Saturday, August 14, 2010

Are we fighting too much over doctrine?

Carl Trueman weighs in on some of the recent episodes of seeming self loathing among a few well known leaders in the Reformed community.

I have taken the liberty to highlight some portions that I believe are particularly important.

Over the last decade, it has become something of a commonplace in Reformed evangelical circles to decry the level of polemic that has historically characterised the Reformed world. From John Frame's famous critique of Machen's warrior children to more recent comments by high-profile members of the Gospel Coalition, the idea has gone abroad that there are these Reformed and evangelical doctrinalists who just live to fight. Discussing this over lunch with a pastor friend the other day, he commented to me, `You know, I'm not quite prepared to jump into this sea of self-loathing just yet.' And I think he is right. Here are some reasons why.

1. Polemic is no monopoly of the Reformed. Talk to Catholic, Orthodox, Anabaptist, and Episcopalian friends. They too have their struggles. This does not in itself make any particular polemic, or any particular polemical technique, correct; but it does rather highlight the fact that the church was born in controversy and, if her beliefs are important, there will always be such struggles. The day the polemics die out you will know that (a) Christ has returned or (b) people no longer care about doctrine and the church has ceased to exist.

2. The criticism of polemics often comes from those who enjoy the space that polemics have carved out for them and the safety that polemics provides them. Such critics are like those who use their right to freedom of speech to decry the use of armed force by police and army, not realising that the very right they enjoy in this regard is positively connected to what they are attacking. Don't tell the world that the Trinity or justification by faith are important doctrines and then lament the existence of polemics; you can only have a coalition based on the gospel because every element of that gospel has been first hammered out in the furnace of controversy and then defended in the same way. Sure, not all polemics are good polemics, in form and/or substance -- so be discriminating in your criticisms and drop the stereotypes. Failure to be so is simple ingratitude to those who have put reputations and, in the history of the church, often lives on the line for the preservation of the truth. Penning an anti-polemic polemic may help the author sleep well at night, confident that his hands are clean and his conscience clear; but he can only do so because somebody has first made the mean streets outside his house safe for women and children.

3. Closely related to point 2 is the fact that, 99 times out of a 100, a nasty controversy only ever erupts because, at an earlier point in time somebody, somewhere took the easy way out and chose to turn a blind eye to a peccadillo, moral or theological. Think of David and Adonijah, the son who rebelled. We are told in 1 Ki. 1:6 that his father had never checked his behaviour as he had grown up, surely one of the most eloquent verses in the Bible. What had presumably started with Adonijah throwing toys out of the pram or not observing a teenage curfew ended with full-scale rebellion. In my limited experience in both local churches and institutions, all of the major conflicts in which I have been involved could have been avoided if somebody at some point in the past had had the backbone -- and the love for an erring brother or sister -- to check them gently when they first showed signs of wandering. Dare I say it? It is pretty rich to criticise those involved in major polemics if those polemics actually involve cleaning up significant messes created by the fact that others failed to do what was right when the problem was much easier to address and the stakes were much lower. Anti-polemic polemicists should reflect as much about how the events of the present -- not least their development of the next generation of leaders -- will impact the church for good or for ill -- as they do on the allegedly over-polemical attitude of some. Polemics in one generation are often as much, if not more, the fault of the lack of discernment or moral leadership in the previous generation as they are of any innately combative personalities in the present.

4. Finally, I simply don't recognise the pictures drawn by the Reformed evangelical critics of Reformed evangelical polemicists. The problem is they build grand cases about general types on very limited access to evidence. When particular figures are dismissed as being polemically minded, relentlessly aggressive etc, it is possible that, on occasion, the criticism is true. More often, however, it is built upon reading a few pages of a blog or a book or a magazine; or listening to one lecture or public statement; worse still, it is based on hostile witness of some kind. For most of us who write and speak in the public forum, that speaking and writing is just a small part of our lives. More important for us is being in church both ends on a Sunday, encouraging our pastor, helping with the Sunday School or the nursery or the church cleaning rota, connecting with other members in church when their basement is flooded or they need help, having an open office policy so students can wander in at any time to talk about a problem, striving to be better husbands and dads. Sure, we can fight when we think it is necessary; and yes, certainly, as sinners, we sometimes fight when it isn't necessary or in an inappropriate way, and, as with all sin, we need to be challenged on that and repent -- believe me, my wife, my own `Katie' is quite capable of tearing me off a strip on that score; but that is just a small part of our Christian lives -- a necessary one, for all the reasons given above -- but a small one.

So, please, let's bin this sad, misguided self-loathing on the polemic front. We must repent where necessary, where we have crossed the line; but, just as necessary, we must fight where we see the truth is at stake. We should be grateful for the truth that polemics have preserved so that we have a gospel to proclaim; and we should not allow a misguided commitment to being nice to allow us, in effect, to dump huge problems on the next generation by running up a massive theological and moral deficit in the church of the present.

Polemics against polemics have a role to play in provoking self-reflection; and, let's face it, they sound pretty cool and attractive in the current cultural climate; but they are, ironically, parasitic on polemic and polemicists; and, moreover, when they witness to, and help promote, self-loathing, they should be abandoned as serving no good purpose.


Jared said...

I also thought this was one of the best pieces I've read in a long time. I'll probably refer to this again and again when faced with the anti-polemical crowd.

Todd Pruitt said...

It is a nuanced peice. Carl acknowledges that there is a sinful approach to polemics because we are a sinful lot. But our debt is great to those who put life and limb on the line to fight for biblical orthodoxy generally and the gospel specifically. I also like the way he pointed out the irony of arguing against polemics while enjoying the benefits of those who have risked reputation and even safety over the definitions of terms like trinity and gospel.

Cammie Novara said...

"From John Frame's famous critique of Machen's warrior children to more recent comments by high-profile members of the Gospel Coalition, the idea has gone abroad that there are these Reformed and evangelical doctrinalists who just live to fight." I really have to let my Facebook group know about that! There's a really animated debate that I thought would be of interest on evolution vs. intelligent design going on at

Sterling said...

On the other hand...
I wonder why we think we COULD define the Trinity...

Todd Pruitt said...

Because the Bible does.