger in your words at all. I agree with much of what you have written. Certainly our unity is a key distinctive of the body of Christ as is love. But I also don't want to dismiss as "anger" all debate that is necessarily vigorous. Again, the Scriptures are FULL of such vigorous battles for the truth. There is also such a thing as sanctified anger. Thank God that men like Athanasius were angry over the twisting of biblical truth.

Where we would differ is in our thoughts on the "grey" bits of the Bible. Certainly there are mysteries in Scripture that we will plumb so long as we are south of heaven. But God did not inspire the Bible so that we would be forever confounded by its meaning. The perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture is a precious doctrine.

There are too many within the tent of evangelicalism who have been all too eager to dismiss those things about which the Bible is abundantly clear. The emergents are a prime example of this. So too is N.T. Wright who has decided to completely redefine the doctrine of justification. These are no small matters with no consequence. Nor are these marginalized voices. These are prominent men and movements within the church.

One of the ways we love God is to love his truth. God is known objectively by what He has revealed to us in His Word. What is more we must not read the texts on unity and love without reference to other texts of Scripture where those who propogate error are held to account.

Scripture calls us to agree; to be of one mind. In Romans 16 Paul tells us to watch out for those who cause division because they teach doctrine which is contrary to the apostolic witness.

Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Again, I agree with the spirit of what you have written but it is the details that are a bit tricky.

Harley A. said...

Good post and good reply above.

I think we live in an age that equates even respectful debate to division, and the aversion to the former often ends up in the latter due to frustration - “we don’t agree, so I’m leaving” kind of thing. We will not all agree on everything this side of Glory. To keep from dividing, I think debate and respectful polemic are appropriate and healthy. It could be that the aversion may stem from lack of understanding of what one believes. If one doesn’t understand or have an established basis for what he believes, it’s nearly impossible to calmly debate it. A main goal of the debate is to drive both parties to the scriptures and to writings of those who’ve gone before us to wrestle with our own views.

We also need to be careful that we don’t portray Jesus as holding unity above all else. Our unity is very important, but He taught that we must live with the reality of wolves in sheep’s clothing and growing up among the tares as well. There is an appropriate time and place for severing ties and dividing.

Todd Pruitt said...


Spot on.

When we disagree about what the Scriptures teach then there are only a few possibilities:
1) I am wrong
2) You are wrong
3) We both are wrong
Which ever scenario is accurate, the point is that we ought to go to the Scriptures. I don't want to hold to a wrong doctrine. We ought to love God's truth enough that when differences arise we seek to resolve them by more study and more discussion with an eye toward unity in the truth.

threegirldad said...

C.S Haslam,

Which particular things are essential? What happens when faithful believers don't agree about what belongs on the list?

What does a Biblically faithful representation of Proverbs 27:17 look like, in your estimation? Please provide a practical example. I insist that it does not and cannot look like two sticks of cotton candy being rubbed together.

It's funny (in an entirely unhumorous sort of way) how far removed we are from the Zeitgeist of Chesterton's time. To wit:

"Somebody complained, I think, to Matthew Arnold that he was getting as dogmatic as Carlyle. He replied, 'That may be true; but you overlook an obvious difference. I am dogmatic and right, and Carlyle is dogmatic and wrong.' The strong humour of the remark ought not to disguise from us its everlasting seriousness and common sense; no man ought to write at all, or even to speak at all, unless he thinks that he is in truth and the other man in error."

--Heretics, Chapter XX